Did the Incarnation Improve God?

Earlier this week, the Gospel Coalition blog featured a post on the Incarnation and God’s immutability, which caught my attention. An individual asked,

How do we hold together the idea that God doesn’t change with what happened at the incarnation and resurrection—where Jesus was united to a human nature and took on an earthly body and ultimately a resurrection body? It’s hard to understand that God[’s] taking on a human nature and all that he experienced in the flesh is not [a] fundamental change for him.

James Anderson, Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy at RTS in Charlotte, blogger, and Van Tillian, responded with a several considerations that help to lessen, though not remove, the tension.

  1. “[T]he biblical statements about God[’s] not changing needn’t be taken in a way that rules out change in any sense.”
  2. One possibility is that, as William Lane Craig argues, “God is timeless apart from a creation but temporal with a creation.”
  3. “An alternative solution is to deny that God can experience intrinsic change while recognizing that God appears to change from the temporal standpoint of his creatures.”
  4. “[W]e can make a distinction between divine causes and divine effects. God’s actions take effect in time (and space) but God acts from timeless eternity.”
  5. “God the Son is timeless and unchangeable with respect to his divine nature but temporal and changeable with respect to his human nature.”
  6. “Perhaps the best solution here is to say that talk of ‘becoming’ human is really a loose way of speaking, one conditioned by our temporal perspective, and isn’t to be taken in the most literal sense.”
Here’s the heart of his “solution”:
As I see it, orthodox Christology doesn’t require us to say that the Incarnation involved an intrinsic change in God the Son. All we need to say is that (1) the Incarnation was a contingent event (i.e., God could have freely chosen not to take on a human nature) and (2) it’s timeless true that God the Son is not-related-by-incarnation with respect to creation-before-4-BC and related-by-incarnation with respect to creation-after-4-BC. The creation is conditioned by time, not God.

Not satisfied? Neither is he. Here’s how he concludes:

Some people will feel that while these theological distinctions take us so far, they don’t remove all of the perplexities and a residue of paradox remains. I’m one of those people. But given the limitations of the human mind, the profundity of God, and the philosophically puzzling nature of time, we shouldn’t be too surprised or disturbed by this. Nor should we think that these perplexities give us reason to abandon any biblical teachings or orthodox doctrines. Rather, we should continue to think hard and creatively about such matters, while acknowledging with due humility our limited understanding of God and his unfathomable ways (Rom. 11:33-361 Tim. 3:16).

The post was particularly interesting to me because I’ve wrestled with a similar question over the years. And since I’ve had a partially drafted blog post in the queue for about five years, I thought I’d take the opportunity to resurrect it and finish it off.

My variation of this question focuses more on the notion of improvement than it does change (though improvement, of course, implies change). Here’s how I’d state the tension: because the triune God is eternally perfect and immutable, He cannot change or improve. Yet it seems that in the Incarnation God gained an ability that He did not formerly possess and thus, in a sense, the Incarnation “improved” God.

Before I go any further, let me be clear that I wholeheartedly affirm the biblical and historic view of the triune God as infinite, unchangeable, perfect, complete, lacking in nothing, and unimprovable—and all of these things eternally so. God always has been and always will be absolutely perfect in every conceivable way.

But several passages of Scripture seem on the surface to stand at odds with that statement—particularly, three in Hebrews.

Hebrews 2:10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering (cf. 5:8-10).

It seems that the Incarnation with all that it involved was necessary in order for Christ to be made qualified or fit for His work as our high priest, which suggests that prior to the Incarnation He was not qualified to be our perfect high priest. In this sense, it seems that something was lacking that the Incarnation added.

Hebrews 2:14–18 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

The Incarnation was necessary in order for Christ to be our perfect high priest. His suffering and temptation made Him able to do something that He could not do prior to the Incarnation. Christ’s ability to relate to us prior to the Incarnation was based on His omniscience, but He lacked personal experience of weakness, suffering, and temptation. It seems, then, that the Incarnation added something to Christ that He did not have before the Incarnation—namely, the ability “to help those who are being tempted.” Obviously, Christ was able to help Abraham, David, and the saints of old, but He can now help us in ways that He couldn’t help them. Thus God became better equipped by the Incarnation than He was before.

Hebrews 4:14–16 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Prior to the Incarnation, Christ could not sympathize with our weaknesses to the degree or in the way that He can now. He knew them only in theory, by virtue of his omniscience. Because of the Incarnation, He now knows them by experience—resulting in an improved and superior ability to sympathize with and help us.

So from these passages, I’d draw this tentative conclusion: God’s becoming a man seems to have added something to Him—namely (1) experience of weakness, suffering, and temptation, (2) the ability to relate to and help weak, suffering, and tempted people like us, and (3) the qualification to be our perfect high priest.

How does the Bible’s teaching about God’s eternal immutability and perfection harmonize with this apparent change and improvement in God’s ability to relate to His sinful people?

Here are a few possible resolutions:

  1. God’s Timelessness/Eternality: Perhaps we can resolve the tension by appealing to God’s eternality and timelessness. What seems to be change and improvement in time is really just our experience of eternal realities. The challenge with this approach is avoiding the notion that God was eternally united to humanity in the second person of the Trinity.
  2. Only Apparent Improvement: Or perhaps what appears to be change and improvement is only apparently so. Maybe the change wasn’t really in God, but in how we relate to God based on our sin. We were the ones who changed from being in perfect fellowship with God, not God. Or to put it another way, perhaps it wasn’t that God couldn’t relate to us in the new and improved way prior to the incarnation but that He didn’t. But the Hebrews passages certainly make it sound like God changed to relate to us in a new way that He formerly couldn’t (δύναται in Heb 2:18 and δυνάμενον in Heb 4:15).
  3. Functional Not Essential Improvement: Maybe we need to make a distinction between ontology and economy. It’s possible that nothing changed in God’s essence, but instead He took on a new role, a new function, as the God-man. But it’s hard to image how a new ability doesn’t involve essential change.
  4. Improvement with Respect to Jesus’ Human Nature: These passage speak of Christ with respect to His human nature, so perhaps nothing changed with regard to Christ’s divine nature or the triune God. But His human nature was hypostatically united to His divine nature, so the second person of the Trinity became able to relate to His people in a way He formerly couldn’t. And the Son is perichoretically united to the Father and the Spirit, so the triune God likewise became able to relate to His people in a way He formerly couldn’t.
  5. Divine Improvement Compatible with Biblical Immutability: Perhaps the Bible allows for there to be some change and improvement in God. Statements about His not changing may refer only to the constancy of His character and His faithfulness to His Word. But the overarching testimony of the Bible is that God possesses all power and authority and lacks nothing, seemingly ruling out any notion of improvement of any kind.

None of these “solutions” is without its problems. Consequently, I think it’s best to come to the same conclusion James did. Like the doctrine of the Trinity, God’s becoming man and all that it entailed is a great mystery beyond our ability to comprehend fully.

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7 Responses to Did the Incarnation Improve God?

  1. Clifford Kvidahl August 6, 2011 at 10:01 pm #

    Phil,

    Your conclusions drawn from the passages in Hebrews are likewise mine as well. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Cliff

  2. Lynden August 7, 2011 at 5:31 am #

    Thanks for sharing. Thought provoking, will continue to reflect.

    We may and we should, think, reason and discuss the nature of God, his ways and actions in human history. Ultimately, we are limited to words, sentences, logic, all finite instruments, to describe a GOD who is infinite. Great is the mystery of godliness.

  3. Tom October 5, 2011 at 10:45 pm #

    Your point in #4 “the divine nature is united to his human nature, so the second person became able to relate in a way he formerly couldn’t” doesn’t seem to take into account trinitarian theology, the two natures exist without admixture. The human nature can change without impinging upon the immutability of the divine. God cannot be tempted, yet Jesus was tempted. God cannot be dependent, yet Jesus was nursed. God cannot be ignorant yet Jesus says in Mark 13 that he doesn’t know the day of his return.

    If you downplay the “without admixture” aspect of Christology, you then must accept that the divine Word did empty himself in a fully Kenotic way.

    • Phil Gons October 5, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

      Yes, the two natures exist without admixture, but they also exist in one person. Was Jesus’ work as our high priest exclusive to his human nature? Wasn’t it rather precisely the union of His two natures in one person that fully equipped him to mediate between God and man and be our prophet, priest, and king? I’m not convinced that stressing the two natures really solves the problem.

      • Tom October 6, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

        It’s tough to know when to emphasize the unity or the diversity. Some of the ancient heresies were heresies because someone really got used to seeing things from the standpoint of only one of them.

        I think the doctrine of the hypostatic union is best used when it protects fundamentals like The Immutability of God or the Effectiveness of the Atonement. And in the first case, it is diversity that saves the day, and in the second case it is unity.

        Allowing the incarnation to call Immutability into question seems to open Christianity to the same charge that fatally wounds Mormonism, that God can change in His essence. This we must never do.

        • Phil Gons October 6, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

          I think we’re in basic agreement. The teaching of Christ’s two natures in one person is helpful, but it doesn’t eliminate the tension. I’m not for a minute suggesting that we call into question the immutability of God. Rather, I’m suggesting that the best “solution” is to believe all of Scripture, even if we cannot fully harmonize it.

  4. Wes Hedrick February 13, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    Phil,

    Thanks for this penetrating post. I noticed it, though it is a couple years old, because I have been grappling with Hebrews 2 lately.

    I have begun to wonder if the tension of this passage isn’t lessened somewhat if it is read from the standpoint of the people the Son came to help. “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham”–humans. Because humans are his target group, he took on humanity. Everything he did was for the purpose of communicating to his target group. “God … has spoken to us by a Son” (1:1, 2).

    Had no human believed on him, taken him as his high priest, Christ would have been no high priest. He would have helped no one with temptation because no one would have accepted his help because they could not have recognized it meaningfully. His actions as a man spoke to us and won us over.

    I think Hebrews 2 presents the Son of God winning his way through to the status of Chief Man (2:9) and High Priest and gaining for himself worshippers because he did all these things not as God but as man. (Though I of course understand that he was fully God the whole time.)

    To me this does not represent a change in God, but a demonstration of how far he is willing to go not to change, i.e. not to decrease in love, glory, and wisdom. Our great change in the Garden gave us a new glimpse of God’s unchanging glory. Perhaps this perspective is most like your #2 above.

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