The Logic and Metaphysics of God Incarnate

I had already provided an immediate response to the charge of logical contradiction prior to the publication of The Myth of God Incarnate:

What is the basis for comparing talk of one who is both God and man to talk of a square circle? Certainly a square circle is a contradiction in terms. The terms 'square' and 'circle' are precisely defined terms, and their logical incompatibility is obvious from the definition. But 'God' and 'man' are far from being such tightly defined concepts. It is difficult enough to suppose that we have a full and adequate grasp of the divine nature. Who are we to say that the essence of God is such as to rule out the possibility of his making himself present in the created world as a human being, while in no way ceasing to be the God he ever is?12

Such a response does not, of course, get us very far. The point surely holds; but it does no more than reject the comparison with a square circle. And its appeal to ignorance, while consonant with the time-honoured doctrine of divine incomprehensibility, does nothing to substantiate the positive content of incarnational Christology. What is needed is some positive account and defence of the metaphysics of God incarnate, together with an argued rebuttal of all accusations of incoherence. Such a defence is highly likely to involve analogy, as is the case with most of our talk of God. But, as explained in the previous section, this does not take us outside the sphere of literal truth-claims.

I will concentrate here on the work of five philosophers who have made important contributions to the clarification of the logic and metaphysics of God incarnate, namely David Brown, Thomas V. Morris, Richard Swinburne, Alfred J. Freddoso and Peter van Inwagen.

David Brown's book, The Divine Trinity, was cited in chapter 2 for its treatment of divine revelation on the analogy of a teacher—pupil dialogue, and it will, of course, be discussed in the next chapter on the Trinity. But it also contains sustained reflection on the Incarnation and especially on the coherence of the doctrine. Brown considers six 'models' for incarnation, rejecting four of them on grounds of incoherence, and defending the coherence of the other two, as offering different, but equally tenable, ways of thinking of Christ as both human and divine. It should be noted that Brown operates with a somewhat loose sense of the word 'model' in speaking of models for incarnation. He seems to mean little more than 'ways of understanding' the doctrine.

The four rejected ways of understanding incarnation are:

1 Apollinarianism: the denial of a human soul to Christ, the human soul being replaced by the divine Logos. This yields an incoherent account of Christ's humanity.

2 Nestorianism: the supposition that there are two persons, human and divine, in Christ. This yields an incoherent account of Christ's identity.

3 The model of grace: the suggestion that a perfectly grace-filled human life is a sufficient way of understanding Christ. This yields an incoherent account of Christ's divinity.

4 The mythological model: the kind of account typified by The Myth of God Incarnate. This (as we saw above) yields no serious account of incarnation at all.

The two models explored in detail and defended by Brown are the 'two-natures Christology' and the 'kenotic model' (the word 'kenosis' means 'emptying' and is used to denote the restriction or limitation of the divine attributes allegedly involved in incarnation). The first of these models (basically, the view formulated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451) affirms that in Christ, and in Christ alone, we have to do with a single person who possessed, at one and the same time, both a fully human and a fully divine nature; the second, that, in the Incarnation, the divine Son, by an act of self-limitation, put his divine attributes in abeyance, and lived, for a time, a human life on earth, expressing the divine love in purely human form. In attempting to show the coherence of each of these models, Brown first considers analogies, such as Aquinas's human nature cum animal nature analogy for the first, and the more common reincarnation analogy for the second. He then shows how divine and human attributes may, on the two-natures model, be ascribed to Christ qua God and to Christ qua man respectively, and may, on the kenotic model, be ascribed to the divine Son prior to, and during, incarnation successively. Brown sees no problem in ascribing fallibility to the human Christ on either view. Most importantly, he considers the key question of identity. How, on the two-natures view, is Christ's personal identity secured? And how, on the kenotic view, is continuity of identity maintained throughout the process of self-emptying? With regard to the two-natures view, further analogies from split personality and from our conscious and subconscious selves are explored. Brown is prepared to speak of two centres of consciousness in the incarnate one, but the extent of the two-way flow between them is held to rule out talk of 'inspiration' or 'possession' and to require personal unity and identity. With regard to the kenotic view, continuity of character and memory (even if the latter were temporally suspended) suffice to sustain personal identity throughout the successive stages.

Brown's reflections constitute a fine example of how such a central theological topic as incarnation can be explored and analysed philosophically. As is the case with all rational reflection, the treatment is not beyond criticism. I will mention three objections to Brown's conclusion that the two favoured models present equally coherent and tenable, but alternative, views. First, it may be doubted whether Brown has taken the measure of a 'two-consciousnesses' view of the Incarnation. Indeed, at one point (p. 233) he accuses it of incoherence in attributing a split personality in the divine nature (my emphasis), while at another (p. 261f.) he uses split personality as an analogy for ascribing two centres of consciousness to the one divine-human person. Secondly, as Swinburne pointed out in a review of Brown's book,14 Brown's concept of personal identity as being constituted by the causal connections of character and memory does not do justice to the ultimacy of what it is to be an individual person. And thirdly, one may question whether Brown's two favoured models really are alternatives. Is there not a case for recognizing the kenotic element in Christ's human nature and experience within an overall two-natures view that does justice to the full divinity of the one who takes human nature into himself, by channelling the divine life through a fully human life without ceasing to be the God he ever was and is?

Before developing these thoughts, I turn to consider the contributions of Morris, Swinburne, Freddoso and van Inwagen to our theme.

Morris's book, The Logic of God Incarnate, and a subsequent essay in the Feenstra/Plantinga volume, present us with a robust defence of the 'two-consciousnesses' or 'two-minds' view of the Incarnation. Morris is not happy with kenotic Christology. The idea of abandoning or putting in abeyance the divine properties of omnipotence, omniscience, etc. is held not to do justice to the full divinity of the incarnate one. Morris prefers to think in terms of the second Person of the Trinity taking on a human body and a human mind and living a human life on earth, 'without relinquishing the proper resources of divinity'. On this view, the incarnate one was fully human without being merely human. His human mind was not, as is the case with all other humans, the ultimate, metaphysical, ontological subject of his life and action. Christ's human mind was 'contained' by his divine mind. This was not just a matter of an 'asymmetrical accessing relation' between the divine mind of God the Son and the human mind of Jesus.

Such a relation holds between God's mind and all human minds. In the case of Jesus alone, we are to suppose that 'the personal cognitive and causal powers' of his earthly mind, and indeed life, were those of the divine mind and life of God the Son. It is this ultimate and unique metaphysical ownership that characterizes the Incarnation and makes the incarnate Son of God one Person, despite his unique possession of two natures.

John Hick, in The Metaphor of God Incarnate,20 criticizes Morris for concentrating on the mind of Jesus rather than his whole life, and also for failing to do justice to Christ's freedom. The second of these criticisms is a serious one and will be considered in a separate section of this chapter. But the first can easily be countered. Concentration on the mind of the incarnate one is surely justified, since what is at stake is the ultimate metaphysical subject of Jesus' life and action. But Morris is quite clear that what we are talking about is a human life lived out from a centre in God.

As was the case with Brown, critics may well have some reservations over the analogies which Morris deploys in defence of his 'two-minds' view. Human instances of multiple mentality, in dreams, split personality, and hypnosis are cited as partial analogies for the two-minds view. But these fall foul of Swinburne's objection to Brown. Indeed the more Morris goes along with a many-levelled view of the human mind, the less he does justice to the ultimacy of subjectivity. And we may further object to the way in which such analogies tend to treat the divine mind on the same level as the human mind. It is a theological point that must be respected in philosophical theology, that it is only the infinite otherness of God the Creator that allows a creaturely life to be the vehicle and medium of the divine life. Morris's metaphysics retains greater plausibility the less we pursue these dubious analogies. We still use analogical language of course, in talk of the divine life and mind. But we refrain from pressing the human side of these analogies too far.

Richard Swinburne's The Christian God is another book to which we shall be returning in the next chapter on the Trinity. But its treatment of the Incarnation must be considered here. In his ninth chapter, 'The Possibility of Incarnation', Swinburne defends the coherence of Chalcedon, taking it to mean that, by incarnation, God the Son, without abandoning his divine properties, acquired a human nature, that is, a human body and, with it, a human way of experiencing, thinking, willing and acting. Swinburne uses the divided mind analogy to illustrate and explain this way ofunderstanding the Incarnation; but it is clear that he is in fact operating with much the same 'two-minds' view as Morris. But we have to recall Swinburne's own point, against Brown, about the ultimacy of personal identity. This means that the human mind of Christ, God incarnate, does not constitute an individual person, as it does with the rest of us. The ultimate subject of the incarnate life is, uniquely, God the Son. Christ is the divine Son incarnate, and cannot be thought of, even theoretically, as an independent human individual, assumed by God the Son. Swinburne is quite prepared to accept Christ's human limitations, qua man, and he rejects the Lutheran insistence on the total interpenetration of divine and human attributes. These are not to be confused. But Christ's being the incarnate Son, while allowing his susceptibility to temptation, rules out the possibility of his doing wrong or even being inclined to do wrong. We shall return to this point in the section of Christ's freedom.

In insisting that Christ's human nature cannot be 'hypostasized', i.e. regarded as a theoretically independent human soul, Swinburne draws attention to and expresses gratitude for an article in Faith and Philosophy by Alfred J. Freddoso, entitled 'Human Nature, Potency, and the Incarnation'.22 This debt is fully justified. Freddoso's article is one of the most powerful philosophical investigations of the metaphysics and logic of incarnation. And in some ways it is even more persuasive than Swinburne's chapter. For it shows more clearly that the impossibility of Christ's individual human nature being only contingently united to a divine Person need not prevent us from speaking of Christ's humanity as that of an individual composed of a body and an intellective soul. The crucial point is that Christ's human soul and personality are, necessarily and uniquely, the earthly, incarnate, vehicle of the divine Person.

Difficulties are caused, in incarnational Christology, by uncertainty over which term to use for the ultimate personal subject of Christ's life. The tradition has reserved the term 'person' for this and allowed talk of two wills and two minds, but not two persons. Swinburne, perhaps confusingly, reserves the term 'soul' for this ultimate metaphysical subject. Freddoso is perhaps wiser to allow talk of Christ's human soul. One could move the other way and allow talk of Jesus Christ as a human person, but not an independent human person, a person, that is, existing in personal relation to the second Person of the Trinity. For the tradition holds that the human person Jesus is the incarnate Son, just as his human mind and will are the divine mind and will operative under human conditions. What permits talk of two minds and two wills — and, on this extended view, two persons — is recognition of the fact that the divine retains its divinity while operating under those conditions. Perhaps it would be better to respect tradition and avoid talk of two persons. But the last thing the tradition wanted was to deny full humanity to the incarnate one.

Swinburne happily distinguishes between what can be said ofJesus Christ qua divine and what can be said of him qua human, but his use of this mode of speech is somewhat undermined by his commitment, which he shares with Morris, to a Leibnizian theory of absolute identity. (The philosopher G. W. Leibniz, is well known for his theory of the identity of indiscernibles, the view that, if a and b are identical, then they have all their attributes in common.) He may be right about this. I have myself insisted that the human beingJesus just is the incarnate Son of God. But it is worth considering how the more flexible theory of relative identity might be used in explicating the doctrine of the Incarnation.

This is where we turn to the work of Peter van Inwagen. In articles reprinted in his book, God, Knowledge and Mystery, and in the encyclopaedia article referred to at the beginning of this chapter, van Inwagen has used the notion of relative identity to show how one and the same subject can have incompatible properties, provided they are relative to different conditions. Thus the Son of God incarnate, qua divine, was and is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent; but the Son of God incarnate, qua human — that is, qua the man Jesus of Nazareth — was weak and helpless (as a child), ignorant of many things and located specifically in first-century Palestine. The supposition of incarnational Christology is that one and the same divine Person, without ceasing to be God, could and did live out a truly human life, under truly human conditions, here on earth. The concept of relative identity allows us to give 'yes' and 'no' answers to key questions about this doctrine. Was Jesus Christ a creature? Yes, qua the man Jesus; no, qua God the Son. Did God die on the cross? Yes, qua God incarnate; no, qua God the Son.

Van Inwagen himself does not go very far into the ontology of incarnation. Reflecting further on this matter, we would have to stress the godness of God in becoming incarnate. Only a divine Person could live out a human life as the vehicle and expression of the divine love in human form. Here the asymmetry that Morris speaks of is more than cognitive. It has to be spelled out, metaphysically, in terms of that human life being the life of God the Son in human form, not the other way round. But the advantage of relative identity theory is, in the first place, that we can avoid having to ascribe, e.g., eternity to the human being, Jesus (Morris is driven, implausibly, to suggest that having a temporal beginning is not of the essence of humanity25) and, secondly, that we can take full advantage of the moral force of kenotic Christology when speaking of God incarnate. God really does subject himself, in human form, to the limitations of our existence and to betrayal and a cruel death. Another advantage of embracing kenoticism within a two-natures understanding of the Incarnation is that it make more sense of the idea, essential to Christian soteriology (its doctrine of salvation), that humanity is taken into God for ever. Indeed, through personal union with the risen Christ we too, so Christians hold, are taken into God, not, of course, as yet more incarnations (that makes no sense at all, as we shall see) but, in biblical language, as 'fellow heirs with Christ by adoption'. These matters will be treated more fully in chapter 6 on Salvation.

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