Divine Impassibility: Section 3
3. Systematic Theology
When considered in relation to the divine essence and attributes, the divine affections, and the person and work of Christ, the confessional DDI is a truth we must teach and uphold with great care.
5 The incarnation and work of the mediator terminate on the Son, though “willed and effected” (Muller, Dictionary, 213) by each person of the Godhead.
- Impassibility and the Essence and Attributes of God
The DDI cannot be affirmed or denied in isolation from the other divine attributes. God cannot be divided. To modify or reject the DDI is to unravel the carefully formulated confessional doctrine of the divine essence and attributes (cf. 2LCF 2.1-2). The DDI is inseparably related to all the other divine attributes, most notably, infinity, simplicity, immutability, and omnipotence.
“Divine infinity is often articulated negatively as the opposite of finitude and positively as God’s plentitude of being and nature” (Dolezal, God Without Parts, 77). There is, in other words, no limit to God’s being and perfections (cf. Job 11:7; Psalm 145:3; 1 Kings 8:27; Isa. 40:13; Matt. 5:48). Viewed in this light, the DDI does not rob God of affection, but rather affirms that his affections are infinite with respect to time (i.e., eternal) and perfection. It is of the essence of God to be (Exod. 3:14), not to become, and therefore he has no beginning or end. He eternally subsists in the fullness and perfection of his own being. He is in “every way infinite” and therefore “most holy, most wise, . . . most loving” (2LCF 2.1, emphasis added).
Yet to suggest that God’s affections change is to deny that he is infinite. If God were to undergo an emotional change, or acquire a new emotional experience, that change would be either for the better or the worse. If for the better, then he must not have been infinite in perfection prior to the change, and therefore was not God. If for the worse, then he would no longer be infinite in perfection after the change, and therefore no longer God.
Moreover, if God subsists in the plentitude of his infinite perfection, why would he undergo change? If God were to self-will his own emotional or relational mutability, unto what end would he do so? What greater affection, and what greater perfection, could he attain that he does not already eternally have in himself? Likewise, would he rob himself of any of his infinite perfections through change? And why should he? For an infinite being, “[t]o be immutably good is no point of imperfection, but the height of perfection” (Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 1:328).
God is most loving, therefore, because he is infinite love in himself. To suggest that God undergoes emotional changes of state or mind as he relates to his creatures may have a certain emotional appeal to some, but in reality such a suggestion presupposes that God is less, not more, loving.
The doctrine of divine simplicity teaches that God is “without . . . parts” (2LCF 2.1), that he is his existence, essence, and attributes. God is his existence, and therefore cannot but exist as he always is. Unlike every other being (i.e., creatures), he cannot not exist as he is, and therefore is unchangeable by nature or essence. In order to maintain that something in God undergoes change, emotions or affections included, God’s aseity (i.e., necessary and independent existence) and simplicity must be denied.
God is his essence. This cannot be said of any individual created being. All that is in God is God. Therefore, in order to maintain that something in God, such as emotions, undergoes change, God’s essence must be capable of change, which is impossible.
God is his attributes. There is nothing in God that is not God. There are no accidental properties, qualities, or attributes in God; all that is properly predicated of God is God. For example, God does not merely have love as an accidental property, such that it can grow and diminish without undergoing substantial change. Instead, God is love. Therefore, his love is asunchanging as his essence and existence. In order to predicate an emotional change in God, the classical and confessional understanding of divine simplicity and aseity must also be rejected.
Divine immutability refers to God’s inability to undergo any change whatsoever (Mal. 3:6; James 1:17), whether considered absolutely (with respect to his essence and attributes), relatively (with respect to space, time, and creation), or ethically (with respect to the constancy of his character). While impassibility more narrowly concerns the affections of God, immutability is the glory of every divine attribute and perfection, and therefore cannot be modified without consequence. Likewise, because the doctrine of impassibility is a subset of immutability, any revision of the former necessitates a corresponding revision of the latter. It is the case, in fact, that God is either immutable in every way, his affections included, or not at all (cf. Heb. 6:18). As such, modifications of the confessional DDI also entail modifications of the doctrine of divine immutability. This is most notable when theologians attempt to construe the DDI in relation to divine sovereignty, suggesting that God is sovereign over all his emotional or affectional changes (i.e., relational mutability). The theological price to pay for this shift is too great. It not only compromises the doctrines of God’s infinite sovereignty, simplicity, aseity, and omnipotence, but it also requires that we deny the doctrine of God’s immutability. It dangerously, though perhaps unwittingly, supposes two mutually exclusive gods, the one who is (transcendent, impassible, immutable, and so on) and the other who is with us (immanent, passible, mutable, and so on). Change is change, and any change in God would undermine his immutability. The same thread unravels the whole garment.
The divine attribute of omnipotence is significant to any discussion of the DDI because it maintains both that there is no passive potency in God to be other than he eternally is (i.e., pure act) and that all active potency can be attributed to God, yet with an important qualification. When a husband exercises his active potency or power to love his wife, he undergoes a change from “being capable of” to having that capability “realized.” Unlike creatures, in the exercise of his power, God is not seeking greater fulfillment or perfection in his own being. To maintain that God is pure actuality is not to close God in a cold, dark box and deny him the ability to act. Rather, it is to confess that he is pure act, all-potent, an ever-living, always active agent capable of affecting change outside of himself (i.e., in his works ad extra), without, however, himself undergoing any change whatsoever. Thus, a proper understanding of omnipotence denies God the active potency to affect his own change. Therefore, to say that God is sovereign over his own emotional changes would require that he have power to bring about his own passive potency. Indeed, it would require that there be in God a mixture of active and passive potency, which necessarily entails a rejection of divine simplicity, immutability, and a loss of the Creator/creature distinction.
He is “all-potent” because his power is as infinite and perfect as his being. His power is in need of no further perfection, either from an internal or an external principle. Any change whatsoever in God has to be explained either in terms of greater perfection or lesser perfection. The former would imply that God was not yet infinite, while the latter would imply that God is no longer infinite. If God is not infinite, then God’s power cannot be infinite. If God possesses passive potency, then he cannot possess an infinite active potency, in which case he would be unable to actualize any of what Scripture terms his “mighty works”(Deut. 3:24; Psalm 145:4; Matt. 11:20-21).
To pull the thread of divine impassibility is to unravel the whole truth of God’s existence, essence, and attributes.
- Impassibility and the Divine Affections
Because God is infinite, simple, immutable, and omnipotent in his being, it is necessary to affirm the confessional DDI. To predicate of God emotional changes of state will inevitably undermine the very attributes that distinguish the Creator from the creature. But what does this entail for the divine affections, especially God’s love? It must be affirmed that love may be properly predicated of God in a manner consistent with his peculiar mode of being and immutable perfections both essentially (or, absolutely) with regard to the love by which he loves himself (ad intra) and relatively with regard to the affection by which he loves his creatures with respect to himself (ad extra). While the inequality among the objects of God’s love denotes a real distinction in the creature, and the degree to which each experience his love, it cannot thereby imply a change or variation in God whose love is as immutable as his being.
The objects of God’s love
God’s love toward us has its source and foundation in God’s love in and for himself, wherein he most perfectly, unchangeably, and absolutely loves himself. Therefore, God’s love toward us must be understood in relation to God’s love in himself, his own goodness being the primary object of his love. Such a starting point will result in the conclusion that God’s love toward his creation, particularly his love for the elect, is as immutable, fixed, and constant as God’s love for himself, however varied our experience of its effects may be.
Generally, love is a fixed disposition of the will which seeks union with that which it deems good and “having obtained it to rest in the same . . . whereby one doth entirely adjoin himself to an other, and wholly doth both rest and delight himself in him” (Zanchi, Life Everlasting, 357). Christian theologians have always located the summum bonum, the highest good, in God alone, for he alone is goodness (Matt. 19:17). Therefore he alone is the proper object of his own love, eternally resting and delighting in his own infinite goodness.
1) The love of God proper
This natural love which characterizes the divine life has been made known to us in the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John is replete with references to the Father’s unparalleled love for the person of the Son, and the Son’s uncompromising love for the Father (John 1:18; 3:34-35; 5:20; 14:31; 15:9; 17:24; cf. Prov. 8:27, 30; Matt. 11:27; Col. 1:13). The life of God is one of infinite delight, rest, and satisfaction in his own perfection. The Father infinitely delights in the express image of his nature in the Son, the Son reciprocally in the Father, both in and by the Holy Spirit that proceeds from them both. In short, God is pure actuality; his love needs no object outside himself for his own eternal complacency and joy. He is “most loving” in himself (2LCF 2.1, emphasis added), so as to admit neither increase nor decrease. Rather than a cold and stoic deity, “God is the fullness of an infinitely completed, and yet infinitely dynamic, life of love, in which there is regard, knowledge, and felicity” (Hart, “No Shadow of Turning,” 197).
2) The love of God by participation
Love, as we know it, frequently involves the lover seeking out greater fulfillment through union with the beloved, but not so with the triune God whose act of creation is purely gratuitous. God’s love toward us has its source and foundation in God’s love in and for himself, wherein he most perfectly, unchangeably, and absolutely loves himself. The most blessed God rests and delights in himself, and in others with a view to himself as something of himself (i.e., in his own goodness variously communicated to his creatures according to their capacities of nature and grace). In return, God commands each accordingly to find their rest and delight in the same – to love most what he loves most, himself.
However, the Lord does not will to communicate his goodness, or the enjoyment of it, to all alike, and therefore he is not said to love all with an equal love.
God loveth not only himself, but also every thing that he hath made: although he love not all things with an equal love. For he loveth the better things better than those things that are less good: the godly than the ungodly. (Zanchi, Life Everlasting, 356)
The Lord loves all the works of his hands (Psalm 104:31), but especially man whom he created in his own image (Matt. 6:26b). Furthermore, his love for mankind is not without distinction, for he has most discriminately set his love upon the elect alone (Rom. 5:8).
Notwithstanding these distinctions, “the love of God is free, infinite, constant, and everlasting” (Zanchi, Life Everlasting, 356). Such distinctions are not to be understood as varying degrees of emotion within the divine life, but rather denote the varying degrees to which God wills each creature respectively to participate in the divine goodness, or more precisely, its effects.
All of these distinctions refer to a real difference in the creature, the nature of the covenant to which they are adjoined, and their experience of, and participation in, the unchanging love of God, but not a difference within the divine life itself. Although our relation to the love of God may vary according to the will of God, his love does not. Such variation in our experience of the effects of God’s unchanging love is not the result of any change in his affections; he has not, nor could he, will such a change in himself. Without willing any change in his own imperfectible and impassible affections, God wills change in our experience of his love, resulting only in a changed relation on our part to his infinite, eternal, immutable, impassible love.
This is most profoundly evident with regard to the love which God communicates to the elect according to the covenant of grace, to whom he grants the highest participation in that communion which he has in himself. Jesus, in his High Priestly prayer, thus said to the Father:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:20-24)
With regard to the elect, God gratuitously wills more than a general participation and experience of his goodness, and promises as much in the new covenant (Jer. 31:33-35).
Three distinctive characteristics of God’s love toward his elect emerge. In the first place, it is a saving love (cf. Rom. 9:13; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 1:4b-5; Titus 3:4-8; 1 John 3:1; 4:10). He loves his elect people with a saving love, effectually unto the end that they would be adjoined with their Savior in glory, according to the new covenant. Accordingly, it is in the second place, a mediated love grounded in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, the mediator of the covenant. The ground of this love cannot be found in man, not even the elect who are themselves equally deserving of God’s revenging justice (Rom. 5:8), but only in Christ who is himself beloved of God (Matt. 3:17).
God’s love to Christ is the foundation of his love to us, Matt. 3:17; Ephes. 1:6. God loves all creatures with a general love, Matt. 5:44, 45, as they are the work of his hands; but he doth delight in some especially, whom he hath chosen in his Son, John 3:16; Ephes. 1:6. (Leigh, A Treatise of Divinity, II.viii., 71)
It could be no other way, for there was no other way for God to love sinners with a saving love without injury to his honor, justice, or holiness. Divine wisdom made a way of communicating his love to us in Christ without injury to the honor of his justice. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10; cf. Rom. 3:25-26). God’s love for the elect is a mediated love, grounded in his eternal and unchanging love of the elect in Christ. He does not love us for our own sakes, but for Christ’s sake. “He chose us in Him [i.e., Christ] before the foundation of the world, . . . by which he has made us accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:4, 6).
The love of God, understood in the context of the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), is the antecedent love of God. In love, the Father gave an elect humanity to the Son (John 17:6), and in love the Son redeemed those whom the Father had given to him (John 6:39). The primary object of the Father’s love was his Son, and the first cause of Christ’s love was not something within the elect, but purely because the Father’s love-gift required it. All consequent benefits of God’s love that flow down to the elect through the covenant of grace are procured by the mediation and merit of Christ (2LCF 8.5).
In the third place, God’s love for the elect involves the highest participation, in that he makes them participants in that eternal, infinite, and unchangeable communion between the Father and the Son (John 17:26). On account of creation, all mankind are by nature capable of communion with God, but are by sin rendered morally incapable. Only through the grace of God in Christ, by virtue of the new covenant in his blood, are the elect alone given a renewed nature capable of participating in the fullness of his love. Distinctively with regard to the elect, the lover is most fully united with the beloved, through his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, so that they too may behold, rest, and delight in his love.
In this way, it may be affirmed that God loves the elect more than the rest of mankind, not for anything in themselves, nor as a heightened or differentiated emotion within the divine life itself, but by his gratuitous will to grant the elect, to the utmost of their re-created capacity, a participation in his infinite and unchanging love. He has loved his elect with the same all-sufficient, infinite, eternal, perfect, and unchangeable love with which he has loved his only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, if God’s love for the elect is grounded in his love for Christ, and is a participation in the same, it cannot be otherwise concluded but that it is as eternal and unchangeable as his love for himself in Christ. Indeed, God’s love is eternal and immutable, even as he himself is eternal and immutable.
Love and its mode of being
God’s love stands in relation to the divine nature in a mode proportionately similar to the way human love stands in relation to human nature. The perfection of God’s love is, in some significant ways, differentiated from human love, given the difference between God’s nature and human nature. Therefore, we must avoid the mistake of assuming that every perfection of love in the creature must have a corresponding perfection in God. Likewise, we must insist that sympathy, insofar as it implies suffering and a loss of joy, would be an imperfection in God, though it could be considered a perfection in man.
Since change is inseparably annexed to how we experience love, how can love be predicated of a simple, infinite, and omnipotent God who in no way undergoes change? When love is predicated of God, the emotional change and suffering that is so often associated with our experience must necessarily be figurative.
1) Love and emotional mutability
God’s love stands in relation to his nature, and therefore is like God himself, absolutely and immutably fixed without need or capability of emotional arousal. This in no way implies that God’s love is cold and detached, but that he does not undergo changes of inner emotional state, whether freely from within or from without. There is nothing in his people that could arouse God’s love. The Lord set his love upon Israel simply because he loved them (Deut. 7:7-8). Pointing forward to the day of redemption, the prophet Zephaniah comforts the people of God, not by telling them that God’s love will be aroused, but that “he will be quiet [over you] in his love” (Zeph. 3:17).
In God, there is no arousal of love because his love is infinitely and immutably fixed upon his own infinite and immutable goodness and the creature’s unmerited participation in it. And therefore, it is especially this fixed position that we call love. It is a fixed disposition of the will that takes delight and rest in union with the beloved.
Placing the emphasis upon the fixed disposition of love in no way implies that God is unable to act or relate. It is from this fixed position, not the arousal per se, that love gives rise to all sorts of actions aimed at union with the beloved. With respect to God’s works ad extra, his love is the infinite, dynamic, fixed fountain of all of his works of creation, providence, and redemption (cf. John 3:16).
2) Love and sympathetic suffering
God’s love is the fixed and immutable fountain of all motion outside of himself (ad extra). As such, few would be willing to say that God’s love is a fixed fountain of pity. And yet, it can be difficult for us to conceive of love apart from God’s ability to be emotionally affected by the affliction of his people. But as with change in general, sympathetic suffering is not a necessary ingredient of love as such.
Although we necessarily begin with an understanding of love based upon our own experience, we are thereby drawn to a consideration of love in God. In doing so, we must remember that not every perfection in man has a corresponding perfection in God because his being is not like ours.
Wherefore that rule which we have used elsewhere, is to be held, that whatsoever imperfection we find in our affections, we are first to take that away, and then the same affections, love, and mercy, being purged as it were from all imperfection, is to be attributed to God. (Zanchi, Life Everlasting, 358)
Divine and human love are as different in kind as God‘s being and man’s being are different in kind. This means that we must not only take away “whatsoever imperfection we find in our affections,” but also any perfections in us that would imply an imperfection when considered in relation to the nature of God revealed in Scripture. Contrary to human experience, therefore, God is able to love with sincere and perfect compassion without co-suffering. Suffering for another, or in response to the suffering of another, is not what makes compassion praiseworthy. What is praiseworthy is the love that is revealed through the sympathetic suffering.
It is, in fact, morally inconsistent to locate our comfort in the notion that God is suffering with us in our distress, rather than finding our comfort in his impassible compassion that, because he does not suffer, is fully able to overcome the suffering of his people. Sympathetic suffering, though inseparable in human experience, is not of the essence of love; it is not what makes love praiseworthy. If a mother wept bitterly with her children but did not pick them up, wipe away the tears, and bandage the wounds when it was within her ability to do so, we would not look upon her tears as compassion. God is impassible and infinite love, and from that dynamic fixed fountain overflows compassionate relief, yet without suffering.
While a lack of co-suffering may indicate an indifference toward our fellow-man, this is not so with God. Loving his creation, and especially the elect, with respect to himself, he freely identifies himself with his people. Apart from co-suffering, he empathetically identifies with them in their suffering as though it were his own (Prov. 14:31; 17:4; 19:17; Isa. 63:9). That which united them is not a mutual experience of suffering, but love. Love has the ability to unite the person loving and the beloved as if to form one person. God’s love unites his people to himself, in participation of his goodness, as if to see them as something of himself.
This provides tremendous insight into the spirit and intent of those passages that speak of God as though he were afflicted in our affliction. The point is not that he suffers with us, but that he identifies with his people in their affliction like a father or mother would with their children (e.g., Deut. 1:31). Like a father, he seeks to provide compassionate relief to his children as if their suffering were his own. He so identifies with his people that he loves them as though they were part of himself.
Sympathetic suffering, though inseparable in human experience, is not of the essence or perfection of love as love. It is not sympathetic suffering itself that consoles the beloved, but the love that is revealed through it. Therefore, when Scripture attributes such suffering to God as God, it speaks figuratively (i.e., anthropopathically) and thereby signifies the love with which God identifies with his people in their affliction so as to relieve them as though it were his own. Love, in that mode of being which stands in relation to the divine nature, is neither overwhelmed by suffering nor capable of it, and therefore is fully able to overcome it—a conclusion profoundly affirmed in the person and work of Christ.
- Impassibility and Christology
Much confusion concerning the confessional DDI can be avoided when we understand that impassibility refers to an attribute of God and is a topic of Theology Proper, rather than Christology. The confessional DDI does not deny the real emotions and sufferings of Jesus Christ. Neither, however, can the emotions and sufferings of Christ, the God-man, be marshaled against the DDI. Orthodox Christology upholds the truth that God, as God, cannot and does not suffer, emotionally or otherwise, nor is there any need for him to do so. We are not in need of a God who suffers as God, but rather an impassible God who, by suffering as a man, is able to overcome suffering on behalf of man.
Suffering and the communicatio idiomatum
On the grounds of the incarnation of the Son and the union of the two natures in his person, it might be objected that since it was the Son of God who became a man and suffered, therefore God, as God, must be capable of suffering. Yet the doctrine of the communication of properties precludes the predication of suffering to the deity of Christ. This important doctrine presupposes the careful and precise Christology of the 2LCF 8.2.
The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God . . . did . . . take upon Him man’s nature . . . yet without sin . . . so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.
The biblical distinction between Creator and creature is maintained as the divine and human natures of Christ are distinguished, but not separated. In the incarnation, the divine nature of the Son did not become human and the human nature did not become divine. The eternal Son of God became what he once was not (very man), without ceasing to be what he always was (very God). Herein lies the mystery and wonder of the incarnation, that the divine Son assumed a passible human nature, without any alteration or subjugation of his impassible divine nature. Being united in the person of the Son, both natures maintain their peculiar properties.
The peculiar properties of one nature are not attributed to the other nature so as to confuse the two. It is not proper to human nature to exist of itself any more than it is for the divine nature to be born, suffer, or die. Yet, according to the communicatio idiomatum, the attributes of both may be predicated of the one person. The distinction of natures aside, the acts of Christ, the mediator, are always attributed to the whole person, the Son of God incarnate, albeit not to the whole of the person (i.e., both natures considered in the abstract). As such,
Christ suffered, not according to both natures, nor according to the Divinity, but according to the human nature only, both in body and soul; for the divine nature is immutable, impassible, immortal, and life itself, and so cannot die. But he suffered in such a manner, according to his humanity, that by his passion and death, he satisfied for the sins of men. (Ursinus, Heidelberg Catechism, 151-52)
Therefore, in the words of Gregory of Nazianzen, Jesus Christ was “passible in his flesh, and impassible in his godhead” (Schaff, NPNF, 7:439).
It needs to be stressed that even if the Son of God, according to his deity, were capable of suffering, it would not have produced any benefit for sinners. Indeed, it was not necessary that he suffer according to his divine nature, for “since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:21). The Lord Jesus did not suffer for himself, much less for God, but on behalf of sinful man, as a man, according to his human nature (1 Tim. 2:5). Nevertheless, it was also necessary that he was God, insofar as “The divine nature sustained the humanity, in the sorrows and pains which were endured, and raised it when dead unto life” (Ursinus, Heidelberg Catechism, 216). The Son of God did not “become incarnate in order to overcome . . . divine impassibility,” as Lister poorly expresses (Lister, Impassible and Impassioned, 37). Rather, his divine impassibility enabled him to overcome human suffering. Satisfaction for our sins had to be made by a God-man because only God can make satisfaction and only man owed satisfaction. Insofar as the mediator is truly man, he was capable of suffering for man, and insofar as he is also the impassible God, he was fully capable of overcoming suffering on behalf of his people.
According to the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, orthodoxy has always confessed that the person of the Son of God suffered and died, not, however, according to his deity, but according to his humanity, the former incapable of suffering, the latter fully capable of suffering. Therefore, it is profoundly appropriate to confess that the Son of God emotionally and physically suffered, or that the impassible suffered. And yet, it is profoundly unorthodox to conclude from this that God, as God, is therefore capable of suffering.
Analogy and the revelation of God in Christ
With a two-natures distinction in mind, it may be helpful to ask, in what manner does Jesus Christ reveal the Father? It is not uncommon for those who otherwise maintain a two-natures Christology to use the inner life of Jesus as a paradigm for understanding the inner emotional life of God. It is presupposed that because Jesus Christ is truly God, he must therefore provide a univocal core through which we may locate parallel kinds of experiences within the Godhead. Yet even in the incarnation God reveals himself analogically, so that a direct line cannot be drawn between God revealed in the flesh and God as he is in himself. To suggest otherwise would inevitably confuse the two natures of Christ and obscure the distinction between Creator and creature.
All that Christ experienced in the flesh, on behalf of his people, he experienced as a man. All that the Son of God did in the flesh, he did, not as God within a man, but as a man. Hence, in the incarnation, God is not revealed as God in a man, but as a man. “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18). We must not forget that it is as a man that he has done so. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14). In this way, God has condescended in the revelation of himself in the person of Jesus. He is the express image of God, the image of the invisible God, who has declared the Father whom no one has seen, and is the fullest and final revelation of God, and indeed is God. Nonetheless, he is God in the flesh, and as such preeminently reveals God to us analogically, according to his creaturely mode of being.
This means that love cannot be predicated of God-in-himself and God-in-the-flesh univocally, but only analogically. In other words, the love which he reveals to us in his own person is most certainly the love of God, but it is God’s love clothed over in flesh. That is, Christ reveals God’s love to us in a different manner to how it is in God himself—as a perfection in man, rather than its infinite mode of being in God himself. In the flesh, God’s incomprehensible divine love is most fully and perfectly communicated to his people in a human manner, accommodated to our capacity.
The love of God and a truly Christ-centered hermeneutic
We need a sympathizing savior on account of our sin and misery, and, as it has been shown, it is no imperfection in God, as God, to be incapable of such things. The Son of God did not assume a human nature in order to overcome a problem within the Godhead but freely and graciously to provide the remedy for sinners. So that, in Christ the mediator, we discover that what cannot be properly said of God, as God, may now be said of God, as man, on behalf of man.
When the glory of God in Christ and his work as mediator are understood as the scope of Scripture (2LCF 1.5), we are able to apply a truly Christ-centered hermeneutic to the OT. That which was improperly and figuratively predicated of God, after the manner of men, in the OT finds its proper and formal fulfillment in the person and office of Jesus Christ. For instance, in Isaiah 63:9, God is described figuratively and improperly, after the manner of men. “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His Presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bore them and carried them all the days of old.” God did not undergo grief, but he was like a father to Israel who was afflicted in the affliction of his children. He not only identified with them in their affliction, but in compassion he relieved them of their distress as surely as if it were his own.
Isaiah was reminding Israel that although the people of God could expect suffering and affliction, they may also expect him to be their deliverer. He is assuring those who trust in him that nothing can separate them from his love; “the Angel of His Presence” will save and deliver them. And yet, Isaiah has already revealed to them that their deliverer will endure a brutal participation in their affliction (Isa. 52:13-53:12). The Lord was pointing his people to “the Angel of His Presence,” the Son of God incarnate. In the greatness of God’s love, he has not only freely identified himself with his children in their misery, but he has acted in wonderful and glorious compassion to relieve their affliction as surely as if it were his own. Indeed, in the person of Christ, God assumed our misery as his own.
In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9)
In all our affliction, the Son of God was properly and formally afflicted, as a man. In Christ, it may properly be said that God was afflicted in the affliction of his people, as a man.
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews labors to show the necessity of the incarnation.
Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted. (Heb. 2:17-18)
It was necessary that God become a man, not only that he might make propitiation as a man, but also that he might be a sympathizing High Priest on behalf of man.
While sympathetic suffering is a perfection in relation to human nature, it entails an imperfection, insofar as it implies suffering, in relation to the divine nature. Although God lacks no divine perfection of love or mercy, apart from the incarnation he is incapable of human sympathy. It was necessary that God become a man that he might be tempted and suffer as a man, so that he might be able to sympathize with weak and sinful man. God loves in a new way in the person of Christ; i.e., in a human way.
Those who predicate sympathetic suffering of God, as God, rob the Son of God of the unique and gracious design of his coming in the flesh. God’s people are not crying out to hear that God knows their suffering in a divine way, but that there is one such as themselves who is seated upon the throne of grace on their behalf, who knows their suffering and weaknesses in a human way. As man, Christ is fully able to sympathize with our weaknesses; as God, he is fully able to help in time of need.