Chalcedon Visits Wonderland, or Why Jesus Ain’t Thor

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.

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18 Responses to Chalcedon Visits Wonderland, or Why Jesus Ain’t Thor

  1. kenotic theology is more derived from the bible (phil. 2:5-11, john 1:1-14). i don’t think we’ll get too many sola scriptura advocates changing their minds to take these verses less literally.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I cannot agree with you that kenotic christology is “more derived from the Bible.” It is a particular interpretation of the biblical datum that only goes back to the 19th century. Other “literal” readings of the kenotic texts are possible.


      • having been raised as evangelical protestant, that was kind of the only assumption i had on the text. can you provide church fathers in that category? not as fluent as you are. thanks!


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          The first passage that comes to mind is the one that Tom quotes in his article from St Athanasius (De Incarnatione 3):

          The Word was not hedged in by his body, nor did his presence in the body prevent his being present elsewhere as well. When he moved his body he did not cease also to direct the universe by his mind and might. No. The marvelous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being himself contained by anything, he actually contained all things himself…

          As with the whole, so also is it with the part. Existing in a human body, to which he himself gives life, he is still source of life to all the universe, present in every part of it, yet outside the whole; and he is revealed both through the works of his body and through his activity in the world. It is, indeed, the function of soul to behold things that are outside the body, but it cannot energize or move them. A man cannot transport things from one place to another, for instance, merely by thinking about them; nor can you or I move the sun and the stars just by sitting at home and looking at them. With the Word of God in his human nature, however, it was otherwise. His body was for him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that he was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as man he was living a human life, and as Word he was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son he was in constant union with the Father.

          Perhaps others can provide other patristic and medieval citations.


  2. Reblogged this on The Grand Inquisitive and commented:
    From the blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy:


  3. John Burnett says:

    The problem with most modern attempts to rationalize (i have chosen that word carefully) the incarnation is that they leave you either with a nestorian Jesus, in which the two natures are merely juxtaposed but not really united (without being ‘mixed’)— a two-headed Jesus, as it were; or an amnesiac Jesus who does not and cannot be allowed to remember that he’s God, from conception to resurrection. If the latter is the case, then how can he be “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Hb 1.3) during that time? And what happens to the universe, when it is not being upheld? (Perhaps there is a novel reason for the crucifixion….)

    I’ve participated in online discussions, some of them quite academic, for about 15 years now and it’s always seemed to me that the default christologies that educated people just *assume* are either amnesiac or nestorian, with arianism (not God at all) as a trailing third. Amnesiasm actually seems to be an attempt to *avoid* arianism; we can let Jesus *be* God, as long as it doesn’t make any difference until the very end. I say, ‘educated people’, by the way, because i think most people who don’t think about this stuff are somehow monophysites— “Jesus is God and that’s all there is to it!”

    I like your image of “a five-year old Jesus as consciously knowing quantum mechanics and calculus, while at the same time learning arithmetic”. That’s a strikingly clear definition of nestorianism. And the upshot is, I suspect it’d be useful to go back and review the patristic discussions of nestorianism.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I wonder if the attraction of kenoticism is connected to the dominance of theistic-personalism, particularly within Protestantism. It seems to me that if we begin with “person” and make it our principal category for thinking about God, then that in itself makes it easier to think of the person of God (or in this case, the person of the Son) to decide to temporarily relinquish his divine attributes.

      I do not know if a conflict between theistic personalism and classical theism is unavoidable. Even though the two approaches have different starting points, it seems to me that they should end up with an identical understanding of divinity. But apparently they often do not.


      • Fr Aidan, it strikes me that most people think about christology in the same way that most people think about creation. I don’t mean that creationists think of christology one way, and scientifically inclined people think of it another way, and that their respective views on creation predict or correlate with their christologies; i mean that, except for a handful of theologically educated people, most people try to think of the hypostatic union starting from the same epistemological mistake that creationism is based on, whether they’re creationists or not.

        In the science and creationism debate it’s more obvious that Ken Nye the Science Guy and Bill the Ham Fisted Creationist are in fundamental agreement about the most important basic premise— that the Bible is ‘about’ science; the debate is only over whether it succeeds as good science or not. Their understanding is entirely defined by science, they simply assume that that’s the Bible’s purpose, and they argue only within that framework.

        Not everybody buys that framework because the Bible is too obviously not scientific. But when it comes to the hypostatic union, they still imagine that science (and its abstract form, philosophy) might have something to say about it, in terms of neuroscience and matter and whatnot, if we only had the right equipment the questions could all be settled well enough.

        The ‘kenoticism’ of Boyd and his ilk— quite common these days but seriously, i’d suggest not calling it that, even if its perpetrators do, because that’s to twist an important word and thereby to introduce confusion into the conversion— it would be better to call it what it is: nestorianism or amnesia— is really only the marker of an inability to think theologically as such.

        They certainly do not understand a syllable of the term κένωσις in the Bible!

        In my experience this inability to think theologically usually exists in function of the fact that the question is merely an intellectual plaything that has nothing to do with any actual faith in Jesus Christ or knowledge of him. That kind of atheism can very well go to church every sunday, although if we read the polls right, it seems less and less inclined to do so in the past few decades.

        The problem isn’t theistic personalism and classical theism, it’s the fact that we simply don’t know how to think about anything except as a scientific problem. The problem is cataphaticism gone cancerous because there is no apophaticism to hold it in check.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The ‘kenotic’ (e.g., Philippians 2:7) has been there from as early as its Scriptural occurrences are persuasively dated. so what do we know about how it was understood, when? This is equally a matter for pre- and non-Chalcedonian, insofar as “confusiion and blending” (etc.) are equally rejected. How much is it a question of anthropology, and what we do and do not certainly know about that, in terms of ‘body’ – including ‘brain’ – and of that which is not merely ‘brain’ or ‘epiphenomenal’ or whatever (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:23?)?

    With respect to an interesting widely ranging around references, one might consider Robert L. Ottley’s The Doctrine of the Incarnation, of which both the First Edition (1896) and the Fifth (1911) are available in the Internet Archive.


  5. tgbelt says:

    Thanks Fr Aidan for a great post. As an Evangelical I can tell you that Kenoticism is standard doctrine. I had earlier said I couldn’t think of a single Evangelical who wasn’t a Kenoticist. But I did run into one — J I Packer. I’m sure there are a few others (all Reformed I’m sure). Since growing in my love and appreciation of Orthodoxy and Chalcedon I’ve gone on a kind of rampage against Kenoticism. I think it perhaps the worst idea since Arianism to capture the Christian imagination. But it’s very entrenched.


  6. tgbelt says:

    And I agree too, Fr, that Chalcedon can manage its own within a cataphatic discourse. That is, there are ways to ‘make sense’ of it even if the ultimate realities transcend us.


  7. PJ says:

    Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon has an interesting interview on Ancient Faith Radio about the humanity of Christ:

    Does anyone find anything problematic in Reardon’s statements?

    This sounds terribly ignorant, but is it correct to say that Jesus learned things? Might we state that Christ was omniscient in his divine nature, but limited in his human nature? Or is this dividing the natures? Did the baby Jesus have the mind of an infant, while still possessing his infinite wisdom in his Godhead?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks, PJ, for this link to the interview with Fr Patrick. In answer to your question, no, I do not find anything problematic in his statement that Jesus learned things. Why should Jesus’s learning be more problematic for us than his hunger or need for sleep or his death on the cross?

      Fr Patrick devotes a chapter to this topic in his book The Jesus We Missed. Reardon is a good example of of how we can speak of Jesus’ authentic humanity, and say everything that the kenoticists want to say about him, within a Chalcedonian context.


  8. jrj1701 says:

    PJ you bring up an interesting question and Fr. A can correct me if I am I am wrong, yet from my understanding of what Scripture reveals to me about Jesus’s childhood is that he was fully a part of the Trinity and that He had all the power and abilities of who He was. The way I come to this is by my understanding of Luke 1:41-45, I see that Christ’s divinity was known even to John before His and John’s birth and that even as a unborn child John was doing his job of letting folks know that Christ was coming. Also there is Luke 2:41-49 and this tells me that even as a child Jesus was fully the son of God and knew what needed doing, Because He had a human body He had to go through all the things that having that body entails, yet He was still the Son of God and had the knowledge and mystical abilities although His body was not mature. Yet I fear I maybe ignorantly stumbling into a heresy, yet I don’t know if I don’t let folks know. If i am wrong or headed in the wrong direction please let me know.


  9. PJ says:

    So he didn’t have to learn how to carve from Joseph? Or how to speak from Mary? He was fluent in Aramaic and expert in carpentry from birth? Did he feign ignorance? This doesn’t sound like authentic, genuine humanity.

    Fr. Reardon, while admitting that Christ’s access to the Father, in his human nature, was absolutely unique and unparalleled, also says, “All his thinking took place in a human brain at the service of a human intellect… His beings was a becoming … He grew in knowledge … He had to learn, as a human being, what God was asking of him … This is what he learns in the Scripture … His self-identity had a lot to do with his prayer.”


  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I have not tried Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon’s talk, yet, but let me elaborate my previous comment a bit. In the phrase “All his thinking took place in a human brain at the service of a human intellect”, what do – or might – “human intellect” and “thinking” mean?

    In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, St. Paul speaks of ‘pneuma’, ‘psyche’, and ‘soma’. “Brain” is part of ‘soma’ (the body), and seems clearly involved in ‘thinking’. But what is the created “intellect” it is “at the service of”? Is that ‘pneuma’ (Vulgate ‘spiritus’, KJV ‘spirit’)?

    And when St. Paul speaks ïn 2 Corinthians 12 of the “man in Christ” who was “caught up to the third heaven” (v. 2), “into paradise” (v. 4), possibly “in”, possibly “out of the body” (vv. 2, 3), if it were “out of the body”, would ‘the brain’ have been involved in the same way in hearing the “unspeakable words” as it would have been if he were “in the body”?

    Is “man”, is the created “human intellect”, solely dependent on the “brain” and (so) the body, for all ‘intellective’ functioning?

    I think the majority of Christian mystics, mystical theologians, and theological anthropologists, would be inclined to answer that last question, ‘no’.

    The “genuine humanity” of the “man” to whom St. Paul refers (whether himself or another) could have “heard unspeakable words” apart from his brain, and ‘passed them on to it’ subsequently.

    Similarly, Christ with respect to His created Human Intellect could have known things He had not learned through His created Human Ears, Eyes, and Brain.

    How, exactly, according to His Humanity, including His created Human Intellect, He would have done so, assuming He did, and what – and how much – exactly, that would have entailed, are distinct questions.

    But it is not clear that any such knowledge would, in itself, presuppose a ‘Nestorian Christology’, or be an instance of anything other than “authentic, genuine humanity”.


  11. John burnett says:

    You can’t base theology on unproven speculations about human physiology. Since that’s true in the first place, the rest is moot.


  12. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Nor can you have a theology of “sarkothetna […] kai enanthropesanta” (to quote the Creed as found in the Divine Liturgy: “was incarnate […] and became Man”, in one translation) without trying to think about and understand what ‘anthropos’, ‘man’, is – which will presumably iinclude consideration of “human physiology”, human ‘psychology’, (apparent) human mystical experience, the vocabulary of Holy Scripture, the theological vocabulary employed by the Council Fathers…

    That was true before – and after – the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, true for ‘Chalcedonians’ and ‘non-Chalcedonians’ (notably those who assert their fidelity to Council conclusions about excluding “confusion and blending” and deny they are ‘monophysites’ in their understanding of ‘physis’).

    Undue haste and unwarranted dogmaticism must be avoided; ‘mystery’ and simple absence of knowledge and their implications, for ‘mootness’ and otherwise, must be acknowledged. But when things are asserted, attention is due – even at the costs paid by St. Maximus the Confessor and Pope St. Martin I, for example.


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