What does the author of Hebrews (5:8-9 ESV) mean when he states: “Although [Jesus] was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him”? Here is Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh’s technical but fascinating explanation:
One defect in traditional Christology, of which the best modern thought is sensible, is a tendency to construe our Lord’s person in rigid and quiescent terms which are hostile to the idea of development. The Cyrilline theory, whatever its discretion in statement, left no place for growth in the Incarnate. He is represented as being complete … at a single stroke. The whole significance of His personality is given by fiat from the very outset. It is forgotten that a static theory of a dynamic reality must prove false, and that ethically qualified life unfolding within time is subject by definition to change and progress through which it attains to be explicitly and in act what it is by fundamental constitution. It was a symptom or consequence of this initial error that the fact of the historic Jesus’ growth in power and knowledge came to be totally ignored, or, if not ignored, referred exclusively to His manhood….
If, then, our Lord belongs to concrete history, His person cannot be a scene of stagnation; and the activity and movement constitutive of it is no mere evanescent accident, but vital to His individuality. There must be a sense in which His being is ever approaching completion. Finally, the maxim that development in Christ is excluded by the absolute immutability of Godhead is one, as we have seen, to be accepted only with great reserve. Inferences derived from the abstract conception of deity must be confronted, in this field, with the essential distinction between God per se, in His transcendent being, and God as He comes forth in self-impartation to spirits immersed in space and time….
We have the less need to dwell on these abstract principles, because stages or crises in Jesus’ life can be indicated where, as in veins below the surface, the pulse and flow of movement is discernible, and the coalescence of the Divine and human within Him can be viewed as a process. To take only three instances: His baptism, His death, and His resurrection cannot have passed and left no mark. The result must have been to deepen the involution and co-inherence of the two mobile factors of His life and to secure their more perfect mutual irradiation. His baptism was in itself a token of a faith matured through resistance to early temptations; it sealed Him as One who had sustained unimpaired His filial relation to the Father, and in the long effort had acquired full ability and independence of moral life. And by sealing it, it made this moral character still more irrevocably fixed. But this decisive act of self-identification with the sinful must have been inspired more by perfect faith than by a full perception of its implications, which only the future could disclose.
When it transpired later that nothing would avail but the uttermost sacrifice of death, Jesus’ acceptance of this final obligation, in a series of experiences interpretable at their height by the transfiguration—when love to men filled His expanding soul and by inward act He avowed His willingness to share their lot to the uttermost —raised Him to a yet sublimer plane, a more completely redemptive fulness and glory of moral being. But above all He fulfilled His person through His death and resurrection. Who can fail to see that Christ was more Himself—more fully and completely all that is denoted by the name Christ—when death was past, than when as a child He lay in Simeon’s arms?
By His resurrection, St. Paul declares, He was installed as Son of God with power. Thus the Risen Life came not ex abrupto, or from without, but at the point when the life-content of Godhead had taken completely realised form within Him and become the mighty principle of an exalted and redeeming life in the Spirit. Mediated by experiences now past, and supremely by the experience of the cross, the identification of self-imparting Godhead with finite human forms was at last perfected, and the Divine noumenon, if we may call it so, become wholly one with the human phenomenon. And this plerosis, or development and culmination of the Redeemer’s person, is an event or fact which answers spiritually to the great kenosis from which it had begun. The two are moral correlates. On the privative act of renunciation, lasting on in moral quality throughout the earthly career, there follows the re-ascent of self-recovery. He who lost His life for our sake thereby regained it.
It may help to make this general conception more luminous if we recur to the Christological axiom that our Lord’s person and work constitute a single reality. If the work is dependent on the person, and moves through it to achievement, the person is in some real sense dependent on the work, fulfilled by its mediation, integrating all its virtue. It is not in our minds merely that the two condition each other, but objectively and in themselves. Now the work is admittedly a process. As part of history it could not be given en bloc; it had its times, its order, its movement from less to more.
Hence real growth is predicable also of Christ’s person; the union of God and man in Him was more completely actualised at death than at birth, when He rose than when He died. As the discharge of His vocation proceeded, His personality—which as an ethical constitution could not be un fait accompli from the outset—expanded into its own fulness. What He did flowed from what He was, but also He was in a real measure all that He did. He was creating Himself continually. In each moment of His present there was a constitutive persistence of His past, as His redeeming soul dilated in Divine capacity, not only modifying its quality but also increasing its intensity. Thus the cross was not for Him eventually a defeat; it was the last consummation of His person. [The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 491-495]
Mackintosh gives us something worth pondering. Whatever we may make of his interpretation, he definitely challenges us to move past the somewhat static conceptions of Christ’s pre-resurrection life of which the author of Hebrews would certainly want to disabuse us!