If Jesus gave up his divine attributes to become incarnate, how was he able to do miracles?

Q. I know that you believe in a somewhat qualified version of omniscience.  I also know that it has been traditionally understood that Jesus gave up many of his divine attributes while on earth. In light of that, I’m wondering how you explain many of the things Jesus did that went beyond what a normal person could do. For example, he “sees” Nathanael before being with him, he also makes many specific prophecies that are perfectly fulfilled, and of course, he does many powerful miracles. Would you say that Jesus, while human, was relying on God the Father for his “power,” similarly to the disciples or the Old Testament prophets? Or that Jesus was “empowering” himself? Or something in between?

An icon of Jesus healing a blind man. Did the incarnate Jesus do such miracles by his own inherent power, or as a channel of the Father’s power working through him?

First, although this is not your main question, let me say that I don’t think my view of omniscience is really “a qualified version” of the historic Christian position.  I believe, as followers of Jesus have throughout the centuries, that God knows everything that can be known.  Where I may seem to differ with others is in my view that there are some things that cannot be known, and that it is no defect in omniscience that God does not know these things.

For example, does God know the value of pi (the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter) to the last digit?  No, because there is no last digit—pi expressed in decimal form is a non-terminating, non-repeating number.  God knows the value of pi to however many digits you care to specify, whether millions or billions or more, but not to the last digit, since there is none.  In posts such as this one I have argued that the free decisions of moral agents are similarly unknowable in advance. But this doesn’t mean that “God doesn’t know everything” or that we need to “qualify” our view of omniscience to accommodate God not knowing what cannot be known.  We may, however, need to qualify our view of knowledge, to move beyond the idea that if we can ask whether something can be known (e.g. the “last digit” of pi), then God should be expected to know it.

But now to your actual question.  Yes, it has been understood and believed historically by Christians that in becoming incarnate as Jesus, the second person of the Trinity gave up certain divine attributes.  This is what Paul means when he writes in Philippians that Jesus “emptied himself”  in order to be “born in human likeness.”  The Greek term for “emptying” is kenosis, and that term is used in Christian theology to describe Jesus’ act of giving up these attributes.

They are specifically what are known as the non-communicable divine attributes, that is, the ones that are unique to an infinite God and so cannot be passed on to finite humans: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, eternity, etc.  Communicable divine attributes such as love and holiness, on the other hand, can be taken on by humans, and this is what happens as we “put on the new self” that is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” as Paul writes in Ephesians.

So if Jesus gave up his divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence when he came to earth to be our Savior, how was he able to know and do things so far beyond ordinarily human capabilities?  I believe it was through the power and gifting of God, as in the case of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ own disciples. But Jesus was the ultimate exemplar of this; he served as the perfect conduit of divine power to meet human needs.

We have several indications in the gospels that this was the case.  For example, Luke tells of an occasion when Jesus was teaching the crowds “and the power of the Lord was present for him to perform healing.”   The implication is that when the power of the Lord was not present in this way, the human incarnate Jesus did not have supernatural power within himself to heal people.  (In the same way, the Old Testament prophets knew only what God revealed to them. In one case Elisha, for example, who sometimes knew even things that had been spoken in secret at a distance, had to admit he didn’t know why a woman who came to him was in distress, because “the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me why.”)

Mark tells us of another occasion when Jesus returned to Nazareth, his home town, but “was not able to do any miracles there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.”    In his account of this same episode, Matthew says that “he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.”

In other words, the ministry of Jesus, like that of the prophets and apostles, depended on the mysterious interaction between God’s sovereign disposition to act supernaturally at specific times and human receptivity to that disposition.  (For example, as I note in my study guide to John, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana when “Mary’s persistent faith and implicit trust showed him that God was powerfully at work in that very moment.”  One way we recognize the divine disposition is through human receptivity to it, which we call faith.)

If Jesus did miracles through his own inherent power, rather than in cooperation with the power and will of the Father, I don’t know how we can explain his statement that “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.”   We certainly don’t have inherent power in ourselves to do even greater works than Jesus did.  But this statement makes perfect sense if we believe, as I wrote in my last post, that “Jesus in his humanity provides an example and model for all of us of how to be a channel for God’s powerful works through attentive obedience.”

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you in response to your question, and I hope they encourage all of us to be aware of situations where “the power of the Lord is present” and just looking for an attentive, willing channel to work through.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “If Jesus gave up his divine attributes to become incarnate, how was he able to do miracles?”

  1. By “qualified” I certainly didn’t mean strange or unorthodox. I just meant it’s a bit different or more nuanced that what you typically understand someone to be saying what they simply unreflectively say, “God knows everything” and then stop there. Thank you so much for this article, it was really helpful. The contrast of communicable vs non-communicable traits was very interesting. It makes sense because even the human brain surely doesn’t have enough neural connections to “codify” and “store” omniscience. Seeing that Jesus would have relied on God for any knowledge he had beyond what could have been humanly known at the time helps me to see Jesus in a better light in lieu of his obviously antiquated scientific beliefs. It was no deficiency for him to be a man of his time scientifically speaking because it was still entirely possible for him to embody moral perfection. Even if he thought the world was flat, or if he merely quoted or affirmed other antiquated views in the OT, we don’t have to then start doubting all his moral teaching as well.

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