The Possibility of Incarnation (Part 1)
Ng Kam Weng
The doctrine of incarnation affirms that God became a man in order bring salvation to mankind. As the Chalcedonian Creed says, “Our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . truly God (qeos) and truly man (anqrwpos) . . . in two natures. . . 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.”
Assuming that we accept the coherence of the concept of the Incarnation (set out in my earlier article dated 15 April 2006), I now proceed to consider the possibility of the Incarnation and explore how God can become genuinely human and yet remain God.
To begin with, God becoming human (a divine individual) means acquiring a human soul that interacts with the world through its bodily senses and functions as the centre that organizes rational thought processes and exercises will power of choice and action. That such functions are limited is of course a normal but not essential (relating to essence) quality of human existence.
There is no inherent difficulty in accepting the suggestion that there are limits as to how the human soul of the divine individual acquires new sensations (experiences) and thought processes (belief structure). But it seems problematic to accept limitation to the will power (moral choice) of the divine individual since it suggests a moral existence that is no longer necessarily good.
Some qualifications must then be in place. First, the divine individual, Christ, must be in perfect control of his moral desires. His moral desires may be affected by environmental influences (e.g., Christ was influenced by Old Testament laws), but crucially it must be maintained that Christ’s moral desire must be fully self-caused by his inner essential moral qualities. A divine individual could possibly want to do every good action that varies according to context, but ultimately he will only choose what it the best thing to do. In this regard, Christ’s human existence does not share the normal limitations of our human existence.
In other words, it must be maintained that there can be neither loss of divine qualities nor the dilution of human qualities in the divine individual. Theologians accordingly rely on two levels of description. It is affirmed that both divine and human properties belonged to the same individual. The divine qualities were of Christ qua (as) divine except that they were manifested in the context of limited human existence, e.g. Christ qua God was omnipotent. Other qualities were his qua human – ‘Christ’ qua man was hungry after fasting for forty days.
Way back in 1933, E. J. Bicknell distinguished between Christ’s ‘discursive knowledge’ and his ‘intuitive knowledge’. The former is that gained “either by the operation of our mind, by processes of reasoning or argument, or else by receiving information from others.” On the other hand, ‘intuitive knowledge’ is gained “not piecemeal, but by a direct and immediate perception. Bicknell suggested that Christ was limited like all other men with regard to ‘discursive knowledge’ but not with regard to ‘intuitive knowledge’.
Modern theologians including Eric Mascall, Thomas Morris and Richard Swinburne offer further clarification on the harmony between the divine and human nature of Christ, based on insights drawn from the Freudian model of the two minds.
I quote extensively from Richard Swinburne’s recent work, The Christian God (OUP 1994).
Now a divine individual could not give up his knowledge, and so his beliefs; but he could, in becoming incarnate in Christ and acquiring a human belief-acquisition system, through his choice, keep the inclinations to belief resulting there from to some extent separate from his divine knowledge system. Different actions would be done in the light of different systems. The actions done through the human body, the thoughts consciously entertained connected with the human brain, the interpretation of perceptual data acquired through the human eyes, would all be done in the light of the human belief-system. So, too, would any public statement made through his human mouth. However, his divine knowledge-system will inevitably include the knowledge that his human system contains the beliefs that it does; and it will include those among the latter which are true. The separation of the belief-systems would be a voluntary act, knowledge of which was part of the divine knowledge-system but not of the human knowledge-system. We thus get a picture of a divine consciousness and a human consciousness of God incarnate, the former including the latter, but not conversely.
Christ’s human acts are the public acts done through his human body and the private mental acts correlated with the brain-states of that body; and if it is to be a human body its capacities must not be radically different from those of our bodies. So there is a limit to Christ’s power qua man. If the human actions of God the Son are done only in the light of his human belief-inclinations, then he will feel the limitations that we have. God, in becoming incarnate, will not have limited his powers, but he will have taken a way of operating which is limited and feels limited. So using the notion of divided mind we can coherently suppose a divine individual to become incarnate while remaining divine, and yet act and feel mush like ourselves (p. 203).
A divine individual in becoming incarnate must ensure that in his human actions he has access to such beliefs as will allow him to be aware of his duties, and must ensure that he is not subject to a balance of desire to do believed wrong. Even though he cannot do wrong, he may however, through not allowing himself to be aware of his divine beliefs, be inclined to believe that he may succumb to temptation to do wrong and thus, in the situation of temptation, he may feel as we do (p. 205).
So then God the Son, being divine, must remain omniscient, but he can allow his human actions to be guided only by his humanly acquired inclinations to belief. He must remain omnipotent, but there is a limit to what he can do in a human way and, when he does act in a human way, he need not be fully aware of having more power than that. Being divine, he must remain perfectly good and perfectly free, but he can in perfect freedom and because of the perfect goodness of doing so, allow himself to make a choice under the influence of desire to do a lesser good and allow himself to be subject to particular desires to benefit particular individuals. But an incarnate God could not do wrong. The Chalcedonian definition is not merely self-consistent but consistent with the New Testament picture of Christ as acting in ignorance and weakness, and subject to temptation. A divine individual could become human in a rather fuller sense than its traditional interpretation allowed.
What in effect the ‘divided mind’ view is claiming is that the divine and human natures are to some extent separated, and that allows the human nature of Christ to be not a nature as perfect as a human nature could be (e.g. in Heaven), but a nature as more like our human nature on Earth, subject to ignorance and disordered desire, yet one connected enough with the divine nature so that Christ does no wrong. In particular the two wills are kept to some extent separate, so that when Christ wills under human conditions, he wills under the conditions, not of perfect humanity, but under conditions more like those of our humanity, i.e. conditions of ignorance of some of the remote consequences of his actions, limited awareness of power, and open to the influence of desire. The ‘subjection’ of the human will to the divine must then be read only as a subjection which ensured no wrongdoing, but not in the more full-blooded way that always Christ had to will as he would will if he knew all the possibilities open to him and was not subject to influence by desire (p. 209).
In short, in Christ we have both a human conscious mind and a divine subconscious mind. There is spontaneous and constant traffic between the conscious and subconscious. There is an ongoing infusion of divine knowledge from the subconscious into the human consciousness without violating the genuine humanity and active independence of the human existence. At the same time, the ‘infusion’ is limited to whatever is necessary for Christ to be able to choose the best so as to discharge his mission on earth.
Let me give a concrete example to illustrate how this double consciousness worked out in the ministry of Christ. The Gospels acknowledge that Christ grew in knowledge (Luke 2:40), and that he had limited knowledge, since he asked questions to solicit information. But on some occasions he displayed ‘supernatural’ knowledge – he knew the tragic moral life of the Samaritan woman (John 4:17-19). Luke testified he knew what was in the heart of man (Luke 9:47). Christ predicted his impending death on the cross and that Jerusalem would be besieged and destroyed sometime in the near future (in fact in A.D. 70), although as the Son of Man he did not know the exact day of his Second Coming.
Leon Morris’ words remains as an appropriate conclusion, “It is better to resolve the question in terms of Jesus’ mission. He had come to discharge the divine purpose and as such knowledge as was necessary for the discharge of His purpose was given Him. But in all other matters His genuine humanity forbids us to think of Him as in any better position than we are” (LH 48).
Forthcoming articles on the possibility of Incarnation
Part 2 – T. V. Morris on the Logic of God Incarnate
Part 3 – Christology and Double Predicate Language of Personhood