Three questions about the Incarnation

  • Questions 132-134, from Paul, United Kingdom

    I have a few questions that I wondered if you could help on.

    Question 132: The Bible tells us that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. How can this be true after the incarnation? When Christ returned to heaven surely he took with him a human nature that wasn’t present in the Godhead before. Doesn’t this suggest a change in God?

    Question 133: During the incarnation, how can God not be affected by the fact that Jesus is not omnipresent and omniscient? Surely this causes problems for the trinity as although God is three in one, we cannot just divide him up and say that only one person of the trinity is affected.

    Question 134:
    In Gethsemane, Christ prays to the Father saying “Yet not what I will but what you will.” But don’t they have the same will?

    The Incarnation has been one of the key areas of Christian inquiry since the earliest Christian writers committed words to paper. Many of the issues raised in these questions have been grappled with over centuries, and in some respects, remain unanswered.

    There are some key elements to comprehending the Christian doctrine of Incarnation which help answer these questions. In terms of question 132, the ascension of Christ does raise questions about change in God’s nature. However, there are some important points to bear in mind.

    The ‘pre-existence of Christ’, before the birth of Jesus, has been a cornerstone of Christin theology since New Testament times. There are references to it in Paul’s letters, especially in Philippians (the ‘hymn of incarnation’ in chapter 2, verses 1-11). In Hebrews, the writer states that God “…has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Chapter 1, verses 2-3) These verses definitely indicate a belief in a ‘pre-existent Christ’.

    In Hebrews chapter 13, verse 8, the writer uses the phrase ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’ to describe Jesus, rather than God. This implies an eternal dimension to the Incarnate Christ, which of course doesn’t have to be a problem, given the Christian emphasis on the eternal nature of God, existing before and outside of time.

    The difficulty in what appears to be a change in God’s nature is therefore caused by the subjective point of view experienced by human beings. If the Incarnation is regarded as a historical fact, then it happened at a singular point in time. So there was a time in human history, before the Incarnation, when Jesus was not incarnate. But that’s only the case when viewed from within time. Outside the linear, time-bound reality human beings experience, the Incarnation is not necessarily a singularity, but a permanent aspect of being.

    To put it simply: from a ‘God’s eye view’ the Incarnation is part of who Christ is, and has been from the very beginning.

    Turning to Question 133, and returning to the verses from Philippians mentioned above, the Incarnation may be understood as a ‘kenosis’ or ‘emptying’. But as with the point regarding change in God, the idea that in the Incarnation, Christ voluntarily surrendered his divinity in order to become fully human, does not necessarily mean an alteration in the eternal nature of God.

    It’s interesting that in studies of the ‘theology of the cross’, much is made of Jesus’ ‘cry of abandonment’ during the crucifixion. This is the moment when both the Son and the Father feel the pain of loss and separation, and in a quasi-mystical way, mortality becomes part of the experience of the immortal God. Because of Jesus’ eternal nature, this one death, which is transferred punishment for sin, takes the place of all human deaths, which are a result of sin.

    This is quite a complicated notion, but again, it does not necessarily imply any change in the underlying nature of God. From an eternal point of view, God is eternally embracing mortality through the Incarnation, and eternally redeeming sinful humans. It’s part of God’s being to be doing that. And the complete Trinity is involved in that process – God the Father experiencing the loss due to mortality, the Son experiencing the Incarnation and death, and the Spirit birthing the process and bringing it full circle in the resurrection of Christ. All three are affected and involved.

    And finally, Question 134 – the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemene and the question of whether Jesus and God had the same will. The relationship of the Trinity is one of mutual interpenetration, so that it appears all three persons act with one will. However, this interchange between the Son and the Father took place during the Incarnation, when the Son was located within time having surrendered complete divinity in order to become a human. It is not inconceivable to imagine that one aspect of Jesus’ ‘kenosis’ was to lose that sense of total unity in thought and deed.

    And yet it’s clear that Jesus claimed to only want to do God’s will (see e.g. John chapter 4, verse 34). In one sense, being divine, it would be impossible for him to do otherwise! Yet still, the fact that he mentioned his desire to do this indicates there was a possibility of not doing it. This is part of the drama of the Incarnation, that Jesus would be tempted to sin, that is go his own way, yet resist temptation to become the ‘second Adam’ (see Romans chapter 5, verses 19-21) and deliver redemption to humanity.

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