As such, there is no eternal hierarchy implied by this sending, no order of authority or submission in eternity, no eternal subordination, nor any order of lesser and greater. The Son in His flesh is the sent one of the Father—He Himself in eternity, along with the whole of the Trinity, also sending. It is according to the Son incarnate, appearing in time in the form of a servant, that submission, subordination, greater and lesser, are introduced (Jn. 14:28).
But being proved wrong so far, men betake themselves to saying, that he who sends is greater than he who is sent: therefore the Father is greater than the Son, because the Son continually speaks of Himself as being sent by the Father; and the Father is also greater than the Holy Spirit, because Jesus has said of the Spirit, Whom the Father will send in my name; and the Holy Spirit is less than both, because both the Father sends Him, as we have said, and the Son, when He says, But if I depart, I will send Him unto you. (St. Augustine, On the Trinity, 2.5.7)
By this point in the treatise, Augustine has demonstrated the unity of the Divine nature and will, the trinity of Persons, the full divinity of each, the order of processions, the one inseparable order of working, the double account of the savior (the “canonical rule”), and is in process of answering objections to the full co-equality of the Persons.
In our day, the above objection is not so much cast in the language of greater/lesser, but in the language of authority/submission. That the Son is sent by the Father “proves” that the Son was in subordination to the Father in eternity (“functionally” or otherwise). On the face of it, the claim looks quite reasonable and even Biblical. Clearly Christ says He is sent of the Father, and each together send the Spirit. And we are familiar with passages such as the following:
Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. (John 13:16)
For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Luke 7:8)
So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” (John 20:21)
In the first, the assumption of the passage is that Jesus is greater than the disciples as the sender, but He nevertheless washes their feet, and they should do likewise. The second makes plain that one with authority sends and one who is sent is under authority—at least in human relationships. And in the last we see the order of authority descending from the Father, to the Son, to the Disciples via sending. Here we have sender/sent fulfilling both the greater/lesser claim and authority/submission claim, in identical ways.
The table having been set, how does Augustine respond to this objection?
(Note: we will in this post focus on the sending of the Son and will in the next discuss the sending of the Holy Spirit with reference to the same objection.)
Whence & Whither?
Augustine begins his answer by asking, if the Son was sent, where did He come from and where did He go? Jesus says,
I came forth from the Father and have come into the world. (Jn. 16:28)
So His sending was a coming from the Father and a coming into the world. The Apostle John also writes of the Son:
He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. (1:12)
But immediately before this, we read:
He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. (1:11)
So we see at the very beginning of John’s Gospel that the Son was sent to where He already was and His coming was to a place He had already been since the creation.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (Jn. 1:1-3)
Further, He had always been the “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (1:9). In fact, He “upholds all things by the power of His word” (Heb. 1:3) and “He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:17).
He is true God after all.
“Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord. (Jer. 24:23)
So the Son had always been in the world, filling heaven and earth, and was indeed its creator and sustainer in whom all things consist. Yet His sending is declared to be His coming from the Father and into the world. So what possibly could be the nature of this sending?
The Nature of “Sent”
Given the apparent quandary of one coming to where one always already was, Augustine next seeks to answer in what way we are to understand this sending of the Father. He first points to Galatians for the answer:
But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born (γενόμενον) of a woman, born (γενόμενον) under the law. (4:4)
This is the way the Son was sent: He was born into the world of the Virgin.