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How Could Jesus Be Both Divine and Human?
by R. C. Sproul
How can a person have a divine nature and a human nature at the same time in the way that we believe Jesus Christ did?
One of the great crises in evangelical Christianity today is a lack of understanding about the person of Christ. Almost every time I watch Christian television I hear one of the classical creeds of the Christian faith being denied blatantly, unknowingly, unwittingly. And of course, part of the reason is that it is so difficult for us to understand how one person can have two natures. You are asking me the question, 'How?' I don't know how; I know that Jesus is one person with two natures. How can that be? Long before there was a human nature there was a second person of the Trinity.
Here the second person of the Trinity, very God of very God, God himself, was able to take upon himself a human nature. No human being could reverse the process and take upon himself a divine nature. I cannot add deity to my humanity. It's not as if Christ changed from deity into humanity. That's what I hear all the time. I hear that there was this great eternal God who suddenly stopped being God and became a man. That's not what the Bible teaches.
The divine person took upon himself a human nature. We really can't understand the mystery of how this happened. But it is conceivable, certainly, that God, with his power, can add to himself a human nature and do it in such a way as to unite two natures in one person.
The most important council about this in the history of the church, whose decision has stood for centuries as the model of Christian orthodoxy and is embraced by Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Baptists -- virtually every branch of Christendom -- is the Council of Chalcedon. It was held in the year 451, in which the church confessed its belief about Jesus in this way: They said that we believe that Jesus is verus homus, verus Deus -truly man, truly God. Then they went on to set boundaries for how we're to think about the way in which these two natures relate to each other. They said that these two natures are in perfect unity, without mixture, division, confusion, or separation.
When we think about the Incarnation, we don't want to get the two natures mixed up and think that Jesus had a deified human nature or a humanized divine nature. We can distinguish them, but we can't tear them apart because they exist in perfect unity.
When Paul wrote that Jesus emptied himself and became a servant and yet he was God, in what ways did he retain or not retain his powers of being God?
The concept of 'emptying' was a raging controversy in the nineteenth century, and elements of it remain today. The Greek word used by Paul in the second chapter of Philippians, kenosis, is translated as 'emptying' in most Bible versions. The question is, Of what did Jesus, in his human (incarnate) state, empty himself?
The popular view in certain circles in the nineteenth century was that at the time of the Incarnation, the eternal God, the second person of the Trinity, laid aside -- emptied himself of -- his divine attributes so that he could become a man. And in becoming a man in the very real sense, he stopped being God. And so there is the transformation from deity to humanity because he set aside his omniscience, his omnipotence, his self-existence, and all of those other attributes that are proper to the nature of God.
There was on orthodox theologian during the middle of that controversy who said somewhat caustically that the only emptying that theory proved was the emptying of the minds of theologians who would teach such a thing as God stopping for one second to be God. If God laid aside one of his attributes, the immutable undergoes a mutation, the infinite suddenly stops being infinite; it would be the end of the universe.
God cannot stop being God and still be God. So we can't talk properly of God laying aside his deity to take humanity upon himself. That is why orthodox Christianity has always declared that Jesus was verus homus, verus Deus -- truly man, truly God; fully man and fully God. His human nature was fully human, and his divine nature always and everywhere was fully divine.
Nevertheless, the apostle Paul does speak of Christ emptying himself of something. I think the context of Philippians 2 makes it very clear that what he emptied himself of was not his deity, not his divine attributes, but his prerogatives -- his glory and his privileges. He willingly cloaked his glory under the veil of this human nature that he took upon himself. It's not that the divine nature stops being divine in order to become human.
In the Transfiguration, for example (Matthew 17:1-13), we see the invisible divine nature break through and become visible, and Jesus is transfigured before the eyes of his disciples. But for the most part, Jesus concealed that glory. I think Paul is saying in Philippians 2 that we're to imitate a willingness to relinquish our own glory and our own privileges and prerogatives.