The Vulnerability and Invulnerability of the Natal Flesh of God

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us
(and we saw his glory, the glory as it were
of the only begotten of the Father),
full of grace and truth.
John 1:14

To fully understand human corporeality, we must turn to the person of Jesus, the God-Man who lived and died and rose again in first-century Palestine. As Paul Griffiths writes: “it is a central claim of Christianity that the Word, the second person of the Trinity, became exactly that, became enfleshed and lived and died as a person with human flesh” (Decreation, p. 151). Throughout the entirety of his human existence, the Word perfects the possibilities of flesh. This does not mean that everything that may be said about Jesus “can be thought to belong to human flesh generically; some of what happened to his flesh is proper only to the flesh of a human creature who is also the LORD.” The challenge of discriminating between the two is exacerbated by the fact that the only flesh known to us in our daily experience is devastated flesh. If the world had never fallen from grace, perhaps every human being would have the ability to walk on water or still derechos—alas, such is not the case. Hence we cannot rule out in advance possible differences between Jesus’ flesh and our flesh (even deified flesh), precisely because Jesus enjoyed, and enjoys, a two-natured existence and we do not:

Ours is human flesh, corrupted by our own sin and damaged by the devastated world into which it is conceived and born; his, like ours, is born into a devastated world and therefore responsive to and affected by the violence and death and damage that characterize such a world, though without the deepening of that damage produced by further sin of his own. Jesus’ flesh shows, therefore, both differences from and similarities to our own. Some of the difference are because his flesh belong to a sinless person; others are due to the transfigurative effects on human flesh of union with the LORD, which is to say that they’re due to the fact that the anointed one is a double-natured person. The similarities between his flesh and ours are those that belong to human flesh as such, those without which flesh could not be human. (Christian Flesh, p. 28)

Griffiths identifies three stages of the Lord’s flesh: his natal flesh, his resurrected flesh, and his ascended flesh. Of special interest is his discussion of Christ’s possible immunity to illness and invulnerability to physical injury during his historical existence. Could Jesus have suffered cardiac arrest or developed a terminal disease like cancer? Banally put, could he have come down with the common cold? We probably want to answer no to the first and maybe or yes to the second; but on what rational basis?

That Jesus shares in the fragility and mortality of human flesh is evident from the New Testament accounts of his passion and death: he is whipped, tortured, crucified, and finally suffers the separation of soul and body that we call death. “It is clear, and abundantly so,” writes Griffiths, that Scripture represents Jesus’ flesh as capable of sustaining damage by human action, including actions that uses weapons or other instruments of violence” (p. 36). Nothing controversial so far—who but the docetists have thought otherwise? Our Catholic theologian continues:

But it is much less clear that Jesus’ flesh can be damaged by occurrences that don’t involve human agency. Such might include: illness produced by nonhuman agents (bacteria, viruses) acting from without on his flesh; fleshly damage effected by the violence of the inanimate world (fire, flood); damage brought about by the decay of the flesh without the action of external agents (loss of hair, of muscle tone, of eyesight). About the first and third of these, Scripture has nothing to say one way or another. Jesus is there depicted neither as subject to nor immune from illness; the same is true of the fleshly effects of aging—though in that case it is suggestive that Scripture depicts Jesus as dying before he was of an age (according to the norms of the time; our norms are different) to show any such effects, and the later tradition has made a good deal of this point. But about the second of these, fleshly damage produced by the violence of the inanimate world, there are some suggestive scriptural passages. (p. 36)

Now things are getting interesting. Arguments from silence are notoriously difficult to assess, and this is certainly the case regarding the New Testament’s silence about Jesus’ good or ill health. That the evangelical tradition did not preserve memories of Jesus’ dysentery on his journey through Samaria or his bout with the flu while staying in Capernaaum makes perfect sense. Why record it? It’s hardly sensational news. Not even the Jerusalem Enquirer would pay good money for the story. On the other hand, it is notable that the evangelical tradition did not invoke Jesus’ immunity from illness in defense of his messianic or divine identity. Apparently, it never occurred to the Apostles to remark on the Lord’s remarkable good heath. Even more problematic is Griffith’s suggestion that the biblical silence on the dominical aging process is itself suggestive. Jesus was killed before he could suffer the corruptive effects of aging—that is the factual given. What was important to the Apostles is that he died in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The counter-factual “Would Jesus have suffered pattern baldness if he lived into his fifties or sixties?” does not appear to have crossed anybody’s mind. As I said, arguments from silence are notoriously difficult to assess.

Griffiths directs us to a passage in the Gospel of Luke that may hint at Jesus’ invulnera­bility to damage from the inanimate world—the story of the Lord sleeping in the boat when a violent storm arises. The disciples awaken Jesus, who immediately orders the wind and waves to calm.

He then says to his follower, ubi est fides vestra?, implying that if they’d only had faith they wouldn’t have worried. They’d have been like him in this respect: certain that the water couldn’t harm them. Those in the boat are astonished, saying to one another, quis puts hic est, quia et ventris imperat et aqua, et oboediunt ei?—who do you think this, who commands wind and water and gets obedience. Among the points made by the story is the thought that the flesh of Jesus is immune to damage unless he permits it. These things are under his control. He is their imperator because he is the LORD, and they must hear him and do what he says. The text suggests that Jesus’ flesh is not subject to damage against his will from nonhuman agents; and, further, that he doesn’t in fact permit such damage to occur. Scripture, at any rate, records no instances. This clearly differentiates fleshly damage caused by nonhuman agents from that caused by humans. Scripture records many instances of Jesus permitting the latter, and none of the former. (pp. 36-37)

My use above of the word invulnerability may mislead. Griffiths is not suggesting (at least I don’t think he is) that Jesus’ body was invulnerable in the way that Superman’s body is invulnerable. The rays of the yellow sun change Superman at the molecular level, making his body incredibly dense and therefore impervious to most objects (the radioactivity of kryp­tonite being the famous exception). The Nazarene’s invulnerability, on the other hand, seems to lie in his providential omnipotence. Because he is the sovereign Creator and rules all happenings, Jesus is safe from harm from his inanimate creation—either because he can prevent dangerous situations from happening, or when they do, he can command them to change their behavior. Christ’s relation to the inanimate world is one of authority. Injuries cannot happen to him except by his permission. Supermanlike invulnerability is not there­fore excluded—Jesus is, after all, the Creator and may command his body—I just don’t see it hinted at in the story. Griffiths analyses the wilderness hunger of Jesus in similar fashion. Even after a forty day fast, Jesus does not turn the stones into bread because he did not need to do so in order to survive. He assented to extreme hunger specifically for his trial with Satan. Griffiths concludes: “Those things can damage his natal flesh only to the extent that he permits; and this in turn means that the double-natured person didn’t need to eat as we do. He ate, certainly, in his natal flesh and after; but not doing so would not have killed him, and doing so served a particular, providential purpose” (pp. 37-38).

In the above scenario the Lord’s vulnerability to injury occurs on a case-by-case basis. Readers may recall a similar thesis advanced by Emmanuel Hatzidakis. In my critique I suggested that the thesis intimates a kind of docetism. Griffiths denies the charge. The Incarnation does not exclude the Word’s enfleshment in paradisial flesh:

Jesus, according to the view just set down, really is enfleshed; his flesh really is fleshly, really is human flesh, conceived in a woman’s womb and born in the ordinary way. But it’s human flesh undamaged by sin in any of its forms, whether actively committed by Jesus, which is an impossibility according to the grammar of orthodox Catholicism, even if not so clearly for that of non-Catholic Christianity. If death and its servants—illness and aging—are effects of the fall, brought about, therefore, exactly as damage to something—flesh—to which they are properly extrinsic, then the fact that Jesus’ flesh is exempt from them doesn’t show it not to be flesh, It shows, rather, that his flesh is human flesh undamaged, like (in this respect, though not all others) Eve’s and Adam’s, and like ours as it will be after the resurrection. The view, therefore, isn’t docetism; it’s exactly and properly incarnational, exactly and properly what it would be for the LORD to take flesh. But yes, the view entertained here does amount to the assertion of Jesus’ invulnerability. He cannot be damaged in the flesh unless he assents to that damage, and he is in this respect deeply unlike us. (pp. 38-39)

But Griffiths acknowledges that an alternative interpretation of Jesus’ immunity to damage is possible:

It’s the view that Jesus’s providential permission for damage to his flesh isn’t occasional, as Scripture’s depiction suggests, but rather generic. That is, it isn’t that Jesus gives case-by-case providential permission—permission for damage by this fast, that whip, those nails—but rather that the consent to incarnation carried with it permission for any and all such things to damage Jesus’s flesh, just as they would any human flesh, post lapsum. Such a permission, were it to have belonged to the incarnation, would have meant that Jesus’s flesh would have been damaged from time to time by viruses, falls, fights, and so on, as human flesh ordinarily is. This view makes Jesus’s flesh less like Superman’s, and more like ours. (p. 39)

This kenotic construal of the Incarnation is the dominant position in contemporary theology. Not only does it seem more plausible to us moderns than the more traditional view, but it makes it easier for us to identify with Jesus and his sufferings. The difference between the positions, however, is one of emphasis, not contradiction. In both genuine enfleshment of God occurs; in both divine permission is required to explain the incarnate Son’s vulnerability to damage and death.

(Go to “Haptic Enigma”)

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14 Responses to The Vulnerability and Invulnerability of the Natal Flesh of God

  1. Tom says:

    Fr Aidan: Griffiths acknowledges that an alternative interpretation of Jesus’ immunity to damage is possible: It’s the view that Jesus’s providential permission for damage to his flesh isn’t occasional, as Scripture’s depiction suggests, but rather generic. That is, it isn’t that Jesus gives case-by-case providential permission—permission for damage by this fast, that whip, those nails—but rather that the consent to incarnation carried with it permission for any and all such things to damage Jesus’s flesh, just as they would any human flesh, post lapsum.

    Tom: For sure. But this is just equivalent simply to positing a genuine incarnation, the assumption of embodied finitude. It’s not an additional move beyond incarnation.

    Fr Aidan: This kenotic construal of the Incarnation is the dominant position in contemporary theology (one that I share).

    Tom (falling onto the floor, ripping garment, throwing dust in the air): What?

    Fr Aidan: Not only does it seem more plausible to us moderns than the more traditional view, but it makes it easier for us to identify with Jesus and his sufferings. The difference between the positions, however, is one of emphasis, not contradiction. In both, divine permission is required to explain the incarnate Son’s vulnerability to damage and death.

    Tom: No words.

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  2. Pedro says:

    Two “things” that might help in thinking about this topic.

    First: Anthony Bloom’s amazing essay, “Body and Matter in Spiritual Life” from 1968 which presents readers with a sacramental ontology as a byproduct of the general topic; this might apply to this posting.

    Second: In the later middle ages in Europe, there are depictions of God the Father holding the crucified Christ on the cross; and perhaps related in at least one Middle English text–one of the recensions of Langland’s Piers Plowman, an example of heresy is presented in someone suggesting how two members of the Trinity slayed the third, which suggests that in problematic formulations, someone in that period presented the crucifixion as an act of God sacrificing God on the cross.

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  3. brian says:

    There’s a world of difference between Victorian era kenotic Christology and the kind of kenosis that Hans Urs von Balthasar, Sergius Bulgakov, or Rowan Williams talk about. The latter is similarly placed as the proper understanding of divine transcendence as what founds the intimacy of God’s nurturing immanence. The notion that kenosis means the temporary abandonment of divinity is simply not what the best kenotic theology asserts. Moreover, it’s hard to discern how one could properly articulate agapeic patience apart from some element of kenosis — Bulgakov’s eschatology is especially good at bringing this out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      In the end there’s not a whole lot of difference, I don’t think. HvB’s view of Holy Saturday as “hiatus” of the triune experience of Father, Son, and Spirit is as lamentable as anything the most radical British Kenoticist might have said. And I wish I could agree with you, Brian, regarding, Bulgakov, but he’s too clear on it. In The Lamb of God (Parts I and II of Ch 4, roughly pages 215-260) it’s fairly clear that he, with the more objectionable promoters of Kenotic school of thought, posits a real abandonment by the Son of his enjoyment of the transcendent triune fullness.

      At several junctures he clearly distinguishes between the immutable/eternal divine “ontological fullness” (on the one hand) and “the divine life” (by which he means the ‘experience’ of that fullness as beatitude), and he insists the Son abandons the latter. He does express discomfort with how some express this kenosis, but he embraces the same reduction of the Son to the constraints of finitude in the Incarnation. The Son “removes from Himself His eternal Divinity in order to descend to human life,” for “the fulness of the life of Divinity, in living out its bliss, can in fact be limited.”

      He can say this because in his view, the “separation of the nature from the life constitutes the kenosis of the Son.” But he needs this separation to make his kenoticism work. “Each hypostasis is a particular personal center that has its proper life” and “the consciousness of being the Son of the Father is eclipsed here, as it were, by the consciousness of being ‘sent by the Father’….” The Son “does not live in the unitrinitarian divine hypostasis but remains outside it as it were.” The proper ‘I’ of the Logos descends to earth and “his consciousness of self is realized through human consciousness.” The Son “extinguished His proper divine life in Himself and thus His divine consciousness” and “diminished himself to the measure of the human essence.”

      The Logos must be exhausted in the economy and cannot be thought of as abiding transcendently in the enjoyment of the life of the Trinity, sustaining the world, etc. If such a thing were true, he argues, then the Son “would only pretend to be subject to human becoming and development…while in reality having nothing to do with it” and Incarnation would be “a game.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. brian says:

    Yeah, Tom, our sensibilities differ. I still think you have a tendency towards univocal either/or where analogy requires a kind of dexterous both/and. Regardless, an elective restraint of divine consciousness would not be the same as extinguishing such, would it? Maritain had a similar idea in mind when he wrote On the Grace and Humanity of Jesus. Milbank criticizes Balthasar along lines that echo your own. I am not prepared to concede that Balthasar engages in an illicit mythology as some charge, but it’s too complicated for brief address. In my view, any economic kenosis is ultimately rooted in TriUne plenitude — the divine joy, however, has its own kenotic basis. The apparent contradiction of divine joy and the Cross is an inevitable limit of our finite imaginations and our experience in a fallen world. The revelatory secret of the gospel is hidden identity that is enacted in fallen time as the triumph of love over death. The kenotic event that founds such is not the kind of renunciation of nature that you appear to surmise.

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    • Tom says:

      I appreciate you, as always. For HvB as least, it’s definitely too complicated to pin down briefly. I appreciate that. And I hope you’re right. I doubt Bulgakov can be rescued, but I hope so!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      The “inevitable limit” of our thought and experience is precisely why we must forestall determination of the divine life into rigid structures. One has to grow accustomed to the unease this pause demands of our sensibilities – it confronts us with that limit, the utter inability of our diastematic existence to comprehend the infinite. But we are warned time and again to avoid submitting God to the binaries of our thought patterns. The incarnation, the entire “Christ event”, constitutes a shattering of diastematic formulations, including – or perhaps especially, the theological variety.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. John G says:

    I don’t believe that kenosis and glory are necessarily antithetical given what Jesus says in John 12. In #82 of Isaac the Syrian’s Ascetical Homilies he says: “Humility is the the vesture of God”,and goes on to say that “Humility is God”.

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  6. Grant says:

    Well it might not be necessary nor perhaps even meaningful to really try and separate the two conceptions of what was entailed in the Son assuming humanity and flesh. When you think in terms of creation’s relation to and participation in God, time like all things is a aspect of created existence, which is finite, and necessary for us to be other, but God being Existence Himself is beyond such limitations, He is more full and more real and infinitely abundant and beyond then our timed existence and participation.

    Therefore, the Son’s kenotic self-empying includes His whole life and assumption of and joining with humanity, from conception to the ever abundant age to come, that for us lies ahead, and would contain both the whole assent to sharing our weaknesses but also to each occasion in which He assented to a submitted voluntarily that flesh to damage, harm or hardship. It would seem to be a both/and to me, rather than an either/or

    I also agree with John G above, not only would I say that kenosis and glory are not antithetical, they are in fact identical, God’s self-giving and humility, His nature as a servant is His glory. His Incarnation is the revelation of the Glory of God, the Lord self-giving on the Cross is declared to be where He is glorified, and right in that moment the full human in self-giving, serving, self-sacrificial, infinite love is revealed, there as Pilate prophetically says in ‘behold the man’, the image and likeness is revealed, the human being fully realized, in the context of a damaged world, is the Glory of God. As St Irenaeus said, ‘the Glory of God is Man fully alive’ which in the Son, through His Incarnation (and now and beyond) and there at the Cross is displayed. That self-giving Love is nothing less than God’s nature and His Glory there for all to see when we have the eyes to see it.


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      I would think this has to be clarified – push this too far and without qualifications and God depends on creation for glory (and surely you don’t mean to say that). The divine fullness does not require anything – so what does, if it can, the kenotic economy add?


      • Grant says:

        Hmm, I wouldn’t say it adds anything, nor you are right God doesn’t need creation at all, kenosis is simply God’s nature, the dynamic of the Trinity itself, self-giving Love, the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, and both to the Spirit, which glorifies both in dynamic, abundant love. That love never needs creation for anything, but as God is love, He is Creator, and brings, gives and draws all things into that love. The love is kenotic, both in creation in there being a free creation, in the free-giving to creation, and ultimately in Christ, which God so loves the Cosmos that He gives He only Son, the Son gives of Himself and the Holy Spirit is infinitely and abundantly given and poured out.

        But there is nothing of necessity to God in this other then that of His nature, which is Love, the kenotic love we see is as I see it a revelation of God and His nature (though we grasp it only in a dim finite way) of He who is Love, in the context of the Fall, or as Griffiths says, Devastation, so that self-giving is manifested in the way of the Cross. But this as all is loving grace and revelation for our sake, for creaton’s benefit, not His at all. But as that self-giving love both creates, gives and redeems all creation, and both displays and brings us into that love and life (in our finite capacity) not because of any need in God, but because He is Love, and so Creator and Redeemer, and so draws us into that love always because of Him being Love. He brings us even as creation has fallen into that infinite love to Whose need we are utterly irrelevant and uneeded, and brings all into that Love which eternally self-giving and recieving. So the Cross is the revelation to us of God’s Glory, indeed the whole Incarnation, but not to God to whose glory is always Himself in tge infinite relationship of love that is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which the angels who see cry out with the praise, awe and adoration of ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ which again is for them, not God. So it is for creation, to open our eyes and enter in His Glory, which is entirety for our benefit not His.

        Anyway, that would be my thinking at the moment.

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