“Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge…one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person…” The “Definition” of Chalcedon, 451 AD
Who or what is Jesus Christ? Almost all Christians without thinking will reply: the God-man. He is God in the flesh; God incarnate. He is at once both fully man and fully God. That is what most will say. Yet very few stop and think about what this idea actually means. What does it mean to say that Christ is both God and man?
The early Christians hashed this question out over the first 700 years. While the particulars were settled in the later part of this span, most agree that the fundamental definition of the Incarnation was proclaimed at the 4th ecumenical council in 451 AD in Chalcedon. What came to be proclaimed as “Orthodox” was the idea that in the one Person of Christ there existed – and still exists – two individual natures, and that the union of these natures did not itself result in some third nature or the consequent dissolution of the individual two. Rather, the union was itself such that both natures existed as fully existent and fully distinct. As the creed declares, they are held together “without confusion, change, division, or separation.”
What does this mean? And how are we thus to think about the union – that is the hypostatic union – in Christ’s person of both the divine and human natures?
The first thing we need to notice is the reason why the Fathers thought it necessary to preserve the integrity of both natures in Jesus. Every heresy regarding the Incarnation really boils down to one of two teachings: i) that Jesus was fully God but not fully man; or ii) that Jesus was fully man but not fully God. One kind of heresy sees Jesus as simply God, walking around in human flesh as a kind of “garment,” though not really possessing a human soul or mind, and so therefore not being subject to the fullness of the human condition. And the other kind of heresy sees him as simply human, not uniquely united to the Word such that the second person of the Trinity could say “this is my human body and soul.”
Now, obviously no one would intentionally be a heretic. Furthermore, no one would intentionally discount the plain reading of the Gospels – at least no one would have back then – when they taught both divine and human things about the one person of Jesus. What, then, was the problem? Why not just accept both things? Why did anyone champion an heretical opinion?
The problem, which was and still in many ways is most acute, is this. Insofar as Jesus is said to be divine, this entails, if it means anything at all, that he possesses the properties of a divine nature. That is he is uncreated, unlimited, omniscient, omnipotent, impassible, immortal, etc. However, insofar as Jesus is said to be human, this entails that he also possesses a set of properties appropriate to a human nature. He was created, limited in body, knowledge, power, and subject to suffering and death. Therefore, the problem really is precisely this: Jesus is said to possess properties that are mutually exclusive and self-contradictory. How can one thing be both uncreated and created, impassible and passible, immortal and subject to death? How can the same “Person” be both visible and invisible, finite and infinite, equal to the Father and subject to the Father?
So you have there the problem. What the early church realized however is that whatever the solution it is not to deny a particular set of properties to Christ – say those of omniscience, uncreatedness, impassibility, etc. For in doing so you also do away with the nature that those properties are pointing to. If to be God means having all these things, then it follows that if Jesus is God he likewise has all these things. Just as it is necessary for a human to be a rational animal or else it ceases to be a human, so likewise whatever are the essential properties of divinity these must be present in a thing or else it cannot properly be Divine. Insofar as what you are describing is not uncreated, infinite, omnipotent, timeless, etc. you do not have God being described but at most a very powerful creature.* And, of course, the same point works the other way on the human nature. If you want to take away some of the things that necessarily make a human a human, such as a rational soul capable of emotion or a mind capable of learning things or of a body capable of feeling sensation, then whatever else Jesus is he cannot be said to be fully human.
Thus, for Jesus to be God and man he must really be God and man – meaning he must possess both a divine and human nature, and in the Incarnation he cannot ever cease having them, for having these things is just what it means for a thing to be what it is. Since Jesus is the God-man, therefore he must be both divine and human. Nor is it possible for both natures to come together to form some new, third thing – some tertium quid as the ancients called it. This is because, again, in such a case you would not have in the incarnation a person who is both fully God and fully man but some unique third thing that had the attributes of neither. When you combine the colors of red and blue you no longer have two separate colors but one: purple. On top of that if the divine nature was united to the human in such a way that a “new” thing came about – as if some addition could be made to the divine – then the divine nature itself would be changeable. This is also unacceptable, for it implies that the infinite and unlimited divine nature was somehow limited such that it could take on a new form and change from existing like such and such “first” and then to existing as such and such “after.” But there can be no movement – no going from – in a timeless being.
Moving from the idea of mixture there is another idea you must steer clear from when trying to understand the Incarnation. You can’t imagine the human nature being, as it were, swallowed up by the divine, such that the humanity was annihilated in being united to the Godhead. We are not to think of the human nature as a drop of ink that falls into the ocean of divinity and is thereby consumed. Christ’s sufferings on the cross as man were no less intense because he was also God. (In fact many argue that due to the perfect wholeness of Christ’s body and soul his sufferings were far more profound.) The trick for understanding the union of the two natures lies in holding both of them intact. Hence the particular wording in the creed: without confusion, change, or division. Thus either mixing them or having one being subsumed by the other simply won’t work.
We know then what ways lead to errors when talking about the Incarnation. But what about the logical problem touched on above? What are we do to with statements that seem self-contradictory when said of one Person? What are we to do with statements like the following, found in the ancient writings:
“Consequently, the Son of God entered into these lowly conditions of the world, after descending from His celestial throne, and though He did not withdraw from the glory of the Father, He was generated in a new order and in a new nativity. In a new order, because invisible in His own, He was made visible in ours; incomprehensible [in His own], He wished to be comprehended; permanent before times, He began to be in time; the Lord of the universe assumed the form of a slave, concealing the immensity of His majesty; the impassible God did not disdain to be a passible man and the immortal [did not disdain] to be subject to the laws of death.” (Tome of Leo 449)
“Can. 4. If anyone does not properly and truly confess according to the holy Fathers, two nativities of our one Lord and God Jesus Christ, as before the ages from God and the Father incorporally and eternally, and as from the holy ever Virgin, Mother of God Mary, corporally in the earliest of the ages, and also one and the same Lord of us and God, Jesus Christ with God and His Father according to His divine nature and , consubstantial with man and His Mother according to the human nature, and the same one passible in the flesh, and impassible in the Godhead, circumscribed in the body, uncircumscribed in Godhead, the same one uncreated and created, terrestial and celestial, visible and intelligible, comprehensible and incomprehensible, that all mankind which fell under sin, might be restored through the same complete man and God, let him be condemned.” (Lateran Council 649)
“We also know that the seventh, holy and universal synod, held for the second time at Nicea taught correctly when it professed the one and same Christ as both invisible and visible lord, incomprehensible and comprehensible, unlimited and limited, incapable and capable of suffering, inexpressible and expressible in writing.” (8th Ecu. Council in 869.)
Now, one could of course dismiss such writings. Although I won’t labor the point, that doesn’t seem a good idea for two reasons: a) you are still left with the task of articulating the union in a way that does coherently maintain both natures of Christ; and b) you are cutting off your strongest link to the tradition and therefore perhaps your greatest hope of a solution. For after all it was the tradition itself that brought to light and battled these ideas. Were it not for them we would likely be holding contradictions we were not sharp enough to spot on our own.
But anyway, back to the dilemma. Look at that last quote from the 8th council. There you have blatantly self-contradictory statements being attributed to the same person: invisible and visible, comprehensible and incomprehensible, capable of suffering and incapable, etc. And so we come back around to the problem that has given rise to all the theological frustration: how do we predicate such attributes of one and the same person at the same time?
Do you see it? As Lewis said somewhere, the whole “sting” of the contradiction lies in the words “at the same time.” But here’s the catch: God and man’s existences are not exactly parallel – they do not exist on the same timeline. The two are not commonly inhabiting the same spatio-temporal world, like two creatures who get together and make physical contact. In fact traditional theology has always held that God’s divine being is absolutely timeless. Quite literally tensed predicates cannot logically be attributed to him. I’m not claiming to fully grasp such an idea or comprehend it, but recognizing the fact that the divine nature is essentially timeless does avoid the logical contradiction in attributing to his Person two conflicting modes of being existing at the same time.
What you have then in the case of the incarnation is conflicting attributes being applied to two natures. However, the natures themselves are not inhabiting a common world which would cause a true contradiction to arise. What this leads to is the idea of the communication of idioms: that we can say such and such things about Christ’s human nature and opposite things about divine nature without contradicting ourselves. Christ in his divinity is impassible, omniscient, invisible, immortal, etc. However in his human nature he suffers, learns, is visible, dies, etc.
How can the divine nature assume or “take on” a human nature? Would that not change it? How could an omniscient nature be united to one that had to learn? How could a nature that could not suffer be joined to one which was tortured on the cross?
Again the key is in first snuffing out all the wrong ways to picture the union, and then letting the mystery materialize with whatever in the mind is left over. We aren’t to imagine two things existing first and then them moving together to join some third thing – like an egg and a sperm coming together form a zygote or a log being put in a fire and then turning to ash. The divine nature is timeless and changeless. What it does it does timelessly and changelessly as well. Therefore, there was no “time” at which it had not assumed a human nature. Not because it was always joined to a human nature but because it was not in time at all such that it could possibly exist with or without one.
The truth is that, strictly speaking, all the change in the incarnation is on the side of the human nature of Christ – his body and soul, which were created. Not on the side of the divinity, which both timelessly created and assumed that which it created.
When viewed at this way – with all the mutation and change being on the side of the created human nature – we get a clearer idea of how to understand how the impassible, omniscient nature could be united to the passible, limited-in-knowledge human nature. Insofar as we are talking about the divine nature, we could say that the second person of the Trinity timelessly knows that “in 6 A.D. my human nature is learning how to read” or “in 12 A.D. my human nature is learning how to make a table out of wood.” The humanity assumed by the Son is such that the divine nature itself can say “my” of the human nature, without this implying ignorance or change on the part of the divine. For what is the divine nature qua divine ignorant of? How does it follow that because the human nature changes therefore it, being timeless, does as well?
Furthermore, in the case of impassibility, we could say that, since the Son’s will is totally united in every respect to the Father’s, and since in such a perfect union there cannot be possibly anything other than absolute joy and bliss, the Son, in assuming a human nature and even in contemplating in his divine nature the suffering that was occurring at various times of his human life, would still be filled with undiminished and unspeakable joy in that divine nature. For any sort of suffering in the divine nature could only come from some sort of disruption or shrinking or frustration in the union of wills of the Trinity. But in God’s triune relations such a thing could not occur, since all three Persons are maximally good and in perfect relation to each other.
(I am aware many of the classic attributes or properties of God are not accepted by theologians today, in particular omniscience and impassibility. But I’ll save that debate for another time. Suffice it to say, the point still stands regarding natures. The essential properties of divinity, whatever they may be, must have been present in Jesus or else he could not have been said to be truly God.)
“The self-surrender which he practiced before the Fall meant no struggle but only the delicious overcoming of an infinitesimal self-adherence which delighted to be overcome—of which we see a dim analogy in the rapturous mutual self-surrenders of lovers even now.”
The idea of God emptying himself in order to become man is at once both promising and puzzling. If God “became” man and in so doing emptied himself of his very divine attributes themselves, then in what sense could it really be true that it is God who is man? On the other hand, if the man Christ possessed the divine attributes – omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, impassibility, etc. – how could he really be a man with a human body and soul?
This post will not be an exploration of the doctrine of the Two Natures. I’m saving that for a future one. Rather, this post is designed to focus on one particular occurrence – namely the act of self-emptying or kenosis – as it pertains to God.
How can God, as God, empty himself? More modern thinkers will say that he can do this as God because there is an analogue for this act it in the very Trinity itself. This is because God’s nature is just to be in Triune relations. Therefore he must necessarily always be in Triune relations, for this is what makes him God. If, per impossible, he were to cease being in Triune relations, he would cease to be God. Thus what defines God as God, and what makes his acts consistent as the acts of God, is the fact that he does them – is eternally doing them – in his Triune relations.
This idea is really just an expansion of the earlier one regarding the Incarnation. The problem centers around the identification of properties and how a thing can remain itself. Simply put, if to be God means having the divine properties of a, b, and c, then insofar as God exists and does such and such, he has these properties as he does such and such. If any of them are lacking it is not God we are talking about – for God must necessarily have these properties – but something else, say a very powerful or wise angel, etc.
Thus, to restart the train of thought, since God as God empties and humbles himself in becoming man, one of his essential properties in his divine Triune life must involve an emptying and humbling of himself also. For again, if God’s triune relations did not involve these sort of acts, and if God’s essence is identical to his triune relations, God as God necessarily could not have such properties.
Modern theologians – Balthasar comes to mind – therefore want to say that, in light of this, since God as God does in fact empty and humble himself, this means that God as God also must experience in doing so the suffering and pain of self-sacrifice that attends such emptying. Thus Balthasar holds that in the very Triune relations themselves there is a “supra-kenosis,” a supra-emptying. The Father in creating the Son makes himself “destitute” of all that he is, and in so doing takes on the modality of suffering-for-the-sake-of-the-other. As he puts it “The unfolding of the Trinity is an eternal self-destitution of the persons toward each other. God as absolute love contains all modalities of love even the modality of suffering-separation and self-destitution motivated and anchored in the love exchange of the Trinitarian persons in the one God.” (Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. viii. – ix.)
Now, at first this is promising. In fact in my last post on the Dying God I was myself somewhat infatuated with this view. A God who suffers in his very being – essentially – as part of his love! How romantic! But after a little closer thought I see the devastating consequences – both logical and romantic – of such a belief.
The main problem is summed up in the quote at the beginning of this post. It can be put like this: why assume that a self-emptying and a humbling on the divine level necessarily entails suffering, pain, privation, or evil? You will often read Kenoticists and those who believe in a God who suffers in his very nature say something like this: “Kenosis captures the state of a thing that should be full (plerosis) but has been emptied. Suffering is the result of being emptied (of kenosis).*” But what I want to say is, why suppose that second sentence follows from the first? Why suppose that kenosis necessarily entails suffering?
If we suppose that it does, what results is basically a Dualist conception of God. For think, if God in his very essence and nature necessarily contains or “is” or “experiences” suffering and pain, he necessarily contains within himself evil. Therefore he needs evil to be what he is, and would not be what he is were that evil to be absent. But this is nothing else than to say that the Good as such needs Evil. All of theology rejects this notion. Good as such is independent, self-existent, fully real. It can be entirely on its own. It does not need Evil. It is the Evil as such which is needy. It is parasitic on the Good and could not exist except for it. Yet suffering and pain are real evils. Therefore, although they may need the Good for themselves to exist – say the good of a finite rational being in whom they can reside – nevertheless the Good as such does not need them and can exist without them.
To deny suffering and pain and “self-destitution” are evils would be to deny that they are themselves, and would be the same as saying that it is not better to be free from them than to experience them. Heaven therefore may be filled with an eternity of suffering and pain and be, since these things are good, the better for that.
I think we should say, rather, that although self-emptying is a necessary act of the persons of the Trinity in their own ad intra relations, this kenosis is not itself an act attended by pain and suffering. Rather, it is one done with indescribable joy. It was for the “joy set before him” that Christ endured the cross (Heb 12:2). For in the Trinity there is a perfect communion, a perfect penetration and knowledge of intellect and will, an uninterrupted experience of absolute love that cannot possibly be further increased. In God there is as it were no place or “foothold” for evil to make its dwelling and affect God. In fact that just is what it means to be God: to be absolutely and maximally good, “in whom is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God is incapable of being better than he is, not because he is unable to do something, but because his goodness is so complete, so fully real, that there is no room for it to grow. There is not even the slightest spot of evil in himself that could be wiped away that would make him say “now I am better, now I am more fully experiencing Love and Goodness!”
In fallen man self-sacrifice and emptying involve pain and suffering. But that is because he is fallen and imperfect. In God, it seems to me much better to say that if kenosis is an act of the Trinity itself among the persons, then this very act itself, like all their acts of love, is one of ecstasy and unspeakable joy. Perfect Love need not have evil to be most lovely. Otherwise we must suppose that a perfect marriage must have death and separation to be perfect itself. Yet then Death would be a principle on par with Life. Life would not reign supreme. It would be conditioned in its goodness by an equal and opposite force which it needed in order to be fully itself. Although Dualism is certainly a manly religion, it is not the same as Christianity, which, as the medievalists said, holds that God or the Good is that which “has no opposite.”
In the end I think the matter can be put like this. Although it is true that evil cannot exist without good, it is false that good cannot exist without evil. As such the kenosis of God as God need not mean that God as God is subject to or suffers from evil.
*(Does God Suffer? Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology of Holy Saturday Matthew Lewis Sutton)
“For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word also gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when He was crucified He “did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness”. From before the foundation of the world He surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience.” CSL, The Problem of Pain
I have been at pains to understand in what sense God can be “impassible” and also therefore assume flesh, suffer, and die on the cross. The dilemma seems to be precisely this. If God created time, he must therefore transcend it (otherwise he himself would be one more species of becoming that is itself subject to it.) And if he transcends time, there can be no before and after with him. Thus God must be unchangeable. Now, this is the classical understanding of God and I find nothing problematic with it so far. Yet what also follows from this idea is that God has a nature “of his own” which he does not gain or actualize from the creation itself. God is not “more God” in light of the fact that he created. He does not accrue some good that he would otherwise lack because of finite, contingent beings. Otherwise, how could he be self-existent? How would he not necessarily “need” creation? And so how would he himself not be just one more conditioned and contingent being among many? But if God were this, we would have to look for something outside of God to explain this particular imposition of limitation and contingency in him. Therefore, the classic theologians conclude, God must be in himself all that he is: a perfectly full existence that cannot be added to or taken away from. He thus cannot be “moved” and cannot suffer “passion.” He is then “impassible.”
Yet – and I am now finally getting to the real puzzle – if God is fully God with or without a creation, and if he cannot suffer “passion,” in what sense can the crucifixion of Christ tell us anything about the essence of God himself? The difficulty lies in the fact that if we conceive of God as existing in pure and unsullied bliss in his inner being, then even Christ’s crucifixion cannot as it were change or interrupt such a state. For nothing in the creation can supervene on or determine God’s own experience of existence. Yet if that is the case then Christ’s very passion itself – his agony, his self-sacrifice, his groaning and sorrow – cannot really tell us anything about God.
“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” These words are from Christ’s lips, but they point to a truth we already know from experience: to sacrifice one’s own self for the sake of another is the height of what it means to love. Insofar as the difficulty of such a sacrifice is greater, thus far is the act of love more intense. In fact to the degree that doing something is pleasureable that very thing can hardly be called a self-sacrificial act at all.
Imagine, then, that all acts of self-sacrifice – all acts of crucifixion, in their various forms – were simply deleted from the world and from our memory. Would our idea of Love be lessened? I think it would be. That idea of love which does not involve voluntary suffering seems to me a pale shadow of the deeper, pulsing fabric of reality we sometimes connect with when we actually experience Love. To think that Love cannot take on even pain and suffering and endure them if it would so choose would seem itself to be a defeat of Love. Is it not strong enough to endure pain – indeed even death – for the sake of what it loves? To deny this would be to equate love with simply “joy” or “bliss.” No doubt such things are lovely, and express a particular dimension of Love itself. But they are not exhaustive of the reality of Love as such.
But notice the curious thing that happens here if we really agree that self-sacrifice is a lovely thing. Since God is Love itself, and since his being and his goodness cannot be actualized by creation, it must therefore be the case that something like self-sacrifice exists in God’s very nature. Scripture says that the lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world.” Could it not be the case – indeed is it not quite ignorant to deny – that in God himself, along with our human experiences of Joy and Bliss, there exists an analogue to our human experience of voluntary self-death or Kenosis for the sake of the other?
I take it, then, that apart from creation God in himself knows – because he thus is – such a process, such an experience. In the same way as he knows the begetting of the Son, and the giving to him of all things, so he experiences in some way a denial of his own self for the Son, for the Other. The father in begetting the Son thus by the same act voluntarily dies to himself: he is no longer the only existing person. And the Son, having been begotten by the Father, straightway lays down his own life, surrendering all that is his, and thus in his own way perfectly imitates the Father.
We must remember that the various words we use to describe acts of God – begetting, creating, loving, dying, self-sacrificing – are all abstractions from our interaction with the material world. Thus the realities that the words expressed are always in our experience coupled with change. But in God there is no change. The words we use are only an imperfect grasp or conception of what is in itself impossible to be grasped by us in its totality.
“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” I take it that Jesus came to show us what God is like. Therefore the acts of Jesus must somehow have some analogue to the very life of God as he is in himself. There must then be in the Trinity some sense in which voluntary submission, emptying, and self-sacrifice are experienced realities. Otherwise, the death of Jesus could tell us nothing about God. His Passion would be a meaningless revelation, since in God there would be nothing akin to suffering. The human nature which the Word assumed then, would not be a true reflection of the Word itself. It would have as it were useless facades. Christ’s pain, ignorance, fear, anxiety, sorrow – all these things would show us only a human being, but not God himself. What, therefore, would be their point? How then could Christ be God incarnate? How therefore could he have assumed our humanity? What would Christ hanging on the cross mean if God himself does not know what it is to suffer and die for another?
To all those who have come to believe in the beauty and power of a God who freely endures suffering for the sake of the other – to all those who believe that the crucifixion of Jesus shows us the nature of God – their faith would literally be false. For on such a view God himself never suffers, indeed cannot even know what it feels like to suffer or die, since in him these realities have no place in his life. So if we are comforted by fact that of the Incarnation, what occurred must have been a real incarnation. Otherwise, as far as I can tell the whole point of the Incarnation disappears. Why would God tell us Jesus is like him when his most defining act – laying down his life for others – is something that God cannot do at all?
With all this said, the doctrines of the Impassibility and Immutability of God are not therefore ones we have to give up. God’s existence as first cause and his complete possession of perfection entails that nothing ,so to speak, ever “happens to him.” That is, nothing affects God from the outside. I take it that is what the true import of passibility implies: i.e. that nothing moves God. Yet this does not mean that from the inside God does not know anything like what we call a passion or emotion. Certainly God experiences joy, love, happiness, etc. These emotions happen to us – they “move” us, and as such are passions. Yet in God they simply are his active reality that he is. And since these human emotions are in God (in a transcendent, changeless way of course), it seems to me necessary to say that, the whole process of self-death which gives way to life for the other is present in God’s being as well. That is, the idea of voluntarily taking on “suffering” (abstracted from the material things which are the means by which such a reality is experienced by us through sensation) must, it seems to me, be an essential aspect of God’s being, not itself actualized by creation but there necessarily in his Triune relations from all eternity.
With this idea in mind we can also remove another difficulty, which is in conceiving how God as eternal and immutable did not change by becoming man and being crucified. For the truth is that the Incarnation in a revelation of what is changelessly and eternally already in God’s very essence. God in becoming man does not take on some new, unexperienced reality. He knows self-emptying, humbling, submission and crucifixion from “before all worlds.” Not in light of creation – for that would make these realities of his dependent on something other than himself – but in light of his Triune relations. What happens is that in the Incarnation God reveals to us changing beings what in him is his unchanging divine life.
We must remember that this view of a suffering God does not of course lead to a “helpless” God, a God who is impotent or bites his nails anxiously. For the crucifixion cannot be separated from the resurrection and subsequent glorification. In the life of Christ we are connected to a divine pattern that seems to us to be many separate things. But in God, in whom there is no becoming, such a movement of one reality to the next cannot really be what is taking place. Rather in God the whole process is somehow his very Divine Life – the Divine Love – itself.