Books Christology

Of what did the Son of God empty himself in becoming human?

The mystery of the incarnation

Christmas 2016 is now over, and once again we have joyously celebrated one of the great moments of redemptive history, the incarnation. In the memorable words of the apostle John, “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1:14 NRSV). The baby born in Bethlehem was no mere man; he was God (Jn 1:1), and he had always existed “with God” (Jn 1:2). But he became one of us, thereby revealing the Father more clearly and completely than any other means of divine revelation (Jn 1:18).

Though he is God, Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters (Heb 2:11), because he shared our flesh and blood, and he did this “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” ((Heb 2:14). In order to be “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people,” he “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (Heb 2:17).

This is indeed a great mystery. The Definition of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) did not explain the incarnation, but it specified the truths we should affirm, so as to avoid the errors into which we might easily fall, as others before us have done. As Son of God, he was “begotten of the Father before the ages” but, “as regards his manhood, he was begotten of Mary.” This did not result in his being two persons – God and man joined in a mysterious way. Nor did the incarnation entail the coming to be of one person with one unique divine-human nature, because “the characteristics of each nature” are “preserved.” The two natures are not “annulled by the union” in one person, but nor are they “parted or separated into two persons.”

As if the Trinity (one God eternally existing in 3 persons) were not already difficult enough for us to understand, one of those persons took upon himself a second nature. For good reason, the church has long called these “mysteries.” They are not nonsense, and the borders of these doctrines can be drawn, but we can never fully comprehend them. We do well to recite the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon regularly, to keep in mind the truths which must be preserved in our thinking and speaking about God.

“Of making many books there is no end” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes (12:12), and what has happened since then would have boggled his mind. But good books keep being written, and one of them recently came out on the subject of Christology. The Gospel Coalition gave Stephen Wellum’s work, God the Son Incarnate: the Doctrine of Christ, a “2016 book of the year” award in the Bible and Theology category. Donald Macleod, who was professor of systematic theology at the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh for more than 30 years, and author of books on this topic, also gives high praise to Stephen Wellum’s work, God the Son Incarnate: the Doctrine of Christ:

Overall, God the Son Incarnate is quite splendid. It is a stimulating read, and likely to serve as an indispensable resource for years to come. For many, it will be their go-to Christological guide, and deservedly so.

So, I congratulate Steve, and I certainly hope to read his book.

How many wills did the Word incarnate have?

In reading Macleod’s review, I was particularly interested in the discussion of Christ’s “self-emptying.” I agree with Wellum and Macleod that “ontological kenoticism,” is not a valid option for us. We cannot assert that, in becoming human, the Son of God laid aside his “omni-attributes.” Those are essential to the divine nature, and the Son of God gave up none of his divine nature when he added to his person the attributes of human nature.

More worthy of consideration, I think, is ”functional kenoticism,” which posits that, “while the incarnate Son retains his divine attributes, he never (or seldom) uses them” (Macleod). I gather from Macleod that Wellum considers functional kenoticism problematic. I take Macleod to be recapping Wellum’s assessment when he writes regarding functional kenoticism:

The approximation to orthodoxy, however, is overshadowed by the attempt to overcome the problem of logically inconsistent attributes in Christ. It locates the mind (as well as the will) in the person, not the nature; and since he has (or is) but one person, he has but one mind and one will. This is then followed (in the case of some functional kenoticists) by a most peculiar leap: In the incarnation, the Logos becomes a human soul. This seems to secure the humanity of Christ: he has a body and a soul. But he doesn’t have a human soul. Instead, the Logos becomes the soul of the human body of Christ. This looks like a return to 4th-century Apollinarianism and its denial that Christ had a human soul—a very odd development, considering that kenoticism is driven by a concern to defend the real humanity of Christ.

I agree with Wellum and Macleod that we should not revive Apollinarianism, but I do not agree with Christian theologians who assert that the proper response to Apollinarianism is dyothelitism (two wills in Christ), which considers the “will” to be an aspect of nature rather than of personhood. I have come to the conclusion that in our time and culture, we should assert that there is only one will in the incarnate Word (monothelitism). This does not indicate that I reject the decision of the Third Council of Constantinople (680-81), which dealt with this issue and propounded dyothelitism, because I think our differences are terminological rather than conceptual.

The Council was closing the door against what it saw as an attempt by monophysites to sneak their error into the church by a different path. I certainly reject monophysitism, the belief that Christ had only one nature. Christ was one person who had two natures, not a merging of two natures which were “confused and changed” (see Chalcedon) to form one unique nature from the mixture of the two, nor a human nature which only included the body. Monophysitism makes Jesus different in nature from both the eternal Father and humanity, but we can close the door against monophysitism without asserting dyothelitism. Given the way the concept of “will” is understood by people today, to say that Christ had two wills is certain to lead them to Nestorianism, the affirmation of two persons in the incarnate Word. We have to walk a fine line between monophysitism and Nestorianism, and I think that speaking properly in monothelitic terms is a good way to do this.

In Donald Macleod’s own book, he says:

It is clear that there can be no true human nature without the ability to make human choices. Jesus had ordinary human desires, longings, preferences and aspirations. Just as truly, he had human aversions. Under those influences he made decisions and pursued options in the same way as we do ourselves” (The Person of Christ, 179).

This I can certainly affirm, because I see it as another way of stating the fact that Jesus was truly human, while remaining truly divine. But “desires, longings, preferences and aspirations” are not aspects of human nature, nor are they merely bodily, they are activities of the immaterial aspect of a human person. “J. O. Buswell put it aptly when he asserted that the eternal Son, retaining his divine attributes and behavior pattern, “took to himself a human volitional behavior pattern when he took to himself all the essential attributes of human nature” (A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, 54).


I think it is unnecessarily confusing to assert that Jesus had two wills when we come to texts in which God is spoken about and two wills are mentioned. Two texts come most quickly to mind. John 6:38 speaks clearly of two wills: “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” At work are the will of the Father and the will of the Son who came to do the Father’s will. The potential conflict between these two wills is most intense in Gethsemane (Mt 26:39, “not what I want but what you want” NRSV). There again, two wills are spoken about, but I see no benefit in making this a conflict between the human and the divine wills of Jesus. Rather, Jesus is acknowledging the truly terrifying nature of the experience which is approaching: he will stand in the place of sinners and bear the wrath of God against sin. So a tension arose from the Word’s having become flesh so that, in the vulnerability of that flesh he was now subordinating his own human fears in obedience to the Father’s will which was, of course, what he also willed as the Word. There was a struggle within Jesus, but I think it is confusing to speak of it as a struggle between two wills (divine and human) in Jesus himself. Rather it was an interaction between the divine-human will of the Son and the will of the Father.)

The problem with the “2 wills” proposal is the same one that arises in Thomas Morris’s “two minds” theory of the incarnation (The Logic of God Incarnate, 65). Millard Erickson rightly criticizes that proposal because it appears that there were 2 persons when Morris suggests that the divine mind allowed the human mind to have access to it (The Word Became Flesh, 558).

The soul of the Word incarnate, with respect to his two natures

Macleod is troubled by the suggestion of some functional kenoticists that “the Logos becomes the soul of the human body of Christ.” This looks to him “like a return to 4th-century Apollinarianism,” and he sees it as a denial that Christ had a human soul. But he dubs this an “odd development, considering that kenoticism is driven by a concern to defend the real humanity of Christ.” Macleod was fascinated by Wellum’s discussion of evangelical theologians affirming functional kenoticism, since these are Americans whose proposals Macleod had not encountered. Among these, he mentions William Lane Craig, and I think that it would be helpful for us to take a careful look at Craig’s proposal on this point.

At Reasonable Faith, Craig recently posted an article on “The Birth of God,” in which he gives an interesting analysis of the incarnation. In it he sums up the proposal of Bishop Apollinarius (d. ca. 390), explains in what ways it was heretical, and then appropriates an aspect of it in a way that he believes is orthodox. Craig writes:


Apollinarius proposed that in the incarnation God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, took on a human body, so that Jesus Christ had a human body but a divine mind or soul.  God thus came to experience the world through a human body and to suffer in this body, while remaining sinless and infallible in His person.  Christ thus had a divine-human nature and so was both God and man.

The Antiochean theologians attacked Apollinarius’ view on two grounds.  First, they argued that on Apollinarius’ view Christ did not have a complete human nature.  He only had a human body.  But his soul was divine.  Being truly human involves having both a human body and soul.  What distinguishes man from the animals is his rational soul, not his physical body.  The Antiochean theologians therefore charged that on Apollinarius’ view the incarnation amounts to God’s becoming an animal, not a man.  Their second objection was related to the first.  Since the purpose of the incarnation was the salvation of humanity, if Christ did not truly become a man, then salvation was nullified.  The whole rationale behind the incarnation was that by becoming one of us and identifying with his fellow-men Christ could offer his sinless life to God as a sacrificial offering on our behalf.  On the cross Jesus Christ was our substitute; he bore the penalty of sin that we deserved.  Jesus is thus the Savior of all who place their trust in him.  But if Christ was not truly human, then he could not serve as our representative before God, and his suffering was null and void, and there is no salvation.  By denying Christ’s full humanity, Apollinarius undermined salvation through Christ.  For these reasons in the year 377 Apollinarius’ view was condemned as heretical.  The question which remains, I think, is whether Apollinarius’ view is totally bankrupt or whether it did not contain a valuable kernel of truth which is still salvageable. [emphasis supplied]

In response to Apollinarius’ proposal, theologians of Antioch

insisted that in the incarnation Christ had two complete natures, one human and one divine.  They held that God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, in some sense indwelt the human being Jesus from the moment of his conception in Mary’s womb.  One prominent bishop of the Antiochean school named Nestorius therefore objected to Mary’s being called “the God-bearer” because what she bore was the human nature of Christ, not God.  Christ’s human nature included both a human body and soul, which were somehow assumed or possessed by God the Son.

Craig observes that:

The problem with the Antiochean view in the minds of its Alexandrian opponents was that it seemed to imply that there were two persons in Christ.  First, there’s the divine person, the second person of the Trinity, who existed prior to Mary’s miraculous conception.  Second, there’s the human person who was conceived and borne by Mary.  So you seem to have two persons, one human and one divine!  Think of it this way:  a human person is constituted by a body and a soul.  So if Jesus had a complete human nature, including a human body and a human soul, why wouldn’t there be a human person, who began to exist at the moment of his conception and who was then indwelt by God the Son?  But in that case you don’t have a real incarnation, all you have is just a human being indwelt by God.  The hapless Nestorius was therefore branded by his critics as destroying the unity of Christ’s person, and so his view was condemned as heretical in 431.

The dilemma of the early church is clearly placed before us here. On the one hand the Antiochean view seemed to portray the incarnate Word as two persons, one human and one divine. On the other hand, Apollinarius suggested that the incarnate Word was only one person but he had only a human body, not a human soul. Earlier, I cited the church’s solution of this dilemma in the Definition of Chalcedon: Jesus was one person with two natures. In our own time and context, Craig sets out to construct a “logically coherent and biblically faithful account of the incarnation,” which makes sense of the Definition of 451 for Christians today. He does this in three steps, the first of which is: to “affirm with the Council of Chalcedon that Christ is one person who has two natures.” But it is the second step which is of particular interest to us in regard to both (1) the question of whether Jesus had one or two wills, and (2) the question of whether Jesus was human in soul as well as body. Here is Craig’s proposal:

Step 2:  Affirm with Apollinarius that the soul of Jesus Christ was God the  Son.  What Apollinarius rightly saw was that the best way to avoid the Nestorian fallacy of having two persons in Christ is to postulate some common constituent shared by his human nature and his divine nature, so that these two natures overlap, so to speak.  On Apollinarius’ proposal that common constituent was the soul of Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately, Apollinarius apparently didn’t think that Christ possessed a complete human nature, which, as his critics rightly saw, undermined Christ’s humanity and his saving work.

Craig proposes that these shortcomings of Apollinarius’ view are not “irremediable?” He writes:

Recall what human nature is: to be human is to be a rational animal.  Since God doesn’t have a body, He does not have an animal nature.  But God is the ultimate rational mind.  Therefore God the Son already possessed prior to his incarnation rationality and personhood.  Therefore, in taking on a human body God the Son brought to the physical body of Christ precisely those properties which would elevate it from a mere animal nature to a complete human nature, composed of body and rational soul.  The human nature of Christ cannot even exist independently of its union with God the Son; there would just be a corpse or a zombie.  The humanity of Christ comes into being precisely through the union of God the Son with his flesh.  Thus, Christ does have two complete natures after all:  a divine nature, which pre-existed from eternity, and a human nature, which came into being in Mary’s womb in virtue of the union of God the Son with the flesh. [emphasis supplied]

Craig posts that:

This reformulation nullifies the traditional objections to Apollinarianism.  For, first, Christ does have on this view two complete natures, divine and human, including a rational soul and a body [as Chalcedon asserted].  Second, as a result Christ is truly human, and so his death on our behalf is valid.  Notice that Christ is not merely human, since he was also divine, but he was nevertheless truly human and so could stand as our proxy before God, bearing our punishment so that we might be freed.

Craig’s definition of a human being as a “rational animal” doesn’t strike me well, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that “rational” is a referent for all that constitutes humans as persons in the image of God, including a moral conscience and a spiritual capacity for the knowledge of God, not just greater intelligence than other physical creatures. Much more important here is this question: Has Craig effectively avoided Apollinarianism in his own portrait of the incarnation? As I read it, I think not, at this point, but he does better further on.

Here, it sounds to me as though, for Craig, the soul of Jesus is the eternal spiritual being of the Word, unaffected by his incarnation except that it is now embodied. It still appears to be a purely divine soul, though now in psychosomatic harmony with a human body. I am having a hard time hearing the difference, if there is any, from the proposal made by Apollinarius. Craig suggests that his proposal is consonant with Chalcedon because Jesus has a “rational soul” as well as a human body. But Apollinarius was saying that too! I take Chalcedon to be saying something much more robust than Craig suggests. Their concern was that the two-naturehood of Jesus was seriously compromised. In the portrait by Apollinarius, Jesus was a divine soul in a human body. He was both divine and human but he was not fully human, because it appears as though there is nothing about his soul that is also human.

I suggest that we do best to appropriate J. O. Buswell’s definition of a nature as a complex of attributes and so to assert that the Word “took to himself a human volitional behaviour pattern when he took to himself all the essential attributes of human nature” (A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, 54). In this statement of Buswell there is no danger of Apollinarianism. The first Adam was a human being, a living soul whose inanimate aspect was enlivened and humanized by being ensouled with a soul whose nature was human (rather than animal or plant). In becoming the second Adam, the Word, who had been pure soul, takes to himself not only a human body but also adds to his soulish being the attributes of humanity. He is, in his humanity, fully human while remaining fully divine.

It is precisely in this robust humanity that Jesus lives obediently to the Father and lays down his righteous life in our stead, to accomplish our redemption. But difficult questions immediately arise as soon as we read the narrative of Jesus’ life in the Gospels and try to understand how Jesus lived on a daily basis. As the eternal Word, he was omnisicient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, but he was clearly ignorant at times in his humiliation on earth, he was only physically present at one place at a time, and he testified to being completely dependent upon the Father and the Spirit for all that he did. It is in addressing this conundrum that a moderate form of functional kenoticism serves us well.

Since Jesus was God, how are we to understand occasions in the Gospels when Jesus claimed to have limited knowledge or showed other limitations?

It appears from Macleod’s review that Wellum is nervous about assertions by evangelical functional kenoticists that Jesus voluntarily gave up access to the use of his divine attributes. But in reviewing Wellum’s book, Macleod himself asserts that:

while the speculations of functional kenoticism clearly depart from classical Christology, and sometimes border on the absurd, it’s important not to overreact. While it’s true the incarnate Christ continued to use his divine powers, we shouldn’t rush to argue that his miracles were performed by the power of his deity. They were certainly his mighty acts, but they were done through the finger of God, the Holy Spirit—and what they attested wasn’t his divinity but his Messiahship.

Nor should we be hesitant about attributing to the Spirit an extensive ministry in the life of Jesus. After all, the very title “Messiah” reminds us that he came specifically as the Anointed One, and this anointing fully equipped him to offer a sacrifice of perfect obedience in his human nature. We shouldn’t confuse this with the reductionism that portrays Christ as merely a Spirit-filled man. The point is simply that at every step in his journey, the incarnate Son was upheld by God the Father through the Spirit.

Finally, we must not overlook that the incarnation did involve a real kenosis. Some theologians of the strictest Reformed orthodoxy (Scotland’s Hugh Martin, for example) were prepared to define this kenosis in terms of his divine attributes being “in abeyance”—not, of course, in relation to his cosmic functions but in relation to the mediatorial ministry he had to perform as the Messiah: incognito, and in servant form.

I applaud Macleod’s direction here and I have spoken in this way for many years, in explaining how the temptation of Jesus was very real, yet he never yielded to it (Heb 4:15). I  agree with Leon Morris that Jesus’ “sinlessness did not result from some automatic necessity of his nature as much as from his moment-by-moment committal of himself to the Father.  He overcame.  But it was a real victory, over real temptation” (The Lord from Heaven, 61). Although, being God, there is a sense in which Jesus could not sin, because he could not deny himself, he resisted real temptation just as we must do, and he lived his sinless life in the power of the Spirit.

In his book, Macleod makes the helpful observation that when Christ was tempted he was not always aware

at the human level, that the Tempter could never conquer him. . . . To the angels on the balcony (as to theologians in their armchairs) it may have been perfectly clear that Jesus could never sin. To himself, engaging the devil on the road, the outcome may have been far from clear. Never once, as we observe him struggling with temptation, do we see him deriving comfort from the fact of his own impeccability. All that we see is his having recourse to the very same weapons as are available to ourselves: the company of his fellow-believers (Mk 14:33), the word of God (Mt 4:4) and prayer (Mk 14:35). (The Person of Christ, 230).

Interestingly, shortly after Macleod had reviewed Wellum’s book, Wellum wrote a blog post for TGC about “10 Things You Should Know About the Incarnation.” His seventh item is brief, but it has the ring of a functional kenoticism quite like that which we have seen in Macleod:

7. From conception, the Son limited his divine life in such a way that he did not override the limitations of his human nature.

As a result of the incarnation, the divine Son lives as a true man with the normal physical, mental, volitional, and psychological attributes and capacities of original humanity. As the incarnate Son, he experienced the wonder and weaknesses of a completely human life. He grew in wisdom and physical stature (Luke 2:52), experienced tears and joy, and suffered death and a glorious resurrection for his people’s salvation (John 11:33, 35; 19:30; 1 Cor. 15:3–4).

In further affirmation of this moderate functional kenoticism, Craig’s third step elaborating a biblically faithful account of the incarnation sings this same tune, but he elucidates or illustrates it more fully.

Step 3:  Affirm that the divine aspects of Jesus’ personality were largely subliminal during his earthly life.  I suggest that the superhuman elements of Jesus’ person were mainly subconscious.  This suggestion draws upon the insight of depth psychology that there’s much more to a person’s consciousness than what he is aware of.  The whole project of psychoanalysis rests on the fact that some of our behavior is rooted in deep springs of which we are only dimly aware, if at all.  Think of a person suffering from multiple personality disorder.  Here we have a very striking example of the eruption of subliminal facets of an individual’s mind into distinct conscious personalities.  In some cases there’s even a dominant personality who is aware of all the others and who knows what each of them knows but who remains by unknown by them.  Hypnotism also furnishes a vivid demonstration of the reality of the subliminal.  As Charles Harris explains, a person under hypnosis may be told certain facts and then instructed to forget them when he “awakens,” but, writes Harris, “. . . the knowledge is truly in his mind, and shows itself in unmistakable ways, especially by causing him to perform . . . certain actions, which, but for the possession of this knowledge, he would not have performed . . . .”   Many of you may have seen very amusing incidents of this phenomenon featured on the TV Guide channel, like a young man’s being hypnotized to think that a tree is a beautiful girl to whom he wants to propose marriage.  Harris goes on to say,

What is still more extraordinary, a sensitive hypnotic sub­ject may be made both to see and not to see the same object at the same moment.  For example, he may be told not to see a lamp-post, whereupon he becomes (in the ordinary sense) quite unable to see it.  Nevertheless, he does see it, because he avoids it and cannot be induced to precipitate himself against it.

Similarly, during his earthly incarnation God the Son allowed only those facets of His person to be part of Jesus’ waking consciousness which were compatible with typical human experience, while the bulk of His knowledge, like an iceberg beneath the water’s surface, lay submerged in his subconscious.  On the theory I’m proposing Christ is thus one person, but in that person conscious and subconscious elements are differentiated in a theologically significant way.  Unlike Nestorianism my proposal does not imply that there are two persons, anymore than the conscious aspects of your mind and the subconscious aspects of your mind constitute two persons.

Such a theory provides a satisfying account of Jesus as we see him portrayed in the gospels.  In His conscious experience, Jesus grew in knowledge and wisdom, just as a human child does.  One doesn’t have the monstrosity of the baby Jesus lying in the manger all the while contemplating the infinitesimal calculus.  Possessing a typical human consciousness, Jesus had to struggle against fear, weakness, and temptation in order to align his will with the will of his Heavenly Father.  In his conscious experience, Jesus was genuinely tempted, even though he is, in fact, incapable of sin.  The enticements of sin were really felt and couldn’t be blown away like smoke; resisting temptation required spiritual discipline and moral resoluteness on Jesus’ part.  In his waking consciousness, Jesus was actually ignorant of certain facts, though kept from error and often supernaturally illumined by the divine subliminal.  Even though God the Son possesses all knowledge about the world from quantum mechanics to auto mechanics, there’s no reason to think that Jesus of Nazareth would have been able, without recourse to the divine subliminal, to answer questions about such subjects, so low had He stooped in condescending to take on the human condition.  Moreover, in His conscious life, Jesus experienced the whole gamut of human anxieties and felt physical hurt and fatigue.  My proposal also preserves the integrity and sincerity of Jesus’ prayer life, and it explains why Jesus was capable of being perfected through suffering.  He, like us, needed to be dependent upon his Father moment by moment in order to live victoriously in a fallen world and to carry out successfully the mission which the Father had given him.  The agonies in the Garden of Gethsemane were not mere play-acting but represented the genuine struggle of the incarnate Son in His waking consciousness.  All the traditional objections against the God the Son’s being the mind of Christ melt away before this understanding of the Incarnation, for here we have a Jesus who is not only divine but truly shares the human condition as well.

If we read Craig’s statements under his second point in light of this description under the third point, the concerns I expressed above about remnant Apollinarianism are laid to rest. Craig’s description here, of just how the Word operated in the time of his humiliation, portrays a person who is genuinely human in soul as well as in body. In short, I see no reason at this point to reject Craig’s claim that he has avoided the error of Apollinarius. Whether he has actually appropriated something from Apollinarius might be questioned however. In number two we definitely heard aspects of Apollinarius’ proposal, but it was not clear that the error in Apollinarius’ way of speaking had been rejected. If Craig’s own language or description of the soul of the incarnate Word, under # 2, were nuanced to provide ontological support for this functional description, all would be well.

My conclusion

Although we must reject ontological kenoticism, which would entail the Word’s giving up his divinity in order to become human, a moderate functional kenoticism makes best sense of the New Testament’s description of Jesus’ life. For the purposes of doing his work as the second Adam, the Word chose not to access his uniquely divine attributes. Whether Jesus’ supernatural ministry was brought about because the Father gave Jesus access to his own divine powers, or whether it was done in the power of the Spirit, is not something about which we can decide with certainty. I lean to the latter, however, because it undergirds most effectively Christ’s second Adam work as a human being perfectly obedient to the Father and empowered by the Spirit. This perspective describes best, I think, how it is that Jesus serves now as a sympathetic high priest, one who experienced the assaults of the devil far more severely than any of us ever will, but who steadfastly resisted them, being full of the Spirit (Lk 4:1, 14). Though Jesus sympathizes with us when we suffer and are tempted, he never excuses our submission to Satan, which occurs on occasions when we do not avail ourselves of the strength God provides us or of “the way out” (1 Cor 10:13).

When we speak of this functional self-limitation in Chalcedon’s terms of ”one person in two natures,” I agree with Craig that we should reject the dyothelitic language of Constantinople III (681). This does not entail an affirmation of monophysitism (one person in a unique fusion producing one divine-human nature), nor does it entail Apollinarianism (one person in one divine nature), because an unensouled body would not be “human nature.” The eternal Son of God, conceived in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit, added to his person the attributes of humanity in such a way that, though continuing to be only one person, with one will and mind, he now had both the infinitude of divinity and the limitations of humanity. During the time of his humiliation, he never ceased to be divine, but he chose to live in the same dependence upon the Father and the Spirit which should be the experience of all of us descendants of the first Adam. When we are glorified, we will be like Christ in the sense that he was the paradigmatic human after whose image Adam and Eve were created, so we will then be perfectly human, but we will not become divine.

The incarnation is a great mystery, beyond our complete comprehension, but what a glorious truth it is. Without it, none of us would ever have had the joy of salvation and the hope of eternity with God, when he transforms us into the likeness of Christ and puts us in the new earth, once again enjoying access to the tree of life.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

13 replies on “Of what did the Son of God empty himself in becoming human?”

So many mental gymnastics in order to accept a doctrine that was developed from 150 AD to 787 AD, and none are really satisfying, if we are honest with ourselves. Why not just go back to the simple understanding that predated this doctrinal development – the understanding that the apostles and Christ himself had: Unitarian Theology?

That is a strange suggestion, Kirby. I grant that the apostles were not trinitarian when they met Jesus, but they were after Pentecost, when they had personally experienced the distinct activity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It took a while for the church to clearly describe what they had been taught and experienced, but by the time of the Definition of Chalcedon (451), they asserted that their carefully enunciated trinitarianism had been taught by the prophets and by Jesus, and then handed down to them by the Fathers of the church.

And yet, even the Catholic Church, the church which says the Councils are infallible (at least the councils they agree with which is the minority of them), agrees with my assertion, as does this encyclopedia: According to The Encyclopedia of Religion “Theologians today are in agreement that the Hebrew Bible does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity. In the immediate post New Testament period of the Apostolic Fathers no attempt was made to work out the God-Christ (Father-Son) relationship in ontological terms.”

According to The New Catholic Encyclopedia, “The formulation ‘one God in three Persons’ was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. But it is precisely this formulation that has first claim to the title THE TRINITARIAN DOGMA. Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective.” The Apostolic Fathers are those who followed immediately after the apostles and some had the apostles as their teachers.

I don’t think the Encyclopedias are saying anything substantively different than I said, Kirby. My point is that NT writers were speaking of the incarnate Word and the HS in divine terms. Just how it could be that God is One, but that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all worthy of worship is admittedly a “mystery,” and how to describe the doctrine that grows out of these truths took the church a few hundred years to work out. But the worship of the apostles, and their ways of speaking of Jesus and the HS, after Pentecost were clearly not the way OT believers spoke or thought. Nonetheless, as B. B. Warfield said, the OT was “like a room richly furnished but dimly lit.” In the light of new covenant revelation, we see in the OT adumbrations of the triunity of God which could not be seen by those who lacked the light cast upon God’s being by his work in the ongoing acts of redemptive history.

Nobody in the Bible wrote of Jesus being a divine being who shed his divinity and came to earth as a human being. That is latter doctrinal development. In the Apostolic Fathers I have found only one statement to the effect that Jesus was a person before the incarnation, but he was a Subordinationist, as near as I can tell, so would have been a precursor to Arianism, not Trinitarianism. Up until Justyn Martyr in about 150 AD nobody else considered the Logos of John 1:1 to be a person. They all went by the “dictionary definition” of Logos, which is something in someone’s mind, so a plan. IOW, “In the beginning was the Plan of God, and the Plan was toward God, and the Plan was divine.” I explain more fully here:

Encyclopedia: “Theologians today are in agreement that the Hebrew Bible does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity.”

Encyclopedia: “THE TRINITARIAN DOGMA. Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective.”

Terrance Tiessen: “but by the time of the Definition of Chalcedon (451), they asserted that their carefully enunciated trinitarianism had been taught by the prophets and by Jesus, and then handed down to them by the Fathers of the church.”

Do you not see a contradiction here between yourself and these encyclopedias? And then you say that:

“the apostles were not trinitarian when they met Jesus, but they were after Pentecost, when they had personally experienced the distinct activity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Nobody was “trinitarian” in the Bible. You are reading into what they said anachronistically from a trinitarian perspective, a perspective that did not exist until it was developed centuries later.

Why not just learn the Biblical Unitarian theology of Jesus and his apostles so you can view the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the way they did, before hundreds of years of doctrinal development brought us a theology that is contrary to what they believed?

Hi Terry,

Are you arguing that the faculty of will is hypostatic? It seems as though you must be, since you claim that since Jesus is one person he has one will. If that is the case, are there then three wills in the Trinity? And if that is the case, how are the three persons (with three wills) truly one God? Gregory of Nyssa’s argument for the oneness of God is a oneness of energies in creation implies a oneness of nature. How does your view not undermine the historic arguments against Eunomius?

Yes, Jim, you discern rightly that as I use the term “will,” we ought to confess that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each had a will, distinct from that of the other persons, but never acting alone or independently, and certainly never with any disharmony. Each of the divine persons willed to perform his distinctive acts within the divine economy, but since the divine persons can never act alone or separately from the others, in each divine act F, S, and HS will to perform their distinctive personal work in a manner that completely harmonizes with the work willed by the other persons. Only the Father willed to send the Son to become the second Adam and provide redemption for Adam and all of his posterity, and to fill him with the Spirit to ensure the certain effectiveness of his distinctive work. But the Son willed to become incarnate and always to do his Father’s will, until he should finally deliver up the kingdom to the Father.

I have not studied the Eunomian controversy in a while, so I’ll not venture here to describe how my understanding avoids his serious errors. In cases like this, much work must be done to define the use of the terms. Suffice it to say that I regularly confess the Nicene Creed with full consent, and I recite the Definition of Chalcedon regularly to refresh my orthodox affirmation of the Son’s eternal divine being and incarnate work.

Thanks for the reply, Terry. Eunomius of Cyzicus identified the terms “God” and “unoriginate,” thereby implying that only the Father is God because only the Father is unoriginate. All three Cappadocians took him head on, and one of the most famous arguments for the Trinity was made by Gregory of Nyssa in his short treatise “To Ablabius.” In it, he argues that all three persons of the Trinity perform one work in creation. This “one energy” therefore implies one nature. That was his argument for the oneness of God (a oneness of nature) alongside the real existence of three distinct persons. The gist of his argument is standard thinking in both East and West and has been for 1600+ years.

It seems to me that you are arguing for a trinitarian oneness that is not a oneness of nature but a conjunction of wills. Their oneness is not one of ousia but one of energeia. How does such a construction avoid the charge of tritheism except by assertion? As far as I can tell, your understanding of a hypostatic faculty of will undermines the most important historical (and Nicene) argument for divine oneness that exists. You and Gregory of Nyssa can’t both be right here.

Thanks for the reply, Terry. Eunomius of Cyzicus identified “unoriginate” with “God,” thereby arguing only the Father is God because only the Father is unoriginate. All three Cappadocians took him head on, and one of the most famous arguments against him was offered by Gregory of Nyssa in his short treatise “to Ablabius.” In it, he argued for the oneness of nature of God (in conjunction with the real presence of three distinct persons) by demonstrating the singular work of the three persons toward creation that in turn implied one nature. In other words, one energy implied one nature. This is very close to Augustine’s dictum in Latin Christianity that the works of the Trinity ad extra are indivisible. Gregory’s argument has been the standard one for showing the one nature of God in East and West for 1600+ years.

Arguing, as you do, that the faculty of will is hypostatic completely undermines Gregory’s argument. In your view, as I see it, the oneness of God is not natural but volitional; that is, the three persons agree to cooperate and therefore do. There is therefore nothing to guarantee a oneness of nature, and there is no way to guarantee tritheism as impossible. Furthermore, there is no guarantee of the full deity of Christ. The only historical argument to common nature leads through common energy, which necessarily includes a common (natural rather than hypostatic) faculty of will. Gregory’s argument was ingenious because it excluded both tritheism and it’s handmaid, subordinationism, at the same time. If the oneness enjoyed by the three persons is volitional, there is no guarantee Christ is fully God nor is there any guarantee that they all must always act together.

I know you believe in the full deity of Christ and and the oneness of the Godhead. What I am saying is that your theological construct of hypostatic faculty of will is not sufficient to exclude others who may not agree on those points from using it to push a sub-orthodox agenda. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, would love this if they ever caught wind of it. If the faculty of will were indeed hypostatic, the Son would not need to be every bit as God as the Father is to make all the pieces fit together in their world. It is the shared faculty of natural will that is the link to natural divine oneness that we must not surrender.

Thank you, Jim. You described the Eunomian controversy very distinctly and deftly put your finger on the significant danger that lurks in my manner of speaking. Excellent!

My initial response to your concern is as follows: I am aware of the risk of tritheism but am hopeful that I have not fallen into it. What tethers my orthodoxy, I think, is my insistence that, because of the one divine nature, F, S, and HS necessarily and essentially act with one will. The works of God ad extra are unifiedly willed, and it is completely impossible for any person of the Godhead to will independently of the others. It is completely impossible, in particular, that one of them could will to act personally in a way not simultaneously willed by the other two.

It is possible that I’ve leaned too far in my effort to maintain robust personhood. I have frequently posited that the mystery of the Triune Godhead is such that we all tend toward either modalism and tritheism. I grant that I am at greater risk of tritheism than I am of modalism, but what I fear, in our own time and thought world, is that the talk of one divine will heads people toward the modalist cliff.

As we use the term “will” these days, I think it is unhelpful, at best, to say that Jesus’ “not my will but yours,” in the Garden, was a conversation between the human and the divine natures of the incarnate Son. Or, again, when Jesus asserted that he always did the will of the Father, it makes little sense to say that he was not speaking as eternal Son of the Eternal Father, but that he referred to an intentional submission of his human nature to his divine nature. Unlike Jesus, we only have one nature, but we do not submit ourselves to God’s will as an act of our human natures in submission to God’s divine nature. We submit personally, acknowledging as human persons that we personally intend to do the will of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My insistence on the natural unity or essential harmony of the willing of the divine persons reminds us that our obedience to the commands of Jesus is necessarily an act of obedience to the Father, whose will directed Jesus’s every action, precisely because F, S, and HS naturally will the same thing, though they will it in the distinct ways inherent in their personal distinction.

The unity of the divine will is thus categorically different from the oneness of mind which Paul urged upon the church. Members of the church are prone to conflict, but such conflict is completely impossible within the inter-relationship of the eternal divine persons.

Thank you, Jim, for both your clear exposition of Gregory’s critique of Eunomius’ position, and for your warning about the risk inherent in my way of speaking. I am not immovable in my current formulation, but I don’t think that it risks tritheism, provided the unity of the will of the Godhead is foundational to the personally distinct exercise of will by the persons within the divine economy.

Hi Terry,

Thanks for the thoughtful and considerate reply.

Of course I agree with you that there is one divine nature, and as such it would be impossible to have a variance of wills among the three divine persons. But doesn’t that language in itself lend more to my assertion that will is a natural faculty than a hypostatic one? I mean, it is by nature rather than by person that the wills of the divine persons cannot be incongruous, correct? Nature is the constraint here, not person.

But if I may press a little further, Gregory argued for a single nature by way of a single energy. You seem to be arguing for a single energy by way of a single nature. Gregory observed (via Scripture, Tradition, and the collective experience of the church) a single will/power toward creation from each of the divine persons and then inferred (on the widely-accepted philosophical grounds of his day) a single divine nature, i.e., one God. His argument provided his grounds for the acceptance of the single divine nature and warded off tritheism.

It seems to me there is nothing built-in to your construct that allows one to “necessarily” believe in the single divine nature. If one grants the single divine nature, then yes, your reasoning is sound, that is, one common volition follows and the persons can never act out of any kind of communal discord. The only other historical argument for the single divine nature that does not employ Gregory’s logic (of which I am aware) requires the use of natural theology that argues for a single, absolutely simple divine essence via the analogy of being. If that is your grounds for holding to the single divine essence, then I can certainly understand you wanting to distance yourself from modalism, because it is very tricky to not be modalistic within the confines of such a construct.

Holding to a natural faculty of will solves all those issues. You all but argue for it yourself in your reply to me. You have a straightforward, historically-valid argument that gives you rational grounds for the single divine nature that does not depend on the dreadful pitfalls of natural theology (think Origen, Arius, Eunomius and yes, Apollinarius and the heretical outcomes of their dependence on natural theological reasoning). That is just one of the reasons I think the faculty of will as a natural property is the best theological route. Thanks again.

Thanks, Jim,

To make progress in formulating my own manner of speaking of the will/s of the divine persons, I’ll need to examine closely Gregory’s argument. I’m confident that I do not substantively differ from his conception of the Trinity, but I’m looking for terminology in which to speak of it that communicates effectively in our own context. Thanks for putting your finger on a critical moment in the church’s Trinitarian discussion which needs my closer attention.

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