How Did the Son of God Uphold the Universe by the Word of His Power If He Was a Babe in the Manger?
If “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8), and if “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3) such that “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17)—then how was this happening when he was crying in a manger, or when he was a toddler and didn’t know how to read or write?
First, we have to remember that when the Son of God was incarnate, his divine attributes—immutability, immensity, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence—were not given up or diminished (even if they were veiled). The incarnation involves addition or multiplication, not subtraction or division.
But if this is the case, then his divine nature could not be limited to his human body.
The opposite, though is not true. As William G. T. Shedd explain, “The divine nature of Christ is present with his human nature wherever the latter may be, though his human nature is not, as the Lutheran contends, present with is divine nature wherever the latter may be” (Dogmatic Theology, 3d ed. [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003], 656).
In critiquing Calvin’s understanding of this, that the Son’s divine nature also exists outside of [Latin, extra] his body, Lutherans labeled this view the extra Calvinisticum. But the doctrine was hardly a Calvinist invention. In fact, it could also be called the extra Patristicum or extra-Catholicum, as it was the standard teaching of the church throughout the century. (For a book-length study of this doctrine, including analysis of quotes from the early church on, see E. David Willis, Calvin’s Catholic Christology: The Function of the So-called extra Calvinisticum in Calvin’s Theology (Leiden: Brill, 1966).
Here are some quotes from Calvin, building on Chalcedonian Christology and the fathers.
Calvin, Institutes II.13.4:
They thrust upon us as something absurd the fact that if the Word of God became ﬂesh, then he was conﬁned within the narrow prison of an earthly body. This is mere impudence! For even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of man into one person, we do not imagine that he was conﬁned therein. Here is something marvelous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously ﬁlled the world as he had done from the beginning!
But some are carried away with such contentiousness as to say that because of the natures joined in Christ, wherever Christ’s divinity is, there also is his ﬂesh, which cannot be separated from it. . . .
But from Scripture we plainly infer that the one person of Christ so consists of two natures that each nevertheless retains unimpaired its own distinctive character. . . . Surely, when the Lord of glory is said to be crucified [1 Cor. 2:8], Paul does not mean that he suffered anything in his divinity, but he says this because the same Christ, who was cast down and despised, and suffered in the ﬂesh, was God and Lord of glory. In this way he was also Son of man in heaven [John 3:13], for the very same Christ, who, according to the ﬂesh, dwelt as Son of man on earth, was God in heaven. In this manner, he is said to have descended to that place according to his divinity, not because divinity left heaven to hide itself in the prison house of the body, but because even though it ﬁlled all things, still in Christ’s very humanity it dwelt bodily [Col. 2:9], that is, by nature, and in a certain ineffable way. There is a commonplace distinction of the schools to which I am not ashamed to refer: although the whole Christ is everywhere, still the whole of that which is in him is not everywhere. And would that the Schoolmen themselves had honestly weighed the force of this statement. For thus would the absurd ﬁction of Christ’s carnal presence have been obviated.
And here are a couple of quotes from the fathers.
Augustine, Letter to Volusian (137), 22-23:
And we think that something impossible to believe is told to us about the omnipotence of God, when we are told that the Word of God, by whom all things were made, took flesh from a virgin and appeared to mortal senses without destroying His immortality or infringing His eternity, or diminishing His power, or neglecting the government of the world, or leaving the bosom of the Father, where He is intimately with Him and in Him.
Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word:
For he was not, as might be imagined, circumscribed in the body, nor, while present in the body, was he absent elsewhere; nor, while he moved the body, was the universe left void of his working and providence; but, thing most marvelous, Word as he was, so far from being contained by anything, he rather contained all things himself; and just as while present in the whole of creation, he is at once distinct in being from the universe, and present in all things by his own power—giving order to all things, and over all and in all revealing his own providence, and giving life to each thing and all things, including the whole without being included, but being in his own Father alone wholly and in every respect—thus, even while present in a human body and himself quickening it, he was, without inconsistency, quickening the universe as well, and was in every process of nature, and was outside the whole, and while known from the body by his works, he was none the less manifest from the working of the universe as well.
For a helpful discussion in Paul Helm’s chapter “The Extra” in John Calvin’s Ideas (New York / Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 58ff.
There is much mystery here—not a puzzle to solve, but a reality to worship!