APOLOGETICS: IS JESUS GOD?
The Birth of God, Part 2
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[According] to [the Council of Chalcedon's] statement, Christ is one person with two natures, human and divine:
We. . . confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhood and also perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhood, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood, like us in all things except sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhood, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-Begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference of the natures being by no means taken away because of the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not divided or separated into two Persons, but one and the same Son and only begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ. . . .
The twin errors to be avoided are dividing the person and confusing the natures. The natures are distinct and complete, and the person is one in number.
Now notice that the Council’s statement does not presume to explain how one person can have two natures, one human and one divine. That’s left to further theological debate. But what the Council insisted on is that if we’re to have a biblical doctrine of the incarnation, we must neither fracture Christ’s person into two persons nor blend his two natures into one nature.
So the question is: can this be done? Can a logically coherent and biblically faithful account of the incarnation be constructed? Many would deem this an impossible task. The incarnation is a doctrine that you either reject as a contradiction or accept as a mystery. I disagree. I think that a logically coherent and biblically faithful account of the incarnation can be constructed. And that is what I propose to outline briefly for you now. I’ll develop it in three steps.
Step 1: Affirm with the Council of Chalcedon that Christ is one person who has two natures. The incarnation should not be thought of as God’s turning Himself into a human being. The incarnation is totally unlike stories in ancient mythology of the gods’ turning themselves into men or animals for a time and then reverting to being gods again. Christ was not first God, then a human being, then God again. Rather he was God and man simultaneously. The incarnation was therefore not a matter of subtraction—of God’s giving up certain attributes in order to become a man. Rather the incarnation is a matter of addition—of God’s taking on in addition to the divine nature He already had another, distinct nature as well, a human nature, so that in the incarnation God the Son came to have two natures, one divine, which he had always had from eternity, and one human, which began at the moment of its conception in Mary’s womb. Thus, he had all the properties of divinity and all the properties of humanity.
The question is: how can one person have two natures like this? That leads me to my second step.
Step 2: Affirm with Apollinarius that the soul of Jesus Christ was God the Son. What Apollinarius rightly saw was that the best way to avoid the Nestorian fallacy of having two persons in Christ is to postulate some common constituent shared by his human nature and his divine nature, so that these two natures overlap, so to speak. On Apollinarius’ proposal that common constituent was the soul of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, Apollinarius apparently didn’t think that Christ possessed a complete human nature, which, as his critics rightly saw, undermined Christ’s humanity and his saving work.
But are these shortcomings of Apollinarius’ view irremediable? I don’t think so. Recall what human nature is: to be human is to be a rational animal. Since God doesn’t have a body, He does not have an animal nature. But God is the ultimate rational mind. Therefore God the Son already possessed prior to his incarnation rationality and personhood. Therefore, in taking on a human body God the Son brought to the physical body of Christ precisely those properties which would elevate it from a mere animal nature to a complete human nature, composed of body and rational soul. The human nature of Christ cannot even exist independently of its union with God the Son; there would just be a corpse or a zombie. The humanity of Christ comes into being precisely through the union of God the Son with his flesh. Thus, Christ does have two complete natures after all: a divine nature, which pre-existed from eternity, and a human nature, which came into being in Mary’s womb in virtue of the union of God the Son with the flesh.
This reformulation nullifies the traditional objections to Apollinarianism. For, first, Christ does have on this view two complete natures, divine and human, including a rational soul and a body. Second, as a result Christ is truly human, and so his death on our behalf is valid. Notice that Christ is not merely human, since he was also divine, but he was nevertheless truly human and so could stand as our proxy before God, bearing our punishment so that we might be freed.
So far so good! Still, the proposal is not yet adequate. For if the soul of Jesus Christ was God the Son, how can we make sense of the biblical portrait of Jesus as someone having an authentic human consciousness, developing from infancy to manhood? Doesn’t my proposal imply that Jesus was like some kind of superman, not susceptible to human limitations? That leads to my third step.
Step 3: Affirm that the divine aspects of Jesus’ personality were largely subliminal during his earthly life. I suggest that the superhuman elements of Jesus’ person were mainly subconscious. This suggestion draws upon the insight of depth psychology that there’s much more to a person’s consciousness than what he is aware of. The whole project of psychoanalysis rests on the fact that some of our behavior is rooted in deep springs of which we are only dimly aware, if at all. Think of a person suffering from multiple personality disorder. Here we have a very striking example of the eruption of subliminal facets of an individual’s mind into distinct conscious personalities. In some cases there’s even a dominant personality who is aware of all the others and who knows what each of them knows but who remains by unknown by them. Hypnotism also furnishes a vivid demonstration of the reality of the subliminal. As Charles Harris explains, a person under hypnosis may be told certain facts and then instructed to forget them when he “awakens,” but, writes Harris, “. . . the knowledge is truly in his mind, and shows itself in unmistakable ways, especially by causing him to perform . . . certain actions, which, but for the possession of this knowledge, he would not have performed . . . .” Many of you may have seen very amusing incidents of this phenomenon featured on the TV Guide channel, like a young man’s being hypnotized to think that a tree is a beautiful girl to whom he wants to propose marriage. Harris goes on to say,
What is still more extraordinary, a sensitive hypnotic subject may be made both to see and not to see the same object at the same moment. For example, he may be told not to see a lamp-post, whereupon he becomes (in the ordinary sense) quite unable to see it. Nevertheless, he does see it, because he avoids it and cannot be induced to precipitate himself against it.
Similarly, during his earthly incarnation God the Son allowed only those facets of His person to be part of Jesus’ waking consciousness which were compatible with typical human experience, while the bulk of His knowledge, like an iceberg beneath the water’s surface, lay submerged in his subconscious. On the theory I’m proposing Christ is thus one person, but in that person conscious and subconscious elements are differentiated in a theologically significant way. Unlike Nestorianism my proposal does not imply that there are two persons, anymore than the conscious aspects of your mind and the subconscious aspects of your mind constitute two persons.
Such a theory provides a satisfying account of Jesus as we see him portrayed in the gospels. In His conscious experience, Jesus grew in knowledge and wisdom, just as a human child does. One doesn’t have the monstrosity of the baby Jesus lying in the manger all the while contemplating the infinitesimal calculus. Possessing a typical human consciousness, Jesus had to struggle against fear, weakness, and temptation in order to align his will with the will of his Heavenly Father. In his conscious experience, Jesus was genuinely tempted, even though he is, in fact, incapable of sin. The enticements of sin were really felt and couldn’t be blown away like smoke; resisting temptation required spiritual discipline and moral resoluteness on Jesus’ part. In his waking consciousness, Jesus was actually ignorant of certain facts, though kept from error and often supernaturally illumined by the divine subliminal. Even though God the Son possesses all knowledge about the world from quantum mechanics to auto mechanics, there’s no reason to think that Jesus of Nazareth would have been able, without recourse to the divine subliminal, to answer questions about such subjects, so low had He stooped in condescending to take on the human condition. Moreover, in His conscious life, Jesus experienced the whole gamut of human anxieties and felt physical hurt and fatigue. My proposal also preserves the integrity and sincerity of Jesus’ prayer life, and it explains why Jesus was capable of being perfected through suffering. He, like us, needed to be dependent upon his Father moment by moment in order to live victoriously in a fallen world and to carry out successfully the mission which the Father had given him. The agonies in the Garden of Gethsemane were not mere play-acting but represented the genuine struggle of the incarnate Son in His waking consciousness. All the traditional objections against the God the Son’s being the mind of Christ melt away before this understanding of the Incarnation, for here we have a Jesus who is not only divine but truly shares the human condition as well.
So is my proposed theory of the incarnation true? I think we can only say: God knows! It would be presumptuous for me to claim otherwise. But what I do claim is that the theory is both logically coherent and biblically faithful and is therefore possibly true. And if it is possibly true, that removes any objection to the incarnation based on the claim that it’s a contradiction to say that Jesus Christ was both truly God and truly man.
But the theory does more than that, I think. It also serves to elicit praise to God for His self-emptying act of condescension in taking on our human condition with all its pains and struggles and limitations for our sake and for our salvation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, that by his poverty we might become rich” (2 Cor. 8.9). This is what we celebrate at Christmas. In the words of the great hymn writer Charles Wesley:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!
Hail the incarnate deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel!
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!”
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