In Part 1 we argued that a Christ-centered, incarnational approach to understanding God is not a matter of simply reducing divinity to what we see Jesus’ doing. There are clearly attributes we hold to be definitive of divine being which are not derived from any observation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Nobody derives their doctrine of God exclusively in terms of what can be gleaned from observing Jesus, however central and authoritative God’s self-disclosure in Christ is. We also argued that the ‘Christ’ who ought to occupy the place of pre-eminence in shaping our understanding of God is the entirety of Christ’s life as interpreted and applied apostolically throughout the NT and not any single event in Christ’s life. And lastly we recalled that the incarnation begins with Christ’s conception, thus asking any Christology that seeks to understand God in the event of God’s self-disclosure in Christ to do so not only on the basis of the freely chosen actions of a responsible adult, but also on the basis of the less observed and less discussed fact of God’s being fully present and fully divine as a zygote in Mary’s womb.
In Part 2 here we’d like to reflect upon the “life-inherency” of the Son from Jesus’ declaration in Jn 5.26 that “just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” Related passages include “In him was life and the life was the light of men” (Jn 1.4), “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11.25; 14.6), “…this we proclaim concerning the Word of life; the life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1Jn 1:2), and Peter’s declaration to his fellow countrymen that “[they] killed the prince/author of life but God raised him from the dead” (Acts 3.15).
Ought we to think that possession of “life-in-oneself” is self-existent, divine life? That’s precisely our view. Possession of life-in-oneself isn’t the contingent life of created beings but the vitality of God’s own eternal life. The triune God is “the living God.” No one gives the Father this life. He possesses the fullness of his existence in himself. The Son too has this life-in-himself. In spite of possessing created, finite human being, the Son also possesses uncreated, eternal life-in-himself just as the Father does. The former (possession of finite, created life) cannot bring the latter (possession of eternal, divine self-existence) to an end or qualify the vitality of its actuality as eternal, divine, unending, relational, self-existent, etc. Possessing life-in-oneself (just as the Father possesses such life) cannot mean the Son acquires such life-in-himself as a contingent act within the created order. The Prologue (Jn 1.4) clearly attributes life-in-himself to the pre-incarnate Logos constitutive of the relationship between Father and Son. This is why John can say (1Jn 1.2) the Son is “the eternal life who was with the Father and has appeared to us.”
What happens when we consider the debate over the kenotic claim that the Son sets the possession of such life aside in becoming constrained without remainder to the natural limitations of created finitude in Mary’s womb, say, as a zygote? We ask it this way because the debate over kentoicism typically proceeds along lines of asking whether the rational, responsible and benevolent humanity of the adult Jesus can be conceived of as fulfilling “whatever it takes” to be God. But a Christ-centered, incarnational methodology cannot rest with asking the question of just the adult Jesus. The zygote must also qualify. Here the Son is incarnate. Here “whatever it takes” to be divine must obtain. Here, in and as the zygote, the Logos possesses life-in-himself just as the Father possesses life-in-himself.
Not long ago Dwayne discussed these issues with C. Stephen Evans when Evans visited the University of Minnesota on a speaking engagement. He also discussed it with Tom McCall. Both agreed that the essential God-defining benevolence and relational dimension of divinity defined Jesus’ relationship with God. Jesus loved others without fail, he forgave the sinful, he served others and eventually gave his life for us and he related obediently to his Father at all times. And when asked “You agree the incarnation of the Son begins with his conception in Mary’s womb, right?” both heartily agreed, for to suggest otherwise was in effect to deny the incarnation and to embrace Adoptionism. So yes, incarnation begins with conception. But when next asked, “What about the Son as a zygote? Does the zygote, in its created finitude, void of all subjectivity, consciousness and volition, instantiate benevolent relationship?” Evans lowered his gaze , stared at the floor silently for a spell, and finally shook his head and said, “No. There’s no relationship whatsoever between Father and Son at that point.” And when asked about the status of the eternal, God-defining relations in the womb, McCall sat quietly on the phone. After an awkward silence, finally an “Ahh, right…” came back from the other end as McCall (who completed a PhD on kenoticism mind you) apparently for the first time ever stopped to consider incarnate divinity outside the boundaries of Jesus’ adult. conscious, self-reflecting responsible agency and to contemplate instead how the Son might actually be God if all there was to him was the created, embodied finitude of a zygote.
We have no delusions about the popularity of kenoticism within Evangelical churches. It is the reigning Christology after all. If Father and Son agree the Son should just stop relating to one another, take a break from their perichoretic God-defining experience, God just carries on as a functional binaty. “What’s the big deal? You and your wife are still married when one of you is asleep,” is the oft repeated rebuttal. That the Son just ceases personal existence altogether simply poses no problem. But if eternal life is the Son’s life-in-himself, and if the Son possesses this just as the Father does, then on what grounds are we to suppose it even possible for the Son to set aside the living relationship with Father and Spirit whose actual lived vitality is divine, eternal life-in-oneself? On the basis that my wife and I remain a loving, married couple even when she’s asleep and I’m awake? That’s what doing theology has come to?
- First, if the Son possesses life-in-himself and this life as such is not possessed intermittently or contingently but is in the case of the Son as it is with the Father eternal life as self-existent vitality, then Jesus is unlike every other human being in a fundamentally transcendent way even if he is like every other human being at every development stage of his human life. This is just what it means for the Son’s person to be homoousion (‘consubstantial’) with the Father and homoousion with us. It is not human nature as such which is consubstantial with the divine nature as such (as kenoticists suppose).
- Second, one cannot separate having such life-in-oneself from other aspects of being uncreated. We can’t exclude the Son, for example, from other transcendent qualities (of ‘knowing’, ‘relating’, or ‘presence’) shared by the Father. Being the “author of life” is not a part-time job. The idea that the Son can lateral off to the Father and the Spirit the life-giving functions of his life-in-himself is nonsensical.
- Lastly, consider approaching other similar passages that describe God’s life-giving effects and reflect upon them in terms of God’s “life-in-himself” as inhering and active in/through the Son. Genesis’ description of God breathing the breath of life into human being; Jesus’ impartation of the Spirit to his disciples in Jn 20; the exercise of God’s life-giving prerogative in Ps 104 and many other passages; God as the source of “living water” (Jer 2.13; 17.13; Jn 4.10; 7.38; Rev 7.17); and of course (a point we never tire of making), the Son’s universal life-sustaining relationship to all created things (Jn 1.1-4; 1Cor 8.6; Col 1.16-17; Heb 1.3-4).