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Incarnation or Metamorphosis?

We live in an exciting time of theological retrieval. Our era is marked by a captivating journey of rediscovering ancient truths. For some, this odyssey induces fear—an apprehension rooted in reluctance to admit past errors or a resistance to reevaluate entrenched beliefs. On the other hand, more adventurous minds grapple with the challenge of applying age-old wisdom to contemporary questions.

Divine simplicity and the incarnation are compatible because the incarnation terminates on the person of the Son rather than the nature. Click To Tweet Specifically, the classical Christian doctrine of divine simplicity has undergone a riveting revival; this pillar of classical Christian theism has been among many treasures rediscovered from our rich Christian heritage. Yet, not everyone welcomes its return with open arms. Certain theologians ask, “How can simplicity be true in light of the incarnation? If God is not composed, how can God the Son have two distinct natures? Doesn’t the hypostatic union entail some amount of composition or change in God?”[1] While I wouldn’t fault well-meaning laymen for such questions, it is alarming that scholars who have written volumes on God, the Trinity, and the incarnation would posit such a critique. In reality, it is no wonder that the former are ill-equipped to harmonize such doctrines when the latter have been blind guides. They say where there is a mist in the pulpit, there is a fog in the pew. In this case, the mist is in the library, and has ruined all the books.

In response to this conundrum, we are faced with offering some much-needed clarity: divine simplicity and the incarnation are compatible because the incarnation terminates on the person of the Son rather than the nature. In order to substantiate this claim and cut through the alleged Gordian knot, we will first look at the claims of divine simplicity, then consider the claims of the incarnation, and, finally, seek to harmonize these vital doctrines.

Divine Simplicity

Ironically, the idea that there must be reconciliation between the doctrines of divine simplicity and the incarnation is but a category error. Simplicity concerns the divine nature whereas the incarnation concerns the terminus of the Triune God upon the second person of the Godhead in the assumption of a human nature.

When we talk about simplicity in relation to God, we do not mean that God is easy, basic, or unsophisticated. Instead, we mean that God is not made up of different parts. It is not as if God was a mixture of some goodness, a bit of mercy, a dash of power, a pinch of justice, and so on, like a recipe. God is all of these things and more, all the time. Every aspect of God is, in reality, not even an “aspect” at all. God’s attributes are all the same as His essence; they cannot be separated or changed without affecting who God is.

Some people mistakenly think that one aspect of God, like love, is more important than others. The doctrine of divine simplicity helps us avoid such errors. In everything else except God, there is a difference between a thing’s essence (what makes it what it is) and its existence (that it exists). Simplicity, however, teaches that God does not have this distinction; everything about God is essential to who He is.

To get a bit technical, this means God has no accidental properties. Whereas saying a man who has two legs and two arms could lose one limb without changing the essential truth of being a man, God does not have parts that can be removed without changing who He is. In simpler terms, everything that makes God “God” is crucial and cannot be taken away or altered without changing God Himself. [2]

There is nothing in God that is less than God, and if anything were missing in God, He would cease to be God. When it comes to the divine nature, God’s justice is His eternity, is His love, is His holiness, and so on. What we refer to as “attributes” are but the manifestation of the divine nature as understood by creation. With that said, the doctrine of simplicity is central to helping orient our thoughts about God. Since the Bible is not a systematic theology handbook, we need to make sure that all the data that we gather from God’s Word to formulate conclusions provides a harmonious body of truth. After all, the data of Scripture is self-consistent because God is self-consistent.

With that in mind, you may wonder which biblical texts support the doctrine of simplicity. This truth is not contained in a solitary text. It is a derived doctrine; it is a necessary doctrine based on the truths of other doctrines, and it is necessary for faithful, exegetical harmony. Still, some texts work as establishing principles by which we can deduce the doctrine of simplicity. This truth is similar to the Trinity—it is the necessary implication of a great number of texts.

For example, texts that depict God as not deriving an aspect of Himself from another fall into this category. God does not receive His life from another; He is independent in His being. To be Himself, He cannot depend on what is not Himself. An existence that is composed of parts is an existence that is dependent on those parts, because parts give actuality to the whole. Scripture teaches, however, that no one gives to God. For example, when Scripture speaks of God receiving nothing from man, it often lists a part: God receives no wisdom from man, no counsel from man, and no glory from man that He does not already possess. Since God is self-existent, and does not receive definition or existence from another, He therefore cannot be composed of parts.

We see this a few times in Job. Job 22:3 reads, “Is there any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous, / Or profit if you make your ways perfect?” Even if you made yourself perfect it would not profit God because He is not lacking anything. Continuing to Job 35:7 we see, “If you are righteous, what do you give to Him, / Or what does He receive from your hand?” Even a perfectly righteous person could offer no gain to God.

Christian theologians have consistently affirmed that the Threeness of God—that God is Father, Son, and Spirit—refers to the distinctions of the persons subsisting in the divine essence, not divisions in God. So, there are three distinct persons, not three divisions of essence that when put together make up God. God is not one-third Father, one-third Son, and one-third Spirit. While the persons may be distinct, this does not mean there are divisions (or parts), which is the conclusion of all historic Trinitarian councils and the manifest witness of the Oneness of God (Deut. 6:4). However, how do we reconcile this with the incarnation? Again, the answer comes in properly understanding the different categories of “person” and “nature.”

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Endnotes

[1] For example, “[If] we say that God only appears to change in these contexts, must we also say that God only appears to enter time, that the Son of God only appeared to become man (that is the textbook definition of Docetism), that he only appeared to die on the cross and rise again? . . . It implies that Jesus did not ‘literally’ become man, suffer, and die for us. He was not literally born of a virgin. . . . why is [Scripture] not anthropomorphic when it speaks of God’s changelessness? Why should we believe literally that God is changeless, but not that God literally became flesh in Jesus?” John Frame, “Scholasticism for Evangelicals: Thoughts on All That Is in God by James Dolezal,” November 25, 2017, https://frame-poythress.org/scholasticism-for-evangelicals-thoughts-on-all-that-is-in-god-by-james-dolezal/. Even more overt, “A student inquires if the incarnation requires a change in God, William Lane Craig responds, ‘he keeps all those attributes but he does assume a human nature in addition to the Divine nature he already has.’ He asks isn’t that a change? I am inclined to say yes, but I don’t see that as problematic. I don’t see that as contradicting any of these respects in which the Bible says God is immutable. The second person of the Trinity changed in the sense that at one time he did not have a human nature, and at another time he did have a human nature. To me that is just unobjectionable. I don’t see any problem with that biblically or theologically.” “Doctrine of God (Part 9): God’s Immutability: Reasonable Faith,” Defenders: 3 | Reasonable Faith, accessed March 14, 2024, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-doctrine-of-god-attributes-of-god/doctrine-of-god-part-9.

[2] Portions of this were adapted with permission from, Peter Sammons, The Forgotten Attributes of God: God’s Nature and Why it Matters (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2023), 65–75. This laymen treatment is intended to be an introduction to classical theism and to function as a primer for more important works such as: James Dolezal, All That Is In God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017) and Steven J. Duby, Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2018).

[3] Theodore Beza, The Unity of the Divine Essence and the Three Persons Subsisting in It, Against the Arians’ Homoiousios, Thesis V, OPC, accessed March 14, 2024, https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=787#:~:text=Thesis%20XI.,is%20unbegotten%2C%20begetting%20the%20Son. Also, Richard Muller wrote, “In brief, all of the major trinitarian heresies involved difficulties with the term’s ‘substance’ and ‘person’, specifically, a failure to distinguish them properly.” Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4,: The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 31.

[4] Mike Riccardi, “Pursuing Unity on Triunity,” Pursuing Unity on Triunity | Shepherds Conference | Grace Community Church, accessed March 14, 2024, https://www.gracechurch.org/sermons/20904.

[5] Boethius, Liber de Persona et Duabus Naturis, ch. 3; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 271 v., indexes 4 v. [Paris 1878–90] 64:1345. Also, in a more accessible English version, Boethius, “Contra Eutychen,” in Boethius: Theological Tractates, trans. H.F Stewart, E.K Rand, and S.J Tester, (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1978), 85.

[6] Ibid. For helpful sources see: Roberto Pinzani, ed., The Problem of Universals from Boethius to John of Salisbury, Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History, volume 282 (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[7] Boethius, “Contra Eutychen,” The Theological Tractates, 85.

Peter Sammons

Peter Sammons (PhD, The Master’s Seminary) is the author of Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty: Redeeming a Biblical Doctrine (Kregel, 2022).

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