Impossibility, Physicality, and the Possibility of Eating with the Trinity
So the question about whether Jesus could create a chilli pepper so hot that he couldn’t eat it was imported to my Facebook page and drew a lot of good questions from a friend of mine. After much delay, I have finally attempted to respond to the various queries (which are in bold):
There are a lot of good questions here.
1. Are you saying that Jesus’ divine self can make something impossible for his physical self?
Yes. Sort of.
What I am saying is that whereas ‘divine nature’ is inherently omnipotent, ‘created nature’ is inherently limited. So what I’m saying is less that Jesus’ divine nature makes something impossible for his physical self, than that when Jesus took on human nature, a large set of things consequently became impossible for him insofar as just his human nature is concerned.
2. So are you saying that Jesus’ divine self can make his divine self not able to do something?
This would be the “can God create a rock so big that he cannot move it” question. I noted the similarity in form to “Can Jesus create an impossibly hot chilli pepper…” but didn’t really say anything that directly answered this other question.
But since it is a classic it has been well-addressed by Christian theologians already (eg. Aquinas considers it here), and the answer is basically that when we say God is omnipotent this doesn’t mean that any word can fill in the blank to make a sentence of this form God can ______. Nor does it prevent us from constructing sentences of this form ‘God cannot _____’.
For example, God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), God cannot sin (James 1:13), God cannot even forgive sin without the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22).
[Aside: I argued at great length the impossibility of God forgiving without punishment for a coursework essay last year, if you want to critique it.]
But what we are saying is that these things that God cannot do are not a result of any deficiency of power in God, but are simply the corollaries of what my church would call (perhaps in a slightly old-fashioned manner) ‘the excellencies of God’: eg. God cannot lie because He is faithful, and He cannot be tempted to be otherwise.
To put it another way, we use the word ‘impossible’ in two ways. Sometimes we call something impossible because it is logically incoherent (eg. drawing a square circle)), and sometimes we call something impossible because we think that it is too difficult (eg. that Phileas Fogg could travel around the world in eighty days).
When theologians say that God is omnipotent, they are saying that nothing is too difficult for God, not that God can be logically incoherent.
3. How could God wrestle with Jacob and dislocate the poor guy’s leg if he were just divine nature (Gen 32)?
So God, as well as Jesus, must surely have a physical as well as a divine manifestation? (Especially if they are each other?)
Also, in Genesis 18:8, God seems to eat… N’est pas?
Now we come to the issues that have really caused me to stop and think. And you’ll have to judge how satisfactory my answer about the eating is. But if we start with what I can clarify, and then we’ll see what might be said about the remaining mystery.
In all of these questions we have the issue of theophanies (appearances of God) in the Old Testament. Now, as Christians we believe not only that God has revealed himself in history in the person of Jesus, and that God thus appears from our time-bound perspective as Trinity: God the Father and Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit.
We do believe that God is Trinity, but we believe that God’s Trinitarian-ness is not just a consequence of the way that God has chosen to appear to us, but rather that God is essentially Trinity, existing eternally as Father, Son and Spirit, three different ‘persons’ sharing one ‘divine nature’, or as some theologians prefer (eg. Anselm) three different ‘subtances’ sharing one ‘essence’*. As John 1 puts it, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning”.
[*Trinitarian aside: In order to be faithful to the Biblical revelation of who God is, it is important to try and hold both these models together. God is one (Deut. 6:4, Isaiah 45:22), but the one God is three (Eph. 4:4-6). If the emphasis is put on the one-ness of God, then we can think of God as being something like a mind, with the Word corresponding to thought, and the Spirit to desire… see Aquinas. If the emphasis is put on the three-ness of God then we can think of the Trinity as being something like the perfect community of persons living in mutual love and equality yet with differences of order and function.]
Now this is relevant because it means that whenever we have theophanies in the Bible, ie. ‘the Angel of the LORD’ (Gen. 22:11, Ex. 3:2, Judges 13, Zechariah 1:12), we can say that the visible manifestation of God is the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, ie. JESUS. As John 1 says, ‘No-one has seen God [the Father] _at any time_ but God the One And Only, He has made Him known’.
And an understanding of the Trinity makes sense of how it is that this Angel of the LORD can speak for God but also to God (Zechariah 1 “Then the Angel of the LORD answered and said ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will You not have mercy…’ “).
All that was way of pre-amble. Just because the Old Testament theophanies can be understood as appearances of the pre-incarnate Jesus, this doesn’t solve the problem of what we are to make of the physicality of the Angel of the Lord. Because the incarnation, the miracle of miracles in which the God who is Spirit took on a physical nature – as John says, “became flesh, and walked among us” – hadn’t happened yet. Hence ‘pre-incarnate’.
So we have two options:
1. Appeal to the the outside-of-time-ness of God, and say that by joining a physical human nature to eternal divine nature, it might therefore follow that Jesus can do physical things even ‘before’ the incarnation.
2. Argue that in certain unusual situations, spiritual beings such as (created) angels and the (uncreated divine) Angel of the Lord can (option 2.a) do or (option 2.b) appear to be doing physical activities.
If we go with the first, then we might well get lost in a tangle of cause-and-effect, and have probably committed the theological blunder of confusing the divine and human natures of Jesus (which would be the heresy of Eutychianism rejected by the Council of Nicaea).
So I would probably go with the second, although I’m aware that this also has it’s problems. If we go with option 2.a, then I have to take back what I said about it being nonsensical for divine nature to eat. And to go with 2.b, we would have to demonstrate that the Scriptural account leaves enough wiggle room for such an interpretation.
But these points are relatively trivial. The bigger issue that springs to my mind is, “Then what about Jesus physicality and his eating things after his resurrection?” Because in Luke 24:39-41, Jesus allows himself to be handled and asks for something to eat, as a demonstration that he is not “a spirit”.
And I suppose the way I would respond to this by pointing to the context and saying that in the situation – after Jesus had been crucified and then seen risen again by a few of his disciples – the rest of the disciples were simply asking the question of whether these testimonies of Jesus’ resurrection were really true. And so to see him in the flesh proves that he is alive and not a ghost (ie. ‘a spirit’) not because there are never any situations in which spiritual beings can act as if physical, but because it showed them that Jesus was not dead. (And the nature of Jesus’ body post-resurrection is itself a difficult and fascinating question: he eats, and yet is able to appear in a room in which the doors were locked (John 20:27); Paul contrasts the resurrected ‘spiritual body’ with the ‘natural body’ (literally ‘soul-ish body’) in 1 Corinthians 15.44; John reminds us that “it has not yet been revealed what we shall be [after the resurrection]” (1 John 3:2).
And so with that verse I leave you, with the admission that all the answers have not yet been revealed (at least not to me :P) but with the confidence that *now* we who believe in Jesus are already children of God.
Thanks for your questions, please poke more in my direction and I will try to respond to them more quickly in the future.
Grace and peace,