Head to Head
The claim in John's
Gospel that Jesus was the Word made flesh has provided Christians with
an ongoing puzzle: How can a human being be fully human and yet also
fully divine at the same time? Mick
and Rick come to very different
conclusions about the matter. One holds fast to the traditional teaching
of the "incarnation" or "enfleshment" of God in
Jesus of Nazareth. The other maintains that if Christianity is to mean
anything worthwhile in the 21st century, another way of thinking about
Jesus must be found.
I may stand on the losing side of
this debate from the start - if only because the doctrine of the
Incarnation is widely held throughout Christendom to be definitive. For
doctrine of the Incarnation] is not one more matter for the free play of
intellectual judgement. Rather the object itself is the judge, wholly
and originally; and perhaps the test of the authenticity of any
theology of the incarnation will be whether it emerges from that
judgement or prefers to establish an independent colony of the mind from
which to make raids on the church’s confession (John Webster in The
Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology, 2004, p.204).
I’m not entirely sure
what Webster means, but I think he’s saying that the doctrine is
foundational to Christianity, that it’s a revealed starting point -
not one arrived at through debate and intellectual striving. That alone
will separate me, since my starting point is that faith should not
contradict reason. Faith may reach beyond reason, but it may not be at
odds with it. John Shelby Spong puts it more vividly:
heart … cannot finally worship what the mind rejects, so in the
struggle between faith and knowledge, knowledge always wins (Eternal
Life: A New Vision, 2009, p.120).
The doctrine of
Incarnation derives originally from primitive Christian confessions that
Jesus of Nazareth is the “Word of God” (John’s Gospel) or the
“Lord” of humanity (Paul in his letters). How, it was asked later,
can a man be God and yet remain fully human? The ensuing fierce debate
continued for more than 600 years.
For Jesus to be
fully human requires that he had nothing of the divine in him while he
was alive. Even a capacity to sin was present in his human nature. That
is, Jesus was temporarily emptied of everything divine. After his life
ended, Jesus reverted to being fully divine, the always-existent Word -
and yet, as befits God omnipotent, nevertheless remained fully human.
Starting from this point, orthodox Christians are able to say that Jesus
was and is fully God and yet also fully human. Jesus is the human in
whom the divine was and is incarnated or “enfleshed”.
The above two
paragraphs are a very brief exposition of the doctrine, which has not
been seriously challenged until the modern era. I wonder, Rick, if it
makes sense to you. What happens when you reason about it? Or do you
perhaps share the position that it’s a matter of acceptance with the
eyes of faith; that the doctrine can only be stated and clarified but
not denied; and that denial of the Incarnation implies heresy - a view
almost universally held by Christian churches?
Denial of the incarnation would seem to imply heresy; with that I
agree. In my country, to my knowledge, no one accused of heresy is
liable to corporal punishment or death as it was in the bad old days and
in some other religious settings. Sanctions usually involve harsh
reproof or even banishment by the organization charging heresy; a
punishment of the heretic’s conscience and sensibilities, not pleasant
to be sure, but endurable with the possibility of going on with life and
maintaining one’s integrity. I don’t want to minimize the trauma it
may cause but it is not life threatening.
Our discussion of Incarnation once again invokes
the timeless question, what is the ontological status of immaterialism or as you prefer supernaturalism
and moreover, who is a competent arbiter of the question? If the answer
is that there is no immaterial reality, this discussion is over right
now. I choose to continue.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13-15:
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not
been raised; If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in
vain and your faith is in vain.
I may be engaging in heresy myself when I
paraphrase Paul and say, “If Christ is not considered the Son of God,
the Logos enfleshed, then Christianity is invalid, a hoax, as it
Thus, when I hear theologians and venerable Church
Fathers defend the doctrine of the Incarnation
I am sympathetic toward their motives. They are trying to defend the
very existence of the Christian Church. Were I in a similar position of
responsibility I would do the same. If you want logic, there it is.
When Christ refers to, “His Father in heaven,”
is he being disingenuous or, frankly, dissembling? Or perhaps you may
claim he really never said that.
That He was at the same time human and divine is an
eloquent metaphor for God’s accessibility to human beings and
understanding of their often difficult condition. Christ is one of us in
our struggles. That is pure theological genius.
I take issue with you that the
Incarnation is a suitable metaphor for “God’s accessibility to human
First, I agree that the
doctrine of the Incarnation of Jesus is a metaphor. That is, it uses a
word-picture (enfleshed) to convey an idea which can otherwise be
properly communicated only with great difficulty, if at all. In this
case, the metaphor was designed for ordinary people in a pre-scientific
Second, my position is
that the doctrine of the Incarnation is no longer fit for purpose. It
uses constructs (divine, Logos, heaven, Son of God and so on) which mean
little today. And because ordinary people don’t have the means to
easily fault it, they pass on with a shrug to something which makes more
sense. The tragedy is that God then often becomes less
I say the Church must now
work to replace this misleading and opaque metaphor. It may be “pure
theological genius” - but to me it’s not far short of pure nonsense.
My! That is a rather gratuitous and elitist view of “ordinary people
in a pre-scientific age.” It suggests that anyone believing in the Incarnation
is still ordinary and pre-scientific and does not have the intellectual
tools to understand the simple metaphor of God
is with us in the flesh. It will be news to my fellow worshippers in
a church that counts MDs, PhDs as well as other advanced degrees among
its members. They seem to handle the “opaque metaphor” quite
As I consider your
responses what stands out more than the elitism, is the nihilism. You
seem to define reason to exclude faith. As such it is really not
possible to engage you in the discussion of Incarnation.
You have already decided the question before raising the pen.
Why should faith not
contradict reason? Is reason so powerful, so uniformly accurate and
rewarding that it should not at least occasionally be challenged? Is
reason beyond self-analysis and reflection? Reason is an ideal faculty
but it is ordinary, fallible (even pre-scientific) humans who try to
I’m going to stick with the issue of the Incarnation of Jesus as a
viable metaphor - in the hope that my position is not entirely bankrupt.
hypothesis has not worked for me. I am forced back into the world I
experience. I can know that world in various ways. The scientific way
begins with sceptcism and ends with provisional truths about how the
world works. Other ways such as geology, archaeology and history are not
as rigorous but do everything possible to approximate the severe tests
of science. Then there are the more diffuse ways of knowing epitomised
by music, art and literature.
Here’s the rub:
orthodox Christianity has held from the beginning that God is beyond
human knowledge, that God can’t be known as I know the world. God is
beyond metaphor, beyond definition, beyond description, beyond reason.
Does that leave me with
nothing on my hard-drive? Is my God-monitor blank?
At this point I think
I’m joined by many others, most of them ordinary people like me. We
cannot load the Incarnation into our computers. The message
“Incompatible” comes up immediately. So if we Incompatibles trust
(have faith) that God can somehow be known, we must try to find
metaphors compatible with our other ways of knowing the world. As you
say, some Christian PCs have an operating system which allows input of
the Incarnation metaphor. Ours don’t.
Must the Incompatibles
change operating systems, do you think?
If your “operating system”, as you put it, is
incompatible with the idea of the incarnation,
it has a firewall against the immaterial world. As such there is no way
to accommodate the doctrine of the incarnation.
It is a hopeless loss to your computer.
When someone states that faith cannot contradict
reason, the argument is over without engaging it. Those whose hearts
cannot fully worship what the mind rejects, raise a false standard. No
one fully worships; people of faith are frequently challenged by the
contradiction of doubt swirling around them.
I could introduce the theology of Saint Augustine
and Thomas Aquinas regarding the incarnation and the intelligibility of
God, but I already know these men are not amongst your favourite
authorities so I won’t go there.
It is apparent, Mick, that anyone who has read our
debates knows there is a chasm separating our world views. I doubt there
is a possibility of bridging our differences.
Why or how a person accepts or rejects the idea of
an immaterial reality and adopts a life of faith is something I don’t
clearly understand. For my part, the ability to accept such a reality is
a gift I consider priceless.
As I have explained, reason is my method when
circumstances call for it. Faith is, likewise, exercised when it is
needed. I live with a foot in both camps.
You extol reason as if it were an absolute. Given
the fact that reason is exercised by fallible humans and involves a
myriad of intricacies and nuances, it is no wonder that reason has not
always served humanity well. We should not forget that reason is a
method to seek truth and is not truth itself.
While I would like everyone to embrace my world
view, I would never arrogate to myself that it is the only view.
Everyone has the autonomy to make choices of what they want to believe.
If the doctrine of the Incarnation offends, so be it. It offends me not.
I think we agree that the doctrine
of the Incarnation is widely held to be essential to anyone’s claim to
be Christian. We also agree, however, that it is a metaphor - one which
implies the existence of a super-natural realm. You are able to use the
metaphor while I can’t. It is incompatible with the way I perceive the
world. You therefore see no need to change metaphor. It was good enough
for Augustine of Hippo and it’s good enough for you.
However, I want to finish
by re-focusing on our point of unity - the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
I think we use differing metaphors to understand him and his
significance for the world as it sails through history, but that faith
in his person nevertheless underpins our differences.
We Incompatibles can do
without the Incarnation metaphor. New metaphors are available.
For example, the idea of Jesus as our Pioneer (Heb. 2.10; 12.2 and Acts
3.15; 5.31; Greek: archegos), makes a powerful metaphor when
expanded. For Africans and others it might be changed into Jesus as our
Ancestor. Metaphors remain essential to living out and energising our
faith. Thankfully, they don’t separate us from the love of God.
Metaphors are a method for seeking truth. They are not truth
itself, and when reified they become instruments of judgement and