The Impassible Passibility of the Kenotic Word

“For Cyril,” writes Fr John McGuckin, “the notion of the Eternal One’s self-emptying (Keno­sis) as outlined in Phil.2.6f. rises to the status of a master theme throughout his thought—to such an extent that the earthly economy of the Word made flesh is often simply referred to as the Kenosis” (Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, p. 189). McGuckin’s interpretation is confirmed in St Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ [UC]. Cyril quotes the famous Christ hymn of Philippians 2 at three different places, and on multiple occasions he cites individual verses from this hymn.

The Alexandrian comfortably speaks of the Word as having become flesh in Jesus Christ; but he notes that it would be “impious and absurd” to presume that the language of becoming signifies genuine change in God. We must understand the manner of speech in a way that is “more fitting and applicable to the unchangeable God” (UC, p. 54). God does not change when he becomes Man. His nature is not affected or altered by the act of embodiment. He does not morph into something else. He does not cease to be the immutable and impassible Deity.

B. If we are to preserve the immutability and unalterability as innate and essential to God, in what sense, then, should we say that the Word has become flesh?

A. The all-wise Paul, steward of His mysteries and sacred minister of the Gospel proclamations, explains this for us when he says, “Let each of you have among yourselves that same mind which was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself assuming the form of a slave, coming in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man he humbled himself becoming obedient even to death, death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8). And indeed, the Only Begotten Word, even though he was God and born from God by nature, the “radiance of the glory, and the exact image of the being” of the one who begot him (Heb 1:3), he it was who became man. He did not change himself into flesh; he did not endure any mixture of blending, or anything else of this kind. But he submitted himself to being emptied and “for the sake of the honor that was set before him he counted the shame as nothing” (Heb 12:2) and did not disdain the poverty of human nature. As God he wished to make that flesh which was held in the grip of sin and death evidently superior to sin and death. He made it his very own, and not soulless as some have said, but rather animated with a rational soul, and thus he restored flesh to what it was in the beginning. He did not consider it beneath him to follow a path congruous to this plan, and so he is said to have undergone a birth like ours, while all the while remaining what he was. He was born of a woman according to the flesh in a wondrous manner, for he is God by nature, as such invisible and incorporeal, and only in this way, in a form like our own, could he be made manifest to earthly creatures. He thought it good to be made man and in his own person to reveal our nature honored in the dignities of the divinity. The same one was at once God and man, and he was “in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7) since even though he was God he was “in the fashion of a man” (Phil 2:8). He was God in an appearance like ours, and the Lord in the form of a slave. This is what we mean when we say that he became flesh, and for the same reasons we affirm that the holy virgin is the Mother of God. (pp. 54-55)

Incarnation, therefore, is not a change in God. Cyril prefers to think of it as the assumption or appropriation of a creaturely mode of existence. Hence it may be described as an act of self-emptying but not in the sense that God abandons his divine prerogatives and properties and thus ceases, even temporarily, to be divine. Just as we must think of the Incarnation as a change but not a change, so we must think of the divine self-emptying as an emptying but not an emptying. Kenosis means that God freely chooses to live as a human being, within the conditions of finitude, materiality, corruption, and mortality. “He made our poverty our own,” writes Cyril, “and we see in Christ the strange and rare paradox of Lordship in servant’s form and divine glory in human abasement” (p. 101).

Note above Cyril’s insistence upon the assumption of the human soul. He has learned from the blunder of Apollinarius of Laodicea, who insisted that the Incarnation of the Word required the substitution of divine consciousness for that of the human mind. Apollinarius could not imagine how Jesus could be one personal reality if he possessed both. There can only be one directive faculty. St Gregory of Nazianzus famously denounced the christology of Apollinarius: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” The whole man is re­deemed in Jesus Christ, not just his physical part. Cyril firmly advanced the Word’s union with the whole of human nature (soul and body), thus defending himself against Nestorian objections that he was only repristinating the Apollinarian heresy.

Yet how is the divine impassibility and immuta­bility not compromised by Cyril’s assertion of the unity of the God-Man? How does this addition of a creaturely mode of existence not alter the di­vine essence? Such is the gravamen of Nestorius against Alexandrian christology. Divinity, he argues, cannot be born, cannot hunger, cannot weep, cannot suffer, cannot die. Cyril, however, refuses to be intimidated by the logic. What God does not and cannot experience in his immutable life, he may experience via hypostatic union. “He suffers in his own flesh, and not in the nature of the Godhead” (p. 130). Cyril will not divorce that which God has joined together in Christ.

Christ was hungry, and tired from the journey. He slept, climbed in a boat, was struck by the servants’ blows, was scourged by Pilate, and was spat on by the soldiers. They pierced his side with a spear, and offered him vinegar mixed with gall. He also tasted death, suffered on the cross, and suffered the other insults of the jews. They would say that all these things are applicable to the man, even though they may be ‘referred’ to the person of the true Son. We believe, however, in one God the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible, and also in one Lord Jesus Christ, his Son. And we refuse to separate off the man Emmanuel as distinct from the Word, for we know that the Word became man like us, and so we say that the selfsame was truly God from God, while humanly he was man from a woman, just as we are. We maintain that because of the intimacy he had with his own flesh, he even suffered its infirmities; he retained the impassibility of his own nature, in so far as he was not only man but the selfsame was also God by nature. And in so far as the body with his very own, so too were the natural and innocent passions of the body, as well as those sufferings inflicted on him by the arrogance of others.

He suffered impassibly, because he did not humble himself in such a way as to be merely like us, rather, as I have said before, he reserved to his own nature its superiority over all these things. But if we say that he passed over into the nature of flesh by some change or transformation of his own nature, then we cannot possibly avoid confessing, even if we wanted to, that this ineffable and divine nature was passible. If, on the other hand, he remained unchanged, even though he became man like us (since it is the special char­acteristic of a heavenly nature to be impassible), then he could make a passible body into his very own by the union, and in that case it would be fitting that he suffers, in so far as the body suffers which is his very own. Nevertheless he himself remains impassible in so far as it is his special characteristic [as God] to be unable to suffer. (Scholia on the Incarnation 35)

In the body and soul he has made his own, the eternal Word genuinely experiences everything that pertains to ordinary human existence, except sin. This assertion of hypostatic union inevitably leads Cyril to the articulation of a paradoxical christology. In fidelity to both a philosophical understanding of deity as transcendent plenitude and the biblical narrative of the Word made flesh, theology must affirm the antinomy of impassible suffering. McGuckin elaborates:

For Cyril, if God is the single personal subject of the incarnation, then when Jesus is said to weep in the Gospels (Jn. 11.35), the christian can rightly con­clude that ‘God wept’. The latter statement is an exegesis in, and recognition of, the deity of Jesus. The same exegesis of other texts, on the same basis, might lead the christian to speak of other sufferings, God’s death on the cross, and so on. Cyril is well aware that this language had a very shocking aspect; its paradoxical nature connotes a transcendence of all suffering. If ‘God’ means ‘to be impassible’ then to speak, for example, of a God who suffers, is simply to say ‘the Impassible is passible’, and that would be nothing more than nonsense-talk. There is only one possible way out of the dilemma thus caused by this language of cross-referencing, and that, as Cyril never tired of repeating, is the realization that the statement ‘God suffered’ is only appar­ently self-contradictory, because the word ‘God’ is being used as a synonym for ‘God-in-the-flesh’, and this crucial qualification is given in the paradox itself, since all christians will, or ought to, admit that suffering, death, sorrow, and suchlike, are inapplicable to ‘God-in-himself’, but no longer inapplicable to God-made-man, in so far as he has appropriated, along with a human body, all that goes to make up a human life, that is soul, intellect, emotion, fragility, even mortality. (p. 191)

The christological thought of the great patriarch may be aphoristically summarized: “The Logos suffered impassibly.” Two centuries earlier, St Melito of Sardis stated the antinomic mystery even more laconically: “The Impassible suffers” (frag. 13). But my favorite remains the words of Charles Wesley: “‘Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!

(17 December 2015)

(Go to “Unicity”)

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22 Responses to The Impassible Passibility of the Kenotic Word

  1. Andrew says:

    “insofar as he has appropriated…all that goes to make up a human life”…what about the potential for Personhood? Is human nature truly human without Personhood?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Andrew, I don’t think we want to specify personhood as a constituent of human nature, one of many constituents, as it were. A person is the acting subject of human nature and its realization (or something like that). Or to put it differently, human nature is enhypostasized as persons. If you can point to something that has a human nature, then there is a person.

      I’ll leave it to Brian Moore to expound. 🙂

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      • eandrewschenk says:

        Thanks,I get lost easily in the discussion to be honest. My feeling is something vital is missing when we conceive of nature without personhood, something left unsettled by the Christological controversies of the early Church.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          But that’s just it – no one, least not the early church, is suggesting to suppose a nature without personhood in re. If it is spoken of such it is only to clarify our thinking in intellectu about the matter.

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          • eandrewschenk says:

            Clarify? Maybe the tragedy, if you will, of the Christological divisions in the Church, is that the participants in the conflict inherited a way of thought which could conceive of nature without having a clear idea of what personhood is. Yes I understand no one does. Maybe that’s the essential difference between revelation and speculation.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Not sure what there is to clarify – the Christian Church by way of the Ecumenical Councils came to think quite clearly about the nature and meaning of person. It’s part and parcel of the fundamentals of Christian theology. A command of the theology of Chalcedon will disabuse notions of ignorance of those whose constituted it.

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  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    Andrew, I don’t think the claim is that the enfleshed God was without personhood. Human nature can only be in, or manifested by, a person.

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    • Andrew says:

      Yes of course, but are human beings complete without personhood? If they are not, then did God assume a human person, a potentiality for personhood intrinsic to the divine nature he assumed? If we say He did not, what does that say about our understanding of the incarnation?

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      • eandrewschenk says:

        Should read human nature he assumed, using my phone here

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        God assumed human nature, not human person (this was clarified in response to Nestorianism). The God-man is one divine person subsisting in two natures and is different from a human being which subsists as one person in one nature.

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        • eandrewschenk says:

          So what God assumed lacks what you and I possess? In other words, our personhood was not in need of salvation?

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Human nature is shared, but not person. God didn’t assume the person Robert, nor Andrew. Let me ask you – who and what is the “you” and “I”, and what do “you and I” possess?

            Liked by 1 person

          • David says:

            I would suggest that personhood is probably not the same thing as person. Indeed, personhood perhaps better maps onto nature/essence. So I, as an acting subject, or person, possesses *human* personhood by virtue of my nature being human. Similarly, God the Father, as acting subject, possesses *divine* personhood by virtue of being divine (I hope that doesn’t sound too analytic for anybody’s tastes). And of course the Son, as acting subject, possesses both divine and human personhoods through his two natures, but that does not make two persons.

            So human personhood – my human nature – is a property of mine that God can take on. Whereas my person is just me, fullstop, and God can no more become me than I can become God.

            Of course that still leaves us with an issue that God has not assumed ‘me’, but I would tend to interpret the ‘that which is not assumed it not saved’ line of thinking as referring to God assuming all types of thing, i.e. natures, rather than literally every single thing (wouldn’t that just be pantheism?)

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            David, then what precisely is the distinction between person and personhood? The distinction must be spelled out and be made very clear to avoid the confusion of blurring or erasing altogether the difference between person and nature. I am not so sure your approach works, or is helpful at any rate. Certainly not the approach Christians have taken over the centuries.

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          • eandrewschenk says:

            Im not sure what “you” and “I” are but I know they are real, and I know they are eternal, potentially. To be honest I’m not quite sure how to thank Christ for redeeming my human nature. But, to paraphrase Archimandrite Sophrony, because Christ is I AM, through Him I AM too. I think he said that the ” I” possesses all other “I’s”

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            I would say Andrew that it is precisely because human nature can subsists only in a person (i.e. human nature without a person does not exist) that God heals and saves a person by way of assuming human nature.

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        • Thomas says:

          > The God-man is one divine person subsisting in two natures and is different from a human being which subsists as one person in one nature.

          This is right on point in terms of Christian doctrine.

          I think the concerns on personhood are alleviated by distinguishing what belongs on the level of nature or form, and what belongs on the level of existence. (Something Robert also quickly pointed to.) Human nature is that in a human being by which they are human. The individual human being is that which actually exists and is human.

          So in the case of Jesus, the divine nature is that by which Jesus is divine, and his human nature is that by which Jesus is human. Jesus the person is the one who is, and who is human and divine. Jesus is not the same as either his human nature or his divine nature. And he is (that is, his person is) eternal, not something that came to be. Nor is he two persons co-operating.

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  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    “You” and “I” denote human persons, each possessing a human nature. All particular instances of human nature are possessed by, subsist in, persons. Because the person Andrew comprises a person and nature, the person and nature cannot be separated one from the other. In an encounter with the person Andrew an encounter with an instance of human nature is also obtained. The inseparability of person and nature, the integral personal unity (hypostatic union) which comprises an instance of human nature possessed by a personal subject, is the basis of Christian soteriology (and not by chance Christology).

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    • Andrew says:

      Thank you for taking the time to explain.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        A very worthwhile topic to consider. The integral unity of the human person stands out as the take-away here. While human nature in reality cannot be separated from person, in considering the mystery of the incarnation, and in all its ramifications for human salvation, distinctions between person and nature have to be made. I can highly recommend reading more about the arguments that led up to the Chalcedonian definition.

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        • eandrewschenk says:

          Thank you, I’d appreciate that. I am sympathetic to Nestorius, for theological reasons not just political ones. It seems like he, and the Antiochian tradition in general, was on to something essential but left ultimately inarticulate because of something missing within the broader culture perhaps. But I am not a theology student, I’m a dabbler trying to “make” my way to the good God, so id love a solid recommendation of the philosophical background leading to Chalcedon. Thanks!

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        • eandrewschenk says:

          Or maybe you were saying “go forth and study!” In either case, thanks

          Liked by 1 person

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