To Celebrate Jesus’ Birth, Here are Some Fun New Words to Play With

coleWhen I found out that Graham Cole, author of one of my favorite pieces of atonement theology, wrote a biblical theology of the incarnation, The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of the Incarnation, I bought it right away. (Then I waited to read it until Christmas to read it.) Now, you might not think a book like this is a big deal. I mean, surely there are tons of theology books on the incarnation, right? And they all involve the Bible right? Yes, that’s true enough as far as it goes. But this is not just a study on key verses here and there in the NT, or an extensive dissection of the Chalcedonian definition with some biblical texts interspersed here and there. Instead, it’s a sweeping review through the story-line of the Bible in order to trace the theme of God-with-us, from Genesis to Revelation.

Through a close study of the storyline, key OT theophanies, prophetic texts, and a survey of the NT data, Cole aims to show that the incarnation doesn’t just burst on the scene unannounced, or merely within little, obscure, prophesied hints here and there, but as the fitting capstone to the OT revelation of an ’embodied’ God. In order to do that, though, he has to introduce a couple of new terms that I think are worth a little discussion and could be helpful for those of us looking to expand our theological tool-kit.

In essence, I’m giving you a couple of new words to play with for Christmas.

Transcendence, Immanence, and “Concomitance”? Most of us might be familiar with the traditional terms “transcendence”, referring to God’s over-and-against relationship to creation. As Cole notes, the greatest metaphysical principle in the Bible is the Creator/creature distinction and this is what transcendence speaks to. God is not limited by, confined to, or identified with his creation–he transcends it. ‘Immanence’ on the other hand, speaks to God’s indwelling of creation. His nearness and working within creation to govern and bring it to fruition and perfection. As the two polar terms, traditionally they have covered the spectrum of God’s relation to creation.

Drawing on Process theologian Norman Pittenger (without the Process implications) Cole suggests we need a third, middle term, ‘concomitance’:

The idea of divine concomitance adds an important nuance in understanding the divine relation to creatures…Concomitance adds to these categories [transcendance & immanence] the notion of alongsideness or God with us. The notion of the divine alongsideness is important in both Old Testament an New. For example, Moses pleaded for the divine accompaniment in Exodus 33:15-15: ‘Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”‘ And Jesus promised it to the eleven disciples in Matthew 28:18-20 in the famous Great Commission. (p. 33)

Of course, Cole says that we see this God-with-us concomitance most clearly in the incarnation. Here God comes to dwell with his people. He is not merely transcendent above them, or immanent to them in providence, but concomitant as an active presence alongside them.

Now, I have to admit, I feel myself torn about the term. On the one hand, I don’t see anything wrong with it and it seems helpful enough. On the other hand, I’m having trouble distinguishing it too sharply from a heightening of divine immanence, which is what I’ve always taken to be the God-with-us term. Still, it might be a helpful one to have in your theological tool-kit when dealing with the doctrine of God and divine-human relations.

Anthropomorphism, Anthropopathism, Anthropopraxism – The next new term of interest is ‘anthropopraxism’. A lot of Cole’s work is dealing with the issue of narrative portrayals of God in the OT. Theological students will know that ‘anthropomorphism’ is the classic term used to describe language about God in which human qualities or functions are attributed to God as a way of describing him. More specifically, it can be limited to speech attributing physical characteristics God’s “hands”, or “mouth”, or human functions like calling him “Father”.

The less-common, but related term used in theological speech is “anthropopathism” and it refers to language attributing human emotions like sadness, anger, joy, delight, and so forth, to God. Now, to be clear, the terms are not meant to downplay or deny their reality, but function to preserve their analogical character. As noted in the past, God has an emotional life, even if the Creator/creature distinction prevents us from simply analyzing our own experiences and reading them up onto God.

“Anthropopraxism” is Cole’s attempt to cover a third category of God-language in Scripture and that is the language of action (“praxis” = practice). God is often said to “walk” or  “see” or “hear”, or be engaged in some sort of activity which requires us to employ an analogy based on human activity. It’s for such occasions that Cole would have us use anthropopraxism. Of course, as with concomitance, Cole would have us see in Jesus Christ, the ultimate manifestation of our anthropomorphic, anthropopathic, and anthropopraxic God. In him, God takes on human life, with the full range of human limitations, emotions, and activities (excepting sin) in order to redeem us from sin. That’s the mystery of Christmas.

Unlike concomitance, I have no such reservations except that given it’s newness, people might not know what you’re talking about. But, you know, explaining terms is half the fun of theology anyways, right?

Soli Deo Gloria

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