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Incarnation: Incoherent?

Thomas Morris, in his book, The Logic of God Incarnate, outlines the incoherence charge made against the doctrine of the incarnation.

The Doctrine of the Incarnation is the belief that Jesus Christ is both God and human.Paul writes, “In him [Jesus Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). This leads to a number of propositions:

  1. Jesus is God, the Son.
  2. Jesus is human
  3. Jesus is one with the father
  4. Jesus is one person
  5. Jesus has two natures, one divine, one human. 

If we are committed to such a set of propositions we, according to Morris, are committed to the propositions, "Jesus of Nazareth is one and the same individual as God the Son, the second person of the divine trinity." The incoherence charge is made upon admitting that this statement is "a literal statement of absolute numerical identity."

Numerical identity is not qualitative identity, which is something like poodle and great Dane,  but absolute sameness, as in the case of Jesus is God the Son or H2o is water. In turn, numerical identity relies on the "indiscernibility of identicals " - "a necessary condition for identity is complete commonality of properties: an object x is identical with object y if, and only if, every property had by x is had by y, and vice versa.” 

Now consider the properties of God and human beings: God is omnipotent, omniscient, incorporeal, impeccable, and necessarily existent. He is impassible, immutable, and eternal. Human beings, on the other hand, are limited in power and knowledge, embodied, liable to sin, and contingent. They also suffer, change and live within time

In the case of God, at least, such properties are essential, if God fails to be omnipotent he fails to be God. They constitute what God is. There is no greater divide than between creator and creature. All such properties are complements of each other. They do not contradict each other, but they cannot be identical with each other. So, the incoherence charge is to suggest that the properties of God and human beings cannot be held by one person/object. So, for example, Jesus cannot be omnipotent and limited in power since that means he is omnipotent and not omnipotent at one and the same time.

  1. If Jesus is truly human, he could not be divine
  2. If Jesus is truly God, he cannot be human.

For the one who holds to the doctrine, a dilemma is produced. In James Anderson's wrods, one must choose to "remain orthodox and embrace paradox or banish paradox and embrace the heterodox."

Don Cupitt charges that, “the eternal God, and historical man, are two beings of quite different ontological status. It is simply unintelligible to declare them identical.” H M Relton says that the doctrine of the incarnation "postulates a logical impossibility... the person of Christ is the bankruptcy of human logic.” And Kierkegaard calls it “a breach with all thinking.”

Morris provides a survey of popular responses. First, there is the relativity theory. Put simply this theory denies numerical identity and says that identity is always relative. So, the human, Jesus, is the same as God the son should produce the question: the same what? One can then say something like, "the human, Jesus is the same person as God the son. The human, Jesus is not the same God as God the Father."

Second is the kenosis theory. God, the son, in order to become incarnate as a human being, temporarily divested himself of all divine properties not compossible with human nature. So perhaps he laid aside omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, but not goodness. The obvious problem is that the omnis are essential properties of being divine. It must be worried as to what, in this case, makes Jesus God in any sense.

Third, one may embrace paradox. Or even that the doctrine should be embraced precisely because it is a paradox. Absurdity is to be expected. The incarnation is really a violation of the laws of logic, but God can do that because he is God and we are not.

Fourth, and more promisingly, properties of human being may not be not essential properties: a human being could be all the things that God is without failing to be human. It is possible that a human being be omnipotent, omniscient etc and remain human. This possibility is made actual in Jesus Christ. 

Morris postulates that Jesus has "two minds" in the sense of separate levels of consciousness that are divine and human.  Jesus functioned according to his human consciousness, but his divine consciousness is more basic and underlies his human consciousness.

My preferred option, following James Anderson (see my analysis of Dr Anderson's work here), is to say that such a paradox is only an apparent contradiction and is the result of a kind of unarticulated equivocation. That is to say that there is something that God knows and that we do not know that solves the problem. We do not know it because God has not told us and, possibly, we would be unable (due to our limited epistemological faculties) to understand. However, one is warranted in holding to the doctrine even if one cannot solve the logic puzzle. A person is warranted in holding to the doctrine because she is functioning properly in virtue of being able to form rational beliefs and her belief is formed on the basis of a rational belief. The Christian who is committed to Biblical inerrancy believes in the doctrine of the incarnation because she believes that God has spoken clearly in scripture and it is scripture that produces the doctrine of the incarnation. One might say that the belief in inerrancy is misguided, but it is not incoherent.