Saturday, February 21, 2009

Did God the Son Change?

A yahoogroup member who participates on an Evangelical-Jehovah's Witnesses forum and sometimes on this blog was asked:

If a divine person takes on a human nature, is that not a change

His answer:

Hi R--,
Only if the Divine Person in question already existed BEFORE taking on human
nature. But, for those of us who believe in Divine Timelessness, it just simply
is not true that the Son existed first for a certain length of time without His
human nature, and then LATER took on human nature. Also, the Divine Person of
the Son is BOTH unchangeable AND changeable: In His divinity, He is
unchangeable, while in His humanity, He is changeable. Likewise, the Divine
Person of the Son is both timeless AND temporal: In His divinity, He is
timeless, while in His humanity, He is temporal. So, yes, it is true that a
change occurred in that the human nature of the Son first did not exist, and
then afterwards came to exist (for the Incarnation is a temporal event). BUT,
it does not follow from this that the Person of the Son first existed without
His human nature, and then afterwards came to have His human nature.
For, BEFORE the time of the Incarnation, i.e., APART from the Incranation [SIC], there is no temporal succession involved in the existence of the Person of the Son of which one can speak. Thus, the Incarnation does not in any manner whatosever [SIC] either contradict or weaken the absolute nature of the Divine Unchangeability

If I may borrow a term from another participant on the Evangelical-Witnesses forum, this explanation is practically unintelligible. Moreover, it begs the question (petitio principii) by asserting that which should be demonstrated through the use of logic in one form or another. But to talk about the Son adding humanity to his deity without a change or event occurring is unintelligible. It contradicts the principles of basic logic and it flies in the face of our bodily experience in the phenomenal realm. In his answer, the aforementioned forum participant claims that the human nature of "God the Son" did not exist, but then subsequently came to exist since the Incarnation is a putative temporal event. But even if we prescind from the question of whether God is temporal or atemporal, we must nevertheless ask how motion occurs without a state of affairs being altered. Motion (understood in its broad sense of any change whatsoever like the Latin motus can signify) cannot occur without a state of affairs being altered which involves a person in given state of affairs undergoing some type of alteration or change.

Yet, how is it possible for a timeless or immutable God (in the absolute sense) to undergo change or experience motus? The previous claim that God the Son becomes incarnate, thereby adding humanity to his deity, is unintelligible without invoking change. Other theologians have admitted the "mystery" that attends this "temporal" event. O how blessed we would be to have such an admission from the person who tried to answer the question above.

According to A.W. Pink, there are at least three ways in which God is immutable:

First, God is immutable in His essence. His nature and being are infinite, and so, subject to no mutations. There never was a time when He was not; there never will come a time when He shall cease to be. God has neither evolved, grown, nor improved.

Secondly, God is immutable in His attributes. Whatever the attributes of God were before the universe was called into existence, they are precisely the same now, and will remain so forever. Necessarily so; for they are the very perfections, the essential qualities of His being. Semper idem (always the same) is written across every one of them. His power is unabated, His wisdom undiminished, His holiness unsullied.

Thirdly, God is immutable in His counsel. His will never varies. Perhaps some are ready to object that we ought to read the following: "And it repented the Lord that He had made man" (Gen 6:6). Our first reply is, Then do the Scriptures contradict themselves? No, that cannot be. Numbers 23:19 is plain enough: "God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent." So also in 1 Samuel 15:19, "The strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for He is not a man, that He should repent."


But if God is absolutely immutable, then how did God "become" incarnate? How would Pink explain God the Son adding humanity to his deity? Furthermore, does not the language of "becoming" suggest that motion (motus) or change occurs? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:

The Incarnation is an especially knotty problem for DDI's [the doctrine of divine immutability's] Christian friends. In general, these argue that all change it involved occurred in the human nature God the Son assumed rather than in God; God was eternally ready to be incarnate, and eternally had those experiences of the earthly Christ which the Incarnation makes part of his life. Through changes in Mary and the infant she bore, what was eternally in God eventually took place on earth.

God eternally experienced what the earthly Christ would undergo when he "became" flesh? How could God have those experiences without change occurring in his preexistent state?

Brian Hebblethwaite makes an interesting point regarding the Incarnation and change in God. In his book entitled Philosophical Theology and Christian Doctrine (page 45), he writes:

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which we
shall be considering in the next chapter, is very hard
to square with the classical view of [divine] timeless
eternity. But so is the notion of a timeless act of
creation. For an act is surely a novel realization of
a prior intention, an actualization of a

In a nutshell (in nuce), Hebblethwaite is saying that it is difficult to understand how a timeless, immutable God becomes man or creates the universe. For the Incarnation doctrine implies that the LOGOS became flesh, whereas the doctrine of creation indicates that God acted to bring creation into being ex nihilo. Both notions appear problematic in the light of divine atemporality.


Βασίλειος said...

The Orthodox and especially the Catholics admit the use of the platonic philosophy in the understanding of the Scriptures. It is well known, for instance, that Clemens of Alexandria and Origen considered that the sole letter of the Scripture was for the common people and that only philosophers could understand the deep things.

As regards “immutability,” it is admitted: “The Old Testament thus testifies that God is ethically immutable, that is, that he is unchanging in his love and justice. This ethical immutability would seem to demand an ontological immutability: that is, God can only be unchangeable in his love and justice if he ontologically immutably perfect. This is a philosophical issue the Bible does not address”.—T. G. Weinandy, “Immutability of God”, The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Gale, 2003, Vol. 7, p. 355.

On the other hand, Protestants, though professing the confession of “sola scriptura,” have inherited some major platonic elements of the traditional theology and theism. So, it is very strange to see them vigorously defending such platonic elements, as the immutability of God according to the timeless, static, platonic archetypes, coming at the very same time in diametric contradiction with their “sola scriptura” confession.

Beyond my curiosity as to how Protestants can explain this contradiction, I am really wandering how the doctrine of Jesus’ immutability can overcome a verse like this:

"But in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior [Gr., kreitton genomenos = becoming better] to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs".—Hebrews 1:2-4, Revised Standard Version.

In the book of Hebrews, we can find other similar expressions which describe the procedure of the improvement of Jesus so that he may save the human race, as:

“For it was fitting that he […] should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect [Gr., teleiosai = to make perfect] through suffering”.—2:10, Revised Standard Version.

It is easy to understand that someone who “becomes better” or “superior” or someone who “becomes perfect” or “complete” cannot by ontologically immutable.

Edgar Foster said...

Your explanation makes sense to me and I would add that Philo of Alexandria makes the same argument concerning doctrines that only philosophers can understand. Reference his discussion of God's name as well. Philo believes that God has a name that he has not revealed to humanity and a "proximate" name by means of which humans can invoke God.

I guess the way that a Trinitarian would try to subvert your argument is by appealing to the Incarnation. But I think that honest Trinitarians just have to invoke mystery.

Kind regards!


Βασίλειος said...

I understand that the traditional Trinitarians try to explain such verses under the prism of the Incarnation, a doctrine according to which Jesus, since his earthly birth, has two natures, and that during his earthly ministry these two natures were actually two lives, one on Heaven and one on Earth.

However, if we want to be honest to ourselves, to the Biblical text and to the history of Dogma, we have to admit that the doctrine of the Incarnation and of the double nature of Jesus was actually a product of the doctrine of the immutability of God’s Son, which was established by Athanasius at the 1st Ecumenical Synod, and not vise-versa. According to the thought of Athanasius, the Incarnation became the means so that uncreated (aktiston) and created (ktiston) be connected. Hence, it is anachronistic, unscholarly and, for those familiar with the facts, dishonest to promote as Biblical thoughts that were unknown to the writers of the Bible, arguments that were conceptualized among the Christians many decades or even centuries later, under the influence of the platonic theism.

On the other hand, the Bible never speaks of a God’s Son that simultaneously was God in Heaven and man on Earth. The Bible speaks holistically, not dualistically, of God’s Son who was (note the past tense in John 1:1) a god, or divine, who was in heaven along with his Father, who came to earth and became a man dwelling among us, and who afterwards returned to his Father in Heaven, and received back the glory he had before becoming a man.—John 1:1-3, 14• 16:5 17:5, 28• Philippians 2:6-11• Hebrews 1:3, 4, 9.

To conclude with the alleged double nature of God’s Son, the clear answer as to whether He retained his human nature after His death is given by Paul: “The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. […] The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. [..] I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”—1 Corinthians 15:45-51, RSV.

Now let me come to the biblical references I gave against the ontological (platonic) immutability of God’s Son. At the first, I purposefully put the context to show that the same Son of God who is the stamp of God’s being, the same God of Son who was used to bring the universe into existence (if we accept that aiones here mean the universe), was the same God of Son who became better than the angles through his earthly course and inherited even greater privileges by God. The context nowhere speaks of two different natures of God’s Son.

The second reference was a small portion of Paul’s argumentation as regards the capability of Jesus to be the sufficient means of salvation of the human race with the role of the High Priest. In few words, Paul argues that Jesus has become fully sufficient to save humans because he became a human being himself and he suffered the common sufferings of human beings: “he had [Gr. ofeilen = was obliged] to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” (Hebrews 2:17, 18) And again: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. […] Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”—Hebrews 4:14, 15; 5:8, 9, RSV.

All these verses actually say that if Jesus had never became a human being to suffer and be tested the way the human beings suffer and are tested, he wouldn’t be in position to help them, he wouldn’t sympathize them enough, he wouldn’t be merciful enough. The sacrificial human life of Jesus gave him vital lessons, so that he may become qualified for his role as the agent of salvation. This whole line of Paul’s argumentation would be totally unfitting if God’s Son in heaven has been an immutable, omniscient Being according to the platonic standards of the classical theism. If God’s Son was immutable, then Paul’s argumentation would be totally out of place, totally false.

Of course, it is not Paul that is false, but the Trinitarians.

Sean Killackey said...


I think that they would say that he never changed ontologically, but in his rank. (However I suggest that he did as evidenced his statement that he was granted to have life within himself and thereby got (not having prior) an indestructible life; of course an indestructible life would fall into Jesus' ontological nature).