As Christians we worship the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. According to the Nicene Creed the Son is very God of very God and is of the same substance as the Father. And the Spirit is worshipped and glorified together with the Father and Son. In the same creed we also confess that the Son was incarnate and was made man. That is, he took to himself our creaturely human nature. But this seems to present us with a theological difficulty. How can we worship the Son without falling into the idolatry of worshipping the creature? Or is the creatureliness of the incarnate Son simply an exception to the prohibition against worshipping the creature? Romans 1:25condemns the worship of creatures and yet we regularly worship the Son in his creatureliness, and with biblical precedent in verses such as Matthew 2:11 and 28:17. What’s more, it would seem that the Son’s creaturely nature is not something that we can simply lay aside when we worship him inasmuch as his human nature is indivisible and inseparable from his divine nature, as orthodox Christians confess in the Symbol of Chalcedon. It is my aim in what follows to consider the approach to this difficulty as articulated by John Owen in his work On the Person of Christ. This seems especially relevant as the worship of the Son lies at the heart of our Christian faith.
With respect to the worship we offer the Son, Owen distinguishes between the ground and formal object of worship on the one hand, and the motives for worship on the other. The ground and formal object is Christ’s divinity alone, while the motives for our worship are drawn from both his divinity and the accomplishment of our salvation that he achieved in his flesh.
Owen affirms that the person of Christ is the object of divine honor and worship, yet he is quick to add, “The formal object and reason hereof is the divine nature, and its essential infinite excellencies.”1 No creature could be the immediate and proper object of divine worship unless, as Owen notes, “the divine essential excellencies be communicated unto it, or transferred into it, whereby it would cease to be a creature.”2 Owen denies that such a communication is possible presumably because that which is created cannot be caused to be divine. Divinity, which alone establishes worship-worthiness, cannot be made or caused in any respect as that would, per impossible, imply finite and dependent divinity.
Christ, incarnated as he was in our creaturely nature, has not thereby lost any of his infinite divine excellencies and thus the ground for true worship has not been stripped from him. “He can no more really and essentially, by any act of condescension or humiliation, cease to be God, than God can cease to be.”3 Still, though the incarnation does not add “true reason of divine worship” to the Son, it does add “an effectual motive unto it.”4 The work of redemption which Christ performs in his flesh directs us to the worship of him as divine, adding new motives to worship but not adding to the formal object of worship in the Son. That is, the human nature of Christ is not elevated to the status of his divine nature so as to also constitute the formal object of our worship. In brief, our worship is not formally directed to the Son’s humanity, but his divinity. Again, Owen’s reason for insisting on this is that he does not believe that which is not essentially divine, such as Christ’s humanity, can be worshipped. For worship is “nothing but the ascription of all infinite, divine excellencies unto him.”5
In the New Testament the Son receives worship in his flesh and the deeds accomplished in his flesh factor prominently in the worship he receives. Does this not suggest that Christ’s creatureliness receives worship? In this connection Owen considers the implications of Revelation 5:6-14 and discusses specifically the object, motives, and nature of worship offered to the Lamb. The object of worship in this passage is the Lamb standing, as if slain, in the midst of the throne of God (Rev. 5:6). The motives for this adoration are “the unspeakable benefits which we receive by his mediation”6 (Rev. 5:9). Yet the worship he receives is not a different worship than that offered to the Father (“To him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,” Rev. 5:13). Indeed, the nature of the worship Christ receives is also the same as that received by the Father in that those worshipping him prostrate themselves before him (Rev. 5:8, 14) and ascribe to him power, wisdom, might, honor, glory, blessing, and dominion (Rev. 5:12-13).
Yet, for all this, there is still something unique about the worship of the Son in this passage. The Father was not slain and did not purchase a people with his own blood. Only the Son did that. And the Son did not did not shed his blood and die according to his divine nature formally considered, but only according to his human nature. In this respect there seems to be something unique about the worship of the Son. How are we to account for this without suggesting that we offer a different worship to the Father and to the Son? If they share the exact same divine nature and yet the Son is worshiped with a different worship than that offered to the Father, it would appear that divinity alone is not the only ground and formal object of worship in the Son. Owen assures us that the distinction is not between two different formal objects of worship or between two different kinds of worship, but only in the peculiar motives for worship. “And this adoration of Christ,” he explains, “doth differ from the adoration of God, absolutely considered, and of God as the Father, not in its nature, but merely on the account of its especial motives.”7 The Son’s incarnation does not add to him worship-worthiness—that worthiness is entirely in the divinity he shares with the Father and Spirit—but it does add unique motives for worshipping him and for recognizing his divine worthiness. Perhaps we can express this by saying there is nothing more to worship in the Son on account of his incarnation, but his incarnation does increase the revelation and demonstration of his grace and mercy and so increases our motives for worshipping him.
Finally, we should note that the worship we offer the Son cannot be isolated from his subsistence as a man. That would be the error of the Nestorians who argued for a real separation between Christ’s two natures. Owen writes, “Jesus Christ the Mediator—as God and man in one person—is the object of all divine honor and worship. His person, and both his natures in that person, is so the object of religious worship.”8 We should note that Owen is drawing a distinction between the person of the Son in both his natures as the object of worship and the formal ground of that worship which rests exclusively in the divine nature. This is something like the distinction between a material and formal object. The Son in both natures is the material object of worship, so to speak, but the Son in his divinity alone is the formal object. Owen unfolds the implications of this in a significant passage:
Howbeit, it is his divine nature, and not his discharge of the office of mediation, that is the formal reason and object of divine worship. For it consists in an ascription of infinitely divine excellencies and properties unto him whom we so worship. And to do this on any account but of the divine nature, is in itself a contradiction, and in them that do it idolatry. Had the Son of God never been incarnate, he had been the object of all divine worship. And could there have been a mediator between God and us who was not God also, he could never have been the object of divine worship of invocation. Wherefore, Christ the Mediator, God and man in one person, is in all things to be honoured, even as we honour the Father; but it is as he is God, equal with the Father, and not as Mediator—in which respect he is inferior to him.9
In conclusion, Christians do not fall foul of worshipping the creature when we worship the incarnate Son. This is not because we ignore his incarnation and the immense benefit that it is for us, but because we do not ascribe to his humanity the infinite excellency that we attribute to him in consideration of his divinity. This humble ascription of infinite excellency and perfection is precisely what worship is.
1 John Owen, On the Person of Christ, in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 104.
3 Ibid., 105.
5 Ibid., 106.
6 Ibid., 108-109.
7 Ibid., 109.
8 Ibid., 119.