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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

A Commentary
on the
Shorter Catechism

Alexander Whyte

Q. 27. Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist?

A. Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the Cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.

Christ’s humiliation — Lat. humilis, near the ground. From same root also human and homage. This is a Scripture term as applied to our Lord (Acts 8:33; Philippians 2:8). And the successive steps of His humiliation are given in this Answer.

his being born — The Psalmist says that even to “behold the things that are in heaven and on earth” is to “humble Himself.” What then must it be to come to earth and pass through all we are in this Answer told He did pass through! The lowness of His condition, and all that fitly followed that, even to His death and burial, — all this strikes our imagination, and awakens our sympathy more; but to stoop from heaven and its glory and blessedness to earth and its misery, that was humiliation it hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive. For the eternal Son of God to be “born of a woman, was a humiliation that might lead to any depth, as it did lead to depths that pass our imagination.

low condition — “She brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” “How was it with Christ, the Son of the living God? Where was He born? In a stable. I suppose not many men suffer an indignity so great: born, not in quiet and comfort, but amid the brute cattle. And what was His first cradle, if I may so call it? A manger. Such were the beginnings of His earthly life; nor did His condition mend as life went on. He says on one occasion: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head.’ ‘Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich’” (Newman).

made under the law — “Christ was born under the moral law as a creature and a Son of Adam, and under the ceremonial law as a Son of Abraham” (Goodwin).

“The law to which Christ subjected Himself was — (1) The law given to Adam as a covenant of works, that is, prescribing perfect obedience as a condition of life; (2) the Mosaic law which bound the Jewish people; (3) the moral law as a rule of duty. And the subjection to the law was voluntary and vicarious” (Hodge).

undergoing the miseries of this life — “For sad occurrences and events befalling Him from the dispensations of providence, and the enmity of the creatures, there was more befell Him than ever befell any man. He was vir dolorum, a ‘man of sorrows,’ which did all wear and waste Him, as griefs use to do us, so that in the judgment of those that saw Him, He looked nearer fifty years old than thirty, as that known speech may seem to impart. Furthermore, we never read that He once laughed in His lifetime. . . . Nor was there, or ever could there be supposed, any man so put to it as He: wisdom to converse with folly, perfect holiness with sin and impurity, truth with errors and mistakes. In converses of near relations, contrarieties, and antipathies of dispositions, how burdensome are they! He could have had much better and more suitable company in heaven; yet Christ with an unwearied patience bore all this” (Goodwin).

the wrath of God — The word wrath is the familiar scriptural term to express any manifestation of the displeasure of God against sin. Christ, although in Himself perfectly holy, bore our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 53:12). “The wrath of God did operate on His soul, filling it with troubles, sore amazement, heaviness, and exceeding sorrow, and casting Him into an agony, even to His sweating great drops of blood, and at length bringing over it a total eclipse of all comfort, and as it were melting it within Him (John 12:27; Mark 14:33, 34; Luke 22:44; Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:14). This was a spiritual death, such as a holy soul was capable of. Now the wrath of God could justly fall upon Christ, a person perfectly innocent, inasmuch as He stood surety for sinners (Hebrews 7:22, with Proverbs 6:1, 2; 2 Corinthians 5:21)” (Horsley).

the cursed death of the cross — Curse and cross are at bottom the same word and mean the same thing. To curse originally meant to execrate by the sign of the cross. “The curse denounced in the law, on those hanged on a tree, was a ceremonial curse, not hindering the salvation of penitents (Luke 23:33, 43). But the curse that lay on Christ in His humiliation was a real and substantial one, whereof the tree of His cross was but the badge and sign (Galatians 3:13)” (Boston).

“The love of Christ led Him to unite Himself to us, and He completed the union by His death” (Calvin). (See Goodwin’s Christ the Mediator, v. 4, 5.) But let the truth taught in the somewhat technical language of theology never be forgotten : The Vital Union was severed for a time by death, but the Personal Union never. (See under “for ever,” Answer 21.)

continuing under the power of death for a time. This clause in the Catechism is intended to cover all that is taught in the Apostles’ Creed by the words “He descended into Hell.” For the true explication of that unfortunate clause see any good Protestant commentator on the Creed.

Note. — The clause in Philippians 2:8, He humbled, or better, emptied Himself is a crucial passage in christological doctrine. There is a great body of commentators and divines who hold that the eternal Son literally and actually “emptied Himself” of His divine power and glory during His period of humiliation. and only recovered and resumed after His ascension what He had laid aside. But opposed to them there is another and better body of theologians, who earnestly and anxiously contend against all such impossible explanations, and who assert that the apostle must be read metaphorically, and not literally, or rather must be read as referring to our Lord’s condition and experiences in His human nature, and not in His Divine Nature, when he says that the unchangeable and eternal Son “emptied Himself.” For to read that text literally, and of the Divinity, say they, would be the contradiction and overthrow of the very first principles of the doctrines of the Divine Nature and the Divine Sonship. The Divine Nature, they contend, is eternal and unchangeable in each of the Three Divine Persons, and, therefore, in the Second of the Three; and not even the Incarnation, not even the cross or the grave, can in any way suspend or impair the Son’s possession and exercise of the whole Godhead power and glory. And they teach, accordingly, that the “emptiness,” of which Paul undoubtedly speaks, stood only, and could only stand, in the humanity of our Lord, and is to be understood and affirmed of the humanity alone. “Remaining what He was, He became what He was not.” When the eternal Son of God became man, He extended rather than contracted Himself He added to rather than took from Himself, He added humanity and its humiliating attributes to Himself rather than emptied Himself of divinity and its glorious attributes. And consequently, His human “emptiness,” which was no metaphor, but an awful reality, was continually supported on earth, and is still eternally supplied in heaven out of His own divine and everlasting and unchangeable Fulness. (See Hooker, V. liv. 4.)

1. “Homer expresses the Greek idea of greatness in these words: ‘Ever to lead the van, and to surpass others.’ Quite otherwise was it with the Lord Jesus. His path was not upwards, but downwards. He was great, not by ascending, but by descending; hence his was not a brilliant, but a silent greatness. The aim of his every action was to draw near to the mean and the despised, to seek the lost, to minister to others, instead of being ministered unto” (Ullman).

2. Read Newman’s sermon, Christ’s Privations a Meditation for Christians. Also Stewart of Cromarty’s Tree of Premise, The Priesthood, ix. Larger Catechism, Questions 46-50. Commit and practise Paraphrase 52.

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