Dec 23, 2012

He was ruling the heavens even as he lay in a manger

There is a powerful and profound video doing the rounds called The Incarnation in which Odd Thomas, through the medium of poetic word, attempts to express the inexpressible and comprehend the incomprehensible – that at Christmas we affirm God became man.

The video also highlights how much care we need to take when we put into words what happened at the birth of Jesus. Odd Thomas suggests the following;

The second person of the Trinity commissioned to abandon his position

And literally set aside the independent expression of his attributes in full submission

The word manifested in the flesh, the fullness of God expressed

The self-emptying Jesus poured out at the Father’s request

I’m not exactly sure what he means in that second line when he says that the Son literally set aside the expression of his attributes and for all I know we might find that over a cup of coffee we completely agree with each other. But it comes a little too close for my comfort to saying that in taking human form, God the Son ceased to be fully God. If we are to believe that God left heaven and became a baby does that mean he stopped being fully God?

A little over 100 years ago an idea became popular that this is exactly what happened. The kenosis theory was put forward by a man who later became the first Bishop of Birmingham and later Bishop of Oxford, Charles Gore.

Grudem in his Systematic Theology writes The kenosis theory holds that Christ gave up some of his divine attributes while he was on earth as a man…This was viewed as a voluntary self-limitation on Christ’s part, which he carried out in order to fulfil his work of redemption. Grudem puts forward a number of reasons as to why such an idea (based on a misinterpretation of Philippians 2:7) must be rejected. Probably the most important two are that no teacher in the church for 1800 years ever thought that Philippians 2 did mean a giving up of divine attributes and secondly that the context of the passage strongly suggests ‘that it talks about Jesus giving up the status and privilege that was his in heaven’ rather than a change in his nature.

What really happened then in the incarnation?

The truth is that Christmas is bigger and better than this theory allows and that it must be better than this if Jesus is able to save us.

1. The most helpful way to describe the incarnation is not that God the Son gave up his deity but rather that God the Son joined himself to humanity. Grudem suggests ‘the incarnation was the act of God the Son whereby he took to himself a human nature.’

Only such a definition allows us to continue to say that Jesus is fully God and fully man, inseparable but distinct.

2. That means that God the Son did not cease to be God the Son even whilst he was on earth. Here is where it gets to be truly mind-blowing. Christians affirm that God the Son was ruling in the heavens even as he lay helpless in a manger!  Imagine you are in Augustine’s congregation as he gives expression to this truth in these beautiful words taken from one of his sermons;

Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father He remains,
from His mother He goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at His mother’s bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant.

Such a truth is essential to affirm even as we acknowledge beyond our ability to comprehend.

3. The trinity is not interrupted and God is not changed or confused. How essential it is that we affirm the unchanging nature and character of God! He cannot be one God at a certain moment in time and another God at a different moment in time. The Son does not stop being the Son and continues to relate perfectly to Father and Spirit within the Godhead even as he experiences life in the flesh on earth.

4. Jesus is able to save us from our sins. Only by being fully God and fully man is he able to save us. If he surrenders his divine attributes he ceases to be fully or truly God. Grudem says ‘If Jesus is not fully God, we have no salvation and ultimately no Christianity.’


Should we therefore ever use language that describes a great condescension of God e.g. can we say of him  ‘God was in a manger’ or ‘God had to learn to speak and to walk’? Yes. Because Jesus truly is ONE person with TWO natures. Because he is one person we may rightly say that what is true of one nature is true of the person. Jesus in his human nature knew what it was to be helpless, weak, dependent on others, ultimately he knew what it was to be tempted, to suffer and to die. Because what is true of one nature is true of the person we can say that ‘God became man’ when he joined himself to humanity.

Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensible made man – Charles Wesley

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