The Uniqueness of the Incarnation

The other main reason for demythologizing incarnational belief was a moral argument in favour of religious pluralism. According to John Hick, a global perspective requires us to give equal revelatory and salvific significance to all the great world religions. From this perspective, the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation constitutes a major stumbling block. For if the Word became flesh in Jesus alone, the revelatory and salvific importance of this event is bound to exceed that of all other faiths, however positive and life-enhancing they may be as channels of the Spirit's commerce with humanity. Hick's religious epistemology, and his assumption that no one religion could be closer to the truth than others, are sharply criticized by Plantinga in Warranted Christian Belief.52 And indeed, if the arguments surveyed above concerning the coherence of the Incarnation, together with its purpose and its evidence, carry weight, then the assumption of equal status cannot stand.

Swinburne's point about theistic expectation of an incarnation would lead one to suppose that the idea of a divine incarnation or indeed of divine incarnations would have occurred elsewhere in the history of theistic religions. And, of course, it has, most notably, though not exclusively, in the avatar doctrine of Vaishnavite Hinduism, the most striking feature of which is the alleged fact of many incarnations, animal as well as human, of the god, Vishnu. The data are surveyed most accessibly in Geoffrey Parrinder's Avatar and Incarnation. Ninian Smart goes so far as to speak of the incarnation strand in the history of religions. Most Christian philosophers, however, have tended to stress the difference between the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation and Hindu avatar beliefs. Thus Keith Ward writes: 'The avatars of Vishnu do not suffer the limitations of having a real human nature.' They are appearances, manifestations ofthe supreme reality. The same point is made by Julius Lipner, a specialist in the philosophy of Indian religions. After a detailed comparative study of the Hindu and Christian doctrines, he concludes that, for the Hindus, avatara are not fully human, conditioned by previous karma (the law of consequence) like the rest of us. They are appearances of the divine in human (or other) guise.56 H. H. Farmer, too, contrasts the notion 'of a divine being who merely drops into the human scene in an embodied form, unheralded, unprepared for, without roots in anything that has gone before in history and without any creative relationship to the unfolding of events in what comes after', with the embedded-ness of the story of Jesus in the history of the covenant, old and new.

The Christian tradition has certainly held that only once did the divine Son come amongst us in incarnate form. Indeed, as Farmer says, it has seen the whole of human history as pivoted around that unique turning point. It was long prepared, within the history of religions, by the history and developing faith of Israel, and the whole future of humanity is determined for all eternity by the universal salvific efficacy of the Christ event (on this see chapter 6). But a number of Christian philosophers, such as Ward and Morris, are prepared to follow Thomas Aquinas in thinking that, while the Incarnation was in fact unique, more than one incarnation of the divine Son was possible, either here on Earth in human form or in some other world among extra-terrestrials.

Against this view, I have argued for the impossibility of multiple incar-nations,59 chiefly on the grounds that if we take seriously the point insisted on by Morris himself that the ultimate subject ofJesus' life is God the Son, then any other purported incarnation, here or elsewhere, would have the same ultimate subject and thus be the same person. In the context of Resurrection belief, this would entail the presence, in the eschaton, of a number of finite personal vehicles of the divine life, all of them coexistent and theoretically capable of interpersonal relation. This makes no sense. 'One individual subject cannot, without contradiction, be thought capable of becoming a series of individuals, or, a fortiori, a coexistent community of

If this is right, and multiple incarnations are indeed impossible, then the uniqueness of the Christ event — the so-called 'scandal of particularity' — is seen to be less offensive. For, in the nature of the case, God's revelatory and salvific purposes could only have been achieved through a necessarily unique incarnation.

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  • joanna kennedy
    How is the doctrine of incarnation unique?
    8 months ago

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