In this series of “illuminations,” I quote passages from David Bentley Hart’s collection of essays The Hidden and the Manifest that I have found particularly instructive. I hope they will generate good discussion.
“The Word became flesh,” the evangelist declares (John 1:14), becoming that which he was not. How is this not a change in the divine nature? Christ Jesus, the Apostle Paul teaches us, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:5-7). Again we ask, how is this self-emptying not a change in the divine nature? Yet the same Fathers who formulated the doctrine of the Incarnation also affirmed the changelessness of God: just as the divine nature is impassible, so it is immutable. Hart elaborates:
Of course, at the end of the day, the modern theologian who wants to reject the language of divine immutability and impassibility is generally one who is attempting to do justice to the story of God’s incarnation in Christ and death upon the cross. It seems simply obvious that here we must be talking about a change within the being of God, and of a suffering endured by God, and so in both cases of a capacity endemic to his nature. From the vantage of the cross, so to speak, how can the traditional metaphysical attributions of divine transcendence not appear to obscure a clear understanding of who God has shown himself to be? What does it profit one to assert, along with Cyril of Alexandria, that Christ “was in the crucified body appropriating the sufferings of the flesh to himself impassibly”? Or, with Melito of Sardis, that “the impassible suffered”? Rather than trading in paradoxes, why not lay down our metaphysics at the foot of the cross?
The truth is, however, that we err when we read such phrases principally as paradoxes; they are actually intended as simple formulae for explaining, quite lucidly, the biblical story of our salvation in Christ. To begin with, the denial that the incarnation of Christ is a change in God’s nature is not a denial that it is a real act of the living God, really coming to partake of our nature, nor certainly is it an attempt to evade the truth that, as the Second Council of Constantinople put it, “one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh.” The divine Person of the Logos has really, through his humanity, suffered every extreme of human dereliction and pain and has truly tasted of death. What the fathers were anxious to reject, however, was any suggestion that God becoming human was an act of divine self-alienation, an actual μετάβασις εις άλλο γένος, a transformation into a reality essentially contrary to what God eternally is: for this would mean that God must negate himself as God to become human—which would be to say God did not become human. Hence, a strict distinction must be drawn between the idea of divine change and that of divine “kenosis.” When Scripture says, “the Logos became flesh,” says Cyril of Alexandria, the word “became” signifies not any change in God, but only the act of self-divesting love whereby God the Son emptied himself of his glory, while preserving his immutable and impassible nature intact. God did not, he says (here following Athanasius), alter or abandon his nature in any way, but freely appropriated the weakness and poverty of our nature for the work of redemption. …
This may appear at first to be a distinction without a difference, but it is in fact a quite logical—and necessary—clarification of terms, which can be justified on many grounds. To begin with, there is a qualitative disproportion between infinite and finite being, which allows for the infinite to appropriate and accommodate the finite without ceasing to be infinite; or, to put it in more strictly ontological terms, if every being derives its being from God, and so all the perfections that compose a creature as what it is have their infinite and full reality in God, then the self-emptying of God in his creature is not a passage from what he is to what he is not, but a gracious condescension whereby the infinite is pleased truly to disclose and express itself in one instance of the finite. Indeed, in this sense, to say God does not change in the incarnation is almost a tautology: God is not some thing that can be transformed into another thing, but is the being of everything, to which all that is always already properly belongs. Simply said, there is no change of nature needed for the fullness of being to assume—even through self-impoverishment—a being as the dwelling place of its mystery and glory. If one finds such language unpalatably abstract, one may prefer to adopt more obviously biblical terms: as human being is nothing at all in itself but the image and likeness of God, then the perfect dwelling of the eternal image and likeness of God—the Logos—in the one man who perfectly expresses and lives out what it is to be human is in no sense an alien act for God. The act by which the form of God appears in the form of a slave is the act by which the infinite divine image shows itself in the finite divine image: this then is not a change, but a manifestation, of who God is. And, finally, the very action of kenosis is not a new act for God, because God’s eternal being is, in some sense, kenosis: the self-outpouring of the Father in the Son, in the joy of the Spirit. Thus Christ’s incarnation, far from dissembling his eternal nature, exhibits not only his particular proprium as the Son and the splendor of the Father’s likeness, but thereby also the nature of the whole trinitarian taxis. Christ is indeed the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. For God to pour himself out, then, as the man Jesus is not a venture outside of the trinitarian life of indestructible love, but in fact quite the reverse: it is the act by which creation is seized up into the sheer invincible pertinacity of that love, which reaches down to gather us into its triune motion. (“No Shadow of Turning,” pp. 63-65)
If God were a finite entity with a delimited nature, then his becoming human would necessarily entail a real change in himself–at one moment he was divine being, and then he became a different kind of being. Incarnation is thus equivalent to alchemy, gold becoming lead, as it were. But God is not a finite being; he is the infinite act of Being. Hence he is able to unite humanity to himself without any diminishment of his transcendent glory. In the words of the Quicunque vult: “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God.”
(Go to “Being as Gift and Beauty“)