The Logical Coherence of the Incarnation of Christ

We begin with the Chalcedonian Creed – “We should confess that our Lord Jesus Christ is the one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the same of a rational soul and body, consubstantial [of one substance] with the Father in Godhead, and the same consubstantial with us in manhood, like us in all things except sin;. . . (Kelly, ECD 339-340)

The Logical Coherence of the Incarnation of Christ

Ng Kam Weng

First, the Chalcedonian Creed:
“We should confess that our Lord Jesus Christ is the one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the same of a rational soul and body, consubstantial [of one substance] with the Father in Godhead, and the same consubstantial with us in manhood, like us in all things except sin;. . . one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, made known in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference [distinction] of the natures being by no means removed [annulled] because of the union, but the property of each nature being preserved and coalescing in one person [prosopon] and one hypostasis [subsistence] – not parted or divided into two persons [prosopa], but the one and the same Son, only-begotten, divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, . . . (Kelly, ECD 339-340)

A. Charge of Contradiction

1) For any being to be fully God (infinite) and fully man (finite) in its being at the same time is a contradiction

2) The Chalcedonian Creed asserts that the incarnate Christ is both fully God (infinite) and fully man (finite) in his being at the same time

3) Therefore, the Chalcedonian claim that the incarnate Christ is both fully God (infinite) and fully man (finite) in his being at the same time is a contradiction.

It is sometimes added that the contradiction is as clear as asserting something is at the same time a round circle and a square.

Of course, we recognize the preceding proposition is a contradiction since we know exactly the properties of a circle or a square, being developed axiomatically from Euclidean geometry.

It would be preposterous to claim that we know the exact nature of man, considering the interminable debate about the nature of man in philosophy. A fortiori, we know even less the exact nature of God. This deficiency of knowledge should give pause to any confident assertion or presupposition that the incarnate Christ cannot be both fully God and fully man at the same time.

I shall argue why the alleged contradiction is only apparent. My current response shall be limited to responding to the charge of formal contradiction. I shall offer more substantive clarification to defend both the coherence of the incarnation and the trinity in later articles.

B. Definitions

First, it helps to clarify the terms used in the Creed.

Nature – Denotes the attributes or properties that are necessary or essential (rather than accidental) for the existence of a thing. The objectivity of ‘nature’ makes a thing what it is.

Person – Ontologically speaking, a person is the who of a what, the subjective center of cognition, volition and purposeful or relational activity subsisting or cohering in an objective essence.

‘Nature’ answers that question of ‘whatness of a thing’. ‘Person’ answers the question of ‘who’ is the case.

Subsists – Refers to the self-existence of a being as an independent entity or substance.

We can unpack the Chalcedonian Creed to carry the following propositions:

The Incarnate Christ is –

– Two whats in one who

– Two essences or natures in one person

– Two sources of objectivity subsisting in a single subjective center of volitional and intentional activity

C. Answering the Charge of Contradiction.

First, the argument assumes only a partial definition of the law of non-contradiction.

That is, to affirm A and not-A at the same time is a contradiction.

To say that a car is brown and not-brown at the same time is a contradiction.

BUT

To say a car as half brown and half black (not-brown) is not a contradiction.

A stronger definition of contradiction is required, that is,

A contradiction is a proposition that affirms A and not-A at the same time and in the same sense or respect.

Thus, to say that a car is completely brown and black at the same time and in the same sense is a contradictory state of affairs

Second, the argument relies on the ambiguity of the word “being” in premise (1).

The term ‘being’ can mean either ‘nature’ or ‘person’

If the term means ‘nature’ we have

(1a) For any nature to be both infinite and infinite in its nature at the same time is a contradiction

But Chalcedon affirms that one person subsists in two natures, not that one nature subsists as simultaneously as infinite and infinite which would be a contradiction

If the term means ‘person’ we have

(1b) For any person to be both infinite and finite in its person at the same time and in the same sense is a contradiction

But Chalcedon affirms that one person subsists in two natures, not that one person subsists in another person.

We may rephrase how the charge of contradiction may be actually valid.

(1c) For any person to be both infinite in one nature and finite in another nature without confusion, mixture, or division of the two natures in that one person at the same time and in the same sense is a contradiction.

That is to say, it is a contradiction to affirm – one person yet two persons, or one nature yet two natures.

However, Chalcedon affirms one person in two natures. Hence, (1c) is false.

D. Conclusion

The conclusion then is that the proposition of Chalcedon is non-contradictory

(1d) For any person to be both infinite in one nature and finite in another nature without confusion, mixture, or division of the two natures in that one person at the same time and in the senses just specified is non-contradictory.

(2d) Now it is claimed of the incarnate Christ that he is both infinite in one nature and finite in another nature without confusion, mixture, or division of the two natures in his person at the same time and in the senses just specified.

(3d) Therefore, the claim that the incarnate Christ is both infinite in one nature and finite in another nature without confusion, mixture, or division of the two natures in his person at the same time and in the senses just specified is non-contradictory.

———–

More technical explanation of the terms used in Chalcedon is found in G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (SPCK 1952) and Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in the Christian Tradition (John Knox Press 1975)

The above argument is indebted to Norman Geisler

 


2 thoughts on “The Logical Coherence of the Incarnation of Christ”

  1. Thanks, Dr. Ng, for the lengthy explanation. What do you think is the relevance of the creed today? How can we get people interested in it, “applying” it in their lives, how does the creed help the kingdom of God, and so on?

  2. Dear Dr. Ng,

    Thank you for the elaboration. For years, “neighbours” within our midst had launched the charge that the incarnation of christ is absurd and illogical.

    I see the usefulness of your posting in engaging in conversation with such “neighbours” who believe in the supreme rationality of their faith.

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