The Doctrine of Christ (part 5)

April 13, 2008     Time: 00:29:37


Craig continues on the Doctrine of Christ (Christology). Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther. The Communication of The Attributes. Kenotic Christology. Essential attributes vs. accidental properties.

Today we want to continue our lesson on the doctrine of the person of Christ. Last time you will remember you saw how the early church fathers in Alexandria and Antioch disagreed with one another over the subject of whether Christ had one single nature after the incarnation or whether he had two natures after the incarnation. We saw that at the Council of Chalcedon the church declared that we should think of Christ as subsisting in two natures, each complete and unadulterated, fully human and fully divine. So Christ is truly God and truly man. This set the boundary markers so to speak, the safe channel, along which Christological speculation could proceed. The Council of Chalcedon did not explain how Christ could be both God and man – how he can be one person in two natures – but it did set effectively the boundary markers for orthodoxy on this issue.

Continuing our historical survey, we want to turn to the contribution of the Protestant Reformation to the subject of the person of Christ. During the Protestant Reformation, the old dispute between Alexandria and Antioch was replayed in the debates between Lutheran and Reformed theologians. This especially came to a peak in their discussions of the Lord’s presence in the Last Supper. Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran denomination named for him, held to the doctrine of Chalcedon and the two natures of Christ united in one person. But Luther also insisted that Christ’s human nature was filled and permeated by the divine nature. Like the Alexandrian theologians, he was fond of using illustrations for this union like the union between the soul and the body in which the body is distinct from the soul but is nevertheless permeated and filled by the soul. Or, again, the iron glowing with heat when it is placed in the fire. The iron which is naturally dark and cold takes on the attributes of the fire as it becomes hot and glowing. In the same way, the human nature of Christ is permeated by the divine nature. Luther notes that “the Bible often so interchanges the words that both are attributed to each nature because of the personal union.” This they call communicatio idiomatum, or to translate from the Latin into English, “the communication of the attributes.” That is to say, the attributes of the divine nature are communicated or transferred over to the human nature, just as the heat and the light of the nature of the fire are communicated to the iron when it is placed in the fire. Luther says, “This they call the communicatio idiomatum. Thus one may say the man Christ is God’s eternal Son. On the other hand, this too may be said: Christ, God’s Son, that is the person who is true God, was conceived and born by the virgin Mary.” So the attributes of the one nature are communicated over to the other.

Luther held that this communication of the attributes was not a verbal exchange merely. It is not just that you could say, for example, that the man Christ is God’s eternal Son. Luther believed that the actual attributes of deity were communicated to Christ’s humanity. This conviction becomes most evident in his doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body with respect to the Lord’s presence in the Last Supper.[1] In case your vocabulary does not yet include the word “ubiquity,” this is a great word to impress your friends and your co-workers when you use it. It basically means omnipresent or everywhere present. If something is ubiquitous that means it is everywhere present. The ubiquity of Christ’s body would be the omnipresence of Christ’s body, and hence Luther held that because Christ’s body is ubiquitous it is really present in the Lord’s Supper.

In contrast to Catholic theologians, Luther did not believe that the bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper are actually changed into the body and blood of Christ, but rather he held that the body and blood of Christ because the attribute of omnipresence is communicated to them from his divine nature are literally everywhere present. The body and blood of Christ are everywhere because they have this attribute of omnipresence communicated to them from the divine nature of Christ. Thus, when one takes the Last Supper, the body and blood of Christ are really present there along with the bread and the wine. So the communicant literally drinks the blood of Christ and chews and swallows the body of Christ in addition to the bread and the wine that are also present. So you see this communication of the attributes was something that wasn't just verbal for Luther. This is a real transfer of the attributes of the divinity to Christ’s human nature.

In so saying, Lutheran Christology seems to violate Chalcedon’s prohibition of confusing the two natures of Christ. Remember that according to the statement of the Council of Chalcedon, the natures are not to be confused with one another. Thus, Luther’s doctrine seems to threaten the reality of Christ’s humanity. Lutheran theologians were certainly zealous to maintain the distinctness of the two natures of Christ, but in all honesty it is very difficult to see how the human nature can really share all of the divine attributes without actually becoming deity. Moreover, Luther never explains how such a communication of the attributes is possible. The illustration of the fire and the iron which is wielded by Lutheran theologians with such enthusiasm is really in the end unhelpful because the fire can only communicate to the iron those properties of the fire which are consistent with the nature of the iron – for example heat and light. But in the same way, we could say the deity or the divine nature of Christ can only communicate to its humanity attributes that would be consistent with its humanity. That is merely to restate the problem of the incarnation: how can the finite and the infinite, the necessary and the contingent, the omnipotent and the limited, the timeless and the temporal be one and be united in the same person?

In the year 1581 the Reformed church published its views on the person of Christ in a doctrinal statement that was designed to reply to the Lutheran statement in the Lutheran Formula of Concord. This is a Reformed document. The Reformed tradition is the tradition out of which Presbyterian churches and Christian Reformed churches come. This is their response to Lutheran doctrine as laid out in the Formula of Concord. In the Reformed statement, the traditional views of the two natures of Christ in one person is clearly set forth. The union of the two natures is declared to be even more intimate than the union between the soul and the body. Nevertheless, the Reformed theologians insist, despite this union, each nature retains its own essential properties even to the extent that there is a two-fold mind in Christ. There is a divine mind which knows everything and is omniscient, has an eternal intuition of all truth, and then there is another mind (a human mind of Christ) which possesses limited knowledge which must infer things from premises to conclusion and does not know everything in an eternal intuition.[2] So on the Reformed view you have actually two minds in Christ, two self-consciousnesses – one human and one divine. Accordingly, there is also a two-fold will and operation in Christ. He has the divine will and the human will, and the human will always follows and submits to the divine will.

Predicates which are ascribed to Christ (such as “Christ is divine” or “Christ lived in Israel during the first century”) are true of his person but can be predicated of his person with respect to one nature alone or with respect to two natures. For example, you could say, “Christ is omnipotent” with respect to his divine nature. Or, “Christ is limited” with respect to his human nature. Or, you could say, “Christ is conscious” with respect to both natures. So these predicates are ascribed to the person of Christ but with reference to one or another or both of his natures.

As for attributes belonging to the divine nature (such as omniscience or omnipresence), the Reformed theologians held that Christ did not manifest these properties openly during his so-called state of humiliation which begins with the incarnation. During his so-called state of humiliation beginning with the incarnation, Christ doesn’t manifest these superlative divine properties like omniscience and omnipresence and so forth. This state of humiliation lasts until the ascension of Christ, and at the ascension begins his state of exaltation. During the state of humiliation lasting from his conception in the womb until the ascension, Christ has these divine attributes but they are in some way hidden. They are not disclosed. But with the state of exaltation then these divine properties are openly disclosed and Christ’s humanity is perfected with all of its infirmities being left behind.

In contrast to the Lutheran doctrine, Reformed Christology clearly preserves the humanity of Christ but the most marked problem with Reformed Christology, I think, is that it tends toward Nestorianism. You will recall from our previous discussion that Nestorianism was the view that there are, in fact, two persons in Christ – the divine person and a human person. In effect, two Sons in Christ. So Nestorianism divided the person of Christ. Similarly, when Reformed Christology speaks of two minds or two wills or two operations of the will in Christ, it is very difficult to understand how one doesn’t wind up with two persons. Two Sons – a human person and a divine person to whom the human person is subordinate. We might also wonder what is meant by the hiddenness of the divine attributes of Christ during his state of humiliation. The emptying that occurred in the incarnation was not an actual abandonment of the attributes. Christ didn’t give up omnipotence or omniscience or omnipresence in becoming incarnation. Rather, this was simply a concealment of the divine attributes, much as the clouds can obscure the sun so that we don’t see the sun’s light even though the sun is there shining all the time. Similarly, in the incarnation, this was merely a concealment of Christ’s divine attributes during the state of humiliation.

But if Christ actually continued to possess such divine attributes then how is it that as a human being he did not actually possess them?[3] That, as a human being, Christ was not actually omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. This seems to sharpen even more the charge of Nestorianism because, again, it seems as though we are left with two Christs – one possessing the attributes of deity openly, and the other one merely human and not possessing the attributes of deity. And somehow these are just bolted together like two pieces of wood and no real union of the two is achieved.

The old debate between Alexandria and Antioch was simply replayed, as it were, in the disputes between Lutheran and Reformed theologians. The Lutheran theologians seemed to echo Alexandria and seemed to fall into the same danger of confusing the two natures of Christ. The Reformed theologians echoed the teachings of Antioch and, again, seemed in danger of lapsing into Nestorianism.

During the 19th century, a radical new school of Christological speculation arose in German under the name of Kenoticism or Kenotic Christology. This term derives from the Greek word kenosis which is the word used by Paul in Philippians 2:5 to describe Christ's incarnation as an emptying. Paul says that Christ did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped or held on to, but rather he emptied himself and took on human form in the incarnation. Kenoticism takes its name from this word for “emptying.”

Kenoticism can be thought of as either an extension logically of Lutheran Christology or of Reformed Christology. On the one hand, it takes to simply be a mirror image of the Lutheran doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, only this time instead of the divine attributes being communicated with the human nature, now it is the human attributes which are communicated to the divine nature. On the other hand, it could be thought of as simply a heightening of the Reformed doctrine of the hiddenness of Christ's attributes during the state of humiliation into an actual abandonment of those attributes – an actual positive divestiture of the divine attributes during the state of humiliation. So Kenoticism is the theory that held that in the incarnation Christ ceased to possess certain attributes of deity so that he might become truly human. In the incarnation, Christ gave up attributes like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, timelessness, and so forth. He divested himself of the divine attributes so that he might become a genuine human being. Kenoticism developed in a number of different schools, all attempting to unfold or develop this basic idea.

Kenoticism thus represents an approach to Christology that is non-Chalcedonian. That is to say, it departs decisively from the two-natures doctrine laid down at the Council of Chalcedon because it holds that in becoming incarnate the divine Logos (the second person of the Trinity) changed in his divine nature. You recall that according to Chalcedon the natures of Christ (whether human or divine) are unchanged by their union in the one person, and that they are not to be confused or changed in any way. But in Kenotic Christology, the divine nature of the Logos is changed. The Logos gives up certain of his divine attributes like omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence in order to take on human form.

This fact raises the question as to whether Kenoticism does not, in fact, amount to a denial of the deity of Christ.[4] If Christ gave up his divine attributes in becoming incarnate then did not Christ thereby cease to be God? If he gave up the attributes of deity then how in fact can the incarnate Christ be deity?

D. M. Baillie in his book on Christology asks the following question:

Does Christianity, then, teach that God changed into a Man? . . . That at a certain point of time, God . . . was transformed into a human being for a period of about thirty years? It is hardly necessary to say that the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation means nothing like that. . . . it would be grotesque to suggest that the Incarnation has anything in common with the metamorphoses of ancient pagan mythology . . . the deity and humanity of Christ are not merely successive stages . . . as if He had first been God, then Man, then after the days of His flesh were past, God again, with manhood left behind.[5]

Baillie says Kenoticism, in effect, denies the deity of Christ. It is a kind of reversion to pagan mythology according to which Zeus on occasion would turn himself into a bull or a swan and take on the form of animals. According to Baillie, Kenoticism envisions something similar with the second person of the Trinity – that God turns himself into a human being for a period of about thirty years, and then with the ascension apparently reverts back to being God again. I think Baillie is quite right to say that this is not the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. The doctrine of the incarnation is that Christ is both God and man simultaneously, not that God turned himself into a human being in some way thereby ceasing to be God.

Baillie argues that kenosis holds that since the second person of the Trinity has divested himself of his divine attributes in becoming human he thereby ceased to be divine. If Jesus is in every sense human then the Kenotic theologian seems to be in the position of saying that God metamorphosed himself into a human being, which is absurd.

The question then raised by Kenotic Christology is what are the attributes that are essential to the divine nature? Exactly which attributes go to make up the divine nature? What properties are essential to deity? Baillie, as we've seen, seems to hold that any change in God would be a substantial change. A substantial change would be an essential change. A change in a thing's essential attributes. For example, when a tree is burned up and turned to ashes, it is no longer a tree. That is a substantial or essential change in the tree. It ceases to be a tree and becomes ashes. Or when a tree is made into a chair or furniture, the tree ceases to be a tree and now a new substance begins to exist, namely a chair or a table. Those would be examples of substantial change.

What Baillie seems to hold is that any change in the attributes of the Logos, any change in the properties of deity, will be a substantial change. So if the Logos undergoes change he thereby ceases to be God and can no longer be divine.

I think it is precisely at this point that many Kenoticists would question the traditional doctrine. They would argue, I think, that many of God's most prominent attributes are not, in fact, essential[6] properties of God. Rather, what they would argue is that some of the properties that God possesses are, in fact, contingent properties of God.[7] So if a change in God's contingent properties would be a merely accidental change as opposed to a substantial or essential change. We need to differentiate between essential attributes of deity and merely contingent or accidental attributes or properties of God.

Attributes or properties that are essential to a thing cannot be given up by that thing without undergoing substantial change. Anything that gives up part of its essential properties will cease to be that thing and will undergo a substantial change. But contingent properties are properties that can be given up without undergoing a substantial change. Something that changes in its contingent properties will merely undergo an accidental change and can remain the same thing throughout that process of change. For example, I have the property of having a certain number of hairs on my head. But should I someday go bald and lose my hair, I will still remain Bill Craig despite undergoing that accidental change. Or even more radically – if I were in an accident and lost a leg or lost a limb I could survive that accidental change. Having that limb is not essential to me. I would still be Bill Craig after the amputation because that is merely an accidental change. On the other hand, if I were to give up a property of say “being a human being” then that would be a substantial change and I could not survive such a change. If I were burned up in a fire and turned into ashes, I would no longer be a human being. I would now have undergone a substantial change, or at least I would if I am identical to my body. We don't need to get into body-soul issues there. I am just trying to illustrate the difference between essential properties and contingent properties and substantial change and accidental change.

What Kenotic theologians would claim, I think, is that properties like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, timelessness are not essential properties to God. They are merely contingent properties of God, and God can give up these properties while still remaining God. What they typically argued could not be given up by God would be his moral properties. God's holiness and moral perfection. If Christ were to sin or to be in any way morally flawed then he would not be God. The Kenotic theologians were quite willing to say that Christ (or the Logos) could give up many of these properties such as omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, and so forth, but that he could not undergo a change in his moral character or his moral nature. Therefore, they would dispute Baillie's charge that in giving up these non-essential properties Christ had ceased to be divine.

The question, I think, we have to raise in discussing Kenotic Christology is whether or not such a change in God's nature as they envisioned is a substantial change, or is it merely an accidental change? Can a change as radical as that envisioned by Kenotic theologians be a merely accidental change in God? Or does it in fact amount to a substantial change? If it is a substantial change then Kenoticism is, I think, a sub-Christian doctrine that is more akin to pagan mythology, as Baillie charges, because it would involve Christ ceasing to be divine in becoming incarnate.

That will be one of the questions that we will take up when we meet together next week.[8]



[1] 4:56

[2] 10:11

[3] 15:04

[4] 20:11

[5] D. M. Baillie, God Was In Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), p. 82

[6] Dr. Craig misspeaks here and says “merely contingent” but meant to say “essential.”

[7] 25:03

[8] Total Running Time: 29:37 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)