Understanding the Incarnation IV: The Coherence of Christian Doctrine

In this series of posts I have been considering an argument from The Resurrection of God Incarnate by Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne. Swinburne disagrees with Dawkins that the idea of an incarnation is incongruous and improbable on its face;1 in fact, Swinburne thinks that there are at least three good reasons for thinking that, if there is a God, He will become incarnate in response to the obvious general fact of human sin and suffering.

In the first post we saw that God would plausibly become incarnate and live a human life filled with great suffering in order to discharge a moral obligation to share in the human suffering which, though for a good reason, He allows; in the second post, we saw that living a perfect human life would allow God to provide humanity a means of making atonement for moral wrongdoing; and in the third post we saw that God would plausibly meet humanity face to face to help us live morally good lives by instruction and example.2

If Swinburne’s reasoning is sound, he has shown that an Incarnation is not only not incongruous but precisely the sort of thing we would expect God to do if God exists. However, no matter how good the reasons why God would become incarnate, the argument will be of limited force if we cannot make any sense of how he became incarnate. For this reason, we also need to consider whether the Incarnation of God as spelled out in Christian doctrine is logically coherent. Swinburne’s account of this is the subject of my last post.

The Incarnation

God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal. He has these and other properties essentially and this means he cannot cease to have one and remain God any more than a square can cease to have four sides and remain a square. How could God become human in the person of Jesus and so limited in agency, knowledge, space and time?

“To be human,” explains Swinburne, “is to have a human way of thinking and acting and a human body through which to act.” To become human God would therefore need to acquire a human way of thinking and acting in addition to his divine way of thinking and acting. Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, showed how a person can have two independent systems of belief; and how, while all the beliefs of such a person are accessible to him, he refuses to admit to his consciousness the beliefs of the one system when he is acting under the other.

The Freudian account is derived from cases of self-deception: a pathetic state of which that person needs to be cured. But it helps us to see the possibility of a person willingly keeping a lesser belief system separate from his main belief system and performing different actions under different systems of beliefs—all for some very good reason.

In becoming incarnate God allowed himself to develop a second and separate system of human-beliefs acquired through the sensory experience of his human body. The separation of these two belief systems would be a voluntary act—known to his divine mind but not to his human mind. Thus we have a picture of a divine consciousness that includes a human consciousness and a human consciousness that excludes the divine consciousness.

It is important to emphasise that God would not have limited his powers by becoming incarnate. He would simply have taken on an additional limited way of operating. And in so doing he would remain divine while acting and feeling much like ourselves.

The Virgin Birth

The doctrine of the Virgin Birth claims that God caused Mary, the mother of Jesus, to conceive Jesus without that conception involving any sperm from a male human. It is not difficult here to give an account of how this occurred; for, “it would not have taken a very large miracle,” notes Swinburne, “for God to turn some of the material of Mary’s egg into a second half-set of chromosomes, which, together with the normal half-set derived from Mary, would provide a full set.” But is there any reason why God would choose to become incarnate in this way?

Yes. “It would mean that Jesus came into existence as a human on Earth partly by the normal process by which all humans come into existence and partly as a result of a quite abnormal process. It would thus be a historical event symbolizing the doctrine of the Incarnation: That Jesus is partly of human origin and so has a human nature and partly of divine origin and so has a divine nature.” In this way the Virgin Birth would help those who learnt about it later to understand the doctrine of the Incarnation.

The Ascension

Christian doctrine claims that at the end of his life on Earth Jesus, “ascended into the heavens.” Just as, “coming down from the heavens” is clearly to be understood as, “acquired a limited human way of operating,” so “ascended into the heavens,” should be understood as, “abandoned his limited human way of operating.” In the New Testament this event is symbolised by his body rising upwards into the sky until covered by a cloud—something which readers of the Old Testament (in which God manifests as a cloud) would understand as a return to God. Thereafter he remained, “seated at the right hand of the Father”—a phrase which must be understood as, “honourably united to his Father,” since God has no spatial location. The Ascension, like the Virgin Birth, helps those who witnessed it and those who learn about it later to better understand the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Conclusion

We have seen that there are three good reasons for thinking that God, if He exists, will become incarnate in response to human sin and suffering and we have seen that the Incarnation of God as spelled out in Christian doctrine is logically coherent. Because the life of God Incarnate would be limited in time and space, the fulfilment of all three purposes outlined by Swinburne further requires the establishment of a worldwide institution—a Church—both to tell future generations what God Incarnate has done and how they can avail themselves of it. And, of course, the Christian belief in the Incarnation of God comes down to humanity through the worldwide Christian Church which fulfilled this purpose after it was established by Jesus and promulgated by his followers at his command.3

In closing it is worth pointing out that Swinburne’s a priori argument for the Incarnation has important implications for other areas of the philosophy of religion: It gives us grounds in advance of any historical evidence for thinking that an event like the Resurrection will occur. In other words, if it can be shown that there is good historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, the coincidence of the two lines of argumentation (a priori and a posteriori) will make it very probable indeed on the total evidence that there is a God and that Jesus was God Incarnate.4

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Part I | Part II | Part III

[1] In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes: “If God wanted to forgive our sins why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed?”

[2] It may seem unlikely that anyone would develop an a priori argument for the Incarnation unless they had had some contact with the Christian tradition. Swinburne concedes this point but then adds that, “Unless I had been brought up in the tradition of Western mathematics, I would be unlikely to believe that there is no greatest prime number; for I would not even have the concept of a prime number.” But, “once I have derived from tradition the relevant concepts, I am in a position to assess the proof that there is no greatest prime number.” And likewise, “we need first to be taught what a religious system claims; only then are we in a position to assess whether or not it is true.”

[3] See The Great Commission, Matthew 28:16–20.

[4] You can read my summary of Swinburne’s a priori Argument for the Incarnation in a single post here. See next the Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus. Of course, before presenting these arguments one would first need to establish the rational warrant for Bare Theism. See the Modal Cosmological Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Ontological Argument, as well as the arguments from Cosmic Teleology, Biological Teleology, Consciousness, Adequation, Moral Experience, Desire and Religious Experience.

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