God's Self-Limitations


The Christian doctrines of incarnation and atonement are in our day most relentlessly opposed by a school of thinkers who pride themselves on their lofty abstract conception of the Deity. That the second person of the Trinity should "empty himself," should give up "the form of God," should resign the independent exercise of his divine attributes, should join himself to our guilt-burdened humanity, should humble himself even to death in order that he might redeem us—all this is simply unintelligible to those who know only "The Absolute" and "The Infinite." It is plain that "the offence of the cross" has not ceased. To these modern Greeks, quite as much as to their ancient congeners, the gospel is "foolishness."

It will not be possible for us to show these errorists that the cross is "the wisdom of God," unless we can first convince them that they are at fault in their fundamental conception of the divine Being. They think it a contradiction in terms that Christ should be God, and yet that he should put off the form of God; but they think this simply because they assume it to be impossible that God should be limited at all. Here is a speculative difficulty which lies not only at the basis of much skepticism, it also vexes the minds of many devout believers. Though they believe that God actually became man, they cannot at all understand how it could be so. In both cases the mistake is in supposing that an absolute Being can exist in no relations and that an infinite Being can surfer no co-existence of the finite. We maintain, on the other hand, that an absolute Being is simply one who exists in no necessary relations and that an infinite Being is one who furnishes in himself the cause and ground of the finite. In short, the substance of our contention is this: It is not an abstract Absolute or Infinite with which we have to do, but rather with the living God, of whom perfection, power, and love are inalienable attributes.

We begin, then, by asserting that the perfection of God's own nature involves limitation even before he becomes man at all. Not abstract absoluteness or infinity, but perfection rather is our ruling conception of God. Mere boundlessness is not perfection; to be perfect, a thing must be definite, not indefinite. For example: God would not be perfect if .he were not a personal Being. But personality, with its self-consciousness and self-determination, implies definiteness; God cannot be at the same time both conscious and unconscious, both necessitated and free. His very perfection limits him to consciousness and freedom. The opposite view would make God mere Being, without content or movement, a Hindu Brahma, "as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean." That view cannot explain how this abstract Being should ever become reality; how the Notion should become actual; how the Infinite should become finite; in short, how anything definite should ever come to be. This is the insoluble problem of Hegelianism. If there is a personal God, if there is an actual universe, this doctrine cannot be true.


Not only personality, but Trinity also, is an element of the divine perfection. But the distinctions of the Trinity involve limitation. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; not two persons, or four, but three. The intercommunion and life of the Godhead, God's security from loneliness and dependence, God's sovereignty and freedom, all are bound up with his triune existence. God would not be more perfect, but less perfect, if he were not triune. And yet this triunity is. a sort of limitation.

Righteousness is necessary to perfection. But righteousness involves limitation. God cannot be both truth and untruth; but exclusion of untruth is limitation. God cannot be both purity and impurity; but exclusion of impurity is limitation. What sort of a God is the God of the pantheist, of whom all things are equally manifestations, the lower as well as the higher, vice as well as virtue, cruelty as well as kindness, falsehood as well as truth? Would God be more perfect if he were evil as well as good? He who thus blackens the character of God has really no God. Pantheism is practical atheism. And yet to save ourselves from this, we must admit that the very perfection of God's nature limits him to the good—that is, God's perfection is inseparable from limitation.

Let us take one step farther now, and consider that any revelation of this perfect Being, or any act looking toward such revelation, must involve a j^-limitation on the part of God. As God's perfection involves limitation, so God's revelation involves self-limitation. The fact that this limitation is voluntary, self-chosen, not the result of compulsion from without, but, on the contrary, proceeding from free-will within, renders it perfectly consistent with God's independence and blessedness. Personality, trinity, righteousness, these are consistent with perfection, because they are also limitations from within. But these are constitutional limitations. In these respects, God cannot be other than he is. Revelation is a limitation from within of a different kind; it is a limitation proceeding from deliberate choice, and therefore a manifestation of the greatest power, even God's power over himself.

James Martineau has well said that " when the Infinite reveals itself it must limit itself in space and time, must adopt an order of successive steps; in other words, there must be a self-abnegation of Infinity, and this is the only way in which Infinity can reveal itself." In the very decree to create, we would add—God's decree, framed in eternity past—there is self-limitation, the choice of one plan out of many, the narrowing down of abstract omniscience and omnipotence to a single definite scheme. In the act of creation there is self-limitation; God admits a universe side by side with himself, free creatures side by side with his freedom. To every thoughtful child the question has probably at some time occurred: "Would not God be greater if he included me and the world in himself, instead of being outside of us?" And the answer is: "God has parted with his privilege of sole and only existence in order that he may give room for other things and other beings; but this limitation is no derogation to his greatness, because it is j^-limitation. And so the preservation of the things he has created involves a continual self-limitation on the part of God. He upholds them by the

word of his power, and but for his forbearing to destroy —aye, but for his free consent and co-operation—they would sink again into nothingness.

As we pass on, let us not fail to notice that this selflimitation on the part of God, this distinction of himself from other beings, is the very condition of our knowing him. Knowing is distinguishing; I cannot know anything except as I distinguish it from something else. If God were in no way limited, if he were "the All," then no knowledge of him would be possible. Herbert Spencer conceives that God will be more perfect if he is without marks or limitations; and since it is plain that what is without marks or limitations cannot be known, he calls God the Inscrutable Reality. But in trying to divest God of limitation in one way, he imposes limitation upon him in another. The impossibility of making one's self known is the greatest of limitations. A God so shut up within himself would be no God at all.

In the early life of Dr. John Duncan, of Edinburgh, that eminent scholar whose unique personality was such a force in the recent theological history of Scotland, there were two turning-points upon which depended all that followed. The first was the evening when, after [ long wandering in the frightful darkness of unbelief, he at last became convinced that there was a God, and, as he himself said, he "danced for joy upon the brig o' Dee." The second was the time when, after equally anxious pondering, the wonderful truth flashed upon his mind that "God wants us to know him." It was a wonderful truth indeed. God wants us to know him, wants this so much that he has subjected himself to

limitation. He has narrowed himself down in order to reveal himself to free creatures. Let us remember that the creation of free beings involves the possibility that freedom will be abused; the development of the highest virtue is inseparable from probation, temptation, a possible fall from virtue into the depths of misery and sin. For a holy being to create a universe in prospect of sin, and to administer a universe in spite of constant opposition to his will, is an act and process of selflimitation, the significance of which it is difficult for us to measure.

Many years ago, in the lecture room of President Woolsey, of Yale College, a young man who did not know his lesson ventured to make a mock recitation and to give an impertinent answer. The president was a man of fiery temper, though it had been curbed and subdued by the discipline of years. On this occasion his face turned white; he bowed his head upon the desk before him. There was a half-minute's silence like the silence of death; he raised his head, called upon another man, and the recitation went on. He knew that if he spoke to the offender he would speak too much, so he said nothing. The students of that class knew well what a lava-flood was pent up there. Self-repression did not seem to them a sign of weakness—it was the greatest evidence of power. Shall we call it a sign of weakness in God that he bears with the sins of men, the manifold and multitudinous transgressions with which they insult his holiness and hurl defiance at his law? When God humbles himself to behold and to forbear, shall we not see in this voluntary self-limitation one of the proofs of his greatness?

If God would reveal himself, he must not only create and govern, but he must also educate. You cannot put the knowledge of God into men's minds at a stroke. Teaching is a long process. Finite beings at the very best need to begin with the simplest elements, the alphabet and the multiplication table; only later on can they reach upward to the higher learning. And when finite beings are also sinful beings there is a dullness that requires line upon line, precept upon precept. The individual and the race will not learn at all unless they are taught by pictures and by object lessons. As the German Herder once said: "The limitations of the pupil are the limitations also of the teacher." God is a teacher, and the teacher must condescend to dull minds, and must have endless patience with them. This was one of the griefs of Christ, the holding back what he would fain communicate because of the low intellectual and moral state of his disciples. What a tone of sorrow there is in his words: "I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now."

Is this self-limitation on the part of God a sign of imperfection in him, or is it a sign of the highest nobility and greatness? Let the answer be given in a parable. A burly ruffian on the street was seen dragging along his little daughter and cursing her at every step, because her fainting and trembling feet could not keep up with his giant stride. The brute thought it beneath his dignity to moderate his pace to accommodate a child. Shall this be called greatness, and shall that father be accused of weakness and of inability to go at a faster rate who graduates his own steps to the steps of his child? Let us find our answer in the multitude of mothers who delight in adapting themselves to the infantile capacities of their children and who, in bearing with their thoughtlessness and wrongheadedness, evince a greatness of soul which furnishes us with one of our best images of the divine. If earthly parents are considerate, the heavenly Father, we may be sure, will be much more so. In order to give us the knowledge of himself, he will come down to our weak human speech, will use poor human words, will clothe his great thoughts in earthly symbols—and this is inspiration. He will conduct the education of the race by successive stages, giving truth in germ at the first, enlarging his revelation as men are prepared to receive it— and this is history. Is not this subjection of himself to the conditions of revelation, this adapting of his infinity to the finite and the sinful, a glory and an honor to his name?

Perfection involves limitation ; revelation involves selflimitation. So far we have gone. Consider finally that redemption involves an infinite self-limitation. For we now come upon a fact far more important than any which we have hitherto contemplated, the fact of God's love. Love is essentially self-sacrificing, and the selfsacrifice of love is the highest and noblest form of selflimitation. And if we are asked, how great this selflimitation will be in God? we can only answer: As great as God's love and as great as the need of its exercise. If the love is infinite and the need is infinite, then the sacrificial self-limitation will be infinite also. An infinite self-limitation is not only possible, but necessary, when "deep calleth unto deep," the boundless deep of man's sin and guilt to the boundless deep of God's love and mercy. REDEMPTION INFINITE SELF-LIMITATION 95

There is a principle in God which answers to conscience in man,—a principle that demands reparation for sin,—and God can in no wise clear the guilty so long as that principle has not its full rights accorded to it. Moral evil must be either punished or atoned for. God does not desire to punish, hence he provides atonement. Aye, he provides that atonement even when he determines to create. Sin has cost God more than it has cost man; God permitted it only in view of the cross. Christ is *' the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world." In the beginning God gave his Son to die; the provision of redemption antedates the historical existence of sin itself; Calvary is only the outward manifestation of a sacrifice which was from eternity. In sacrifice the world was born; in sacrifice it continues to be. Only in Christ does the universe "consist " or hold together. His pierced hand keeps it from disintegration, from chaos, from annihilation. Justice would sweep away a world of sinners if it were not for the self-limitation of love.

So we are to look on the laws of nature by which summer and winter, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, succeed one another in even round as voluntary limitations imposed on himself by God. And supernatural working, as well as natural, miracles, regeneration, resurrection, all God's plan made known in prophecy and executed in providence, all the promises by which God binds himself and attaches himself to the faith and the prayers of men, are various methods of selflimitation in which love reveals itself, challenges attention, draws us to itself. So God prepares us for the one great act and exhibition of his love which surpasses, and yet in a true sense includes, all the rest. How far, we ask once more, will this self-limitation go? And the answer is the startling words: "He emptied himself." Human love will go far in self-abnegation and selfsurrender. But divine love will make the infinite descent from the very heights of glory to the very depths of shame.

It is not my present purpose fully to treat the great subject of Christ's humiliation. I wish only to indicate in the briefest way how the principles already suggested may be applied to its defense and elucidation. The humiliation of Christ was two-fold: it pertained on the one hand to his person and on the other hand to his work. In Christ's person there was a self-limitation that affected God's natural attributes. In Christ's work there was a self-limitation that affected God's moral attributes. When Christ became man he gave up the independent exercise of his divine attributes. During his earthly life the God in him was veiled and subject. He voluntarily put his deity under control. God by himself could never be born or suffer or die— but God united to humanity could do all these. When he was made in the likeness of men he took the form of a servant. In the human nature which he took to himself, he who was Lord of the Spirit, he who gave the Spirit, he who worked through the Spirit, condescended to be the servant of the Holy Spirit, and to know and act, not as God, but as man, and only as the Holy Spirit should permit and the exigencies of his Messianic mission required. The Godhead in Christ commonly manifested itself in proportion to the capacity of Christ's humanity—only a little when the humanity HUMAN ANALOGIES


was infantile and weak, more and more fully as the humanity became older and more developed. Jesus when a babe was not omniscient; indeed, even in his later years there were some things hid from him, for he said: "Of that day"—the day of the end—"knoweth no man, neither the angels of God, neither the Son, but the Father." He learned obedience and suffered being tempted, as he could not have done had all things been open to his gaze. His humanity dropped a curtain before the eyes of the God-man. Just as the reservoir may be full of water, but we get in our houses only a quantity measured by the size of our service pipe, so God was manifest in the flesh only so far as the flesh furnished a channel through which deity could communicate itself.

In Robert Browning's "Ring and the Book," Pompilia says truly: "Now I see how God is likest God, in being born." This self-limitation of deity to the narrow bounds of humanity, that our humanity might be addressed on its own level and in its own language, this is the thing that is "likest God." And yet it is a great mystery—the Scriptures seem to intimate that God manifest in the flesh is the greatest mystery of all. How can there be divine attributes that are not exercised, resources that are not used? Fortunately we are not without analogies which help us to comprehend the possibility of it. There is more of resource in us than we use; we know more than we can tell; there is more in the memory of every man than he can at this moment recall; every one of us has more power than he now knows of—only the exigency calls it forth. The spiritual life of the Christian is a greater and more


blessed thing than at present he has any idea of—" It doth not yet appear what we shall be."

If we could imagine the soul of a Humboldt coming back to this world and being joined again to an infant's body, we should not expect that soul with all its knowledge perfectly to reveal itself at the first; only as the infant's body developed and matured could the genius of Humboldt be made manifest. So, although there was an ocean-like fullness of resource in Christ, upon which he was permitted at times to draw, yet those vast resources were commonly hidden, even from himself. The independent exercise of his divine attributes he surrendered when he gave up the form of God to take the form of a servant and to be made in the likeness of men.

Christ's humiliation then was a self-limitation as respects his person. God gave up the independent exercise of his natural attributes in becoming man. But there was a greater humiliation than this involved in the work which he did and came to do, a humiliation that pertained to God's moral attributes. Christ joined himself not merely to humanity, but to guilty humanity. When he became one of the race he took by inheritance all the burden of ill-desert which rested upon the race. 'All our exposures and liabilities became his so soon as he became organically connected with us. He put himself under law and under penalty when he took our nature. Father Damien when stricken with leprosy wrote: "Now I must stay with my own people." So, when Christ joined himself to us, he put himself under bonds to suffer and to die. His circumcision and his baptism indicated this. All through his life on earth

there hung over him the shadow of approaching death. Human nature was under condemnation and he had human nature. In this moral self-limitation was the greatest sacrifice of all. Gethsemane was the clear realization of what was due to sin; Calvary was the actual paying of the debt which not he personally, but the human nature of which he had become a part, owed to the law and the holiness of God. Hastening forward to the cross with the majestic self-abandonment of love, yet shrinking from the cross as only infinite purity could shrink from the doom of sin, we have in the passion and atonement of the Son of God the most marvelous illustration of God's self-limitation.

For Jesus endured the whole penalty of human sin, both physical and spiritual death. Physical death is the separation of the soul from the body, and Jesus died for our sins in this sense. Spiritual death is the separation of the soul from God, and Jesus suffered the agonies of spiritual death also when he cried, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Here was the last conceivable or possible sacrifice, the endurance of that frown and desertion of God, which the unpardoned sinner must endure forever, simply because a finite being can never exhaust an infinite penalty, but which Christ in a few brief hours could exhaust and did exhaust, because in his divine nature he was himself infinite. So near to absolute extinction did Jesus go in order that he might redeem us. His holiness came into closest contact with unholiness; yes, took upon itself all the consequences of man's unholiness—did everything but become actually unholy—that we might be saved. Here is the climax of God's self-limitation. Love makes every sacrifice but the sacrifice of holiness; God gives up everything but his essential Godhood. The form of God, that he resigns. Our nature, our guilt, our penalty, our death, these he takes. And so "he emptied himself."

The heart of God reveals itself in sacrifice. Would God be more perfect without this self-limitation of love? No, this is his very perfection, that he can stoop so low to save us. In Christ's sympathy and sorrow God stands manifested, for "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself." This is Christianity—the coming down of God to man—in distinction from heathenism, which is man's vain effort to lift himself to God. So the gospel rectifies our perverted ideals of character and of conduct. We can win no true success in life except by following Christ's example of self-limitation. The last and greatest wonder of that gospel is that the great Model does not leave us to copy him at a distance, but actually enters our souls and remodels us. And faith is only the closing of the soul with Christ, by which this living Redeemer, with his self-sacrificing and yet his victorious Spirit, becomes ours. So the God who nineteen hundred years ago subjected himself to the limitations and liabilities of our human nature still continues his work of self-limitation by re-incarnating himself in every believer and by enabling him to sacrifice himself for others as his Lord sacrificed himself for him. I have been trying to render Christ's person and work acceptable to an enlightened reason. But of all that I have said this is the sum: Christ's humiliation is possible, simply because infinite love is capable of infinite self-limitation and because the imNEED OF THIS SELF-LIMITATION IOI

measurable depths and everlasting reaches of man's misery and condemnation constitute an infinite need of such love. "God commendeth his love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." "This is the true God and eternal life."