What was the Lord Jesus like as an infant?

This post is taken from correspondence between Fr. Emmanuel and S.N., who has read Fr. Emmanuel's book, Jesus: Fallen?. S.N. raises questions about the infant Christ. Although Holy Scripture does not provide many details about the early life of the Lord, Fr. Emmanuel draws from patristic knowledge to provide some answers. His comments to S.N. are in blue.

Well, I read the book [Jesus: Fallen?] and I will tell you, that who Jesus is and what He did are more amazing than I ever even knew to consider.

Voluntary, voluntary, voluntary...In freedom, without compulsion...you hammered these points home throughout the book and for that I am glad. I'm glad the hammering didn't turn you off, but I had to nail that one down. I really had no idea how I had been affected by the postlapsarian perspective, but as I read through the book, preconceived notions that I had were challenged and as I talk about this subject with friends, even more preconceptions seem to surface and are challenged. I wonder at times, if I understand the gospel at all. We are all there together. We draw with our buckets from the inexhaustible ocean of infinite God.

I am not discouraged but glad that I have been made to consider.

I have a question. I would like, if you are inclined, just a bit of clarification.

Was Christ born as a helpless baby?

One time period of Jesus' life was not extensively covered in the book, and that was His infancy. In my discussions with a friend, who is a Reformed pastor, He quoted Bavinck below, and I am most interested the part where Bavinck used says "born as a helpless baby":

"Reformed theologians, however, have so construed the communication of the gifts as to make possible a human development in Jesus. Although he was the second Adam, Christ was nevertheless another person. Adam was created as an adult, was given paradise as place of residence, and was not subject to suffering and death; Christ, however, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born as a helpless baby. He was not placed in a paradise For sure our earth is not Paradise. But what is Paradise? "Her (the Virgin's) womb was shown to be a spiritual Paradise, in which is found the God-planted Tree (Jesus)" (Holy Nativity, pre-festal apolytikion) but came into a world that lies in the evil one He is not subject to anything evil, because He is the Holy One. [I think that means that Jesus was born into the world which is under the sway of the evil one] he was vulnerable to temptation on every side. Christ is the "stronger One" who, as I say in the book (p. 198), "assails the 'strong one,' i.e., the devil, overcomes him, takes away his armor and despoils him (Lk. 11:22)." (see also p. 296) He is the One over whom the ruler of this world has no power. No one who consciously believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ can say that He was vulnerable to temptation. he bore a nature that was susceptible to suffering and death. his was not the human nature of Adam before the fall; For sure, because Christ's human nature was incomparably loftier than Adam's, being perfect, not potentially as it was Adam's but actually, and it was united hypostatically with divinity, whereas Adam's did not share such intimate union with God, which includes interpenetration rather, God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, that is, in the flesh that was the same in form and appearance as sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3)" The subject of likeness was discussed at length in my book (p. 338ff.). His body is "in the likeness of sinful flesh," whereas ours is a flesh of sin (p. 342).

Bavinck goes on to note that it isn't plain in Scripture, and that Reformed theologians disagree as to several aspects of the nature of the hypostatic union of the divine nature and human nature in Christ. This includes whether or not Jesus was susceptible to illness and death, seeing that He had the "power to lay down his life and was not automatically - aside from his will - subject to death. From ancient times, therefore, opinions on this issue were divided." Not among the Orthodox Christians, as my study shows.

As I point out in the book (pp. 14-15), Reformed theologians do not follow their own founder who, as far as his teaching on the humanity of Christ is concerned, seems to be orthodox (see also pertinent discussion on pp. 8, 11, 31 (note 69), 129-130, 258 (note 47), 330 (note 55), 354, 358, 429-30, 507 and especially 242-43, and in passim). I think your friend, and his colleagues, would benefit from a study of our Christian roots, where he can find the Apostolic Church and its continuity through time, the sub-Apostolic Church that followed it and the Church of the Apologists and on to the Fathers of the Church, all the way to the present.

Is it accurate to say that Jesus was born as a helpless baby? Certainly not. The almighty Son of God was neither helpless nor vulnerable to temptation or to anything else, even in His humanity. For sure He submitted to our misery, however He endured human weakness, suffering and death to overcome the one who uses them for his evil purposes, and thus grant us His victory.

I am guessing that the word "as" might be important. He was likely born "as" a helpless baby, or in the likeness of a helpless baby, but I am guessing that God incarnate even as a baby was in no way helpless. You are correct. He was a real human baby, not in the likeness of a human baby, yet He was unlike any other human baby, because that baby was divine; His body was the body of the Son of God. I am guessing that a 1 day old baby Jesus could just as easily call 10,000 angels, as could a 33 year old Jesus. Yes. He is the eternal Son of God, the agent of every human thought and action. But maybe I am turning the human Jesus into a phantom or a poser with this type of logic? Wondering about His infancy made me ask myself, did Mary and Joseph flee into Egypt because Jesus was helpless or was this flight into Egypt not from a concern for His safety but to fulfill a prophecy, or for some other reason? Mary, the most holy Virgin, and Joseph His putative father did what they were expected to do: protect the infant from harm. Not doing so would be to tempt God, as the Lord would have done had He cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple to prove He was the incarnate God.

Did the infant Christ use his human will?

Another question that came to my mind concerned the human will of Jesus. At what point did His human will become part of the equation? I understand that His human will was always involved in voluntarily allowing the blameless passions to act on His sinless body, but this seems to become an odd idea when you consider Jesus as a 1 day old infant. Did He hunger at 1 day old? Yes, He did. If yes, how was this one-day-old infant able to consent with His human will? The incarnate, almighty Son of God lived as a one-day-old infant does. Therefore He experienced hunger, and He had a need to sleep as any other infant does. Yet He could not experience harm even if He were deprived of food and sleep. Oeconomically, His human will was activated, as His human knowledge was, gradually, according to His age.

Adam was immune to harm not because of his nature (otherwise he could not fall), but because of God's grace that kept him safe and sound. But God's grace came from outside; it did not spring from within, because for that he had to train himself in virtue, resist temptation, and respond fully to God's grace. In the process he could fall, as he did fall. In Christ, grace not only was not external, but He Himself in His humanity is the very source of grace. Therefore for Christ to be harmed in any way He would have to will it in His humanity. Christ could exercise His free will since day one of His life, because since His conception He was perfect in His humanity as He was in His divinity. As I say in the book, "His obedience was perfect, because it sprung from the perfect humanity He assumed." (p. 312) "The Son shares the same divine will with the Father in His divinity. His human will cannot oppose His divine will, since it is the same subject that does both the willing and the acting in both natures." (p. 314)

Perhaps I am underestimating the capabilities of a not fallen human baby. While, scientifically speaking, we may not fully comprehend what the capabilities of an ordinary human baby might be, the Theanthropos Christ will certainly remain for us an incomprehensible mystery.

As to how can an infant will freely, let's repeat that the subject of willing, both in His divinity and in His humanity, is the same, the Divine Logos. And because His human will belongs to a divine person, in total freedom it always follows the divine will. Do not say, how can a one day old infant will freely, because the same One who is born leaving His mother a virgin, who appears to Moses and to Daniel in human form before His incarnation, can exercise His human will before reaching the age of reasoning. He who can transform mud into a pupil can make His humanity participant in the mystery of our salvation from the very instant of His birth, or rather since conception. Because before He is even born He bestows the gift of prophecy to St. John the Baptist's mother, the holy Anna. Let's not apply strictly the laws of nature to the Lawgiver.

If we find this an obstacle to our faith what shall we say about His incarnation and bodily resurrection and ascension to heaven and His glorious second coming? We should always keep in mind that within His frail body dwells the almighty Son of God who created the world and everything within it. Since His conception the One who dwells in the Virgin's womb is the eternal Logos. And the Logos cannot be a-Logos, He cannot be a non-Logos, even as an embryo or an infant of one day.

My view expressed here and in the book is based on the Damascene's statement quoted in the book, that Christ was conceived "not developing the fashion of the body by gradual additions but perfecting it at once." (p. 421) Christ was fully developed at the very instant of His conception. He was the enhypostatic Wisdom of God since day one. But, as I say in the book quoting Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlahos, He expressed His wisdom in accordance with His age, "because if it had been otherwise, He would have appeared to be a freak." (p. 443)

To any further objections about the one day old infant Jesus using already His human will we can refer to Mt. 21:16. If God can prepare praise from the mouths of infants and sucklings He can give mature wisdom to a 12 year old and even the full faculty of willing to a one day old - to silence and destroy His enemies and the avenger, who is Satan. And if you want, the verse refers to Christ, as do all the psalms.

I apologize if my questions are foolish. As you know, there are only foolish answers. The questions you raise are serious and well thought out. I trust you will find my answers to be adequate. I am interested to understand and I am coming at it as honestly as I can. You can come back as often as you like. I admire you and commend you because, in imitation of the Bereans, you hunger and thirst for answers that satisfy you and give you rest.

May our Lord, whose Birth we are about to celebrate, enlighten us and guide us to His knowledge, which is beyond all understanding.

Merry Christmas!

In His service,
Fr. Emmanuel


1 thought on “What was the Lord Jesus like as an infant?”

  1. Thanks so much Father Emmanuel for your wonderful book. Perhaps it helps to keep in mind that in modern thought the will is connected to the development of the individual’s self identity. In so far as our self identity is said to develop to that exact degree so does our will. So in this sense then in modern thought our will comes into play over time, as our self identity develops.

    In Patristic thought though (see especially St Maximus the Confessor) will is present in our human nature from the first moment of its creation. Our will exerts itself in relation to desire. And desire as anyone can see is already present in an infant from the moment of its conception and birth. The infant desires to be nourished and comforted and to be in an environment that sustains it. And with its little cries and efforts it seeks to fulfill these desires.

    Christ then as a newly born infant (as quoted above) “expressed His wisdom in accordance with His age, “because if it had been otherwise, He would have appeared to be a freak.” As the pre eternal Logos incarnate, Christ allowed His human will to exhibit its natural characteristics, including those that correspond to the blameless passions, but without allowing these to fall into anything that was sinful.


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