Divine Properties

Divine Properties July 18, 2014

In an essay in a recent issue of Pro Ecclesia, Bruce Marshall observes that traditional Christological formulas no longer do the work they were designed to do in Hegelianized contemporary Trinitarian theology.

Two sets of Christological distinctions are relevant. On the one hand, there is the creedal distinction between the divine and human natures and, on the other, a distinction between what is belongs to the incarnate Son in propria persona and what belongs to him in persona nostra

These distinctions matter especially when questions about impassability come to the fore. Did God suffer on the cross? We answer first by distinguishing between what is true in virtue of the divine nature and what is true of human nature; but, in addition, by distinguishing what He suffers in His Person as incarnate Son and what He suffers in our person. Traditionally, we can attribute sin to Jesus only “on account of his relation to us as sinless head of the body of which we are the sinful members” – that is, not in propria persona but in persona nostra. Similarly, Marshall argues, we can attribute Godforsakenness to the Son not as divine Person, nor as incarnate in propria persona, but only in the sense that He is Godforsaken by virtue of His union with Godforsaken humans (154).

I’ll return to this point in another post, but for now note that Marshall argues that the refusal to acknowledge these distinctions has led to “a massive expansion in the properties the divine nature is now said to include, a vast catalog of distinctively human characteristics the Incarnation introduces into the being of God as such” (154). Suffering, death, abandonment “all enter into the divine nature itself,” since “the human nature of Christ is no longer the locus of properties unique to it, which God the Son possesses only because he has assumed that nature.” The human nature becomes merely a “locus of manifestation” of properties of the Son (155).

Marshall’s is a salutary warning, especially with regard to the overheated claims about divine suffering that have become common in theology. 

But Marshall himself fails to make distinctions. Among the divine properties that result from this expansion are “self-emptying, obedience, distance from the Father,” which are now not attributed to the divine nature and “manifested” in the incarnation rather than being distinctive properties of the human nature. Attributing “obedience” or even “self-emptying” to the eternal Son is not the same as claiming that suffering and death are incorporated into the divine nature. It’s not clear to me how either of these “properties” to the Son violates patristic orthodoxy.

Besides, we can’t take the distinction between “divine properties” and “human properties” as an obvious given, evident apart from and outside revelation in Scripture. We can’t know which properties are distinctively human and distinctively divine without the events of the gospel. Philippians 2 can plausibly (and I think should) be read to claim that the Son emptied Himself not “in spite of” but “because” He was in the form of God. Self-emptying is, in short, just the thing a being who is the form of God does. Perhaps Marshall would agree, but his argument makes that distinction seem more straightforward than it is. 

And more broadly, there is the problem of ensuring that the incarnation is actually seen as a revelation of God. We need the Christological distinctions Marshall highlights, but we also need to give some attention to why they are regarded with some suspicion. We need to beware lest our theological distinctions protect a concept of “divinity” unaffected by the gospel, leaving us with an unevangelized theology proper.

(Marshall, “The Absolute and the Trinity,” Pro Ecclesia 23:2 [2014] 147-63.)

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