Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Metaphysics of the Incarnation: What does "one person in two natures" even mean?

In my last post I showed how we must understand the doctrine of the Incarnation--Jesus Christ, one person in two natures--beginning with grammar rather than a metaphysical explanation that attempts to figure out in abstraction from the text how Christ's two natures 'compose' his one person.  This is to put the cart before the horse.  In the process, I explained how this wards off the potential rationalist objection that the distinction between person and nature is nonsense.  When you start with grammar, a "person" isn't a fancy concept, but simply the subject of predication.  And the two "natures," again, are simply referred to by different kinds of predicates.  Jesus, for instance, has verbs predicated of him that stand for two different kinds of action: human and divine. 

We could very quickly be drawn back into metaphysical conundrums, however, if we start to think about what it means to say that there are two different kinds of acts that Jesus does, that is to say, if we take the word "act" in an overly simplistic way.  Dogs and people have different kinds of acts.  One wags its tail and the other reads books.  Yet the difference in kind isn't extreme enough to be a useful analogy between the divine and human nature's in Christ.  What would a person look like who was fully human and fully canine?  Would he have a human brain with a dog tail?  You can see why it is easy to slide into a faulty compositional approach in our doctrine of the Incarnation. 


The difference in kind between divinity and humanity has to be much more radical, which is, of course, the case given that God is Being (the "I Am" of Exodus 3:14) and all created things are beings.  We use the word "being" analogously of both divinity and humanity, whereas we use the word "being" in exactly the same way of both humans and canines.  This is because all creatures have their being derivatively and are dependent on God who has being necessarily.  All created things have the same kind of "being."  Analogy doesn't just apply to "being" either.  It applies to all those other characteristics of God that might also apply to creatures: wisdom, goodness, truthfulness, holiness, etc..  For our purposes I want to explicitly point to the fact that the two-fold "action" (energeia in Greek) attributed to Jesus in the Bible is also merely analogous.  That means that the "natures" that these actions manifest are merely analogous; they operate on different levels of being.  The implication is that because our words do not apply in the same way to both natures, we should have no problem affirming the fullness of both natures.  Just because one of Jesus' natures acts, it does not mean that the other one has to stop acting (Nestorianism).  This means there is no 'compositional' problem to sort out.  John Wyclif's rule of thumb for interpreting apparent contradictions in Scripture holds here: where there is equivocation (analogy), there is no contradiction.  When we find two apparently contradictory things asserted (that Christ is fully human and divine), we must pay attention to how we are using language to see if we are speaking analogically.  In this case the fullness of one implies no competition with the fullness of the other since they are on entirely different planes of being rather than on a single continuous plane of being (like humans, animals, angels).    

8 comments:

  1. I don't understand, even with the proposed use of the grammatical mechanism, how Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. I think I don't understand grammar well enough or the method is flawed. What is a verb that only applies to divine things? How is it different from verbs that can apply to imaginary or transcendent things? What is the predicate you are speaking of(grammatical or mathematical or both)? Could you elaborate on these kind of things?

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  2. The verb (or noun, or adjective, or whatever) is the same, but I'm talking about discerning the various uses a word can be put to depending on the context within which it is used. The classic example is the way the word "health" differs when we say that someone is healthy vs this food is healthy. Any word applied to God (being/existence, wisdom, goodness ...) is being used analogically.

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  3. I guess I just don't understand your solution, or how you have answered my questions either. Nothing you have written helps me know Jesus better.

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  4. You may want to consider removing the approval process for your comments if you can. The process in blogspot is very annoying, and I doubt you are going to get the traffic to require it, and spam can be deleted if you get any at all.

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  5. Unfortunately I'm not better than the Bible. These things take time. I just offer what I think are the logical underpinnings of ordinary Christian language about God the Son suffering, or to use the traditional paradoxical language, that the Son suffered passion impassibly. I suspect I'm talking to B.L. or some other friend?

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  6. I will try to learn more about grammar in the meantime, but I don't know what you mean by a lot of it. We are not friends, but I am trying to learn more about Christianity and Jesus. Your blog came up when I was searching for an explenation on the two natures of Jesus. The way you explained it is different from all of the other search results, so I thought that I should ask you more questions to see if it made more sense. I thought maybe if I could understand what you are saying that then I could understand the concept. So fa I don't understand how any of the explenations work, and I understand this one the least of all.

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  7. I don't agree with the way the doctrine is usually taught since it is abstracted from the historical context (4th to 5th century) it was formulated in and from the concrete biblical texts that were at issue. I've tried to put in my own words some of Athanasius and Cyril's points, but I wouldn't expect someone to step in cold to understand what was at stake (John Behr's "The Nicene Faith" is one historical overview). It's an acquired language like any other discipline, which is why a better use of your time in understanding Jesus is to read the four Gospels themselves since the doctrinal formula isn't meant to be a substitute for them (and, again, some teachers treat the doctrine as just such a substitute). As you read them keep in mind the question that the early Christian interpreters had, namely, if Jesus is supposed to be the savior of mankind, the healer of a broken human nature, then what does that mean about who Jesus is?

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  8. Here's another way I've come at it: http://boldtjeff.blogspot.ca/2014/04/a-brief-intro-to-trinity.html

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