The Incarnation (Part III)

Some want to deny any special gifts to Jesus, to a “historical Jesus,” because either they have no faith or because He had “emptied himself” of anything divine in becoming man: He “emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7). The general name for this aspect of christology which emphasizes the emptying out is called kenotic christology after the Greek verb kenoo, “to empty.” Since there are extreme interpretations of St. Paul’s words, his meaning here should be explained.

First of all, the God–man Christ could not empty himself of His divine nature as such. God cannot stop being God; He cannot act against His own nature, and this requires that just as He always was, He always must be. Thus St. Paul speaks of His “equality with God” (2:6).

The emptying does not touch what is essential to God but what is in a sense separable. Thus the Son of God chose not to appear on earth as God could rightfully appear in a human form, as He briefly did at the Transfiguration. “Taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” does not demonstrate more than the lowly human estate with which we are familiar in the Gospels.

Some scholars want to deprive Him of charismatic gifts, but the Gospels are clear that He did not renounce them, as is shown by the many miracles He worked and also by the gift of prophecy. He also did not give up the divine prerogative of forgiving sin (Mk 2:1).

There are ready examples in the Gospels as to what He emptied himself of by His becoming man. The all-powerful God who created the universe from nothing by His will alone becomes for us a completely dependent baby. The Word “through whom all things were made and without Him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:3) now works at the trade of a small-town carpenter. “The true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world” (ibid. 1:9) keeps public silence for 30 years. The divine beauty which is the inexhaustible delight of the angels (as it will be for us) has His face struck, spit upon and crowned with thorns. As a man who never sinned nor inherited Adam’s sin, He had a right to a life of peace, joy and freedom from death, but He accepted insults, a scourging and finally the death of a criminal.

Yet he retained all the glory of His divinity in the sight of God the Father, the Holy Spirit and the angels. After His resurrection and ascension, His human nature has all that could be given to Him as a man — although forever this human nature as such will necessarily imply an “emptying” because no created nature is the divine nature. But forever it will express in its way the infinite goodness, mercy and love of God.

For those who are disinclined to accept mystery, even on the testimony of God, the lack of being a human person seems to make Christ unlike us, without a “truly human center of self-possession and operation” or without self-determination or self-consciousness. Such difficulties seem to have at their root a confusion between nature and person. By His human nature Jesus had both a human intelligence and a human will. Therefore, like us, He could reflect on himself (as being both human and divine) and on His actions and their consequences, as He surely did when He raised Lazarus from the dead and when He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: actions in both cases confirming His enemies in their plot for His death. His human will responded to the divine will in the Garden of Gethsemane, and He survived that last great temptation manfully.

Some of the difficulty comes from our acceptance of the familiar everyday meaning of “person,” whereas in theological context this notion of “person” is a refined and exclusive concept. We all recognize it by a sort of intuition. Our friends, for instance, are not a conglomeration of highly organized atoms, nor are we as persons only the sum of our appearance, instincts, traits, past experiences and attitudes. Even though these are essential in identifying the person exteriorly, they are not the “I” which is the person. Nor is the spiritual soul the “I”; animals have the equivalent of the “I” on a lower level, and yet they do not have a spiritual soul.

The lack of a human “person” does not mean that Jesus lacked a human personality in the modern sense of that word. To avoid the misunderstanding, it would be better to use a more generic theological expression from metaphysics and say that He lacks a human subsistence. Nothing of human nature was lacking, nor does His closeness to the divine nature impair anything of His human nature. There is nothing human that He could not think, feel or do — except what would involve fallen human nature or sin. But this last exception does not make Him any less human. As with ourselves, the closer we are to God the more truly human we are too, as is easily seen in some of the saints. Jesus’ divine personhood, like our own human personhood, did this: it made Him separate or distinct from all other beings; it was the perfection of His identity constituting His “I” as distinct from all others, and it made God the responsible source of all His thoughts, words and actions.

We tend to think in physical terms and relate everything to a place, but this is impossible with Jesus in the Hypostatic Union. God is not localized. For instance we would be able to join two people together by surgery. But this is not the way that the human nature of Jesus is joined to the Divine Person. The Divine Person is not confined to a place any more than God is confined to a place. We cannot say that a part of the Divine Person touches a part of His soul or body. The whole of the Divine Person is involved in the whole of Christ the man. This joining in the person is deep and immediate, including the body as well as to the soul of Jesus.

Because of this union Jesus is holy as no one else is holy. He has more than a holiness of grace, although His soul is filled with grace and all its effects in the highest measure, as is fitting to its close union with the Divine. It is a holiness greater than His grace of headship (by which we are united to God only through Him). It is rather the union itself which makes Jesus transcendingly holy. By this union His human nature in the divine nature is holy with the holiness of God himself through the Second Person. And yet even such holiness does not destroy or distort the human. Through the coming, the daily living and, eventually, the dying of the same kind of flesh and blood as we have ourselves, we come more clearly to understand and love the Infinity that we would otherwise hardly have known.

FATHER HOFFMAN, O.P. (1913-1998), was ordained a priest in June 1941, taught physics, mathematics and moral theology. FATHER COLE, O.P., is professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.