Will the real Word of God please stand up?

As I continue to read & write on Cyril of Alexandria, I have been reading through other Patristic works with Ben Blackwell and friends (including our own Jessica Parks and Michelle Mikeska).  Thus, I recently re-read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and was struck by the following sentiments regarding the relationship between the divine Word of God and the body of Jesus:

For he [the Word of God] was not enclosed in the body, nor was he in the body but not elsewhere.  Nor while he moved that [body] was the universe left void of his activity and providence.  But, what is most marvelous, being the Word, he was not contained by anyone, but rather himself contained everything.  And, as being in all creation, he is in essence outside everything but inside everything by his own power, arranging everything, and unfolding his own providence in everything to all things, and giving life to each thing and to all things together, containing the universe and not being contained, but being wholly, in every respect, in his own Father alone.  So also, being in the human body, and himself giving it life, he properly gives life to the universe also, and was both in everything and outside all.  And being made known from the body through the works, he was not unseen even from the working of the universe. … The Word of God in the human being was not bound to the body, bur rather was himself wielding it, so that he was both in it and in everything, and was outside everything, and at rest in the Father alone.  And the most wonderful thing was that he both sojourned as a human being, and as the Word begot life in everything, and as the Son was with the Father.[1]

Athanasius is here suggesting that the Word of God continued his intra-Trinitarian cosmic roles even after he “became flesh.”  Is this simply a necessary paradox of the mystery of God and the Incarnation?  Or is this a poor understanding of the kenosis inherently involved in the Incarnation?  Is there more to the Word of God than what we see in Jesus?  Is there a Word of God to be found behind Jesus?

When we see Jesus getting tired in John 4, should we also understand that at the same moment the Word of God was continuing to uphold all things by his power *outside* of the body? (Maybe that is why he was so tired?)

One way to ask the question:

Was the Word of God still omnipresent post-Incarnation?
What are the implications of saying “yes” or “no”?


[1] Behr, John, (On the Incarnation. Yonkers, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 85-87.

16 thoughts on “Will the real Word of God please stand up?

  1. It seems to me that what we see here is a polemic against kenosis theory. I also think Athanasius here anticipates future controversy concerning Christ, which was settled in Ephesus and again later at Chalcedon.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Ben! It does appear to be a polemic against kenosis theory. Do you know if it might be addressed to anyone specifically? Would you say that Athanasius’ opinion here is the majority view among the early church fathers?

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  2. Athanasius seems to be walking the necessary paradox line here and seemingly entering a more musing tone where he is simply pondering possibilities. It is the paradox that does not demand 50%/50%, but 100%/100%. Was/is Jesus contained in the body completely? Yes. Was/is Jesus completely transcendent of space and time? Yes. Aristotle had already pointed out the seeming contradiction of creator of time and outside time, and Athanasius could be simply expressing the paradox.

    I embrace the paradox as such and willingly speak out of both sides of my mouth, for within space and time he would, by necessity, be a pure paradox.

    Chris Henderson

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    1. I wonder, as usual, if seeing this as a paradox is failing to take seriously the historical nature of the Incarnation. Something fundamentally different happened at the time of the Incarnation and it remains that way eternally.

      But you know me, always slow to accept a paradox. 🙂

      Questions:
      – What is wrong with saying that Jesus voluntarily gave-up certain divine characteristics as part of his kenosis?
      – Is any option of there being a “Word of God” beyond the body of Jesus a contradiction of the clear biblical witness that the “fullness of deity dwelt inside of him”? As Cyril would might say, do we not see in the Incarnation the omnipresent *becoming* localized and embodied?
      – How seriously should we take the revelation of God through Jesus if there is “more to God” than what we have seen? What if the Word-of-God omnipresent is actually a horrific mass-murderer, unlike the enemy-loving Jesus of the Gospels? Does not this teaching subtract from the biblical revelation of God in Christ?

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      1. … I know. Most people don’t. For me, however, it’s entirely embraceable when it arises. And that originally from the Church Fathers, particularly Irenaeus. Remember this, Mike: The essential difference between orthodox Christianity and the various heretical systems is that orthodoxy is rooted in paradox. Heretics, particularly as our friend Irenaeus saw, rejected paradox in favor of a false clarity and precision. 🙂

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    1. Yes! Finally! Someone with some sense! 😉

      I tend to agree with you Robert. However, what scares some people is that if omnipresence (etc) are qualities inherent to divinity, then is saying that that no longer possesses them the same as saying that Jesus is not fully divine?

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      1. Two thoughts to consider about whether speech about divine localization is consistent with speech about divine omnipresence:
        1. The temple in the OT.
        2. Language about the Spirit being “sent” etc.
        3. Language about the Spirit being in or abiding with believers and the Father making his abode with believers.

        No doubt the incarnation involves a stronger sense of localization language, but even apart from the incarnation we have to make sense of localization language in light of omnipresence.

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  3. Three views you might be interested in beyond a straight kenotic view:
    1. R. Michael Allen in The Christ’s Faith extends a standard Reformed two minds view to even saying that Christ expresses faith and grows in his faith.
    2. Oliver Crisp provides as good a critique as any of the kenotic view while suggesting what he calls a kryptic view, which he notes that some have pointed out to him can be considered a kenotic view.
    3. You might look at Spence’s work on Owen’s Spirit Christology. (Crisp also suggests his kryptic view might have the benefits of the Spirit Christology without the drawbacks.)

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      1. A few thoughts to consider when thinking about the consistency of divine localization language with divine omniscience language:
        1. The temple in the OT.
        2. Language about the Spirit being “sent” etc. that implies movement.
        3. The Spirit being in or abiding with believers and the Father making his abode with them.

        Of course the incarnation involves even stronger localization language, but there is at least reason to question whether all localization language is consistent with omnipresence.

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