What is the nature of Christ’s incarnation? How did the Messiah’s divine and human natures work together? Much has been written on this, of course. Theology students (and their teachers) have always been intrigued by this question. When this question comes up, the Bible student’s mind inevitably turns to Philippians 2. As Rolland McCune asked, “of what did Christ empty Himself?”1 One common solution is to answer, “Christ emptied Himself of the independent use of His divine attributes.”
This is what McCune suggests. After some exegetical comments on Philippians 2:5-8 and a survey of various theories, he explained that (1) Christ gave up the independent use of His attributes, (2) became subservient to the Father in a unique way, and (3) depended on the Holy Spirit’s power.2 Augustus H. Strong also favored this view.3
There is another view.
Stephen Wellum, in his book entitled God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ, argued against this view. This functional kenotic Christology, as he termed it, actually limits Jesus’ in a fatal way; “the Son’s ability to act as God the Son seems permanently limited.”4 It’s as if the Son was so limited by the incarnation He could, essentially, no longer function as God.
What about the passages which speak of Jesus upholding and sustaining the world (Heb 1; Col 1)? In addition, Wellum criticized an over-emphasis on a so-called “Spirit Christology,” where Jesus’ divine actions are attributed to a unique anointing and empowering by the Holy Spirit, not necessarily His own power – due to the “limitations” of the incarnation.5 He pointed out that Gerald Hawthorne’s book, The Presence and the Power, has had a large impact on this ”Spirit Christology,” and its conception of the Spirit’s role in Jesus ministry.
Wellum firmly believes in the extra Catholicum, and it is central to his understanding. He defined the extra thus:
The extra is the view that, in the incarnation, the Son not only retained his divine attributes but also continued to exercise them in Trinitarian relation. It also insists that, since the Son now subsists in two natures, the Son is able to live a divine life outside (extra) his human nature while simultaneously living a fully human life in his human nature.6
Therefore, he explained, “Instead of the kenosis viewpoints, it is best to think of Christ’s humiliation as krypsis, i.e. hiddenness or veiling.”7 How does this work, then? In this short excerpt, Wellum explains his understanding of how Jesus’ divine and human natures interacted during the incarnation:8
The Son is the subject of the incarnation, who acts through his divine and human natures without violating the integrity of their respective attributes and capacities. But this does not mean that the Son can never act in a way that would be impossible for a mere human.
It is true that, as a man, the person of the Son is limited to the abilities of a normal, sinless, but not supernatural human nature. Yet it is also true that the Son lives and acts according to the perfections of the divine nature.
Traditionally, the church has employed the extra to do justice to the entire biblical presentation of Christ by affirming that the divine Son is not completely circumscribed by his human nature. The Son has ontological priority over his human nature because the divine person is eternal and thus has a divine life independent of the body and soul he assumed at his incarnation.
Moreover, the Son continues to subsist in the divine nature as the second person of the Godhead. The extra, then, affirms that the Son can and does act through the divine nature in ways that he could not act through his human nature.
Contrary to a common caricature, the extra was not intended to diminish Christ’s humanity. The extra, rather, seeks to confess and preserve the integrity of the Son’s full humanity. From conception on, the Son humbled himself by taking on a human nature, and he did not override its limitations.
Yet the Son also continued to exercise his divine attributes ‘outside’ (extra) the reality of his human life. In his humanity, then, we should not think of Christ as going through his days thinking about the entire universe, since all his cosmic functions as done ‘outside’ his human life.
Furthermore, when the extra is combined with the krypsis, we gain a clearer understanding of the nature of his kenosis: the incarnation brought a real concealment but not an abdication of the eternal Son’s divine majesty. The Son became one with us to live primarily as one of us and then to die for us, all in obedience to his Father’s will.
Given how the church has distinguished person from nature, there is nothing contradictory in asserting that the Son can simultaneously act through both natures to accomplish different works, even where the divine works are impossible for the human nature. Some kind of asymmetrical relationship between the Sons living, speaking, and acting in and through his natures must be postulated, which is probably one of the most difficult areas for us to conceive.
A human being is only one person subsisting in one human nature; we are neither divine persons nor do we subsist in two different natures. Conceiving of the asymmetrical relationship between the Son living and acting in his divine nature and his living and acting in his human nature surpass our comprehension. But that does not mean that this part of the incarnate economy is not true – only that it is largely unknown to us. And even still, the extra helps us to make this theological-metaphysical confession of Christ.
The best way to account for the asymmetrical relationship in Christ is in terms of Trinitarian relations worked out in redemptive history for the sake of the Son’s incarnational mission. The Son lives out his divine and human lives in relation to the Father and Spirit and as our Redeemer. Against all forms of kenoticism, the Son does not renounce his divine attributes or even the use of them.
Instead, the Son’s entire life is best viewed through the lens of his filial dependence on the Father in the Spirit. The Son does nothing except what he knows the Father wills him to do. When the Father does not will that the incarnate Son actualize some divine power or access some information out of his omniscience, the Son obeys and refrains.
The Son did not abandon the use of his divine attributes; he could have turned rocks into bread or come down from the cross, but it was not his Father’s will. Moreover, the Son’s eternal and divine filial relation to the Father can be seen in redemptive history precisely because the Son always lives and acts to fulfill the divine plan of the Father.
In the incarnation, neither the Son’s deity nor his humanity is diminished. As the Father allows, and by the Spirit, the divine Son, the Lord of glory, lives, speaks, acts, obeys, wills, rules, and saves as both the Creator-Covenant Lord and our great Redeemer.
1 Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit, MI: DBTS, 2009), 2:103.
2 Ibid, 2:103-110.
3 Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 703.
4 Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ, in Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 415.
5 See Wellum (God the Son, 380-383).
6 Ibid, 333.
7 Ibid, 414.
8 Ibid, 440-442.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a bi-vocational pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He also works in State government. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?