December 21, 2009

The Mystery of the Incarnation

As we are nearing the end of Advent, I hope that we (Christians) have all been pondering the mystery of the Incarnation. For myself, I have been doing some speculating, connecting the Chalcedonian Definition with some issues I have been studying in Greek philosophy. I mean, in particular, the argument which some scholars have made to the effect that Greek ontology is primarily concerned with the 'is' of predication (see section I of "The Homonymy of Predicative Being"). I have been considering this for some time but have not been confident enough to post it. However, I have just finished reading Cyril "On the Unity of Christ" and I now think that my reading is compatible with Cyril's understanding of the matter as well as with the text of the Council, and so I will give this a try. I am, of course, quite willing to be corrected by those better versed in doctrinal theology than I.

What I hope to provide, I should be clear, is a reading or understanding of the mystery, not a solution to the mystery. That is, I do not propose to make the matter any less mysterious, but simply to figure out just what the mystery is.

The core problem of the Incarnation consists in statements like the following:

(1a) It is impossible that Christ should suffer.
(1b) Christ suffered.

Christian theology requires that both of these statements be true. It is impossible that Christ should suffer, because Christ is God, and there is no passivity in God. To 'suffer' (in the technical sense applicable here) is to have something done to one. But no one can do anything to God. God only acts; he is never acted upon. This is known as the doctrine of divine apathy or impassivity and is an important element of classical theology. If this doctrine is accepted, then (1a) is clearly true.

Yet (1b) must also be true, for it is a central tenet of Christian theology that Christ suffered on the cross.

Now, in the 20th and 21st centuries, many Protestant theologians, including many who are overall quite conservative, have questioned classical theology, and especially the doctrine of divine apathy. After all, this doctrine comes more from Aristotelian and Stoic sources than from Scripture. I myself happen to think that jettisoning this doctrine would be ill-advised, but just to make everyone happy, let's consider another pair of sentences:

(2a) It is impossible that Christ should thirst.
(2b) Christ thirsted.

These sentences can both be straightforwardly defended from Scripture: Christ is God, and therefore is not "served by human hands, as though he needed anything" (Acts 17:25). To thirst is to be in need of water, but Christ, as God, cannot be in need. So (2a) is true. Yet Christ said "I'm thirsty" (John 19:28). So (2b) is true.

The most straightforward way to resolve such a contradiction is to locate an equivocation, so let's give that a try.

First, let's suppose that there is an equivocation on 'suffer' between (1a) and (1b) and on 'thirst' between (2a) and (2b). But clearly God cannot suffer or thirst in the way that ordinary human beings suffer or thirst. When I say "I'm thirsty" I mean 'thirsty' in a sense which makes (2a) true: something happens to me which can't possibly happen to God. For instance, I am in danger of sickness and death from dehydration if I do not get water, but surely God cannot be in danger, since his power is unlimited. If, then, we are to find an equivocation here, then we must say that Christ did not suffer or thirst in the same way that ordinary human beings do. This is the heresy known as 'docetism' - the view that Christ merely appeared to be a human being. Docetism is flatly incompatible with the New Testament and with fundamental points of Christian theology.

Next, let's suppose that there is an equivocation on 'Christ'. In the early Church this view was developed in some detail. The idea is that the title 'Christ' picks out the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, and also a certain human individual, the Son of David. The Son of God and the Son of David are both picked out by the one name 'Christ' because of a 'conjunction' or 'association' between them. Whatever is affirmed of either the Son of God or the Son of David can be truly affirmed of Christ. (Interestingly, Aristotle imagines a similar stipulation about the meaning of a word in De Int. 8.) Thus (1a) and (2a) are true of Christ because they are true of the Son of God, and (1b) and (2b) are true of Christ because they are true of the Son of David.

In case you haven't guessed, the key proponent of this theory was a certain Bishop of Constantinople by the name of Nestorius. This Nestorian picture was condemned as a heresy because it fails to take the incarnation seriously. Christ, on this view, is not truly Emmanuel (God-with-us) because the Son of God, who is himself God, is not 'with us' in any stronger sense than the Holy Spirit is with us. The Son of God does not take concrete form at all, let alone 'become flesh' (John 1:14); rather he somehow 'associates himself with' or 'conjoins himself to' a certain man, the Son of David. Thus this source of equivocation must be rejected as well.

What is left? Well, the Chalcedonian Definition uses the modifiers "according to the Godhead" (κατὰ τὴν θεότητα) and "according to the Manhood" (κατὰ τὴν ἀνθρωπότητα), and Cyril likes to say that Christ's human limitations are 'economically appropriated' (where 'economy' is a technical term for God's dealings with man and, especially, the incarnation), whereas Christ's divine attributes are had in virtue of his divine nature.

What this suggests to me is that we are dealing with two varieties of predication. That is, there is one subject, Christ, who is numerically one, and the same predicate (e.g. 'capable of suffering') can both apply and not apply to that subject not by equivocating on the predicate but by equivocating on 'apply'.

To see how this might work, let me give an oversimplified (and probably not totally accurate) version of Aquinas's theory of divine and creaturely predications. (I'm drawing on Christopher Shields, Order in Multiplicity, sect. 8.5.) According to Aquinas, the doctrine of divine simplicity means that the only attribute God truly has is divinity, and this attribute is utterly simple and unanalyzable. However, there are a variety of different ways in which this property can be finitely imitated. Every property which is properly ascribed to creatures is either such a finite imitation or a conjunction, disjunction, negation, etc., of such finite imitations. So, when we say that a human is wise, we mean (whether we know it or not) that that human finitely imitates the divine wisdom. But the divine wisdom is just one of the ways in which creatures can imitate the perfectly simple divine nature. On the Thomistic view, God's wisdom is strictly identical to his goodness, justice, etc., and these are differentiated only from the perspective of creaturely limitations. For God to be wise just is for God to be God (divine), but for a human to be wise is for that human to be a finite imitation of God in a certain respect.

The interpretation I want to propose is that, in the incarnation, the one subject, Christ, possesses predicates in both the divine and the creaturely ways, and this is what is meant by attributing some things to him "according to the Godhead" and others "according to the Manhood" or "by economic appropriation". If we combine this with the Thomistic view of divine and creaturely predications, then we will say that Christ is wise in two different senses: he is wise in the sense that he is God, and he is wise in the sense that he finitely imitates divinity in respect of wisdom. On this reading, the true mystery is that Christ is at once perfectly divine and a finite imitation of the divine.

Now, I am not sure that I accept the whole Thomistic picture and Aquinas is, of course, much later than Chalcedon. However, I think that the language of Chalcedon itself (especially when compared to discussions of varieties of predication in Plato and Aristotle) suggests a reading in terms of two types of predication. It also seems to me to be suggested by Cyril's language. Furthermore, it is the most obvious way to avoid a straightforward contradiction without running into a well-known heresy. Finally, if it is true that discussions of 'being' in Greek philosophy are primarily concerned with predication (and if this extends to late Greek philosophers like Plotinus), then there is Good reason to believe that pseudo-Dionysius means to make a distinction between divine predications and creaturely predications when he says that God "hyper-is" (note that I wrote the linked post before I began seriously studying Plato and Aristotle on being and predication, so I used the translation "beyond existence", which I now think is wrong).

Since we are coming to the end of Advent, let me close on a devotional note. I have argued that the Incarnation is to be understood as the one Christ's having predicates in both the divine and creaturely ways. From eternity, the divine Logos was together with the Father in glory and was impassible - immune from all pain and suffering. God performed an incomprehensible miracle in order that he might become capable of suffering and share with us in all things, that our sins might be forgiven and that man and God might be eternally united in the person of Christ. Merry Christmas!

Posted by Kenny at December 21, 2009 11:50 AM
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