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If “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8), and if “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3) such that “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17)—then how was this happening when he was crying in a manger, or when he was a toddler and didn’t know how to read or write?

First, we have to remember that when the Son of God was incarnate, his divine attributes—immutability, immensity, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence—were not given up or diminished (even if they were veiled). The incarnation involves addition or multiplication, not subtraction or division.

But if this is the case, then his divine nature could not be limited to his human body.

The opposite, though, is not true. As William G. T. Shedd explains, “The divine nature of Christ is present with his human nature wherever the latter may be, though his human nature is not, as the Lutheran contends, present with is divine nature wherever the latter may be” (Dogmatic Theology, 3d ed. [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003], 656).

In critiquing Calvin’s understanding of this, that the Son’s divine nature also exists outside of [Latin, extra] his body, Lutherans labeled this view the extra Calvinisticum. But the doctrine was hardly a Calvinist invention. In fact, it could also be called the extra Patristicum or extra-Catholicum, as it was the standard teaching of the church throughout the century. (For a book-length study of this doctrine, including analysis of quotes from the early church on, see E. David Willis, Calvin’s Catholic Christology: The Function of the So-called extra Calvinisticum in Calvin’s Theology [Leiden: Brill, 1966].)

Here are some quotes from Calvin, building on Chalcedonian Christology and the fathers.

Calvin, Institutes II.13.4:

They thrust upon us as something absurd the fact that if the Word of God became flesh, then he was confined within the narrow prison of an earthly body. This is mere impudence! For even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of man into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. Here is something marvelous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world as he had done from the beginning!

Institutes IV.17.30:

But some are carried away with such contentiousness as to say that because of the natures joined in Christ, wherever Christ’s divinity is, there also is his flesh, which cannot be separated from it. . . .

But from Scripture we plainly infer that the one person of Christ so consists of two natures that each nevertheless retains unimpaired its own distinctive character. . . . Surely, when the Lord of glory is said to be crucified [1 Cor. 2:8], Paul does not mean that he suffered anything in his divinity, but he says this because the same Christ, who was cast down and despised, and suffered in the flesh, was God and Lord of glory. In this way he was also Son of man in heaven [John 3:13], for the very same Christ, who, according to the flesh, dwelt as Son of man on earth, was God in heaven. In this manner, he is said to have descended to that place according to his divinity, not because divinity left heaven to hide itself in the prison house of the body, but because even though it filled all things, still in Christ’s very humanity it dwelt bodily [Col. 2:9], that is, by nature, and in a certain ineffable way. There is a commonplace distinction of the schools to which I am not ashamed to refer: although the whole Christ is everywhere, still the whole of that which is in him is not everywhere. And would that the Schoolmen themselves had honestly weighed the force of this statement. For thus would the absurd fiction of Christ’s carnal presence have been obviated.

And here are a couple of quotes from the fathers.

Augustine, Letter to Volusian (137), 22-23:

And we think that something impossible to believe is told to us about the omnipotence of God, when we are told that the Word of God, by whom all things were made, took flesh from a virgin and appeared to mortal senses without destroying His immortality or infringing His eternity, or diminishing His power, or neglecting the government of the world, or leaving the bosom of the Father, where He is intimately with Him and in Him.

Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word:

For he was not, as might be imagined, circumscribed in the body, nor, while present in the body, was he absent elsewhere; nor, while he moved the body, was the universe left void of his working and providence; but, thing most marvelous, Word as he was, so far from being contained by anything, he rather contained all things himself; and just as while present in the whole of creation, he is at once distinct in being from the universe, and present in all things by his own power—giving order to all things, and over all and in all revealing his own providence, and giving life to each thing and all things, including the whole without being included, but being in his own Father alone wholly and in every respect—thus, even while present in a human body and himself quickening it, he was, without inconsistency, quickening the universe as well, and was in every process of nature, and was outside the whole, and while known from the body by his works, he was none the less manifest from the working of the universe as well.

For a helpful discussion in Paul Helm’s chapter “The Extra” in John Calvin’s Ideas (New York / Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 58ff.

There is much mystery here—not a puzzle to solve, but a reality to worship!

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6 thoughts on “How Did the Son of God Uphold the Universe by the Word of His Power If He Was a Babe in the Manger?”

  1. Wesley says:

    I think this truly is a great mystery and a question i have often pondered. One helpful way i’ve found to see it is to look at how presently Christ’s physical body is in heaven viz. not ubiquitous however He still fills all in all and is present everywhere. This present reality may help to understand how Christ could be physically here in body and yet also remaining God (incl. omnipresence).

  2. Tad Caldwell says:

    Would God be God if we could understand everything about him? Great post Justin!

  3. K says:

    The view espoused here may seem satisfactory and wonderful, but it runs into some pretty important obstacles that aren’t dependent on having an all-encompassing explanation for everything. These problems are clear:

    1) If Jesus’ actual existence was unchanged (not nature but infinitude), then he cannot be said to be fully man. In fact, his existence outside of the physical body would refute such a statement because he would be fully God, but only partially man (even if that partial manhood was complete manhood). For that manhood would not comprise all of his existence.

    2) If Jesus’ actual existence extends beyond his human existence (that is, it does not become entirely contained within the human existence), he cannot be said to have “emptied himself” of anything, nor can it be said that he was actually incarnated. He merely manifested himself as Yahweh had done in the burning bush or on Mount Sinai or in the Temple.

    3) If Jesus remained fully in heaven, infinitely infinite, then his death and absorption of God’s wrath were not genuine; he himself neither fully absorbed nor endured the wrath of God on the cross, for his full existence, being in heaven and infinite, remained entirely within the loving communion of the Trinity. And the resurrection and ascension are likewise inconsequential: he never left eternity and transcendent existence.

    There are other related problems to this (such that the “addition or multiplication” that is the Incarnation is not really an addition at all, because 1 + infinity = infinity, not 1). But these are the three major theological problems.

    Now one solution could be to define “Jesus” as merely the incarnate Deity, in which case “Jesus” can still be said to be fully human, truly wrath-bearing, and truly resurrected. But he could then only be said to be fully deity in essential nature, not in actual existence. Which would of course present other problems.

    Or, we could take our theological language seriously when we say that the Son of God humbled himself by actually becoming fully man, and taking upon the fullness of himself the wrath of God, fully dying, and fully rising again from the dead, fully ascending to the throne of God.

    Now that might seem too limiting to many.

    The problem I perceive with the interpretation of Hebrews is that the author has defined meanings for what he says. First, when he says that “he upholds all things by the word of his power”, this is in the context of God “appoint[ing him] the heir of all things”, and this ‘him’ is the one by whom God has spoken to us “in these last days”, who sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, and became superior to angels “after making purification for sins.”

    Those temporal prepositions and direct-object needing verbs are very important. Let’s go through them:

    1) It is in “these last days” that God has spoken by his Son, which implies that his Son did not speak prior to these last days. Indeed, the author clearly states that beforehand, God only spoke by the prophets. But now, he has spoken by his Son.

    2) This Son was “appointed the heir of all things”. For God to have appointed his Son something, it means that it wasn’t in active possession by his Son prior to this appointing. This something is “all things”, which means that “all things” were not in active possession by this Son beforehand. Notice also that the Son is appointed an “heir”. An heir inherits what is his by birthright. However, until he actually inherits it, he does not have active possession of it. Also, observe that this appointing is directly connected to his role as God’s spokesman. So he speaks because God has appointed him an heir. And while he speaks, he is an heir. Temporal words.

    3) Now we skip to v. 3b. This Son sat down at the right hand of authority “after making purification for sins”, implying that he was not seated prior to his act of purification (which we know is the propitiating crucifixion). So the implication is that he inherits all things after he makes purification. If he was not seated prior to his crucifixion, it means that he was “off the throne” at some point. That could not be if he never actually got up.

    4) This Son “becomes as much superior to angels”, which implies rather explicitly that he was not superior to angels prior to his seating at God’s right hand. His becoming superior is reflective of his inherited name. So he is given a name (implying that he did not have this ‘name’ beforehand), which is matched with a superior being. Again, this could not be said if his name and being were already superior.

    5) this Son’s upholding all things by the word of his power comes after he inherits all things, for which he was appointed heir. So his upholding is present, from place where he is seated, having obtained such a superior name and authority. The author corroborates this by stating:

    Now in putting everything in subjection to him [the Son], he [God] left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. Hebrews 2:8b-9

    So if I may, this seems to be the author’s chronological framework:

    God appoints his Son, through whom he created the world, the heir of all things. God makes his Son, the radiance of his glory and the exact imprint of his nature, a little lower than the angels, and speaks to us by way of him. He makes purification for sins through crucifixion and death. Being raised from death and seated by God at his right hand, God crowns him with glory and honor because of his suffering, and he inherits a name and authority superior to that of angels, and henceforth upholds all things by the word of his power, because all things have been subjected under him by God. Being seated at the right hand of God, and having suffered on behalf of others, the Son is appointed by God to be their high priest, in order to bring them to God.

    And this is all that the author of Hebrews ever really says. It is upon this foundation that he states that Jesus is an eternal high priest, a decision that isn’t his own: And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” Hebrews 5:4-5.

    As to “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” it is most clearly a statement referring to the fact that the Son of God neither decays nor dies again, since he has entered into heaven, to remain a high priest forever. Otherwise, he only seemed to die, and only seemed to rise, heresies that were rejected very early in church history.

    You probably will not agree with this analysis, but just consider what the author of Hebrews says in chapter 2: Jesus was for a little while made lower than angels. He was actually made lower than angels, not simply that portion of himself that was incarnated, but he himself, fully, was made lower than angels, in order that he might truly suffer death for those whom God has called.

  4. nteresting question I never before considered. I think Tad nailed it on the head, God is unfathomable and we are not suppose to understand everything. This is an excellent post addressing this puzzling topic.

  5. Michael Mills says:

    I realize this is a serious question. But as I read the title of this post–How Did the Son of God Uphold the Universe by the Word of His Power If He Was a Babe in the Manger?–another part of me was reminded of the age-old childhood question/joke that most of you probably remember, which is this:

    “Can God build a rock so big he can’t lift it?”

    My point is simply that sometimes, perhaps too often, we consider unanswerable questions–then actually try to give a serious answer–rather than being willing to say, “It’s a mystery…” and be willing to trust God with the details. Case in point: The Trinity. Which one of us honestly understands that?!? We accept it. But, we don’t truly understand it.

    God’s sovereignty vs. man’s free will is another hornets nest….

    It’s a mystery!

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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