Clearing up the word “change”


In two posts concerning my Damascene Ontological argument, it seems a lot of the controversy has surrounded what it means to “change.” The reason such a controversy erupted is my failure to adequately define “change” within the argument.

I would say that it might be better to use the terms “mutable” and “immutable,” which are more precise. To be mutable means to change in who we are or have within our nature to ability to increase or decrease in a certain property or function. For instance, a human can become wiser. A human can become more moral or less moral. Likewise, a human can be divided in the sense that he can reproduce himself (with the aid of another).

To be immutable means the opposite of mutable. It means to not be able to increase or decrease in property or function. It means one does not mature or become immature. One simply is. While an immutable being might have emotional reactions or change how his plans might come to fruition, it doesn’t follow that this constitues an actual “change;” nothing is added to the immutable entity, nothing is taken away. He stays the same, though his reactions might be different.

How do we apply this to the Incarnation? As was brought up in the comments, the idea that Christ could change in His human nature while remaining unchanged through His Divine nature appears to be a contradiction when we take Leibniz’s Law of Identity into accord. For those unfamiliar with the law, it basically says that for two things can be identical if they share the same properties. For instance, John the lawyer and John the father are the same person if they share the same properties. But, if John the lawyer has blond hair and is white while John the father has no hair and is black, they lack the same properties and therefore we cannot conclude they are identical (the logical formula for this is (x)(y)[(x = y)→ (P)(Px ↔ Py)]).

When we apply the Incarnation to Christ, we say that Christ (x) and God (y) are the same (x=y). So we look at a common property, such as immutability (P). We see that Christ changes (Px) and that God does not change (Py), therefore, we conclude that Christ is not God.

The problem with the structure of such an argument is that it fails to understand the Trinity. The premise that the Word has mutability as a property is based upon Arianism, which ascribed mutability to the Word and therefore taught that the Word was temporal and created.

The proper understanding of the Trinity is that Christ remained immutable in His essential nature, that is, His divine nature. Though divine, when He stepped into the human nature He allowed change to occur to His physical body. This does not mean God changed as the whole of the divine was not in the flesh, just the person of Christ. Thus, the Word remained immutable while changing in the flesh. This merely points out that Jesus remained God and man, thus sharing the same properties with God, but not always acting on them. This is a paradox, but not a contradiction.

Many Latin writers used the phrase “communicatio idiomatum” when referring to the Trinity, indicating a communication between the properties of both natures. As the linked article explains:

The source of the communicatio idiomatum is not to be found in the close moral union between Christ and God as maintained by the Nestorians, nor in Christ’s fullness of grace and supernatural gifts, nor, again, in the fact that the Word owns the humannature of Christ by right of creation. God the Father and the Holy Ghost have the same right and interest as the Son in allcreated things except in the human nature of Jesus Christ. This the Son by Assumption has made His own in a way that is not theirs, i.e., by the incommunicable property of personal union. In Christ there is one person with two natures, the human and the Divine. In ordinary language all the properties of a subject are predicated of its person; consequently the properties ofChrist’s two natures must be predicated of his one person, since they have only one subject of predication. He Who is the Word of God on account of His eternal generation is also the subject of human properties; and He Who is the man Christ on account of having assumed human nature is the subject of Divine attributes. Christ is God; God is man.

By having two natures, the Word remained God and retained His Divine nature, but also experienced what it was to be human. These two do not stand in contradiction to each other, but merely as two different experiences that Christ would have endured.

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2 thoughts on “Clearing up the word “change”

  1. Joel,

    Thank you for clarifying this issue. As long as we understand that Jesus was not a divine-human schizophrenic — or rather, as long as we understand that the divine and human aspects cooperated harmoniously in his person — then we can affirm this. I want to point out that in some ways we have agreed all along: I said that I affirm that God does not change in his essential nature. It simply took you to clarify what you meant by “change” (philosophical mutability/immutability) for that agreement to come more obviously to the foreground.

    I still am less certain these days where I stand on the doctrine of the Trinity and Arianism. I affirm that there is obviously some kind of trinity (one need only look at Matthew 28.19, John 14-16, 1 Corinthians 12.4-6, 2 Corinthians 13.14, and other such texts to see that), and that the three are personal, relational, and interdependent/cooperative. Furthermore, based on explicit statements in the New Testament (e.g. John 1.1) and implications from New Testament adaptations of Old Testament images (the Word as Wisdom, the Spirit as Wisdom), I can affirm with confidence that Jesus and the Spirit are communications of God who are nevertheless distinct from him. If they are communications from him, then they derive their essence from him and share what he is. If they are distinct from him, they are unique persons.

    I think this rather novel formulation (I say novel because I am drawing largely on Old Testament categories and images and mixing them with some speculation, e.g. the language of “communication”) falls in the camp of orthodox Trinitarianism, even if it gets there via another route. Would you agree?

    In any case, excellent article!

  2. A few comments.
    “While an immutable being might have emotional reactions or change how his plans might come to fruition, it doesn’t follow that this constitues an actual “change;” nothing is added to the immutable entity, nothing is taken away. He stays the same, though his reactions might be different.”

    I’m going to disagree with this point. Let’s say God is immutable and work with the definition of immutability you provide. God wants Goal P. He has a Plan A which leads to Goal P. Later (using tenses like this or suggesting a changing of mind has some interesting consequences for God and time, but that’s neither here nor there), God decides that Plan B is better for achieving Goal P and ditches Plan A. Now, you suggest God has not lost something. However I believe he has. I admit that the divine nature hasn’t lost anything (more on what constitutes this later), but God most certainly has. Namely he lost the property of “following through with plan A” and he gained the property of “following through with plan B.” The example is even easier when it comes to emotions. If God becomes pleased instead of angry then he loses the property of “being angry” and gains the property of “being pleased.” So I think you need to claim God can’t undergo these changes if you wish him to remain immutable.

    “The proper understanding of the Trinity is that Christ remained immutable in His essential nature, that is, His divine nature. Though divine, when He stepped into the human nature ”

    Talk of essential nature is redundant to a certain extent. A thing’s nature is always essential to it. This is because, nature can be cashed out in terms of the essential (or de re necessary) properties of that thing. It should go without saying that Christ couldn’t have been Christ without a Divine nature, just as Christ couldn’t have been Christ without a Human nature. Both are essential to the figure of Christ.

    Now then, just because Christ needed a Human nature doesn’t mean that the divine did. I realize that I made a mistake in some of my previous comments on the last post after looking over some old materials. Talking about Christ and the other figures of the trinity as proper parts of God leaves behind Athanasius’ accepted doctrine that talk of the God-head is about persons sharing an essence rather than as proper parts of a thing. I disagree that the distinction is meaningful (as persons could certainly still be parts of an object) but that can be left alone for now. However, it is a strange suggestion to me that God not have any of the essential properties of Humanity, since that would render the statement “God became man” false. God could not be man if he lacked any of these essential properties; by St. John’s argument that you give in the previous posts, one of these properties is that changing or mutability. This also still seems to lead to some of the antinomies i mentioned before such as dual entities or persons in the same space as Christ.

    “This does not mean God changed as the whole of the divine was not in the flesh, just the person of Christ.”

    Let me see if I can make clearer some of my worries about this. the divine nature is not identical to Christ, because the divine nature is shared by the three persons of the trinity. Christ is not identical to any other person in the trinity. The question has never been over the divine nature and its immutability, but on God and his supposed immutability. If we claim that God is identical or the same as the divine nature than we reject the orthodox belief that God is identical to the three persons of the trinity. This is because the person of Christ contains more properties (namely those properties that accompany human nature) than the divine nature. So the person of Christ is not a part of God on this view.

    The orthodox view says these persons are what makes up God. By modern ontology, this renders them to be parts of a whole, God. Part of the person of Christ is his human mutability. The person of Christ is mutable. If a part of some whole has a property then that whole has a property. Here’s an example: A table is whole made up of other parts. Imagine a particular table with a chip in its left back leg. We are incorrect in claiming any other part of the table to be chipped (i.e. any other leg or surface). However, we are correct in saying that the whole, the table, is chipped. Where? On its leg. In the same way we are correct in affirming that God is mutable. Where? In the person of Christ.

    Despite these criticisms, i think you have the workings for a very nice article here. I suggest fleshing out the premises of St. John’s argument and giving a go for the journal of Faith and Philosophy. If not that, then Philosohpia Christi. Both of those journals eat stuff like this up.

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