An Eternal Christological Conundrum

Though I don’t recall the source offhand, I remember reading that many pastors, preachers, and expositors are afraid to discuss the Trinity and Christology. They’re concerned about confusing congregations and readers. They’re concerned about misspeaking and, as a consequence, being branded a heretic.

And we’re all the poorer for it. The object of our faith—Jesus Christ, our Savior—gets short shrift. This results in audiences not conceiving the full grandeur of His Person. Some reduce the Divine Savior to the merely human. Conversely, some exalt Christ so highly they Deify His humanity. In this post we will focus on one aspect of the latter.

To this end, first, we’ll provide a brief definition of God, centering on His attributes. God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (all-present, everywhere at once). I think Thomas V. Morris provides the most succinct statement on the interrelationships and interworkings of these three attributes:

Perhaps the best understanding of the attribute of omnipresence is that of its being the property of being present everywhere in virtue of knowledge of [omniscience] and power over [omnipotence] any and every spatially located object [creation].1

Next, we’ll provide a framework for God’s mode of existence as compared to ours.

Time is an aspect of the created order. Yet God is transcendent, existing in the eternal realm, outside time and creation. There is no physicality in the eternal realm.

God, as a spirit Being (John 4:24), is not bound or impacted by the physical or time limits of creation and, thus, has the ability to interact with and within the created order. God lords over creation.2 He transcends time, creation’s necessary constituent.

But what is eternity, the eternal realm? And how does time, with its chronological series of events—the past, the ever-fleeting present, and the future—relate to eternity? Do the two intersect in any way? I have found no better explanation, and no better basis for exploration, than the words of Lewis Sperry Chafer:

…Whatever time may be and whatever its relation to eternity, it must be maintained that no cessation of eternity has occurred or will.  God’s mode of existence remains unchanged.  Time might be thought of as something superimposed upon eternity were it not that there is ground for question whether eternity consists of a succession of events, as is true of time.  The consciousness of God is best conceived as being an all-inclusive comprehension at once, covering all that has been or will be.  The attempt to bring time with its successions into a parallel with eternity is to misconceive the most essential characteristic of eternal things.3

This seems right to me. We cannot think of chronological order in eternity. We cannot impose our temporal thinking of past, present and future onto the eternal realm. We cannot impose temporality upon eternality.

Temporality can be conceived as akin to a number line. We can metaphorically place ourselves at an ever-moving zero for the ever-fleeting present time, while construing events left of zero (negative numbers) as the past, and events to the right (positive numbers) as the future.

Since our finite minds cannot conceive eternality, it would be impossible to construct any sort of analogy with any level of confidence. However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s consider it like the symbol for infinity, in the sense of being boundless or endless.

There is no beginning and no ending. Once you are metaphorically on the infinity loop—in the eternal realm—there is no past and no future. You will find no beginning and no end. There is no time, unless you wish to call it the eternal present. But I think even that distorts the reality, since it includes a time element. Perhaps better: once in the eternal realm you simply exist.

God is metaphorically on the infinity loop. God has unbounded eternality. By contrast, all those granted eternal life have bounded eternality. They are bounded at the point of entry. ‘After’ that (it’s difficult to refrain from temporal references!), they enjoy the same unbounded eternality as God.

Using the above framework, we can now discuss the Eternal-temporal: the Divine-human Person of Christ.

Starting with the Definition worked out at the Council of Chalcedon, we affirm—as the totality of Scripture demonstrates—that Jesus was/is fully God and fully human, possessing both a Divine nature and a human nature. This doctrine logically entails one important aspect: From our temporal perspective, Christ’s humanity began at a point in time (Virginal Conception).

On the other hand, His Deity is eternal, with no beginning and no end—no temporality. Accordingly, His Divine nature has unbounded eternality.

To keep things as simple as possible, we’ll borrow John the Gospel writer’s terminology. The Word, the Logos, was with God in the beginning, and the Word was God; the Word existed as God (John 1:1-2). The Word was the agent of all creation, for all things came to be—all things came into existence—through the Word (John 1:3). Then the eternal Word became the Eternal-temporal Word-made-flesh (John 1:14), i.e., Jesus Christ (John 1:17).

Putting this in temporal perspective, prior to year zero—the dividing line between BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini = “in the year of our Lord”)—the Word existed with no flesh. At year zero the Word acquired human flesh, instantaneously culminating in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Divine-human, the God-man. This begins the Incarnation (John 1:14). At that point the Divine Word became forever hypostatically united with human flesh.

Taking the previous paragraph and simplifying it, we could illustrate from a temporal perspective:

The Word w/out flesh > the Word w/flesh

Strictly speaking, the Word w/out flesh is not Jesus; Jesus is the Word w/flesh. That is, in the verbiage depicted in John 1:1-3 the Word could not have had flesh, for this describes pre-creation (John 1:1-2), followed by the creation event (John 1:3). At this point, clearly, the Word had no flesh and, thus, cannot rightly be called Jesus. We can certainly state, “Jesus had a pre-incarnate existence as the Word.” That is, there is continuity in the Person.

With this understanding, we would have to agree that Jesus Christ, aka the Word with flesh, has bounded eternality—bound at the moment of the Virginal Conception. To deny this is to unduly exalt Jesus to the point that He is super-human—in violation of Chalcedon. Correspondingly, we would have to affirm that the Word w/out flesh has unbounded eternality, in keeping with the “fully God” portion of Chalcedon.

Some might object that such strong distinctions illustrate the heresy of Nestorianism. But not necessarily. We can affirm that the Word with flesh, aka Jesus, has unbounded eternality in virtue of His Divine nature—which has existed and will continue to exist eternally, of course. Simultaneously, we can affirm that the Word with flesh, aka Jesus, has bounded eternality in virtue of His human nature—bound at the point of the Virginal Conception.

Yet, from an eternal perspective, it could be argued that the Word has always existed with flesh (cf. Revelation 13:8; 17:8). This would fully take into account Chafer’s statement, “The consciousness of God is best conceived as being an all-inclusive comprehension at once, covering all that has been or will be.” By extension, we might think that every true Christian has always been seated in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6). But might that call into question free will (cf. Revelation 3:5)? I suggest we not try to sit on God’s Throne, that we not attempt to ponder from an eternal perspective. Let’s stick with the temporal.

With all the foregoing in mind, we can do proper justice to the truth of Colossians 1:16-17 (cf. Hebrews 1:2):

16 …and all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 And He Himself exists before all, and in/by Him all things hold together.4

John the Gospel writer apparently drew from Paul’s words here. All things were created through Him (the Word without flesh). That is, the Word is the Agent of creation (John 1:3). And all things were created for Him (the Word with flesh). That is, all things were created for the God-man, Jesus Christ. The first clause of verse 17 can be translated and interpreted a few different ways. It could be translated: He is before all. Some interpretations include: (a) the Word exists before all created order; (b) Christ, in his Divine nature, exists before all created order; (c) the Word, as God, is preeminent; (d) Christ, as the God-man, is preeminent. The text may well be purposefully ambiguous such that there is intended polysemy, inviting more than one interpretation.

But what about the final clause? Prior to the Incarnation it was simple enough: the Word without flesh was holding all things together. However, can the God-man hold all things together while walking the earth, limited in physical presence? To claim Jesus did so via His Divine nature (in abstraction from His human nature) might smack of Nestorianism. How can we resolve this?

With ease. God is omnipresent. We should not imagine God being constrained within/to Jesus’ human body any more than we might think the Holy Spirit is constrained within each believer’s body. Surely, there are not as many ‘Holy Spirits’ as there are Christians! In the same way, Jesus’ Divine nature, being omnipresent, can be in hypostatic union in the Person of Christ yet still continually sustain the cosmos.

In other words, we must not construe this passage as conveying that the Divine-human Jesus was holding the cosmos together, as if Jesus’ human body was omnipresent. Now, it was His Divine nature for sure, but the Divine nature was exhibiting the attribute of omnipresence (along with omnipotence and omniscience) in performing this function. This Divine function was not interrupted by the Incarnation.

In conclusion, we do no violence to the Deity of Christ if we affirm that the Word existed without human flesh, that the Word was not “Jesus Christ” prior to the Incarnation. In fact, we would unduly Deify Jesus’ humanity should we claim Jesus existed before creation. In other words, we cannot substitute “Jesus Christ” for “the Word” in John 1:1. This would make nonsense of the Scriptures. But we can claim that Jesus Christ preexisted as the Word in John 1:1. Or that the Word (John 1:1-3) is the preexistence of Jesus Christ.

All in proper—temporal—perspective…

[Related: Probing the Prologue in The Gospel According to John: John 1:1-2 and John 1:3-5]

___________________________________

1 Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1986), p 91.  Brackets added.
2 Though he allows free will.
3 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, [© 1948, 1976 Dallas Theological Seminary] 1993), pp VII.141-42.  Emphasis added.
4 My translation, with assistance from Murray J. Harris, Colossians and Philemon, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2013), pp 42-43; Constantine R. Campbell, Colossians and Philemon: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013), pp 11-14.

12 Responses to An Eternal Christological Conundrum

  1. Craig says:

    I must admit I’ve heard too many pastors/preachers say things that are borderline if not heretical. In these cases, I assume the individual just misspoke. But all spokespersons for God and Christ should endeavor to know fully the intricacies of Trinitarian and Christological doctrine.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Largely, I do not hear anyone teaching/preaching this. Just because the Trinity is a mystery doesn’t mean we shouldn’t preach/teach on it. I encourage anyone who wants to grow in their prayer life to ask the Triune God to help them pray Trinitarian prayers!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Craig says:

    There are enough decent online resources to make such study very doable.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim says:

    Thank you for writing this piece, Craig. Your conclusion is a neat summary of biblical truth. A merry Christmas to you and safe and prosperous year ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Craig says:

    Thanks, Jim! Same to you and yours!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Craig says:

    I should add that, given our theological differences regarding the Trinity and Christology (minor), that says and means a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jim says:

    You mentioned in an earlier comment that you hadn’t looked too much into OT theophanies, or Christophanies, with respect to the Word/Logos. Not sure if you’ve delved in to Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho much but here https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01285.htm are chapters 55-68.

    It is a Catholic resource, but plenty of early church writings to wade through. Of note are chapters 56, 58-59, 61. They’re very short and take only a few minutes to read. In the discourse, Justin describes how another ‘rational power’ begotten from The Father is also regarded as ‘God’ but equally very distinct from the Father.

    To me, it’s an interesting argument that implies how Jewish monotheism can remain intact despite there being two beings called God and Lord in view, often at the same point in scripture. Perhaps this framework bolsters a trinitarian perspective; for me, it was part of my working at better clarifying the Christological (and trinitarian) conundrum.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Craig says:

    New Advent is a great site for info! I’ve referenced it quit a bit in comments on other blogs. I’ve never actually read Dialogue with Trypho (I’d read some snippets that were referenced in other works), though I should.

    Like

  9. danemvilla says:

    Great piece. Thanks. The distinction you pointed between the preincarnate Word and the incarnate One enriches our appreciation of our Savior.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Craig says:

    Thanks so much for your comment. It is appreciated.

    Like

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