Seven years ago my good friend Tom Belt launched a series of articles criticizing the kenotic christology of Greg Boyd. I am not well acquainted with Boyd’s writings, but Tom’s article did inspire me to take a look at his article “Did Jesus Have Two Minds?” In this short piece Boyd writes that the christological dogma of Chalcedon is fundamentally incoherent:
To be honest, I have always had trouble rendering this view coherent. It requires us to imagine that Jesus was aware of what was happening with every molecule on every planet in the universe even while he was a zygote in the womb of Mary. And it requires that we imagine this while also affirming that, as a fully human zygote, Jesus was completely devoid of any awareness. Is this a legitimate paradox or an unacceptable contradiction? One could easily argue the latter. If being God means that one is omniscient and that being human means that one is not omniscient, then it seems we are asserting A and not A in claiming Jesus was both. We could argue along the same lines regarding God’s omnipresence and omnipotence. And if this is true, then in asserting that Jesus was a single person who was fully God (and thus fully omniscient) and full human (and thus not fully omniscient), we are asserting nothing, just as when we say “married bachelor” or “round triangle.”
The above represents what has become a not uncommon modern complaint about the Chalcedonian Definition: it’s incoherent because it requires us to believe impossible things. Recall the conversation between Alice and the White Queen:
“Let’s consider your age to begin with—how old are you?”
“I’m seven and a half, exactly.”
“You needn’t say ‘exactly,'” the Queen remarked. “I can believe it without that. Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said, “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Those poor Chalcedonian Fathers. One can imagine them sitting around a table discussing the christological heresies of the day, when suddenly one bright chap, probably one of the Roman legates, comes up with a brilliant idea: “Let’s compose an impossible creed! We’ll formulate it antinomically. It will drive the intellectuals bonkers.” “Bravo,” cried the Fathers, “bravo. Peter has spoken through Leo.” And so the dogma of Chalcedon was invented.
But Boyd prefers a more reasonable telling of the Incarnation and so commends to us kenotic christology:
Briefly stated, the kenotic Christology teaches that the Son of God emptied himself of all the divine attributes that were incompatible with being fully human. That is, he divested himself of the exercise of his omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence to become a genuine human who had limited knowledge, took up limited space, and had limited power. Of course, Jesus never ceased to be God and his divine attributes continued to exist. However, in order to become fully human, the kenotic Christology holds that he temporarily had to relinquish his ability to use these attributes.
The goal of kenotic christology is laudable. It wants to protect the genuine humanity of Jesus. Kenoticism even provides what initially seems to be a plausible mechanism of incarnation—God the divine Son temporarily relinquishes his essential attributes. The second person of the Trinity puts aside his superpowers and lives as a human being under the conditions of finitude and suffering. It makes a great story. In fact, I think we’ve already seen the movie!
Odin strips Thor of his divine powers, including his immortality, and sends him to earth to learn humility. Okay, maybe it’s not quite the same story. Thor’s story is one of banishment and subsequent spiritual enlightenment. The Thunderer is dispossessed of his powers against his will, whereas Jesus consents to his self-emptying. Thor and Jesus become mortal beings, though admittedly Thor still remains quite the warrior, while Jesus ends up dying in agony on a cross.
Kenotic christology seems reasonable and plausible, as it is but an expression of our mythological imagination. It makes sense to us because we know that such things happen with the gods.
The Fathers of Chalcedon may not have had access to comic books or Hollywood cinema; but they knew their pagan mythology inside and out, and they knew that the eternal Creator of the Christian story was essentially different from the divinities depicted in the stories of ancient Greece and Rome. They knew that it was this transcendent and radical difference that made genuine incarnation possible, even though it can only be expressed through antinomy and paradox. Given a proper understanding of transcendent deity, there is no need for the eternal Son to abandon his divine attributes in order to assume human nature and live a genuine human existence. That would be to treat divinity and the world as two competing items alongside each other, as if they inhabited the same logical universe. (The self-emptying of which the Apostle Paul speaks in Phillipians 2, therefore, must be interpreted metaphorically; it cannot be literally true.) William Temple famously stated the incoherence of kenotic christology:
The difficulties are intolerable. What was happening to the rest of the universe during the period of our Lord’s earthly life? To say that the Infant Jesus was from His cradle exercising providential government over it all is certainly monstrous; but to deny this, and yet to say that the Creative Word was so self-emptied as to have no being except in the Infant Jesus, is to assert that for a certain period the world was let loose from the control of the creative Word, and “apart from Him” very nearly everything happened that happened at all during thirty odd years, both on this planet, and throughout the immensities of space. (Christus Veritas, p. 142)
It is because God is transcendent, infinite, self-existent that he can unite himself to human nature and live, suffer, and die as the man Jesus Christ. Indeed, humanity was created precisely for this purpose, as E. L. Mascall observes:
Thus it is, I would maintain, the great strength of Chalcedon that it meets the two demands which, we are repeatedly told, are made by the modern mind upon Christologists, but which the ‘New Christologies’ seem quite incapable of satisfying together, namely, first, the attribution to Jesus of a complete and fully concrete human nature, and secondly an intimate, and not just a remote, involvement of God in the events of the passion and death of Christ. The alternatives to Chalcedon which we are offered give us either an undeniably human Jesus, a ‘man for others’ or even ‘man for God’, but a man whose relation to God is not qualitatively different from that of any other holy man in history, or else, as in the ‘kenotic theories’, they make God the subject of Jesus’ life, but only at the expense of substituting a mutilated or scaled-down divine nature for the genuinely human nature of the Jesus of the Gospels. There is indeed mystery at the heart of the Chalcedonian doctrine, as there is at the heart of the Gospels, but mystery is not absurdity. And everything depends upon the fact which neither Christian thinking nor Christian devotion have found it easy to cling on to, that person, hypostasis, is not a part of nature, not even a tiny and indetectible part, but is its subject. Put in those terms, this seems abstract and technical, and unreasonable to inflict on the simple believer; but it is in fact only what he is declaring by implication every time that he professes his belief in the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, who was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man. And this carries with it an uncompromising and unqualified consequence, that there is no ultimate metaphysical incompatibility between God and manhood, between Creator and his creation.
If the eternal and uncreated Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Very God from Very God, can become the subject of a created nature, conferring upon that nature, in the very act of creating and assuming it, both concrete existence and individual identity, then human nature must have a fundamental openness to God. If, in the words of Quicunque vult, the incarnation took place ‘not by the conversion of Godhead into flesh but by the taking up of manhood into God’, if, that is, manhood is assumed, it must be assumable; ab esse ad posse valet consecutio. This is, of course, a dignity that manhood cannot achieve by its own efforts, it depends for its actualization upon the love and power of God; but God, in bringing it about, is not doing violence to the inherent structure and functioning of human nature but rather bringing them to a fulfilment which they cannot procure for themselves. Still less (if the phrase makes sense in the context) is he overriding a logical impossibility. And all this, we must observe, is true, not because there is no qualitative difference between God and his creation, but because of the precise way in which they are ultimately and metaphysically diverse. For the contrast between divine and created being is that between being that is that is altogether self-existent and being that is altogether dependent on self-existent being. The orientation of created being towards God and its openness to him is the basic ontological fact about it. (Whatever Happened to the Human Mind?, pp. 35-36)
Does that mean, then, that Jesus was omniscient, that he knew everything? Throughout the history of the Church theologians have speculated about the self-consciousness of the historical Christ and the limits of his human knowledge. But that is all that it is—speculation. The Chalcedonian definition does not impose an answer, for it does not seek to explain the mystery of the Incarnation but simply to state it. It certainly does not invite us to imagine a five-year old Jesus as consciously knowing calculus and quantum mechanics, while at the same time learning arithmetic. The Chalcedonian definition was formulated to exclude that kind of confusion and blending. The incarnate Son is not a member of a divine pantheon, not a demigod, neither Thor nor Hercules, neither Achilles, Arjuna, or Percy Jackson. He is the God-man, the Word made flesh.
Yet didn’t Jesus heal the blind, turn water into wine, and still the storm? Who but an omnipotent deity—or at least a being with immense superpowers— could do such things? One might even point to the first chapter of Luke and argue that Jesus was begotten by God, just as Hercules was begotten by Zeus, all the while ignoring the rather obvious fact that the Lukan story pointedly avoids any suggestion of sexual union (see Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah). The docetic turn has always been a temptation, and the best theologians and preachers of the Church have regularly striven against it, even while occasionally succumbing to its allure. So we should not be surprised when we discover that non-Christians believe that we believe that Jesus is a god or demigod.
In 1977 a controversial book was published in Great Britain: The Myth of God Incarnate. I was in seminary at the time and well remember the brouhaha that it caused. Oh the heated and entertaining debates we had in the classroom and refectory! Even Archbishop Michael Ramsey joined in our conversations! The book prompted an illuminating exchange in the New Blackfriar’s Review (subsequently republished in God Matters) between Herbert McCabe and Maurice Wiles, one of the contributors to the volume.
In his initial review of the book, McCabe complains that the Myth of God Incarnate contributors do not understand the significance of the Chalcedonian attribution of a divine and human nature to Christ. They seem to believe that Godhood and creaturehood exist in a competitive relationship: if God were to unite himself to a creature, then the creature must be displaced, just as if I were to push myself into an already over-crowded room, someone would have to leave. Hence authentic incarnation (God truly becoming a human being yet remaining God) is quite impossible. He’s one or the other. At the root of the problem, says McCabe, is a “deficient doctrine of God, and this must be partly due to the authors’ omission of a thousand years of hard Christian thinking on the topic [zing!]” (God Matters, p. 59). McCabe elaborates:
With the idea of God as creator, as source of esse (roughly the being of the thing not just over against a world-without-it, but over against nothing, not even ‘logical space’) comes the idea of God as relevant to things precisely in virtue of transcendence. This God cannot be a Top Person summoned to fill the gaps in the natural order; this God must be at the heart of every being, acting in every action (whether determined or free), continually sustaining her creation over against nothing as a singer sustains her song over against silence—and that too is only a feeble metaphor, for even silence presupposes being.
To begin to grasp the Christian notion of God that was hammered out particularly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is to recognise the crudity and utter irrelevance of Feuerbach’s polarisation of man and God. It may well be the case that the bigger place you give to some non-Christian god the less room is left for man, and vice versa; and interference by the celestial Housemaster may well restrict man’s freedom or compete with him for attention. For the Christian, however, Divinity is creative of man’s freedom, and the more man is himself, the more he is free, the more is the action of God manifest. (pp. 59-60)
Of course Christians do not understand what it means to confess that the eternal Word has assumed human nature in Jesus, just as they do not “understand what it means to say that God created the world or that the consecrated elements are the body and blood of Christ or indeed that God exists or that I am a sinner. The doctrine of the incarnation, like the doctrines of creation or redemption, is not conveying information, it is pointing to a mystery in Jesus” (p. 58).
McCabe then addresses the point upon which we all tend to stumble—namely, the feeling that the doctrine of the Incarnation “ought to tell us what Jesus was like, or what it was like to be Jesus” (p. 58), as if the Chalcedonian Definition is instructing us on what the God-Man must have thought and felt. “Of course it does not,” writes McCabe; “it does not tell us of his life but of the significance of his life. It authorises us to say, for example, because of the life of Jesus, that our God was whipped and spat upon and that God has experienced total failure and death itself (and, incidentally, not to say, as Frances Young carelessly does, that, in Jesus, God ‘bore the pain and the guilt’ of evil” (p. 58).
McCabe provocatively applies his reasoning to the always controversial question: Exactly what did the God-Man know and when did he know it? He acknowledges that extravagant claims about Jesus’ knowledge have been made by theologians in the past (if Jesus is divine, how could he not know all about quantum mechanics?); but while these claims may have seemed appropriate to St John of Damascus and St Thomas Aquinas, they are not necessarily connected to the Chalcedonian dogma. The Incarnation is not a blending or mixing of the divine and union natures but their union in the Second Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity:
People ask, then, did Jesus in Galilee assent to the Chalcedonian definition of himself? And nearly everyone nowadays says: No, he didn’t. He lived in a time before the language of Chalcedon was formulated; he no more accepted this than he accepted Newton’s third law or the theory of surplus value. But what about Jesus’ self-understanding as God? There seems to be an idea that if we once admit (with Chalcedon) that Jesus was divine in Galilee—and hence living not merely in history but in eternity—he must, by the power of his divine nature, have foreseen the propositions of Chalcedon and assented to them. Once again the theological mind boggles. It would have seemed absurd to, for example, to Aquinas, to say that Divinity ever assented to any proposition at all. The idea that Jesus, qua Son of God, constructed some special divinely authorized set of propositions such as the Christian creed is as anthropomorphic as the idea that God has a white beard. Whatever we can mean by speaking of God’s knowledge, we know that it cannot mean that God is well informed, that he assents to a large number of true statements [sorry Richard Swinburne]. Jesus’s knowledge of history, as Son of God, was no difference from the existence of the world; it was not in the same ballgame with what he learnt as man. (pp. 58-59)
Wiles offers a thoughtful response to McCabe’s review, but unfortunately passes over McCabe’s critical claim that divine nature and human nature must not be understood as competitive, mutually exclusive realities, as if they existed on the same metaphysical plane. Jesus might be God or he might be human, but he cannot be both simultaneously. Against all such either/or construals the Council of Chalcedon dogmatically confessed the one Christ, “acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons.”
Wiles does query McCabe’s claim that the incarnational doctrine does not give us information about the historical Jesus, and he asks McCabe to explain why he believes that Jesus is divine. In his reply, McCabe acknowledges that Christianity would be disproved if Jesus had never lived or if historical scholarship could demonstrate that Jesus’ body had “rotted away in Palestine.” But the Chalcedonian confession, he continues, is not vulnerable to this kind of invalidation, “because it does not assert historical facts either about the behaviour of Jesus or about his inmost psychology” (p. 69).
How then does McCabe justify his belief in the divinity of Jesus?
So long as we are asking historical questions about what Jesus was like, we shall, according to the traditional doctrine of the incarnation, come up with answers to the effect that he was a man; not, therefore, an angel or a ‘supernatural visitant’, but a human being like ourselves except in not deceiving himself or playing at being superhuman as we do when we sin. But, of course, we do not simply examine Jesus historically to see what he was like; we listen to him, he established communication and friendship with us, and it is this rapport with Jesus that we explore a different dimension of his existence—rather as when we say that the world is created we are considering a different dimension of it from the one we look at as physicists.
The insight that Jesus is uncreated, that he is divine, is available only to those in whom this rapport is established, to those ‘who have faith in his name’. That is why the Church alone, the community founded on this rapport, is able to pronounce on the divinity of Jesus, as she has done (I would maintain) implicitly in the New Testament (especially in John) and later more explicitly in the conciliar pronouncements. It would, I think, be absurd for a man to say: ‘I’m not a Christian myself, but I do see that Jesus must have been Son of God’.
It is in the contact with the person who is Jesus, in this personal communication between who he is and who I am, that his divinity is revealed in his humanity, not in any way, as it were, [by] clinical, objective examination of him. Any such examination will simply reveal correctly that he is splendidly and vulnerably human….
Perhaps, for the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate, the incarnation, whether true or false, is interesting because it tells us something about Jesus. For me, however, it is interesting because, if true, it tells me something about God. For you [viz., Wiles], I think, the proposition that Jesus is divine might be (though probably isn’t) the conclusion from a scholarly examination of the texts of the New Testament and related documents. I have tried to show why I think that such an examination outside the context of the believing community never could arrive at such a conclusion. (p. 71)
And here is the answer to the question so often put to us by those outside the Christian faith: “Prove to me that Jesus is divine.” We can’t. Such “proof,” such as it is, is only available to those who have heard the summons of the risen Christ, been baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection, and now indwell the eucharistic life of the Church.
(7 February 2014; 28 March 2014–rev.)