God’s Condescension

The baptism of jesus

I’ve been enjoying James’ recent close readings of the Book of Mormon. His last post on 1 Nephi 11 got me really thinking about what the condescension of God is. Around the same time I read Ralph Hancock’s recent essay at First Things about common ground between Mormons and traditional Christians. The big divide between Mormons is usually taken to be our theology of the relationship between God and humans. “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be,” to quote Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet.

Within that couplet we find some huge divides with traditional Christianity. First we absolutely reject Augustine’s notion of creation ex nihilo. That absolute gap between God and humans disappears. That isn’t to say we necessarily have no gap. Most Mormon theology tends towards a flat ontology so there’s no ontologic difference between God and humans. Yet many such as Blake Ostler do put God in a special place we can never reach. (Not necessarily conceived of ontologically though)

It’s not just our rejection of creation ex nihiilo that makes our creedal Christian friends so uncomfortable with Snow’s couplet. To them it sometimes seems like we could become like God without God. Now I don’t think any Mormon actually thinks that. However a few do come rather close. For instance there’s the idea that while only Christ was perfect, in theory other humans could have chosen to make right choices the way Christ did. That is, for these people it’s more an empirical fact that all humans “come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) than an actual limit on humans. Needless to say, to creedal Christians this is near blasphemy. Even if this isn’t really a doctrine, it was a not uncommon belief in the mid-20th century by some Mormons.

Figuring all of this out makes me return to 1 Nephi 11 and that enigmatic phrase “the condescension of God.”

The way it is usually interpreted is that God constrains himself to make himself mortal. He leaves the fulness of his glory behind in order to become human and be with us. Now I personally think that creedal Christianity struggles with what they call the theology of the two natures of Christ. That is the theology of how Christ is fully God yet fully mortal. My experience is that often people in more traditional Christianity are apt to throw off the mortal aspects of Christ in order to preserve the divine aspects. I should hasten to add that this is completely at odds with theology of creedal Christianity. It’s just something I’ve noticed as I discuss such issues with more philosophically inclined Christians.

Even in Mormonism the reading of God restricting himself probably is the dominant view. An other way of putting this is that God is essentially transcendent or beyond what we are or understand. For Christ to be Jesus he has to restrain this transcendence in certain ways. This class of interpretation for 1 Nephi 11 tends to focus on condescension as the removal of at least significant parts of this transcendence. That God is born of Mary marks the beginning of condescension.

I’d like to suggest a different way of reading the passages.

I always found the couplet interesting because the condescension of Christ becomes a condescension not just for him but for every person. This isn’t reading back into Nephi elements of later Nauvoo theology or even early Utah theology. Rather it seems to me to be part and parcel of D&C 93. That revelation is pretty early – spring 1833 – but its theology of learning grace from grace is then applied not just to Christ but to humans. Verses 19-20 seem extremely significant. Verse 23 also.

that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness. For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace. And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn. Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth; (D&C 93:19-20;22-23 emphasis mine)

There’s a lot here to unpack. First note that long before the King Follet Discourse we have the idea that we were uncreated with God. Second there’s the idea that the same relationship Christ had to his father we’ll have with him in terms of receiving grace for grace. Note that the meanings of Father and Son here are unlike what we typically think of but match Mosiah 15.

And that I am the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world; And that I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one— The Father because he gave me of his fulness, and the Son because I was in the world and made flesh my tabernacle, and dwelt among the sons of men. (D&C 93:2-4)

Compare with Abinadi.

I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people.  And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son— The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son— And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth. (Mosiah 15:1-4)

The two sections are extremely similar. A close reading shows they don’t line up with how most think about Christ. The typical reading, much like the typical reading of condescension, is that Jesus fully as God divests himself in some way of his full divinity and becomes mortal. However both these passages invert this. Jesus, fully mortal, invests himself with God’s glory grace for grace. 

Continuing in Mosiah 15 we find that Abinadi’s reading of Isaiah 52 parallels extremely closely D&C 93:19-20. Christ becomes our Father as “the flesh becom[es] subject to the Spirit.” (Mos 15:5) To be fair, while this was known back this far how it was interpreted didn’t bear much resemblance to what came later in Nauvoo. One could argue that this doesn’t mean we were co-eternal with God the way the King Follet Discourse puts it. But at a minimum, whatever the beginning is, man is already there. Christ becomes the Father in that he has the fulness and we are Sons in that we are mortal. As we receive grace for grace the same investiture from God is given to us.

Let’s return back to 1 Nephi 11 again. Now some of the verses where it says “son” (such as 18) were added later by Joseph Smith to the text to clarify who was being spoken of. However reading these in light of Mosiah 15 and D&C 93 makes clear how Jesus is fully the Father (because of the glory). The key verse is 27. The condescension of God is God descending into Christ in terms of receiving the Spirit, grace for grace. Compare this section in 1 Nephi with D&C 93:12-17.

And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace; and he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; and thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first. And I, John, bear record, and lo, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove, and sat upon him, and there came a voice out of heaven saying: This is my beloved Son. And I, John, bear record that he received a fulness of the glory of the Father; and he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him. (D&C 93:12-17)

 Let’s take inventory of what we have here. First there is not even the hint of a discussion of ontology. Rather we have simply that people were in the beginning with God, but didn’t have the fulness. Those that don’t have the fulness are called Son. They can learn grace from grace and receive the Father. As they receive the fulness they become the Father. The oneness of God in both Mosiah 15 and D&C 93 is the reception of this power. Further even in Nephi’s vision, as with Abinadi, this goes to the people who accept Jesus. Compare for instance Abinadi’s exegesis of Isaiah 52-53 in Mosiah 14-15 with 1 Nephi 14. There’s very similar imagery going on with Nephi. 

And it shall come to pass, that if the Gentiles shall hearken unto the Lamb of God in that day that he shall manifest himself unto them in word, and also in power, in very deed, unto the taking away of their stumbling blocks—and harden not their hearts against the Lamb of God, they shall be numbered among the seed of thy father; yea, they shall be numbered among the house of Israel; and they shall be a blessed people upon the promised land forever; they shall be no more brought down into captivity; and the house of Israel shall no more be confounded. (1 Nephi 14:1-2)

And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb, and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory. (1 Nephi 14:14

Compare this with Mosiah 15:10-11.

So here’s my thesis. The condescension of God isn’t Jesus coming. It’s Jesus receiving the fulness of the Father. Further the condescension isn’t just Jesus receiving the fulness but the potential for anyone through Jesus to receive the fulness of the Father. The condescension of God isn’t God restricting himself but God fully giving himself to those below him. 

Note how this resolves the deification problem of Snow’s couplet. First Jesus and the rest of us humans go through this the same way. We receive grace from grace. The ontological question is put aside and becomes the question of the opening up of humans to the divine. Christ sets the pattern here. Theosis just isn’t supposed to be taken as an ontological question but a question of receiving God. The thorny problems of late antiquity and the scholastic era of how to deal with the two natures of Christ disappears. Instead of the ontological question of the two natures we have the question of the reception of the spirit.

I should add that none of the above should be taken as a claim about what Jesus was like in the Council in Heaven.

19 comments for “God’s Condescension

  1. This is great, Clark. The connection between Abinadi and section 93 is wonderful. I’m not fully convinced that thinking of the condescension of God as you lay it out here (the Father investing a fully mortal Jesus with the fullness of his glory) is inconsistent with thinking of it as Jesus as God (“God himself,” as Abinadi calls him) divesting himself of glory to become fully mortal.

    I know you bracket the question at the very end of your post, but suppose it really depends on what we assume about Jesus’ divinity before he became mortal. (I say assume because these verses don’t, I think, tell us anything one way or the other on that point.) If you assume that the pre-mortal Jesus was one with the Father and had the fullness of glory before birth, then in order to go through the process of receiving grace for grace and eventually receiving the fullness, he would have to first be divested of that fullness. If, on the other hand, you assume that he never had the fullness of glory before receiving it grace for grace during mortality, then no such divestment is necessary.

    I suppose there could be a third option along the lines of the traditional two natures of Christ doctrine–i.e. his divine nature always had the fullness, but his human nature had to receive it grace for grace, but like you, I think the two natures doctrine, while it solves some philosophical problems, is itself problematic. My biggest concern with it is that I don’t think it is really possible to divide Jesus’ divine nature from his human nature. The whole point of the atonement, as I understand it, and as I think Abinadi explains it, is that God and man become fully united, and the way Jesus fully unites divine nature and human nature in himself is a reflection of that. It’s similar to the reason I don’t like lessons that use a hand and a glove to teach about the resurrection–the body is not a piece of clothing that can be discarded, it is part of a living soul. In other words, a body is not a thing that a spirit merely possesses, it is, along with the spirit, part of the very self. When we are born, we don’t just acquire a physical body; rather, we become physical beings. We are not 50% spirit and 50% body; we are 100% spiritual beings and 100% physical beings. So death is not like taking off a glove, it’s much more violent than that. It’s more like ripping off the skin and flesh. That’s why, I think, death is described as bondage, because it is the loss and imprisonment of part of the soul, not just a thing that the spirit possessed for a while. Just as I believe we can’t really separate the soul from our self, I also don’t think we can separate Jesus’ human nature from his divine self (that seems to be what many Christians do–his human nature was not really his self, it was just something that his true self–his divine nature–put on for a while). His self, in other words, is both his human nature and his divine nature. Jesus is not 50% divine and 50% human, he is 100% human and 100% divine.

    Anyway, I guess my point is just that while I agree with you that God giving the fullness to Jesus works as the condescension of God, I don’t see why it needs to displace Jesus coming into mortality as the condescension of God. Why not both?

  2. I’m here more focused on a close reading of the text and how it avoids the normal “two natures” theology and even the ontologic difference of Augustine. It’s true though that we don’t really have a good developed theology of Christ in the pre-mortal world.

    There are lots of odd things about our narratives of the council in heaven. For instance certain scriptures make freedom this balance here in life. That is life makes us free because when we were in the presence of God some things were so obvious that we couldn’t really choose anything but him. Yet at the same time we have the narrative that a third of heaven rebelled, implying a fair degree of freedom. We want Jesus to be fully God yet not yet resurrected. (Admittedly this is also applied to the Holy Ghost, with various speculations of how that might be the case)

    One implication both of what I wrote in the OP but also this theology of the council is that to be fully divine is not to have the fulness in as robust a sense as say a resurrected celestial being does. There are obvious places where that seems weak though. Put an other way, what do we mean by the fulness if it misses obvious things.

    My main point is much more though that whatever the remaining problems in our theology, by avoiding the ontological difference we solve a lot of problems.

    Regarding spirits and bodies, I tend to agree that the glove metaphor is misleading. Much of who we are in terms of our thinking and comportment with the world is essential bound up in our physical nature. Most of “us” is our brain. To such an extent it’s not clear what the spirit does or how it interacts with our body. I suspect as you do that when we die it’ll be more of a shock than we expect.

    What that means for Christ isn’t clear. Of course early Utah theology pushed a very materialist streak of the two natures. The significance of God the Father being Jesus’ literal father just isn’t as much a part of Mormon thought anymore. However I think anyone who thinks about the place of biology in mind realizes it probably has to be a significant factor in how Jesus lived.

  3. I’m simply not in agreement on avoiding the ontological difference. It so flattens the Christology that I cannot (will not, am not interested in) following. That’s by way of full disclosure as a well-intentioned but ultimately unsympathetic reader. Having said that, I don’t think the condescension of God and D&C 93 necessarily do the work you suggest.
    Yes, I agree that if you make the first move to focus on condescension as occurring at baptism (not at birth, which is I suppose the more common casual Mormon understanding, probably from 1 Nephi 11 reading 16 and stopping at 21, and from 3 Nephi 1:14), then a strong theosis/deification story can be told with obvious parallels to our own receiving God. However, I think it a mistake to conceptualize the condescension of God as any one event. Instead, I would consider it a process or a Work (consistent, I think, with 1 Nephi 11:26-29). We have a God who intervenes or engages with man, by coming as an infant (which part of the Work requires a forgetting or descending or leaving off aspects of divinity) AND receiving of the fullness (which might be viewed in the case of Christ as a sort of renewal or restoration, and only by analogy a patterning of what might be available for man) AND ministering, teaching, walking among, healing AND being crucified and rising, all together being the Work of condescension.

  4. Note I’m not sure the ontological difference doesn’t end up flattened elsewhere. A lot depends upon how you read the King Follet Discourse and Sermon in the Grove.

    I think the condescension is at all times, but I find it interesting that verse announces the condescension and then shows Jesus’ baptism. I think the process of bringing God to earth takes place over the whole period. That is the fruit is the symbol and what Nephi sees are how the love of God is manifest.

  5. Just to add, I might do a separate post on the ontological difference later. I’d made some comments on LDS-Herm about it but no one really took them up. Right now I’m trying to update my hell post. I didn’t like how it turned out and rewrote it. But I’ve simultaneously been pretty busy at work.

  6. “I think the condescension is at all times, but I find it interesting that verse announces the condescension and then shows Jesus’ baptism.”

    I think i see what your saying, here, Clark, but I think you may be reading that a bit too narrowly. Remember, the entire vision of Jesus’ mortal life and resurrection (from Jesus’ birth to his baptism to his death and resurrection to his visit to Nephi’s descendants) is all preceded by the question “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” and is presumably given in answer to that question, since Nephi flubs it when he’s first asked.

    So the Spirit apparently either (1) thought that Jesus’ birth was part of the condescension of God or (2) thought that the condescension of God could not be properly understood without an understanding of Jesus’ birth. Maybe that difference is only semantic. I’m not sure that the declaration “Look and behold the condescension of God!” is not meant to refer to what Nephi has just described and is still seeing (Jesus’ birth and his “going forth among the children of men”). I can see a case to be made that it precedes a vision of the condescension, but I can also see a case to be made that it is meant, with the question “knowest thou the condescension of God?” to bookend what has just preceded.

    But in any case, identifying the single moment of the baptism as “the” condescension of God seems too narrow to be supported by the text, to me.

    I will add, also, that christian’s thought that perhaps the birth represents Jesus emptying himself of his divine aspect, and the baptism represents Jesus receiving again that divinity resonates with me.

  7. “One implication both of what I wrote in the OP but also this theology of the council is that to be fully divine is not to have the fulness in as robust a sense as say a resurrected celestial being does. There are obvious places where that seems weak though. Put an other way, what do we mean by the fulness if it misses obvious things.”

    Good point, Clark. My sense of the fullness is that it primarily has to do not with what Jesus possesses, but with his unity with the father (and the spirit). So the possession of a physical body, even though we stress it as important for a number of reasons, is not really that big of a deal (there we go talking about the body as a thing to be possessed again). If Jesus is in perfect unity with the other members of the godhead, then each one possesses all the power that the other two possess, but the fact that he possesses all that the other two have is not the source of his divinity, but merely an incident of it. It is his perfect unity with the father that is his divine nature. (Maybe this also explains why the Holy Ghost does not need to be a physical being.) But that’s more my intuitive sense than something I’ve really spent a lot of time thinking about.

  8. Yes, I think this is right. That then brings up the idea of God as a kind of collective body that shares. I don’t want to say that’s all they are, because there are plenty of places that suggests the Spirit as what enables the unity is more than just communication.

  9. Great stuff, Clark, thanks very much. But what about the teaching that Christ needed to have a mortal mother and an immortal father — so that he could die but yet have power over death. God condescended in some way to mate with a woman, producing a hybrid offspring. I suppose that’s ontological in a way. I’m not defending this, I can’t even say offhand if it’s scriptural. Does it go back to… Talmage, or earlier? in any case, it’s been a very standard teaching, as long as I can remember (too long).

  10. still awaiting moderation? was there something controversial or snarky (God forbid) there? Or did I misspell Talmage? –Can you fix that for me? Thanks.

  11. I think that whole line of thinking (which I should add I completely embrace – I’m uncomfortable with the wholesale rejection of most early Utah and a lot of Nauvoo theology) is separate from the condescension of God. That said, the hybrid offspring is hard to make sense of biologically. Second, if Jesus’ body was somehow “too perfect” then that undermines the achievement he made of suffering every temptation. If anything, it’d be more significant if he took an extremely flawed body and still achieved with it.

    There’s a danger of course in going too far down an Anselm-like rat hole. Instead of getting to “a great than which can not be conceived” we end up thinking, what would be greater for Jesus to overcome? How about mental psychopathy making him want to become a serial killer but instead he is the greatest person of charity and peace ever? But such reasonings ultimately don’t achieve much.

    Still the idea that Jesus could do great things because he had great biology (i.e. he was biologically inclined to be charitable) really does undermine his achievements. I recognize that Brigham Young and others with this doctrine saw it somewhat more narrowly at times more tied to specific abilities. Still the ability to overcome death seems untied to his mortal body. If it was some power he was given by the Father I confess I don’t see why it had to be given at birth rather than later. I understand the emphasis in Brigham Young (who in many ways was a strong physicalist) to understand all of this more naturally. I just don’t think it’s necessary even in a physicalist paradigm for it to be due to the biology of birth. Surely a divine being like God, even if conceived more in terms of the technology from absolute knowledge, could add in all the parts he needed a person to have at any time.

    I do think though you raise a really good question. How on earth do we make sense of the breaking of the gates of hell (meaning the spirit world). It’s surprising that such a key doctrine has so little revealed about it. And most of that is fairly recent with D&C 138. I should add as an aside, that I see D&C 138 as arguably one of the most significant revelations in the entire D&C. My impression from reading D&C 138 that Jesus’ most important task was simply organizing the church in the spirit world in a manner perhaps analogous to what he does in Bountiful in 3 Nephi. That’s why he had to do it. He had the priesthood keys for resurrection and he had the authority to organize things in a different form than they had taken before. I’m not sure we need any biological speculation if that’s the key thing he did. i.e. while I’m really partial to a lot Brigham Young taught, I think the biology speculations of Jesus in the early Utah period make very little sense.

  12. I should clarify that first sentence. I embrace that there was something significant to God being Jesus’ literal father. I just have no idea what that is. I’m very skeptical it had anything to do with Christ’s ability to be resurrected first or his ability to be righteous.

  13. Ralph, we’ve had a few moderation problems lately — our own comments occasionally going into moderation. We’ve attempted to work out the bugs. I don’t see anything there now, so I assume it’s been released. Our apologies — we’ll try to keep a better eye out.

  14. Clark, I really enjoyed this post — sorry to have missed the discussion. The idea of condescension as God’s power/grace/investiture/perfection gradually entering into Jesus (and the rest of us) is compelling in light of the scripture you site.

    That said, I don’t think you’re quite able to avoid an ontological link between God and those God invests — as the oneness Christ declares hints — at least not in the context of the Mormon rejection of the mystery of the incarnation. I’ll admit I’ve never devoted a great deal of thought to this, but a being investing its own power/grace/investiture/perfection into ontologically separate entities would be an incarnation-style mystery.

    Of course, I’m your rather old school metaphysical leveler when it comes to this issue.

  15. My comment doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Christ’s condescension. (“Well, duh, Ken, that’s what the post is about, so why are you posting it here?” Touche!) Christ did everything necessary to become (a) God in premortality except for two things: (1) fulfill his earthly mission; and (2) gain a body. I don’t want to sidetrack this excellent discussion with a debate over the meaning of the word “perfect,” but note the crucial difference between Matthew 5:48 and 3 Nephi 12:48, the first having been spoken by the mortal Christ, and the second by the resurrected Christ. In the first, the command is, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” while, in the second, it’s, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as I, or your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

    Significant, I think. But then, perhaps I’m too easily impressed. ;-D

  16. How to figure out the ontology is more difficult. As I think I’ve said several times I’m actually quite sympathetic to Brigham Young’s treatment of the theology as anthropology and leave the ontological questions alone. That is, I simply don’t think we have a lot of data to go on.

    All that said it’s hard not to delve into the ontological questions. If only because being aware of the range of interpretations helps keep us out of pits of unconsciously assuming some ontology without being aware of it. I’ll admit that while Orson Pratt’s ontology is ultimately a bit crazy (not to mention philosophically naive) there are elements I like. I think the basic flat ontology has a lot going for it. I like the idea that there’s got to be something fundamentally material about how the divine unity functions. I think the idea of God’s power arising from persuasion has a lot to offer. That is we might do well to think of God in terms of a radically advanced technology built upon norms in matter that can be affected by persuasion.

    The question of when Jesus is God in premarital life really ends up being a question of what we mean by that. If we aren’t taking the questions as the requirement for some fundamental unity the way the neoplatonic inspired Augustine and others take it, then what are we talking about? Clearly we’re not talking the god of the philosophers determined by absolutism and ontological necessity. Once we’re clear on that then I think the problem shifts a great deal. Effectively we’re asking what actions and powers are divine and which aren’t. Which again is a radically different way of thinking about it and leads naturally into Brigham Young’s whole “theology is anthropology” approach rather than Pratt’s. Really we’re asking what Jesus has to do in pre-mortality. There I think Mormon theology typically just treats him as a master foreman. That might be blasphemous to our more Augustine inspired friends. But I think it suggests we don’t need ontology to account for Jesus’ divinity in the pre-mortal life.

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