Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"Most Moved Mover": Language and the Personhood of God

“I DO NOT FEEL OBLIGED TO ASSUME THAT GOD IS A PURELY SPIRITUAL BEING WHEN HIS SELF-REVELATION DOES NOT SUGGEST IT. It is a true that from a Platonic standpoint, the idea is absurd, but this is not a biblical standpoint. And how unreasonable is it anyway? The only persons we encounter are embodied persons and, if God is not embodied, it may prove difficult to understand how God is a person” (Clark Pinnock, “Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness.” Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001, page 34).

In my last post, I tackled Pinnock’s idea that God has a body. I stated that, according to the Scriptures, God is spirit (John 4:24), meaning that He does not have a body. Even in what we know biblically about evil spirits (for example), demons search for bodies to indwell because they do not have bodies. God then, being the Good Spirit, must surely not need a body to dwell in!!

In this post, I wanna deal with the confusion of Clark Pinnock’s comments regarding the divine nature and a body. Pinnock’s use of Christ and the Incarnation is really an issue of God’s essence versus personal attributes. David W. Bercot provides insight on the distinction between these two concepts. First, Bercot tells us about the nature of a thing:

“In theology, ‘nature’ or ‘substance’ refers to the essence or class to which a person or creature belongs. All humans are of one nature or one substance, regardless of differing personal characteristics...Now, THE NICENE CREED AFFIRMS THAT THE FATHER AND THE SON ARE OF THE SAME NATURE OR SUBSTANCE...IF THE SON WERE NOT OF EQUAL NATURE OR SUBSTANCE AS THE FATHER, HE WOULD NOT BE FULLY DIVINE; HE WOULD NOT POSSESS TRUE GODHOOD” (“Christ, Divinity of”; from “A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers” by David W. Bercot, General Editor. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998, page 113).

Next, what are personal attributes?

“‘Personal attributes’ are something altogether different. Personal attributes refer to the individual characteristics and differences between members of the same class or nature...According to Genesis, at one time there were only two humans on the earth, Adam and Eve. These two humans shared the same nature or substance. Adam was not more human than Eve, nor was Eve more human than Adam. They were equal in nature or substance. Now, does that mean that the first two humans were equal or identical in personal attributes? NO, IT DOES NOT. ADAM WAS NO DOUBT TALLER AND STRONGER THAN EVE. FURTHERMORE, EVE HAD COME OUT OF ADAM, BEING FORMED FROM HIS RIB. ON THE OTHER HAND, EVE HAD THE ABILITY TO GIVE BIRTH TO CHILDREN AND TO BREAST-FEED INFANTS. ADAM COULD DO NEITHER OF THESE THINGS” (Bercot, “A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs,” page 114).

I think the example of Adam and Eve helps us understand better what Bercot means by “nature” versus “personal attributes.” For instance, all humans, by “nature,” are human; however, not all humans possess the personal attribute of “tallness,” or “shortness.” Another example of differing personal attributes would be “eye color.” Some humans are green-eyed, some blue-eyed, some brown-eyed. But eye color does not make one person more “human” than another. Since not all humans share the same eye color, eye color cannot be a part of the nature of humanness.

From Clark Pinnock’s own words above, God’s self-revelation suggests that God has a body. God, as revealed in Christ Jesus, demonstrates that the Father are the Son are both embodied (according to Pinnock). Is there proof for this? No. According to David Bercot, the early church deemed this notion of an “embodied” Father in the Trinity a heresy:

“THE EARLY CHURCH BELIEVED THAT THE FATHER COULD NEVER BECOME INCARNATE NOR COULD HE EVER MAKE HIMSELF VISIBLE TO HUMAN EYES. To the early church, this would have been a denial of the Father’s unique personhood...RATHER, IT UNDERSTOOD THAT SUCH THINGS ARE NOT ATTRIBUTES OF DIVINITY. RATHER, THOSE ATTRIBUTES ARE SIMPLY DIFFERING CHARACTERISTICS OF THE FATHER AND THE SON. So the early church affirmed that the Father is greater than the Son---as to personal attributes, but not as to nature” (Bercot, “A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs,” page 114).

Bercot’s first sentence in bold caps gives us a valid response to Pinnock’s claim. If the Father ever became “incarnate,” then it would mean “a denial of the Father’s unique personhood.” Why? Because the Son’s unique task was to take on flesh. If the Father took on flesh, then how would the Father differ from the Son? In fact, the Father and the Son could be conflated (in this thought) into one, and we then have a “duo” (Father/Son and Spirit) instead of a “Trinity.”

Why did the early church deny the “incarnate” possiblity of the Father? Not only did they deny it because it would eliminate the Father’s uniqueness of person, it would also add an unnecessary attribute to the attributes of divinity. Why does divinity “necessarily” consist of embodiment? In fact, there is no evidence biblically of “eternal embodiment”---rather, there is a set time in which Christ is born and comes to earth. Scripture tells us that “the Word became flesh, and took up residence among us” (John 1:14, HCSB). Notice the text does not say, “The Word, who was flesh, dwelt among us.” Rather, it states that “the Word BECAME flesh.” Philippians 2 clarifies this event even further, stating that Christ “emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). The fact that Christ “took on the likeness of men” demonstrates that at a certain point, Christ added a human nature to the divine. What need would there be to mention this if Christ was “eternally embodied”?

It is Christ’s embodiment on earth that gives Him uniqueness in the Trinity. And Christ assumes the human nature not just to assume something foreign to His divinity; rather, He does so in order to die for the sins of the world.
Pinnock states that God’s self-revelation leads one to assume that God may have a body; however, Pinnock here is confusing the distinction of Christ from the Father as something that is essential to the nature of Godhood. What is essential to Godhood is “divinity,” pure divine essence. Embodiment, then, becomes part of the personal attributes of Christ, attributes that distinguish Him from the Father.

Without taking on human flesh, Christ would still be God. But if Pinnock has his way, Christ “needed” to take on flesh in order to “become” God (isn’t this the exact reverse of the biblical account, that Christ “became flesh”?). In short, Pinnock is here arguing that the human nature is “essential” to Godhood; once again, his desire to “overcome...the tilt towards a metaphysic of being and attain a metaphysic of becoming” (Pinnock, “Most Moved Mover,” page 142) clouds his better judgment.

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