A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)
Sent, But Perfectly, But Really
Short version: When we say the Son and Spirit are sent, we have to discipline our ideas about sentness in light of God’s perfection.
The way God makes himself present to people in salvation is something the Bible speaks about very carefully. Consider some Old Testament ways of speaking: God comes to his people; he dwells among them; he is with them. When God is announced as having come to the tabernacle or temple, we don’t imagine that he has left some other location at a certain rate of speed, crossed a certain span of space, and come to rest at this location by diminishing his travel speed down to zero. No, we read these biblical statements in light of the exalted and majestic way God is described elsewhere in Scripture. He is somehow specially present in a way appropriate to his majesty and transcendence; the one who dwells above the heavens comes down without ceasing to be enthroned on high.
This way of talking about God’s saving presence is deepened and concentrated in the central events of the New Testament, the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. These two presences are so unique that they require a new way of talking about divine presence: the Son and the Spirit are sent. The Father sends the Son; the Father and the ascended Son send the Holy Spirit. Merry Christmas, happy Pentecost; these are major theological events of epochal divine presence.
In Trinitarian theology, these two sendings, or missions,1 are absolutely central to understanding the Trinity’s presence in salvation. Let’s use the terms with technical precision first: The mission of a Trinitarian person is a presence in salvation history that presupposes an eternal relation of origin within God. So the Son of God is sent in time because the Son of God is eternally generated in God. There is an eternal procession in God (the Father is the eternal principle of the Son), and on the basis of that eternal procession there is a temporal mission. It’s important to grasp how precise a thing a Trinitarian mission is: only the Son and Holy Spirit can be sent in this sense, because only they proceed from a divine personal principle. The Father may be with us (John 14:23, “my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him”), but the Father is not sent. Why? Because the Father does not proceed from another in the eternal life of the Trinity. A Trinitarian mission only occurs when a person of the Trinity comes among us in a temporal extension of their procession from their eternal principle.
This being-sent differs from every other kind of being-sent; it’s enough like other sendings that we’ve got good warrant for following Scripture’s lead in calling it that. But it’s different because it’s God, and we can only ascribe being-sent to God in such a way that it conforms to God’s perfection. So we call to mind that the Son is God, and then we clean up our notion of being-sent in light of divine perfection.
This way of thinking about Trinitarian mission can be found throughout the tradition, but Matthias Scheeben puts it especially well:
The mission of Divine Persons ad extra, however, should obviously be thought of in such way that all imperfections which stand out in the case of a human mission remain excluded.
1) The perfect equality of the Divine Persons excludes the idea that the sent Person stood under the authority of the Sender and was sent by the Latter by dint of a higher power over Him, or that He generally received from the Sender another influence different from the one to which He owes His personal being.
2) The perfect perichoresis of the Divine Persons excludes the idea that the sent Person, in His procession ad extra, was separated from the Sender, either by place or else by activity, so that He came to some place to which the Sender did not come also, or else deployed a divine activity peculiar to Him alone at the destination of the mission.
3) Finally, the immensity and omnipresence of the whole Trinity excludes the idea that the procession ad extra was thought of as being connected with a local movement of the proceeding Person; instead, that procession can come about only through a new application of the substantial presence of the Person in question and consequently only through a new operation entering into creation, by virtue of which that Person appears outwardly or enters into an association with creatures. (Scheeben, Handbook 2:621-622)
So the Son is sent, but since he is coequal with the Father, mutually indwells the Father, and is as omnipresent as the Father, we don’t mean that he takes orders from a superior, gets further away from the Father and does his own thing somewhere else, or moves through space.
On the one hand, this is all sort of common sense for anybody who holds biblically informed ideas about what God is. If you ever said “the Son was sent” and in the back of your mind you imagined that he got further away from the Father as he drew closer to us, you can pretty easily clean up your ideas by either remembering how Jesus talks about his sending (John 8:29, “he who sent me is with me”) or rehearsing the attributes of deity and subtracting the elements of being-sent that are incompatible with them.
But on the other hand, doing this mental work of subtracting, or disciplining our ideas about sentness can feel like suffering a real loss. All believers ought to be motivated to eliminate superstitious or mythological assumptions from our understanding of how Scripture talks, but none of us want to sacrifice the reality of what the Bible affirms. And it’s not always perfectly clear to us where the line dividing these things falls. But if we do the negative work overzealously or one-sidedly, we run the risk of sounding like we’re saying “The Son was sent, but ‘sent’ doesn’t really mean ‘sent,’ it means something else coequal and omnipresent somehow that I read about on this blog and also um inseparable operations (???) so it wasn’t actually the Son either.” Probably nobody actually says it that poorly, but if you’ve been around a theo-bro in late-onset scholastic puberty you may recognize the tone.
Don’t force me to choose between (A) mythologically imagining the Son travelling through space to get here on orders from his divine boss, or (B) secretly just meaning the triune God is omnipresent but saying “the Son” was “sent” while crossing my fingers behind my back. Those can’t be the options. And I might choose (A), but only for the more lively fellowship.
The actual option, the only option, is the one the classic tradition of Trinitarian theology has in fact taken. The Father sent the Son, and the notion of sending must be purified in light of this particular sender and sent. It’s not hard to remember that this sending is unique because this Son is unique, and uniqueness is not a deficiency or a problem in God.
When I send my son to the store to get something for me, he carries out my request even if it’s not his own idea; he gets further away from me as he gets closer to the store; he might even spend his own money while he’s there, and then I’ll reimburse him out of my own money (it’s pretty important to both of us that we have different money and our budgets aren’t homoousios). Most importantly of all, I get to stay home: this matters a lot to me; it’s usually the whole point of me sending him. If I went with him to the store, I wouldn’t say I was sending him. I’d say, “Hey buddy, let’s go run some errands together” because that’s the kind of hep dad I am, but I wouldn’t say “I send you.”
But these phenomena are not the definition of sending; none of the considerations I just listed disqualify the Bible from meaning what it says when it says the Father sent the Son: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.” (Gal 4:4) And that sent Son said, “I came from God and I am here (ego gar ek tou Theou exelthon kai heko). For I didn’t come on my own, but he sent me.” (John 8:42, CSB) The reason for the difference between my little scenario about me sending my son, and the Bible’s story about the Father sending the Son is really quite obvious: I’m not God, and neither is my son. So I do sending in a finite and creaturely manner; the sending by which God sends God to be present to us as our salvation is a sending appropriate to the infinite and uncreated reality of the Trinity.
It’s tempting to say that in God’s case, sending is itself a perfection. But that’s an ambiguous way to put it, so I’ll stick with saying that the sending of a Trinitarian person is not at odds with divine perfection. And we should be careful to mean by it what God means by it.
1A usage note on the words “mission” and “sending.” In English diction we often have a choice between a word derived from Latin (usually by way of medieval French) and a word derived from Anglo-Saxon (often from medieval German). In general, our Latinate words sound refined and contain multiple syllables; but Saxon words hit the ear as more rough, blunt, and sudden. Consider ponder vs. think; visage or countenance vs. face; election vs. choice; garage vs. car-hole. Just so with mission and sending. The fancier word, mission, has developed a halo of abstraction in modern usage. Probably half the time people use it, they have no sense of “sending” as part of its freight. When corporations have mission statements, they’re talking about their purpose or their goals. Sentness is not part of the meaning at all, and asking “sent from whom or wherem, to whom or wherem,” would be missing the point. In my opinion, we should keep this in mind when talking about Jesus and the Spirit. When I want to make sure that my audience picks up on the from-to structure of the sending, I pick the Saxon ‘sent.’ When I need to establish continuity with the centuries of theological terminology, I select the Latinate ‘mission.’ If you follow rules like this, you also need to be aware that half your sentences about sentness may sound a bit dumb or blunt. And conventional spellcheckers disrespect sentness, sendings, sendee, etc., so prepare for wiggly red lines. It’s worth it.