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The Humility of God

2007 December 3
by Tim V-B

Thanks to Byron (via Glen) I found an awesome quote I’ve been looking for for some time.

But it needs some introducing. A vital question in theology is this: does Jesus accurately reveal God to us?

Obviously: yes! After all, in Jesus Christ “the fullness of deity lives in bodily form.” (Colossians 2:9)

But so many theologies actually assume that Jesus is kind of “God-lite” – a diet version of God – all the taste but 95% power reduced. You see it whenever people say that Jesus’ humility / weakness / sorrow / emotional-life is only true according to his human nature… because God could never be humble / weak / emotional / etc.

Whenever you see this you should ask, “Okay – but how do you know this? How do you know that God could never be such things?” It’s the problem of deciding what God is like (based on what is reasonable) before actually approaching the One who is God Revealed.

Karl Barth argued passionately that this approach is wrong. We must let God speak first – because he has in fact spoken first. We must let Jesus define what God is like.

When we do this, we realise that the true God is utterly different from all false gods. All false gods are a projection of our own ideas. The REAL God is proved real because no human would ever imagine a god like him. No human would imagine a Creator God who stoops to be born as man, a man who would glory in the cross. So Barth writes:

What marks out God above all false gods is that they are not capable and ready for this [humility]. In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of the human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it. God is not proud. In His high majesty He is humble.

– Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 159.

Christmas is approaching – and we remember the King of the world born in humility: Jesus – the most humble man ever to live (Daniel 4:17).

(For another good quote, try here, and spend some time at Christ The Truth also.)

7 Responses
  1. Glen permalink
    December 3, 2007

    Amen, Amen!

    * Jesus is the expression of the divine nature.

    * Jesus is the Servant

    * The divine nature is service

    Let me recommend a great sermon by Darrell Johnson on the subject. The passage is Philippians 2.

    “Equality with God” IS the emptying of self.

    “The Glory of the Bloodied God,
    His fruitfulness in shame,
    Stooped lower than all men have trod,
    In torment in the flame.”

    That is the divine life laid bare.
    “This is our God, the Servant King.”

  2. Neil Jeffers permalink
    December 28, 2007

    Yes but…

    While of course Jesus is THE self-revelation of the triune God, surely God (F, S & HS) has also said things about himself before the Incarnation. For example, he’s not a man that he should change his mind.

    If I underatnd correctly what you’re saying, Tim, I agree. My hesitation is your negativity about speaking according to his human nature. I appreciate your careful wording: saying Jesus suffered according to his human nature is very different from saying his human nature suffered. The person, not the nature, is the agent.

    Surely the key to this is recognising that all speech about God is analogical, not univocal? Thus to say he’s a rock doesn’t mean he’s a rock in every sense of that word. Equally, to say he ‘repents’ doesn’t mean what it does when a human repents. To say God is sorrowful does not mean what it means for a human to be sorrowful.

    I think the “according to his human nature” speech is vital to preserve God’s impassibility, among other things.

    Happy New Year

  3. Tim V-B permalink
    January 3, 2008

    Neil – hello! A happy new year to you all.

    My big complaint with “that’s his human nature” language stems from reading Hendricksen’s commentary on Philippians 2, where he argued that Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of the Father was only according to his human nature – because the divine nature could neither be humbled or exalted (being 100% exalted 100% of the time – I paraphrase!). Aaargh!! How horrible!! It strips the passage of all power – for it is precisely him who was in very nature God who humbles himself. If only the human nature was humbled/exalted, then there is no example to follow.

    (That’s not really a reply to your comments Neil, just a bit more ranting!!)

  4. Neil Jeffers permalink
    January 3, 2008

    Not having read Hendricksen I couldn’t comment. Of course, it is the person Jesus who is exalted, not a particular nature.

    I agree also with you. If his humiliation is only according to his human nature, it’s not much of a humiliation is it? And if the humiliation is according to his divine nature, then so must the exaltation, otherwise the symmetry doesn’t work!

    Perhaps Hendricksen may just be an example of someone misusing the distinction, rather than invaldiating it altogether.

  5. Glen permalink
    January 3, 2008

    Hi Neil,

    Happy New Year to you. I keep hearing the ‘all God-talk is analogical’ line. Is this from Oak Hill’s ‘Doctrine of God’? It seems suitably scholastic.

    What do you mean by analogical?

    The first thing you say to justify that ‘all God-talk is analogical’ is that the statement ‘God is a Rock’ has limitations. But all language is limited. “Tim VB is a rock” is also a true statement (who would dare challenge it!?) but it also has limitations. This just seems to be another version of Carson’s ‘Illegitimate Totality Transfer’ (isn’t that the name of one of his exegetical fallacies?).

    Perhaps though what you’re getting at is Aquinas’ ‘Deus non est in genere’? If we’re going to take anything from Aquinas then this
    seems a good inheritance. But be careful to follow it through. We
    don’t honour God as the great I AM by saving Him from the passible
    category only to deliver Him into the impassible category! That is to fall off the horse in the other direction. Let us never define in
    advance of God’s revelation what suffering, repentance, emotion and
    change means in the creaturely realm and then map that onto God. Amen to that! But let us also never posit an absence of suffering, repentance,
    emotion and change in God before consulting His revelation. That is
    equally false – equally anthropocentric.

    Is God the opposite of all creaturely existence and categories? He certainly is greater than them, but is He the negation of them? Is He not the fulness of them?

    What does the incarnation do to your statement that all language about God is analogical?

    There is an anchor in the reality of God who is also anchored to our
    creaturely realm – “the Word became flesh.” This is not a Logos that we project upwards (ana). This is very much God’s Logos come down. And He
    comes with the very words (remata) of the Father.

    John 14:24-26: “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

    From the Father to the Son, from the Incarnate Son through the Spirit to the Apostles and out into world (via Scripture).

    Notice how 1 John begins.

    That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have
    seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have
    touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

    Do you see how the Word has come down to us (katalogical! – is there such a word?). It began in the beginning in the very life of God. It became something tangible – that the disciples’ hands could touch! – but was no less a divine Word which leads its hearers back into that fellowship of divine Life.

    Anyway that’s a very long-winded way of asking: Does the assertion that all God-talk is analogical take seriously the incarnation of the Word?

  6. Neil Jeffers permalink
    January 3, 2008


    Not sure I can answer all that in one go!

    Yes, it is from Doctrine of God, and indeed the whole Reformed tradition!

    Perhaps it is indeed possible to argue that all language is analogical (if only Clark Pinnock could see it).

    I think my main answer would be that it’s not about defining things in advance of revelation, but about not reading God’s whole revelation in Scripture in contradictory ways. To take one example already mentioned: God tells us he never changes his mind, yet there is also language of his “repenting”. These are not in conflict. Thus we define impassibility from God’s revelation, and certainly not prior to it.

    The alternatives to analogical language are univocal and equivocal. Univocal says that the word means all the same things in the same way (this is how Clark Pinnock comes up with God not knowing the future and changing his mind). Equivocal means that the word is evacuated of meaning because there is no common ground between the two subjects.

    If anything, I imagine the incarnation is one of the things that grounds the analogical. The fact that Jesus is both God and man means we can speak meaningfully and truthfully of God in human language.

    Let’s not worry too much about ana and kata – it might be another exegetical fallacy: the root fallacy!

  7. Glen permalink
    January 4, 2008

    I’m all for Scripture interpreting Scripture, but how do you stop Scripture from negating Scripture? In what sense will you uphold the ‘repentance’ of God – it’s clearly in Scripture for a reason.

    BTW I probably have even less time for the open theists than I do for the classical theists. So I’m certainly not seeking to open an ‘open’ door. But I don’t think it’s a case of either Aquinas or Arminius here. For instance Barth kept the language of analogy but insisted on the analogia *fidei* – (something like my ‘katalogical’ God-talk – a recognition that all revelation is grace.)

    Many thoughts occur to me, but it’s probably best I do some more study. I would just ask this. I’m not sure what version of impassibility you’re arguing for, but what Scripture or Gospel event would convince you that you were wrong? Could you formulate a verse that, if Scriptural, could ever refute your position? I ask this just because I fear that between “All God-talk is analogical” and a “That’s according to His human nature” you may have rendered your position impervious to revelation. This is a great part of my fear about what I (probably mis-) perceive about your position.

    Thanks for the interaction.

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