The art of divine napping—Part 1

1033There he is — God incarnate. That zygote right there. And the Logos became flesh. We’ve discussed the whole zygote thing before. While debates about divine incarnation in the womb might appear fantastic or as uselessly speculative as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, whether or not God really took the human journey in its entirety certainly bears on the integrity of the incarnation and with it the salvation Christians suppose is therein provided.

One possible line of inquiry which might shed light on recent discussions regarding kenoticism was suggested to me by Dwayne. It asks us to consider what it means for the Son to “have life in himself just as the Father has life in himself” (Jn 5.26; cf. Jn 1.4; 1Jn 1.1-2) and explore what the consequences of this would be for the kenotic claim that this same Son relinquished all attributes not compatible with the natural constraints of a created, embodied human nature. A couple of obvious questions might include:

(a) What would “possessing life in one’s self as the Father possesses life in himself” entail?

(b) Is the answer to (a) instantiable exclusively in terms of the constraints of embodied human nature?

Additionally, an important methodological question might be:

(c) What ought to be the proper order in answering (a) and (b)?

This last question (c) is unavoidably important. We recently finished up discussing Bruce McCormack’s Ch. 10 on Barth & open theism, and we noted McCormack’s complaint that open theists fail to make Christology the proper starting point for their doctrine of God. We are to start, he argues, with Christ and, not stepping outside the event of God’s own self-revelation in Christ, determine our understanding of God from there. Greg Boyd, not a Barthain by any means, is nevertheless equally passionate in advocating for a Christ-centered understanding of divine being. Jesus is God incarnate, and that should provide us a straightforward strategy for knowing just what being God really/essentially amounts to. Whatever supposedly essential divine attributes fail to be instantiated by Christ within the constraints of his embodied human experience can summarily be dismissed as not necessary or definitive of what it means to be God. Greg argues the point:

“If we allow the incarnate and crucified Christ to define God for us while embracing the Kenotic understanding of how the Son became a human, it becomes clear that the only attribute that defines God’s divinity is his love. That is, if Jesus was ‘fully God’ without exercising his omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, then clearly God need not exercise omnipotence, omniscience and/or omnipresence to be God. One might of course argue that God must at least have the potential to exercise these attributes to be God. But it nevertheless remains true that….”

Thus kenoticism follows from a Christ-centered methodology for determining truth about God. If God’s essential attributes are to be understood as instantiated exclusively in terms of the boundaries of Jesus’ human experience, then what you see in Christ is all God is essentially and necessarily, “all that it takes” to be God. And, so the logic goes, since Jesus isn’t omnipresent and omniscient (among other things), these attributes aren’t essential to being divine. What is the only essential, God-defining attribute that can be gleaned from Christ’s life? What nevertheless remains true? Greg explains:

“…it nevertheless remains true that Jesus’ self-emptying entails that the only thing God cannot stop exercising and yet be considered God is his essence-defining love.”

Unfailing love. That and that alone is God’s self-defining essence and necessary actuality. Jesus loves without fail, therefore Jesus is God (never mind for the moment that we also shall one day love without fail without being God). And certainly no Christian wants to say God isn’t personally present in Christ or that God isn’t personally and authoritatively revealed in Christ, or that God doesn’t love without fail, so non-kenoticists like Dwayne and me are in the apparently disadvantaged position of having either to:

Answer (a) (i.e., what “possessing life in one’s self as the Father possesses life in himself”) prior to answering (b) (and thus be guilty of constructing our doctrine of God independently of Christology)

    or

Somehow argue on biblical/Christological grounds that there’s more to the Son’s being divine than there is to the embodied experience of Jesus.

Sleepy God

We take the latter route, in view of which let us offer three suggestions for this Part 1 which have to do with the scope of the Christology at play in (b) and also with the nature of the apostolic testimony regarding God.

First, we’d like to suggest that the ‘Christ’ who ought to occupy the place of pre-eminence in shaping our understanding of God is not simply any single event in Christ’s life described in the gospels (as is the case, for example, with Greg Boyd who via a ‘cruciform hermeneutic’ argues that it is not the entirety of Christ’s incarnate career which finally and authoritatively determines our understanding of God but only the cross), nor Christ’s life as reconstructed on the basis of the gospel accounts only, but rather the entirety of Christ’s life as interpreted and applied apostolically. It is theologically illegitimate to pretend to have access to Christ independent of the whole range of apostolic authority and voice. The voice of the entire New Testament is equally authoritative for Christians in understanding Christ — who he was, what he accomplished, what his life means, in what sense he is God and in what sense he is human.

Second, it seems equally misguided to suppose that a description of Jesus’s life and career by Luke or Matthew is more definitive of our understanding of God than a description of God by, say, Paul which is not explicitly a reflection upon any aspect of Christ’s life. For example, Paul affirms (1Tm 6:16) that God is “immortal and lives in unapproachable light.” Where did Paul get this idea? Certainly not from any observation of the events of Jesus’ actual life. It doesn’t obviously follow from Jesus’ life, or his pre-eminent role in defining our understanding of God, that God should be thought of as immortal. It would seem Paul’s belief in God’s immortality was not derived Christologically but from the wider witness of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is not to say Christ’s life does not in fact render much of Israel’s understanding of God false. But it certainly means our doctrine of God is not simply the end product of looking at Jesus, writing down what we see and calling it ‘all that it takes to be God’.

If we have grounds on statements made by the apostles outside the gospel texts (Eph 2.20) for thinking God to be of a certain nature, then it would seem to follow that the Son, being divine, exemplifies this same nature though incarnate. Point is, statements made in the NT about God which are not obviously Christologically derived nevertheless have implications for what it means for us to say that the “fullness of deity” indwells Christ bodily (Col 2.9).

Third, unless one wishes to advocate an adoptionist Christology in which the Son descends upon or personally assumes an already existing human individual at some point (childhood, adulthood), we must understand incarnation to begin with Jesus’ conception. This means that whatever one wishes to believe God is on the basis of Christology, the scope of that Christology should embrace Jesus not just as a mature adult in responsible relationship with his Father or suffering in love on the cross, but also as a newly conceived zygote. The womb, not the Cross, is the least common denominator which kenoticists are obliged to reduce divinity to.

Problem is zygotes are neither personally consciousness nor self-aware, neither volitional nor relational nor subjects of a benevolent disposition or character — nothing that might fulfill that unfailing choice to love which Boyd supposes is the only necessary self-defining feature of God’s actuality. At this point we don’t wish to argue there are other self-defining features of God’s necessary actuality (although we believe there must be). We simply want to insist that whatever one supposes constitutes God’s self-defining necessary actuality, one must equally hold that the person of the Son instantiates this through the entirety of his incarnate career beginning with being a zygote. If the self-defining essence of divine being is unfailing love, then the Son must instantiate this unfailing love and do so exclusively in terms of a zygote’s created, embodied natural capacities (not just as a mature and responsible adult rationally exercising his freedom). It’s one thing to limit your Christology to the adult Jesus choosing the cross in the garden, or to his mature identity as the Father’s Son asking the Father to forgive them for they know not what they do and so conclude that “full divinity” is just the unfailing disposition to love at cost to one’s self. It is an entirely different thing to account for a zygote’s being divine exclusively in such terms.

Teaser sleepingWhere is the Son qua zygote doing what any of us thinks is necessarily involved in “being God”? Some kenotic answers we’ve met in conversation include, “Well, you’re still a person when you sleep, so the Logos is just sleeping in the womb,” or “You still love your wife when you’re asleep, right?” or “The Father and Spirit just agree to cover for the Logos during his absence.” I guess that must be what’s going on in that zygote there — the eternal Logos, the Father’s own Image, the author of life who possesses life in himself “just as the Father possesses life in himself” is taking a nap while the Father and Spirit cover for him.

In Part 2 we’d like to explore what it means for “the Father to possess life in himself” and then ask what it means to do Christology from this point of view on the assumption that the Son possesses life in himself “just as the father does.”

(Pictures here, here, and here.)

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