The Doctrine of Christ (part 6)

April 21, 2008     Time: 00:29:37


Craig continues on the Doctrine of Christ (Christology). A proposed answer to Christological questions posed in this study so far.

Today we are going to explore a proposed answer to the Christological questions that we've been studying over the last few weeks. We've seen how the church from the very beginning wrestled to understand both the deity and the humanity of Christ. We saw that the Council of Chalcedon, as a result of these Christological controversies, laid down the boundary markers for orthodoxy; namely, that in Christ there is one person who exists in two natures. One person in two natures. Any Christological speculation, if it is to avoid the rocks of orthodoxy, must steer a course down this channel marked by those parameters of Chalcedon. We must neither divide the person nor confuse the natures of Christ.

Having reviewed over the last few weeks briefly some of the high points – some of the mountain peaks – of Christological speculation down through the centuries, I'm going to try to begin to formulate a rational coherent doctrine of the person of Christ. Before I do so, let me emphasize that in presenting this I am not claiming that this is what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that Christ is human and divine and that he is one person. But the question is: how can we coherently formulate such a doctrine so as to make this intelligible. In order to do that, we offer a possible model that will affirm in a rational and coherent way the basic standards of orthodoxy – that Christ is one person in two natures. I am not presenting this as the gospel truth, but simply as a model – a possible model – that is consistent with the biblical data and which makes rational sense. This is of apologetic importance in that it will remove any objection to the doctrine of Christianity that says that the notion that Christ is both God and man is an impossible contradiction, that Christianity is incoherent, and therefore cannot be rationally affirmed. In order to defeat that objection, all the Christian defender needs to do is to propose some possible model of the incarnation according to which Christ is both God and man in one person which is a coherent explanation of the doctrine. Whether or not it is true, we cannot presume to say. We cannot dogmatize about this, but we can give a possible and plausible model of the incarnation. And that is enough to defeat objections to the coherence of Christian theism.

Number one, with respect to this model, I want to postulate with the Council of Chalcedon that in Christ there are two natures united in one person. We want to affirm with the Council of Chalcedon that in the incarnation there is one person who exemplifies two distinct and complete natures – a human nature and a divine nature. The model I am going to lay out is along the lines of Chalcedonian orthodoxy – one person with two complete and distinct natures, one human and one divine.

As we look back on this debate, in one sense the Alexandrian theologians were right in postulating a single nature in Christ. That is to say, the individual person, Jesus Christ, has an individual essence which serves to mark him out uniquely and designate just that individual who is Jesus Christ. But when the framers of the statement of Chalcedon affirmed that there are two natures in Christ, they weren't talking about an individual essence that each individual person exemplifies, but rather they were talking about what were called “kind essences” or natures.[1] These would be essences which would mark off natural kinds of things. Anything belonging to that natural kind would have the same nature as any other thing belonging to that kind. For example, according to Aristotle, human beings have the nature “rational animal.” To be a rational animal is to be a human being. This is the nature of humanity. Human beings are animals but they are a special kind of animals, they are rational animals. That is the very nature of what it is to be a human being. Dogs and cats may be animals, but they belong to different natural kinds. A dog is not rational, therefore is not a human being. A cat is not rational, therefore it is not a human being. Angels are rational, but they are not animals and therefore angels belong to different natural kinds. So there are lots of different natural kinds in the world – humans, dogs, cows, pigs, cats, and so forth. These all have different natures which every member of that natural kind possesses.

In affirming that Christ had two natures, the church fathers were stating that Christ had all of the properties that go to constitute humanity and all the properties which go to make up deity. In that sense, he had two natures. Therefore, he belonged to two natural kinds, namely, to the natural kind “God” and to the natural kind “man.” He had a complete man nature, and he had a complete God nature. Therefore he belonged in a sense to two natural kinds of things.

These two natures are distinct in that they don't combine with each other in order to make up a single new natural kind, say a god-man or something like that. They don't combine or fuse together to make up a new natural kind that Christ exemplifies. That would mean that (if that were true) Christ was neither God nor man but some third thing – something that was neither God nor man but was some sort of a strange fusion of humanity and deity. It would also mean that the attributes of humanity would be essential to the Logos – the second person of the Trinity – because Christ is the Logos. He is the second person of the Trinity. So if he had this fusion – this third sort of nature – and that belonged to him then it would follow that the Logos in becoming incarnate had changed in his nature and had ceased to be divine. He was no longer God because he gave up the divine nature and became something else.

Only the divine nature belongs essentially to the Logos. The Logos thus had a divine nature essentially and then took on contingently the human nature. So the Logos – the second person of the Trinity – has these two natures (these two kinds to which he belongs) – the one essentially being God and the other contingently being man. He didn't have to become incarnate; he didn't have to become a man. But he chose to do so. So he has the one kind or nature essentially and the other kind or nature contingently.[2]

Christ's individual essence (referring to the idea of an essence that marks Jesus Christ out as an individual human being) had some of the properties which served to constitute humanity (such as rationality) essentially because God is also essentially rational. But he had some of these properties only contingently, for example, animality (having an animal body). He possessed them only contingently.

What I am arguing here in the first point is that Christ is one person who is the Logos (the second person of the Trinity) and he possesses two distinct natures or kind essences – one essentially and one contingently.

This first point entails a rejection of any form of Kenotic Christology which suggests that in the incarnation the Logos surrendered any attributes which belong to the divine nature. You will remember that Kenotic Christology is the view that in the incarnation Christ surrenders certain attributes so as to become human (he does not possess unchanged a divine nature and then takes on in addition to that a human nature). Rather Kenotic Christology says that the Logos changed in his nature. He somehow gave up certain attributes that were his in the pre-incarnate state and then took on other attributes in order to become a human being.

But if Christ divested himself in the incarnation of any attribute that was essential to deity, it would follow that he thereby ceased to be God. If Christ surrendered any attribute essential to deity in the incarnation, that in becoming incarnate he would cease to be God. That is not only incompatible with the biblical data which ascribes deity to the incarnate Christ, but it would also be, I think, unacceptable with respect to the doctrine of Chalcedon which says that in becoming incarnate Christ is both God and man. The Christian doctrine is not that Christ turned himself into a human being; rather, the Christian doctrine is Christ added to the divine nature that he already had an additional human nature which he has not had from eternity.

On these Kenotic views according to which the Logos surrenders his essential divine attributes, it would be true that after the kenosis, or emptying, (kenosis is the Greek word that means “emptying”) of the divine attributes he would remain the same person that he was before the kenosis but that person would no longer be God. Because one's deity is not determined by the person; it is determined by the nature. So if the person who is the second person of the Trinity divested himself of any divine attributes in becoming incarnate, while he would still be the same person after the incarnation as before, he would no longer be God. He will have given up attributes essential to deity and therefore would have ceased to be God, which is simply not the doctrine of the incarnation.

The Kenoticist might try to avert those problems, as I said last time, by denying that attributes like omnipotence, omniscience, eternality, omnipresence, and so forth are essential to deity. He might say these are merely accidental properties of the second person of the Trinity, and therefore they could have been given up without Christ's ceasing to be God. These attributes are not essential to deity, and therefore if the Logos gives up omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, and so forth then this doesn't mean he ceases to be divine in becoming incarnate.[3]

When you think about it, however, I think that this sort of Christology exacts far too high a price to be acceptable. Just think about it a little bit. What kind of concept of God are you going to be left with if you say that those properties that I've just listed are not essential to God? It would mean that a being could lack those properties and still be God. That is to say, on Kenotic Christology there is a possible world in which a being exists who is no more powerful, no more intelligent, no less limited than, say, Mary Smith and yet would be God, and therefore would be worthy of worship. That surely seems incredible. Surely a being which did not possess those sorts of properties like omnipotence, omnipresence, eternality, and so forth would not be God and would not be worthy of worship. This is far to weak and thin a conception of God to be plausible.

Some contemporary defenders of Kenotic Christology have tried to avoid this objection by saying that God may lack the essential properties of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and so forth, but while he doesn't have those properties he does have essential properties like being-omniscient-except-when-kenotically-incarnate. The hyphens are supposed to indicate that this is all one property. This is one big fancy property. God does not have essentially the property of being omniscient, but he does have the property of being-omniscient-except-when-kenotically-incarnate. Therefore God doesn't give up these attributes. He has attributes like being-omnipotent-except-when-kenotically-incarnate, being-omnipresent-except-when-kenotically-incarnate, being-eternal-except-when-kenotically-incarnate. These fancy hyphenated attributes are essential to God and are never given up because he still has them even when he gives up omniscience, omnipotence, eternality conceived in a simple way.

I think this escape route, however, is really utterly implausible. In the first place, I think it tends to confuse real properties with merely grammatical predicates. Let me give an illustration. Take the property “being human.” That seems to be a real property which certain things possess. Steve has this property of being human; but by contrast this eraser does not possess that property. Neither does this podium. They don't have the property “being human.” But what about the predicate “not-being-a-whale?” If we say that this is a genuine property then this is a property which not only Steve possesses, but this eraser also has the property of not-being-a-whale, and the podium has the property of not-being-a-whale. Yet, this seems utterly implausible. This is not a genuine property that the erasure has, like being-black, being-rectangular, being-a-certain-substance-or-material. This is merely a grammatical predicate that is true when ascribed to the eraser; namely, the eraser is not a whale. That is true when you assign that predicate to the eraser. The eraser is not a whale; similarly the podium is not a whale. But that is not a real property that the eraser possesses. Steve has the real property of being a human, but he doesn't have the real property not-being-a-whale. That is a mere predicate that is true of him.[4] In exactly the same way, these fancy highfalutin', hyphenated properties aren't real properties. These are just predicates masquerading as properties which are supposedly true of the Logos. These are true on Kenotic Christology that the Logos is omniscient except when kenotically incarnate. If these are not real properties then it follows that he does give up the essential properties to deity, namely, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and so forth, and therefore isn't really God even though you can attribute these grammatical predicates to the Logos at any time.

I think this is especially clear when we consider that this escape route from the objection to Kenotic Christology is really quite empty or vacuous when it comes to offering an explanation of how God can become man. In answer to the question “How can God remain God if he gives up the attribute of omniscience?” we are told that it is because he retains the essential property of being-omniscient-except-when-kenotically-incarnate. That doesn't explain anything. That is just to reiterate the mystery to be explained, namely, how God can remain God if he gives up omniscience. Let me give a parallel illustration. Imagine a case in which a human being is said to have given up all of the properties that are incompatible with his becoming an ant. He gives up all of his human properties that are incompatible with his turning into an ant. Yet, it is said that he remains a human being. If we objected that rationality is essential to being human and that therefore in giving up rationality he had ceased to be human, would it be a satisfactory answer to say that only rationality-except-when kenotically-an-ant is essential to being a human and that he retains that property even in his ant state? Even after turning himself into an ant he still has the property of being-rational-except-when-kenotically-an-ant. I think it is very clear that wouldn't explain anything. It would merely reassert the original problem.

So it seems to me that these contrived properties are not really properties at all. They are just predicates masquerading as properties. They are really just assertions to the effect that Christ remains divine even though he gives up omniscience. That is the very question to be explained. That is the very issue under dispute – how can Christ remain divine if he gives up properties like omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, and so forth?

Moreover, it is not clear at all that the problem of the incarnation is solved even by postulating these sort of gerrymandered properties because I think certain divine attributes cannot be temporarily divested in the way that Kenotic theologians imagined. For example, take the attribute of omnipotence – that God is all-powerful. It seems incoherent to say that during the incarnation Christ retained the property of being-omnipotent-except-when-kenotically-incarnate because if he relinquished omnipotence – if he gave up omnipotence in order to become incarnate – but he retained the power to get omnipotence back again then he didn't really, in fact, cease to be omnipotent because omnipotence is a power about what you can do. If Christ had the ability during the incarnation to get omnipotence back again then he still had the ability to do everything that an omnipotent being could do and therefore he really was omnipotent all the time. So you can't really give up omnipotence while retaining the ability to get it back again. You would still be omnipotent. So I don't think it makes sense to say that Christ has the essential property of being-omnipotent-except-when-kenotically-incarnate.[5] He either is or he is not omnipotent. Trying to gerrymander it in this way won't work with omnipotence because omnipotence is merely the ability to do something. If he had the power to get it back again then he still had that ability.

Consider properties of the divine nature like God's necessity – that God exists necessarily. Or his aseity, which is that God exists independently – he is self-existent. Or God's eternity – which is that God exists without beginning and end. He is permanent. What about necessity? Aseity? Eternality? Does it make any sense to say that these sorts of attributes were given up temporarily? I don't think so because by their very nature if you have these properties you have them permanently. If you exist necessarily then you cannot give up that property because you have it forever. If you are self-existent, you can't cease to be self-existent for a time. Or if you are eternal, again, obviously you cannot cease to be eternal for a time. It makes no sense to say that these properties are given up merely temporarily. But if Christ did not give these properties up – if Christ retained these properties during the state of humiliation during the incarnation, as it seems that he must do – then how could Christ die? How could Christ die on the cross if he still retained properties of necessity, aseity, and eternality? It seems to me that one is forced to say that Christ died only in his human nature, and these attributes are preserved in the divine nature. The divine nature of Christ remains necessary, as aseity, and is eternal, but it is the human nature of Christ which dies on the cross. But then if the Kenotic theologian is forced to go that route then why not say that about all of the other attributes as well like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and all the rest? Christ retains those attributes in the divine nature but he does not have them in the human nature. In other words, we have reverted back to Chalcedonian Christology not Kenotic Christology. That is to say, we are affirming that Christ has two complete and unadulterated natures – a divine nature which possesses necessity, aseity, eternality, omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience, and is unchanged in the incarnation. And he has a complete and true human nature which possesses properties like mortality, spatial limitedness, temporality, limited in power, limited in knowledge, and so forth.

So it seems to me that Kenotic Christology is really a non-starter and that we do best to stick with Chalcedonian Christology which says that in Christ there is a single person (the second person of the Trinity – the Logos) who possesses two complete natures – one human and one divine, the divine nature essentially, and the human nature contingently in virtue of the incarnation.

That is step one in our proposed model. Next week we will turn to the second step in which I will try to explain how one person can have two complete natures – one human and one divine.[6]

[1] 5:04

[2] 9:50

[3] 14:58

[4] 20:00

[5] 25:07

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