How can Jesus be both God and man?

The Incarnation is one of the essential doctrines of Christianity. It is the belief that God became incarnate in the historical Jesus who was both truly God and truly Man. Any mixing or blurring of the two natures within Christ has traditionally resulted in heresy for going against the explicit teachings of scripture. This explains why such a vital Christian Doctrine has been under attack since the beginning. Christians are accused of believing in a logical contradiction. [1]

Some have argued that God possesses attributes like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and is described as timeless, spaceless and immaterial. God has these attributes necessarily and if He were to lose any of them, He would cease to be God. However, these properties are not typically observed in human beings. Thus the question is raised “How can Jesus be both truly God but truly Man at the same time”?[2]

Philosopher Thomas V. Morris, from the University of Notre Dame, summarizes the problem as follows:

“It is logically impossible for any being to exemplify at one and the same time both a property and its logical complement. Thus, recent critics have concluded, it is logically impossible for any one person to be both human and divine, to have all the attributes proper to deity and all those ingredients in human nature as well. The doctrine of the Incarnation on this view is an incoherent theological development of the early church which must be discarded by us in favour of some other way of conceptualizing the importance of Jesus for Christian faith. He could not possibly have been God Incarnate, a literally divine person in human nature.” [3]

This does look like a serious difficulty but Morris has produced one of the best responses to this sort of challenge in his book “The Logic of God incarnate”. Following his lead, Philosopher Ronald H. Nash has revisited the argument and laid it out for us in his book “Worldviews in Conflict”. Like Morris, Ronald presents three major distinctions that needs to be understood in order to work our way out of this apparent contradiction. They are as follows:

  1. The distinction between essential and nonessential properties
  2. The distinction between essential and common properties
  3. The distinction between being fully human and merely human. [4]

Essential and nonessential properties

The word ‘property’ simply refers to a feature or characteristic of something. Properties are of two types, essential and nonessential, which we can understand by looking at the example of a red ball. The colour of a ball is a nonessential property because even if we change the colour to yellow or blue, the object would still be a ball. But the property of ‘roundness’ is an essential property, because if we were to change that then the object would cease to be a ball. One cannot have a ball that isn’t round. Similarly there are certain properties which are essential to God such as necessary existence, omnipotence, omniscience, and so on. If there is a being that might lack any of these essential properties, then that being could not be God. When Christians affirm that Jesus is God, they also affirm that Jesus possesses all these essential properties of God. This is pretty obvious as well as easy to grasp, but the real problem arises when we try to identify the essential properties of human beings. Critics of incarnation go wrong when they believe that in order to be a human one has to be lacking in omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc. In other words, it is incorrect to conclude that the lack of these properties is essential to being human. This could be explained further, but we first need to understand the distinction between essential and common properties. [5]

Essential and common properties

A common property is any property that human beings possess but it is not necessarily an essential property. In order to explain this common property, Ronald refers to Morris’ example of ten fingers. He explains that since all human beings have ten fingers, this is common property. But it is obvious that having ten fingers is not an essential property to being a human because a man can lose one or all of the fingers and still be a human being. [6] Let’s take a look at how Morris explains the importance and relevance of these points with regards to the doctrine of Incarnation:

“It is certainly quite common for human beings to lack omnipotence, omniscience, necessary existence, and so on. I think any orthodox Christian will agree that, apart from Jesus, these are even universal features of human existence. Further, in the case of any of us who do exemplify the logical complements of these distinctively divine attributes, it may well be most reasonable to hold that they are in our case essential attributes. I, for example, could not possibly become omnipotent. As a creature, I am essentially limited in power. But why think this is true on account of human nature? Why think that any attributes incompatible with deity are elements of human nature, properties without which one could not be truly or fully human?”[7]

In other words, even though you and I lack those essential properties of a divine being, where is the argument that proves these limitations are essential for being human? Morris argues that these properties are simply common human properties and not essential ones. [8]

Being Fully Human and Being Merely Human

An individual is ‘fully human’ if he has all the essential human properties, while an individual is merely human if he has all the properties of a human being but has some additional limitations like for example lacking omnipotence, lacking omniscience and so on. That being said, what Christians believe is that “Jesus was fully human without being merely human.” What it means is that, Jesus possessed all the properties essential to being a deity as well as all the properties to being a human being. Morris argues that critics are confused when they try to conclude that the lack of divine properties is essential to human nature.

Conclusion

The three major distinctions play a vital role in defeating the alleged contradiction that exists within the Doctrine of Incarnation and thus helps us in concluding that the orthodox Christology is not self-contradictory. 

 

References

[1] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., pp. 99-100

[2] Ibid., p.100

[3] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 17, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[4] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 101

[5] Ibid., pp. 102-103

[6] Ibid., pp. 103-104

[7] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 18, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[8] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 104

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 5)

Welcome back for Part 5 of this series, in which I’m looking at common objections to the pro-life perspective on abortion. If you aren’t familiar with the pro-life view, I’d recommend you take a look at some of my previous posts, links to which can be found in the endnotes[i].


“Men don’t get pregnant, and therefore abortion is a woman’s issue” is a phrase sometimes used to silence men when speaking on abortion. To be candid, I’m surprised but pleased that this statement has yet to be directed at me. As with many popular arguments for abortion, it has some initial appeal. Nonetheless, when examined carefully, it proves to be significantly flawed in a number of ways. Before outlining two flaws lurking beneath the surface of this phrase, allow me to state the argument more clearly.


The Argument

Taken at face value, the statement “men don’t get pregnant, therefore abortion is a woman’s issue” is a poor argument, since the conclusion (abortion is a woman’s issue), doesn’t follow from the premise (men don’t get pregnant). In order to reach the desired conclusion, we must uncover and insert a couple of hidden premises. With some re-wording, we can state the argument as follows:

1: Men do not get pregnant.

2: Pregnancy is a necessary condition for having an abortion.

3: Individuals should not have opinions on things they cannot experience.

Therefore,

Conclusion: Men should not have opinions on abortion.

This, I believe, is the reasoning most people express when they argue that men shouldn’t have an opinion on abortion. A number of objections could be raised, but I’ll focus on two that are sufficient to defeat the argument.

  1. Gender is Irrelevant to Validity

Firstly, arguments don’t have genders—people do. When someone offers an argument for or against abortion, anyone who wishes to contest it needs to address the argument itself, not the person making it. This is because an argument’s validity does not depend on the presenter’s gender, nor any other attribute they may or may not possess. For example, imagine my wife were writing this article rather than me. Why should we think that the reasoning before you is sound when presented by her, but not when presented by me? Remember, in this hypothetical situation the content of the article and the arguments therein are identical. The answer: if the content of this article is sound, it’s sound regardless of whether my wife or I wrote it. In truth, a good argument is a good argument whether it’s presented by a man, a woman, a child, a Vulcan, or a talking lion (think Aslan). 

In philosophy, this type of move, when someone attacks the person presenting an argument rather than the argument itself, is known as the ad hominem fallacy. For example, if a smoker argued “smoking kills, so don’t smoke”, someone might reply “you’re just a hypocrite!” and disregard the argument. However, the fact that the smoker is a hypocrite has nothing to do with his reasoning—it’s true that smoking is bad for your health and often leads to death, and therefore if you wish to live a healthy life, you shouldn’t smoke. While it’s true that he’s a hypocrite, his reasoning is nonetheless sound. In the same way, when someone objects to a pro-life argument by saying “you’re a man!”, they are simply attacking the proponent of the argument rather than addressing the argument itself. It’s true that I’m a man, but that fact has no bearing on whether my arguments are sound. 

  1. A Problematic Premise

Although the first point is sufficient to defeat the argument in question, a pro-lifer might further buttress their case by making another point; namely, that premise 3 commits us to absurd notions, and therefore must be false. Premise 3 states that “Individuals should not have opinions on things they cannot experience”. This, however, is clearly false. If it were true, then we’d have to conclude that women can’t have opinions on circumcision, or that no human being can have an opinion on the mistreatment of animals. In fact, if we were to be consistent in applying this premise, then, since no man can experience pregnancy, the conclusion would actually state:

Conclusion: Men should not have opinions on pregnancy or abortion.

Clearly this conclusion is false, and, as such, we should reject premise 3. But, if we reject premise 3, then the argument collapses since the conclusion doesn’t follow from premises 1 and 2 alone.


With these two points in mind, it seems evident that men are entitled to have an opinion on abortion—whether that be for or against. In fact, when you think about it, abortion isn’t solely a woman’s issue. Every unborn child has a father, and it’s often men who contribute to child-rearing when a woman chooses not to abort. We might say, then, that abortion is ultimately a human issue. This is not to belittle the undeniably profound role that women play in bearing children through pregnancy and in raising them, but it is to say that we shouldn’t forget or marginalise the part that men should and do play. I may be preaching to the choir, but I encourage you, the reader, to carefully reflect upon the ethics of abortion and form an educated opinion— regardless of your gender.


 

Endnotes:

[i] Making the Case: Part 1Part 2Part 3. Addressing Objections: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

The Conceivability Argument for Dualism


In the philosophy of mind there are a number of powerful arguments that demonstrate consciousness cannot in principle be explained on a physicalistic ontology. In other words, presupposing that mindless particles organised in various ways by mindless forces is all that exists leaves us without the explanatory resources to account for our mental life. Most of these arguments examine some basic property of consciousness (qualia, intentionality, etc.) and give an a priori proof that each is insusceptible of psychophysical reduction. And if the mind cannot possibly be reduced to the brain then mind and brain are not identical. Some form of substance dualism is implicated. [1]

The Conceivability Argument for Substance Dualism is different: It demonstrates through natural reason that the mind and brain are nonidentical without reference to any particular property of consciousness. In what follows I will be summarising the discussion provided by Edward Feser in Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide. The argument begins with a few preliminary precepts.

Physical Impossibility vs. Metaphysical Impossibility

Feser first introduces a distinction between two kinds of impossibility: physical impossibility and metaphysical impossibility. It is helpful here to think of this as a distinction between strong and weak forms of impossibility. A state of affairs is merely physically impossible if, though impossible in the actual world, we can give a description of it obtaining in some possible world without contradiction. [2] In this connection consider the proposition,

A man survived a headlong fall from the top of the Empire State Building.

This proposition is merely physically impossible because we can describe a possible world (say, one with very weak gravity) in which such a thing is possible. By contrast, a state of affairs is metaphysically impossible if it is impossible in the actual world and we cannot give a description of it obtaining in any possible world without contradiction. In this connection consider the proposition,

A married bachelor drafted a square circle.

This proposition is metaphysically impossible because we cannot coherently describe any possible world in which such a thing obtains.

From this distinction we can derive a terse precept,

Conceivability entails metaphysical possibility.

A Related Principle of Identity

Let us now use this distinction to articulate a principle of identity: A is identical to B if and only if it is metaphysically impossible for A to exist apart from B; that is, only if we cannot conceive of any possible world in which A exists apart from B. Consider the claim that water is identical to H2O. If you can conceive of a possible world in which you have water without H2O, or H2O without water, then, sensu stricto, water and H2O are not identical but different substances.

Applying this Principle of Identity to the Mind and Body

Let us finally apply this principle of identity to the mind and body. If one can conceive of a possible world in which you have a mind without a body then mind and body are not identical. And indeed one can conceive of such a possible world. W. D. Hart, for instance, invites us to imagine a man who wakes up one day and shuffles sleepily into the bathroom to wash his face. Looking in the mirror, he sees two empty sockets where his eyes should be. With a hacksaw, he then removes the top of his head and discovers that he has no brain. In a panic he removes his head, his neck, his torso. At last his body is completely disposed of and he sees nothing in the mirror but the wall behind him. Of course, all of this is physically impossible but it also conceivable and therefore metaphysically possible.

W. D. Hart’s example is appealingly ghoulish but there are many other ways to conceive of mind and body existing apart from one another. Solipsism is another example. Out of body experiences a third. All of them are eminently conceivable. And from each of them it follows, ex hypothesi, that mind and body are not identical.

An Objection from Opponents of Substance Dualism

Against this, some opponents of substance dualism have argued that it is possible to conceive of two identical substances existing separately. For example: Water is identical to H2O. But now let there be a substance having the properties of liquidity, quenching thirst, freezing at low temperatures, etc. whose chemical composition is XYZ. If this is conceivable, then it is metaphysically possible; and if it is metaphysically possible, then A and B can be identical and conceived to exist separately and so the operating precept is violated.

Kripke’s Objection to the Objection

However, Kripke, the American logician, fussily dispatches this objection. Let water be that substance which in every possible world has those properties which water has in the actual world; i.e., liquidity, quenching thirst, freezing at low temperatures, etc. Let H2O, meanwhile, be that substance which in every possible world has that chemical composition which H2O has in the actual world. Trivially, the substance in the actual world having the properties of water is the same substance in the actual world having the chemical composition H2O. But since “water” in any given possible world is the same substance having the properties of water in the actual world, and the substance having the properties of water in the actual world is H2O, so the substance having those properties in every possible world is H2O. And so water and H20 are identical in every possible world.

In other words, to conceive of a substance similar to water that is not H2O is not to conceive of water existing apart from H2O but simply to conceive of a substance similar to water that is not water. The case of water and H2O does not therefore offer a counterexample to the test for metaphysical identicality. And so, we may conclude, the Conceivability Argument for Substance Dualism obtains.

A Final Point

As a final point it is worth noting that nonconceivability does not necessarily entail metaphysical impossibility. In other words, it does not follow from the fact that we cannot conceive of A existing apart from B that A and B are metaphysically identical. Maybe we just aren’t creative enough or intelligent enough to conceive of how it is possible. But conceivability of separateness does entail metaphysical nonidenticality—which simple precept does all the work of the argument. And unless the physicalist can demonstrate that that precept is wrong, substance dualism intrudes upon and falsifies his physicalistic ontology and the shadow of theism begins to darken his door.

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[1] See my discussion of the Argument from Consciousness here.

[2] It is important to understand that in this discussion “a possible world” is not another planet or a parallel universe. In modal logic a possible world is just a comprehensive description of a possible reality where “possible reality” is analogous to “hypothetical state of affairs” with the added condition that its description entails no logical contradictions. And just as there are infinitely many sets in set theory, so there are infinitely many possible worlds in modal logic.