God is Too Great to Save

The shops will soon be full of the commercial trappings of Christmas and many Christians will be deliberately reflecting on the incarnation of the Son of God. There is a lovely moment in A History of the Work of Redemption when Jonathan Edwards explains why God needed to become man in order to save not because he lacked anything but because of an excess: ‘though Christ as God was infinitely sufficient for the work, yet viewed as to his being in an immediate capacity for it, it was needful that he should not be God but man’. Christ in his divine nature could not atone not because he was deficient but because of his ‘absolute and infinite perfection’. God needed to stoop down to atone. Edwards gives three simple reasons: the law governing man needed to be met by man; ‘the same nature that sinned should die’, and ‘the same world that was the stage of man’s fall and ruin should also be the stage of his redemption’. This reasoning has important consequences for the claim that Jesus suffered in his divine nature to atone for our sins: according to these arguments, which echo the logic of Hebrews 2, the suffering of God as God would not and could not atone. It would be no more effective than the suffering of bulls and goats, not because of a deficiency as in their case, but because of an excess. Divine passibility can be criticized from the perspective of the divine attributes, but it is as important to point out that the suffering of God as God would not be relevant to our salvation. Only the suffering God can help, but in his humanity (Bonhoeffer reworked); impassibly he suffered (Athanasius).