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A Glorious Doctrine with a Silly Name: The Extra Calvinisticum and the Gospel

The latest issue of Credo Magazine focuses on Confessions every Christian should read. The following is one of the issue’s featured columns by Samuel G. Parkison. Dr. Parkison is currently raising support for his new post as Professor of Theology at a seminary in the Middle East.

In the incarnation, God reveals his Triune beauty for us in language we can understand. He communicates his astonishing beauty with human language, and with skin and bones, and he does this for our benefit. He does this for our worship. I have devoted a rather significant portion of my life considering this idea of Christ revealing divine beauty for our benefit, but for all my attempts to articulate it, nothing I’ve ever written or said holds a candle to this paragraph from fourth-century church father, Athanasius:

For since human beings, having rejected the contemplation of God and as though sunk in an abyss with their eyes held downwards, seeking God in creation and things perceptible, setting up for themselves mortal humans and demons as gods, for this reason the lover of human beings and the common Savior of all, takes to himself a body and dwells as human among humans and draws to himself the perceptible senses of all human beings, so that those who think that God is in things corporeal might, from what the Lord wrought through the actions of the body, know the truth and through him might consider the Father.[1]

What exactly is he saying? He’s saying that God, recognizing our inability to lift our gaze up from the created order to heaven, came down from heaven to the created order to stand at our eye level. He’s saying, “Since human beings couldn’t seem to stop worshiping creation instead of the Creator, the Creator became a creature to accommodate their limitations!” This is what I do when I need to get my son’s attention while he is preoccupied with making a mess all over the floor: I drop down to the ground. I stoop to bring myself to his eye level.God, recognizing our inability to lift our gaze up from the created order to heaven, came down from heaven to the created order to stand at our eye level. Click To Tweet

That’s what God does for us in the incarnation: he stoops and makes himself available. In this way, he becomes intelligible enough for us to worship him. We can identify this human being—Jesus Christ, the most beautiful human being ever to exist—as the central object of our worship and offer all of our praise to him without the fear of dishonoring God precisely because he is no mere human: he himself is God. He has become man in order to accommodate our limitations in worship. We couldn’t reach up onto the top shelf to get God, so God places himself on the bottom shelf—right within our reach—in the person of Jesus Christ, the carpenter from Nazareth.

“Without Ceasing to Be God”

It is precisely at this point, however, that many well-meaning evangelicals go astray. For they often miss the very central point that while, in the incarnation, God the Son brings himself down to the bottom shelf in one sense, there is another sense in which he stays right where he is. Every Christian agrees that the incarnation—with its doctrinal emphasis on Christ’s two natures, one human and one divine, united in one person—is one of Christianity’s central mysteries. But often, this mystery is neglected for the sake of rhetorical convenience. “Christ was so generous he left behind his divine attributes,” is how this point typically appears. And to be fair, it sounds attractive on the surface. Isn’t this how Christ “sympathizes with our weaknesses” (cf., Heb. 4:15)? Doesn’t he sympathize with our weakness by giving up his divine strength? As shocking as it may sound, I want to say no.Christ's “self-emptying” is a subtraction by addition! Click To Tweet

Some might object to a very important section of Scripture that appears to make the very point I intend to reject, however. This passage is Philippians 2:4-8, which says, among other things, that Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant, being born in likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” There you have it! What else could his “self-emptying” mean but a relinquishing of his divine attributes or divine prerogatives? But the issue is not as simple as that. For one thing, the central phrase of this passage does not provide its own direct object. Christ “empties himself” … of what? To assume that the answer to this question is, “his divine attributes,” or “his divine prerogatives,” is a bridge too far. The passage simply doesn’t make that point. Instead, we see a grammatical tangle, that very intentionally keeps Christ “in the form of God”—wherein he “did not need to grasp for equality with God” because he already had it—and yet, while being in the form of God, he “self-empties.” Paul is very careful with his language precisely to bring us to the very limitations of language itself. Again, we would expect this verb “self-empties” to have a direct object explicitly stated. Instead, we have to look for the direct object from within the context, and the direct object turns out to be a grammatical paradox—which is fitting, given how mysterious the incarnation is. Christ empties himself, not by giving anything up, but specifically by “taking on the form of a servant.” The way Christ “empties himself” is not actually by emptying—how our self-emptying would necessarily work—rather, Christ “empties himself” precisely by adding to himself a human nature: his “self-emptying” is a subtraction by addition!

So, no, Philippians 2:4-8 (and other similar passages) do not teach us that Christ leaves his divine attributes behind when he assumes a human nature. But we can and must reject such a notion not only because it isn’t taught in Scripture, but also because it contradicts important doctrines that are taught in Scripture. Let me conclude this section with two reasons for rejecting the idea that Christ gave up any part of his divine nature or glory in the incarnation.

Chalcedon and the Gospel

First, to say that Christ “gives up his divinity” or “gives up his divine attributes” (or even some of them) in the incarnation is to misunderstand the hypostatic union (i.e., the doctrine that describes how the divine nature and human nature are united in the Person, Jesus Christ). The fifth-century statement on Christology from Chalcedon emphasizes the hypostatic union by describing how Christ is “truly God and truly man.” It goes on to say that Christ is “consubstantial with us according to manhood,” and “begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead.” Lest we think that the church fathers at Chalcedon were teaching two Christs—as if there was a man Christ, and a divine Christ—they go on to confess “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten,”—and here’s where it gets interesting—“to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of the natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son.”Whatever we can say about either of Christ’s nature, we can say truly about the person of Christ, but not everything we can say about one of Christ’s natures can we say about the other. Click To Tweet

Now, I know that’s a mouthful, but it’s very important we get this right. There are not two Christs, one divine and one human. And at the same time, it is not as if Christ is trading one nature for another, which is how we treat the incarnation when we describe it as Christ “leaving behind” (at least part of) his divine nature or status. Rather, “each nature” is “preserved… inconfusedly.” The theological phrase that describes this point precisely is “the communication of idioms” (or, if you like in the Latin, communicatio idiomantum). This concept simply means that whatever we can say about either of Christ’s nature, we can say truly about the person of Christ, but not everything we can say about one of Christ’s natures can we say about the other. For example, can we say that God the Son died on the cross? We’d better! The one person—who exists in two natures—died on the cross. But can we say that Christ’s divine nature died on the cross? We’d better not (more on this in the following chapters)! Jesus Christ, who has a divine nature, truly died, but not according to his divine nature. When some say that Christ “gives up” part of his divine nature or divine attributes in the incarnation, they are confusing his two distinct natures. That’s the first reason we should reject such a conception.

Second, if we say that Christ “gave up” his divine attributes or prerogatives, we actually undermine the gospel itself. To make such an assertion is to strip the incarnation of its benefits. I know this is a stark claim, but hear me out. If the point I attempted to make at the beginning of this essay is true, and Christ reveals the divine nature to us in the incarnation, how could he do that if he “leaves behind” his divine nature or divine attributes in the incarnation? 2 Corinthians 8:9 says that Christ “was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Now, if this means that his self-impoverishment” amounts to him “forsaking his heavenly riches,” what riches are left to offer us in salvation? No, this point from 2 Corinthians 8:9 is making the same point of Philippians 2:7—Christ’s “poverty” and “self-emptying” amount to the addition of his human nature. They don’t constitute the renunciation of his divine attributes or divine nature. If they did, he couldn’t show us the glory of the Trinity—because he can’t show us what he has left behind—he couldn’t make us rich in himself—he can’t enrich us with what he no longer has. This is the mystery of the incarnation: Christ, without ceasing to be God, became man, so that in him, we might become reunited to God. Christ, without ceasing to be rich, became poor, so that in his poverty, we might become rich.

Read the full column here!

[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, ch.15.

Samuel G. Parkison

Samuel G. Parkison (PhD, Midwestern Seminary) is Associate Professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Abu Dhabi Extension Site at Gulf Theological Seminary in the United Arab Emirates. Before coming to GTS, Samuel was assistant professor of Christian studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and pastor of teaching and liturgy at Emmaus Church in Kansas City. He is the author of Revelation and Response: The Why and How of Leading Corporate Worship Through Song (Rainer, 2019), Thinking Christianly: Bringing Sundry Thoughts Captive to Christ (H&E, 2022), and Irresistible Beauty: Beholding Triune Glory in the Face of Jesus Christ (Christian Focus, 2022).

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