Over at Open Orthodoxy Tom Belt has launched a series of articles criticizing the kenotic christology of Greg Boyd. I am not well acquainted with Boyd’s writings, but Tom’s article did inspire me to take a look at his article “Did Jesus Have Two Minds?” In this short piece he writes that the christological dogma of Chalcedon is fundamentally incoherent:
To be honest, I have always had trouble rendering this view coherent. It requires us to imagine that Jesus was aware of what was happening with every molecule on every planet in the universe even while he was a zygote in the womb of Mary. And it requires that we imagine this while also affirming that, as a fully human zygote, Jesus was completely devoid of any awareness. Is this a legitimate paradox or an unacceptable contradiction? One could easily argue the latter. If being God means that one is omniscient and that being human means that one is not omniscient, then it seems we are asserting A and not A in claiming Jesus was both. We could argue along the same lines regarding God’s omnipresence and omnipotence. And if this is true, then in asserting that Jesus was a single person who was fully God (and thus fully omniscient) and full human (and thus not fully omniscient), we are asserting nothing, just as when we say “married bachelor” or “round triangle.”
The above represents what has become a not uncommon modern complaint about the Chalcedonian Definition: it’s incoherent because it requires us to believe impossible things. Recall the conversation between Alice and the White Queen:
‘Let’s consider your age to begin with — how old are you?’
‘I’m seven and a half, exactly.’
‘You needn’t say “exactly”,’ the Queen remarked. ‘I can believe it without that. Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’
‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.
‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’
Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’
‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
Those poor Chalcedonian Fathers. One can imagine them sitting around a table discussing the christological heresies of the day, when suddenly one bright chap, probably one of the Roman legates, comes up with a brilliant idea: “Let’s compose an impossible creed! We’ll formulate it antinomically. It will drive the intellectuals absolutely bonkers … and if we are lucky, out of the Church altogether.” “Bravo,” cried the Fathers, “Bravo. Peter has spoken through Leo.” And so the dogma of Chalcedon was invented.
But Boyd prefers a more reasonable telling of the Incarnation and so commends to us kenotic christology:
Briefly stated, the kenotic Christology teaches that the Son of God emptied himself of all the divine attributes that were incompatible with being fully human. That is, he divested himself of the exercise of his omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence to become a genuine human who had limited knowledge, took up limited space, and had limited power. Of course, Jesus never ceased to be God and his divine attributes continued to exist. However, in order to become fully human, the kenotic Christology holds that he temporarily had to relinquish his ability to use these attributes.
The goal of kenotic christology is laudable. It wants to protect the genuine humanity of Jesus. Kenoticism even provides what initially seems to be a plausible mechanism of incarnation—God the divine Son temporarily relinquishes his essential attributes. The second person of the Trinity puts aside his superpowers and lives as a human being under the conditions of finitude and suffering. It makes a great story. In fact, I think we’ve already seen the movie!
Odin strips Thor of his divine powers, including his immortality, and sends him to earth to learn humility. Okay, maybe it’s not quite the same story. Thor’s story is one of banishment and subsequent spiritual enlightenment. The Thunderer is dispossessed of his powers against his will, whereas Jesus consents to his self-emptying. But both Thor and Jesus become mortal beings, though admittedly Thor still remains quite the warrior.
Kenotic christology seems reasonable and plausible, as it is but an expression of our mythological imagination. It makes sense to us because we know that such things happen with the gods.
The Fathers of Chalcedon may not have had access to comic books or Hollywood; but they sure knew their pagan mythology, and they knew that the God of the Christian story was essentially different from the gods. And they knew that it was this transcendent and radical difference that made genuine incarnation possible, even though it can only be expressed through antinomy and paradox. Given a proper understanding of transcendent deity, there was and is no need for the eternal Son to abandon his divine attributes in order to assume human nature and live a genuine human existence. That would be to treat divinity and the world as two competing items alongside each other, as if they inhabited the same logical world. But it is because God is transcendent, infinite, self-existent that he can unite himself to human nature and live, suffer, and die as the man Jesus Christ. Indeed, humanity was created precisely for this purpose, as E. L. Mascall observes:
Thus it is, I would maintain, the great strength of Chalcedon that it meets the two demands which, we are repeatedly told, are made by the modern mind upon Christologists, but which the ‘New Christologies’ seem quite incapable of satisfying together, namely, first, the attribution to Jesus of a complete and fully concrete human nature, and secondly an intimate, and not just a remote, involvement of God in the events of the passion and death of Christ. The alternatives to Chalcedon which we are offered give us either an undeniably human Jesus, a ‘man for others’ or even ‘man for God’, but a man whose relation to God is not qualitatively different from that of any other holy man in history, or else, as in the ‘kenotic theories’, they make God the subject of Jesus’ life, but only at the expense of substituting a mutilated or scaled-down divine nature for the genuinely human nature of the Jesus of the Gospels. There is indeed mystery at the heart of the Chalcedonian doctrine, as there is at the heart of the Gospels, but mystery is not absurdity. And everything depends upon the fact which neither Christian thinking nor Christian devotion have found it easy to cling on to, that person, hypostasis, is not a part of nature, not even a tiny and indetectible part, but is its subject. Put in those terms, this seems abstract and technical, and unreasonable to inflict on the simple believer; but it is in fact only what he is declaring by implication every time that he professes his belief in the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, who was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man. And this carries with it an uncompromising and unqualified consequence, that there is no ultimate metaphysical incompatibility between God and manhood, between Creator and his creation.
If the eternal and uncreated Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Very God from Very God, can become the subject of a created nature, conferring upon that nature, in the very act of creating and assuming it, both concrete existence and individual identity, then human nature must have a fundamental openness to God. If, in the words of Quicunque vult, the incarnation took place ‘not by the conversion of Godhead into flesh but by the taking up of manhood into God’, if, that is, manhood is assumed, it must be assumable; ab esse ad posse valet consecutio. This is, of course, a dignity that manhood cannot achieve by its own efforts, it depends for its actualization upon the love and power of God; but God, in bringing it about, is not doing violence to the inherent structure and functioning of human nature but rather bringing them to a fulfilment which they cannot procure for themselves. Still less (if the phrase makes sense in the context) is he overriding a logical impossibility. And all this, we must observe, is true, not because there is no qualitative difference between God and his creation, but because of the precise way in which they are ultimately and metaphysically diverse. For the contrast between divine and created being is that between being that is that is altogether self-existent and being that is altogether dependent on self-existent being. The orientation of created being towards God and its openness to him is the basic ontological fact about it. (Whatever Happened to the Human Mind?, pp. 35-36)
Throughout the history of the Church theologians have speculated about the self-consciousness of the historical Christ and the limits of his human knowledge. But that is all that it is—speculation. The Chalcedonian definition does not impose an answer, for it does not seek to explain the mystery of the Incarnation but simply to state it. It certainly does not invite us to imagine a five-year old Jesus as consciously knowing quantum mechanics and calculus, while at the same time learning arithmetic. The Chalcedonian definition was formulated to exclude that kind of confusion and blending. The incarnate Word is not a hybrid god/man. He is the God-man.