Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Was Christ God While on Earth?

by The Very Rev. Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw, Th. D.
© 6 November 2007

In the previous blog entry I spoke of a Christology from above, by which we meant that it was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who was Incarnate, and that He remained God. Sometimes we don’t draw the obvious conclusion from who God is—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to the Incarnation, that God the Son cannot change. Even those who consider themselves conservative today have forgotten the Church’s teaching that Chalcedon in 451 clearly stated about the Son not giving up His deity in the Incarnation:

In agreement with the holy fathers we all unanimously teach that we should confess that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son; the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the same of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father in Godhead and the same consubstantial with us in manhood; like us in all things except sin; begotten of the Father before all ages as regards his Godhead and in the last days the same, for us and for our salvation, begotten of the Virgin Mary the Theotokos as regards his manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, made known in two natures without confusion [the two natures did not merge in some way to form a third nature], without change [each nature remained fully what it was before the joining], without division [the two natures did not constitute two persons], without separation [the two natures were in union with the Person]; the differences of the natures being by no means removed because of the union but the property of each nature being preserved and coalescing in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis [another word for person], not parted or divided into two persons but one and the same Son, only-begotten, divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets of old and Jesus Christ himself have taught us about him, and the creed of our fathers has handed down.[1]

Amidst this wonderful theology, one point the fathers were making is that in the Incarnation, the deity of the Son did not change in essence or in function. Incarnation was by addition, not by subtraction.

The Problem: Incarnation by Subtraction

I did my doctoral dissertation on the word-faith movement some years ago, and wrote a book on it entitled Man as God: The Word of Faith Movement (Available from Footstool Publications). Part of what makes their teaching so dangerous is that their view of Christ is contrary to the Church’s teaching over the centuries and, of course, contrary to the New Testament. They will say things such as Christ gave up His deity while on earth, or that He gave up the use of His deity. Either way, we do not have an Incarnation. The word-faith people especially want to emphasize that Christ only functioned as a man by the power of the Holy Spirit, for this means they can do all that Christ did. In other words, they destroy the uniqueness of the person of Christ by saying we have the same Holy Spirit and can do any miracle He did—if we have enough faith. Even one of their favorite passages to “prove” that the Son was not God (Phil 2:5ff), really says, as virtually all the fathers noted, that He was God on earth: “who, although existing in the form of God. . . .” As J. B. Lightfoot noted over 100 years ago, the word for “form” means “essence,” and the word for “existing” is not unlike the verb for “was” in John 1:1, denoting eternal existence.[2] The idea in this passage is that the Son, while continuing to exist in essence as God, added to Himself perfect humanity. Lightfoot was a tremendous patristic scholar, Greek scholar, and Anglican, whose works are so accurate and significant that scholars and Greek lexicons still quote him.

On another occasion, I was in a bookstore, and I saw a book written by a man with whom I attended seminary. I was glad to see him writing, so I purchased the book to be encouraged in the Gospel. To my horror, I read that Jesus did not function as God while on earth, that He was not omnipresent while on earth but His divinity was only in the “vicinity” of, but never far from, His humanity while on earth. I wrote the publisher, quoting John Walvoord against the author, stating that we did not so learn Christ at our seminary. Thus, the problem of the Incarnation is a pervasive one.

I’m not alone in seeing that the word-faith view of Christ is the main area of controversy. I know a man who graduated from Kenneth Hagin’s Rhema Bible College, read his way out of the movement, did a Ph. D. at Oxford in church history, and said that my work on this was especially important because their view of Christ was the main problem, which is what I addressed in the book. I’ve seen pastors come out of the movement once they realized the implications of it.

I’m not trying to be unkind. Perhaps these people mean well, but sincerity is not the issue; truth is the issue. The price to have the purity of the Gospel is eternal vigilance. We must constantly defend the old Gospel, not only from its enemies, but also from those who mean well but are misinformed. One’s faith is only as good as the object of his faith, and the object only as good as the propositions about that object. Here are a few reasons it is so important to maintain that Son was “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8) and that on earth He not only was unchanged as God but also functioned as God.

Solution: Incarnation by Addition

(1) If Jesus was not God or only functioned as man, what would this do to the Holy Trinity? This would mean God would be reduced to two persons, the Father and the Holy Spirit. It is no better if someone says He was God but did not function that way, which is to give with one hand and take back with the other.

Furthermore, how does this reconcile with the Council of Ephesus in 431:

If anyone shall say that Jesus as man is only energized by the Word of God, and that the glory of the only-begotten is attributed to Him as something not properly His: let him be anathema.

If any man shall say that the one Lord Jesus Christ was glorified by the Holy Spirit, so that He used through Him a power not His own and from Him received power against unclean spirits and power to work miracles before men and shall not rather confess that it was His own Spirit through which He worked these divine signs; let him be anathema.[3]

At Ephesus it was rightly understood that if the Son did not function as God, we have no redemption, for that would mean we only had a finite man who died on the Cross, not one who was also God. In turn, that would mean His work was only finite, not infinite.

Moreover, other early fathers maintained the same view as Ephesus:

Origen asserts that the rule of faith[4] lays down that the Logos “being made man remained that which he was before”; and Augustine, echoing the voice of the older tradition, says, “Thus he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, not losing the form of God; the form of a servant was added, the form of God not subtracted.” Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa, while admitting that the Word so far emptied himself as to appear not in his native majesty but in the humility of human nature, yet insist on his unaltered substantial greatness; and this remained the established view. Athanasius, in opposition to the Arians . . . fights for the unchangeableness of the Logos as the palladium[5] of orthodoxy; the Logos does not increase in wisdom (Luke 2:52), is not hungry or troubled even unto death (John 12:27), is not in ignorance of the day of judgment, does not suffer or die—all these things happen only to his “flesh,” to his human nature. And after Athanasius not only the Atniochian school but even Apollianaris and Cyril make similarly strong assertions of the unchangeableness of the Godhead of the Logos. . . . By a corresponding train of thought, the “exaltation” of Phil. 2:9 is always in patristic theology referred exclusively to the human nature of Christ. In all this there is no room for such a theory as that of Thomasius [Christ emptied Himself of His deity]; in fact, it is more than once expressly opposed [emphasis added]. . . . Cyril’s attitude is unmistakable; . . . a limitation of the Godhead in Christ is essentially unthinkable on account of his unity with the Father[6]

But at the time that the Father appointed,[7] the Son of the living God added a human nature to Himself, conceived in the Virgin’s womb by the Holy Spirit. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity had added to His undiminished divine Person a perfect human nature, taken from Mary. His humanity came from Mary, as the Last Adam had to be in the lineage of the first Adam, of the fallen human race, not a new race created outside of the existing one. As redeemer He had to be one with us, yet outside us without sin. He took from her what was human as mankind was originally created, but not as fallen. He was fully human, having a real body and a rational soul. He got hungry, needed to sleep, had human emotions of joy and anger, but He never sinned. He was fully human as if not God.

But He was also fully God as if not human. He was the second Person of the Trinity, God of God, light of light, very God of very God, the same in essence as the Father in every way, existing from all eternity. When the Virgin conceived by the Holy Spirit, humanity was joined to His Person, not that His Person came into existence, not that He gave up His deity or the use of it. Indeed, He was unchangeable[8] so that His deity did not change one iota at the holy conception. He added to His divine person perfect humanity, but nothing divine was subtracted.[9] If He had ceased in any way to be God, there would have been no Trinity and no God, for God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Giving up His deity would be incarnation by deicide. Or if Christ had ceased to be fully God, there would have been two “gods” left, the Father and the Spirit, which would mean the death of God. A savior who is not fully God is a bridge broken at the far end, and a savior who is not fully man is a bridge broken at the near end. He would not reach fully either to God or man.

The problem some have with Christ being both God and man is that they do not see how He could function fully as man if He were God. But that is part of the mystery of the Incarnation. If He could not function as both at the same time, we are left with some very difficult theology. This would seem to mean He was man on earth but not God, but would also this mean that He is God now but not man? So if there is no continuity with the Son as God before the Incarnation, what was that Person born of Mary? Who is He now? But if He is both God and man now, fully functioning that way, why could not He have been the same while on earth? No, the Church has always taught that from the conception onward, Christ is both God and man, fully functioning that way forever. Even today, as our High Priest, He is fully man to identify with us and fully God to identify with the Father. Such had to be the case to be the Mediator, which by definition means an identity with us and with God but in one person so the two could come together.

(2) If Christ gave up His deity, there would be no redemption since God must accomplish it. If redemption could have been done only by a human who was not God, why did God send His Son? All we would need then would be Jeremiah filled with the Holy Spirit to come back and die on the cross for our sins.

(3) No, redemption must be done by one person who was both God and man, fully functioning in both natures. He had to be a man to redeem man from his sin and death, to be identified with the human race that lost relationship with God. As God He could not die, but as man He could. He had to be God to satisfy infinite holiness, to take an infinite penalty, an infinite curse. What He did in His atonement was absolutely dependent on who He was, the two aspects being inseparable. Adam sinned and died. Jesus must be one with the seed of Adam so that He could die.[10] Adam owed God perfect obedience. Jesus obeyed God perfectly for us.[11] Adam came under the penalty of sin, which was divine judgment. Jesus took our punishment.[12]

He had to be one Person so that what one nature did would be united with the other nature in the one Person, thus joining the work of both natures. If He had only been a man indwelt by God, He would have been a great prophet, but not the One who could redeem; just one of the prophets of old. Under this circumstance, when He died, we would be left with a dead man and a distant God. But as God-man in one person, when He shed His blood, it was the blood of God: “to shepherd the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”[13]

(4) If the Son gave up His deity while one earth, where is the doctrine of co-inherence of the Persons of the Trinity, which means “that each person manifests the fullness of God, which means that each person must manifest the other two persons as well”?[14] And does not this also mean that each person indwells the other two to the infinite degree? How could the Son of God gives this up, even temporarily? What kind of God are we left with if He can change His essence?

(5) If Christ only gradually became aware of who He was while on earth, we would have a gradual Incarnation, not one complete from the beginning. This carries its own refutation. If this were a gradual incarnation, this would in turn mean that Christ only had one nature for most of His incarnate years, so for all those years His work for us was human only. Moreover, considering that one’s self-knowledge identifies oneself, that when one has amnesia he is not the same person, we would have one who was completely unaware of Himself for most of His life. Can you imagine how absurd it would be to have Him suddenly “come to Himself” one day and say, “Hey, I just remembered I’m God.” But if He remembered He was God, it was not true, for God by definition is omniscient, but He would not have been such.

(7) If Incarnation by deicide is true, by giving up His deity or the use of it, how is God revealed since Jesus functioned only as a man? Whom do we know? Jesus said that the one who had seen Him had seen the Father (John 14:9), but how is this true if His deity is suppressed? With this view, we do not know God but only another prophet, though perhaps the greatest one of all, but still just a prophet.

(8) There is only one essence in God, and that essence is fully manifested by each divine Person, Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. If one Person can opt out of that essence, we must have more than one essence, or the essence must be divisible, denying the unity of God, or somehow the essence is not necessary to each person, so that perhaps later the Father can opt out. Or, if one person (the Son) can cease to function as God while still being God, we have meaningless words. What does it mean to have the essence of something without manifesting it? Can a dog not function as a dog, a whale not function as a whale, and so on? Someone will say, “God can do anything,” which is emphatically false. God cannot lie, cannot deny Himself, cannot cease to be God, and certainly cannot cease to function as God.

(9) Theologically, the Incarnate Son was the second person of the Holy Trinity, which meant that His self-consciousness was that of God the Son, the Son from all eternity, the One who cannot change (Heb 13:8). To elaborate, this meant that it was the second person of the Holy Trinity who was the person of the incarnation. He was not two persons. He could not be a human person apart from the divine person, for that would make Him two persons. The divine person without His divine nature does not and cannot exist. The PERSON who was the subject of the Incarnation was God the Son, who added a human nature to Himself but did not gave up His divine nature or nullify His divine person in some way. He did not add a human person to Himself, only an impersonal human nature. There was no separate human person, only the divine person before the Incarnation and then the divine-human Person after the Incarnation.

(10) The New Testament is clear that the Son functioned as God while on earth. For example, at age 12 He said He had to be about his Father’s business (Luke 2:49), thus revealing His divine self-knowledge. He claimed to be the I AM when the soldiers came to arrest Him, and by His divine power they went backwards and fell to the ground (John 18:6). He claimed to be able, like the Father, to reveal Himself sovereignly to the elect (Matt 11:27). He was on earth and in heaven at the same time (John 3:13, NKJ, majority text). The New Testament makes clear that Christ is the One who sustains all things (Heb. 1:3) and the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17). Apart from Him, the universe has neither Preserver nor Governor; so who did this while He was allegedly not God or not functioning as God?

Indeed, if Jesus only did miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit, and not also His own power, then what did John mean when he said he wrote his Gospel around signs so that people would see the uniqueness of Christ as the Son of God and come to faith in Him (John 20:30-31)? If He were not unique and His miracles reveal such, if we can do all the same miracles by the Holy Spirit, then John’s statement makes no sense. So did Christ heal by the Holy Spirit? Of course, but not by the Holy Spirit only. As the Council of Ephesus reminded us, He did so by His own authority also. Indeed, in Matthew 9 when the Jews questioned His statement that the paralytic’s sins were forgiven, He said:

“For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” (Matt 9:5-6)

It was the “Son of Man” who had the divine authority both to heal and to forgive, and that miracle spoke to the uniqueness of His Incarnation, that He was both God and man, fully functioning that way all the time. Let us believe the Nicene Creed fully. AMEN.

[1] As quoted in Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils, and Christ, p. 162ff. See also vol. 1, p. 544 of Christ in Christian Tradition, by Alos Grillmeier.
[2] J. B. Lightfoot, Philippians, p. 110ff.
[3] Henry R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979), pp. 213-214.
[4] This was the faith deposited in the Church that was handed down from Apostles to bishops and others and was protected by the writings of the Apostles. The early fathers often speak of it. [5] The “pure silver,” so to speak.
[6] Schaff-Herzog, pp. 315-316.
[7] Galatians 4:4
[8] Hebrews 13:8
[9] The modern day heresy of kenosis states that Christ’s incarnation was by subtraction, that He gave up something of either His deity or the use of His deity.
[10] Hebrews 2:9
[11] Hebrews 2:10 (The grammar indicates that Jesus was bringing many sons to glory by His being made perfect.)
[12] Isaiah 53:5; Romans 3: 25; Galatians 3:13
[13] Acts 20:28
[14] Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 224.


More from Dean Crenshaw on the Incarnation (PDF)