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The Metaphysics of the Incarnation: The Centrality of Divine Self-Determination

George Hunsinger, in a review article (Scottish Journal of Theology 55[2]: 161-200 [2002]) on Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, offers three drastic critiques of Jenson’s contribution to Christian dogmatics.  He claims that Jenson’s view of the cross is Socinian, his view of the incarnation, Arian, and his view of the Trinity, Hegelian (all three of which are, apparently equally deplorable).  Hunsinger, is I think, wrong on all counts and terribly misunderstands Jenson precisely because he does not understand, as Jenson points out in his response, that what Jenson is undertaking is “an effort of revisonary metaphysics” (230).  Hunsinger’s critique is unimaginative because he simply applies traditional metaphysical critiques to Jenson’s revised metaphysics, and thus (of course), finds Jenson to be woefully contradictory and nonsensical.

I want to engage one aspect of Hunsinger’s critique, not so much for the purpose of exonerating Jenson (though, if that happens, so be it), but rather for continuing to explore some aspects of what a revisonary and indeed a biblical metaphysics might look like.  What I want to explore is Hunsinger’s claim that Jenson is, if not Arian, then at least neo-Arian.  Hunsinger claims that Jenson so closely identifies (in good Lutheran fashion) the man Jesus with the divine Logos, that he collapses the distinction between Christ’s deity and humanity and ends up positing that the Son of God had no existence prior to the incarnation of Jesus.  Thus, Jenson tends toward Arianism in that he claims that the Son of God had a temporal beginning.  Hunsinger claims that for Jenson, “the Son enjoys no antecedent reality prior to his coming to be in history, the eternal trinity enjoys not antecedent reality, strictly speaking, prior to the creation of the world” (171).  Hunsinger claims that for Jenson, the existence of the Son prior to the incarnation is at best “merely embryonic and potential” (172).

If this is indeed the case, then Jenson does seem to be in serious trouble.  I do think that Jenson can answer this question himself, and indeed he does at numerous points in his two volumes.  Jenson clearly does not believe that “there was when he was not” or that the Son comes into being as a creative act of the Father.  “The Son’s origin is an event not of God’s contingently willed creative action, but an occurrence in the Father’s being as God” (I.102).  Jenson likewise states clearly that, while the Trinitarian Son is Jesus of Nazareth without remainder, he is so precisely within the eternal life of the immanent Trinity.  For Jenson, “it is the Incarnate Son who is himself his own presupposition in God’s eternity: the incarnation happens in eternity as the foundation of its happening in time, in eternity as the act of the decision that God is, and in time as the carrying-out of what God decides” (I.140).   Truth be told, this should not be new to Hunsinger, this is just Jenson reaffirming and nuancing Barth’s own claim that the Son is eternally incarnandus.  However, this is precisely where the metaphysical difference between Hunsinger and Jenson becomes clear.

For Hunsinger, the idea that the Son can have a temporal beginning and be eternal is contradictory because according to the traditional metaphysics eternity is the negation of time.  This is precisely what Jenson is calling into question.  Thus, for Hunsinger, if all that was eternally present in the immanent Trinity was God’s self-determination to be for us as Jesus of Nazareth, then the Son of God “enjoys no antecedent reality prior to his coming to be in history”.  However, Jenson’s more thoroughly biblical metaphysics insists that God is the event of his own self-determination.  Thus, the person of Jesus eternally belongs to the reality of the Triune life because God determines himself to be the one who is incarnate as Jesus. 

This point is made well in Neil MacDonald’s recent book Metaphysics and the God of Israel, where he articulates a radical biblical metaphysic on the basis of the Old and New Testaments narratives of divine action in creation and in Jesus.  What MacDonald shows is that God is identical with his own act of self-determination.  For God, his self-determination precedes and constitutes his carrying-out of what he has determined himself to be.

As MacDonald says with reference to the doctrine of creation, “God does not create the world in order for it to be the case that he determines himself as creator.  God determines himself as the creator of the world; therefore, he is the creator of the world” (29).  Now, of course Hunsinger would jump all over an analogy being drawn between God determining himself as creator and determining himself as Triune.  Such would indeed imply that “there was when he was not”, for creation is not eternal.  However, the point to be made on the ontological level is that God is who he is because he determines himself to be so.  That he determines himself to be the creator at a particular point in the life of God does not mitigate this point.  God is the event of his own self-determination.  It is not incoherent in the least to say that God determines himself as Creator at a point in his life before which he had not so determined himself, but eternally determines himself as Triune (which is to say that God determines himself to be the incarnate Jesus).  Thus, if God eternally determines himself as Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus simply is eternally included in the identity of God.  And, as MacDonald further observes in discussing the atonement, “God cannot be the one who takes his own judgment on himself – in the form of Jesus of Nazareth – and it not be the case that the man Jesus of Nazareth – the Jew of Galilee – be part of who this God, the God of Israel, is eternally” (226).

Jenson shares precisely this actualistic ontology of divine freedom.  As he argues, “the one God is a decision” (I.222).  God’s act of self-determination as Jesus of Nazareth belongs eternally to the being of God.  We do not need, then to posit, as Hunsinger does, a “Logos” who is unincarnate and subsequently unites himself to human flesh in Jesus.  This is, in fact to project our humanity to crudely into the mode of divine action.  For us, we determine ourselves to be something by doing.  I determine to be a theologian by doing theology.  However, God does not determine himself by carrying out certain acts, as MacDonald shows.  Rather, God Rather, the Logos simply is Jesus because the act of God becoming incarnate belongs to God’s own eternal self-determination.  Thus, Jenson can indeed say with all consistency that “eternity is the inexhaustibility of the Son’s life” (II.219).

The issue is one of metaphysics, and centrally the role that the Bible takes in the formulation of metaphysics.  Jenson and MacDonald, in my view have helpfully questioned traditional metaphysics on the basis of a more radically Trinitarian and biblical theological orientation.  Hunsinger is unable to think “inside” of Jenson’s metaphysics, and as such finds his thought to be frustrating and untenable.  In this, Hunsinger is limited by a failure of imagination which keeps him from appropriating all the insights of Jenson’s contribution to dogmatic theology.  

5 Comments

  1. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden,

    I’ve never read Hunsinger before, but I have read some of Jenson, and I highly appreciate his trinitarianism. He, as you note, appears to derive his trinitarian metaphysic from the scriptures (where else could one find such a metaphysic/ontology [?])instead of the philosophical tradition (methodologically) that Hunsinger (according to your analysis)appears to operate from.

    I would be curious to hear from the “other side”, and those who have more appreciation for Hunsinger’s thought; i.e. your Princeton friends ;) (I’m a born instigator :) ) .

    Saturday, June 30, 2007 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  2. John Rasmussen wrote:

    Hi, Halden

    Like you I am excited by Jenson’s efforts at a revisionary metaphysics, but a couple of things bothered me…

    You say

    “God is the event of his own self-determination. It is not incoherent in the least to say that God determines himself as Creator at a point in his life before which he had not so determined himself, but eternally determines himself as Triune (which is to say that God determines himself to be the incarnate Jesus).”

    You seem to suggest two separate determinations in God; but God’s self-determination to be revealed in the incarnate Jesus surely implies God’s determination to be creator also.

    It seems to me that we want to say that God is eternally the electing God and this includes His determination to be our Creator.

    Which is why the language of decision is so difficult to use ( even if unavoidable);
    It is so easily anthropomorphized; for us there is always a time before the decision; but we cannot talk of a time when God was not for us.

    I was also troubled by this,

    “However, God does not determine himself by carrying out certain acts”

    I take Jenson to be saying almost the opposite(I’ve not yet read MacDonald):

    “…our predestination is not the act of a God-the-Father abstracted from the triune relations, sorting fates in a pretemporal eternity. It occurs rather as the act in time of Christ’s death and resurrection and of the proclamation of the gospel. When someone speaks to me the promises made by Christ’s resurrection, that event IS the event of God’s choice about me.”

    (p. 137 from Jenson’s stunning chapter on the Holy Spirit vol. 2 of Christian Dogmatics; but also pp. 173-178 vol. 2 of the Systematic Theology)

    It seems to me we must say that inasmuch as God is true to himself, his self-determination and the enactment of such determination constitutes one (eternal) event.

    Peace,
    John Rasmussen

    Saturday, June 30, 2007 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    John,
    Thanks for the comments. On the first point, I think election is key, as you bring up. Perhaps the best way to say what I think we’re both trying to say is that God eternally determines himself to be the one who is incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, therefore, Jesus is the the eternal Son of God without remainder. Given that God determines himself to be the incarnate one, he determines to become the creator of the world. The main points that I want to hold onto are these: 1) God’s self-determination instantiates his reality is as the God that he is; 2) Jesus of Nazareth belongs to the eternal reality of God; 3) Creation exists because God determines himself to be the creator of the world, and the world has not always existed. If we want to avoid positint two seperate “determinations” in God, perhaps we must say that God determines himself eternally as Triune, and therefore as including the incarnate Jesus within his identity, therefore, he determines himself eternally to become the creator of the world.

    On your second point, what MacDonald is saying is that God’s self-determination instantiates the reality that is determined. If God determines himself as the creator of the world, the the world is created by God. In other words, God does not become the creator of the world by chooseing to create it, and then subsequently becoming the creator. Rather, he determines himself as the creator, and therefore he is the creator of the world. His act and being are one, we could say.

    The crucial point of distinctions is that if I determine to become that if I determine to become the next Olympic Gold Medalist in the 100 meter dash, I have to then perform the action of winning said race in order to become what I have determined. In God, this logic does not obtain. He determines himself to be and he simply is. That at least is what MacDonald is saying, and I think he’s onto something. Incidentally, Jenson has a rather glowing blurb on the back of MacDonald’s book.

    Saturday, June 30, 2007 at 11:20 pm | Permalink
  4. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden this sounds:

    . . . In other words, God does not become the creator of the world by chooseing to create it, and then subsequently becoming the creator. Rather, he determines himself as the creator, and therefore he is the creator of the world. His act and being are one, we could say.

    like Thomas Aquinas:

    . . . “Since what things do reflect what they are, God creates inasmuch as he exists; and his existence is his substance. . . .” (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae A Concise Translation, 86.)

    Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 1:21 am | Permalink
  5. Zack wrote:

    I happened across your website today and noticed you discussed Neil MacDonald. You may be interested to know that we at Logos Bible Software are publishing an electronic edition MacDonald’s Metaphysics and the God of Israel. You can visit its Pre-Pub product page here: http://www.logos.com/products/prepub/details/3131. The Logos edition will be fully searchable, and all references and footnotes will operate as hotspots, immediately presenting the cited information whenever the cursor rolls over them. All this and more make this esteemed work even more useful for study. And you can help us see this product get the attention it deserves! Contact me for more info: zrock [at] logos [dot] com.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

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