Christmas continues to provide a rich source of blog material at the minute. A couple of days ago, I gave my yearly reminder that what you do at Christmas is not a measure of your spiritual temperature. Off the back of that, yesterday, I wrote about how we can go a bit gnostic at Christmas and how that often affects all sorts of aspects of our lives as believers. Today, I thought I would stick with the ancient heresy theme.
If ever there was a time that heresy slips under the radar in our churches, I think Christmas is it. We either stick it in our carols, or we pick up on lines in carols and then import heresy ourselves by ‘correcting’ what is already perfectly credible, or we just end up preaching it straight up. After all, the trinity and the incarnation are tricky business, are they not? One mere slip of the tongue and we’re in trouble. When the difference between orthodoxy and rank heresy boils down to one letter in a foreign language (ὁμοούσιος, homoousios or ὁμοιούσιος, homoiousios) I can understand how people end up in shtook.
I am reminded of the year that we sang the carol, Once in Royal David’s City. The following lines caught the attention of the person leading the meeting:
For He is our childhood’s pattern,
Day by day like us He grew,
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew,
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.
Those lines met with the incredulous comment: ‘I take real issue with this. Jesus was NEVER little, weak and helpless. He was the eternal Son of God!’
Except, of course, whilst he was the eternal Son of God incarnate, the eternal Son of God had indeed submitted to all that it meant to be a little human baby, including being little, weak and helpless. Unless we believe that Jesus – much like our Muslim friends – was chatting in full sentences from birth, what else are we supposed to think? He wasn’t some super-baby who could speak, wipe himself up, feed himself and essentially function like a fully grown man! He was, very much, a little, weak and helpless baby subject to all the usual weaknesses being a human baby brings with it.
The problem with taking issue with those verses is that it suggests Jesus wasn’t really human. It sails very close to monophysitism, suggesting that the divine nature subsumed and overtook Jesus’ human nature. I am sure the person who said it would affirm that Jesus was both God and man. But he, effectively, was arguing that the divine nature was pre-eminent and subsumes Jesus’ human nature. If Jesus’ natures are mixed, he ends up as something more than human and yet something less than God. A super-human or a demi god. But not fully man or fully God. Orthodox Christianity, however, holds that Jesus has two natures united in one person; he is fully God and fully man inseparably united.
The eternal Son of God submitted entirely to what it means to be a human being. Whilst he is fully God, he was fully man. His humanity limited the full expression of his divine attributes. He was no less God in his humanity than he was before. But his humanity did limit the expression of his full divine attributes. A limitation to which Jesus gladly submitted for the sake of our redemption. It is not unlike a 4.5 litre car with a speed limiter on it. All the power it had before the limiter is applied is still there, the engine has all of its power; it always did and it still does. But the addition of a speed limiter means the expression of the full power of that engine is limited. It is no less a 4.5 litre engine with all the power that entails, but the addition of a limiter means the expression of that power, that still remains, isn’t applied. The addition of Jesus’ human nature meant the expression of his divine attributes was limited. He is no less God than he was before, with all that entails, but the expression of those attributes is limited in his humanity.
And for that reason, Jesus very much was little, weak and helpless. His divine nature still had all the divine attributes of God that he had before the incarnation. But in his humanity, the expression of those attributes was limited. In his humanity, Jesus took on all that means to be a human. That includes being little, weak and helpless. If we want to have a go at the carols, ‘no crying he makes’ is a better candidate, because unlike our Muslim friends, we don’t believe Jesus was chatting like an adult asking his mum for his tea lying in swaddling cloths. He cried because babies cry. He got tired like babies get tired. He defecated like babies defecate. He was fully human and submitted to all that it means to be human, crying, pooing, sleeping and all. He very much was little, weak and helpless because that is what it means to be fully human.