Thursday, January 3, 2008
I promised Chris something on the incarnation. This is from The Xmas Files.
Are we, at Christmas, celebrating the birth of an entity as contradictory as a round square?
Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth is supposed to be God incarnate: both God and man. That might seem a fairly straightforward sort of claim. People may argue over whether it is true, of course. But that what is being claimed is clear and coherent is largely taken for granted on both sides. Which is odd, because the dispute over exactly how divinity and humanity are combined in the person of Jesus is actually one of deepest and most-ill-tempered in Christian history. Philosophers and theologians have been struggling to make sense of the incarnation for over two thousand years. The early church fathers fought bitterly over the issue and it remains a source of contention to this day.
So what, exactly, is the difficulty? Here’s an analogy. Suppose I tell you that I have drawn a circle on a sheet of paper. I then tell you that not only is what I have drawn a circle, it is also a square. How would you respond? With great bewilderment, I would imagine. To claim that my circle is also a square is not like claiming that, say, that Charles Dickens was also Prime Minister of England. That Dickens was Prime Minister is of course false. But we can at least make sense of the suggestion that he might have been. The claim may be false, but least it’s coherent. When it comes to the suggestion that my circle is also a square, on the other hand, what I claim is not so much false as nonsensical.
Why nonsensical? Because there are certain properties which something must possess if it is to be a circle that it cannot possess if it is also to be square. A circle, by definition, cannot have any straight sides. A square, on the other hand, must have straight sides. But then nothing can be both a circle and a square on pain of contradiction: a square circle would have both straight sides and yet no straight sides.
That is, of course, why you know that there can be no square circles. You don’t need to look and see whether I have succeeded in drawing a square circle. You can know, just by thinking it through, that my claim to have drawn a square circle cannot be true.
The same, some argue, is true of the claim that Jesus is both God and man. The claim that such a being exists is involves a contradict6ion. So again, we can know, just by thinking about it, that no such person exists. There is no point looking for historical evidence that Jesus was both God and man. We know in advance that he wasn’t.
But what is contradictory about the claim that Jesus is both a man and God? Many things, it seems. Here are three examples.
To begin with, let’s remind ourselves of a few of God’s properties. God is of course omnipotent and omniscient: all-powerful and all-knowing. There is nothing God cannot do; nor is there anything he does not know. God is also eternal: he was not created and he is not the kind of thing that can die. All these properties possessed by God are, of course, essential properties of him. A being that lacked any one of these features would not be God.
But now what of Jesus, the man? Jesus, being a human being, had only a limited sort of knowledge. The Bible says that he grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52), which implies that at one time he knew less than he did later. And Jesus himself admits that there are things he does not know, such as the time when heaven and earth will pass away. (Mark 13:32). So we have discovered a property: omniscience, that God has to possess, but that Jesus, if scripture is to be believed, lacks. But then we are in a position to argue as follows:
God is omniscient
Jesus is not omniscient
Therefore Jesus is not God
Here is second apparent contradiction generated by the doctrine of incarnation. We know that Jesus had certain weaknesses. He was subject to temptation, for example. That Jesus was tempted is, again, fundamental to Christian belief. But God being omnipotent, has no weaknesses, and is beyond temptation. But then the following argument holds:
God is omnipotent
Jesus is not omnipotent
Therefore Jesus is not God
Third, we know that Jesus died. That he died is an essential part of Christian belief. But God necessarily cannot die. So, again, it follows that Jesus is not God:
God cannot die
Therefore Jesus is not God
These three arguments are merely examples. Many other contradictions also appear to be generated by the suggestion that Jesus is both God and a man.
How to prove that things are not identical
The three arguments presented above all make use of a very famous logical principle called Leibniz’s law (after the philosopher Leibniz, who formulated it). Leibniz’s law says that if two things are identical - if they are one and the same entity - then whatever properties one has, the other should have, and vice versa. So, for example, if John Wayne is one and the same person as Marion Morrison (which he was: “John Wayne” is actually the stage name of the actor Marion Morrision), then any property possessed by John Wayne must be possessed by Marion Morrison, and vice verse. If John Wayne is six-foot-three, then so is Marion Morrison. If John Wayne rode a horse, then so did Marion Morrison. If John Wayne could throw a mean punch, then so could Marion Morrison.
Leibniz’s law comes in handy if you want to test whether two things that might appear to be one and the same thing really are the same thing. Suppose, for example, that a friend tells you that they recently met someone called “John Smith” down the supermarket. You also happen to know someone by that name, but of course it’s a common name, so you wonder whether it really can be one and the same John Smith that your friend met. How might you test the claim that they are the very same John Smith?
One way would be to enquire about the supermarket John Smith to see if his properties match those of your John Smith. Does he have dark hair? Is he tall? Does he speak with a Northern accent? If you can find a property that one John Smith possesses but not the other, then it follows, by Leibniz’s law, that they’re not one and the same person.
Notice that the three arguments outlined above that appear to show that Jesus is not God all rely on this same familiar, everday form of reasoning. Each points out that God has a property that Jesus lacks, and then concludes that Jesus cannot be God. The doctrine of the incarnation runs up against Leibniz’s law
It seems, then, that the attempt to get full humanity and full divinity into a single person is like trying to draw a square circle. The claim that Jesus is both God and man generates contradictions. But then we can know, just by thinking about it, that the claim cannot be true. Yet that it is true is precisely what most Christians believe.
That is the puzzle of the incarnation.
The Council of Chalcedon
The debate over Christ’s divinity raged heatedly for several centuries after his death. Christians disagreed about to what extent and in what way Jesus was human and divine.
Some, such as Apollinaris, struck by the problem outlined above, insisted that Jesus was not a human being at all. Jesus took on a human body. But he did not become a human, for he did not possess a human soul. So while Jesus might appear to have various human characteristics incompatible with him also being divine, that appearance illusory.
Apollinaris’s view neatly solves the puzzle of how Jesus could be both human and divine ― Apollonaris simply denies Jesus is human. He merely seems human. But most Christians have been unable to accept this solution to the puzzle. For them, it is essential that Jesus be both fully God and fully man. His full humanity and solidarity with the human race, in particular, is usually held to be essential if Jesus is to be our redeemer.
Others – the Nestorians – also struck by the difficulties explained above, insisted that Jesus was, in effect, two individuals: one human and one divine. That, again, would remove the appearance of contradiction – there is no single individual that is both omniscient and ignorant, for example. But again, most Christians find the two-individuals suggestion rather repellent, in part because it again raises seemingly impossible obstacles to redemption.
As I say, the debate aged for centuries, often descending into acrimony, until finally, in AD 451 the various warring churches met at Chalcedon and agreed on a common position. The council of Chalcedon decreed that Jesus had two natures: he is both truly human and truly divine. But these two natures have come together and are both preserved within in a single person. The Chalcedonian council rejected both the Nestorian view that Jesus was not a single person, and also the Apolliarian position that Jesus was not fully human.
Is Jesus’ divinity merely metaphorical?
But of course, the Council of Chalcedon’s definition confronts us with precisely the problem with which we started: that of explaining how Jesus’s two natures – human and divine – can be reconciled without contradiction within a single person.
Some contemporary Christians, including John Hick (whose analogy of the square circle I have borrowed), have argued that Chalcedon simply got it wrong. The Chalcedon doctrine of two natures combined within a single individual is a confused attempt to make literal sense of what should be understood metaphorically. Jesus is not, literally, God. He is God “incarnate” only in a metaphorical sense, that’s to say, only in the sense that he is a “human being extraordinarily open to God’s influence and thus living to an extraordinary extent as God’s agent on earth, ‘incarnating’ the divine purpose for human life” (XXHick 1993. p 12.) There have been a great many religious figures that have ‘incarnated’ God’s purpose in this metaphorical sense. So they are all God “incarnate”. There is, in this respect, nothing exceptional about Jesus ― he is just another important holy man.
This modern take on the incarnation is obviously unorthodox, and does not fit entirely comfortably with scripture which repeatedly states, quite unambiguously, that Jesus is God.
Jesus’ ‘two minds’
Others believe Chalcedon can be salvaged. The philosopher Richard Swinburne provides a rather ingenious explanation of Jesus’s apparent ignorance by maintaining, not the Nestorian position that there are, in effect, two individuals in Christ (which, as we saw above, would be contrary to Chalcedon), but a single individual possessing two minds.
Swinburne points out that, post-Freud, we now have a better understanding of how a single person can possess a divided mind. A mother, for example, might consciously believe that her son is alive, and yet unconsciously believe he is dead. When she is asked whether her son is still alive, she answers, quite sincerely, “yes”. Yet in another, unconscious part of her mind she clearly recognizes that he is dead – as indicated by the fact that she throws his possessions away. A belief can happily exist in one part of someone’s mind without being accessible to another part of it.
Similarly, explains Swinburne, we can suppose that Jesus’s mind was divided. His divine mind is omniscient and knows everything. But within this divine all-knowing consciousness resides a human consciousness that is partitioned off from the rest. Jesus’ human mind cannot access the rest of his larger, divine mind. That is why, despite the fact that Jesus is God, and thus omniscient, his human mind could be ignorant of various things, and could grow in wisdom.
At Christmas Christians celebrate the incarnation, an extremely mystifying event. Indeed, the doctrine of the incarnation seems, on the face of it, not even to make sense. While philosophers and theologians have strived to explain how full humanity and full divinity can be combined within a single person, the incarnation remains, for many, a deep and seemingly intractable puzzle.