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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

Did God Change at the Incarnation?

James Anderson:

[pk_box width=”690″]
[pk_image image=”” title=”” w=”60″ image_style=”square” h=”0″ align=”left” icon=”” action=”” link=”” link_target=”_self” lightbox_gallery_id=””]The puzzle can be stated as follows:

  1. Classical theism holds that God does not change; indeed, God cannot change, because he transcends time altogether.
  2. Scripture likewise teaches that God does not change (Mal. 3:6; James 1:17).
  3. Scripture also teaches that God the Son “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14); but becoming involves a change from one state (not being human) to another (being human).
  4. Scripture further teaches that God the Son died and rose again (Rom. 1:4); this also entails a change from one state (being dead) to another (being alive).
  5. So the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection seem to contradict the doctrines of divine immutability and timelessness. [/pk_box]

Read his answer here.

The Unique Gift of Christmas

“No other religion–whether secularism, Greco-Roman paganism, Eastern religion, Judaism, or Islam–believes God became breakable or suffered or had a body. Eastern religion believes the physical is illusion. Greco-Romans believe the physical is bad. Judaism and Islam don’t believe God would do such a thing as live in the flesh.

But Christmas teaches that God is concerned not only with the spiritual, because he is not just a spirit anymore. He has a body. He knows what it’s like to be poor, to be a refugee, to face persecution and hunger, to be beaten and stabbed. He knows what it is like to be dead. Therefore, when we put together the incarnation and the resurrection, we see that God is not just concerned about the spirit, but he also cares about the body. He created the spirit and the body, and he will redeem the spirit and the body.

Christmas shows us that God is not just concerned about spiritual problems but physical problems too. So we can talk about redeeming people from guilt and unbelief, as well as creating safe streets and affordable housing for the poor, in the same breath. Because Jesus himself is not just a spirit but also has a body, the gift of Christmas is a passion for justice.

But Christians have not only a passion for justice but also the knowledge that, in the end, justice will triumph. Confidence in the justice of God makes the most realistic passion for justice possible.”

Tim Keller in Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas, edited by Nancy Guthrie (Crossway Books, 2008).

Chalcedonian Definition

In 451 A.D. the Council of Chalcedon was convened by Emperor Marcion at the request of Pope Leo the Great. The settlement is considered to be the high-water mark of the early church’s christological speculation. It was formulated against the backdrop of nearly four centuries of controversy regarding the person of Christ. For a statement of the Chalcedonian definition, see below.[1]

I thought I would contribute something that has helped me understand the Chalcedonian definition regarding the Incarnation of the Son of God. Comments made to me of late speak of it being very difficult to understand, and I would beg to dissent. I admit that the antiquated language is difficult. The obscure terms are difficult. Also it is difficult in that it says what it wants to say in a long, drawn-out way – which is often the way of philosophical treatises that desire precision. But the idea itself seems to me be easily grasped.

What it was that helped me was the following. [2]

The settlement is a ringing endorsement of dyophysite [two-nature] Christology. Christ is declared to exist in two natures, whose distinction remains real even in their union with Christ. . . At the same time, however, in agreement with monopysite [one-nature] Christology, the settlement insists on there being only one person, one Son, in Christ. . . . Person and hypostasis are taken as having the same referent, so that the Incarnation becomes a sort of mirror image of the Trinity. Just as in the Trinity there are multiple persons in one nature, so in Christ there are multiple natures in one person. The famous series of the four adjectives asynchytos, atreptos, adiairetos, achoristos (without confusion, without change, without division, without separation) serves as a reminder that the two natures of Christ must be kept distinct and that the the unity of his person must not be compromised. . . . As a result of Chalcedon, it has become an imperative of orthodox Christology that we must “neither confuse the natures nor divide the person” of Christ.

The Chalcedonian formula itself does not tell us how to do this. It does not seek to explain the Incarnation but sets up, as it were, channel markers for legitimate Christological speculation; any theory of Christ’s person must be one in which the distinctness of both natures is preserved and both meet in one person, one Son, in Christ. It admittedly fulfilled the purpose for which it was drawn up; namely, to exclude two possible but unacceptable explanations of the Incarnation and to provide a convenient summary of essential facts that must be borne in mind by all those who attempt to penetrate further into the mystery. [3]

The question that Chalcedon is answering then is not, “How is it that Jesus can be God and human at the same time?” which, I admit, is difficult. Note the illustration of channel markers. In effect this says that there can be a wide variety of how to answer this question, as long as one rows their boat of speculation between the two borders marked out for them. The question that Chalcedon answers then is rather, “What are the boundaries to acceptable speculation regarding the person of Christ?”

Alternatively, one could say the question was, “How is it not a logical contradiction that Jesus can be fully God and fully human at the same time?” And the Chalcedonian definition avoids any logical contradiction in that two natures are attached in some way (perhaps we may never know exactly how) to one person. Not two people in one person, nor two natures in one nature, which would both be logically contradictory, but two natures in one person. And even if you don’t understand what a nature is or a person is, as Roger E. Olson explains, it is two whats and one who. [4] Thus the doctrine of the Incarnation can be rationally affirmed.

Footnotes

1. From C.R.T.A.: The Centre of Reformed Theology and Apologetics.

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

2. The whole chapter called Christian Doctrines (II): The Incarnation is long, but thoroughly worth reading in my opinion. (see footnote 3).

3. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, IVP, 2003, p. 601.

4. Roger E. Olson, Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity, IVP Apollos, 2002, p. 227.

Our Greatest Need

“If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.”

– D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Baker Book House, 1992) (HT: Of First Importance)

The God who condescends

“The triune God made a decision – a decision of humiliation… This decision carried with it no necessity; it was not necessary for the second person of the Trinity to decide to humble himself. He had every right to refrain from such a decision and to not add to himself the humiliating status of humanity. But he determined not to. This second person – one who was equal to God, who is in the form of God, who is himself God (John 1:1) – did not stop being God (such a thing would be impossible), but rather he took on something that was not a part of his essential character previously. He took on human nature (John 1:14).

To be clear, Christ does not become the opposite of himself by taking on human nature. Moreover, it is not as though he gives up deity in order to become man. This pattern is nowhere given in Scripture; it is, as we have said, an impossibility (given what we understand of God’s essence). Rather, just as the “I AM” remains Lord while coming down to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so the second person of the Trinity remains God, while coming down to assume human nature and therefore becomes the God-man. This, as we have said, is the covenant; as the Westministers Confession reminds us, Christ is the substance of the covenant. It is covenant condescension, inconceivable to comprehend fully, but nevertheless central to a basic understanding of God and his relationship to creation.”

K. Scott Oliphint,  in Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (P&R Publishing Company 2006), page 242.