THE doctrine of the Incarnation, or of the unity of two natures, the divine and the human, in the person of Christ, has been often presented in a way which renders it barren of human interest, and devoid of any practical relation to our moral and spiritual life. It has been regarded, for instance, simply as one of those doctrines which lie beyond the scope of human intelligence, as a theological enigma or mystery, a doctrine, not indeed contrary to reason, but above reason; yet which, as authoritatively revealed, must be received as an article of faith. If, again, reason has not felt itself absolutely precluded from attempting to construe to itself the conception of the union in a single personality of the seemingly contradictory predicates, infinite and finite, divine and human, the person of Christ has been dealt with in the long course of theological controversy as a problem which by various logical expedients ecclesiastical writers have attempted to solve. Or, again, to name no other example, religious minds have not seldom found spiritual satisfaction in dismissing all attempts to regard the Incarnation in any other light than that of a divine plan or device to meet the exigencies of fallen humanity, a method devised by infinite wisdom for an end which nothing less than the interposition of a divine agent in human form could accomplish.
So far, however, from our being constrained to regard this doctrine, either as an absolute enigma, or as a theological puzzle for the exercise of the logical understanding, I think it may not be impossible for us to discern in it that which appeals in the profoundest manner to our spiritual intelligence, as the very fundamental principle of the Christian religion, and the supreme source of its moral and spiritual power. And if we can in any sense regard the Incarnation as a divine expedient to meet the moral necessities of a fallen and guilty race, I think we may be able to show that it meets them, not arbitrarily, but because—if we can term it an expedient—it is one which is grounded in the very nature both of God and man, of the Infinite Spirit and the finite spirit which He has made in His own image. For, as I have indicated in a former lecture, there is a point of view from which the very idea of God may be seen to contain or involve that relation to humanity which is expressed in the person of Christ, and the human life of Christ to be the manifestation, under the form of time, of a principle which is contained eternally in the very essence of the divine nature. And on the other hand, there is a sense in which human nature contains in it, as a necessary element, that union with God or participation in the divine nature which finds its expression in the person and life of Christ. In briefer terms, there is a sense in which it may be said that God would not be God without union with man, and man would not be truly man without union with God.
Nor, again, is it necessary to assent to the view of those who regard the Incarnation as an abstract dogma having no direct bearing on our moral and spiritual life. On the contrary, it may be shown to be the source of our profoundest religious experience and the strength and support of our moral life. It lends a new reality and intensity to our religious affections by bringing God within the range of our human sympathies. It enables us to see in Him, not the distant monarch of the universe, invested with the attributes of a metaphysical infinitude, betwixt whom and us there is the impassable barrier that separates natures absolutely heterogeneous, but rather a Being who not only transcends, but is immanent in the spirits He has made in His own image: whose infinitude does not render Him unconscious of finite limitations, nor His immutability of the weaknesses and imperfections, the pains and sorrows to which flesh is heir, and with whose nature it is no irreverence to associate the ideas of self-sacrifice, self-devotion—nay, even of a love to which the supreme manifestation of love, the sacrifice of life itself, is not impossible.
On the other hand, regarded as a revelation of human nature, the Incarnation may be said to have changed for us the whole aspect of our moral and spiritual life, not merely by setting before us an example of moral perfection, but by disclosing the presence of a divine or infinite element in our nature, by revealing to us underneath all the limiting conditions of humanity—its transiency and evanescence, its weaknesses and imperfections, even its moral defilement and disability—an ideal glory and beauty, an essential affinity with the nature of God. By the voice of one who is at once Son of Man and Son of God, it calls the least and lowest, even the guiltiest and most degraded of mankind, to be sons of God, to be perfect as God is perfect, to be heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. If, thus, Christianity has become the source of a new conception of the infinite value of human nature, if it has quickened our moral endeavours and aspirations by revealing to us boundless possibilities of goodness, if it has delivered us from the fear of death and awakened in us the hope of a future destiny which neither time nor change can arrest, it is to the revelation of the divine humanity, the manifestation of God in Christ that all this is due.
Passing, however, from these general considerations, if we attempt to take a closer view of the content and meaning of this doctrine, we are at once brought face to face with those intellectual difficulties which have made it through long ages the arena of theological controversy. The very enunciation of the idea of the union in the person of Christ of the human and divine—the idea, in other words, of an individual personality who is, and is conscious of being, at once infinite and finite, God and man—would seem to present a problem which, as involving directly and absolutely contradictory elements, it is not wonderful that all the subtlety of the acutest intellects should in vain have attempted to solve. If our notions of divinity and humanity contain heterogeneous or contradictory elements, it is a truism to say that we can no more combine them in the conception of one and the same personality than we can think of a square circle, or a quadrilateral triangle, or a straight curve. But do not the attributes we commonly ascribe to God, such as omnipresence, omnipotence, eternity, immutability, express ideas which are essential to His nature, without which He would cease to be divine: and can we conceive of these as belonging to a Being who exists in time and space, who is mortal and mutable, who begins to be and passes away, and who, at least on one side of His nature, is but a transient link in a vast system of material causes and effects by which His individuality is infinitely transcended? If our notion of omnipresence be that which is not limited in space, of eternity that which is not conditioned by time, how can we conceive of a Being who is at once omnipresent and confined to a single spot, who begins to exist and who never had a beginning? How can thought compass the conception of a Being who is at once a helpless babe on an earthly mother's breast, and the omnipotent ruler of the universe: conscious of growth in knowledge and to the last ignorant of many things which God alone can know, and at the same time possessed of unlimited, unconditioned, all-comprehending knowledge; subject to pain and suffering and death, to the changeful experience of human life and the perpetual transitions of human feeling, and at the same time conscious of a changeless perfection and a blessedness over which no ripple of emotion, no shadow of grief or pain can pass?
Again, it may be asked, are there not moral incompatibilities between the human and divine natures, which forbid their co-existence in a single subject? Does not the idea of human nature involve, if not the necessity, at least the possibility of sin? Does not moral freedom mean the power of self-determination, and therefore of wrong determination, and would not virtue or goodness lose its essential character, if our nature were incapable of evil? Can we then unite in one self-identical personality a nature of which this is the essential characteristic, and a nature absolutely and immutably good, with regard to whom experience of temptation, of the conflicts and struggles by which the moral development of a finite spirit is attained, is inconceivable, to whom it would be blasphemy to ascribe, not only sin, but even the possibility of sin?
To obviate this difficulty of uniting incompatible attributes in a single self-conscious subject, popular thought has sometimes had recourse to the too obvious expedient of separating in time the seemingly contradictory elements, and of ascribing some of the acts and experiences of Christ to the divine, and others to the human, side of His composite nature. As man, He passed through the changeful experiences of human life, its physical and mental growth, its gradually expanding knowledge, its moral temptations and conflicts, its manifold sorrows and sufferings, and especially the physical pain and mental agony of His passion, and the death with which it terminated. These were experiences which it is impossible that an omnipotent, immutable Being should undergo. On the other hand, in His miraculous works, His power over nature, His arresting of disease and restoring life to the dead, His transfiguration, resurrection, and ascension—in these a superhuman glory flashed forth from beneath the veil of His humanity, and the presence in Him of a divine nature was disclosed.
But the obvious answer is, that any such separation of divine from human acts and experiences is really the dissolving or rending in twain of the unity of Christ's person and life. It virtually asserts that He was not always, throughout His whole life, the God-man, but only now the God and now the man, now left in simple manhood to experience the weaknesses to which flesh is heir, and now, as the Godhead re-appeared, performing acts transcending mortal power, and in which the humanity could have no part. The God and the man are here really separate personalities, exerting alternately the powers peculiar to each; and there is no link, or only an external and artificial link, between them. On any such supposition, it is impossible to speak of the Divinity of Christ, inasmuch as from a large part of His life the divine element is absent; and equally impossible to speak of His humanity, which in the remaining portion of His life is suppressed or superseded by the superhuman element.
Moreover, the moral results of the Incarnation are entirely subverted by a theory which ascribes, not all, but only some acts to the divine nature in Christ, and not all, but only some to the human. It is the manifestation of God in humanity that lends its special moral and spiritual efficacy to the Christian religion. Indeed, as I have already said, it is just in those aspects of the life of Christ which, according to this view, are to be ascribed to His human as distinct from His divine nature—His susceptibility to pain and sorrow and death, His exposure to, and victory over, temptation—it is just in these that God seems to come nearest to us, and the sense of divine sympathy touches and appeals to us, in a way which the notion of a physical omnipotence and immutability would render impossible. Whatever, again, our theoretical conception of the doctrine of Atonement may be, for many minds the sufferings and death of Christ would be deprived of their atoning value and efficacy, if there were nothing more in them than the sufferings and death of a merely human hero, or of a human personality from which the divine element is withdrawn. Lastly, if the elements of infinitude and finitude, deity and humanity, be regarded as contradictory, it is obvious that the problem of uniting them in one personal subject is not solved, but only evaded, by reducing the contradictory phenomena to succession or alternation in time. A Being, whose consciousness is held to be that of one continuous self-identical subject, yet who passes by alternation from a human life to a divine and vice versa, is for thought an impossible conception. If, as above said, we cannot conceive of a circle which is at the same time a square, as little can we conceive of a figure which is alternately square and circle.
Is there then, we now proceed to ask, no intelligible solution of the problem before us? We have seen that the answer, in which many are content to rest, is simply that the Incarnation is a theological mystery, a doctrine authoritatively revealed and to be received by faith, yet which relates to things transcending human reason. But though it is possible for faith to accept what reason cannot explain, it cannot perform the feat of uniting in one thought ideas that are absolutely contradictory or incompatible. Another course, however, is open to us. Rationalistic criticism has often pronounced that to be self-contradictory which deeper thought has been able to reconcile; and perhaps we may be able to show in the sequel that the problem involved in the doctrine of the Incarnation is an insoluble one, only because of certain false or inadequate presuppositions as to the nature of God or the nature of man, which are common to many, both of the defenders and of the assailants of the doctrine. In what follows I shall briefly examine some of the solutions which we must pronounce to be inadequate, and then I shall attempt at least to point out the direction in which a true or adequate solution seems to lie.
The history of the doctrine of the Person of Christ is for the most part the history of expedients from opposite points of view to reconcile the apparently contradictory character of the elements it involves, and to make the union of these elements in one self-conscious personality no longer inconceivable. The various heresies, which have been condemned in successive authoritative declarations of the faith of the Church, have been simply attempts to accomplish this result by softening or explaining away either the one or the other side of the irreconcilable combination. Divinity and humanity being conceived of as reciprocally exclusive, the only resource of theological experts has been, either so to manipulate or tamper with the human nature of Christ as to make it capable of a personal union with the divine, or, on the other hand, so to modify the idea of the divine nature as to make it capable of a personal union with the human.
To achieve the former result—to render it conceivable that an infinite, omnipotent, immutable nature should enter into personal union with a nature subject to weakness, suffering, and death—the human nature, or the human side of Christ's personality, has been virtually suppressed by reducing it to a mere phantasmal appearance or dramatic show, or, again, by leaving out of the composite personality some essential element of human nature and making the divine the only substantial element in the person of Christ.
On the other hand, starting from the unquestionable presupposition that, whatever else Christ was, He was really and completely human, a Being subject to the progressive changes, the weakness, sorrows, sufferings of ordinary human nature, the apparent impossibility of conceiving Him as at the same time exalted above all imperfection and change, has been met by reducing the divine element in His person simply to a divine or superhuman influence analogous to that of prophetic inspiration, perpetually operating on His human consciousness and bringing it into unbroken harmony with the mind and will of God.
It would be impossible within the limits assigned to me to follow out in the order of time the emergence of these and other subtle theological devices in the history of the doctrine. But it may aid us in our treatment of the subject briefly to examine, in a general way and apart from historical incidents, some of the foregoing and other attempts, starting either from the human or the divine side, to obviate the seeming contradiction involved in the idea of the God-man, or of a personality at once human and divine.
In the history of Christian thought it has been the tendency of many minds so to adjust their conception of the divine element in the person of Christ as to bring it into harmony with the admitted presupposition, of His real and proper humanity. This tendency, it may be conceded, is to be traced not merely to a theoretical, but also to a practical and religious source. The religious ends of the Incarnation would, it is maintained, be sacrificed, if in any way we tamper with the simple and veritable humanity of Christ. The religious value of the life of Christ arises in a great measure from His perfect sympathy with us and from the ideal of human excellence which He sets before us. Any mysterious grandeur thrown around His personality would be dearly bought, if it removed Him beyond the range of our human sympathies, or made it impossible for us to think of Him as in any real sense sharing our sorrows, infirmities, temptations. Human grief and pain have found their deepest consolation in the thought of One who was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”; and in the struggle with the manifold temptations of life we gain new fortitude from the example of Him who was “in all points tempted like as we are yet without sin.” Moreover, what lends its supreme moral worth to Christianity is the ideal it presents in the character and life of Christ of what humanity essentially is and of what in all men it may become. It communicates a new impulse to moral endeavour to contemplate in Him a revelation of the hidden beauty and greatness of our nature, and where abstract moral precepts and maxims would fail to move us, it lends a new inspiration to virtue to behold the highest moral perfection embodied in a form that draws forth all the intensity of our human affections.
But, it is argued, all this consolation and encouragement are lost the moment you introduce an exceptional, superhuman element into the conception of Christ's person. Not only does the mind become confused in the attempt to grasp such a notion as that of a Being half-human, half-divine, but the life and history of such a Being are deprived of their exemplary value. What we need is a type, not of superhuman, but of human excellence. The supposed presence in Christ of an unknowable, incalculable element checks the flow of moral sympathy; and if it elevates Him into a mysterious dignity and grandeur, it removes Him beyond the range of vital fellowship with us. If an example is to afford any stimulus to effort, it must be an example, not of what is possible for an angel or a God, but of what is possible for a man. It gives me no encouragement in facing the world's temptations to be told how they were overcome by a Being, whose human weakness was reinforced by combination with omnipotence. It does not make me more courageous in the war with evil to witness an infallible Being coming scatheless out of it. Set before me the example of a being of flesh and blood, and however splendid it be, I can at all events feel rebuked by its faultless purity; but I am not in the least humiliated by the example of a God in human form. If Christ was man and nothing more than man, though I fall miserably short of the perfect, flawless moral beauty of His life, I can at least try to be like Him and be ennobled by the effort; but is there not something futile in the thought of a finite being straining after resemblance to infinite perfection?
The result of this line of argument is, it is maintained, that we must reject any doctrine of the person of Christ which would make His nature essentially different from our own. Different in degree it may be and is, but the absolute goodness we ascribe to Him, leaves Him still one with us in our relation to God, as the creature to the Creator, the finite spirit to the Infinite. This, indeed, does not preclude a very real and intimate relation of the mind and will of Christ to the mind and will of God. The individuality of each human spirit does not prevent a great kindred intelligence from exerting a powerful or dominating influence over other minds. In thought, feeling, and action, we lie open to controlling impressions and influences from others, and especially from men of genius or of great force of character. And if we conceive of this superiority as heightened to infinitude, and, on the other hand, of the mind on which it acts as receptive beyond all ordinary minds of moral and religious impression, we shall have before us the idea of a relation of Christ to God which, without suppressing His human individuality, is of a very profound and intimate character, and to which we may even without error apply the formula of the union in one personality of the human nature with the divine.
The view which I have thus described, which is in substance the Deistic or Unitarian view of the person of Christ, is not without a certain measure of plausibility; but, without anticipating other considerations which will come before us in the sequel, I shall content myself here with remarking that it is based on a superficial and erroneous conception of the relation of God to the human spirit, and one which, if carried out to its logical results, would be fatal not only to any recognition of a divine element in Christ, but to any spiritual life in man. We need, it is urged, a sympathizing and therefore a human Saviour; and to ascribe to Him a superhuman elevation of nature is to remove Him beyond the range of our human sympathies, our human sorrows and temptations.
But the answer is, Can God not sympathize with us? Is it not a false conception of the nature of God which ascribes to Him a moveless impassibility, a rigid immutability, impervious to any participation in the trials and sorrows of His children? God is love; but does not love lack its very essence, its supreme expression, if we think of Him as incapable of compassion, of sympathetic emotion, for the calamities and griefs that befall its object? Would it not be to ascribe a spurious elevation to Him, to suppose Him capable of contemplating from the height of a pitiless immobility the hapless fate of the beings He has made? Does it destroy the reality of Christ's sorrow and suffering for man to think of it as a sorrow which, while truly human, penetrates to the very heart of God? Is it so that moral elevation stifles compassion for suffering, or even grief and pain for sin; that the nearer a human spirit approaches to perfection, the more incapable does it become of grieving for the faults and sins it cannot itself commit, or for the moral ruin which cannot fall upon itself? And when we conceive of moral excellence as absolute, of a Being absolutely and immutably good, are we forced to think of the range of His sympathies as annulled, and not rather as infinitely expanded?
Again, it is urged that what we want is a human, not a superhuman or infinite ideal, an example, not of what is possible for a God in human shape, or for a human nature rendered infallible by association or combination with an omnipotent, divine nature, but of what is possible for man, for a nature really and simply human. But the answer is, that not the latter but the former, not a finite but an infinite ideal, is what we truly want. It is of the very nature of the moral and spiritual life that its ideal is not a finite one. Our aim as spiritual beings is not likeness to man, but likeness to God, participation in a divine and eternal life. The goal of spiritual attainment ever recedes as we advance; and instead of there being only a measurable, finite ideal for us to aim at, it is the stimulus to all moral endeavour that, however far we have attained, yet ever, far beyond and above us, rises the infinite moral ideal in its inexhaustible beauty and glory. It is just the best, purest, noblest human souls, who are least satisfied with themselves and their own spiritual attainments; and the reason is, that the human is not a nature essentially different from the divine, but a nature which, just because it is in essential affinity with God, can be satisfied with nothing less than a divine perfection.
It appears, then, that the union of the divine and human in the person and life of Christ, though in one sense unique and unparalleled, is no visionary unintelligible grandeur, nor is the aspiration after likeness to it or participation in it the dream of a perfection to which, wind ourselves ever so high, our finite limits forbid our ever attaining or even approximating,
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.
As, in the sphere of intelligence, our gradual progress in knowledge is not simply an interminable series of attainments, without any final end or aim, but rather the pursuit, consciously or unconsciously, of an end which the very first step presupposes, an end which is real, absolute, complete; or again as, in the sphere of art, the productions of the great poet or painter are not mere isolated, aimless, sporadic strokes and flashes of genius, but presuppose and are the expression, ever more or less imperfect, of an ideal of beauty which, though he cannot define it, yet ever floats before or haunts his imagination, and prompts, guides, and governs his attempts to realize it,—so is it in the sphere of the moral and spiritual life. Our endeavours and aspirations after goodness are not endeavours and aspirations without purpose or final cause; nor are they the quest after the false infinitude which is merely the negation of every successive attainment.
It is true that in one sense moral and religious effort is the endeavour after the unattainable, after a goal which vanishes before us as we advance, an end which, as we toil after it up the steep ascent, ever eludes and fades away before us, and to which the holiest and saintliest of men seem to be no nearer at the end than at the beginning. Nevertheless the moral and spiritual end is no unreal and unrealized ideal. In every, even the first, faint effort after goodness, there is involved the presupposition of an ideal, an end, that is one, absolute, complete; which is in itself eternally real, and to realize which is the secret impulse that underlies and prompts all our moral struggles and self-denials. It may be said, indeed, to be an ideal which has its seat in the bosom of God. Though, in one sense, we do not and never can know God, yet, in another, the knowledge of God, of infinite truth and goodness and beauty, is an element implicated with our whole spiritual life and being, a divine principle and presupposition, to identify ourselves with which in absolute self-renunciation and self-surrender is the secret of all goodness and blessedness, and the revelation even in this poor, troubled, imperfect nature of ours, of a greatness nothing short of the infinite. And, on the other hand, it is, as we have seen, this very aspect of our nature which gives to moral evil, to sin, to a life whether of active wickedness or of dull and selfish worldliness and contentment with pleasure and self-indulgence, its darkest and direst complexion. For such a life is the turning of a light brighter than the sun into darkness, the squandering or bartering away of a boundless wealth, the suicidal abasement to the things that perish, of a nature destined by its very constitution and structure for participation in the very being and blessedness of God.
THEORIES OF THE INCARNATION.
IN the last lecture I pointed out that the history of the doctrine of the Person of Christ is, for the most part, the history of expedients by which, starting from certain presuppositions as to the nature of God and the nature of man which made them absolutely irreconcilable, the impossible attempt was made to solve the problem of their union in one self-conscious personality. Divinity and humanity being so defined as to be reciprocally exclusive, the only resource of theological experts has been so to modify or tamper with either the one or the other side of the combination as to make the conception of their unity no longer unthinkable. I proposed, without attempting any historical account of the development of the doctrine, to review, in a general way, some of these expedients, and I began by entering on an explanation and criticism of those theories which, starting from the real and proper humanity of Christ, endeavour to solve the problem of the Incarnation by modifying or manipulating the conception of the opposite or divine element in His person. The theory with which, at the close of the last lecture, we were engaged, is that which attempts to make the union conceivable by reducing the divine element simply to a communication of divine influence analogous in kind to that of prophetic inspiration, or even to the ordinary renewing and sanctifying operation of the Holy Spirit on the mind and heart of the believer.
I now proceed to another theory which, though in common with the former it seeks a ground of reconciliation by modifying the conception of the divine element in the person of Christ, appeals in a much more profound way to our religious sympathies and aspirations, and has taken a deeper hold of the religious spirit of the Church both in ancient and modern times. The theory in question is that according to which the higher principle in the person of Christ is, not absolute Deity, but Deity by an act of infinite condescension so divesting itself of its essential glory as to be capable of taking on itself the nature of man. In theological language this act has been expressed by such terms as ‘humiliation,’ ‘kenosis,’ ‘depotentiation,’ ‘exinanition’; and the idea intended to be conveyed is, that in order to effect the great end of the Incarnation, the union of the divine and the human in one self-conscious personality, God, or, more exactly, the eternal Logos or Son of God, by an act of self-limitation, denuded Himself of so much of His absolute power and glory as was incompatible with His taking upon Himself a real and veritable human nature. Humanity, in itself, is as incapable of containing the fulness of the divine essence as a cup of containing the immeasurable ocean. It would need, so to speak, a second Infinite to be the adequate receptacle or organ of the Infinite Spirit. But the Being who transcends all finite measures, in order to the manifestation of His redeeming love to mankind, humbled Himself, contracted or limited His essential infinitude, divested Himself of His transcendental attributes, so as to become capable of dwelling in, and identifying Himself with, the consciousness of a human subject, of participating in its physical and mental imperfections, its pains and sorrows and temptations, its whole experience from birth to death. The actions and sufferings of Christ are truly, and not in appearance only, the actions and sufferings of a human being in all points like as we are, sin only excepted; but to give them their redemptive value as a manifestation of divine love, they must also be the acts and sufferings of a Being essentially divine. And if we cannot but think of God in His absolute nature as transcending all limitations, incapable of change or suffering or temptation or imperfection, the only way in which the life and experience of a suffering, dying Saviour can be thought of as divine, is by the self-limitation of the divine nature to the dimensions of a finite and mortal nature. The sacrifice of Christ is a divine sacrifice, but it cannot be that of Absolute Deity—for that is forever beyond the reach of change and suffering—but only that of Deity voluntarily humbling, impoverishing, limiting itself to the nature and life of humanity. For some such process of self-emptying, the sanction of Scripture is sought in the well-known New Testament texts which speak of Christ as one who “though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor”; as one “who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being formed in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
It is almost impossible to state this theory without involving ourselves in contradictions; yet I think it cannot be questioned that a profound element of truth underlies its logical inconsistencies, and that the motive which leads to it, and the idea of God on which it is based, appeal in a very real way to our moral and religious intuitions. Let us look briefly (1) at the speculative difficulties which beset this theory, and (2) at the underlying truth of which it is the inadequate form.
1. As to the speculative objections. Can we attach any meaning to the notion of a self-limiting, self-emptying God—the notion, that is, of omnipotence causing itself to become powerless, of omniscience resolving to be ignorant of what it knows, of an infinite will voluntarily determining itself to be incapable of willing? Does not such a notion involve the obvious contradiction of a nature which at once is and is not, which asserts itself in the very act of denying itself? A power which represses power, is and remains powerful in the very act of self-repression. Not only does the lessening or depotentiating act contain in it the element of power which is supposed to be renounced, but the same contradiction must continue through the whole history of the self-repressing infinite. There would be no real humiliation in the life of the God-man if, after the first sublime act of renunciation, He ceased to be conscious of the infinite or divine power renounced, and all that remained was, at most, the memory of a past omnipotence that was no longer His. What lends, or is supposed to lend, redemptive value to the whole life of Christ and to its every experience of human suffering, is that it is the suffering of a self-renouncing God, of a divine Being who submits to the conditions of frail and finite humanity. The sublime act by which God humbles Himself to become man must, therefore, be perpetuated through the whole earthly career of Incarnate Deity. The contradiction which lies in this conception is thus one which is continuously repeated. The power that represses infinite power cannot be itself less than infinite. The notion of the self-limitation of an omnipotent Being is one which dissolves in the very attempt to grasp it.
The same line of reasoning applies to the omniscience of God. Can we construe in thought the idea of a Being who knows all things, resolving to renounce all or a part of His knowledge? A human being, through indolence or decaying intellectual power, may cease to know much of what was once his mental property; but even a human intelligence cannot by an act of will determine that it shall not know what it does know. And still more obviously is this true of Absolute Intelligence, of that Mind which can never experience failure or suspension of its all-penetrating, all-embracing apprehension. The resolution, on the part of Infinite Intelligence, to contract its knowledge to the limits of the finite or imperfect intelligence, is the resolution to become ignorant of what it knows. But to achieve that result, to carry into effect the resolution not to know any object of knowledge, it must think that object. In other words, it must know it in the very endeavour not to know it. The self-renunciation of omniscience, the self-reduction of infinite to finite knowledge, is thus a contradiction in terms.
But, passing from this fundamental objection, suppose it be conceded that the idea of a God, who lays aside His divine attributes and humbles Himself to become man, is not untenable, there are insuperable objections which still remain. Wherein, it may be asked, does the depotentiated God differ from an ordinary man? A doctrine of the Incarnation is one which professes to hold by the divine and human in the person of Christ. But does not the theory of the humiliation or self-reduction of God drop the divine or infinite element altogether? The Being who limits or suppresses His infinitude becomes finite and nothing more. If the self-limitation be real, can we draw any distinction, when the process has taken place, between a simply finite being and an Infinite Being who has abandoned His infinitude? The same Being cannot abandon its infinitude and possess it. The finite personality which arises from the reduction or transmutation of the infinite into the finite, is, after the transmutation, as limited as any other human being. The reduced infinite cannot retain its infinitude even in memory or as the dream of a glorious past; for a being that is or has become wholly finite is incapable of conceiving the very idea of the infinite—if, that is, finite and infinite are exclusive, as on this theory they are.
Lastly, if God, or the Eternal Logos, lays aside, in order to become human, every divine attribute which would render the Incarnation or union with a human personality impossible—ceases, in other words, to be omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient—what becomes, it may be asked, of the government of the world during the thirty years of this eclipse of divinity? Must we think of God as still retaining the plenitude of His divine power during the stage of humiliation? Then there was no real self-emptying or humiliation after all. The God who humbles Himself to become man and yet retains all that is essential to Deity, does not really humble Himself. The humanized, self-humiliated God is still seated on the throne of the Universe in full possession of His power and glory. To conceive of a providential empire of God unaffected by the laying aside of His divine glory, we should be driven to the impossible notion of a double Deity, a second omnipotence and omniscience taking up, during the stage of humiliation, the interrupted vocation of the Infinite. According to any such notion, there would be, not one God, but two, the celestial, undepotentiated God, and the God who in Christ humbled Himself to the level of a weak and suffering man.
Driven by these and other difficulties involved in the doctrine of the self-humiliation of God, its upholders have sometimes betaken themselves to a plausible modification of it. The kenosis, according to them, does not consist of the real and literal abandonment, but only of the veiling or concealment, of the divine presence and power under the form of humanity. God, in His infinite compassion and love, stooped to hide the splendours of His invisible essence under the guise of a human person and life. The essential Godhead was there from the miraculous conception to the crucifixion, but what was apparent was only the earthly form which, in His infinite condescension, God for our sake was pleased to assume. What the outward eye seemed to itself to see, was a babe slumbering on an earthly mother's breast; what was really there, was the presence of the omnipotent God. What the world beheld was a youth who grew in wisdom and in knowledge; but in the real essence of His being there was here nothing less than the omniscient Author and Sustainer of all created things, To outward appearance there was the presence of a man, who was no stranger to human infirmities, who seemed to hunger and thirst, to be worn with the toil and travail of life, to be soothed by human affection, saddened by human hatred and hostility, to feel the pangs of physical pain and the oppression of mental anguish, to be subjected at last to the shame and pain of a violent death from which his human nature recoiled in dismay; but underneath all this, which was but the outward and shadowy form, the real personality was that of the Being who is supremely exalted above all human infirmity, to whom earthly change and sorrow and death are forever unknown.
But is it not a fatal objection to any such representation as this, that, instead of a manifestation of God, it turns the person and life of Christ into a concealment of God, makes Him to be, not God manifest in the flesh, but God disguised and hidden under the illusory form of the flesh? Instead of seeing the moral glory of God reflected in a perfect human life, of discerning in His submission to sorrow and pain and death a revelation of infinite love and compassion, we are led to look on it as a mask, which hides from us the face of God and elaborately deprives us of all consciousness of His presence or insight into His character. Moreover, such a conception transforms that whole wondrous life, which we have been accustomed to regard as the perfect ideal of human excellence, into a scenic or fictitious display, a deceptive appearance of liability to human infirmity, in one who is really at the very moment possessed of superhuman power, of absolute superiority to all human change and trial. Surely, if there be any way in which it is possible to attach a real meaning to the conception of God humbling Himself to become man, it cannot be one in which there is no real but only a deceptive semblance of humiliation; surely, if the union of the divine and human in the person of Christ be anything more than a phrase, it cannot be a mere external show of unity, in which the divine element remains apart from the human and only utilizes the human as an artificial and temporary disguise.
2. What, then, is the element of truth which, as I have said, underlies the doctrine of the humiliation or self-limitation of God? It is, I answer, an attempt to render conceivable the profound truth of a sympathizing, self-sacrificing God. It pertains to the very essence of love to make the experience of the object loved, its own. And further, love falls short of its highest expression, unless it can manifest itself in suffering and sacrifice. What in its weakness or pain or sorrow, or in its consciousness of guilt and sin, the human spirit craves for is, not an omnipotent Creator and Ruler of the world, a Being enthroned in a supreme elevation above the world, absolutely impassive, incapable of being affected by the evils that befall the creatures He has made, or of experiencing on their behalf the faintest diminution of His unchangeable blessedness. If we ask what lends its power and attractiveness to the Christian idea of God as Father of Spirits, I think the answer, when we analyse our own feeling, will be that it enables us to think of Him as of a kindred nature with our own, touched with the feeling of our infirmities, rejoicing in our joys and grieving with our griefs, knowing and appreciating them as not foreign to His own experience, and in the time of our calamity and distress susceptible of a pain and sorrow even deeper than our own. Nay, more than this, what the idea of Fatherly affection brings before us is a love which takes the form of moral sympathy, a love which is not alienated by the unworthiness of its object, which no injury can estrange or ingratitude can exhaust, and which so links us to itself by an inner bond of spiritual affinity as, whilst itself untainted by guilt, to feel even more acutely than ourselves the burden of our moral degradation, and to be ready to submit to any sacrifice, even the supreme sacrifice of life itself, for our moral restoration.
But it is obvious that in order to our associating this conception with our idea of God, we must not suppose Him to lay aside or divest Himself of anything that belongs to His own nature and essence. If the Infinite had to renounce its infinitude, if God had to become something less than God, in order to identify Himself with human experience, it is a truism to say that the life of Christ would not be a revelation of God, but only of something less than God. If a perfect human life contain elements which are foreign to and beyond the scope of the divine life, then it is obvious that in these elements God could not be revealed. What gives its ineffable power over human hearts to the life of Christ is that we can think of it as a life in which the very mind and heart of God are disclosed; that we can think of His thoughts as God's thoughts, His feelings as God's feelings, of the love that breathed through His words and deeds as, not a reduced copy or artificial symbol of something in God, but as of the very essence of the divine love itself, so bound up with the divine nature as to make it possible for Him with literal truth to say, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” Instead of—by some inconceivable process —lowering or lessening His essential nature in order to make Christ's sorrow and suffering a manifestation of Himself, that sorrow and suffering must be the true, and, in one sense, the highest manifestation of the nature of God in all its essential and unmodified reality. If Christ be the manifestation of God, so far from the Incarnation being only possible by the laying aside of the essential attributes of divinity, it must be possible to regard it as itself an expression, nay, as the supreme expression of the nature of God. God must be seen not to shroud His divine essence in the one perfect human life, but to shine forth there in the full effulgence of His glory.
But how, it may be asked, can such a notion as that of a suffering God be made conceivable? Are not omnipotence, immutability, unchangeable blessedness, essential attributes of His nature? Can we think of a God whose power is other than absolute, whose blessedness can undergo any loss or change, a God to whom it is possible to ascribe weakness, pain, sorrow? If not a contradiction in terms, is it not blasphemy to speak of a weak, suffering, dying God? Now it may help us to answer such questions, if we consider for a moment whether there is not something erroneous or defective in our ordinary notion of such attributes as I have just named—whether an omnipotence that is simply unlimited power, a blessedness which is only sheer impassibility or inaccessibility to pain, are really qualities which we can ascribe to an absolutely perfect spiritual nature. Can we, for example, identify the omnipotence we ascribe to God with a mere quantitatively unlimited power? If that were a true idea, should we not be debarred from saying that there are many things which God cannot do? In the language of Scripture, He is the Being “who cannot lie,” who “cannot look upon iniquity,” who “can by no means clear the guilty,” who “cannot deny Himself.” What such language implies in God is, not mere unlimited power, but power limited by moral character, power bounded, restrained, lessened of its quantitative infinitude, by moral and spiritual conditions.
And if we pass from the negative to the positive side, we shall find that the highest power we can ascribe to a morally perfect being, is not power to do everything, but power directed to and determined by moral and spiritual ends, power to think and do only that which is good and right. His dominion over the world is not the omnipotence of unlimited physical force, but the omnipotence of intelligence, of truth, of righteousness, of love. It is true that we can and do think of God as exerting creative and controlling power over nature, and it would seem that we have here a realm in which the omnipotence which is simply absolute force can be ascribed to Him. But, even here, the dominion which pertains to Him is at once less and greater than unlimited power. For, as we have seen, there is no such thing as a material universe which is merely material, no matter which is unrelated to spirit, and does not contain in it the potentiality of spiritual life. Even mute and material things are not what they would be if nature were not in its very constitution and essence related to spirit, and did not contain in it an undeveloped element pointing to spiritual life as its supreme end. There is a sense, therefore, in which even creative power is not mere physical omnipotence, but power limited and determined by moral and spiritual ends.
The same thing is true of the attributes of immutability and impassibility which ordinary thought ascribes to God. The divine immutability is not the mere absence or impossibility of change, but the immutability of absolute spiritual perfection; and that, when we examine what it means, is consistent with an infinite flexibility and variety of experience. A human being, the more nearly he approaches to perfection, becomes possessed of, or approximates to, such unchangeableness: which is, not stereotyped sameness, but unalterableness of moral principle, unbending rectitude, unswerving goodness, the impossibility of deviation by one hair's-breadth from the course which conscience dictates. But this kind of immutability, so far from excluding, is compatible with and even necessitates a perpetual diversity and variety of feeling and action. A man of great force of character is continually finding new occasions for the manifestation and application of moral principle. In the ever-varying phenomena of human life, in the trials, difficulties, perplexities of individuals, in the complex relations of society, opportunity is furnished for the exercise and illustration of a spirit of truth and love, of devotion to the eternal principles of truth and righteousness. So far from being fixed in one rigid attitude of immobility, there is not a single incident in the ever-changing panorama of human life in which such a mind may not find new scope for its energies; whilst yet, with all this infinite flexibility, it remains ever self-consistent, rooted on the immutable rock of moral principle on which all things in God's universe are based.
Nor is there any reason why the same principle should not be applied to that Infinite Mind which, in one sense, is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. It is a spurious immutability we ascribe to God, when we conceive of Him as existing in isolated self-completeness, remote from the world He has made and the beings He has formed in His own image. If the creation of the world be not a mere arbitrary act, if it be a product of something in the nature, and not in the mere incalculable will, of God, then the true idea of His relation to the world is that of a spirit which is ever revealing and realizing itself in all things and beings, in the life of individuals, in the order of society, in the events of history and the progress of the race. Its essential characteristic is not moveless, lifeless sameness, but an infinite originality that is ever pouring forth richer, fuller disclosures of its inexhaustible wisdom and beauty and goodness.
Again, the same defect is to be traced in the conception of impassibility, or superiority to suffering, which is often associated with the divine nature. At first sight, it seems to exalt the nature of God to think of Him as possessed of an absolute blessedness which is incapable of interruption, of increase or diminution. Can any creature add to the sources of the divine happiness? Is there any power in the universe that can assail the untroubled joy of the Ever-blessed? Was there ever a time when God was more or less happy than now? If it is sin that has brought death into the world and all our woe, must not the absolutely sinless be the absolutely sorrowless? Must we not think of the rest of God, participation in which is the future destiny of the redeemed, as an unbroken tranquillity, a state of being whose ineffable felicity can never be marred by grief or pain?
I answer that any such notion of imperturbable happiness is false to the deepest principles of the spiritual life, a day-dream which vanishes at the touch of reflection. Instead of a Being of infinite love, whose life embraces all that lives, the God it imagines, when closely viewed, is but an apathetic phantom, a nature from which the deepest elements of spiritual satisfaction are excluded, and betwixt whose eternal solitariness and eternal selfishness there is but a step. This, at least, we can plainly see, that, amongst human beings, incapacity to suffer is not a sign of largeness but of littleness; and, on the other hand, that every degree of spiritual elevation brings with it a new possibility of suffering. Even of our physical nature it is true that a more developed and highly strung nervous system, if it is susceptible of keener pleasures, brings with it also a susceptibility to more numerous and intenser pains; and the same thing applies with still greater force to our higher nature. “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” It is ever the mind of largest compass, the mind cast in the finest mould, that is most susceptible of suffering. A little, narrow, uncultured spirit is liable to comparatively few troubles. The range alike of its joys and sorrows is limited, and it escapes untouched where a greater spirit would be pierced through with many sorrows. And the same is true of the moral nature. The placidity that cannot be disturbed by the sin and sorrow of the world, the self-absorbed happiness that is unmoved by the spectacle of human guilt and wretchedness, is a sign not of moral elevation but of moral degradation. On the other hand, greatness of soul is manifested by nothing so much as by the width and intensity of its sympathies, the capacity to identify its own life with the life, its own good with the good, of others.
Nor is there any reason why we should not apply the same principle to the nature of Him in whom all finite existences live and move and have their being. To attribute to God susceptibility to suffering, is not to lower, but to elevate our conception of His nature. An infinitude which rendered Him incapable of moral emotion, of pity, compassion, delight in the good and recoil from the evil that befell the objects of His love—this would be a spurious infinitude. To ascribe it to God would be to sacrifice moral expansion to a metaphysical figment. Love means taking up other lives into our own; and our life grows larger in proportion to the number of other lives embraced in it, and the completeness of our self-identification with them. God's infinitude lies, not in blank and boundless impassibility, but in this, that He can take up, not some, but all finite lives into His own; so that, if we may so speak, there is not one ripple of emotion, one pang of pain or sorrow, one care or grief or trouble, in the least or lowest spirit in His universe, that is not reflected in the infinite heart of God.
Finally, it is to be considered that a love that was incapable of suffering would fall short of the highest expression of love. A being who cannot sacrifice himself, is a being who is shut out from that kind of experience in which love finds its supreme manifestation. If there were no sense in which God could give Himself to the beings He has made in His own image, or could bear the burden of pain and sorrow for their redemption from evil, then that in which instinctively we discern the highest ideal of moral nobility would be an element of greatness and goodness unknown to God. Blot out from human life and human history all the goodness that owes its existence to pain and takes the form of sacrifice, and you would obliterate, not only that which is most beautiful, but that which is most heroic and sublime in our moral experience. And if there be in the divine nature an iron-bound impassibility which this experience can never penetrate, then our highest ideal of goodness can no longer be associated with the Divine Being.
If any one still insist that it seems irreverence, if not blasphemy, to speak of a suffering God, or to ascribe in any way pain or unhappiness to the Ever-blessed, then, let me add, it may in some measure meet his difficulty to reflect, that all moral suffering contains or carries with it what may be called an element of compensation, in virtue of which it is transmuted into a deeper joy. May it not even be said that the deepest, intensest kind of happiness is ever that which has an element of pain in it, that the purest delight is not the mere rapture of unmingled enjoyment, but that in which an ingredient of suffering is intermingled and absorbed? Is there any one who has ever borne toil or pain or sorrow for the sake of those whom he dearly loves, who does not know that there is a strange sweetness in that very sorrow, a subtle joy that thrills through and masters all the anguish and turns it by a spiritual alchemy into the purest bliss a human heart can know? And if this be so, then surely what we must find in Christ as the God-man is, not a being who stript or emptied Himself of His essential divinity in order to share in the weakness and suffering of humanity, but a manifestation of God in all the plentitude of the divine nature; and the whole life of the Man of Sorrows—His earthly lowliness and meanness, His mortal weakness, grief, and sorrow, His loneliness and forsakenness. His drinking of the cup of suffering to the dregs, yea, in His very crucifixion and death—must be to us the disclosure of an ineffable joy triumphing over sorrow, of a divine bliss in sacrifice, which is the last, highest revelation of the nature of God.