Category Archives: Incarnation

On the Trinity, Impassibility and Creation, with Reflections on Aquinas’ Conception of Jesus’ Human Mind

The “traditional” doctrine has always been that the three persons share the same divine nature. Thus all three are omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, etc. But I feel a real difficulty when we get to certain other divine attributes, such as aseity and impassibility. If to be divine is to be impassible, then how can the Son, who is eternally begotten (i.e. eternally receiving his existence), be impassible? To be impassible seems to be equivalent to being purely active and not in any way passive. But would not the Son, since he is derivative, be purely receptive in his being, and therefore passible? A similar point can be made as regards aseity. If to be divine is to be a-se, then how can the Son, who derives his being from the Father, be divine? To be a-se means to be self-existent and not get one’s being from another. It means, in a word, to be unconditioned. But how then can the Son be a-se, since he is only the Son by being begotten of the Father?

Further difficulties emerge when we consider the things we can say of the Son, over against the Father. The Son, for instance, assumed a human nature. Yet the Father did not assume. How therefore can the Father and the Son be equal when you can predicate the property of “assuming a human nature” to one and not the other? Traditionally, theologians have wanted to say that the three persons are identical as regards the divine nature and that they only differ in their relations to each other. But I am having a difficult (impossible?) time in seeing how a relation can be a particular relation without simultaneously implying differences as regards to the nature of the person who possesses that relation. That is, if the Son is related to the Father by way of generation, how then is the Son in his own nature not passible and dependent? I suppose one could say that God considered as a Trinity possesses the full range of the divine attributes, but that each person considered in itself does not, necessarily. But if that is the case, in what sense can “all” persons be divine and equal? That is, just what are the properties that each share that make them all divine?**

Another problem I have is in considering how the Son, considered as impassible, could truly be united to a passible human being. In particular, how could the divine nature in Christ really “know” and be related to his passible human nature? If the divine nature is changelessly, perfectly happy, knowing all things timelessly and fully, how could he unite himself to a changing, suffering, ignorant human body and soul? The traditional doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Son was united to both a human body and soul, and thus that he was united to that which is natural to each. It is natural for man to be limited in knowledge and confined in body. How, therefore, could the Infinite and All-knowing unite itself, remaining what it is, to the finite and unknowing?

Aquinas and others have said two things about this, which are worth looking at. The first is that although the human nature really is related to the divine, the divine is not really related to the human. In other words, the divine stays unchangeable, omniscient, etc, and it is only the human nature that changes. But in this case, is there really a union of God and man? If so, where? If it is only the human nature which is becoming divine, and not the divine that is also becoming human, then in what sense can the divine in itself really relate to the human? Second of all, in explaining the human ignorance and suffering of the human nature, Aquinas is driven to say things like Christ, from the moment of his conception, saw the beatific vision of God in the womb. Likewise, when he hung on the cross, he experienced “in the higher part of his soul” inexpressible joy, though in his “lower soul” he experienced torment and pain unspeakable. Aquinas also holds that when Christ expressed ignorance of certain things he was not really ignorant but rather choosing not to reveal things that he already knew. (Doesn’t this just make him a liar? Why not say, as he in fact did say in other places, that such things were not necessary for his hearers to know?) Further, Aquinas holds that Christ had neither faith nor hope, since these virtues only come about because one does not yet have the beatific vision nor perfect knowledge of God. Since he held that Christ from the moment of conception onward held an absolutely perfect knowledge of God (and all things in God), he was driven to hold that Christ neither had faith nor hope.

But how could Christ, who fully assumed human nature, not even be able in principle to have faith or hope? If Christ did not assume some measure of ignorance, some measure of intellectual distance from God, how could he have assumed true humanity? Furthermore, what is one to make of the distinction in Aquinas of Christ’s human soul as regards its “higher” and “lower” parts? (Did he not hold that the soul was immaterial and therefore not composed of parts?) I cannot find this distinction intelligible. It seems to me that a human mind can only contain one conscious experience at a time. They may come and go with great rapidity and evolve and morph in all sorts of ways, but to say that one is simultaneously experiencing inexpressible joy in his higher soul while also experiencing horrible anguish in his lower is a concept I cannot make sense of. This is typical of Aquinas though. He gives us seemingly contradictory statements – without any meaningful analogues in our own inner experience – and just lets them sit there clashing against one another. I have a love-hate relationship with his writings. On the one hand, a man so thoughtful, who put so many questions to himself, must have seen the inconsistency in what he said, or at least the possible ways in which what he said could be interpreted to be inconsistent. Yet there is never a hint of recognition from himself regarding this. He speaks as if he sees things perfectly clearly. It’s like a person who has drawn a picture of a face, but disfigured the proportions, and yet does not admit that the picture itself is imperfect, or even bad in places. At least admit that what you’ve drawn looks horribly mangled. You do see it, right? Surely?

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about creation. I have argued in the past that God did not “need” to create, and that even without creation he could have been God and been perfectly fulfilled. Yet he freely chose to create, not for his own good, but for the good of the creature. Now the classic idea of a changeless and immutable God here brings up problems for me. For God, since he is independent of creation and does not need it to exist, must in a sense never acquire some new experience from creation. He cannot be “more God” in virtue of creation. Nor can he, as it were, “learn” new principles of being, some deeper metaphysical truths about reality. An open theist could argue that he can learn contingencies as they come to be in time, but I doubt even an open theist would conclude that God could learn some new present existential experience simply in virtue of the creation. All experiences must already exist in God, before he creates. For they only exist because they have first of all existed in his own creative mind. To give an analogy, everything in the book must somehow exist beforehand in the author’s mind.

Yet what about pain and evil? These things must have existed in God’s mind prior to creation, else they never could come to be in a world created by him. That would be like saying there was some passage in the book that existed without the hand of the author. Yet how could God, considered in himself, “know” them? This very problem lies at the back of why theologians are driven to assert that the divine does not suffer, even in the crucifixion. But again this has two insurmountable problems. i) If the divine cannot suffer then the assumption of the human by the divine seems impossible, for the divine must assume all that is real in the human, if it is to assume it in its fullness; and ii) just where does the metaphysical reality of suffering come from, if it does not exist beforehand in God’s creative mind? If the author puts something in the book, he must know it, not less, but better than everyone else. Surely the characters cannot know the novel better than he does.

I’m not going to pretend to have nice and tidy answers to these questions. But it does seem to me there are nuggets in the open theist camp that have not been fully mined. The first thing we must think more about is if it is possible for there to be some sort of “becoming” in God’s very being, because if so, we could perhaps better explain the Incarnation and how God “became” man. We must think about if this becoming is something God imposes on himself or takes on from some prior state of being or if he has eternally been existing in such a way. The second thing we must dig more into is God’s existence in himself (ad intra) apart from the world, prior to creation. Does God in this mode of being possess potentiality, and if so, who or what sets such a limit? If it does not come from God’s will, how could it exist? Does it come from his nature? Is his nature different from his will? And if God does in fact possess potentiality, does this mean he can potentially “open” his own experienced inner life of joy and fullness to a self-imposed vulnerability, insofar as he allows himself to be moved by creation? And if so, does this mean that God really does experience some new reality, in virtue of the creation, when he experiences pain and evil?

**In fact, now that I think about it, how could three persons share the attributes even of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence? The Father does not know himself as the Son, nor is he “in the place of” the Son, nor can he become the Son. Therefore there are things the Father doesn’t know (“I am the Son”, “I was generated by the Father,” etc – all the “I statements” predicated of the Son). There are places the Father is not – he is not in whatever metaphysical “space” the Son occupies. And there are things he cannot do – he cannot BE the Son.

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On Divine Impassibility, Aseity and the Incarnation

“In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give. The doctrine that God was under no necessity to create is not a piece of dry scholastic speculation. It is essential.” CS Lewis, The Four Loves

I’ve been doing some thinking lately. Here’s what I’ve got.

If God is a se that means that he is not dependent on any reality outside himself in order to be what he is. His own essence has no “needs” as it were, nor is God somehow more “complete” in virtue of any reality other than himself. Thus it follows that God, in creating the universe, does not acquire some new perfection, some richer or more full mode of existence, in doing so. God is not “more God” after creating. Anyone who concedes that God freely created the world must also concede this, for it is the simple consequence of believing that God did not have to create. To suppose God had to create is to suppose that God metaphysically needs the world in order to be himself or realize his own perfection. But if that is true, God’s being is contingent and dependent. This is a conclusion that anyone who believes in God at all ought to find impossible to accept. The ultimate explanation for all of reality and the Unconditional Fact behind all conditioned existences cannot itself be conditioned.

So, to repeat, God in creating the universe did not gain some new perfection in doing so. He would have been perfectly fine – just as infinitely happy – if the universe did not exist. Therefore, God’s reason for creating was not for any good that would accrue to himself in doing so (since that would be impossible and make God’s essence co-dependent on the creation.) Rather, the whole reason God creates is for the goodness of the things he has made themselves.

This point, when grasped, has staggering consequences. Allow me to list a few.

1. Since God cannot have created in order to maximize his own experience and happiness, He cannot have created with the motive of “displaying his attributes” at the expense of the creatures he has made. Ergo, the Calvinist scheme which holds that God creates vessels of wrath, not for the purpose of doing good to the creature, but in order to show forth his hatred of sin or display his justice, must be false. For in creating God is not seeking to satisfy some unfulfilled desire. He does not “need” vessels of wrath nor even to “display” his attributes in creation to be happy or to be God. He is perfectly happy and fully God with or without a creation! Remember, he creates entirely for the good of the creature, not for the good of himself. Therefore, since his action in creating has as its motive purely and entirely the good of the creature, he cannot thus use creatures in such a way that is inconsistent with what absolutely best for them. This has consequences for our doctrine of Hell I would like to work out another time.

2. If God did not have to create, then it was possible for God to exist alone, without a creation. Therefore, God has essential and necessary properties “ad intra” or without regard to a creation. That is, God, since he can exist without a creation, must have properties or things that are true about him that do not themselves depend on creation itself. He would have these properties whether or not creation existed. One of these properties, it seems to me, must be infinite and unsullied happiness. Otherwise, if God is not essentially infinitely happy, then God existing in himself could be better than he is – in which case he would not be God, the full perfection of being. What this means then is that God is necessarily happy. Therefore God cannot be unhappy – he cannot suffer – because then he would cease to be God, since to be God necessarily entails being happy. In other words, a property of divinity is to be infinitely happy. God, since he cannot but be God, cannot but be infinitely happy. Therefore God cannot suffer.

Some may suppose that God in himself is not necessarily infinitely happy, but is only contingently happy. But this to me has several difficulties. If God ad intra (that is, in himself apart from creation) is possibly less than infinitely happy — if, in short, God as existing in himself Tri-Personally can suffer — then we must ask, what would be the cause of such suffering? God ad intra is in perfect communion with himself. Further, he knows and loves himself perfectly, so there is no lack of union to cause any grief. Since he is omnipotent, where would any resistance that could give rise to suffering come from? Suffering or unhappiness implies that something is present to oneself which is not desired. But how could God ad intra, existing in himself as perfect Trinity, be faced with something he didn’t desire? If we are talking about God’s essential and necessary properties – that is, if we are talking about God alone – where would such unhappiness come from?

3. Therefore, since God cannot suffer without ceasing to be God, Kenosis theories must likewise be false. For insofar as God can exist without a creation, he can have properties which do not depend on creation, but which rather depend entirely on his Triune experience alone. In such an experience is the fullness of all joy and bliss and perfection, or else God could be better than he is, and we can conceive of some being greater than God. Thus these properties which God has of himself ad intra cannot be lost by God or he would cease to be God. There would be nothing to connect what are now two different subjects as a single thing. God’s identity would fall apart. Therefore, when the second person of the Trinity unites a passible, human nature to his person, the divine nature cannot itself suffer. The second person of the Trinity does not experience any less beatitude, joy, and happiness due to the fact that he is united to a suffering human nature; or else, again, God in assuming human nature would cease to be God.

We must remember that all suffering derives from something created or ad extra to God, and that no created thing can possibly be any sort of obstacle or give any resistance to divine omnipotence. Thus the second person’s divinity is such that any human experience of suffering, even something so horrible as the crucifixion, is instantly consumed in the joy of uncreated and infinite triune bliss. As a snow flake is instantly consumed by a flame, so too is the passible human suffering of Christ qua man consumed by the impassible divine joy of Christ qua God.