There’s a tantalizing little verse towards the back of John 10, germane to my dissertation, which I’d never noticed before. It comes right in the middle of Christ’s famous response to his Jewish interlocutors accusing him of blasphemy because, “you, being a man, make yourself God” (v.33). To which Jesus replies, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came–and Scripture cannot be broken–do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even thought you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
Now, there’s a lot going on here, but the line that grabbed me was that central bit about, “him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world” (v. 36). What could that mean? The term “consecrated” is ἡγίασεν, a form of the ordinary verb for sanctify, set apart, make or render holy. This appears straightforward enough at first. But in the context–the dispute about Jesus’s alleged claim to divinity–the temporal and ontological freight is what’s contested. It all depends on who is being sanctified and when is this sanctification happening?
Turning to the tradition, there seem to be a few options here.
First, following Hilary, Aquinas suggests that “him who the Father has sanctified” refers to Christ, “insofar as he has a human nature.” And the argument is an a fortiori one. Given that some people get called “gods” in a derivative sense, “only because they participate in God’s word”–that is, they were cleansed by God and given some derivative share of divine power or authority, the way Moses was functionally made like God to Pharaoh (Ex. 7:1)–then it’s not blasphemy for “that man who is united in person to the Word of God” to be called God.
Aquinas further clarifies that even though everyone is sanctified by God to be adopted children (John 17:17; Rom. 8:15), Christ was sanctified uniquely to be “the Son of God by nature, united in person to the Word of God.” He thinks this is is clear in two ways. First, because God sanctifies him “as Father”, this indicates the filial nature of his sanctification. And here he cites Romans 1:4. “he was predestined to be the Son of God by the Spirit of sanctification.” Second, he thinks the phrase “and sent into the world” also clues us into this reality. “For it is not fitting for a thing to be sent some place unless it existed before it was sent there. Therefore, he whom the Father sent into he world in a visible way, is the Son of God, who existed before he was visible.”
Calvin reads the text in a similar fashion, though he can be quoted at length more economically:
There is a sanctification that is common to all believers. But here Christ claims for himself something far more excellent, namely, that he alone was separated from all others, that the power of the Spirit and the majesty of God might be displayed in him; as he formerly said, that him hath God the Father sealed, (John 6:27.) But this refers strictly to the person of Christ, so far as he is manifested in the flesh. Accordingly, these two things are joined, that he has been sanctified and sent into the world. But we must also understand for what reason and on what condition he was sent. It was to bring salvation from God, and to prove and exhibit himself, in every possible way, to be the Son of God.
Here Calvin sees a unique sanctification for Christ referring “to the person of Christ, so far as he is manifested in the flesh.” But the purpose of that sanctification is precisely that he might be sent to be our Savior and recognized and seen as the Son of God by nature.
Augustine is our patristic wildcard and I mostly wrote this post so I could highlight his view in his Tractate 48 on John. He also argues that we’re dealing an a fortiori argument here, with a string of rhetorical questions that are worth quoting at length, just because it’s Augustine:
If the word of God came to men, that they might be called gods, how can the very Word of God, who is with God, be otherwise than God? If by the word of God men become gods, if by fellowship they become gods, can He by whom they have fellowship not be God? If lights which are lit are gods, is the light which enlighteneth not God? If through being warmed in a way by saving fire they are constituted gods, is He who gives them the warmth other than God? Thou approachest the light and art enlightened, and numbered among the sons of God; if thou withdrawest from the light, thou fallest into obscurity, and art accounted in darkness; but that light approacheth not, because it never recedeth from itself. If, then, the word of God maketh you gods, how can the Word of God be otherwise than God?
So here we get the same participation argument of Aquinas, but with more literary punch. Here’s where things get interesting, though. Augustine doesn’t seem to take the sanctification as referring to God’s setting apart Christ’s whole person, or his humanity as joined to the Word, but to his eternal begetting. At least that’s what he seems to do in answering what might be termed an Arian-style objection:
Perhaps some one may be saying: If the Father sanctified Him, was there then a time when He was not sanctified? He sanctified in the same way as He begat Him. For in the act of begetting He gave Him the power to be holy, because He begat Him in holiness. For if that which is sanctified was unholy before, how can we say to God the Father, “Hallowed be Thy name”?
Given that the act of sanctification might seem to imply the Son was unholy prior to that act, Augustine moves to make that sanctification an eternal one, much the same way that his generation was an eternal one. Actually, not much the same way, but really, he renders it an angled description of that same act. The Father eternally sanctifies the Son, giving him the power to be holy, insofar as his eternal act of generation is holy and holiness-generating. The eternally Holy Father (John 17:11) eternally begets/sanctifies an eternally Holy Son.
Oh, and in case you were worried about that conceptual point, not everything that is sanctified is unholy prior to its sanctification. Otherwise we’d never be able to pray that God’s name be sanctified. (Of course, thinking with Scripture, we know God’s name can be profaned, but who can’t help but admire Augustine’s cleverness here?)
In his Gnomon of the New Testament, J.A. Bengel seems to offer a variation on both of these, though he doesn’t frame it quite the same way. He notes that Christ’s sanctification is “mentioned in such a way as to be prior in time to His being sent into the world…and it implies, in conjunction with it, the inference of Christ’s Godhead, at an infinite interval before those whom only the word of God came.” They are called gods by way of dignity, but Christ is the Son of God by way of sanctity, which for Bengel is just his divinity. So for Bengel, “Christ therefore is holy, as He is the Son of God“, not just at some particular time, but because “I and the Father are one” (v. 30), eternally. Bengel is interesting in that he cites several texts suggesting that Christ’s sanctity is strictly a matter of his eternal godhead, but also that it is something sealed and marked out in time of his whole person (Rom. 1:4; John 6:27). Even more, he references 1 Pet. 1:20 and Christ’s fore-ordination “before the foundation of the world,” raising the possibility that something like a decretal sanctification could be in view. To be fair, his commentary is meant to be gnomic.
Nevertheless, a comment by D.A. Carson could be taken in something like a decretal sense. Noting that there seems to be probable echo here to the Feast of Dedication commemorating the sanctification of the Temple after its desecration, Carson links the two sanctifications.
The Jews celebrate the sanctification of the temple, but they, like the disciples, remain unaware of the ways in which the temple points to Jesus (2:19–22), so that the really critical ‘sanctification’, the crucial act of setting something or someone aside for God’s exclusive use, was the setting aside of the pre-incarnate Son to the work of the mission on which he was even then engaged. In this way Jesus outstrips and fulfills this Feast as he has the others.
-Carson, The Gospel according to John, p. 399
I’m likely over-reading Carson’s formulation here, but it seems to present the possibility of reading this as a reference to a pre-temporal sanctification of the pre-incarnate Son to the task of his mission, which does not seem to simply be a reference to his generation. This is the neighborhood of God’s eternal decrees, predestination, and possibly the Covenant of Redemption.
It’s tempting to say the question is how to read the phrase “sanctified and sent into the world” in relation to the procession and visible mission of the Son. Augustine appears to read the conjunction “sanctified and sent into the world” as indicating the distinction between the procession and the mission of the Son. He is eternally sanctified in his generation as the Son and then consequently sent into the world. Aquinas and Calvin seem to read it both terms as describing the mission of the Son, not taking his sanctification to refer to the act of generation as the Son, though in such a way as to make clear that procession (his generation as the Son). Christ is sanctified according to the whole person so far as he is manifested in the flesh (Calvin), or as man in conjunction with the Word (Aquinas/Hilary), in his being born by the power of the Holy Spirit and being designated as holy–the Son of God (Lk. 1:35), for a holy task, which is a fitting extension in time of his procession in eternity.
Parsing things in terms of mission and procession may be tricky for our third option. Or, at least, for me. Thinking about the decrees, the Reformed talked about essential internal acts of God that are immanent to his life, but that respect and relate to something outside himself. They are internal, yet have to do with God’s own counsel about what he himself is going to bring about outside himself, so to speak. They are eternal, but ordered to time. As Thomas says of the Predestination of Christ that it can be considered in respect to its antecedence in God, but also with respect to its temporal effect. While not all decrees are related or reducible to the missions or processions of the persons (take creation), but decrees regarding the missions seem like they ought to be. So the question is how to read the idea of a decretal sanctification.
The trick is that according to Aquinas, missions are not eternal, but temporal. Or rather, mission signifies procession from the principle, but also determines the temporal term, or endpoint, of the procession, which is temporal. “Or we may say that it includes the eternal procession with the addition of a temporal effect” (ST Q 43, Art. 3, Pt. 1 Rep. 3).The problem is that this sanctification does not seem to be the same kind of thing Augustine is talking about in terms of generation as sanctification, though it is grounded and flows from it. Instead, it has to do with the way the Son becomes present to us in time in a new way. That definitely seems missionish. Perhaps what we’re grasping for is a way of stating the eternal origin, ground, and depth of the mission? Or perhaps the moral is that that decrees just are the decrees and they logically exist between the missions and processions? Or rather that the proper axis here is not procession and mission, but decree and execution? Or perhaps it just means that I’ve gotten way out of my depth here? That last seems likeliest.
In any case, this is where I pull the ripcord before I say something too Barthian and have to cancel myself.
With that final punt accomplished, how should we read the text? Materially, I think Augustine’s suggestion is true as doctrine. I find the idea of generation as sanctification to be dogmatically fruitful. Nevertheless, I think it less likely as exegesis. Calvin and Aquinas’s read is more likely with respect to the text due specifically to the context of Jesus’ dispute with the Jews.
I don’t have a big spiritual take-away here except that: (1) Scripture is theological and demands to be read theologically otherwise we have not grappled with it on its own terms, (2) there is a lot of underdeveloped material on Christ’s holiness in the Gospels, and (3), even when I’ve exhausted myself tracking down dogmatic rabbit-trails that don’t render an absolutely clear conclusion, meditating on the being and work of the thrice-holy Trinity always leaves me full of wonder.
Soli Deo Gloria