Christmas Trinity: Only the Son is incarnate, but the incarnation is the work of the whole Trinity. You can see why a distinction is helpful here: to recognize the undivided work of God toward us, but to specify the Son's incarnation exclusively.
Luther loved to use a homey image for this (one which he attributed to Bonaventure). The incarnation is like three girls putting a garment onto one of them: all three put it on, but only one has it put onto her.
Is it possible to be more precise? Well, although the work is undivided, the distinct persons are evident in the incarnation in a way that corresponds to their order of existence within the eternal relations: the Father unbegotten, the Son begotten, the Spirit proceeding.
Let's take the Father first: Just as he is the eternal origin of the Son, he is source of the Son's sending. The Father's sending of the Son is an extension of the Son's eternal begetting or generation. A real trinitarian mission makes known the eternal procession behind it.
This is why the Bible declares that the Father sends the Son: because this sending extends, or makes present among us, an eternal relation. Less specifically, we might say the Trinity sends the Son (or even that the Son sends himself!), but that's loose talk.
What I mean by loose, or non-specific, is that to say the Trinity sends the Son would be to treat all divine actions as if they were trinitarian missions. Missions are special (they reveal processions). The Trinity stands behind the incarnation not as sender, but as cause.
Compared to mission, cause is shallow & common. Heck, I'm caused by God, but I'm not sent by God in a way that reveals my eternal procession from him! What stands behind the incarnation in the deeper sense is the Son's sending by the Father.
Second, the Son: He takes the human nature onto himself in the sense of uniting it personally to himself (hypostatic union), so that it is his. So it is the work of the whole Trinity, but it terminates on the Son exclusively.
How the Son's trinitarian order of existence shows up in the incarnation is obvious: eternally begotten of the Father, he is now born of Mary. Some early theologians (esp. Hilary of Poitiers) would speak of the Son's two births: one eternal & divine, one temporal & created.
A little word-play on birth here, from Latin to English: to be born is to be natus, to have a nativity. It is also to have the property of natality (an archaic word, the opposite of mortality). That is, it's to have a nat-ure. Two births means two natures. (Feliz navidad!)
For the eternal Son of God to be hypostatically present as the temporal son of Mary is so right, so fitting, so super-appropriate, that theologians have always been tempted to say it was necessarily the Son who became incarnate. (Best not to use "necessary" that way, though.)
Third, the Spirit: Following Scripture, we appropriate to the Spirit the uniting of the created nature to the person of the Son ("conceived by the Holy Spirit," as the creed summarizes Luke's way of speaking).
To call the Spirit's work here an appropriation is to deny that it's proper in the sense of being exclusive. It's not that we exclude the Father & Son from the work, but that by naming the Spirit in it we acknowledge how his eternal relation to Father & Son illuminates the work.
What happens to humanity in the Son's incarnation is an infusing or in-breathing of divine life into creaturely reality, which is instructively analogous to the breathing of a created life-principle into humanity at creation.
So that's roughly how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are involved in the incarnation of the Son. We could say more, not so much because we're perplexed & trying to solve a problem, as because we are pondering something fathomlessly deep and inviting.
There is a way in which the incarnation opens up to show the work of the entire Trinity, undivided yet corresponding to their eternal order of subsisting. Of course there are also bad ways of approaching that insight: consider the confusing sculptures called "Vierge Ouvrante..."
These are statues of Mary with hinges that swing open to show the Trinity & atonement inside. About 200 are extant from the middle ages, but they were condemned even in their time. The main problem? It just looks like Mary's baby is the triune God. That's not right.
Mary's baby is God the Son, one of the Trinity, bearing the one divine nature in hypostatic union with created human nature, in an undivided work of the Trinity for our salvation, terminating on the incarnation of the Son alone --the Son who was never alone in this work.
Merry trinitarian Christmas! We are celebrating the felicitous nativity of the Lord, in which the three persons of the Trinity put our created nature onto one person of the Trinity, for our salvation.

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More from @FredFredSanders

12 Aug
Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1818-1902) annoys me. His doctrine of salvation is so beautifully transparent to the doctrine of the Trinity that I just can't keep myself from quoting him. He really gets it: the way grace flows from God's eternal triune being. Exactly right.
Even when I don't quote Palmer verbatim, or footnote him, I've incorporated some of his way of putting things into my own formulations: grace is anchored in the triune relations, etc.
But wait: why would I avoid quoting, footnoting, or naming this author who is so good on this?
Because BM Palmer was an apologist for southern slavery. And not just a little: he was informed, active, & influential. He preached secession, he connected slavery to God's providential purpose for southern Christian civilization. All the way through; the whole catastrophe.
Read 9 tweets
18 Jun
One way we remind each other of the awesome condescension of God is saying things like "the God who made the universe loves you, knows you by name." And we wave our hands around to gesture at the entire universe, to establish some perspective: All that! Its maker! Little old you!
That's good stuff. (Waves hands around & points to universe to establish perspective.) But there's something beyond that: God is greater than just being a universe-maker. In the depths of the divine being, God is great, greater. Not just big, but without measure.
Waving your hands around & pointing to that measureless depth of divinity, infinitely more than all of creation, is even harder than gesturing at the universe. What gesture shall I borrow to direct your attention to God in himself? Whither shall I point?
Read 7 tweets
14 Jun
The creeds go straight from Christ's birth to his suffering, leaving out the private life & active ministry of Jesus. The reason is that they're not doing a general biography, or even a Gospels précis, but teaching incarnation & atonement for our salvation.
Some catechisms and all good extended commentaries on the creeds will insert a little bit more here. Sometimes they'll ask, "when did he suffer?" and answer that it's not just "under Pontius Pilate" during the final week, but that his entire life in the flesh included suffering.
Every mystery of the entire, undivided life of Jesus is glowing with revelation and burning with the power of salvation. But "born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pilate" not only suffices by framing his life correctly; it also directs attention to the most important things.
Read 4 tweets
27 May
Came across something helpful in Aquinas (ST Iª q. 42 a. 1 ad 3). Check it out: Should we call the persons of the Trinity equal? Duh, of course.
But one of the objections he considers (obj 3) is that a relation of equality is reciprocal. But to say the Father is equal to the Son sounds weird & backwards; it might be as wrong as saying the Father is the image of the Son (which he's not).
So Aquinas makes a distinction: "Equality & likeness in God may be designated in two ways--namely, by nouns and by verbs."


(It's nomina et verba; I'm looking at this translation:… )
Read 7 tweets
25 Apr
Lonergan (Works vol 8) has this peculiar trio of theses about the NT teaching on Jesus.
1. Jesus is true man.
2. Jesus in many ways participates in what is divine.
3. Jesus is true God.
My first thought on seeing this was, what's the deal with thesis 2? Why bother including it?
As he defines his terms, though, Lonergan fills out thesis 2 (multipliciter divina participare) with all this; Jesus performs miracles, calls forth supreme love for himself, takes away sins, judges eternally, rules over all, preexists, takes part in creation.
If you've read much early high Christology lit, you recognize this list. These are commonly named as constituting biblical monotheism: one God creates, judges, is worshiped, etc. Jesus does these things, so he is included in the identity of the one God.
Read 6 tweets
9 Apr
I wrote this blog post about Christ on the cross for Tuesday of holy week precisely so people could have a few days to read it & digest it before the weekend. My goal is to equip believers to speak well and hear correctly as we come to the cross.…
What I'm recommending is some self-policing of our language. The reasons go pretty deep (major doctrines are involved), & the background is stark (classic doctrine versus recent deviations), but for most people it's a fairly minor adjustment to how we talk about the cross.
When teaching about Christ's cry, "My God, why have you forsaken me," stick to the given terms (God) rather than shifting to Father-Son terms. Partly because the latter aren't in the key text, & partly to keep the focus on where the action is.
Read 9 tweets

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