You Asked: Did God Change at the Incarnation?
We’re continuing our new feature, “You Asked,” where readers send us theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions that we pass along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share in this space. If you’d like to ask a question, send it to email@example.com along with your full name, city, and state.
We posed today's question to Dr. James Anderson, Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.
Ralph D. from Cork, Ireland asks:
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 taking on a human nature and all that he experienced in the flesh is not fundamental change for him.
Questions about the nature of time have perplexed philosophers for thousands of years. Questions about God’s relationship to time are no less thorny, and the mystery of the Incarnation adds a further layer of complication. So it’s with no little trepidation that I hazard an answer to this question! Still, armed with some important distinctions I believe we can at least tame the conundrum, if not banish it altogether.
The puzzle can be stated as follows:
- Classical theism holds that God does not change; indeed, God cannot change, because he transcends time altogether.
- Scripture likewise teaches that God does not change (Mal. 3:6; James 1:17).
- Scripture also teaches that God the Son “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14); but becoming involves a change from one state (not being human) to another (being human).
- Scripture further teaches that God the Son died and rose again (Rom. 1:4); this also entails a change from one state (being dead) to another (being alive).
- So the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection seem to contradict the doctrines of divine immutability and timelessness.
We should note first of all that the biblical statements about God not changing needn’t be taken in a way that rules out change in any sense. The focus in these texts is on God’s character and his faithfulness to his promises. Unlike us, God isn’t fallible and fickle (Num. 23:19; cf. Heb. 6:16-18) and he cannot fail to fulfill his plans and his promises. So these texts arguably leave open the possibility of God changing in ways consistent with his perfect character, his eternal decree, and his covenantal commitments, and it’s plausible to think the Incarnation would fall into that category.
However, difficulties remain for those who want to insist that God is transcendently timeless. One solution is to follow the line taken by philosopher William Lane Craig, who argues that God is timeless apart from a creation but temporal with a creation. Craig maintains that God considered alone (so to speak) is a timeless being; there’s no intrinsic need for him to experience the passing of time. But if God chooses to create a temporal universe, God’s relationship with that universe entails that he must also be temporal along with the universe. Since the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Resurrection presuppose the doctrine of creation, on Craig’s view there’s no problem in saying that God the Son experienced change.
Still, one might view Craig’s proposal as more of a compromise than a solution, and it raises other puzzling questions. (What would it mean for a timeless God to become temporal?) For these reasons it hasn’t been widely embraced, although it’s certainly a live option.
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 (compare how the landscape appears to move when you’re travelling in a train). In addition, we 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. So at one time (t1) Abraham is not in covenant with God, while at a subsequent time (t2) Abraham is in covenant with God. Did God intrinsically change? Not from his eternal standpoint. It’s timelessly true that God is not-related-by-covenant with respect to Abraham-at-t1 but related-by-covenant with respect to Abraham-at-t2. Abraham is the one conditioned by time, not God. But from Abraham’s standpoint it makes perfect sense to say, “God entered into a covenant with me.”
When we turn to the specific case of the Incarnation, distinctions within the doctrine itself provide further help. According to the Definition of Chalcedon, Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, a perfect divine nature and a perfect human nature, and while those natures are united in one person they must nevertheless be distinguished. The properties of each nature can be ascribed to the one person, Jesus Christ, but not necessarily to the other nature.
So, for example, we’re told that Jesus was omniscient (John 16:30) but also that he increased in wisdom (Luke 2:52). To be precise, however, we should say that Jesus was omniscient with respect to his divine nature and gained wisdom with respect to his human nature. On this basis, it seems natural to say that God the Son is timeless and unchangeable with respect to his divine nature but temporal and changeable with respect to his human nature. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection pertained to his human nature, this standard Christological distinction suggests a way to reconcile the events of Jesus’ life with the immutability of God.
An analogy (albeit an imperfect one) may help to clarify this distinction. In the movie Avatar the protagonist, Jake Sully, is enlisted to operate a Na’vi-human hybrid body. Given the close mental connection between Sully and his ‘avatar’—he acts and experiences everything through that body—we might well say that he inhabits the hybrid body and that he now has two bodies. So consider this question: Can Sully run? Well, yes and no. He can’t run with respect to human body (he’s a paraplegic) but he can run with respect to his avatar body. Similarly, we can say that Jesus was resurrected with respect to his human nature but not with respect to his divine nature. Only in his humanity did he undergo change.
(I should note as an aside that this analogy is not meant to imply that God the Son merely inhabited a human body! That would be the ancient heresy of Apollinarianism. It’s only meant to illustrate how we can apply the distinction between Christ’s two natures. According to Chalcedon, Christ’s humanity consisted of a soul as well as a body.)
One difficulty persists, however. If the Incarnation involved a change in God the Son, we can’t ascribe that change merely to his human nature, because that would put the cart before the horse. You can’t appeal to Christ’s human nature to explain how he could take on a human nature in the first place! So how can this difficulty be resolved?
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. Like talk of God ‘regretting’ (1 Sam. 15:11, 35; cf. v. 29) this is simply a case of divine accommodation to human thought and language. 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. Now admittedly that’s a pretty awkward way to express the matter (which is why we prefer looser ways of speaking in other contexts) but unfortunately complex questions often demand complex answers!
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. 11:33-36; 1 Tim. 3:16).
For further reading:
- Douglas K. Blount, “On the Incarnation of a Timeless God,” in Gregory E. Ganssle and David M. Woodruff, eds., God and Time: Essays on the Divine Nature (Oxford University Press, 2001)
- John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (P&R Publishing, 2002), chapter 24.
- Paul Helm, Eternal God: A Study of God without Time (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2011)
- James Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology (Wipf & Stock, 2007)