Docetism, Sabellianism, Subordinationism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism—we know the names of the famous heresies that plagued the Church during the first millennium. Perhaps we can even describe them and explain why they were rejected. But what may not be clear in our minds is how each of these heresies represent a failure to properly think the Christian distinction between God and the world. The failure is understandable, even forgivable. It’s not as if one can point to a clear statement of the distinction in the pages of the Holy Scriptures. Clarity only arose as the Church actively proclaimed the gospel to a pagan world whose religious and philosophical convictions needed to be converted by the gospel. The trinitarian and christological heresies, in other words, reflect the propensity to render pagan the Christian sense of the divine. Challenging the Church’s interior grasp of the faith, they compelled Christians to seek greater understanding regarding the difference between the real and living God and Hellenistic divinity. We cannot properly think God as Trinity, until we can conceive him as being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit apart from the world. We cannot properly think Jesus as true God and true Man, unless we see that the divine nature does not exist on the same plane of existence as that of creaturely beings. The Christian distinction enjoys a fundamental, presuppositional role in theology, informing worship, prayer, liturgy, moral action, and theological reflection in ways we often cannot articulate. The distinction is lived before it is spoken. But spoken it must eventually be, if the apostolic faith is to be faithfully preached and taught. “The Christian distinction between God and the world,” writes Robert Sokolowski, “serves to permit the other Christian mysteries to be thought as mysteries and not as incoherences. The Christian understanding of God is necessary to open the space within which the other Christian mysteries can be believed” (The God of Faith and Reason, p. 37).
From the beginning the Church has proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This proclamation raised a host of difficult questions. Is Jesus divine or human or perhaps some hybrid of the two? These questions were addressed by the great councils of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. In response to the christological challenges, the Church appealed to her experience of divine transcendence, bringing to verbal expression the ecumenical doctrine of the Incarnation. The formulation of the doctrine in turn brought about a deeper understanding of God himself:
The Council of Chalcedon, and the councils and controversies that led up to it, were concerned with the mystery of Christ, but they also tell us about the God who became incarnate in Christ. They tell us first that God does not destroy the natural necessities of things he becomes involved with, even in the intimate union of the incarnation. What is according to nature, and what reason can disclose in nature, retains its integrity before the Christian God. And second, they tell us that we must think of God as the one who can let natural necessity be maintained and let reason be left intact: that is, God is not himself a competing part of nature or a part of the world. If the incarnation could not take place without a truncation of human nature, it would mean that God was one of the natures in the world that somehow was defined by not being the other natures; it would mean that his presence in one of these other natures, human nature, would involve a conflict and a need to exclude some part of what he is united with. Either God would only seem to have become man, or he would have become united to something less than man and would have become a new kind of being in the world. These are all the ways in which the pagans thought the gods could take on human form or bring about beings that were higher than the race of men but lower than the gods. The reason the pagans could not conceive of anything like the incarnation is that their gods are part of the world, and the union of any two natures in the world is bound to be, in some way, unnatural, because of the otherness that lets one thing be itself only by not being the other. But the Christian God is not a part of the world and is not a “kind” of being at all. Therefore the incarnation is not meaningless or impossible or destructive. (pp. 35-36)
Kathryn Tanner makes essentially the same point in her book Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity. God is “the giver of all good gifts, their fount, luminous source, fecund treasury and storehouse” (p. 1). He creates the world that he might communicate his gifts. At each stage of history, culminating in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and his salvation, God is working for their full bestowal, each stage representing “a greater communication of goodness to the creature and the overcoming of any sinful opposition to these gifts’ distribution” (p. 2). The divine bestowal of gifts implies what Tanner describes as an ontological relation of non-competitiveness between God and his creatures. Creator and creature do not, as it were, play on the same field; they are not inhabitants of the same universe. “God is the fecund provider of all that the creature is in itself,” she writes; “the creature in its giftedness, in its goodness, does not compete with God’s gift-fullness and goodness because God is the giver of all that the creature is for the good” (p. 3).
If God and his creatures existed on the same plane of being and causality, then a non-competitive relationship would be impossible. The presence and action of God would necessarily interfere with and limit not only the action of the creature but its very being. But when the divine transcendence is understood in its full radicality, no such interference obtains:
God does not give on the same plane of being and activity, as one among other givers and therefore God is not in potential competition (or co-operation) with them. Non-competitiveness among creatures—their co-operation on the same plane of causality—always brings with it the potential for competition: Since I perform part of what needs to be done and you perform the rest, to the extent I act, you need not; and the more I act, the less you need to. Even when we co-operate, therefore, our actions involve a kind of competitive either/or of scope and extent. Unlike this co-operation among creatures, relations with God are utterly non-competitive because God, from beyond this plane of created reality, brings about the whole plane of creaturely being and activity in its goodness. The creature’s receiving from God does not then require its passivity in the world: God’s activity as the giver of ourselves need not come at the expense of our own activity. Instead the creature receives from God its very activity as a good.
With these last remarks I am suggesting a principle of divine transcendence, which I define more precisely in terms of talk about God that avoids either simple identity or contrast with the qualities of creatures. … God is not a kind of thing among other kinds of things; only if God is transcendent in that way does it make sense to think that God can be the giver of all kinds of things and manners of existence; and only on that basis, in turn—God as the giver of all gifts—does it make sense to think of a non-competitive relation between God and creatures. (pp. 3-4)
As with the Creator/creature relation, so with the relation between the eternal Son and the human nature assumed in the womb of the Virgin. If God existed in a competitive or oppositional relationship with his creatures, then the Incarnation, as classically taught by the Church, would be impossible. This in fact seems to be the assumption of the kenotic christologies that have become increasingly popular among theologians: in order for God to enter the world he has made, he must put aside his divine attributes. “The main problem here,” explains Tanner, “is the sense that God cannot become or be united with what God is not; it seems that characteristics of God are simply opposed to those of human beings—immutability vs. change, simplicity vs. complexity, infinity vs. finitude, etc. Incarnation, understood as becoming something one is not, would seem then to require either the loss of divinity or humanity—substantial change to one or the other” (p. 10). The Church Fathers, on the other hand, while frequently speaking of the marvel of the eternal Son’s kenotic self-emptying, did not see the Incarnation as entailing the temporary abandonment of the divine nature, for no such abandonment is necessary, given the divine transcendence. God assumes human nature in its creaturely integrity. Instead of the either/or of modern kenoticism, patristic theologians expressed their christological convictions in the language of paradox and antinomy (see, e.g., Paul Gavrilyuk, “God’s Impassible Suffering in the Flesh“). God’s union with humanity does not come at the expense of either divinity or humanity, for the divine nature ultimately exists beyond contrast with the created order:
Only what is not a kind—and therefore not bound by the usual differences between natures—can bring together in the most intimate unity divinity and humanity. Because divinity is not a kind, God is not bound by apparent contrasts between divine and creaturely qualities; God is thereby free to enter into intimate community with us, without loss to the divine nature, without sacrificing the difference between God and us. …
The distinction between substance and hypostases in the Trinity helps make the same point. The distinction is a way of indicating that the hypostasis of the Word, who becomes incarnate, is not restricted by its own substance or nature. Without loss to itself, it may take on a created nature, a human one. This is possible for the hypostasis of the Word most fundamentally because, again, the divine substance is not defined, as finite substances are, by a nature exclusive of others.
It is the very transcendence of God, then—a transcendence beyond simple contrasts—that enables intimate union with creatures like humans. What makes God different from creatures is also what enables God to be with what is not God rather than shut up in self-enclosed isolation. (pp. 11-12)
In the words of Henk Schoot, whom Tanner quotes: “God differs differently” (p. 12). And it is this difference that makes possible the mystery of the Incarnation.