Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Incarnation

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
Jesus died
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.

A puzzle

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.


David said...

Leibniz's Law is arguably just a version of the Substitutivity of Identity, i.e. in any proposition, one should be able to substitute names or name variables that are supposed to be identical.

In your own example of Leibniz's Law, you touch upon a possible counterexample to the Substitutivity of Identity. That is, '"John Wayne” is actually the stage name of the actor Marion Morrision.' If Fred did not know this then it might be true that, 'Fred thinks John Wayne is a great guy.', but false that, 'Fred thinks Marion Morrision is a great guy.' At least, that's what Fred would say.

I'm sure you are familiar with this problem of opacity. I would not argue this way, but what if someone argued that Jesus' nature, both human and divine, is just another exeception to the Substitutivity of Identity?

Oh, and there is also the problem of change. One solution to that problem might also be to reject Leibniz's Law. Again, I would not be a party to this, but it seems consistent with the "familiar, everday form of reasoning" to say that Fred was blonde as a baby, brunette as a man, and blonde's are not brunettes. You might say, 'Blonde's cannot be brunettes at the same time.' Yet, while you are justifiying that exception, the Christian may similarly strap up her own account.

Stephen Law said...

Thanks David

I believe all these suggestions run into problems - hence Swinburne's rather different approach.

Leibniz's law has some famous exceptions, but they don't help. For example, it doesn't apply to properties involving propositional attitudes - e.g. what Fred believes about x is not a property of x to which LL applies.

But the properties I mentioned don't involve propositional attitudes. Or any of the other exceptional properties.

The point about change doesn't help either, I think. LL really applies to temporally indexed properties, such as being-F-at-time-t (otherwise it would rule out things changing). So if, when Jesus was age 5, he was not omnipotent, but God was omnipotent at that time, then Jesus is not God (presumably Christians want to say God is eternally, or timelessly, omnipotent, and so was omnipotent even while Jesus lived).

Sam Norton said...

Hi Stephen - do you ever have conversations with your colleagues at Heythrop about these matters? The question occurred to me recently when there was a discussion in the comments about whether philosophers were more likely to be atheists or not (the sense being that if you study, eg, philosophy of religion at a high level then you wouldn't continue as a Christian) - but then, most believers who study these things, and are academically capable, are just as likely to become theologians as philosophers, and end up teaching at places like Heythrop.

When I started studying theology these were the sorts of arguments (square circles etc) I came out with, and was then disabused of by those with expertise in the subject. You're surrounded by such people (people with much more expertise than I have) so it seems odd that you make these arguments in the way that you do.

Stephen Law said...

Sam - don't get to talk with them as much as I would like.

If you were indeed disabused of worries about square circles etc. by those with "expertise" (which you imply I lack) - do please share their wisdom.

Otherwise you response sounds like: "I once heard some clever people say this was all nonsense, only, er, I can't quite remember what their point was, and, er...well, they're certainly much more knowledgable than you so I will safely put your arguments to one side!"

Were these people with expertise philosophers (like Hick) or theologians?

Sam Norton said...

Sorry, didn't mean to come across as snooty! It's just that the argument would take a different form to what you have said, that is, you'd engage with it from a different direction, and take more of the theologian's arguments into consideration.

For example, as I understand it, the right way to understand the incarnation is not to begin with concepts of God and humanity that are then used to understand Christ, but to begin with Christ and use that to understand what 'God' and 'human' mean. The word 'God' doesn't mean quite the same thing in Christian theology as it does in philosophical discussion, partly because of the impact of revelation and Scripture, partly because of the importance of the mystical tradition.

Another element would be to discuss the concept of kenosis, which is central to understanding the incarnation (see Philippians 2.6-11) and what 'Son of God' language does in the Hebrew literature, and how it evolved into the Christian claims.

Now there are lots of ways in which this theology can be criticised - and, let me be clear, I'd be really interested in reading your take on those arguments and I think you'd have a lot of insightful comments to make - it's just that (if you are familiar with them) you have chosen not to enage with them, and I don't understand why.

Stephen Law said...

Actually - I do now remember running this past at least one of the Jesuit philosophers.

Sam, don't you consider Swinburne - who takes the problem v seriously - and Hick - who thinks it insurmountable - to have quite a bit of expertise in this area? How do you know which experts to listen to?

Stephen Law said...

Hi Sam

Thanks for the post.

Can't see how any of this can helps, though. You see, if the problem is generated by God having a property that Jesus lacks, or vice versa, then what the sophisticated theological discussions to which you allude must do is show that there is no such property (excluding the notable exceptions to Leibniz's law, of course).

Yet there seems to be a heap of them. Even if "God" means something a rather different to theologians, that helps not one jot if he still has properties Jesus lacks, or vice verse.

Which, presumably, he does (unless, of course, by "God" you mean a certain spatio-temporally located, mortal, fallible, and ignorant human being.

In which case, I may concede "God" exists!

Steelman said...

It seems to me, having just recently reread the four gospels, that Jesus was claiming an inheritance of properties rather than a state of absolute identity with God. He said in John, "If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him." It sounds like he was trying to communicate that God was part of his nature and being projected through him in human form. A bit like video conferencing with God as opposed to meeting him in person. Unfortunately, John muddies things up by being the only one among the gospel writers (IIRC) who claims that the part of God that is Jesus existed spiritually prior to the incarnation. What Jesus was doing in his non-corporeal form for the thousands of years before he tried on his human skin is a good question, since he was never mentioned in the Old Testament AFAIK.

The most interesting aspect of rereading the gospels for me (it's been about twenty years) has been to see the various verses that are the basis for many different, and conflicting, theological doctrines. Both libertarian free will and hard determinism can be deduced.

I've also just read Genesis, and am most of the way through Exodus, and I can definitely see why Marcion believed that the YHWH of the Old Testament couldn't possibly be the same God Jesus claimed was his father. Christians in general, and fundamentalists in particular, have their work cut out for them in attempting to harmonize the ancient near eastern religious practices of the OT with the theology of the NT. That, I think, is an even larger problem than trying to logically explain the incarnation, except for Calvinists of course. But with a "good" God like that there's practically no need for Satan.

David Gawthorne said...


Just to press my point a little, if there are any exceptions to LL then the Christian might get away with saying that this is just another one. What principled basis is there for allowing some exceptions but not others?

We might ask why LL only applies to time-indexed properties (and what does it mean for a property to be time-indexed, anyway, other than providing an answer to the problem of change)?

Maybe you prefer an eternalist view of time, with four-dimensional objects and time slices to explain change. Yet, everyday reason does not appear to assume such a view. So, simply appealing to an exception to LL may be available to a Christian from an ordinary language perspective.

Stephen Law said...

Dear David

Well, first of all, the accepted exceptions to LL are explicable. We can explain why LL does not hold with respect to them.

Second, some of the properties in question are clearly properties to which LL applies in all other cases, such as the property of dying at time t0. If Bert has it and Joe doesn't, Bert is not Joe. But then If Jesus died at t0, and God did not, God is not Jesus. Note it's the same property in both cases. And LL applies in the first case. Why not the second.

Third, to say: "Ah, but these are just more exceptions to LL" when faced with the problem (for you) is, then, entirely ad hoc.

It's like me believing K2 and Everest are the same mountain, you pointing out they are different heights so I must be mistaken, and me responding that, in the case of this mountain, height is not a property to which LL applies!

Stephen Law said...

Incidentally, not only does Mark - widely considred the earliest gospel - not mention the nativity, Mark says the Jesus own family deemed Jesus nuts:

3:20 Now Jesus went home, and a crowd gathered so that they were not able to eat. 3:21 When his family heard this they went out to restrain him,19 for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

I guess his family forgotten about his virgin birth, the angel, and all that, then?

I imagine there are all sorts explanations offered by Christians for their seeming forgetfulness!

Sam Norton said...

Stephen, you said "if the problem is generated by God having a property that Jesus lacks, or vice versa, then what the sophisticated theological discussions to which you allude must do is show that there is no such property... Even if "God" means something a rather different to theologians, that helps not one jot if he still has properties Jesus lacks"

As I understand it a) God can't be included in any set, eg the set of green things, or the set of existent beings, or anything else. So there is no group of 'entities with property X' which includes God; b) a different way of putting that point is to say 'for any X which is acribed as a property to God, it is also true to ascribe the property not-X to God'; c) the Christian claim is not that Jesus (whilst incarnate) possessed all the properties of God. It would be clearer to say that Jesus was divine (sharing the divine properties if you like) rather than God as such. That's the whole burden of the doctrine of kenosis that I pointed to.

All of which is to say that applying Liebniz's Law depends on certain assumptions about what it is being applied to; assumptions which I doubt we would agree on!

Kyle said...

I think you are making a mistake about where the burden of proof lies.

This issue is a very complicated one that has been debated by theologians and pilosophers for thousands of years, as you point out. On the other hand, the issue of a square circle is not as complicated and not as debated. I believe this is an important difference.

Imagine the following discussion:

Believer: I believe that there existed/exists a person called Jesus who was both fully man and fully God

Sceptic: How can you just come out and tell me that this person really exists? Don't you realise that it's not even clear whether this makes any sense? You have to show that Godness and Manness are compatible before you go round telling people that there really is some person with both. Just in the same way that I would have to show you that square circles were possible before you went looking for one with me.

B: But I've thought about this issue long and hard and i've read lots of books about it and I still can't decide. Sometimes I think that they definitely are compatible sometimes i think they definitely aren't. The only settled opinion I've come to is that I'm just not sure.

S: Well, I'm sorry, but it just doesn't make sense to go around believing in things if you're not even sure that the idea of the thing makes any sense.

B: But I've come up with a way of avoiding this problem.

S: Go on then.

B: Well, I looked into whether such a person existed, and I came to the conclusion that there was one: Jesus. I then realised that if there was a person who was God and man then there was obviously a solution to the problem of Godness and manness, even if I didn't know what it was.

S: You can't just do that, you're sweeping the problem under the carpet. Just like I can't just ignore the problem of a square cirlce by saying that I believe one exists.

B: But it's not the same as that. If you tell me you believe that there's a square circle then I can show you a really solid proof that what you're talking about makes no sense. However, if I tell you I believe in a Godman then all you can say is that the claim that this makes sense is controversial. Until you can come up with a proof as solid as the one against the square circle then I can believe that Godness and manness are compatible because they actually combine in Jesus.

Steelman said...

To Kyle:
B: Well, I looked into whether such a person existed, and I came to the conclusion that there was one: Chiron. I then realised that if there was a person who was horse and man then there was obviously a solution to the problem of horseness and manness, even if I didn't know what it was.

Equally valid?

Stephen Law said...

Hello Sam

Interesting comment. You say:

“God can't be included in any set, eg the set of green things, or the set of existent beings, or anything else. So there is no group of 'entities with property X.”

This seems to be deny God has any properties. But that denial involves attributing to him a property – that of lacking any properties. So, er, it involves a straightforward logical contradiction. Hence it cannot be true. However, even if it were true that God lacks all properties, we could still run LL: God lacks properties. Jesus does not. Therefore: Jesus is not God.

You then say:

"a different way of putting that point is to say 'for any X which is ascribed as a property to God, it is also true to ascribe the property not-X to God"

This is not a different way of making the same point. It's a different point. But in any case, we can still run LL: God is such that for any property X he possesses, he also possesses not-X, This is not true of Jesus. Therefore Jesus is not God.

You then say:

the Christian claim is not that Jesus (whilst incarnate) possessed all the properties of God. It would be clearer to say that Jesus was divine (sharing the divine properties if you like) rather than God as such.

Well fine, Jesus is not “God, as such”. I agree. Problem solved. As to whether he shares some divine properties, that’s another question entirely. Argue about that elsewhere.

Quick response to Kyle. The reason a point is controversial may not be because it is not, actually, decisively settled by the available evidence, but because people don’t agree. The lack of agreement may have another cause. True, they don’t agree on this issue. But then nor do they on, say, whether the universe is just 6k years old (perhaps the dominant Christian belief about the universe’s age, globally speaking). Still, the evidence does decisively settle that issue. The lack of agreement is down, not to the lack of conclusive evidence and argument, but because we are dealing with religion, which has track record of getting smart people to believe very silly things. So I wouldn’t put too much weight on the “controversy” if I were you.

Kyle said...

In response to steelman:

I'm not saying that Believer has proved the existence of a person who is fully God and fully man. Instead, it is perfectly acceptable to look at the evidence and consider whether such a person did actually exist before this controversy is resolved.

In response to Stephen:

It sounds like you're saying that this issue has been settled and there is a really good proof to show that being God and being a man are logically incompatible. I reply by saying that the issue is not resolved as evidenced by the number of people who are still not convinced. And you say that we can ignore all those people because most of them are religious and religious people believe stupid things anyway. It seems a bit unfair in a debate like this to discount the views of religious people because they are inclined to believe stupid things.

I don't even really need controversy to make my point work.

Take for example that 'All triangles have angles that sum to two right angles' (call this t). t is true in euclidean geometry, in fact it is true a priori, there is no need to go and check. In fact, if someone tells you that they have found a triangle that has angles with a different sum you can be sure their wrong. Or are they?

If you have three stars and measure the angles that they make you will find that in fact they sum to less than two right angles; a contradiction of t. So, in this case should the mathematicians simply reply that this is wrong, and confidently assert that this is not true. Or should they instead (as they have done) recognise that euclidean geometry is not the only valid geometry on offer?

The problem with saying that you don't need to look at the evidence about the person of Jesus because you have a proof that shows that the concept is logically inconsistent is that we can always get our logic wrong. If someone geniunely did find a square circle, we'd all have to rethink things, not just turn away and blindly assert that it can't be true.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Kyle

I am not suggesting all believers are stupid (heaven forbid). Just that, because religion is such an intoxicating and heady brew, the mere fact that many of the faithful dispute something doesn't mean that the issue has not, in fact, been pretty decisively by the available evidence and arguments.

You may be on to something, I think. I might concede that perhaps even certain logical principles might need to be revised in the face of extraordinary evidence.

However, we are not looking at extraordinary evidence for abandoning LL. After all, ven the early Christians disagreed among themselves over whether Jesus was God. Even if the evidence for Jesus' existence and even his resurrection was good (which it isn't, but I'll let that pass), it wouldn't follow that evidence for him being God is good. The evidence, in fact, is at least dubious - which is why it was such a matter of controversy.

And in any case, the evidence would have to be extremely good before we'd be justified in giving up LL.

Perhaps I should say how I view this objection (based on LL) to the doctrine of incarnation. I don't say it's a conclusive proof that Jesus is not God. But I think it adds significantly to the case for saying J is not God. That case also includes, for example, the evidential problem of evil, which is very good evidence that there is no God.

Sam Norton said...

Hi Stephen - both a) and b) are applications of the logic of religious language (ie apophaticism), which is why I said they were 'the same point'. Obviously they're not exactly the same point or I wouldn't have distinguished them...

With respect I think you're being Procrustean here, and I would repeat my plea for you to engage with some of the theological discussions of this issue. As it is we're simply not having a meeting of minds. Why don't you write a review of, say, Denys Turner's 'The Darkness of God' which goes into this topic (apophatic language) in depth, and with academic rigour?

However, you say you're happy to accept that the claim that Jesus is not 'God as such' solves the problem. Well, there we go. You're happy to accept that kenotic Christology meets your criteria for logical consistency, which means that the Incarnation is not a logically inconsistent doctrine, and therefore Christians can sleep easier at night! (Said with a grin, just in case text makes it sound ruder than I mean it to be)

Stephen Law said...

I did read an article by Turner on this stuff. I thought it cobblers (but then I would, wouldn't I?).

You are a heretic, according to Chalcedon (which decreed the Nestorians, Appolonarians, etc. heretical). You are also using "incarnation" in a different way to me, and indeed, to its standard definition. That's OK, so long as you are clear.

Urbane Spaceman said...

Would not a circle of infinite diameter have straight sides?

Sam Norton said...

On the contrary, I am 100% Chalcedon compliant. The sole thing that I am aware of being unorthodox about is that I don't accept a literal virginal conception (and I'm doing a series on that on my blog at the moment). In other words, if I might be so bold, I suspect I understand the doctrine of the incarnation a little bit better than you do (which, given our respective professions, shouldn't be surprising, even for an Anglican priest)! So yes, I'm sure I am using the word differently to you, but differently to how the church has understood it down the ages? I think not.

(Though, having said that, if you can persuade me that I AM articulating something non-Chalcedonian then I shall confess the error of my ways and promptly embrace the Chalcedonian understanding. I have no interest in being unorthodox on this matter.)

Stephen Law said...

I am confused about your view, Sam. You said:

"It would be clearer to say that Jesus was divine (sharing the divine properties if you like) rather than God as such."

Is your view that Jesus possessed not all the divine attributes but only some of them?

Possessing only some properties also possessed by God doesn't make Jesus "fully God", which is, surely, the Chalcedon view? Heretic!

Or is your view that Jesus has all the divine properties? Then he is omnipotent, omniscient, incapable of death, etc. But then we hit the problem that Jesus grew in wisdom, was tempted and so on...

We're back to square one again!

See - apply even just a bit of logic and it all starts to sound like gibberish.

I grant you are more knowledgeable about theology. But as a philosopher, I might be more expert at determining whether what you are saying actually solves the logical puzzle with which we are grappling - or indeed even makes sense.

Your final line is weird. If it turned out there's been a terrible muddle and Chalcedon actually said Jesus is a cosmic Teddy Bear, would you then accept that?

P.S. a further (rather incidental) thought - presumably, if omnipotence is on the list of Jesus' properties, and also God's, then Jesus will have to be numerically identical with God, as I take it we cannot have two omnipotent beings. So Jesus must indeed be "God as such"(which you deny).

I think the best bet here is to pursue Swinburne-type moves... I can't yet see how what you or Denis Turner have said amounts to much more than waffle (though I am willing to be corrected on that).

scott roberts said...

Stephen said: I can't yet see how what you [Sam] or Denis Turner have said amounts to much more than waffle (though I am willing to be corrected on that)?

This is indeed the underlying issue here. Putting aside the specific issue of the incarnation, one can ask if there is any topic that (a) matters, but (b) cannot be addressed within the confines of Aristotelian logic, requiring instead what might be called mystical logic, for example what Nishida calls the logic of contradictory identity. (See here for what I mean by this, and why I think it is required.)

Mystics, obviously, say that there are, for example (from one who is more articulate than most):

While in the State [of High Indifference, as he called it], I was particularly impressed with the fact that the logical principle of
contradiction had no relevancy. It would not be correct to say that this principle was violated, but rather, that it had no application. For to isolate any phase of the State was to be immediately aware of the opposite phase as the necessary complementary part of the first. Thus the attempt of self-conscious thought to isolate anything resulted in the immediate initiation of a sort of flow in the very essence of consciousness itself, so that the nascent isolation was transformed into its opposite as co-partner in a timeless reality....It seemed to be the real underlying fact of all
consciousness of all creatures.
[Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Experience and Philosophy, p.286]

Hence the philosophical debate is between those (like myself) who see apophaticism as required in the intellectual confrontation with reality, and those who don't. And I think this has to be resolved (or at least understood as an irreconcilable difference) before debating any specific doctrine.

Sam Norton said...

Hi Stephen,
We need to distinguish two references of 'Jesus', one being Jesus-as-he-was-alive-on-earth, and the other being the divine logos, 2nd person of the Trinity etc. The Christian claim is that the first is the incarnation (ie the expression in human flesh) of the second. When full divinity is attributed to "Jesus" at Chalcedon it's the 2nd which has all the divine attributes. This is part of what kenotic Christology means. So I would say: 'Jesus of Nazareth' was as human as you and me; 'Jesus the logos' is wholly divine. And I would say the former whilst also saying that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, ie shared in the divine nature, revealed the divine nature, was transparent to the divine nature etc. So far as I can tell I'm completely orthodox in that formulation.

As for logical puzzles, if my philosophy isn't up to scratch then I blame my tutors (grin) but I think there is a real difference between us here, with respect to what logic, in and of itself, can achieve (and Scott makes a related point).

The sorts of things I would say are:
a) consistency is not the same as truth;
b) inconsistency (ie an apparently illogical conclusion) can point either to a faulty argument or to faulty premises;
c) the response to inconsistency is therefore to investigate in both directions;
d) sometimes, humanly speaking, we have to be prepared to 'live with the tension', ie admit to a logical paradox without abandoning a particular position (science abounds with examples of this, it's not a peculiarly mystical point - it's the precondition for a paradigm shift);
e) it's perfectly possible to point out logical flaws and puzzles in Christian belief, but I thought Kyle made an excellent point in respect to that.

More broadly I'm not sure you've got the grammar of Christian belief right. That is, you seem to take something like the incarnation as a posited concept - and, therefore, if it can be shown that the concept is incoherent, it collapses. Yet Christian belief, especially about Jesus, doesn't work like that. It begins with the worship (ie the revelation or choice that Jesus shows what is of highest value in human life) and the theological arguments follow along in its wake. Wittgenstein said something along the lines of 'arguments never turn anyone into a Christian, what theologians are doing is to try and give an intellectual expression of their faith' and he was exactly right (I'm away from my main computer at the moment otherwise I'd cite the exact quotation).

Your post about Christmas carols, and Witt on Frazer was much more interesting in that regard, although you seemed to imply that Witt saw religious belief as essentially expressivist, and I'm not sure that's true.

As for Jesus being a teddy bear, my point is that the church has authority, I accept that authority, and (within certain limits) I trust that the church knows more about this - drawing on 2000 years of highpowered reflection - than I do. So if the church turns round and says 'you've got it wrong' I'm likely to believe them.

Stephen Law said...

Let’s recap.

It’s a simple problem to set up.

If the hypothesis is that Jesus is numerically identical with God, LL entails that (with certain well-known exceptions), whatever properties one has, the other has.

But God has properties Jesus lacks (omniscience, omnipotence) and Jesus has properties God lacks (mortality, etc.). It then follows that Jesus is not identical with God.

However, perhaps the claim is (and this seems to be your understanding) not that they are numerically identical, but that Jesus is not only fully human, but fully divine.

However, this gets you into trouble as well, as I pointed out.

So now a further claim emerges: you are now saying there are two Jesuses: the divine “logos” one and the incarnate, fully human one.

And (is this right?) the incarnate one is also divine. But, er, not fully divine.

Is that it? So, incarnate Jesus is fully human, and *partially* divine?

And Jesus number two is not human at all, but fully divine?

If your view is that Jesus, the human, was fully human and partially divine, then I think you are still in trouble. But I need clarification first.

(Incidentally, if the above is indeed your view, why not just set it out clearly like this? Why the cryptic references and jargon that require that I then have to patiently tease it all out of you?)

Your comment about the “grammar” of Christian belief won’t get you off the hook.

It doesn’t matter, whether your belief starts with arguments. If you hold beliefs capable of being true or false, then arguments apply. And those arguments may show that what you believe is false.

Saying “But look, my might belief wasn’t, in the first instance, based on an argument,” is beside the point.

Compare this very flaky move: “But your logical and scientific arguments against astrology don’t matter, for you see, I don’t start with arguments – rather, I start with my faith in astrology, and I then see how what I observe can be made to fit my belief!”

[But in any case, actually, many Christians do start out from argument. That’s how many of those very effective US evangelicals suck people in, in fact – they give crap, but highly seductive, arguments (though they mix in a lot of emotional manipulation, and other stuff too, of course).]

Sam Norton said...

Hi Stephen,
2 things - a) I think I'd be better off writing up a longer positive post which you can dig in to rather than (as you put it) dragging things out of me piecemeal - not least because I might in fact be unorthodox on this. Which is why I started out by saying it would be better if you engaged with your colleagues, because they're more up to speed on the details than I am; b) I still disagree about the 'grammar' point. It's a bit like saying to someone driving a car that if they don't know how an engine works, therefore they can't drive. But they are driving. Discussing the way an engine works and the nature of combustion is all very well but it's not directly relevant to the practice of driving. In other words the truth or falsity of Christian belief is not the same sort of truth or falsity as applies to conceptual philosophy, it's grounded in a different form of life, the language is doing different things.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Sam

Thought you might enjoy this quote (you probably remember it!):

Neilson on that "form of life" in which belief in fairies, goblins and demons existed:

“That a language game was played, that a form of life existed, did not preclude our asking questions about the coherence of the concepts involved and about the reality of what they conceptualized.” Neilson, “Wittgensteinian Fideism”, Philosophy, July 1967, p 208.

Ditto God.

I think your car engine analogy no good. The idea is one can drive without understanding the mechanics that allow it, and worship without understanding...well, what? What the justification for the belief is, if any?

True, but that doesn't mean that what is believed is not open to critical scrutiny by outsiders, and indeed, that it cannot perhaps be shown by them to be false. Compare Nielson on fairies, above.

Angry at cobblers said...


Partially Divine. Does that even make sence. Isn't that like saying 'A little bit perfect'?
What is it to be a God, what are the criteria?


That non-sense about different language.......what a load of cobblers. Reads like this:

'I've run of coherant arguments so i'll just lob in an illogic granade and make mess of everthing'

Higher Truth, Different Truth, Different way of Knowing.....cobblers. Pure and simple.

Truth is not negotiable.

Sam Norton said...

In what way is belief in fairies and goblins comparable to Christianity? That's precisely what's at issue. And I'd much rather run with Wittgenstein himself: "Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For ‘consciousness of sin’ is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it."

It's the 'actually takes place in human life' bit that I'm trying to emphasise - the logical explorations, eg in defining the creeds and so on, are much closer to being dispensable epiphenomena rather than the structural foundations which, if shown to be contradictory (or paradoxical) will require the building to collapse.

BTW I found the quotation I referred to earlier, in Culture and Value, from 1950: "A proof of God’s existence ought really to be something by means of which one could convince oneself that God exists. But I think that what believers who have furnished such proofs have wanted to do is give their “belief” an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs."

Wittgenstein really understood the point that I'm trying to make, as evidenced in many different ways. It seems strange that I struggle to make it clear here.

Steven Carr said...

'A circle, by definition, cannot have any straight sides.'

What is your definition of a circle?

My definition is that a circle is the locus of all points that are an equal distance from a fixed point.

It is though, much harder to claim that Jesus was both a human being (which is a contingent thing), and an alleged god, which is alleged to be a necessary being.

How can anything be both necessary and contingent?

Joe said...

I think one of the problems we face is the use of language, and the use of language when we are talking about God.
When we say 'God is...' it is not the same as when we say 'Something is...' beacause God is not 'one of a kind' so to speak.
i.e. we know what a circle is because at some point the first ever circle was drawn, named a circle and all other circles are now based on that original circle. Therefore we conclude that a circle has to be based on the original. God cannot be defined in the same way, because he is not based on a 'god model'.

You say that God is omnipotent, cannot die etc but Jesus wasn't omnipotent and did die etc, therefore by logic Jesus is not God. But since when did we decide what God can and can't be? God is God and his attributes do not define him as God for that would then make those attributes 'god' in their own right. Therefore, God is only what God is, or in other words, is not what we define him as.

Jesus therefore was fully God because he revealed fully who God is. We may say 'God is this and God is that' from our own thinking, but Jesus says 'No! If you want to know who God is, look at me.' Since when can we decide whether God can die or not? he is God and is able to do what he likes!
Not only did Jesus fully reveal who God is (because he is fully God), but he also revealed what true humanity is. If we want to know what true humanity looks like then we need to look at Jesus who revealed it to us (because he was also fully human).

The Incarnation is a mystery, but I've got no problem with that because God is God and thankfully we don't decide what he should or shouldn't be like. It's when we do that all the trouble happens...