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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Incarnation: Contradiction or paradox?

"The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation," writes philosophical theologian Brian Hebblethwaite, "is one of the two central doctrines which set out the unique features of Christian faith in God."1 Hebblethwaite goes on to explain that while many religions believe in an infinite and transcendent God and make possible rich spiritual experiences, Christianity goes further in asserting that 
God has made himself known more fully, more specifically and more personally, by taking our human nature into himself, by coming amongst us as a particular man, without in any way ceasing to be the eternal and infinite God.2
The classic, dogmatic statement of the Incarnation doctrine comes from the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.).3 The doctrine contains three fundamental ontological claims: (i) Jesus Christ is truly man; (ii) Jesus Christ is truly God; (iii) Jesus Christ is one person and not two. Opponents of the Incarnation doctrine call it a contradiction, while proponents call it a paradox. What is the difference? A contradiction is a combination of mutually exclusive ideas, like a square circle, or the mathematical statements x > y and x < y. A paradox is an apparent contradiction that may not really be a contradiction. Take, for example, the saying, "Less is more." This saying is paradoxical since the words "less" and "more" are antonyms, but one can readily appreciate the wisdom of the saying (consider, for instance, the decision whether to offer a short speech or a long speech at a wedding.) Or which of us has never heard someone answer a yes-or-no question with "Yes and no"? We do not typically conclude that the respondent is irrational; we suspect that they perceive complexity and nuance in the question that requires a multi-faceted answer. In a word, they perceive a paradox.

The apparent contradictions in the Incarnation's three fundamental ideas are immediately obvious. First, whereas all other known persons are constituted by one nature, this doctrine affirms that Jesus Christ has two natures and yet remains only one person. Second, for specifically divine and human natures to co-exist in a single person seems contradictory, since we associate properties with "divinity" and "humanity" respectively that seem mutually exclusive (e.g., eternal vs. created, immortal vs. mortal, omniscient vs. limited in knowledge, omnipresent vs. locally present, etc.) However, as philosophical theologian Oliver Crisp points out,
we cannot know a priori that the two-natures doctrine is incoherent without first establishing (a) exactly what the constituents of divinity and humanity consist in (or, perhaps better, what divinity and humanity do not consist in), and (b) that these constituents are mutually exclusive of one another.4
Unfortunately, Christadelphians and members of certain other heterodox, sectarian movements commonly do dismiss the Incarnation doctrine a priori as logically incoherent. Indeed, I used to take this dismissive view of the Incarnation myself. My advice to those who consider the Incarnation a basic contradiction unworthy of serious thought is, not so fast. Here I will list four reasons why the logic of the Incarnation demands serious attention.

(1) The Incarnation doctrine has an impressive historical pedigree.

The statement from the Council of Chalcedon that definitively expressed Incarnational Christology was the fruit of over four centuries of intense theological reflection, discussion and controversy involving the entire Church. The resolution achieved at Chalecdon has stood the test of time, too. It has been the touchstone of Christological orthodoxy for over fifteen centuries and remains such among Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans and most Protestant denominations. Indeed, all forms of ancient Christianity that have survived affirm the Incarnation,5 and with the exception of some post-Reformation sectarian movements, all contemporary professedly-Christian groups affirm the Incarnation.

This history, read with a basic principle of respecting elders, forebears and authority,6 ought to make us at least think twice before dismissing the Incarnation as an obvious contradiction. If the Incarnation is basically a stupid idea, how did the entire Church by the fifth century come to a consensus that it was the best Christological synthesis? And how could an obvious contradiction achieve such staying power? It is remarkable, given the heated Christological controversies of the first four centuries of Christianity, that the ecumenical consensus achieved in the fifth century on Incarnational Christology should remain the ecumenical consensus over 1500 years later.7

(2) The Incarnation remains a respectable idea in the academic sphere.

Numerous theologians in Church history have masterfully defended Incarnational Christology (Origen, St. Augustine, St. John of Damascus, St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc.) However, for some sectarians, the Church's theological tradition between, say, 200 and 1500 A.D. is shrouded in darkness and superstition, whereas the achievements of modern academic scholarship blaze brightly. While I could say much against this chronocentrism, I would hasten to add that in the contemporary academy the Incarnation has not been relegated to obscurity. It remains an idea worthy of serious attention among philosophical theologians. For example, no less a publisher than Oxford University Press produced a volume of essays in this decade entitled The Metaphysics of Incarnation exploring the philosophical viability of the Incarnation from a variety of perspectives.8 OUP doesn't publish edited volumes debating the merits of obsolete, Mickey Mouse ideas. Several of the contributors to this volume, and many other scholars, have separately published philosophically rigorous defenses of Incarnational Christology.9

Of course, there are also accomplished academics who reject the philosophical viability of the Incarnation. My claim is not that the mere existence of rigorous philosophical defenses of the Incarnation in contemporary academia vindicates the truth of the doctrine a priori.10 One would really need to be trained in philosophy—which I am not—to engage critically with this scholarly debate. However, the existence of the debate at least shows that the Incarnation cannot be dismissed a priori as logically incoherent.

(3) Paradox plays an indispensable part in Christian theology.

Christian theology is inescapably paradoxical. Take eschatology for instance: biblical scholars today widely agree that New Testament eschatology can be summed up with the obviously paradoxical phrase "already and not yet." The kingdom of God, the new age, has arrived and yet it is still coming. One can point to numerous other theological paradoxes whereby seemingly contradictory ideas are held in tension: grace and merit, faith and works, sin and mercy, predestination and free will, and so on. There are also numerous paradoxes within the Bible pertaining to God's nature and character. That God is apparently gentle and loving in the New Testament but warlike and severe in the Old spawned heresies in antiquity (Marcionism) and provides fodder for skeptics today. The perennial problem of evil represents a paradox in Christian theology: the prevalence of natural and moral evil in the world today appears to conflict with the existence of an omnipotent, perfectly good and perfectly loving God.

The New Testament contains, of course, blatant paradoxes specifically in the area of Christology. A crucified Messiah? A crucified Saviour? "A stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles," says Paul (1 Cor. 1:23). The Gospel of John is so audacious as to interpret Jesus's physical "lifting up" on the cross as his "lifting up" in the sense of exaltation as foretold in Isa. 52:13 (cf. John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). So is New Testament Christology paradoxical? Absolutely. We should not be surprised, then, to find paradox in core Christian dogma about God and Christ.

(4) Non-Incarnational Christologies also face philosophical difficulties.

Many liberal theologians and some sectarians (e.g., Christadelphians) assert that Jesus was/is merely human, that is, ontologically no greater than any other human. (Of course, those who affirm a literal resurrection would assert that Jesus's human nature is now superior to ours.) Proponents perceive this as the simplest and most logical Christology. After all, every other human known to history has been "merely human." However, those who see a "merely human" Christology as the default or natural option may overlook that it is not without philosophical problems. Consider just a few:

i. By all accounts, human conception is an ontologically significant event. Does Jesus's unique human conception in the womb of a virgin not therefore have ontological significance? If so, what is the ontological significance of the virgin birth?
ii. Is the exalted Jesus omnipresent? If not, how does he function as mediator between God and humans? If so, how can a physical, bodily person be omnipresent?
iii. How is it that Jesus was sufficiently like us that he experienced the same frailties and temptations we face, and yet sufficiently unlike us that he never once succumbed to temptation but remained perfectly sinless?
iv. Since the success of God's plan of salvation depended on the perfect obedience of a free human agent (Christ), could God guarantee that his plan of salvation would not fail? If not, was it not a mere gamble rather than a foolproof plan? If so, how did God guarantee this without impinging on Christ's free will?
v. Can a person who is not ontologically one with God be granted the very prerogatives and honours that demarcate God's uniqueness? If God extends his unique "God-ness" to a sub-divine creature, does his "God-ness" not lose its uniqueness (and thereby cease to be "God-ness")?

No doubt proponents of a "merely human" Christology would offer intelligent answers to these questions. My point, however, is that the matter cannot just be settled out of court. Both sides have a case to argue and a case to answer.


My point in this article is not that reason compels us to accept the doctrine of the Incarnation. That argument would require a sharper intellect and a lot more space. My point is simply that reason cannot rule out the Incarnation a priori; that reason compels us to at least seriously consider this doctrine. In fact, anyone who rules out the Incarnation a priori effectively ensures that s/he will never be taken seriously as a Christian theologian.

I have, over time, become more and more convinced that our ecclesiology—our understanding of the nature, purpose and gifted prerogatives (or lack thereof) of the Church—determines, to a large degree, our other theological positions. It is a fact of history that the early Church reached a consensus that the Incarnation best explains the biblical and apostolic witness concerning the person of Christ. If I believe that the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit in her doctrinal deliberations, I will place considerable weight on this historic consensus. If, however, I believe that the Church was left to her own devices and inevitably wandered astray, I will consider it a light thing to cast aside the historic consensus and replace it with my own private judgment (perhaps identified facilely with "what the Bible teaches").


  • 1 Brian Hebblethwaite, The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 21. He adds: "The other central doctrine is that of the Trinity."
  • 2 Hebblethwaite, op. cit., 21.
  • 3 "Following, therefore, the holy fathers, we all in harmony teach confession of one and the same Son our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood, truly God and the same truly man, of a rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father in respect of the Godhead, and the same consubstantial with us in respect of the manhood, like us in all things apart from sin, begotten from the Father before the ages in respect of the Godhead, and the same in the last days for us and for our salvation from the Virgin Mary the Theotokos in respect of the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation (the difference of the natures being in no way destroyed by the union, but rather the distinctive character of each nature being preserved and coming together in one person and one hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, Only-begotten, God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ, even as the prophets from of old and Jesus Christ himself taught us about him and the symbol of the fathers has handed down to us" (trans. Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon: Translated with introduction and notes, vol. 1 [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005], 59).
  • 4 Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 166.
  • 5 In the wake of post-Vatican II ecumenical dialogue, there is now mutual recognition between Chalcedonian Christianity and the Oriental Orthodox (whose rejection of Chalcedonian Christology was the occasion of their existence as a separate communion) as well as the Assyrian Church of the East that historical Christological differences were a matter of semantics rather than substance.
  • 6 Of course, sectarian ecclesiology does not usually think in such terms. Sectarians often exult in their minority status and their rejection of established authority and tradition in line with their self-understanding as a "remnant." The notion of a righteous remnant does admittedly have a strong biblical pedigree. Much more could be said about such "remnant ecclesiology," but for now I will just say this: there are many groups today that make mutually exclusive claims to be God's righteous remnant. Clearly, all but one (if not all) of these groups are mistaken.
  • 7 When I made this argument recently in a Facebook dialogue, my Christadelphian interlocutor asked, "How is your 'long and illustrious pedigree' any more relevant than the 'long and illustrious pedigree' of Mohammed going to heaven on a horse?" The answer should be obvious. Given that one believes in a heavenly, transcendent God (Allah) and that Mohammed is his prophet, the idea of Mohammed going to heaven on a horse is not very paradoxical. Nor was this idea, to my knowledge, the occasion of epoch-making theological controversy in early Islam. I suspect that very few Christians reject Islam specifically because of the Muslim belief that Mohammed went to heaven on a horse (which is, after all, similar to Judeo-Christian beliefs about the prophet Elijah). It is precisely because of the very contentious and complex debates about Christology in the early church that a 1500-year consensus on the Incarnation is remarkable, and not easy to dismiss.
  • 8 Anna Marmodoro and Jonathan Hill, eds., The Metaphysics of the Incarnation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). On a similar note, see Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O'Collins, The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • 9 Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986); Brian Hebblethwaite, The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga, Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1989); James K. A. Smith, Speech and Theology: Language and the logic of the Incarnation (New York: Routledge, 2002); Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003); Marilyn McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Oliver D. Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Richard Cross, "The Incarnation," in Thomas P. Flint & Michael C. Rea, (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Oliver D. Crisp, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (London: T&T Clark, 2009); Andrew Ter Ern Loke, A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation (New York: Routledge, 2016); etc. Of course, the list would become much longer if we extended our scope beyond the English-language literature.
  • 10 I was misinterpreted as making such a claim recently when I made this appeal to scholarship in a Facebook discussion.

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