Are Jesus’ divine attributes, though fully possessed, limited in their expression by his humanity?

Yesterday, I spoke about the ongoing humanity of Jesus Christ. The second person of the trinity, the eternal Son of God, was always God in eternity past and he continued being God after his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. He was, is and forever will be, fully God.

However, he was not fully man in eternity past. Rather, the Son of God took humanity upon himself in the incarnation. He did not lose any of his divine nature or attributes, but rather added to himself a human nature. In the incarnation, Jesus Christ became the God-man with two distinct natures united in one person. And since that time, he will forever be both fully God and fully man. Jesus did not lose his divinity at the incarnation and he does not divest himself of his humanity after the ascension. He remains the man Christ Jesus whilst always being the eternal Son of God.

Orthodox believers reject the kenotic theology that suggests Jesus, in his humanity, set aside his divine nature when he became a man. Kenoticism argues, based on the ‘self-emptying’ of Philippians 2, that Jesus gave up some of his divine attributes when he took on human flesh. However, Colossians 2:9 rejects this reading clearly: ‘in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form’. Jesus did not empty himself of his divine attributes when he became a man. He remained fully God and fully man.

Nevertheless, orthodoxy recognises that Jesus limited the expression of his divine attributes in his humanity. For example, God does not need to eat or sleep. Jesus, however, got tired and hungry. His divine attributes had not disappeared, or been laid aside, but their expression was limited. Similarly, God is omnipresent and omniscient. However, in his human body, Jesus was limited to one place at one time and we have an example of Jesus not knowing something in scripture; namely, the date and time of his own return (cf. Mark 13:32). Jesus didn’t cease to retain those attributes in the incarnation, but his human nature limited the expression of those attributes.

It is like a 4.5 litre engine car having a speed limiter added to it. In adding a speed limiter, nothing is taken away from it. All the power it had before the limiter was added remains in place after the limiter is added. Nevertheless, this addition of a speed limiter means the full expression of the power of the engine is limited. Though all the power remains, and the engine may be capable of high speeds, the addition of a speed limiter necessarily stops it fully expressing all its power even though it retains all its power. In the same way, by taking humanity upon himself, Jesus did not lose any of his divine attributes, but the full expression of his power was necessarily limited by his human nature.

As Michael Reeves puts it in Christ our Life:

Born in the power of the Spirit, he lives and acts as a man in the power of the Spirit. At his Baptism in the Jordan, the Spirit anoints him, then sends him into the lifeless wilderness just as he had once sent him into the lifeless void in Genesis 1. Returning to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, he announced and defined his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth using the words of Isaiah 61: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Luke 4:18-19). So, he healed, did good, and drove out demons – all in the power of the Spirit (Matthew 12:28Acts 10:38). Later he would offer himself up on the cross by the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14) and be raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:11).

As I noted yesterday, however, there is something of a question over what happens after Jesus’ ascension. Again, orthodoxy insists that Jesus did not cease to be a man. He rose bodily from the dead, ascended bodily to Heaven and is going to bodily come again. His humanity remains fully in tact just as his divinity hasn’t gone anywhere either. He eternally remains the God-man, fully God and fully man, in a real human body. The question is whether the limitations on the expression of Jesus’ divine attributes continue because of his human body or whether something occurred to mean that his divine attributes may now take full expression despite his human nature.

It is certainly true that Jesus now has a glorified human body. Nevertheless, it seems that just as our glorified bodies will still need to eat and sleep in the New Creation, so Jesus too must need to eat and sleep. Our glorified human bodies will be just like his, after all. If Jesus is still limited in the full expression of his divine attributes in these ways, it is reasonable to assume they continue to be limited in all the ways that his human body limited their expression before. As Bruce Ware says in The Man Christ Jesus:

When Jesus took on our human nature and accepted his dependence on the Spirit, it seems that he accepted this way of life forever, from that moment forward without end. Since he would always be the God-man, and since he would always in his person have his human nature joined to his divine nature, he would always need the Spirit to empower him in his humanity for all that he would continue to be called on to do as the Messiah. When he became also human, he did so forever. And when he became also human, he became forever dependent on the Spirit.

The Bible has no problem speaking of Jesus as simultaneously at the right hand of the Father and yet also present with his people. But Jesus himself speaks of his going so that the comforter might come and scripture says he is now actively present with his people by his union with the Spirit. So he remains omnipresent by that union with the Spirit, but he is also bodily in one place at any one given time.

If such is true of his omnipresence, could not such be true so far as his other divine attributes are concerned? When we are told the Son upholds the universe by the word of his power, are we to assume that the Father and Spirit somehow aren’t doing that? We shouldn’t divide the operations of the trinity that way – all of them act together. It’s not as if Jesus is doing that, but the others aren’t. The point in Hebrews 1:3 is simply to be clear that the Son does that. It isn’t to say, ‘and the others don’t’. In effect, Hebrews is saying: a) God upholds the universe and, b) the Son is fully God. It isn’t contrasting that with what the Father and Spirit are doing and suggesting they’re busy doing other things while the Son gets on upholding the universe!

The same seems true in Colossians 1:17ff. The point is clearly that, in Christ, the fullness of God dwells. He is fully God, with all the divine attributes of God, and co-equal in power and authority with the Father and Spirit. All that God does, Jesus does. The point isn’t that the Son, alone, upholds everything while the others are having a cup of tea doing something else. Whenever God does anything, all three persons are involved!

That being the case, Jesus’ divine attributes being retained, but limited in their expression, is not an issue so far as the upholding of the universe is concerned. By his union with the Father and Spirit, he continues to uphold the universe as fully God, despite the full expression of his divine attributes being limited by his humanity.

It strikes me, though he is now in a glorified human body, what will be true of humans in the New Creation is true of Jesus’ humanity now. If we will need to eat, drink, sleep, etc in the New Creation, Jesus in his glorified state – as a real human – must need to do these things too. It is a continuation of the humanity he assumed at the incarnation. Given that God, as Spirit, does not do these things, Jesus in his humanity must, necessarily, continue to limit the expression of his divine attributes. He retains all his divine power and attributes, but is limited in the expression of those attributes by his human body. Nevertheless, he continues his work as the divine second person of the trinity through his union with the Father & Spirit.

As Stephen Wellum states here:

When and how the Son acts through both natures is best explained in terms of Trinitarian relations worked out in redemptive history for the sake of our salvation. The Son, who has always inseparably acted from the Father and by the Spirit, continues to do so but now as the obedient Son acting as our covenant representative and substitute. In the incarnation, neither the Son’s deity nor his humanity is diminished.

I do not quite share his view that the son may act out of one or the other nature at any given time. I believe, in his humanity, Jesus acted in the power of the Spirit. I fear this ability to simply flip a switch, particularly during his time on earth, suggests there may have been periods of time he was not living the obedient human life, empowered by the Spirit, that his people are called to and by which he fulfilled the righteous requirements of the law such that he could stand in our place. It further makes Jesus somewhat schizophrenic.

Nonetheless, I think Wellum is absolutely right that the Son’s deity is not diminished, but is best explained in terms of trinitarian relations. It seems to me that Jesus, in taking on human flesh, forever limited the full expression of his divine attributes. Those divine attributes continue to be at work through the trinitarian relations, but their full expression is limited by Jesus’ real human body.

We cannot argue that Jesus’ glorified body suddenly becomes one that is not subject to previous limitations. Philippians 3:20-21 says:

Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly wait for a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject everything to himself.

Two things are worth noting about this. First, whatever is true of Jesus’ glorified body, will be true of our glorified bodies. So, whatever way our own bodies will be limited – such as the need to eat and sleep – Jesus’ body is limited in his humanity in exactly the same ways. Moreover, if our human bodies will be like Jesus’ glorified human body, unless we want to suggest that our bodies will have no real limitations on them, we can’t assume Jesus’ divinity will supersede them.

Second, he will transform our bodies by the power that enables him to subject everything to himself. We know the power by which he worked (see the quote from Michael Reeves above) was by the Holy Spirit during his earthly ministry. We know the power by which he rose again was by the Spirit. It seems the power by which he subjects everything to himself, as the God-man, is the power of the Spirit. But this is to do exactly what Wellum suggest, which is to rightly explain the actual expression of Jesus’ divine attributes – which are limited in their expression in his humanity – by way of his divine union with the Father and, specifically here, the Spirit.

Is Jesus fully God? Yes he is. Is he fully man? Yes he is. Was Jesus subject to real human limitations in his earthly body? Yes, he certainly was. Is he still subject to glorified human limitations in his glorified human body? Yes he is. Does he still retain all of his eternal divine attributes? Yes he does. Is the full expression of those divine attributes limited in his humanity? Yes. But can he still express his divine attributes? Yes. How do we understand them? Principally through the trinitarian relations. He is with us by his Spirit though he is bodily in Heaven. He subjects all things to himself by the power of the Spirit. He knows all that the Spirit – whom he still has without measure – reveals to him. He forever limited himself this way for the sake of his people and their salvation. It was all part of the pactum salutis that he agreed with the Father before the world began; the agreement that he would redeem a people for himself and the means by which they would accomplish it. Jesus willingly submitted to all this for the sake of God’s glory, his very own glory, and the glory of his people.