Still Docetic

Over many years of studying theology I have read occasionally that the church still suffers from placing undue emphasis on the deity of Christ to the diminution of his humanity. The point is usually made without specific comment apart from the fact that a proper appreciation of the humanity of Jesus was one of the few benefits accorded to us by liberals. It has, however, always seemed obvious to me that anyone who believes in original sin, for example, is docetic in his or her thinking. For, unless one takes the clearly false Roman Catholic view regarding the Virgin Birth, how could Jesus have been born sinless if all his fellows, not to mention his ancestors (cf. Mt. 1:1-6), were born sinful? Only highly questionable exegesis could warrant an appeal to Hebrews 2:17 and 4:15 at this point since like 1 Peter 2:22 they surely point to actual sin as does Romans 5:12. The truth is that if Jesus, though a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) was an exception to the normal rule, then his humanity is immediately called into question and he is automatically separated and excluded from the rest of humanity. The solution to this conundrum is of course to reject the dogma of original sin which the Bible does not and indeed cannot teach without contradicting itself. (1* On this see my various articles on original sin and imputation. If we assume original sin, we can illustrate its effect by means of a syllogism: Major premise: All humans are sinners by birth and not simply by deed as Scripture teaches (John 8:34; Rom. 5:12; Eph. 2:1-3). Minor premise: Jesus was not a sinner by birth. Conclusion: Therefore Jesus was not human.) Once we have rejected original sin, we can safely regard Jesus as a true human being born of woman without knowledge of (the) law (cf. Rom. 4:15) and hence of good and evil (Isa. 7:15f., cf. Rom. 7:9f.), like all the rest of the descendants of Adam (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:14-16).


Docetism, however, is the idea rife in the early church and still alive in Islam in 2013 (see e.g. Green, pp.113f.,146) that Jesus only seemed to be a man. What is more, it continues to make itself evident even among modern (2013) evangelicals who traditionally lay strong emphasis on Jesus as God, so much so in fact that Professor Bruce Ware has written a book, The Man Christ Jesus (2013) in what I believe proves in the event to be a notable but nonetheless forlorn attempt to undermine it. In one of the comments in the blurb promoting this book Todd Miles claims that the church is functionally docetic and that the divine Christ only seemed to be human. He goes on to assert that Ware skillfully and passionately explains that the gospel and its implications depend on the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ. They do indeed, but after reading the book I was left with the feeling that Ware for all his good intentions has failed to fully extricate himself from the traditional trap. For one thing he still believes in original sin (e.g. pp.98,122f.). But more significantly and relevantly his understanding of the full deity and the full humanity of Christ as expounded by Paul in Philippians 2 is in my view less than satisfactory.

Philippians 2:5-11.

It is worth commenting that not merely books but perhaps even libraries seem to have been written on this passage. And the reason is not far to seek. Some 50 years ago I remember reading D.M.Baillie’s God Was In Christ. In this seminal book Baillie was at pains to deny that when Christ became man he underwent kenosis or self-emptying as he, Baillie, understood it. In doing so, he asked what he seemed to think was an unanswerable question: What would have happened to the world if the second person of the Trinity who played a role in its creation (John 1:3) and by whom it was sustained (Col. 1:16, cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Heb.1:3) had laid aside his divine nature in order to become man? (This question was apparently posed earlier by Archbishop Temple.) It was precisely this question that a Jehovah’s Witness who recently visited me asked, again as if it was unanswerable. Yet, even at that time of my relative ignorance I sensed that the answer to the problem lay in the doctrine of the Trinity, for a strict monotheism or monad seems to exclude the very possibility of God becoming man. (See further below.) The evident dependence of Jesus on his Father so strongly stressed in the NT is excluded by a purely monotheistic God who must forever retain his nature as God (cf. Rev. 4:9-11) as a matter of inherent necessity and thereby preclude the very possibility of an incarnation unless, as Arius followed by the JWs maintained, Jesus was a creature and therefore intrinsically subordinate.

The Two Natures

It is here that we touch the heart of the issue of docetism in evangelicalism and in the churches in general, for it seems to be accepted as a self-evident and hence a non-negotiable truth that in order to maintain his identity as God Jesus also had to retain his divine nature. And this is one of Ware’s primary contentions and presuppositions. In view of this I would argue that he does not merely set off on the wrong foot, he actually shoots himself in the foot thereby disabling and rendering himself completely incapable of eradicating docetism from the church. Despite what is taught in time-honoured creeds, the notion that Christ retained his divine nature when he became human is highly vulnerable, and Ware is honest and perceptive enough to acknowledge this. On page 23 he avers that the idea of one person, Jesus, having two full and integral natures, one uncreated and the other created is beyond our understanding and a mystery. On the face of it, it would appear to be not merely incomprehensible but logically impossible. (2* From the perspective of history Ware appears to have rejected common-sense monophysitism and opted for grandiloquent but intrinsically nonsensical Chalcedonian Dyophysitism. Chalcedon is and always has been a threat to both the incarnation and to the Trinity. In comment on John 1:14, p.102, Morris takes as strong an anti-docetic stance as anyone could reasonably wish for, but in comment on John 1:18, p.114, he clearly thinks in terms of two natures, for he asserts that when the Word became flesh his cosmic activities did not remain in abeyance until his life on earth had ended. If this is so, then the Word did not become flesh after all! No wonder he, like Ware, refers to mysteries that man cannot plumb. By asserting that the incarnation meant adding something as opposed to subtracting as in the Athanasian Creed something which kenosis implies, he has opened up the way to the docetism he has already in principle rejected.) But it also prompts a blunt question: If Jesus retained his divine nature, why didn’t he rely entirely on himself (cf. Jud. 6:31), regard his Father as redundant and his help as unnecessary in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Absalom in his relations with his father David. In the words of Dale Davis, there is something jarring about the supposition of omnipotence receiving help (p.143). Is it not rather cynically asserted from time to time that God helps those who help themselves? In fact, however, Jesus epitomizes the man who in his fleshly weakness (2 Cor. 13:4, cf. Mt. 26:41) relies totally on his heavenly Father as all human beings should and in the end must. In light of this we need to be very sure of what Paul in Philippians 2 and John in John 1 are actually saying.

Philippians 2

First, I would argue that traditional exegesis of Philippians 2 is flawed. Adopting a more general synthetic approach and trying to read this passage skating over some of its manifest exegetical difficulties dealt with in detail by the commentators like O’Brien, Martin and Fee leads me to the conclusion that what Paul is intimating in plain words is that Christ as the Word (John 1:1), who as the one who was equal with God and had the nature of God in eternity, humbly and freely set it aside in order to experience in person the life (nature) of a man (cf. 1 John 1:1). Bluntly, he did what Bruce (p.46), like Fee (p.211 n.81) and O’Brien (p.218), emphatically denies, that is, exchange his divine nature for human nature or flesh (cf. Heb. 2:7,9; 5:7) just as he exchanged his righteousness for sin in 2 Corinthians 5:21, his life for ours in Matthew 20:28 and 1 Timothy 2:6 and his riches for poverty in 2 Corinthians 8:9. Of course, Bruce in traditional fashion attempts to justify his negation by quoting J.B.Lightfoot’s rendering of ‘emptied himself’ as “ ‘… he divested himself’ not of His divine nature, for this is impossible, but ‘of the glories, the prerogatives of Deity’.” (3* It is interesting to note, however, that Bruce has no problem with interchange when he comments on 1 Thessalonians 5:10 and alludes quite happily to Irenaeus’ famous dictum to the effect that Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is, pp.113f. We do well at this point to note the change in nature implied by 2 Peter 1:4, not to mention 1 Peter 1:3f., 4:6, etc. And note espec. Paul in 1 Cor. 15:46-49. See also my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities, etc., and the apposite comments and references of Richardson, p.242.)

At this point I ask a simple question: On whose authority and on what grounds do we accept the notion that it was impossible for Christ to divest himself not of his deity, his identity and divine character but of his divine nature? (4* In all probability the ultimate culprit is the immutable monotheism of Greek philosophy which maintained that there is and can be only one divine existence. According to Reichenbach the Platonists deprived God of all emotion because a perfect God has to be unchanging. He adds, surely correctly, that a ‘de-anthropomorphized’ God is totally transcendent to the affairs in which he has a part, p.199. Writing in the 1920s on the Anglican Articles, Griffith Thomas, in effect denying kenosis, says it was impossible for Christ to achieve manhood by renouncing his deity and that he did not, because He could not, surrender his essential form of being (morphe), p.44. Again he talks of “an unthinkable metamorphosis of God into a man”, p.45. By contrast Fee commenting on Philippians 2:7, while rightly emphasizing pre-existence, reduces kenosis to a “metaphor, pure and simple”. This smacks of evasion rather than interpretation, p.210, for even metaphors have meaning. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that Fee who is a superlative commentator is also governed at this point by tradition and an erroneous philosophical principle rather than by the biblical text. Bray denies both a change in nature and in person, p.243. See also Berkouwer, esp. p.199.) As intimated above, however, change would seem to be an unavoidable requirement of the very possibility of an incarnation. So it is worth asking what the divine nature consists of if not of the glories and prerogatives of God including his immortality (1 Tim. 6:16), incorruptibility (1 Tim. 1:17), omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience. (5* See further my Creation Corruptible By Nature.) According to Paul, this divine nature stands in significant contrast with human nature (Rom. 1:23 Gk, cf. Ps. 106:20). But Lightfoot seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it. His highly questionable assumption seems to be that if the second person of the Trinity emptied himself of, or laid aside his divine nature, he ceased to be God in person. Here, it seems to me, we reach the nub of the issue, for exchange seems to be demanded by the very idea of incarnation. Without it there can be none, for while three persons can share one nature (consubstantiality) as in the (immanent) Trinity, it is impossible for a single individual person to have more than one nature at one and the same time and remain either divine or human, the one or the other. Apart from anything else such a one is a hybrid or a freak or a third alternative. (6* It is ironic that those who assume that kenoticism is an impossibility seek to substitute it with and counter it by means of another indisputable impossibility, that is, a Christ with two natures. This is quite simply to jump out of the pan into the fire. Furthermore, many rob the second person of the Trinity of his equality with God by attributing eternal Sonship to him, but more on this below.) To put the issue somewhat differently, if Christ retained his divine nature at his incarnation, his humanity would at best be but a shadow, a reflection, an extension, an appendage or a supplement of his divine nature and not a true incarnation. In other words he would be docetic. He did not really become man and traditional theology is reduced to a charade. If it is now urged that Scripture makes it clear beyond dispute that Jesus had both a divine and a human nature I would agree, but not simultaneously only consecutively.

A Simple Illustration

If a wicked witch were to turn me into a dog or, as the children’s fable has it, into a frog, I would inevitably have all the physical attributes of a dog: four legs, large ears, a hairy coat, a long or at least a waggable tail, a wet nose and heightened physical sense perceptions that are part and parcel of the nature of a dog. In other words, I would inevitably lose my human nature involving not so much my “flesh and blood” (Heb. 2:14, cf. Ware, p.119) but my upright stance, two arms, a smooth skin and all the physical attributes making it possible for me to speak. I would inevitably change my present physiological condition in fact. In plain words, I could not possibly retain my normal human nature and become a dog at one and the same time. (7* By the same token man and dog cannot interbreed! If it were possible, such offspring would be third alternatives or tertium quids like a minotaur or centaur, neither the one nor the other but hybrid freaks or dogmen. Equally by the same token, Jesus could not have two natures at one and the same time or he would be a godman or a theanthrop, neither God nor man. In other words, it is not only logic but nature itself that teaches us the impossibility of such a duality turning monad.)

The Illustration Flawed

Of course, my illustration is flawed because whereas it is possible to accept that the second person of the Trinity could become a man who is potentially made in the image of God, it is impossible for me as a person to become a dog. Why? For the simple reason that whereas I am made in the image of God, a dog is not. If I became a dog my personality would be obliterated. I as a person would cease to exist. However, when Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4 temporarily lost the image of God and to all intents and purposes became a mere (human) animal, he did not lose his human nature as flesh and blood. What he did lose according to the text was his reason which rendered him temporarily a non-person incapable of ruling or ‘inheriting’ his own kingdom (Dan. 4:34,36), let alone the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). To all intents and purposes he ceased to be a man or a person. So with Jesus. Somewhat like Nebuchadnezzar he laid aside his glory then regained it (John 17:5,24). He became a human animal or baby, but like all human babies in contrast with mere animals he had the potential to be perfected and ultimately to gain the complete image and likeness of God (cf. Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). (8* This stress on the indispensability of the image of God relative to the incarnation has another important corollary: it indicates that the foundation of the incarnation was laid at the beginning, at the creation of man, specifically in Genesis 1:26-28. Truly is the Bible all of a piece; truly is it the inspired word of God.)

In light of this illustration it is difficult indeed to hold dogmatically to the view that the second person of the Trinity who was spirit (cf. John 4:22) could not divest himself of his divine attributes and become a man, especially since man is created in the image and likeness of God. This view is supported by the teaching of John’s gospel in particular where it is insisted in unmistakable terms that Christ descended and became a man (cf. John 1:9f.,14) precisely in order to ascend as a man (John 3:13; 6:38-40,62) with his transformed fellows in train (Heb. 2:10, cf. 5:9). Indeed, John 17:5 and 24 are especially apposite at this point since they portray Jesus himself praying, first, that he as a man having lost the majesty and splendour of the glory that he once enjoyed during his divine pre-existence might regain it, and, second, that his people should see that glory which in his days on earth they could not possibly see since he had laid it aside in order to become incarnate, man in the flesh, or, to put it more appositely, because he had changed his nature. Denial of this constitutes foundational heresy as John intimates (1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7).

Geisler and the Resurrection

In further support of my contention that Paul’s ‘emptied himself’ (or stress on what is known as kenoticism) should be given its full significance, I would draw the reader’s attention to the bodily transformation that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:50-53 must (Gk dei) as a matter of natural or rather divine necessity occur for entry into heaven and the presence of God. (9* Cf. the new birth referred to by Jesus in John 3:7 on which see my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities). Some years ago while trying to assess the relative merits and validity of the views of Murray Harris and Norman Geisler on the question of the resurrection, I noted that the latter, in contrast with other commentators took the view that when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:50 that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, he had in mind only corruptible flesh. (10* The problem here is that all flesh is by nature corruptible. Compare e.g. Fee, p.798, who says that the synonymous parallelism of 1 Cor. 15:50 indicates that the present physical body cannot inherit the heavenly existence of vv. 47-49. Again, in comment on Romans 7:18, Dunn, p.391, says that sarx (flesh) in contrast with soma (body) is tied to this age and must perish before redemption can be complete.) His argument was apparently that flesh and blood are essential to the nature of man and to be bereft of them means that man is no longer man even in heaven! His exact words were that “Paul is speaking not of flesh as such but of corruptible flesh. For he adds, ‘nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable’ (1 Cor. 15:50 NIV, emphasis mine). Paul is not affirming that the resurrection body will not have flesh, but that it will not have perishable flesh” (p.122). This I would (and did) argue is an impossible position to take, for since the creation from which flesh derives is by nature (that is, not on account of sin) perishable (Gen. 1:1; 8:22; Ps. 102:25-27; Heb. 1:11, etc.), it follows remorselessly that all flesh (dust, clay, grass) as such is also perishable (Isa. 40:6-8; 2 Cor. 4:7; James 1:10f.; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). It was never intended to last forever. This is why sinless animals, which do not know the law cannot break it (Rom. 4:15) and thereby earn its wages (Rom. 6:23), nonetheless die (i.e. apart from sin) and undergo corruption (decay). (11* On this see further my Death and Corruption, Geisler on the Redemption of Creation, etc. It might usefully be added at this point that Geisler seems to understand better than most the correspondence between the flesh and the creation. With a true philosopher’s logic he recognizes that if the creation is redeemed, so is the flesh which emanates from it, and vice versa (pp.32f.). In contrast and with similar logic, I adamantly deny both in my Romans 8:18-25, Creation Corruptible By Nature, etc.)

The Change in Nature

So what is the point I am making? It is that just as a change in nature is a ‘natural’, that is, a divine necessity for man to inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50-53, cf. 2 Pet. 1:4), so a change in nature was necessary for Christ the Word to become man in the first place, and again when he as man returned to heaven to regain his former glory (John 17:5,24; Phil. 3:21). This is what would appear to be involved in the heavenly assumption of mankind and was part and parcel of the plan of salvation from before the foundation of the earth. Apart from transformation, the change from flesh to spirit which involves the acquisition of the generic as well as the moral nature of God, salvation is impossible (cf. John 3:6). (We need to remember here, of course, that righteousness is the only gateway to eternal life, Lev. 18:5.) While we live on earth, God’s footstool, our flesh and indeed creation in general serve as an impenetrable barrier or veil between us and God and his throne. After all, even Isaiah in the OT recognized that God was a consuming fire with whom flesh could not possibly dwell (Isa. 33:14-17, cf. James 5:3, and note also 1 Tim. 6:16 and Paul’s blindness on his conversion). It is only through the mortal flesh of Jesus that that barrier or curtain can be penetrated to allow for man’s transformation and inheritance of the kingdom of God (cf. Heb. 6:19f.; 10:19f.).

The Heart of the Issue

Just as we are divested of our flesh in order to receive God’s generic nature as the children of God (1 Cor. 15:50-53; 1 Pet. 1:3f.; 4:6; 2 Pet. 1:3f.; 1 John 3:1-3), so the Word had to divest himself of his divine nature in order to take on human nature. God really did become man and if he didn’t, Christ was docetic, not what he seemed to be. In the event his change in nature highlights the amazing love of God (John 3:16) and the awe-inspiring humility freely accepted in order to save us and bring us to glory. Surely this is what Paul is teaching in Philippians 2, John in 1:1-18 (cf. 1 John 4:2; 2 John 7) and the author of Hebrews in chapter 2, and we dismiss it at our peril.

Anthropological/Cosmological Dualism

What traditional views fail to take account of is the fact that man is an anthropological dualism, both flesh and spirit (cf. Isa. 31:3; John 3:6, etc.) who corresponds with cosmological dualism (earth and heaven) and is hence an exception in the animal world. As flesh he is tied intrinsically and indissolubly to the earth and the animal world in general and as such he is naturally subject to both corruption and combustion, burial and cremation, dust and ashes (Heb. 12:27; James 5:3; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12, etc.). As the potential image and likeness of God (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18), however, he is linked with the eternal or heavenly world, for God has put eternity into his heart (Eccl. 3:11) and made eternity his goal (John 3:16, etc.). If he could take his flesh to heaven, then all the animals could presumably be accorded the same privilege. In fact, however, it is only man who on his divine side can be transformed, glorified and enter the presence of God minus his flesh which is temporary and corruptible by nature since it derives from the transient material creation (Gen. 2:7, cf. Heb. 2:7,9; 5:7). And in case the reader has any doubts, let me roundly assert that even Jesus could not enter his Father’s presence in the flesh, that is, as aging dust (clay, grass, cf. John 3:7; 1 Cor. 15:53), pace Geisler. Even he as flesh was corruptible, growing old (Luke 3:23; John 8:57) and was necessarily susceptible by nature, that is, by divine decree, to the transformation Paul clearly regards as indispensable. And it is Jesus precisely who, having differentiated between flesh and spirit (John 3:6), brought to light both life (cf. John 6:63) and incorruption (Gk 2 Tim. 1:10). (12* This, of course, raises the question of when Jesus himself underwent transformation. While I assert unequivocally that he did so at his ascension, cf. 1 Cor. 15:50-53, many in the course of church history have held the view that he was transformed or glorified at his resurrection from the grave. I maintain that this is impossible since both Peter, Acts 2:31, and Paul, Acts 13:34-37, emphasize the fact that he did not experience corruption in the grave in which case he must have remained the same flesh as was crucified. Alternatively expressed, what was sown was raised and his post-crucifixion body was numerically the same as his pre-resurrection body. It is at this point if not at others that I side strongly with Geisler against Harris. See my When Was Jesus Transformed?, Did Jesus Rise Physically From The Grave?, John Stott on the Putative Resurrection Transformation of Jesus)

In his aforementioned book Ware stoutly maintains and repeatedly asserts that Jesus was fully God and fully man, and depending what he means by this, I would agree. But where I would certainly disagree is that he had two natures simultaneously as opposed to successively. The former view is impossible, for it would logically require Christ to be two persons, not one. At this point it is worth recalling the illustration I used above regarding my becoming a dog. If I became a dog, I would not, could not retain my human nature. So it follows remorselessly by parity of reasoning that when Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, became man, he could not retain his divine nature. Despite this, however, as man born in the image of God like Adam before him (cf. Gen. 5:1-3; Luke 3:38), he did not for a moment lose his identity as that person. This the Scriptures are at pains to indicate (e.g. Heb. 10:5-10). But again I stress that if he did not change his nature, he did not become human at all! In other words, the retention of his divine nature inexorably implies denial of the incarnation and points unerringly to docetism.

The Incarnation and the Trinity

As I indicated above, those who are tied to tradition and confined by creed argue that when he became man Christ retained not merely his identity as the second person of the Trinity but his divine nature as well. In the words of Chalcedon his two natures were united “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly and inseparably”. They are therefore apparently convinced of two things: first, that Christ without his nature as God is no longer God (cf. Geisler and his insistence that man without flesh and blood is no longer man), and, secondly, that creation would collapse if he divested himself of that nature.

It is here, however, that Scripture intrudes its demurral. Apart from insisting that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37), there is not the slightest suggestion that Jesus ever lost his personal identity. He was always fully God in person if not in nature. This is surely implied in both his humiliation and his glorification. When he entered the world (kosmos) he was made lower than the angels; when he re-entered the world (oikoumene or heaven) as the first-born crowned with glory and honour (Heb. 2:9) all God’s angels worshipped him (Heb. 1:6). This view of the matter is essential to the gospel. His virginal conception and birth underwrote the fact that he was truly God’s human Son or God incarnate (cf. Adam, Luke 3:38). And like all good fathers his Father took care of him, treated him like a son, not an illegitimate bastard, and even disciplined (tested) him appropriately (cf. Heb. 5:7; 12:7f.). (13* Compare us believers who are (spiritually) born of God, John 1:13, and have his seed in us, 1 Pet. 1:23; 1 John 3:9, and are not abandoned as orphans, John 14:18. We do not, however, fully become the children of God until we receive his generic nature when our fleshly bodies finally succumb to corruption and we are given spiritual bodies at our resurrection transformation.) Furthermore, as a son, the only Son, on the level of his incarnation, that is his flesh, Jesus was as subject to salvation as the rest of us (cf. Heb. 5:7) since there was no good in his flesh even apart from sin (John 6:63; Rom. 7:18; 1 Cor. 1:29 Gk). Autosoterism or self-salvation was as alien to Jesus the man as it is to us. (14* At this point the reader needs to appreciate the fact that I deny that sin is the only obstacle or barrier to salvation. As I argue in my Not Only But Also we need to be rescued from the world and the flesh by nature as God intimated when he promised naturally mortal and corruptible Adam eternal life noticeably before he sinned on condition of the perfect obedience which he could not provide, Gen. 2:17, cf. Lev. 18:5. We need to be born again and transformed by nature apart from sin, but sin is what prevents this from taking place.) Well does Ware stress that Jesus felt deeply his need of divine assistance and what must be provided to him by another (p.61). So, with the superficial exception of John 10:17f., the NT writers make it crystal clear that he was totally dependent on his heavenly Father. And like the rest of us believers of whom he was the pioneer, he was kept by the power of God through unwavering faith (1 Pet. 1:5) and whole-hearted commitment (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 8:29, etc.). In other words, as God in person he kept the commandments to perfection in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14). (15* It must never be forgotten that Jesus uniquely kept the law, the condition of eternal life, Lev. 18:5, and so brought in life, 2 Tim. 1:10. His manifest dependence on his Father is a subject in itself and one which I cannot reasonably explore at this juncture. It must be stressed, however, that if he retained his nature as God, his dependence on his Father would be superfluous, totally unnecessary (cf. Jud. 6:31). Again, the idea that he simply kept it in abeyance brings its own problems, not least docetism.)

Continued Divine Activity

It should be noted that it is Jesus himself who while still in the flesh insists that his Father is always at work in a way that he himself as a dependent man on earth cannot be (John 5:17). The sovereign God who created and continues to sustain the world now sustains him in the flesh which is an integral part of the world. He thus ensures that he (Jesus) fulfils the purpose for which he came, for God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). It is on this account that Paul is adamant that Jesus’ humiliation and subsequent exaltation are to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:11). All this underlines the basic, non-negotiable truth of the Trinity. While my JW visitors denied both the incarnation and the Trinity, I argued strongly for both since it is impossible to have the one without the other.

The Trinity Again

This leads directly to my next point. Since all three persons of the immanent Trinity are equally God, are of the same substance (consubstantial) and so share the same essence and nature, it follows that each person of the Godhead can perform the function of the others. This has been the longstanding conviction of the church based on Scripture in times past. Thus in a chapter on the Trinity Knox rightly avers that the close unity of Trinitarian relationship is expressed in the theological dictum that all God’s works in the world are not divided (p.54). And a little later he adds significantly that the works (and words) of God in the world may be ascribed to any of the persons of the Trinity. Alan Richardson, who was professor of theology at Nottingham when I was there, arguably makes the situation clearer when he explains that in every activity of each of the three ‘persons’ it is always the one-and-the-same God who acts (16* Latin: Opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa, p.123. See also J.I.Packer in God the Holy Trinity, ed. George, p.102.) Now if this language of appropriation, or mutuality of powers, is true, concern about providence and the sustaining of creation during the incarnation is unwarranted, even misplaced and implicitly a denial of the Trinity. As we have already seen, while he was here on earth temporarily in the flesh (Heb. 2:7,9; 5:7) Jesus himself said explicitly that God was still at work and by implication not least in himself (John 5:17, cf. 10:37; 14:10, etc.), a fact that even Nicodemus recognized (John 3:2).

A Retrojection

While there may be difficulties, not least exegetical ones, with the suggestions I have put forward, it is arguable, especially in view of John 1:1-4, that the apparent references to Jesus as the Son before his incarnation are but retrojections of his earthly sonship. After all, I remember my mother saying in my youth such things as “When I was expecting Ken …”. The truth is that during her pregnancy she didn’t even know that I was a boy. I became ‘Ken’ later after birth and before that only in retrospect. Wayne Grudem in his commentary on 1 Peter 4:6 (p.159) even more appositely refers to the birth of Queen Elizabeth in 1926 and points out that at that stage she was not a queen, and, as history makes plain, not even likely to be so. But whereas she who, relatively speaking, was a nobody became a somebody, Jesus was a somebody who became a nobody (‘of no reputation’ according to the KJV, compare also Hos. 1:9f.). With these examples in mind, I suggest that awareness of the danger of thinking anachronistically when dealing with Christological problems may enable us to question more boldly what is known as the eternal generation of the Son or Jesus’ eternal Sonship.

Eternal Generation

So Ware’s book raises another point which relates directly to the incarnation and the issue of docetism. He refers frequently to Christ as the eternal Son of God. In a note in his opening chapter (p.15) he distinguishes three distinct but related senses in which the word ‘Son’ is used, the first being eternal Son. (17* Lane, who seems to have reservations, is putting it mildly when he says that there is a certain degree of unresolved tension in the author of Hebrews’ designation of Jesus as Son since the title can be applied to the pre-existent Son, to the incarnate Son where its use may be proleptic, and to the exalted Son, pp.25f., cf. pp.cxxxix,12,118,121.) In support of this he alludes to John 3:16f., Galatians 4:4, Hebrews 1:1f. and 1 John 4:9f.

It so happens that shortly before I read his book I had read part of Kevin Giles’ on The Eternal Generation of the Son. I found it impressive but a good deal less than convincing. It seemed to me to betray a number of serious weaknesses, one in particular as we shall see.


First, the expression ‘eternal generation’ is enigmatic at best and almost certainly not understood by most who encounter it especially as they recite the Nicene Creed. Second, it seems to be a contradiction in terms, a veritable oxymoron. Third, Giles virtually admits his failure to find explicit biblical evidence supporting his case (e.g. pp.66,88) and relies heavily on the great theologians of the past, creedal tradition and convoluted theological reasoning. Fourth, it is difficult to see why if Jesus was the eternal Son of God he needed to keep the law as a man in order to meet the condition of regeneration and eternal life (Mt. 3:13-17). (18* Of course, his regeneration is strongly denied in the Augustinian tradition which links it with sin and thereby emphasizes its inherent docetism. The truth is that regeneration relates primarily to nature not to sin as John 3:3-8 plainly indicate to the unprejudiced eye. See further my Was Jesus Born Again?) How could he as the eternal Son grow older, die, be raised, ascend and be transformed thereby inheriting a new nature. How could God give up his own Son to death if he was still his eternal co-equal Son (Rom. 8:32)? Would this not be deicide, even suicide? Indeed, this ought to remind us that if the Son retained his nature as God who is a consuming fire during his incarnation, he would have been self-consumed (cf. Isa. 33:14; James 5:3. The story in Daniel 3 hardly constitutes a denial of this. After all, Jesus miraculously walked on water contrary to the laws of nature.) Again, the idea that Jesus as the eternal Son of God retained his divine nature as the incarnate Son of God and presumably watched himself, that is, his alter ego (!), his human nature, die on the cross is quite beyond my understanding. (If Jesus was not two persons as the two-nature theory implies, he was not two sons either.) Such ‘schizophrenia’ is, I suggest, totally alien to Scripture and indeed reality. Fifth, how could we be regarded as Jesus’ brothers all having one origin and all sharing a common sanctification (Heb. 2:10-13)? If we are Jesus’ human brothers we have a common Father. In the OT God was not known as Father (though note Ex. 4:22; Hos. 11:1) except in prophecies such as Psalm 2:7f. (cf. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5f.). Jesus’ birth of a virgin signifies his change of nature (cf. O’Brien, p.224 n.119). Mary was not the mother of God (theotokos) but of a fleshly human son (cf. Gal. 4:4) who was hence our brother. In other words, Christ could not at once be the eternal pre-incarnate Son of God and our elder brother. Rather, it was the incarnate Christ who became our brother, the antitype of Adam. Sixth, the impression is constantly given in the NT that Jesus first became a son at his birth (Luke 1:32) or creation in the womb of Mary (Heb. 10:5) and his sonship was progressively acknowledged and confirmed as he matured (=was perfected, cf. 2 Cor. 3:18) as a true human being at his baptism (Mt. 3:17), his transfiguration (Mt. 17:5) his resurrection (13:33) and finally his ascension (Rom. 1:4; Heb. 1:6). The pleasure of his Father at his righteous and holy conduct (Mt. 3:17; 17:5) so manifestly missing with regard to the rest of us implies his genuine humanity. Well does Paul say that he (God) condemned sin in the flesh of his Son (Rom. 8:3). It was on account of his sinlessness in the flesh that Jesus, the Son of David, was raised to power (Rom. 1:3f.) (19* I take the reference to Jesus’ resurrection here comprehensively, i.e. meaning resurrection, ascension, exaltation and session. This would seem to be confirmed by verse 5.) It is as man, and obviously not as the eternal Son of God, that he is said to have become superior to angels (1 Pet. 3:22, cf. Eph. 1:20-23) both in essence and in name (Heb. 1:4), and it is as man that he became the mediator (1 Tim. 2:5), the plenipotentiary of God (Mt. 28:18) and a life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45, cf. John 5:26). Seventh, according to John it was the eternal Word, and implicitly not the eternal Son, who became flesh (John 1:14) though Ware like so many others equates the two. It was as (human) son (cf. Gal. 4:1f.) that Jesus was appointed to be a prophet (greater than Moses), priest, and heir (king) by means of an oath and no mere promise (cf. Heb. 1:2-5; 5:5; 7:1-28). This is part of the essence of the argument of the author of Hebrews who regularly and surely significantly refers to ‘Jesus’ throughout his letter and majors on Jesus’ humanity (cf. Heb. 2:17, and 2:14 which corresponds with Romans 8:3). In light of this Jesus can be regarded as eternal Son at best only retrospectively. However, serious difficulties arise from regarding Jesus as the eternal Son without implying his eternal subordination and thereby denying his equality. Again, in eternity he did not have a mother! But even more to the point according to the author of Hebrews he did not have a father either (7:3)! Furthermore, the bracketing of Psalm 1:8 and 2 Samuel 7:14 together in Hebrews 1:5 points away from the eternal Son idea which is as foreign to Scripture as it is to experience. Indeed, it is fair to say that the ultimate reference of 2 Samuel 7:14 to Jesus, the Son of Mary, is difficult to miss. It is he who will be God’s firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth (Heb. 1:6, cf. Col. 1:15) and the one who inherits the name of Lord (Heb. 1:4, cf. Rom. 1:4). This suggests that the entire notion of the eternal generation of the Son is an ecclesiastical concoction based on misunderstanding, not least the assumption that God cannot change his nature. On the other hand we can accept without qualm Hughes’ implication in comment on Hebrews 1:2 that the eternal Word who had brought the world into being became the Word incarnate (p.36). And this is doubtless what Paul meant when he said that God sent his born-of-a-woman Son (cf. Rom. 1:3) in the fullness of time, not eternity (Gal. 4:4f., cf. John 1:1-4; 3:16f.; 1 John 4:9f., cf. Rom. 8:3). (20* Lane’s claim that the order of (eternal) Son, creation and inheritance is logical is disputable, p.12. It would seem that the ‘transcendent dignity’ which he attributes to the Son is post- not pre-incarnate throughout Hebrews 1. Mention of his original role (note the ‘also’) as creator reads like an explanatory comment or reminder of his real identity as the second person of the Trinity, cf. John 1:10.) Eighth, it is Jesus the incarnate son who is the heir (Mark 12:7, cf. Gal. 4:1-7). But in eternity both Paul and John insist that as co-Creator he as the Word was equal with God and the owner of all (John 1:11; Col. 1:16, etc.). But it is only as the incarnate Son of his Father that he is both priest and heir. In any case, how could he be heir to everything he already owned (cf. Ps. 50:10ff.; Heb. 1:10-12)? Furthermore, it is surely in light of his human sonship that the devil tempted him and offered him what was not his to give, that is, all the kingdoms of the world and their glory (Mt. 4:8f., cf. Mt. 5:5). The fact is that Jesus as the incarnate Son was along with us the heir of his Father (cf. Rom. 8:17). In eternity, however, his so-called Father was not his Father but God equal with the eternal Word as both Paul and John assert. The truth is that this Word voluntarily, lovingly and humbly became a son, the Son, at his incarnation in order to redeem his brothers under the law (Gal. 4:4f., cf. Heb. 9:15b). Ninth, if Lane’s claim that Jesus’ sonship is correlated with his priesthood by the author of Hebrews is correct (p.cxl), since the latter was not eternal (cf. Ps. 110:4), then neither was the former. But to say this is immediately to bring into question the notions of eternal Father and Son yet again. How could they be such before the foundation of the world? How could God the Trinity be both consubstantial Father and Son at one and the same time? Such designations make sense only if they apply after the incarnation. Prior to that time they are prophetic promises. At this point it becomes clear that we are back with anachronistic thinking, projectionism and the tendency of our forefathers to treat the Bible as a flat uniformity devoid of historical and doctrinal development. Their misunderstanding is patent.

Tenth, Giles as an Anglican relies more heavily than I care to do on traditional creeds, confessions and the great theologians of the past. While not denying the greatness of the latter, I jib at investing them with the semblance of infallibility, and hence regard them as vulnerable, subject to criticism, correction and upgrading in the light of my understanding of Scripture. Having said that, while I would not quarrel with Giles’ claim regarding the anti-subordinationist intentions of Athanasius et al., I would certainly quarrel with the language they used which almost inevitably leads to misunderstanding even among the most able theologians as the evidence Giles himself produces indicates. The problem is that to our ears they say one thing and mean another and the very notion of the eternal generation of the Son as opposed to the Word is, apart from being a contradiction in terms, inherently docetic. Like Ware whom he criticizes on other grounds (pp.33f.,229f.) he is implicitly docetic if not intentionally subordinationist in his thinking and at the end of the day, Giles is a prime example of the pot calling the kettle black. The sooner the idea of the eternal generation of the Son is dropped the better or docetism will continue to dominate the church.

The problem arises from the fact that Giles relies heavily on Athanasius whom he greatly admires. On page 73 (cf. p.116, etc.) after quoting him he comments that Athanasius saw with great clarity that if the Son is not eternal then God is a God who changes. Precisely! Giles like Lightfoot, Bruce and the rest simply cannot accept the great exchange of Philippians 2. He clearly regards it as impossible and hence, logically, he denies the incarnation (cf. 1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7). As for Athanasius, he apparently held a static or non-dynamic view of an immutable God. By contrast, I argue that the Trinity retained its identity but changed its nature. John’s prologue which most would claim is modeled on Genesis 1 makes it clear that the creator God of the OT became Father and the Word became incarnate Son. The plain truth is that the Son as Son was not eternal and not equal and not independent but very definitely subordinate. It is only as the Word that he was eternal. And he remained the Word of God in person even when he changed his nature! Despite all his protestations, Giles himself falls prey to what he condemns in others, that is, the interpretation of the immanent Trinity in terms of the economic Trinity. Without any biblical support, he applies the term ‘Son’ to the immanent Trinity and fails to note that John in his prologue studiously avoids this. Put otherwise, his projectionist use of the word Son inevitably means he is docetic if not intentionally subordinationist in his thinking since the eternal Son by definition is unchangeable and therefore cannot be incarnate and mortal. To argue then that the language that is traditionally used is analogical not univocal (see e.g. p.260) is beside the point. The damage has been done.

So when Ware regards Christ as the eternal Son, that is, as the Son of God eternally generated prior to the incarnation, on the basis of questionable exegesis of texts like Romans 1:3f., 8:3 and Galatians 4:4, I must protest. (21* As already implied I argue that Jesus as a man was a son by ‘natural’ even if by virgin birth and, since he uniquely kept the law, cf. Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc., by spiritual rebirth. John 3:3-7 applies to all believers including Jesus if he was truly human just as certainly as Paul says transformation does in 1 Cor. 15:53. Berkhof, p.472, rightly maintained that John 3:3 does not allow for exceptions, but he somehow failed to recognize that if Jesus was truly human even he could not be an exception either, since exception implies exclusion. Denial of this again raises the issue of docetism which pervades traditional theology. See once more my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities, Death and Corruption.) Does this not mean that he was eternally subordinate? Indeed, Richardson’s comment (p.123) is a propos at this point. He writes: “The very word ‘Son’ implies derivation, subordination and dependence”. If so, then the second person of the Trinity, the very Word of God (John 1:1-4), is not as equal as Paul avers (Phil. 2:6), and Richardson’s further comment that the word ‘Son’ “asserts identity of substance and therefore co-equal divinity” is quite gratuitous. (22* Compare Hughes, who, claiming the support of Athanasius and Cullman, says that the title “Son” implies the consubstantiality of Christ with the Father, p.40. Perhaps it does but it certainly does not imply equality as Galatians 4:1-7, for example, intimates. It is an extremely dubious thesis if it means that Jesus as the original Word was simultaneously the Son.) Not only is it open to question but it is also a patent non sequitur. If Jesus was the eternal Son, he could arguably be compared with Absalom waiting in the wings ever ready to seize his Father’s throne. But this is the exact opposite of Paul’s assertion that Christ Jesus as the Word did not regard his equality with God as something to be clung to. Like King Edward VIII, Jesus abdicated his throne, if only temporarily (Heb. 2:7,9), not for love of a woman but for the sake of mankind in general. (23* Of course, it may be said that the Jews were incensed when Jesus referred to himself as Son because that made him equal with God in John 5:18, 19:7. But this involves a question of status rather than ontology. Whatever ‘equal with God’ meant, for them it was blasphemy.)


If the designation ‘eternal Son’ implies subordination (as Ware among others apparently thinks), it must inevitably detract from the humiliation that the incarnation involved. In other words, it leads to the inference that the incarnation of the subordinate Son is one thing and that God became man is another. At its worst it implies that a strict and severe Father ordered his son to do his dirty work! Yet, on my thesis even Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, does not compare with the sacrifice God made. For if the Word was equal with, even was God and was of one substance with God, his sacrifice was infinitely greater. God himself was in Christ his incarnate Son reconciling the world to himself. If this is so, Ware’s laudable emphasis on the eternal Son’s humiliation falls short of the reality. My contention is that the humiliation was so radical that it involved a freely undertaken change in the divine nature, pace Athanasius, undertaken to accommodate man. Indeed, it was so great that Jesus was not ashamed to call us his brothers (Heb. 2:11, cf. 2:17; Phil. 2:7b). In his book, God’s Greater Glory, Ware impressively highlights the unconditional character of God’s love (see e.g. p.56) and Fee, who majors on the character of God, observes in comment on Philippians 2:7 that God is self-giving for the sake of others (p.211). How true. Yet, he also says that the one who was himself God and never during the whole process stopped being God did not exchange one form of existence for another (n.81). But surely this is precisely what Paul is asserting, and it is at this point that we touch the heart of the divine humiliation. If we deny it, we diminish that humiliation and are back with docetism. The change in nature is as absolutely indispensable to incarnation and humiliation as it is to regeneration, transformation and ultimate glorification. Truly did Jesus, who as God the Word was rich, become poor for our sakes, 2 Cor. 8:9, and just as truly do we by a change in nature become the children of God (1 John 3:1-3, cf. John 3:1-8; 1 Cor. 15:50-53). Of course, it may be said that this change brought about a kind of separation or distancing within the Trinity which a change in nature would seem necessarily to imply. After all, man is distant from God by nature. He begins by being far off, is made near and is eventually given access to the very presence of God (Eph. 2:17-21, cf. Dan. 7:13f.). Thus the development or perfection of Jesus was fundamental to his life in the flesh and paved the way for his God-ordained transformation. The question is: Is this still further supported by Scripture? It is important to try and find out.

The Covenant of Redemption

However, before we leave the subject of the eternal Sonship and by implication the eternal generation of the Son which I claim implicitly belittles both the love and humiliation of God in Christ, it is important to draw attention to what I regard as a much more congenial idea, that of the covenant (or counsel or council) of redemption which is characteristic of Reformed orthodoxy as ‘the eternal prototype of the historical covenant of grace’ (Berkhof, p.270). Correctly understood and this is important, it surely eliminates the idea of Christ as the eternal Son and presents him as the eternal Word of God, a co-equal member of the Trinity, playing his proper and fundamental role in the formation of the covenant or pactum salutis (John 1:1-4, 14; 6:37-51;14:15-17,26; 15:26; 16:12-15). In other words, the plan of salvation formed before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 1:2) involved an eternal pact within the Godhead between the three persons who were the same in essence, power and glory as God, Word and Spirit. Though they were implied as early as Genesis 1:26, only at the incarnation, at the beginning of the Christian dispensation, did they become Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a change of nature, relationship and function. As Berkhof says (p.266), it is only in the economy of redemption that there is an apparent division of labour by which the Father is the originator, the Son the executor and the Holy Spirit the applier.

Permanent Humanity

It is often said that Jesus remains eternally incarnate in heaven (24* See, for example, Bruce, Hebrews, p.98, Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.859, cf. p.835; Packer, Christianity Today, March 2004). In light of 1 Corinthians 15:50 to go no further this cannot be literally true. A change in nature, a transformation, necessarily intervened (1 Cor. 15:53). What is true is that Jesus is forever human. But while he is no longer (temporary, corruptible, combustible) flesh, pace Geisler, (cf. Heb. 2:7,9; 5:7; 1 Cor. 15:50-53), he clearly does not divest himself of the humanity or the image of God in which he is perfected (Heb. 1:3; 2:10; 5:9; 7:28). The question then arises: Does he regain the divine nature as opposed to the glory that he laid aside at his incarnation (cf. John 3:13; 17:5,24)? What seems to be the case is that like all human beings who enter the presence of God, while he receives by necessity the generic nature of God (John 3:6; 2 Pet. 1:4; 1 Pet. 4:6), he cannot so long as he remains man become God as such in a Nirvana-like absorption. For a start he has a body (Phil. 3:21) and God has not, but it is in the embodied Jesus that we see God (Col. 2:9, etc., cf. John 14:9; 20:28).

Since we ourselves as the sons (children) of God become God-like, even gods according to Jesus in John 10:34, we nonetheless retain our individuality and separate identity with spiritual as opposed to dusty bodies (1 Cor. 15:46-49; 2 Cor. 5:1; Phil. 3:21). Next, it is as man perfected (Heb. 7:26,28) that Jesus takes his place at the right hand of God (1 Pet. 3:22, etc.) and it is there that we ourselves as his fellow conquerors and children of God join him (Rev. 3:21), but neither he nor we literally become God (in nature). Then we need to realize that in the book of Revelation we read not simply of God on his throne but of God and the Lamb who in chapters 4 and 5 are equally but individually glorified (cf. 5:13; 14:4; 15:3; 21:22; 22:1,3). Though they are always one in spirit or character (cf. John 10:30), they always remain as distinguishable as they were in the immanent Trinity. This is made manifest in Hebrews, especially 12:22-24 where the living God is differentiated from Jesus the mediator (cf. John 17:1-3). (25* Note how Jesus sits at the right hand of God in Heb. 1:3,13; 8:1; 10:12f.; 12:2, cf. 4:14;7:26.) Furthermore, it is the still-God-in-person Jesus who has the generic nature of God as man and who is man the mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5, cf. John 1:51). In Jesus the perfection of man in the image of God attains its apogee (cf. Rom. 8:29). The union between man and God is here as close as it can get (John 1:18). In the words of Morris it stresses that “Christ is in the closest possible relation to the Father” (p.112). But it comes short of identification. The distinction is not obliterated, not intended to be and indeed cannot be if the gospel is true.

Is Jesus God?

So if I am asked if Jesus the man is God, I immediately respond in the affirmative (John 1:18; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13, etc.). Yes, Jesus remains eternally, essentially and ontologically God in person but not consubstantially so as in his pre-existence as the Word. He does not recover the divine nature (the Trinitarian consubstantiality) of which he divested himself when he became man for the simple reason that in the saving plan of God he remains forever man and as such the King of kings. To recontextualize the language of Athanasius as quoted by Giles (p.117), “The Father is ever the Father and never could become Son, so the Son is ever Son and never could become Father”. Rather as Paul intimates in Colossians 1:15 he is not God per se but the image of God and the firstborn of all creation (cf. Heb. 1:3). (26* Again I would point out that for two natures there must be two persons. And Jesus is one, Eph. 4:5f. Having changed his nature at his incarnation, he is now the perfected image of God by exaltation, function, power and heavenly session, cf. Rom. 1:3f. Alternatively expressed, he is man perfected in the image and likeness of God, Rom. 8:29; Heb. 1:3. If this is the case, we might well ask how if he had retained his divine nature he could he become the image of God, 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3. In the event, when we see him, we see God the Father whose express image he is, John 14:9; Rom. 8:29; Heb. 1:3; Rev. 22:4.)

Man’s Permanent Subordination

Again, it is imperative for us to be aware that Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 presents the perfected man Jesus to us, not in his so-called equality as the eternal Son but as God’s exact image as man seated at his right hand (Eph. 1:20-23; Heb. 1:3, etc.). It is the all-conquering Jesus (Rom. 8:31-39; Rev. 5:5) who delivers the kingdom to God the Father. In other words, even though Jesus is at once the Son of man and the Son of God in his humanity not his divinity (cf. John 1:1-4; Phil. 2:6), he is by nature subordinate. God as God remains forever and ever (Rev. 4:9-11), but the same is now said of the Lamb (Rev. 5:13, cf. John 3:16; Dan. 7:13f.). Truly in Christ are God and man united in an eternal relationship, and now with all relationships restored (Acts 3:21; Col 1:20) God is all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). Well does Jesus urge those who believe in God to believe in him (John 14:1f.). Just as it was with Joseph (cf. Esther 3:1f.), a type of Christ if ever there was one, who ruled over all Egypt with the exception of Pharaoh himself, so it is with Jesus, the Man, who sits forever at God’s right hand (Gen. 41:40-44; Ps. 110:1; Eph. 1:20-23; Heb. 1:3,13; 1 Pet. 3:22, etc.). Such is the wonder of the gospel testifying to the love the Father has given us that we should be called the children of God and fellow heirs with Christ (1 John 3:1; Rom. 8:17).

Additional Note

If we as children or sons of God are not (equal with) God, neither is Jesus as the Son of God, pace Athanasius et al. Of course it may be replied that Jesus was the unique Son of God, but then it may be countered that the NT teaches that we are brothers and Jesus is our elder brother (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:10-13). The fact is that we are now by nature what Jesus is (cf. Irenaeus and interchange) and we shall be with him forever (John 12:26; 1 Thes. 4:17) and in the same Father’s house (John 14:2-3) with a body like his (Phil. 3:21). We share together the generic nature of God our Father as his children (cf. 1 Pet. 4:6) just as all the children of Adam, including Jesus, shared his generic nature without actually being Adam (Gen. 5:1-3; Luke 3:38; 1 Cor. 15:46-49; Heb. 2:14,17; 5:7, pace those who believe in the imputation of Adam’s sin or Platonic realism). Otherwise expressed, we are together ‘deified’ (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4) in the sense that we are transformed (1 Cor. 15:50-53). Jesus differs from us only in that he forever remains God in person and has pre-eminence. (When the author of Hebrews says that he remains the same yesterday, today and forever, 13:14, he is obviously referring to his personal deity and character. If he were referring to his nature, he would be denying his incarnation and the very fact that he is truly human even in heaven. In view of Hebrews 2 this is the very last thing he is saying.) It is at this point that God and man are indissolubly united in ‘marriage’ (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:32). And it is for this reason that our salvation is eternally unshakable (Rom. 8:31-39). It can never be undone. That is why divorce except on grounds of adultery, which at this point is not on the horizon, is taboo.

Summary of Basic Contentions

1. Whereas it is possible for three persons to share one nature as in the Trinity and for many persons to share the one (human) nature of Adam (Gen. 5:1-3), it is impossible for one person to have two natures at one and the same time. Only he who was God the Creator was ever in a position to become man (creature) and elevate his fellow human beings (creatures) to heaven and the divine presence. Christ could not at one and the same time be God and his eternal Son eternally generated (cf. Gal. 4:1-7). The eternal generation of the Son as opposed to the Word involves a profound misunderstanding. Jesus became (was made and was not begotten as) a Son and God a Father at the incarnation, not before. In other words, the Trinity as God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a NT revelation. Though purposed before the ages began (2 Tim. 1:9), it was realized when the time had fully come (Gal. 4:4) and was integral to the plan of salvation.

2. Jesus was the incarnate Son of God uniquely (monogenes) born of a virgin (Mt. 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-20; Gal. 4:4; Rom. 1:3f.). Denial of this constitutes radical heresy (1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7).

3. The incarnation necessarily involved a change in nature (John 1:14; Phil. 2:6-8), so when God became man, he thereby humbled himself (cf. Heb. 2:7,9; 5:7). While remaining forever God in person, the Word ceased to be God in nature when he took on human nature. Just as we who are flesh are divested of our flesh in order to receive God’s generic nature as his children (1 Cor. 15:50-53), so Jesus divested himself of his divine nature in order to become flesh, the son of Mary.

4. Jesus the incarnate Son of God became a servant and died the death of a slave. He was thus perfected (cf. John 19:30; Heb. 2:9) and exalted (Acts 2:33,36) as man in the image of God. It is only as God in person and man in nature that Jesus could serve as man the mediator and give himself as a ransom for man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5f.).

5. Jesus the Man, the perfected image of God, sits exalted and crowned with glory (Heb. 2:9, cf. John 17:5,24; Eph. 1:20-23) at God’s right hand as the pioneer, priest and representative of his people (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3; Rev. 3:21, cf. Dan. 7:13f.). He is notably Jesus Christ our Lord, the King of kings.

6. Jesus as glorified man is forever subordinate to God (1 Cor. 15:24-28) in accordance with the covenant of redemption freely entered into by the immanent Trinity. No wonder Paul, like John (1 John 3:1) was both overawed and overwhelmed by his sheer love and humility.



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A Note on Giles

1. Giles implies that the Fathers said one thing but meant another. They were both confused and confusing.

2. The language of the Fathers is subordinationist because they were covert docetists who logically if not intentionally undermined the incarnation. They inevitably contributed to the rampant subordinationism evident in modern theology.

3. The term eternal generation or procession of the Son and of the Spirit is contradictory and implicitly denies the equality of both. Again it contributes to modern subordinationism and docetism.

4. It cannot be biblically justified (see e.g., p.66). John 1:1-18, which summarizes the immanent Trinity of the OT, that is, God the Creator, the Word and the Spirit, studiously avoids this language and stands in violent contrast with it.

5. The term ‘eternal generation of the Son’ is conditioned by and culled from the economic Trinity, yet Giles strongly insists that the immanent Trinity should not be construed or determined by it, rather the reverse. In other words, Giles, like his mentor Athanasius, holds to a false view of the immanent Trinity where there is neither Father nor (implicitly subordinate) Son but God, Word and Spirit in equality.

6. The term ‘eternal generation’ of the Son like the term ‘eternal Son’ is inherently docetic since it implies that there can be no change in the nature as opposed to the person of the Word, yet it is this change in nature which is integral to both the humiliation of God (kenosis) and of the incarnate Son, as Paul affirms.

7. It is only when the time had fully come (Gal. 4:4) that the eternal Word became the Son and the creator God the Father in relational change (cf. Heb. 1:5). (Note how in Hebrews 1 the prophets speak first and are followed by the Son who according to Deuteronomy 18:18-22 succeeded Moses.) In other words, the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is confined to the NT and to Christianity. It illustrates the progress of both covenantal revelation and dogma (cf. John 17:3). It is as incarnate Son that Jesus invaded the devil’s domain and conquered (Mt. 12:22-32, cf. Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.).

Arius and Athanasius

It might usefully be added in clarification at this point that both Arius and Athanasius especially as expounded by Giles were wrong. Neither understood the nature of the immanent Trinity. Athanasius, who used the language of subordinationism but sought to deny the fact, clearly thinks of the immanent Trinity in terms of the economic Trinity and denies that Jesus was by nature a creature like all other human beings (cf. pp. 113f.). His attempt to avoid the charge of subordinationism must therefore be pronounced a failure (pace Pannenberg who opined that “Athanasius vanquished subordinationism”, p.113). In contrast, Arius wrongly believed that God was a divine monad (cf. Greek philosophy) not a Trinity (p.102, cf. pp.67,113f.). This being so, it was impossible for him to believe in the incarnation, as I suggested earlier in my essay. Given his presupposition, Jesus was a creature and could not be anything else no matter how exalted. On the other hand, if he had recognized with Scripture that Jesus was God in person but visibly a creature in nature (see especially Luke 24:39; John 20:28), he would have hit the nail on the head. Again I must point out that man cannot see the unveiled God, who is both a consuming fire and dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16), and live. When Jesus returns in his glory and that of God (Mt. 16:27; Luke 9:26), he will come as fire and light. And he will come to destroy his enemies but also to rescue and transform his people.

In my view Giles’ book, though reflecting profundity of thought, genuine erudition and given his presuppositions considerable powers of argumentation, resembles John Murray’s The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Grand Rapids, 1959) in that it is founded on a glaring fallacy (see my D.M.Lloyd-Jones and J.Murray on the Imputation of Adam’s Sin, Straightforward Arguments against the Imputation of Adam’s Sin to his Posterity). He fails to appreciate, first, that the Son as Son does not belong to the immanent Trinity. If he did, he would not be equal, and both his incarnation and his humiliation would be diminished, if not impossible. Second, at the incarnation Jesus, the Word, remained God in person but not in nature (pace the Athanasian Creed’s “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God” where the former is indispensable to the latter). In him the invisible God changed his nature and became visible (cf. John 14:9; 20:28f.) temporal, even temporary, flesh (2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 2:7,9).

In light of this, I for one will not be joining with Giles in confessing the Nicene Creed which refers to Jesus Christ as eternally begotten of the Father and begotten not made (p.261). Denial that Jesus was made denies that he was ‘made by hand’ (cheiropoietos) and hence flesh. In other words, it inexorably implies denial of the incarnation. The plain fact is that far from being eternally begotten the Son as son was made, as teaching about the Virgin Birth in particular amply demonstrates (Mt. 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-20, cf. Rom. 8:3; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 2:14,17; 10:5). It is simply not correct to say following Augustine that the economy reveals what is eternally true (p.158), for he who was God humbled himself and became flesh in time (John 1:14; Gal. 4:4). The salvation of mankind was no mere demonstration of power as in Islam but required a change in the very nature of God himself. In love and humility he made that change. In his humiliation he became flesh like a flower of the grass but in his exaltation he rejoiced (cf. James 1:9f.; Heb. 2:7.9; 12:2).  The language of eternal Sonship leads inexorably to original subordinationism, docetism, obfuscation and confusion. Rather than protecting the Trinity, it has the effect of jeopardizing both it and the incarnation. It is safer by far to use the language and logic of Scripture and avoid that of creeds and confessions where misunderstanding is permanently enshrined.

A note on Carson’s ‘Jesus The Son of God’

Since writing the above I have read the important little book Jesus The Son of God (Wheaton, 2012) by Don Carson. He does not directly address the problem of docetism and he does not refer to it. However, he accepts the eternal generation of the Son without equivocation and so fails to appreciate its ramifications and implications. For example, on pages 66f., where he is dealing with John 5:16-30, he talks of the Son’s functional subordination. But surely Jesus’ subordination was much more than merely functional. While he retained his eternal deity as a person (cf. Heb. 7:8,16; 13:8), he was clearly subordinate in nature or he did not become mortal flesh and play the role of a servant. (As a well-known commentator on John’s gospel Carson has apparently failed to notice the change in nature implied in 1:10f. and 1:12f., cf. John 3:1-8, not to mention that in verse 14.) Carson says (ibid.) that Jesus’ imitation of his Father was exhaustive. It was indeed, praise God!, but as man in the flesh (cf. Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.). If he was still the so-called eternal Son of God this would be quite unremarkable! But it was as man that he was made perfect like his Father (Mt. 5:48) and as his perfect(ed) image (Heb. 1:3) able to blaze a trail for us into his presence (Heb. 2:10; 12:2, etc.). Carson also says that the Son in contrast with us created a universe, but he fails to add ‘but as the Word and definitely not as the Son’. Indeed, as the latter he was part of creation himself (cf. Col. 1:15)!

However, it is on page 41 that Carson makes his position crystal clear. Here he denies in effect the difference between the immanent and the economic Trinity and hence logically denies the Word’s incarnational change or change in nature so clearly taught in John 1:14. My contention is that Jesus was NOT the Son of God from eternity but the eternal Word equal with God, God as such in fact (John 1:1, cf. Phil. 2:6), who became the Son of God when, not after as Carson suggests, he arrived in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4). (It is here that adoptionism is rigorously excluded.) If it is ‘fanciful’ (Carson’s word) to think this way, then I respectfully suggest that he has misunderstood the biblical position. It has long been a mystery to me that John should begin his gospel with reference to the Word as (equal with) God if the notion of the eternal generation of the Son is true. If it is a genuine biblical doctrine, here of all places it ought to have found prominence. In fact, however, the apostle’s prologue is a distillation of the somewhat recondite OT teaching on the Trinity where God, the Word and the Spirit all appear, albeit sporadically. (The Spirit, of course, is not referred to in the prologue but appears unmistakably as the third person of the Trinity later in the gospel.) Again, I conclude that the Trinity conceived as Father, Son and Holy Spirit belongs to the new and certainly not to the old covenant. The change in covenant involved a change in the nature of God.

But it is his manifest misunderstanding of Hebrews that really upends Carson. He states rather naively in comment on Hebrews on page 41, “the Son (his italics) is the one by whom God made the universe”. But where in the whole Bible is this taught? Here he clearly fails to see that the author employs the term Son (of God) in projectionist fashion, as I suggested above. The author’s intention throughout Hebrews 1 is surely to demonstrate the superiority of the incarnate Jesus, the man. As God and Creator he was obviously superior to angels (cf. Heb. 1:14a), but, after being made man and hence lower than them for a little while (Heb. 2:7,9), having made purification for sins, he is now superior again but this time as man (Heb. 1:4). It is of interest to note too that when Jesus is arrested, he does not say he will command the angels but ask his Father to send them to his aid. (More than 40 years ago in an appendix on 1 Peter 3:19ff. to an unpublished book I wrote challenging the Church with reformation I argued in comment on 1 Peter 4:6 that the reference to proclaiming the gospel to the dead meant those who had since died, not to the dead as such. Failure to get our chronology and its associated implications and intentions right leads inexorably to false doctrine. This is what has frequently happened during the course of church history. See also Grudem, ad loc. as above.)

It is in Hebrews 7, however, that the author makes his point indisputably clear. Here part of his stress on the eternality of the Son of God (cf. 7:8,16,24f.) is based on the fact that in eternity he had neither father nor mother (7:3). This is in stark contrast with his human situation where he had both and was hence both mortal and corruptible significantly unlike God his Father in nature (Rom. 1:23; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16, etc.). Indeed, Melchizedek’s resemblance to the Son of God lies precisely in the fact that he (i.e. Jesus, the incarnate Son of God) in eternity had no genealogy (= he had no mother or father, neither birth nor death and therefore neither beginning nor end in direct contrast with the material creation which again has both). In other words, if by his reference to the Son of God our author meant the eternal Son of God, he would be involved in a blatant contradiction. The plain fact is that it was as the eternal Word, not as the so-called eternal Son, that he created (obviously) before his incarnation when for the first and only time he became a son, the unique Son of God, the Son of Mary. And once he became flesh at his incarnation he was a dependent, mortal, corruptible, temptable and salvable human being like the rest of us (Heb. 2:14,17; 4:15; 5:7, etc.), an integral part of his own creation or property (Carson) (cf. John 1:10f.). Whereas he was by the grace of God triumphant through unwavering faith and unswerving obedience (cf. 1 Pet. 1:5; Heb. 4:15, etc.), we are failures (Rom. 8:3, cf. Heb. 12:1f.). But for all that, we are saved through him (Rev. 3:21).

So in eternity as the Word, Christ was equal with God (Phil. 2:6), in fact he was God. And it is only as he emptied himself and became the incarnate Son that he was subordinate and totally dependent on his Father as a true human being. Denial of this leads inevitably to docetism on the one hand and diminishes his achievement on the other.

Later in his book Carson has some very useful things to say about Muslims and translation work in general. I agree with his conclusions, all the more so because he recognizes that purity of theology is of paramount importance. It is vital then that we get our beliefs regarding the Trinity and the incarnation, not to mention other things, right. Otherwise, false conversions will be inevitable. But not only that, we shall be hindering evangelism in general through failure to tell the devotees of the world religions and various ideologies what true Christianity really is. In other words, we need doctrinal reformation for their sake as well as for ours. If we really care for Muslims, Jews and the rest, it is high time that we got the planks out of our own eyes in order to see clearly the splinters in their eyes.

Our God is a great God not simply because he is our sovereign Creator but because he is love demonstrated not least in his humiliation and sacrifice in Christ. Greater love has no one than this that someone lays down his life (psyche) for his friends (John 15:13, cf. 10:11; Rom. 5:7f.). He is not merely a friend as he was to Abraham and Moses, however, but our Father and we are his children, born of his Spirit (1 John 3:1-3). What a God! Soli Deo Gloria.

Note on Monotheletism and Dyotheletism

The notion that Jesus had two wills rises directly from the idea enshrined in Chalcedon that he had two natures at one and the same time. (1* See, for example, Bray, p.207, and Hill, pp.102f.) The problem again is that a person who has two wills is no longer one person but two. It must be conceded, however, that a human being is pulled in two directions because he is both flesh (cf. Gen. 2:7) and spirit (cf. Zech. 12:1) by nature. (2* In John 3:1-8 Jesus and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:53 regard our condition as both flesh and spirit as natural, that is, created as such by God but that we need to be spiritually born again and corporeally transformed in order to enter the kingdom of God irrespective of sin which neither mentions, pace Augustine. See further my Death and Corruption, Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.) As Paul explains in Romans 7, while he, like the psalmist (119:14-16, etc.), may love the law as one who is a rational person made in the image of God, he cannot keep it because the law in his fleshly members is too strong for him. Like Adam and Eve (cf. Gen. 3:6) before him he falls into sin (Rom. 7:9f., cf. Rom. 3:23; 5:12) and so finds it impossible to attain to the perfection God requires of him as a creature mandate (Gen. 2:17). With Jesus the situation is different. Though he also is tempted at all points like the rest of us, he succeeds in conquering his natural passions according to the law (Heb. 4:15, etc.). And his success at this point is made clear by the fact that at his baptism he gained eternal life as man (cf. Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, cf. Heb. 7:16, etc.). It was at this time that the Spirit descended and remained on him because he had pleased his Father by keeping the law (Mt. 3:17). He had passed the test to his Father’s satisfaction (cf. Gal. 4:1-4) and continued to do so till he was finally exalted (Mt. 17:5; Rom. 1:4).

But the point to note is that he does this in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14), that is, as a true human being like all his fellows (Heb. 2:17). Thus it is that we read that Jesus as man seeks always to please his Father (not to harmonize his human will with his own divine will) as we all should as the following references among others indicate (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 8:29). Most of all he submits himself to death in accordance with his Father’s will (Mt. 26:39). And that it is his Father’s will is made clear by Paul who says he did not please himself (Rom. 15:3). In other words, he had to deny himself as flesh (cf. Mark 8:34f.; Gal. 5:16f.) in order to accomplish the will of God.

But a further point needs consideration. According to James, God himself is not tempted (1:13), but Jesus clearly was even though in the event he overcame it (vv.14f., cf. Mt. 4:1-11). So yet again we are forced to draw the conclusion that he was truly human by nature. If he had retained his divine nature, he could not have been truly tempted. As it was he endured a titanic struggle with his flesh as all human beings do. Where he differs from us is that in the power of the Spirit he triumphed over his fleshly tendency to sin (Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22).

It is a sad fact that tradition especially under the influence of Augustine has made Jesus an exception (e.g. though a son of Adam, Luke 3:38, no original sin and no regeneration*) and has given us an excluded and therefore a docetic Jesus. According to Scripture Jesus was by nature truly human and differed from the rest of us only in that he did not sin (Heb. 2:17; 1 Pet. 2:22).

* See my Was Jesus Born Again?The Ecclesiastical Christ.

More problems

While we can accept that the person of the Word took on human nature and became flesh, it is more than a little difficult to imagine him taking on the nature of God which could not be contained in temples in the flesh. Acts 7:49f. scuttles this idea. In any case John tells us that the Word ‘tabernacles’ among us. Can we really believe that the entire nature of the universal God could be confined to a tent made by hand, cf. John 1:14; 2 Pet. 1:14? Of course, if we accept two separate natures as in Nestorianism, God clearly did not become man. And the same holds with regard to Chalcedon. Again, on the assumption of his eternal sonship, Jesus was clearly two sons since the one is eternal and immortal while the other, the incarnate son, is temporal and mortal. He did in fact die!

This, of course, raises another question: if there are two sons there are two births. Here the author of Hebrews specifically denies this. In 7:3 with reference to Melchisedek, he plainly denies a birth to the so-called eternal Son. The more we probe, the more problematic the whole scenario.

Note on Stott’s ‘The Authentic Jesus’ (Basingstoke, 1985)

Having on page 30 maintained the Chalcedonian two-nature idea, on page 74 Stott maintains that Jesus remains forever flesh and as such sits at God’s right hand. To say this means he directly contradicts Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians 15:50 (also implicit in John 3:1-8). Amidst much confusion of thought on Romans 8:18-25 he affirms the destruction of the flesh but not the body on page 243 of his The Message of Romans (Leicester, 1994). If the flesh is destroyed, so is the physical creation from which it stems, and the notion that creation, which is temporary by nature, will be renewed is clearly fallacious. It is an OT idea which is superseded by the revelation of heaven brought by Jesus in the NT. 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 rightly interpreted in context do nothing to undermine this. Furthermore, to argue that flesh can dwell in the very presence of God who is by nature a consuming fire (cf. Job 25:5f.; Isa. 33:14; Heb. 12:29; James 5:3) is clearly erroneous. The plain fact is that if Jesus was truly flesh, he could not possibly have retained his divine nature for it, not zeal, would have consumed him. At his ascension transformation, he rid himself of corruptible flesh forever (cf. Acts 13:34) and so sat at his Father’s right hand.

Chalcedon or the hypostatic union (the union of Jesus’ divine and human natures in one person) is manifestly false for yet other reasons. First, Paul flatly denies that the fleshly body (dust) and the body of glory (spirit) exist in the one person contemporaneously. He explicitly informs us in 1 Corinthians 15:46 that the physical or natural body comes first and is followed by the spiritual which comes second (cf. vv.47,49). While all who are redeemed have both bodies, they have them successively not simultaneously. Otherwise expressed, just as Jesus was given a fleshly body as a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) at his incarnation, after his ascension he was given a body of glory (Phil. 3:21). How otherwise could the fullness of deity have indwelt him (Col. 2:9, cf. 1:19)? Chalcedon’s two-nature theory is both illogical and patently unbiblical.

Second, it must further be added that Doubting Thomas addresses Jesus as God while he is still in the flesh. Here the difference between his person and his physical human nature is beyond reasonable dispute (John 20:27f., cf. 12:45; 14:9).

Reflections on Re-reading Berkouwer

(1) Most Christological speculation seems to stem from the (Greek) denial of the possibility that the Word could become man (cf. e.g. Calvin, p.354 and almost all others both before and after). This is plainly contrary to what John (cf. also 1 John 1:1-3) and Paul are saying. Unless man is to become literally God (cf. Hinduistic pantheism, Nirvana, etc.) as opposed to his child (1 John 3:1-3), a change in nature for both God (cf. Eph. 3:15) and man is at the heart of biblical revelation. Without it man cannot be saved as John 3:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 15:35-54 clearly indicate. (See further my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities) In becoming the Son of God in the fullness of time and born of woman at his incarnation, Jesus ever remains his Son. Though he is the eternal Word in person, he remains man forever. As such he is uniquely the bridge between God, now Father, and man his son in Christ. (The idea that Jesus is God’s eternal Son, that is Son before the incarnation, is not only a dreadful misunderstanding in itself but it generates a host of theological problems.)

(2) Berkouwer fails to see that one person cannot have two natures at one and the same time. Far from proving a bastion against docetism Chalcedon inevitably fosters it, since a person with two natures is not and cannot be a true man. The union of two natures (hypostatic union) is not merely incomprehensible, an ineffable mystery, etc., (pp.286,295, etc.), it is an impossibility which Scripture clearly rejects.

(3) Committed to Chalcedon, Berkouwer constantly uses it as his touchstone instead of Scripture (e.g. p.313).

(4) Berkouwer correctly identifies the dilemma facing readers of the Bible. On page 361 he maintains that on the left lies the ravine of theopaschitism, the idea that God as such suffered on the cross; on the right the complete humanization of God. Though Berkouwer seeks to evade the logic of the issue, the latter, the complete humanization of God is what Scripture teaches as I have sought to demonstrate above. The plain truth is that if the Word retained his divine nature as opposed to his personal identity, God did indeed suffer on the cross, and from this multiple problems arise. Church tradition in general is built on Chalcedon and is inevitably docetic. At bottom, by denying the kenosis, it inexorably denies the incarnation. In other words, ecclesiastical orthodoxy is biblical heresy. It has failed to heed the warning pinpointed in 1 John 4:2f. and 2 John 7.

(5) The truth is that the Word’s humiliation led to his exaltation and he remains forever the Lamb seated at the right hand of God (Rev. 5, cf. 22:1-5), the very image of God (Heb. 1:3).

(6) Not enough is traditionally made of the delegation of power to Jesus as the ultimately triumphant Son (cf. Mt. 11:27; 28:18; John 5:26; Rom. 1:4; Phil. 2:10f.; 1 Pet. 3:22, etc.). During the days of his flesh his power as the true Son resides not in himself but in his Father (e.g. Mt. 26:53; John 11:41f., etc.). As Jesus himself says without his Father he can do nothing (John 5:19., cf. v.17; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10). As flesh, Jesus is as weak as the rest of us (Mt. 26:41; 2 Cor. 13:4, cf. Jer. 17:5; Rom. 7:18; 8:6-11). His strength like that of Samson so long as he remains faithful resides in his Father (cf. Jud. 15:18; 16:28; Heb. 3:2). Since he always did what pleased his Father, he was heard, strengthened and enabled, all to the glory of God (cf. Phil 2:10f.). When God forsakes him, he dies (Mt. 27:46). But then God raises him from the dead (Acts 2:22-24) and proleptically empowers him before he takes his seat at his right hand (Mt. 28:18; Rom. 1:4, etc.). (It is again worth reminding ourselves of Joseph’s elevation to power but not to the primacy that Pharaoh enjoyed, cf. 1 Cor. 15:24-28.)

Reflections on Re-reading Kelly on ‘Early Christian Doctrines’ (2nd ed. London, 1960)

(1) The variety of thought is quite astounding.

(2) Recapitulation is rather wider spread than I had thought and is not confined to Irenaeus (cf. Alan Richardson, Introduction, p.242).

(3) Platonic realism is prominent.

(4) Augustine sums up much of the thought that preceded him (p.390).

(5) Chalcedon was hardly the end of the road. In the nature of the case, it left unanswered questions. The monophysite (one nature) charge that Chalcedonian dyophysitism was Nestorian (two natures) is surely sustainable. It remains for us in the 21st century to address some of the problems it left without denying that ultimately we are dealing with mystery. We still see as in a glass darkly. One thing seems clear and that is that the doctrine of the Trinity is the indispensable precondition of incarnation (cf. Gen. 1:26f.).

Reflections on Re-reading Alan Stibbs on ‘God Became Man’ (London, 1957)

I must have bought and read this monograph in the late 1950s while still at Nottingham. Since I have always been an admirer of Stibbs I must have been impressed with it at the time. However, judging by notes in my copy I must have re-read it in the late sixties and was surprisingly critical even at that stage.

Stibbs’ prime problem like that of so many others is his uncritical acceptance of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. Since he stresses the importance of relying on Scripture his assumption is plainly that Chalcedon and its two-nature (Nestorian!) Christology is fully scriptural. It is not. In effect, Chalcedon is Nestorian (two separate natures) if not Eutychian (denial of two distinct natures) and denies the incarnation. The plain fact is that if the eternal Word retained his divine nature when he became man, he never became man. And if he did he was docetic, not truly man. While Stibbs rightly criticizes (on pages 13f.) the views of Archbishop Temple and Prof. Donald Bailey, he fails to understand the real weakness of their objections to kenoticism which was not so much their failure to understand the communicatio idiomatum but their traditional denial of a change in nature which God becoming man inevitably involved. Furthermore, Bailey was quite wrong to think of Christ being God, then man then God again (a view I myself have tended to hold over the years). The truth is, as I have tried to make plain above, that in his love and humility the Word changed his nature (obviously not his person) and became man forever, so that while Paul can teach that he was originally equal with God (Phil. 2:6) he is now as man the perfected image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3; Rev. 3:14, etc.) and, despite his delegated powers and lordship (Mt. 11:27; 28:18; 1 Pet. 3:22), permanently subordinate (1 Cor. 15:24-28) as Joseph was to Pharaoh.

In face of the ‘contradictory conditions’ the traditional view involves (p.12) Stibbs’ resort to arguments based on hypnotism and psychology is quite inadequate and wrong-headed. The plain truth is that a genuine man with two natures at one and the same time is a contradiction in terms on the one hand and a denial of the incarnation on the other. How could Jesus truly and completely depend on his Father (p.28) while retaining and holding in reserve his own divine powers (cf. Jud. 6:31)? The Jesus depicted in Hebrews 5:7f. does not make sense if he retained his divine nature. At the end of the day Stibbs reminds us of the pot calling the kettle black. In effect if not in intention, he is as much opposed to Scripture as those he criticizes. Basically, he is imprisoned by tradition.

There is irony in the very title of his monograph, God Became Man, since Stibbs’ main intention following Chalcedon seems to be to uphold Jesus as God. By contrast Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms that it is the faithful (Heb. 3:1f.) perfected (Heb. 7:28)* Son of Man who sits at God’s right hand (Mt. 26:64, cf. 16:27; Heb. 8:1; Rev. 1:5-7; 14:14, etc.).
(* The perfecting process to which Jesus was subject would seem to undermine the very idea of his retention of his divine nature.)

Reflections on re-reading ‘The Forgotten Christ’, ed. S.Clark (Nottingham, 2007)

The book is dominated, arguably over-powered, by what I call the Augustinian worldview (cf. p.46) and inevitably leads to some absurd conclusions (e.g. the idea that Adam in contrast with Jesus, the second Adam, was created fully adult!). I have dealt with Gaffin on the Last Adam (pp.191-231), who treats 1 Corinthians 15 as if, like Romans 5:12-21, it is covenantal in structure and relates to original sin, fall and curse, in my essay Did Jesus Rise Physically From The Grave?.

Needless to say Chalcedonian dyophysitism (p.53), along with Constantinopolitan dyotheletism (p.56) and the eternal sonship (p.69), is strongly affirmed and not merely in the first chapter. This is supported by opposition to kenoticism where it is stated (quoting Stibbs) that kenotic theories ‘do not do justice to the biblical and historic doctrine as defined by Chalcedon’ (pp.56ff.). In other words, as with Berkouwer, Chalcedon is simply assumed to be scriptural and so becomes our standard of judgement. It is not without interest that on the basis of Chalcedon and its Christological two-nature theory we read of an intra-personal (?) communio idiomatum (mutual participation of attributes/properties) and communicatio gratiarum (charismatum) (communication of gifts/graces) as distinguished from the usual intra-Trinitarian communicatio idiomatum or communication of properties (pp.55f.). Given its assumptions, this is a reasonable inference. In the event, however, it implies docetism and thus compels us to believe that God did not become man after all.

Note on the non posse peccare

If Jesus had two natures he never became incarnate. What is more, if he had two natures he could not possibly sin and his temptations were all a charade (cf. Heb. 4:15; 5:7). (Arguably, an alternative would be that he could not sin as God but could as man, in which case he would have been a split personality, truly schizophrenic.) If he, the Word of God, was truly incarnate (John 1:14; Phil.2:7), he was able not to sin (posse non peccare). He thus proved his pedigree as the genuine Son of God through the VB. This is surely the wonder of Jesus, a genuine human being who uniquely did not sin (1 Pet. 2:22) but overcame sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.; 4:15).

This of course impinges on the idea of original sin. If it is true, then Jesus was a sinner at birth, and, assuming that one rejects the VB theory of Roman Catholicism, the idea that he was cleansed by the Spirit at his birth is failure to recognize that blood, not spirit, is the divine detergent! With regard to this, P.H.Eveson, The Forgotten Christ, p.64, quite wrongly says that this is the Bible’s answer to the non-transmission of sin to Jesus. Eveson of course makes two mistakes: first, he accepts original sin as biblical when it is in fact heretical, even blasphemous; second, he fails to recognize that if it is true and Adam’s sin is not imputed to Jesus, then he is not genuinely human but docetic, as I indicated in my first paragraph.

It is worth making another point here. If Jesus’ potential to be regarded as a victim of original sin as a son of the first Adam (Luke 3:38) in whose image he was made (Gen. 5:1-3) was obviated by the Spirit, why then was there ever an atonement at all? If the Spirit could work in Jesus’ case, why not in all others? Why should not Christianity function like Islam, that is by power? The fact is that Christ and his atonement are intrinsic to Christianity and true religion. And the only way in which Jesus could atone for sins before a holy God was first by becoming flesh (Heb. 2:17) and second by not sinning (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.). Jesus, like the OT sacrifices, had to be perfect, unblemished, blameless. It is only after he as man first received the Spirit himself and then made atonement that the Spirit could come (John 7:39). (Cf. Paul’s insistence in 1 Cor. 15:46 that flesh precedes spirit.)

When Jesus was born, sin had not been atoned for! In the event, like the innocent children of the sinful adult Israelites (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.), he was able to wend his way to the Promised Land (Num. 14:31, cf. v.3., cf. Mt. 2:15) and in his own personal case eventually into heaven itself (Heb. 9:24, etc.). The fact is that he was like the rest of us but while he never personally sinned, we all did and so died as a consequence (Rom. 3:23; 5:12; 6:23)! His virgin birth is totally irrelevant to the issue of sin. All it proves is that he was the incarnate Son of God, truly human and no longer divine in nature. (On the imputation of sin see espec. my Straightforward Arguments against the Imputation of Adam’s Sin to his Posterity.)

Reflections on reading Robert Letham on ‘The Person of Christ’, Nottingham, 2013

On page 175 Letham avers “Misconceptions take a long time to eradicate.” They certainly do and this statement applies to him as much as to others (and doubtless to me!). While in fairness he is not entirely uncritical of Chalcedon and correctly comments on page 240 that it left a good deal of unfinished business on the table*, the main problem with his book is that its author is tied to tradition and inhabits a false, that is, an Augustinian rather than a biblical universe which leads him inevitably into error. It also fails to inspire our confidence in him as a christologist. (* His appendix, pp.229-246, involving the question ‘Did the church get it wrong?’ is important and should have produced a more positive answer.)

Of course, despite his doubts he adheres to Chalcedon and to the eternal generation of the Son. In the event, his book, though highly informative and wide-ranging, does not really get us far. His commitment to tradition comes well short of paving the way to deeper understanding and reformation.

It is worth remembering that Letham provides an introduction to Giles’ book on the eternal generation. Here he confesses his laudable respect for but too ready reliance on ecclesiastical tradition. However, as an individual whom he might wish to dismiss as a freewheeler (p.7), I suggest he needs to take a more critical attitude to what we have inherited from the past and not simply in the realm of Christology. (See further my essay Have We Inherited Lies?, etc.) History, including the teaching of the prophets, the apostles and especially of the Lord Jesus himself (e.g. Mark 7), warns of the dangers inherent in over-ready acceptance of tradition especially as it enshrined in time-honoured but questionable creeds. It seems to me at least that the entire church has lapsed in its understanding of the love and humility displayed by our awe-inspiring God, at once omnipotent and sovereign but amazingly loving and humble. But the idea that the doctrine of the eternal generation somehow protects and even reinforces the doctrine of the Trinity eludes me. It seems rather to do the opposite.

Personal Notes

1. John MacArthur writes: “Christ divested Himself of His glory. He went from sovereign supernatural deity, to taking upon Himself the form of a servant – and ultimately to a death on a cross ….” (Quoted from Evangelical Action, June/July 2013, p.11).

2. On the Trinity in the OT see Ottley, pp.565ff.

3. On Greek or Platonistic conception of God as a divine monad, immutability, etc., see Ottley, pp.373f.,580, cf. 401f. etc. Tony Lane, Christian Thought, pp.12f.

4. Ottley, p.584, tells us that Athanasius deprecates the use of technical language re eternal generation “on the ground that it is non-scriptural”.

5. On Romans 1:4, see Fee on God’s Empowering Presence, pp.478-484, Pauline Christology, pp.243f..

6. On perichoresis, etc., communicatio idiomatum, appropriation and mutuality of powers, see Ottley, pp. 573,581,591, cf. Richardson, p.123.

7. On salvation by ‘power’, or omnipotence or fiat, see Ottley, pp.646f.