Christ's Body and Affections In Heaven
November 19, 2015
One of the most common errors I encounter among students of theology concerns what happened to Christ after he ascended. A surprising amount of Christians seem to think that Jesus no longer needs his humanity now in heaven. The most crass version, which I have heard with my own ears, suggests that Christ went back to "being God" after the resurrection.
Jesus remains forever the God-man. He will always be fully God and fully man. For him to somehow "shed" his humanity would be a great loss to us in heaven, for we would have no way of seeing God. But what about his affections in his state of glory?
Christ's resurrected body is termed a "spiritual" body (1 Cor. 15:44). This does not mean that he somehow shed his human nature in heaven, but that his body is now "powerful" (Rom. 1:4). Not only Christ's body, but his affections are "spiritual." According to Thomas Goodwin, Christ's affections do not, then, work in his soul only, but also in his body, "as their seat and instrument." However, the body is "so framed to the soul that both itself and all the operations of all the powers in it are immediately and entirely at the arbitrary imperium and dominion of the soul." In other words, the infirmities in Christ's human nature on earth, experienced in terms of hunger and weakness, do not now affect his soul in heaven because his body is raised in power.
Following from this, Goodwin notes that the affections of pity and sympathy move his "bowels and affect his bodily heart" both in his states of humiliation and exaltation. But there is this difference: his affections in heaven "do not afflict and perturb him in the least, nor become a burden and a load unto his Spirit, so as to make him sorrowful or heavy." This is so because Christ's human nature is "impassible" insofar as he cannot experience any hurt now that he is in his glorified state. Jesus is still compassionate and merciful, and thus his perfection does not destroy his affections, "but only corrects and amends the imperfection of them." Echoing the "best of the schoolmen", Goodwin adds, "Passiones perfectivas to be now in him."
Goodwin states that man has certain affections that are natural, and not the result of sin. In the Garden of Eden, Adam possessed natural affections that were governed not by sin, but by reason. Thus Christ's affections of pity and compassion in his state of glory "quicken and provoke him to our help and succour." That is to say, Christ is no longer a "man of sorrows", but rather a "man of succours" to his people! There is no doubt that the members of Jesus' bride who remain on earth are living in a world of sin and misery. Christ must necessarily possess affections suitable to their condition while he is in heaven. If heaven was suited only for Christ's personal happiness then there is no need for Christ to possess the affections of sympathy and mercy. But, as Goodwin observes, Christ's relationship to his people is a part of his glory.
Therefore, these types of affections are required to be in him if he is to be a good husband to his bride. Moreover, far from being a weakness, Christ's affections of pity and mercy are his strength; it is his glory to be truly and really, even as a man, sensible of all our miseries, yea, it were his imperfection if he were not."
The beauty of Goodwin's theology emerges precisely at this point. Though Christ has shed affections that were once a burden to him, and are thus not compatible or suitable to his state in heaven, there are nonetheless other affections that possess a "greater capaciousness, vastness" that more than makes up for his lack of the former affections. In fact, Goodwin argues that just as Christ's knowledge was "enlarged" in heaven, "so his human affections of love and pity are enlarged in solidity, strength, and reality ... Christ's affections of love are as large as his knowledge or his power."
Another way to look at this would be to argue that since Christ is freed from oppressive affections it actually gives greater scope to his effective affections - being free from grief actually lets you be more compassionate. So, for example, when you yourself are desperately hungry other people's problems don't receive your best attention. This can be applied to Christ.
Whereas Goodwin uses Hebrews 4:15 to discuss what affections are now in Christ in his heavenly state, Calvin actually claims that the author "does not discuss the nature of Christ in Himself, but His nature as He shows Himself to us." So while both Calvin and Goodwin are concerned to highlight the pastoral value of Christ's humanity in heaven, Goodwin ventures into territory that Calvin does not. Some might argue that Calvin is less "speculative" than his heirs on certain questions; others might contend, however, that Calvin simply is not as sophisticated as later Reformed theologians - after all, he was not a trained theologian in the same manner as Reformed theologians in the period of high orthodoxy. Goodwin's example might show that his Christological concerns enabled him to draw more out of Hebrews 4:15 than Calvin. As a result, the question between Calvin and a later "Calvinist" is not one so much of divergence, but rather one of heightened clarity and greater spiritual value.
Another example of the value of good Christology in relation to a believer's personal frailties comes from Stephen Charnock (1628-1680). Looking at Hebrews 4:15, Charnock argues that because of the incarnation "an experimental compassion" was gained which the divine nature was not capable of because of divine impassibility. As our sympathetic high priest, Christ "reflects" back on his experiences in the world and so the "greatest pity must reside in him" because the "greatest misery was endured by him." Christ is unable to forget above what he experienced below. Charnock does not intend to say that Christ's human nature suffers in any way, which would contradict Goodwin. Instead, he is speaking about Christ's knowledge and memory of his sufferings as the means by which Christ is able to be sympathetic to his people in a way that would otherwise be impossible if the Son did not assume a human nature.
In the end, Christians need to understand the value of Christ's humanity for their salvation not only in terms of the cross, but also in terms of his ongoing heavenly ministry. Indeed, even after his return, his humanity is as important for us as his divinity. He is, indeed, forever the God-man, which is the very best news for us.