The Problematic Basis of the Incarnation, Part I

I read John Hick's The Metaphor of God Incarnate a couple of years ago, and I quite enjoyed it, but it didn't have much of an impact on my way of thinking until I read it again last weekend.

I've decided to write an extended review of the book. It will take a few posts, as Hick packs a lot of argument into 188 pages. I want to share some of his insights, and hopefully encourage some people to read it, because I think it's a terrific and important book.

One thing Hick writes about at length is how New Testament research has completely undermined the traditional source of authority for the doctrine, namely Jesus's own teaching, putting theologians in the difficult position of finding a new basis for it.

The consensus among scholars -- even among those who affirm the Nicene-Chalcedonian formulas -- is that Jesus never claimed to be divine. Hick quotes a number of "orthodox" scholars' admissions to this effect, including Michael Ramsey, C.F.D. Moule, and James Dunn, as well as some Chalcedon-affirming theologians like Brian Hebblethwaite and David Brown.1

This development is no small matter. Hick writes,
From at least the fifth to the late nineteenth century Christians generally believed that Jesus had proclaimed himself to he God the Son, second person of a divine Trinity, living a human life; and their discipleship accordingly included this as a central article of faith. But that supposed dominical authority has dissolved under historical scrutiny.2
With the traditional basis of the doctrine having collapsed, theologians who "adhere to the Nicene-Chalcedonian dogma...have had to find a new basis for it." He observes that they have "decided that the doctrine of the incarnation does not require the knowledge or consent of the historical Jesus himself."3

Hick questions whether an incarnate God who doesn't know that he's divine is an intelligible idea, and asks further "how it is possible for the church to know something so important about Jesus that he didn't know about himself?" He has identified four types of responses:
The first involves a qualification of the admission that Jesus was unaware of and did not teach his own deity. This response holds that he was implicitly aware of it in his uniquely intimate filial relationship with the heavenly Father, and that he implicitly taught it by his actions, particularly in abrogating the law of Moses and in forgiving sins.4
Hick accepts the "widely received view that Jesus' use of the word [abba] did constitute a genuinely new contribution to Western spirituality," but points out that Jesus taught his disciples to think of and address God in the same way. Hick also points out "that to experience God as one's heavenly Father is not the same as experiencing oneself as uniquely God the Son, second person of the divine Trinity."5

Similarly, Hick finds unpersuasive the argument that Jesus was claiming to be God by teaching some things contrary to the Torah, citing the argument by E.P. Sanders that Jesus only demanded the transgression of the law in one instance, that being in Matthew 8.22, when he said, "Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead."6

Another quotation from Sanders explains the weakness of the argument that Jesus's forgiving of others' sins entailed a claim to divinity:The oft-repeated claim that Jesus "put himself in the place of God" is overdone. He is often said to have done so in forgiving sins; but we must note that he only pronounced forgiveness, which is not the prerogative of God, but of the priesthood.7

In my next post, I'll describe the other ways theologians who affirm the traditional doctrine of the incarnation have responded to the modern discovery that Jesus did not claim to be God, as identified and described by Hick.

Go to Part II.


All page references, unless otherwise noted, are to Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, 2nd Edition. See Works Cited.

[1] 27-28.

[2] 29.

[3] 29.

[4] 30.

[5] 31.

[6] 32. The argument from Sanders is in Jesus and Judaism, 267. I would argue, following John P. Meier's fourth volume of A Marginal Jew, that there were other instances in which Jesus abrogated the Mosaic law, specifically in his prohibition of oaths. Having said that, this prohibition conflicted with a rather obscure point of the Mosaic law, and I imagine it's possible that it never even occurred to Jesus that there was a conflict. See Meier, Marginal, 4.182ff.

I would further point out that disagreeing with the law does not imply a claim to divinity. Paul was far more liberal in his approach to the Torah than Jesus was, and he certainly never claimed to be divine. Sanders argues, "It was Jesus' sense of living at the turn of the ages which allowed him to think that the Mosaic law was not final and absolute," (Jesus and Judaism, 267; quoted in Hick, 32). Paul also understood himself as living "at the turn of the ages," and claimed authority on the basis of what he interpreted as a revelation to him from God. It strikes me as probable that Jesus understood his own authority in a similar way, and for a similar reason.

[7] Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 240; quoted in Hick, 32. It's ironic that this argument is sometimes made by Catholic priests -- and Hick notes that it has been used by Cardinal Walter Kasper in his book Jesus the Christ -- despite the fact that Catholic priests do exactly the same thing in the confessional everyday.

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Blogger crystal said...

Interesting. I look forward to the rest of the posts.

Am I wrong in thinking that the gospel of John has Jesus saying that he and the Father are one?

10:03 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


No, you are quite right that the Gospel of John has Jesus say that. But few theologians (and even fewer New Testament scholars), at least among mainline Protestants and Catholics, believe Jesus actually said many of the things he is quoted as saying in the Gospel of John. It is commonly held that the author of that gospel puts a lot of his theology on the lips of Jesus and the disciples.

8:29 a.m.  
Blogger colkoch said...

I'll be most interested to find out if the above theologians take the position that Jesus recognized we are fundamentally a part of the Divine energy and that His teachings were designed to encourage us to stop making a complete 'other' of God and see ourselves as part of the Divine will with a very important part in the unfolding of that will.

3:27 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


John Hick doesn't really take that approach, but, actually, Paul Knitter does something quite similar to that in his recent book Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, and I'm planning on writing about how Knitter's ideas in that book would help flesh out the proposals in Hick's book.

3:44 p.m.  

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