Hartian Illuminations: Incarnation and Divine Immutability

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“)

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22 Responses to Hartian Illuminations: Incarnation and Divine Immutability

  1. Morgan Hunter says:

    While not immediately relevant to the subject of this post, I have a question about Hart’s classical theism in general that I would love to ask any philosophically-minded readers here. I have recently encountered an interesting argument from a materialist philosopher (Dr. Daniel Fincke), who denies that the contingency of material being necessitates a transcendent God’s existence. Following Parmenides and Plato in the Sophist, he says that true “nothingness” is not just difficult to imagine but actually logically impossible to conceive. Thus, it simply makes no sense to ask “why is there something rather than nothing?”–any more than asking “why does 2+2=4?” In general, this gentleman appears be one of the few contemporary materialists that I’ve encountered who understands classical theistic arguments, so I’d be really interested in hearing what people have to say..,

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      And yet, despite the inconceivability of absolute nothingness, we still ask the question. Those who ask do not believe they are speaking nonsense and most who hear the question do not dismiss it out of hand as nonsensical, even though they may insist it is unanswerable.

      Decades ago analytic philosophers attempted to argue that theological language was nonsense. How can one talk meaningfully about a transcendent, incomprehensible “object”? Yet here we are, still talking about this object that is no object, which we call “God,” despite the insistence of the philosophers that we shouldn’t be able to do what we are in fact doing.

      But I ain’t a philosopher. Hopefully others out there will be able to give you a more substantive response. Thanks for the question.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Well, I’m no philosopher either, but surely I know that negative statements about an intellectual object are still statements about that object, however indirect, figurative, negative, in a word: apophatic. It seems patently ridiculous to me to make a statement like “You can’t think X.” If you really couldn’t, then you couldn’t say that you couldn’t. Maybe I’m missing the point here, but anyway it seems to me that the whole paradox of language resides in the fact that language can speak the unspeakable. It can do this because it doesn’t only refer, language actually instantiates. And not just in rarified moments, but routinely. Language exceeds us. It is more than a tool of logicians or a network of signs cobbled together out of grunts and howls around some primordial campfire.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    Morgan, predictably the reductionist prejudice of philosophical materialism constrains him to conclude that, surprise, no thing is inconceivable. If the the cosmos is a given, then one indeed need not to ask why it exists rather than not. At least he is consistent 🙂

    For the inquiring mind, it is not a given, and it remains a valid question to ask why is there some thing rather than no thing.

    The question as to why we should assume the material cosmos to simply always to have existed is what is at stake. He has peremptorily answered it, so there’s no question for him.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Morgan Hunter says:

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and helpful replies! I often find that in discussions of classical theism I have a hard time fully wrapping my mind around divine transcendence. For example, would you say that his statement that “it is more parsimonious to simply assume that the world has some eternal, necessary dimension than to posit an entire extra and mysteriously ‘non-natural’ being” reflects a misunderstanding of God as being a finite being “outside” the universe? Could a classical theist actually agree with his point about true nothingness being inconceivable, but argue that this proves that a Necessary Being must exist? (Plato wasn’t exactly a materialist, after all…)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Morgan, have you read Hart’s The Experience of God yet? You may find it helpful to answering, in your own mind, your professor’s objections to theism.

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      • Morgan Hunter says:

        The Experience of God is amazing! It ‘roused me from my dogmatic slumbers’ and convinced me that rational arguments for the existence of God were still compelling, and also taught me to not be afraid to acknowledge the truth and beauty of non-Christian theistic traditions. I was just re-reading it and thinking about what answers to these objections I could draw from it…

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        • Morgan Hunter says:

          Indeed, I can honestly say that it (and some of Hart’s other non-technical writings, on theodicy, universalism, animals, and so forth) feel like they’ve saved me from existential despair on several occasions!

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    • Jonathan says:

      Vizzini: Inconceivable!

      Inigo: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

      – – –

      Sorry, couldn’t resist. For an example of one way nothing or, in this case, non-being is not only conceivable but articulable, I have often found Scotus Eriugena’s dialectical ‘quinque modi’ helpful. I would also point you to a literary example, the apparition of das Nichts in Michael Ende’s wonderful fantasy Die unendliche Geschichte, which you may know in partial form as the colorful kids flick from the 80’s, The Neverending Story. The book is much better, among other ways in its description of the Nothing. And finally, if you do not know it allow me to recommend a poem, Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” which is seasonably appropriate, at least where I’m sitting:

      One must have a mind of winter
      To regard the frost and the boughs
      Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

      And have been cold a long time
      To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
      The spruces rough in the distant glitter

      Of the January sun; and not to think
      Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
      In the sound of a few leaves,

      Which is the sound of the land
      Full of the same wind
      That is blowing in the same bare place

      For the listener, who listens in the snow,
      And, nothing himself, beholds
      Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

      Liked by 1 person

      • brian says:

        Love The Never Ending Story, Jonathan. Momo is also quite good. As you indicate, one must think with finesse and along interstices judged unreal by the univocal mind.

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  4. brian says:

    Morgan,

    I concur with my pals, here. There is an extended reflection on this issue in William Desmond’s God and the Between. I quote a few apt sections below alas, free of some italics as I don’t know how to include them:

    Consider the venerable problem of thinking about “nothing.” If we think of nothing, we are thinking, hence thinking of something, hence, not thinking of nothing. The effort to think nothing seems self-subverting; it ends up with some thinking of being. This is Parmenides’s point. Something about being shows itself as incontrovertible, even in thinking “nothing.” Moreover, if to think intelligibly is to think determinately, “nothing” is not anything determinate, and so not anything intelligible. What intelligibility can we make of what is other than a determinate something? Are nothing and creation then irredeemably absurd? . . . We must consider a more radical sense of indeterminate nothing. Something of it is “manifest” in our encounter with radical evil. It is intimated in the mortality of beings, beings marked by the extraordinary singularity of their “once.” We are touched by it when we despair: everything seems to “come to nothing,” and we ourselves “are as nothing.” Beyond all determinate intelligibility, we experience a radical “being at a loss.” To yoke all these to determinate negation, or a “something,” fails to be true to them. . . . It would be astonishing were the “nothing” to yield to univocal, finite intelligibility. . . . Finitude fails, not for us, but in itself, so far as its passing into nonbeing shows its essence to be inseparable from nothingness. (This does not mean its essence is nothingness.) If we seek intelligibility beyond this passing into nonbeing, we must look beyond intelligibility defined by univocal determination. (Many will forsake the search.) (p.244)

    Why something rather than nothing — why being at all? This question is frequently dismissed because it refers to nothing in particular. Sometimes it is misinterpreted to refer to a determinate beginning like the big bang or like the creator god construed as a determinate fabricator. This is not the archaic perplexity at all but a definite curiosity about the finite process of becoming; it neither regards the more primordial coming to be nor the nothing prior to determinate negation. There is an indeterminacy about the perplexity, but this is no mere indefiniteness; it is the whole point, for it orients us to a sense of “the whole,” but now not the whole interpreted in holistic terms. The point here is that our sense of the whole seems to point beyond the whole. For the coming to be and the passing out of being are not events within the whole . . . (p.251)

    Not only with “nothing” but with many other crucial notions, what seems one thing at one level of considerations means something other at another level. (p. 263)

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  5. Ed says:

    It is a principle enunciated by St. Thomas Aquinas that whatever pertains to a thing either proceeds from the nature of the thing or is caused by something outside of the nature. When an attribute proceeds from the nature of a thing, we never bother to ask why that attribute exists. For instance, if we see a man talking and laughing, we do not stop to ask what the cause of his behaviour is. We realize that it is a part of the nature of human beings to talk and laugh. If, on the other hand, we were to see such behaviour in a dog, we would immediately begin looking for some external cause to explain this behaviour. In the case of 2 + 2 = 4, once we know what 2 is and what 4 is (i.e., once we know the “natures” of these numbers), we immediately see the truth of the equation. On the other hand, when we ask the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?”, it is because we recognize in this world things whose existence is not explained by their own essence or nature. Hence, we look for a cause of their existence outside of themselves. We do so until we arrive at something whose existence is one with its nature, i.e., a necessary being.

    Liked by 1 person

    • brian says:

      I don’t think anyone here would argue with that, Ed, but the question Morgan posed was not directly aimed at contingency, but with the charge that nothing was inherently unintelligible. For a certain cast of mind, metaphysical wonder does not occur and the logic of Thomas’ argument fails to gain traction because existential sensibility has not assented to the true semantic range of “nothing.”

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  6. Ed says:

    I agree with you Brian. I think what I wanted to say (though I did not state it very well) is that one could make the argument for the existence of a necessary being without any direct appeal to the concept of nothingness. After all, St. Thomas would say that, even had the world always existed, one would still require a necessary being to explain its existence. If the materialist believes that there is no need to explain the existence of the entities of our experience, this can only be because he/she thinks that existence enters into the definition of these entities, much as rational enters into the definition of man or three-sided enters into the definition of triangle. If I am correct in this, it would seem that the materialist has not circumvented the need for a necessary being. Rather, he has simply shifted the “location” of the necessity, from the transcendent God to the very immanent material universe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Morgan Hunter says:

      Interesting! I definitely wouldn’t think to put man being rational by nature into the same category as triangles being three-sided by nature–at least to me, it definitely makes sense to ask why human beings as a whole have the cognitive capacities they do, although I wouldn’t be moved to ask why an individual person had them.

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  7. Morgan Hunter says:

    Thank you so much for the further answers! (Alas, I can’t seem to successfully ‘like’ responses on WordPress.)

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      BTW, going from what you related, I don’t Fincke understands the classical theistic concept of ex nihilo.

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  8. Ed says:

    All I intended by the analogies to rational in man and three-sidedness in triangles is to show that each is a part of the definition of the corresponding entity. Hence, when a man speaks or laughs or makes a particularly brilliant deduction, we don’t look for any cause outside of his essential nature to explain these actions. Existence is not a part of the essence of contingent things. Hence, that they exist requires an explanation outside of that essence.

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  9. Michelle says:

    “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.”

    First question: does the above fact preclude the possibility of a total depravity that would cause us to lose the image of God?

    “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.”

    Second question: I understand God’s freedom in relation to creation, in that God’s nature is in no way dependent upon, nor necessitated by His act of creating; Had he not created he would still be perfect God. But is there not also a freedom found within the Godhead? Meaning, is the Father’s joyful outpouring into the Son a free act? God is uncreated and eternal, so you could say the whole Trinitarian nature of relationships of love between the three Persons ‘ just is.’ But could it really be authentic love on the Father’s part if the circumstances of his outpouring is defined as an eternal ‘just is’? Doesn’t this outpouring need to be an utterly free act of giving for it to be a true kenosis of love, even when directed, not towards creation, but towards His eternal Son? And, likewise, doesn’t the Son’s acceptance of the Father’s gift also have to be a free act for it to be an authentic thanksgiving and obedience to the Father? If thanksgiving and the obedience that follows isn’t free, then can it really be said to be ‘true thanksgiving ’s or ‘true obedience’ ?

    And, furthermore, isn’t the Father’s free act of kenotic love, and the Son’s free act of thanksgiving and obedience also the foundation of our own free, synergistic relationship with God? Isn’t this why the some of the church fathers have proclaimed that God never forces us into salvation?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Michelle,

      As to first question: yes, it precludes total depravity, which is OK as it is an absurdity.

      As to the second: Yes, it is indeed. But you are touching upon the nature of freedom. You are operating on a modern concept of freedom – freedom as arbitrary voluntarism, undetermined by and lacking a proper end, where liberty and will is prior to desire. But such is not the freedom of pre-modern Christianity, for which freedom is understood to be determined by the object of its desire. In God there’s a perfect coincidence of desire and possession.

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      • Michelle says:

        Robert,

        So you are saying God is like a magnet for us, since he is our natural proper end. But he is a peculiar kind of magnet, since he does not forcefully snatch us shards of metal off the ground, but rather stimulates and persuades us into a natural drawing nearer to him, of which requires our cooperation. And the closer we get the stronger this peculiar magnetism of his gets, eventually seizing us from ever being able to turn away from him. Am I close?

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Yes and we are fully free and fully human when drawn to and our desire is determined in God who is perfect liberty, who Himself is under no prior constraint or compulsion as he possesses what he desires. Only He, as such, can freely give, love, receive, and redeem. Creation is called to partake in the Triune Blessedness, and this I take to be the astonishing marvel that is the good news of the Gospel.

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