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Showing posts with label Incarnation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Incarnation. Show all posts

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Jesus Christ in the Prologue of John: The Word Per Se, or the Word Made Flesh Only?

100-Word Summary

(Realizing that not everyone is prepared to read a 3000+-word blog article, I've decided to start providing a 100-word summary of each article for those who like their reading 'to go.')

Christadelphians frequently refer to Jesus as 'the Word made flesh,' a qualification meant to exclude that Jesus is the Word per se. However, considerable evidence supports identifying the Word with the person of Christ throughout John 1:1-18. These include that (i) 'the Word' per se is the referent of pronouns throughout John 1:14-16, some of which clearly denote a person; (ii) 'the Light' (another impersonal noun) clearly denotes the person of Christ in John 1:7-12; and (iii) links between John 1:1-3 and 1:7-18 show that 'the Word' in 1:1-3 has the same referent as 'the Light' and 'the Word' thereafter.

1. 'The Word Made Flesh' in Christadelphian Discourse
2. The Word as the Referent throughout John 1:14-16  
3. The Personal 'Light' in John 1:7-12
4. Linking Back to John 1:1-4
 4.1. 'All things came into being through the Word'
 4.2. 'In the beginning was the Word'
 4.3. 'The Word was with God, and the Word was God'
5. Conclusion  

In Christadelphian discourse, a common way of referring to Jesus Christ is, 'the Word made flesh.' A Google search for this exact phrase and the term 'Christadelphian' yields easily dozens of uses of this expression for Christ, including as the title of articles and talks.1 The source of the expression is John 1:14, quoted below in the KJV (which strongly influenced early Christadelphian tradition) and NABRE:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 KJV) 
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NABRE)
The term 'the Word made flesh' is not intrinsically problematic. If the Word became flesh, and this refers to the event through which Jesus came into the world, then Jesus truly is 'the Word made flesh.' The problem is that Christadelphians use this term specifically to emphasise that Jesus Christ cannot be identified with the pre-incarnate Word, i.e. the Word as described in John 1:1-4. In such contexts, the statement 'Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh' is intended to avoid the divinity and personal pre-existence of Christ. For instance, in his Christadelphian catechetical manual Bible Basics, Duncan Heaster writes,
it cannot be over-emphasized that Christ in person was not "the word"; it was God's plan of salvation through Christ which was "the word". 'Logos' ("the Word") is very often used concerning the Gospel about Christ - e.g. "the word of Christ" (Col. 3:16; cp. Matt. 13:19; John 5:24; Acts 19:10; 1 Thess. 1:8 etc.). Notice that the 'logos' is about Christ, rather than him personally. When Christ was born, this "word" was turned into a flesh and blood form - "the word was made flesh" (John 1:14). Jesus personally was 'the word made flesh' rather than "the word"; he personally became "the word" through his birth of Mary, rather than at any time previously. (emphasis added)
Similarly, the well-known Christadelphian apologetics work Wrested Scriptures states, 'Christ was the result of the word made flesh, not the originator of the divine plan.'2 Again, an article by Matt Davies seeking to answer Trinitarians' questions states of John 1:14, 'If you read this verse carefully you will note that the word was with God from the beginning. Jesus was not the word. He was “the word made flesh” in v14.' A Belgian Christadelphian blogger writes emphatically, 'Jesus is not an idea thought, spoken or written down – he is a man. He is the word made flesh, not the word!'

Christadelphians do not understand 'the Word' to be a divine person who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. The logos is understood as an idea or purpose that became actualised and personified in the man Jesus,3 who is also 'the Word made flesh' inasmuch as his character perfectly revealed the will of God as revealed in the Scriptures.4

The typical Christadelphian interpretation of John 1:14a described can be summarised thus: Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh because he, a human being, embodies the plan, purpose and law of God. I say typical, and not unanimous, because there has been one noteworthy dissenting voice: that of Harry Whittaker. In his book Studies in the Gospels, Whittaker describes the usual interpretation of the Word in John 1 as the eternal Divine Purpose in Christ. He rings off seven difficulties with this interpretation and thus rejects it, concluding instead that 'the Word' in John 1 refers to 'Jesus the Man, and not Jesus the Idea or Purpose.' This might appear to point toward orthodox Christological inferences (the pre-existence and divinity of Christ), but Whittaker insists that 'the beginning' described in John 1:1 is the beginning of the new creation inaugurated by Jesus' ministry, not the beginning of all creation, and that the absence of the definite article from theos in 'the Word was God' 'weakens the meaning' of this phrase.5

The phrase 'the Word made flesh' does not occur in Scripture, but is adapted from John 1:14, which states that 'the Word became (KJV: 'was made') flesh...' However, what is often overlooked is that this is merely the first of several statements that are made about 'the Word' in John 1:14-16.

The transliterated Greek of John 1:14 reads thus,6 with my clause-by-clause literal translation. In my translation I replace pronouns with their referent to avoid having to choose between personal ('his') vs. impersonal ('its') pronouns, which could bias the reader for or against interpreting the referent as a person.7

kai ho logos sarx egeneto kai eskēnōsen en hēmin
And the Word became flesh and settled (lit. 'tented' or 'tabernacled') among us,
 kai etheasametha tēn doxan autou
and we beheld [the Word's] glory,
 doxan hōs monogenous para patros
glory as of the only Son from the Father,
 plērēs charitos kai alētheias
full of grace and truth. 

It is important to observe that ho logos is the subject of both verbs in John 1:14a. The Word became flesh and the Word settled among us, not, the Word became flesh and the resulting entity (Word-made-flesh) settled among us. Moreover, the Word is the unambiguous referent of several pronouns in vv. 14-16:
and we beheld [the Word's] glory (tēn doxan autou)... John testified about [the Word] (peri autou) and cried out, saying, 'This [Word] was the one of which/whom (houtos ēn hon) I said, "The one (ho) coming after me ranks ahead of me because he/it existed before me."' From [the Word's] fullness (tou plērōmatos autou) we have all received, and grace upon grace.
From this syntactical observation (that 'the Word' per se is in view throughout vv. 14-16) follows the exegetical conclusion that 'the Word' per se is Jesus Christ personally. If the reader harbours any doubt about this, consider the following. (i) The Word per se settled among us. (ii) The Word's glory is equated with the glory of the only Son from the Father.8 (iii) John the Baptist makes a remark about the Word (John 1:15) that is repeated almost verbatim when he sees Jesus of Nazareth approaching (John 1:30). Thus, the narrator construes John the Baptist's remark about Jesus as a remark about the Word. (iv) Finally, the Evangelist in v. 16 describes having received grace from the Word's fullness, but v. 17 states that grace came through Jesus Christ. In summary, it could not be much clearer that, throughout John 1:14-17, Jesus Christ is the Word per se,  not merely 'the Word made flesh' in some figurative sense (e.g., a human being who fulfills the Scriptures like no other). The Word, according to John 1:14-17, is personally the Son of God.

One of the main arguments that unitarians make against interpreting 'the Word' in the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18) as the Son of God personally is that ho logos, 'the Word,' is an impersonal noun (and used as such through the Old Testament). Hence, it is proposed that a literary technique such as personification is in use here, and we are not to see in 'the Word' an actual person. A serious flaw in this argument emerges from the very text of the Prologue, where 'the Light' (to phōs)—an equally impersonal noun—clearly refers to the person Jesus Christ in John 1:7-12, a portion of the Prologue that falls between the two paragraphs about 'the Word.'

'The light' is first mentioned in John 1:4-5 in connection with the Word, but here 'the light' seems to be an abstract noun opposite 'the darkness.' Only from v. 7 onward does it become evident that the author is (perhaps inspired by his language in 1:4-5) using 'the Light' in a more specialised sense to refer to the person that is Jesus Christ.

John 1:6 introduces John [the Baptist] as 'a man sent from God.'9 As in 1:15, John's function is to testify about (peri) another. The topic of John's testimony is, in 1:7, the Light; in 1:15, the Word; in 1:29-34 and 3:26-30, Jesus Christ the Son of God. This is already a clear indication that the Word = the Light = the Son of God. John testifies about the Light 'so that all might believe di' autou (through him/it).' The final pronoun autou refers to the Light rather than John, and anticipates numerous statements later in the Gospel about all/everyone believing in Jesus (e.g., John 3:15-16, 6:40, 11:48, 12:46). One hardly needs to mention that Jesus explicitly identifies himself as 'the Light' later in the Gospel (8:12; 9:5; 12:46)!10

Only in v. 8 does it become completely obvious that the narrator is using the term 'the Light' for a person. He offers a clarification concerning John the Baptist—'He was not the Light'—that would be superfluous if 'the Light' were not, like John, a person. Once again, this statement anticipates later material in the Gospel narrative in which John admits that he is 'not the Christ' (1:20; 3:28). This reinforces the identification of 'the Light' as Jesus Christ. V. 9 speaks of 'the true light' 'coming into the world.' Both of these ideas—Jesus as definitively 'true' (John 1:17; 14:6) and as having 'come into the world' as light (3:17-19; 12:46) recur later in the Gospel.11

The Prologue does not explicitly mention 'the Light' after v. 9, but vv. 10-12 contain five pronouns of which 'the Light' is the only plausible referent. Moreover, there is not the slightest doubt that a person is in view here. I will again replace pronouns with their referent to avoid biasing the reader through the gender of the translated pronouns:
[The Light] was in the world, and the world through [the Light] (di' autou) came into being, and the world did not know [the Light] (auton). Unto [the Light's] own [the Light] came, and [the Light's] own did not receive [the Light] (auton). As for those who did receive [the Light] (auton), [the Light] gave them power to become children of God, those who believed in [the Light's] name (to onoma autou)
Once again, these statements about the Light anticipate statements about Jesus later in the Gospel. The contrast between things that 'came into being' (egeneto, middle aorist of ginomai) and the Light through which/whom they came into being anticipates Jesus' contrast between Abraham, who 'came into being' (genesthai, middle aorist of ginomai) and Jesus himself who simply 'is' (John 8:58).12 That the Light was not received by the Light's 'own' (v. 11) anticipates the Fourth Gospel's emphasis on Jesus' rejection by 'the Jews.' Note, in particular, Pilate's words at the trial: 'I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me' (John 18:35). Similarly, speaking with 'the Jews' about the Scriptures: 'I came in the name of my Father, but you do not receive me' (John 5:43). The contrast between those that did not receive the Light and those that did anticipates John 3:32-33, and the statement about the Light's 'name' anticipates the Gospel's emphasis on belief in Jesus' name (John 2:23; 3:18; 20:31) and the life-giving power thereof (14:14; 14:26; 16:23-24).

Until now we have said little about the much-controverted opening statements about the Word in John 1:1-4. We have identified clear evidence that 'the Word' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:14-17, and that 'the Light' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:7-12. This provides us with a strong circumstantial case that 'the Word' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:1-4. However, not content to rest our case, we will briefly observe how the statements about the Word in these opening lines are repeated and reinforced in the rest of the Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through [the Word], and without [the Word] nothing came into being. In [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)
Of course, the most obvious link between John 1:1-4 and the rest of the Prologue is the term 'the Word' (ho logos). Barring the implausible event that the writer had two different 'Words' in mind within the Prologue, 'the Word' of John 1:14-16—who is clearly personal, as already seen—is 'the Word' of John 1:1-4.

We begin with v. 3 because it is crucial to establishing the temporal setting of the passage. We are 'in the beginning' (v. 1) when 'all things came into being.' This sounds like an obvious allusion to the Genesis creation, but some unitarians such as Harry Whittaker insist that 'the beginning' here is the beginning of Jesus' ministry, which inaugurated the new creation. True, the Johannine Jesus does use the word archē ('beginning') a few times of the start of his ministry (John 6:64, 8:25, 15:27, 16:4). However, none of these texts use the term en archē ('In the beginning'), which is borrowed from Gen. 1:1 LXX.13 The key observation here is the link between v. 3 and v. 10:
All things came into being through [the Word] (panta di' autou egeneto)
The world came into being through [the Light] (ho kosmos di' autou egeneto)
These statements clearly equate 'the Light' of v. 10 (which, as we have already seen, is the Son of God personally) with 'the Word' of vv. 1-3. Not only so, but they equate 'all things' in v. 3 with 'the world' in v. 10. Now, given the consistently negative connotation of 'the world' in the Fourth Gospel,14 there is simply no chance that the author would use 'the world' as shorthand for 'the new creation inaugurated by Jesus' ministry.' John's Gospel depicts Jesus as entering into the world to save it, not as entering the world and then creating the world!

From the above, it follows that the 'beginning' of John 1:1-2 is the primeval beginning, not the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry. The notion that the Word 'was' (ēn, imperfect verb) in the beginning anticipates the John the Baptist's testimony in vv. 15, 30 (concerning the Word and then concerning Jesus) that 'he was (ēn, imperfect) before me.' Since John the Baptist's testimony is unmistakably about Jesus personally, the link to vv. 1-2 shows that 'the Word' that 'was in the beginning' also denotes the same person. 

The sublime statement of John 1:1b-c contains an obvious paradox: the Word was with God, which would ordinarily imply that the Word was not God, and yet indeed the Word was God. The observation that the first theos has the definite article while the second theos lacks it is not a persuasive argument for weakening the sense of the second theos.15 That theos carries its fullest sense in 1:1b and 1:1c is supported by the way the ideas of 1:1 are restated in 1:14 and 1:18. Both of these latter texts offer statements of the Word's/Son's divinity precisely in the context of an intimate relationship with God.

The word skenoō in John 1:14 ('the Word...settled among us') is a verbal form of the Greek word for tent (skēnē). This is probably not coincidental but is an intended allusion to the Old Testament tabernacle, or tent,16 where God dwelt from the time of Moses until Solomon's Temple was built. God had promised, 'I will set my tent among you' (Lev. 26:11). The people saw God's glory when a cloud covered the tabernacle and the glory of God filled it 'in the sight of the whole house of Israel' (Ex. 40:34-38). That John intended to allude to this background in 1:14 is implied both by the explicit Moses/Jesus comparison in 1:17, as well as the similar imagery used in 2:19-22, where Jesus' body is described as a temple (paralleling the notion of 1:14 that his flesh was a tabernacle).

In the Old Testament, it is consistently God's glory that the people behold,17 whereas in John 1:14 the glory that is beheld is that of the Word. By describing the glory in terms of the Father-Son relationship, John shows that his intention in ascribing divine glory to the Word is not to displace God the Father—just as in 1:1, where the Word 'was God' but also 'was with God.' The statement that 'we beheld [the Word's] glory' anticipates two other editorial comments in the Gospel of John that refer to 'his glory' (tēn doxan autou) being revealed or seen. In both of these cases, 'his' is Jesus Christ! In the first statement, the narrator describes Jesus' sign at Cana thus: 'Jesus...so revealed his glory' (John 2:11). This text alludes to Isa. 40:5,which foretells that the glory of Yahweh would be revealed.18 Again, in John 12:41, after explaining unbelief in Jesus in terms of oracles from Isaiah 53 and Isaiah 6, the Evangelist offers the editorial comment, 'Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.' The 'his' and 'him' can only refer to Jesus,19 yet John is referring to a vision in which Isaiah saw Yahweh's glory in the temple (Isa. 6:1-3)! 

Thus, the statements about the Word in John 1:14 draw on Old Testament statements about God's presence and glory and thus clearly convey the Word's divinity (as in 1:1c), in the context of an intimate Father-Son relationship with God (as in 1:1b). In the Old Testament we frequently read of 'the word of the Lord' and of 'the glory of the Lord,' but here in John we read of 'the glory of the Word'!

The Father-Son relationship between God and the Word is conveyed most strikingly in the adjective monogenēs ('only', 'only-begotten'), which is used in both 1:14 and 1:18. However, whereas in 1:14 monogenēs does not explicitly modify a noun (so that one implicitly reads the noun 'Son'),20 it appears in 1:18 that monogenēs modifies the noun theos; thus, 'the only-begotten God.' There is a text-critical problem here, as the earliest manuscripts have monogenēs theos but others have monogenēs huios ('only-begotten Son'). I have discussed the text-critical problem in more detail elsewhere, but if the NA28 critical edition of the Greek New Testament is correct that monogenēs theos is the original reading, then John 1:18, the closing verse of the prologue, combines with John 1:1, the opening verse of the prologue, to form an inclusio. Just as 1:1 states that the Word was with God and yet was God, so 1:18 states that the only-begotten is God and yet is in the bosom of the Father.

When studying the Prologue of John, as with any other Scripture, there is always the risk of reading one's preconceived theological ideas into the text. One remedy for this is to closely study the syntax (the way the words fit together to form clauses and sentences) and the local context (the way the author weaves the Prologue into a coherent whole that anticipates the narrative that follows). When we do this, I believe we can arrive at something approaching certainty that the author of the Fourth Gospel used the terms 'the Word' and 'the Light' in the Prologue to refer to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, personally. Jesus is the Word made flesh, but before he became flesh he was already the Word in the beginning, the Word that was with God and was God, the Word through whom all things came into being.


  • 1 See, e.g., the online archive of talks from the Eastern Christadelphian Bible School in 1999; and the 2014 edition of Christadelphian magazine Glad Tidings.
  • 2 Ron Abel, Wrested Scriptures: A Christadelphian handbook of Suggested Explanations to Difficult Passages (Pasadena: Geddes, n.d.), 194; emphasis original.
  • 3 'He was so powerfully and completely the word made flesh... all the ideas inherent in God and in His word were expressed seamlessly in Jesus' (from Christadelphian Advancement Trust); 'God’s plan and purpose which had previously been expressed in the words that He had communicated to the patriarchs and through prophets, had now been embodied in human form' (John Carter, 'The Word Made Flesh,' Glad Tidings, 1567 [2014]: 15); '[Q:] Did the Lord Jesus pre-exist before his miraculous birth that was the result of the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary? [A:] He existed only in the mind, plan and purpose of Yahweh and this is the reason why in the opening chapter of the gospel of John he is described as “the word made flesh”' (Christadelphian Baptismal Review Book, p. 30); 'Because God instructed His Son and placed His words in his mouth, Jesus was also called “the Word made flesh”' (Christadelphian Bible Mission, Lesson 18, p. 4).
  • 4 'Christ’s character and his whole way of life were formed by God’s word. So complete was its effect on his mind that he is described as the “word made flesh” (John 1:14)' (Rick O'Connor, The Things of the Kingdom and the Things of the Name); 'So if the word was a declaration of God and His plan, how could this be made flesh? ... the first aspect of Jesus being the word made flesh is the actual realisation of God’s declaration foretelling the birth of His Son through the seed of a woman... The second aspect of God’s word being manifest in the flesh was down to the life followed by the sacrifice of Jesus... As Jesus was a man who never once gave in to the lusts of human flesh common to all humanity and who was always totally obedient to his Father’s will, this demonstrated that he was indeed the ‘word made flesh’: a perfect manifestation of his Father’s character, will and purpose in everything he said and did' (Chris Maddocks, God's Word/Logos; Maddocks goes on to describe two other aspects related to Jesus' atoning sacrifice and resurrection).
  • 5 Harry Whittaker, 'The Word (John 1:1-5),' Study 13 in Studies in the Gospels (n.d.).
  • 6 Following NA28 critical text. There are no significant text-critical problems pertaining to this verse.
  • 7 The Greek pronouns used are all masculine, but this is basically necessitated by the masculine gender of the noun logos. Gender does not play the same role in Greek syntax as in English, so the gender of the pronouns does not help us to determine whether or not the author regards this logos is a person.
  • 8 The conjunction hōs ('as') need not be understood as comparing the Word's glory to the glory of another, the only Son—this would make little sense. Rather, hōs functions as a marker pointing to the nature of the thing described. BDAG lexicon regards John 1:14 as an instance in which hōs functions as a 'marker introducing the perspective from which a person, thing, or activity is viewed or understood as to character, function, or role' (p. 1104). For similar instances, see 1 Peter 4:15a ('Let no one... suffer as a murderer': not like a murderer but actually being a murderer), 1 Thess. 2:7 ('we were able to impose our weight as apostles of Christ'; not like apostles of Christ but actually being apostles of Christ), Col. 3:12 ('Put on then, as God's chosen ones...': not like God's chosen ones but actually being God's chosen ones), and Heb. 12:27 ('That phrase, "once more," points to removal of shaken things, as of created things': not like created things but actually being created things. Basically, the sense is: 'we beheld the Word's glory—glory, that is, of the only Son of the Father.
  • 9 This expression is sometimes used by unitarians as evidence that the abundant language in John's Gospel about Jesus being 'sent from God,' 'coming from God,' 'coming down from heaven,' etc. does not imply pre-existence. However, John the Baptist's own words in John 1:15 and 1:30 undercut this interpretation by contrasting his own origin with that of Jesus Christ.
  • 10 Particularly striking is the parallel between John 1:7-9 and 12:46: 'that all might believe through [the Light]... The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.' 'I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness.'
  • 11 On Jesus having come into the world, see also John 6:14; 10:36; 11:27; 16:28; 17:18; 18:37.
  • 12 Of course, John 8:58 also draws on God's great 'I am he' statements in Isaiah 40-55 (Isa. 41:4; 43:10-13; 43:25; 45:18; 45:19; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6), and ultimately on the divine name in Exodus 3:14, and also parallels the psalmist's declaration about God in Psalm 89(90):2 LXX, 'Before the mountains came into being... you are.'
  • 13 See John 8:44 for another use of archē in a primeval sense.
  • 14 E.g., John 1:29, 3:16-19, 7:7, 8:23, 12:31, 14:17, 14:27, 15:18-19, 16:8-11, 17:9, 17:14-16, 18:36.
  • 15 To translate John 1:1c 'and the Word was a god' is syntactically legitimate, since theos lacks the article, unlike in 1:1b and 1:2. However, the word order of the clause (kai theos ēn ho logos) reverses the pattern of 1:1b and 1:2, in which the subject ho logos precedes the verb, and instead puts theos first. In Greek, word order does not affect syntactical sense but instead conveys emphasis. Thus theos is the most emphatic word in John 1:1c, which does not square with the theory that the writer intends theos to have a weaker sense than in 1:1b. The absence of the article in 1:1c can be explained as the author's way of clarifying that the Word is not a separate God from ho theos of 1:1b. The statement conveys the divinity of the Word, rather than positing a second, lesser god.
  • 16 In the Septuagint Greek translation of the Torah, the tabernacle is referred to as hē skēnē, 'the tent.'
  • 17 Thus, for example: 'Moses said, "Please let me see your glory!"' (Ex. 33:18); 'Yahweh, our God, has indeed let us see his glory and his greatness' (Deut. 5:24); 'I look to you in the sanctuary to see your power and glory' (Ps. 63:3); 'The heavens proclaim his justice; all peoples see his glory' (Ps. 97:4); 'Then the glory of Yahweh shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together' (Isa. 40:5); 'I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; they shall come and see my glory' (Isa. 66:18).
  • 18 John, like the other Evangelists, has already interpreted this oracle from Isaiah 40 as being fulfilled in Jesus' ministry, by having John the Baptist identify himself as the one who makes straight the way of the Lord (John 1:23).
  • 19 See the autos of v. 37.
  • 20 As is explicit in John 3:16, 18.

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.