God Differs Differently: How Divine Transcendence Makes Possible the God-Man

Docetism, Sabellianism, Subordinationism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism—we know the names of the famous heresies that plagued the Church during the first millen­nium. Perhaps we can even describe them and explain why they were rejected. But what may not be clear in our minds is how each of these heresies represent a failure to properly think the Christian distinction between God and the world. The failure is understandable, even forgivable. It’s not as if one can point to a clear statement of the distinction in the pages of the Holy Scriptures. Clarity only arose as the Church actively proclaimed the gospel to a pagan world whose religious and philosophical convictions needed to be converted by the gospel. The Trinitarian and Christological heresies, in other words, express flawed and incomplete attempts, or non-attempts, to fully Christianize the pagan conceptualization of the divine. Challenging the Church’s interior grasp of the faith, these heresies compelled theologians to seek greater understanding regarding the difference between the real and living God and Hellenistic divinity. We cannot properly think God as Trinity, until we can conceive him as being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit apart from the world he has freely created ex nihilo. We cannot properly think Jesus as true God and true Man, unless we see that the divine nature does not exist on the same plane of existence as that of creaturely beings. The Christian distinction enjoys a fundamental, presuppositional role in theology, informing worship, prayer, liturgy, moral action, and theological reflec­tion in ways we often cannot articulate. The distinction is lived before it is spoken. But spoken it must eventually be, if the apostolic faith is to be faithfully preached and taught. “The Christian distinction between God and the world,” writes Robert Sokolowski, “serves to permit the other Christian mysteries to be thought as mysteries and not as incoher­ences. The Christian understanding of God is necessary to open the space within which the other Christian mysteries can be believed.”1

From the beginning the Church has proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This proclamation raised a host of difficult questions. Is Jesus divine or human or perhaps some hybrid of the two? These questions were addressed by the great councils of the fourth through eighth centuries. In response to the Christological challenges, the Church appealed to her experience of divine transcendence, bringing to verbal expression the ecumenical doctrine of the Incarnation. The formulation of the doctrine in turn brought about a deeper understanding of God himself:

The Council of Chalcedon, and the councils and controversies that led up to it, were concerned with the mystery of Christ, but they also tell us about the God who became incarnate in Christ. They tell us first that God does not destroy the natural necessities of things he becomes involved with, even in the intimate union of the incarnation. What is according to nature, and what reason can disclose in nature, retains its integrity before the Christian God. And second, they tell us that we must think of God as the one who can let natural necessity be maintained and let reason be left intact: that is, God is not himself a competing part of nature or a part of the world. If the incarnation could not take place without a truncation of human nature, it would mean that God was one of the natures in the world that somehow was defined by not being the other natures; it would mean that his presence in one of these other natures, human nature, would involve a conflict and a need to exclude some part of what he is united with. Either God would only seem to have become man, or he would have become united to something less than man and would have become a new kind of being in the world. These are all the ways in which the pagans thought the gods could take on human form or bring about beings that were higher than the race of men but lower than the gods. The reason the pagans could not conceive of anything like the incarnation is that their gods are part of the world, and the union of any two natures in the world is bound to be, in some way, unnatural, because of the otherness that lets one thing be itself only by not being the other. But the Christian God is not a part of the world and is not a “kind” of being at all. Therefore the incarnation is not meaningless or impossible or destructive.2

Kathryn Tanner makes essentially the same point in her book Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity. God, she writes, is “the giver of all good gifts, their fount, luminous source, fecund treasury and storehouse.”3 He creates the world that he might communicate his gifts. At each stage of history, culminating in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and his salvation, God is working for their full bestowal, each stage representing “a greater communication of goodness to the creature and the overcoming of any sinful opposition to these gifts’ distri­bution.”4 The divine bestowal of gifts implies what Tanner describes as an ontological relation of non-competitiveness between God and his creatures. Creator and creature do not, as it were, play on the same field; they are not inhabitants of the same universe. “God is the fecund provider of all that the creature is in itself,” she writes; “the creature in its giftedness, in its goodness, does not compete with God’s gift-fullness and goodness because God is the giver of all that the creature is for the good.”5

If God and his creatures existed on the same plane of being and causality, then a non-competitive relationship would be impossible. The presence and action of God would necessarily interfere with and limit not only the action of the creature but its very being. But when the divine transcendence is understood in its full radicality, no such interference obtains:

God does not give on the same plane of being and activity, as one among other givers and therefore God is not in potential competition (or co-operation) with them. Non-competitiveness among creatures—their co-operation on the same plane of causality—always brings with it the potential for competition: Since I perform part of what needs to be done and you perform the rest, to the extent I act, you need not; and the more I act, the less you need to. Even when we co-operate, therefore, our actions involve a kind of competitive either/or of scope and extent. Unlike this co-operation among creatures, relations with God are utterly non-competitive because God, from beyond this plane of created reality, brings about the whole plane of creaturely being and activity in its goodness. The creature’s receiving from God does not then require its passivity in the world: God’s activity as the giver of ourselves need not come at the expense of our own activity. Instead the creature receives from God its very activity as a good.

With these last remarks I am suggesting a principle of divine tran­scen­dence, which I define more precisely in terms of talk about God that avoids either simple identity or contrast with the qualities of creatures. . . . God is not a kind of thing among other kinds of things; only if God is transcendent in that way does it make sense to think that God can be the giver of all kinds of things and manners of existence; and only on that basis, in turn—God as the giver of all gifts—does it make sense to think of a non-competitive relation between God and creatures.6

As with the Creator/creature relation, so with the relation between the eternal Son and the human nature assumed in the womb of the Virgin. If God existed in a competitive or oppositional relationship with his creatures, then the Incarnation, as classically taught by the Church, would be impossible. This in fact seems to be the assumption of the kenotic christologies that have become increasingly popular among theologians: in order for God to enter the world he has made, he must put aside his divine attributes. “The main problem here,” explains Tanner, “is the sense that God cannot become or be united with what God is not; it seems that characteristics of God are simply opposed to those of human beings—immutability vs. change, simplicity vs. complexity, infinity vs. finitude, etc. Incarnation, understood as becoming something one is not, would seem then to require either the loss of divinity or humanity—substantial change to one or the other.”7 The Church Fathers, on the other hand, while frequently speaking of the marvel of the eternal Son’s kenotic self-emptying, did not see the Incarnation as entailing the temporary abandonment of the divine nature, for no such abandonment is necessary, given the divine transcendence. God assumes human nature in its creaturely integrity. Instead of the either/or of modern kenoticism, patristic theologians expressed their christological convictions in the language of paradox and antinomy.8 God’s union with humanity does not come at the expense of either divinity or humanity, for the divine nature ultimately exists beyond contrast with the created order:

Only what is not a kind—and therefore not bound by the usual differences between natures—can bring together in the most intimate unity divinity and humanity. Because divinity is not a kind, God is not bound by apparent contrasts between divine and creaturely qualities; God is thereby free to enter into intimate community with us, without loss to the divine nature, without sacrificing the difference between God and us. . . .

The distinction between substance and hypostases in the Trinity helps make the same point. The distinction is a way of indicating that the hypostasis of the Word, who becomes incarnate, is not restricted by its own substance or nature. Without loss to itself, it may take on a created nature, a human one. This is possible for the hypostasis of the Word most fundamentally because, again, the divine substance is not defined, as finite substances are, by a nature exclusive of others.

It is the very transcendence of God, then—a transcendence beyond simple contrasts—that enables intimate union with creatures like humans. What makes God different from creatures is also what enables God to be with what is not God rather than shut up in self-enclosed isolation.9

In the words of Henk Schoot: “God differs differently.”10 And it is this difference that makes possible the mystery of the Incarnation.

(7 June 2016; rev.)


[1] Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason, p. 37.

[2] Ibid., pp. 35-36.

[3] Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity (2001), p. 1.

[4] Ibid., p. 2.

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] Ibid., pp. 3-4.

[7] Ibid., p. 10.

[8] See, e.g., Paul Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God (2006).

[9] Tanner, pp. 11-12. Tanner elaborates the non-competitive relationship between God and the world in her book God and Creation in Christian Theology (2004).

[10] Quoted by Tanner, p. 12.

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5 Responses to God Differs Differently: How Divine Transcendence Makes Possible the God-Man

  1. Adam Morton says:

    The trouble is that Tanner, at least in Christ the Key, ends up a Nestorian (though I suspect she has missed this, as she uses the language of hypostatic union). Her understanding of non-competitive agency seems to work out most peculiarly, such that instead of speaking clearly about the man Jesus AS the second person of the Trinity, she instead speaks about the “perfect” (due to the above transcendence, I suppose) unity of the nonhuman second person of the Trinity with the human Jesus.
    Thus she distinguishes not between the two natures of Christ, but between the persons of the Son and Christ (the “perfect human image of the second person of the Trinity”, CtK 13).

    It strikes me that there is something amiss in that account of transcendence and non-competitive agency which sets her down that road. On the one hand, of course we should want to say that God needn’t vacate the field for creatures to be creatures. That must be true. On the other, by her tally any direct confrontation or engagement or indeed embrace between God and creatures appears to be ruled out from the start – a condition so total that one wonders if ‘non-competitive’ isn’t secretly competitive (in the sense of requiring non-interaction, framed as a chasm of separation) all along. What else to make of all (not some, not most) God’s acts coming “from beyond this plane of created reality”? To whom did Mary give birth?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Adam. I took a quick glance this morning at both Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity and Christ the Key. The latter I read several years ago, but the latter I’ve only skimmed and remember nothing about it.

      When I read your comment, your remark that Tanner is a Nestorian did not ring true to me. Upon opening JHT, I note that the pages of the first chapter, “Jesus,” are peppered with my bookdarts, so apparently I read it fairly close. Anyway, from what I can tell, Tanner appears to be thoroughly Chalcedonian. It’s unclear to me whether she leans more to Cyril or Leo, but my guess is the latter.

      I then opened up CK to page 13. We need to remember that in this book she is laying out her understanding of grace and our participation in the life of the Trinity through and in Christ. She is not expositing the hypostatic union per se, having already done that in her earlier book. I quote the controversial passage:

      Christ is the paradigm for this strong sort of imaging through participation. The human being, Jesus, is the image of God in a much stronger sense than any creature, human or otherwise, could ever be on its own, because Christ’s humanity has the divine image for its own through the Word’s assuming or uniting that humanity to itself in becoming incarnate in him. As a result of this hypostatic union of incarnation, perfect human imaging of God is achieved by way of perfect unity with what is perfectly and properly the image of God, the second person of the trinity. In short, through unity with what is not human – the second person of the trinity – the human being, Jesus, is the perfect human image of God. Despite the difference in nature that remains between humanity and the second person, the perfect hypostatic unity of the two of them in Christ makes him the perfect human image of the second person of the trinity in much the way the perfect unity of substance between first and second persons of the trinity makes the second the perfect image of the first. In both cases perfect unity makes for perfect imaging.

      Now I do not see anything in this paragraph that suggests that her Christology violates the Chalcedonian definition. Remember: in this chapter she is laying the Christological groundwork for our union with Christ and our participation in the Trinity.

      But she ain’t no Nestorian. She is not suggesting two distinct hypostases in Christ (the human being Jesus and the eternal Word), at least not as I read her. And don’t let her references to the human being Jesus confuse you. I know that Eastern Orthodox are uncomfortable with this language; indeed, I’m told that there was a big debate among Orthodox theologians about this way of speaking back in the 60s–is it appropriate to speak of Jesus as “a” man–but I have not been able to find any journal articles dedicated to this topic. In any case, it’s precisely this way of speaking that leads me to (very) tentatively place Tanner in the camp of St Leo rather than St Cyril–but I may be completely wrong about that. I suspect that if you were to read chapter 1 of JHT, you’ll get a very different impression of what Tanner is about.

      I’m afraid I do not have any further insight to offer. I’d have to (re)read both books, which isn’t terribly likely at this point in my twilight years. 😎


      • Adam Morton says:

        I’m not just pulling from one section, but it’s very clear in that section. She makes a distinction, founded on an overinterpretation of non-competitive agency, which distinguishes between, in effect, two persons. This bit says it clearly: ” in much the way the perfect unity of substance between first and second persons of the trinity makes the second the perfect image of the first.” The humanity of Jesus can be distinguished from the second person in much the same way that the persons differ from one another. That’s hypostasis, not nature. Quite clearly Nestorian.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Adam, perhaps these two paragraphs from Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity of God will allay your concerns about Tanner’s understanding of the Trinity:

      Rather than simply communicate created goods, the triune God in the incarnation brings about what is other than God yet what is so united with God as to be God’s own. Here is a genuine self-communication of God in the mode of the Son, without any distance between the Son and Jesus to be overcome or to provide the possibility of loss. Assumed by the second Person of the Trinity, the humanity of Jesus is both itself, the creature of God, and the very self-disclosure of the Father’s good will for the world in the Son, the second Person of the Trinity.

      Jesus’ humanity is hypostasized or enhypostatic in the Son of God–Jesus exists in himself only as his humanity is assumed by the Son–in imitation of the way the Son (and the other members of the Trinity) are enhypostatic in the one triune life of God,or hypostatic in and by each other (the Son is itself–hypostatic–only in relation to the Father, that is, the Son is only the Son as the Son of the Father, and the reverse, and so on). But here in the relation between Jesus and the Word there is only one hypostasis, not two–or three as in the Trinity. The human existence of Jesus is, then, the very mode of existence of the Son (and not some distinct one). Thereby Jesus enjoys the same relations with the Father and Spirit as the second Person of the Trinity does. (p. 47)

      This is pure Chalcedonian Christology following the lines of the Tome of Leo. It’s not, perhaps, the way St Cyril would phrase the matter, but that is by the by.


      • Adam Morton says:

        That quotation is indeed Chalcedonian. Unfortunately, I found Christ the Key to be far more problematic, and rather consistently so, if only overtly Nestorian in a few spots. It’s possible that Tanner herself moved around some, or that she said a lot of unfortunate things in CtK that, if confronted with, she might want to phrase very differently. (I suspect she was aiming for Leo, and hit Nestorius in several spots by mistake – but it’s a telling mistake).

        On a root level, however, it’s the absolute exclusion of any confrontation between God and human that has me worried – that doesn’t necessarily end with Nestorius, but it is deeply problematic in terms of interpreting the biblical witness. I’m sure you recall Milbank and Jordan Wood taking issue with some of Rowan Williams’ Christology (and beneath it, elements of his conception of the God-world relationship) in Christ the Heart of Creation – a quite good book, in my estimation, but I share their concerns. There again, the root problem – which doesn’t end with Nestorius, but with Calvin, in Rowan’s case – seems derived from his adoption of Tanner’s account of non-competitive agency. It has become such a commonplace in contemporary theology that it goes nearly unquestioned – but it ought to be questioned, because it’s generating some very strange results. It’s one thing to say that divine action needn’t, and generally doesn’t, compete with human. It’s another to say that it absolutely cannot, ever, and that this one account of divine action must cover the whole of the metaphysically or theologically conceivable. I simply have no idea how to read the stories of the biblical patriarchs in a manner consistent with Tanner.


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