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.
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.
A Glorious Doctrine with a Silly Name
This is all a way of affirming a very important doctrine with a very unfortunate name: the extra calvinisticum. It’s named after John Calvin, and it is unfortunately named because John Calvin didn’t come up with it. To Calvin’s credit, he did express it in one of the loveliest ways in all Christian history: “The Son of God descended miraculously from heaven, yet without abandoning heaven; was pleased to be conceived miraculously in the Virgin’s womb, to live on the earth, and hang upon the cross, and yet always filled the world as from the beginning.” But over a millennium before Calvin wrote those beautiful words, the 4th-century church father, Athanasius, wrote this:
For he was not enclosed in the body, nor was he in the body but not elsewhere. Nor while he moved that [body] was the universe left void of his activity and providence. But, what is most marvelous, being the Word, he was not contained by anyone, but rather himself contained everything. And, as being in all creation, he is in essence outside of everything by his own power, arranging everything and unfolding his own providence in everything to all things, and giving life to each thing and to all things together, containing the universe and not being contained, but being wholly, in every respect, in his own Father alone. So also, being in the human body, and himself giving it life, he properly gives life to the universe also, and was both in everything and outside of all.
This seems to be a necessary implication from various New Testament passages. For example, in Colossians 1:15–18 and Hebrews 1:1–3, the Son of God is credited not only for the origin of the created universe but also its continual maintenance (“. . . and in him all things hold together” Col 1:17b; “. . . and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” Heb 1:2b). If this is true at any point of creation’s existence, it is true for every point, including those days in which the earth enjoyed the physical presence of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. To be the cosmos is to be upheld by the eternal Son of God.To be the cosmos is to be upheld by the eternal Son of God. Click To Tweet
I know I may be overly redundant here, but let me try to make the point by posing and answering three questions. Question 1: “Who upheld the cosmos before the incarnation?” Question 2: “Who upheld the cosmos during Christ’s earthly pilgrimage two thousand years ago?” Question 3: “Who upholds the cosmos right now?” Astonishingly, the answer to all three of those questions is exactly the same: God the Son. Jesus upheld the cosmos before and after the incarnation in his divine nature. The one Triune God—who subsists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—wills and acts and operates inseparably as one God. There is no exception to this rule, even during the incarnation, which means the beautiful human who dwells among us in the incarnation reveals divine Beauty to us precisely because he is divine Beauty. The same person who grew and changed in his human nature remains immutable and timelessly eternal in his divine nature. He can reveal the Trinity’s beauty to us precisely because that beauty is his.
And lest you assume that my tone here is one of a typical theologian, stuck on a personal hobby-horse and elevating the importance of an obscure doctrine past its proper height, we should reckon with the fact that this doctrine is apparently important enough to be codified in confessional form. When the reformer Zacharias Ursinus penned the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563 (which was a teaching tool chiefly for children and new believers), we can be certain that he was not motivated by a fixation with tertiary topics. The purpose of a catechism like the Heidelberg Catechism is to instruct young and new believers on the essentials of Christianity. Only the most important topics make the cut. When traditions and denominations adopt a catechism, like numerous traditions have done with the Heidelberg Catechism, they thereby make a statement about what they consider to be central and non-negotiable doctrines. So, when we come across questions 47 and 48 of the Heidelberg Catechism, we shouldn’t dismiss them as unimportant idiosyncrasies. After affirming Christ’s bodily ascension in question 46, the next two questions and answers read thus:
Question 47: But isn’t Christ with us until the end of the world as he promised us?
Answer: Christ is true man and true God. In his human nature Christ is not now on earth; but in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit he is never absent from us.
Question 48: If his humanity is not present wherever his divinity is, then aren’t the two natures of Christ separated from each other?
Answer: Certainly not. Since divinity is not limited and is present everywhere, it is evident that Christ’s divinity is surely beyond the bounds of his humanity that has been taken on, but at the same time his divinity is in and remains personally united to his humanity.
The person of Christ is no less than his human nature. That human who lived and died and rose and ascended and will one day return really is Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. He is human, yes, and he is infinitely more. His person is truly human in nature, but his person is not circumscribed by his human nature. Christ exceeds. This is why you should feel absolutely no embarrassment or shame in reading through the gospels while worshiping Jesus Christ, the man—son of Mary, brother to James, cousin to John, eater of fish, drinker of wine. The man who said things and felt things and did things with his hands. You should feel absolutely no embarrassment about longing to hug his resurrected body with your resurrected body—and feel no embarrassment about longing for the day when you can look into his human eyes and say “thank you,” and to watch his human lips curl into a human smile. In case you’ve forgotten, the incarnation is an ongoing reality. The Second person of the Trinity is and will forever be the God-man, Jesus Christ, because we will always and forever need that kind of accommodation! In the incarnation, God provides for our needs with the most beautiful man to ever exist.
 Athanasius, On the Incarnation, ch.15.
 Calvin, Institutes, Book 2.13.4.
 Athanasius, On the Incarnation ch. 15.