The Problematic Basis of the Incarnation, Part II

My last post was about a quite significant change that has taken place in Christian theology in the recent past. The recognition by Bible scholars that Jesus did not claim to be God, and the widespread acceptance of this by theologians, has forced Christian theology to rethink the basis of the doctrine of the incarnation. If it can no longer be based on Jesus's explicit teaching, it has to be based on something else. John Hick, in his book The Metaphor of God Incarnate, has identified four types of responses to this development, the first of which I described in the earlier post. Now I'll describe the other three.

The Christ-Event

The second type of response makes reference to the rather vague notion of the "Christ-event," a notion that generally blurs the lines between the events of Jesus's life and the Church's beliefs about him. The distinction between what Jesus taught and instituted and what the Church taught and instituted is no longer considered to be of any importance.

Hick notes that this idea does call attention to an important fact: "The meaning, for others, of anyone's life consists not only in the conrete actuality of that life itself but also in the way(s) in which he or she is perceived, revered or denigrated, remembered and responded to by others."1

There is a problem with this particular approach, however:
We know of him (Jesus) only because others responded to him, with yet others responding to their responses, so that a movement developed which almost inevitably came to regard him as divine in the highly elastic sense in which outstanding religious and political figures were often regarded in the ancient world. This 'soft' divinity, expressed in the 'son of God' metaphor, eventually developed into the 'hard' metaphysical claim that Jesus was God the Son, second person of a divine Trinity, incarnate. But to use the 'Christ-event' concept to validate this development involves arbitrarily stretching that highly flexible 'event' at least as far as the Council of Nicaea (325 CE), and preferably to include the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE).2
One might ask, in other words, if the 'Christ-event' can last until the mid-fifth century, why not longer? Who gets to decide when enough development has taken place?

One possible answer to that questions brings us to the third type of response.

Guidance by the Holy Spirit

"This is," Hick notes, "mainly a Roman Catholic position."3 Unlike the 'Christ-event,' this idea can be used to validate any number of beliefs, which is how we ended up with two very dubious, but nevertheless "infallibly proclaimed" Marian dogmas in the last 156 years.

I don't really need to describe the doctrine, as we're all familiar with it: the Holy Spirit, some say, guides the tradition of the Church, protecting the leaders of the Church from teaching erroneously in matters of faith and morals. Since they have, in fact, taught that Jesus is fully divine, it must be true. If it wasn't true, God presumably would have intervened and stopped them from teaching it.

Hick's rebuttal of this idea is quite good, so I will quote it in full:
The claim to divine guidance of the church’s developing theology is prompted by the immense differences between that theology and the message of Jesus himself. But it should be evident that an appeal to the Holy Spirit cannot add anything to the case for the truth of the Chalcedonian or any other dogma. In propounding the further dogma that those who created the original dogma were divinely guided, one is simply shifting the point of debate from a first-order belief to the second-order belief that the first-order belief is divinely guaranteed. But we have no way of determining whether the councils were in fact divinely inspired other than by evaluating their pronouncements. If we can accept these as true we might accept that the authors were inspired in making them; if not, not. There is an obvious circularity here: one believes the dogma to be true because the ecumenical councils were divinely guided in declaring it, and one believes that they were divinely guided because one believes the dogma to be true. There is no escape here from the question of the first-order grounds for the dogma. This third response is thus deceptively redundant.4
The Heavenly Christ

The fourth response downplays the significance of the pre-Easter Jesus to some extent in favour of the Christ experienced as a present reality. Hick does not deny that Christians may have vivid experiences of Christ as present in their lives, but he notes that comparable phenomena are found in other religious traditions. Furthermore, I would point out that whatever people are experiencing when they experience Christ as a present reality, it is not a literal incarnation of God, which would imply a physical, bodily presence. It should be obvious, I think, that such experiences are incapable of grounding the belief in Jesus's divinity.

I'll have more to say about Hick's book in the near future.


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

[1] 36.

[2] Emphasis added; 36.

[3] 36. Hick does note some non-Catholic theologians who take this particular approach, including Richard Swinburne (an Anglican), and Stephen Davis, an Evangelical Protestant.

[4] 37.

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Blogger Mystical Seeker said...

I bought a used copy of that book a couple of months ago and it continues to sit on a table because I have had other things going on and other books to read, but it is definitely on my list of books to read. Hick strongly influenced my thinking on religious pluralism and I have a lot of interest in what he has to say.

4:28 p.m.  
Blogger Meg said...

Does Hick say anything about Paul, who calls Jesus "Lord"? I always thought that meant that Paul recognized Jesus as equivalent to the Hebrew Lord, YHWH.

12:06 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


You'll like this one. I think it's definitely your kind of thing.

I have some issues with Hick's pluralist thesis, but I'll have more to say about that soon.


Hick does discuss Paul, but doesn't specifically address his use of the word "Lord."

Of course, Paul used the Greek kyrios, which certainly was used in the LXX to translate YHWH, among other things. It's interesting to note, though, that the use of kyrios for "God" in the NT is mostly confined to OT quotations or allusions. It's not commonly used to mean "God" in "original" NT material.

When we look at Paul specifically, I think we see that there are good reasons for thinking that Paul did not equate "Lord" with "God." He distinguishes quite explicitly between the "one God, the Father" (who he would presumably have identified with YHWH) and the "one Lord, Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 8.6) I think his use of kyrios for Jesus says more about his understanding of Jesus's relationship with humanity than Jesus's relationship with God.

Hick does note that one of the very earliest christologies, which he describes as "a very early adoptionist strand of New Testament thought," is present in Paul's writing.

He quotes James Dunn (a moderately conservative scholar), who said, "primitive Christian preaching seems to have regarded Jesus' resurrection as the day of his appointment to divine sonship, as the event by which he became God's son" (Christology in the Making, 36, quoted in Hick, 28). Hick quotes a speech by Peter in Acts that reflects this early belief: "This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses...Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2.32, 36).

And, as I mentioned, this idea is also found in Paul, who says Jesus "was designated [horisthentos] Son of God in power, according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom 1.4, quoted in Hick 28; the verb horizō can also mean "appoint," "decide," "determine," etc.). I think it's possibly significant that this "early Christology" is found in Romans, Paul's most "recent" work that we know of.

If Paul believed that Jesus was exalted in this way by God by the resurrection, it is difficult to square that with the belief that Paul thought of Jesus as God.

Paul's christology, I think, is difficult to fit into the kind of categories we're used to thinking in. In addition, he was not primarily concerned with careful and consistent theological definitions like we find in the later Church councils; he was interested in converting a largely gentile audience (an audience that was used to hearing kyrios used as a title for a human ruler or at least someone with power over others) to accept his message about the cross; he was less concerned in getting people to believe the right things about Jesus's identity. In other words, I think he was a bit more concerned with the meaning of what Jesus did than who Jesus was.

1:00 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Here's another quotation from Hick that kind of reinforces some of the things I said in my last comment:

"It has, however, seemed to some, and it may he the case, that St Paul constitutes an exception or a partial exception, as one whose way of thinking was distinctively Jewish but who nevertheless arrived at the idea of Jesus as the unique Son of God incarnate. Paul can be, and has been, understood in various ways; for he is (in his letters) generally hortatory and rhetorical rather than conceptually precise. He is preaching to particular Christian groups rather than writing systematic theology. He speaks of Jesus as the Lord Jesus Christ, and as the Son of God, and in his last letter, to the Colossians — if this is indeed by Paul (many scholars doubt it) — his language moves in the direction of deification. But the question is, of course: what did this language mean to the writer and his readers in the first century? The central imagery that Paul uses, that of father and son, inevitably suggests (and suggested even more strongly in the ancient world) the subordination of the son to the father. And in Paul’s writings God and God’s Son cannot he said to he co-equal, as the Persons of the Holy Trinity were later declared to be. The notion of Jesus as God’s Son is indeed pre-trinitarian. Paul’s carefully stated theological view, in the Epistle to the Romans, seems — in line with Luke’s Petrine sermon at Pentecost in Acts — to be that Jesus was a man who was raised by God in his resurrection to a special and uniquely important status. He says of Jesus that he was ‘descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead’ (Rornans 1.3-4). The Son’s subordinate role is further made unmistakably clear in I Corinthians where, speaking of the future general resurrection, Paul says that Christ will appear first, ‘then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet . . . When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to everyone’ (I Corinthians 15.23-28)." (41)

1:08 p.m.  
Blogger Mystical Seeker said...

"he was interested in converting a largely gentile audience (an audience that was used to hearing kyrios used as a title for a human ruler or at least someone with power over others) to accept his message about the cross"

I think Dominic Crossan frequently makes a similar point, which is that the language that early Christians used to describe Jesus--Lord, Savior, Prince of Peace, whatever--resembles the language that was used to describe Caesar by the Roman imperial theology of that time. He argues that this is no coincidence, that they were contrasting Jesus's Lordship with that of Caesar, and that they were in effect committing high treason by using such language.

10:42 a.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

I remember an interview with Crossan where he talks about comparing the language about Caesar and Jesus - link.

Still thinking about the last post - what about Luke 5:17-26 where Jesus heals the paralytic and forgives him, though the onlookers say that only God can forgive sine? Or in Mark 2 somethg where he says that he's lord of the Sabbath? Not conclusive, I know but ...?

5:35 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


First, Luke 5.17-26. The source for this story is Mark 2.1-12. Notice that in neither case does he say "I forgive you," only that "you are forgiven."

If anything in this story goes back to the historical Jesus, this might be it, but Jesus is merely declaring that someone is forgiven, he is not forgiving them himself.

This would have been controversial in his day, as forgiveness of sins was understood to be available only through the mediation of the temple. John the Baptist was controversial for the same reason: he made God's forgiveness available outside the mediation of the temple cult.

For Jesus to pronounce that others are forgiven for their sins was controversial because, as E.P. Sanders pointed out (as quoted in my last post), pronouncing forgiveness was "not the prerogative of God, but of the priesthood."

In other words, Jesus was not making a claim about his own authority. He was challenging the ideology of the temple cult. And, as I suggested in footnote [7] in my last post, he wasn't doing anything Catholic priests don't do in the confessional every day -- telling people that they are forgiven by God. The important difference here is that Jesus was a layman, not a priest.

As for the "lord of the Sabbath" bit (Mark 2.28), there are tremendous difficulties in attributing this to the historical Jesus, not least of which is that the evidence is very much against Jesus ever having referred to himself as "the Son of Man," at least in a titular sense.

Even apart from that, the idea that Jesus would have made such a claim about himself in an argument with Pharisees is a bit much.

John P. Meier discusses that story in great detail in the fourth volume of A Marginal Jew (pp.267-293). His argument is too detailed to summarise here, but I will say that he concludes that the "form, content, and function all argue against Mark 2:28 coming from the historical Jesus. It is a creation either of Mark himself or of a pre-Marcan redactor..." (292).

In any event, it doesn't provide a foundation for a dogma of such consequence.

4:11 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


Good point. I agree with Crossan. It's surprising how frequently one comes across titles used for Jesus when reading inscriptions and other texts about Roman emperors.

4:15 p.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for the explanations. I really need to read more about the historical Jesus and text criticism. I guess I've been putting it off, afraid I might read something I don't want to know :)

4:26 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I'm not sure if you're joking about that last part.

Either way, you might find it quite liberating, both intellectually and spiritually. That was certainly true of my experience.

The historical Jesus books I most recommend are John Meier's Marginal Jew series. It has actually changed my mind about a few things, which is no easy task.

4:38 p.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I've read other good things about A Marginal Jew - I'll look for it.

No, I wasn't really kidding. I started out as an atheist and it was a big leap for me to come to believe - I guess I'm afraid I'll read stuff that will make believing so intellectually untenable that I give up on it. Not very honest of me :)

9:11 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I guess I'm afraid I'll read stuff that will make believing so intellectually untenable that I give up on it. Not very honest of me :)

Well, it's very honest of you to admit that. I imagine there are a lot of people who feel the same way, but few willing to admit that to themselves (much less to others).

That's really interesting. I'm going to have to think about that. I don't think the truth is ever "intellectually untenable." If there's one thing I've learned from studying the work of Bernard Lonergan, it's that the truth can never be reasonably ruled out. One might, in the light of insufficient data, or on the basis of other erroneous beliefs, find it improbable. But if someone judges that something is false when in fact it is true, it means there is a flaw in their reasoning. In other words, the only thing you really have to fear is that you might fail to be fully reasonable.

Having said all that, I would point out that Meier is a highly regarded scholar in both ecclesiastical and academic circles; in fact, his Marginal Jew series was praised by Pope Benedict, who called it "a model of historical-critical exegesis" (Jesus of Nazareth, 366).

(I will admit, though, that I was a little surprised to read that!)

12:05 a.m.  

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