Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Is the Incarnation Doctrine an Identity Theory?

I just discovered that Brandon over at Siris has posted a stimulating response to my article, "Incarnation and Identity." For the sake of orientation, we should distinguish among (i) the putative fact of the Incarnation, (ii) the orthodox formulation of that putative fact hammered out at Chalcedon in 451 anno Domini; and (iii) the question whether the Chalcedonian formulation amounts to a claim of strict numerical identity as between God the Son (the Logos, the Word, the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity) and Jesus of Nazareth, where strict numerical identity is a relation that is totally reflexive, symmetrical, transitive, as well as governed by the Indiscernibility of Identicals and the Necessity of Identity. Brandon will be denying (iii). Thus Brandon takes a different tack than the one taken by Jedwab in his defense of the orthodox formulation. My comments will be signalled by 'BV' and rendered in blue.

William Vallicella in an interesting article has raised this issue about the consistency of the Incarnation.

BV: To be precise, the Chalcedonian formulation thereof.

The doctrine leads, he says, to the following incompatible triad: 1. Necessarily, if two things are identical, they share all their (non-intentional)properties. 2. God the Son and Jesus do not share all their (non-intentional) properties. 3. God the Son and Jesus are identical. An example of an 'intentional property' would be believed to be the Son of God. Naturally, it would be possible for someone to believe that God the Son is the Son of God without believing that Jesus is the Son of God; this really doesn't, and shouldn't, have any affect on our discussion here, so the "non-intentional" here sets those properties aside.Vallicella considers this triad to encapsulate what he calls the "Orthodox Chalcedonian incarnationalism" or OCI. Vallicella is quite right that the triad he presents is an incompatible one. He is quite wrong to think that this triad is OCI. The problem is with the identity thesis (3): it is only superficially similar to the genuine Orthodox thesis, which is that the Word of God and Jesus are one person. To see this, consider the following example (apologies for the lowliness of it):

Brandon without clothes is the same person as Brandon with clothes; but Brandon without clothes is not logically identical to Brandon with clothes, because in putting on clothes I add non-intentional properties to my person. Having clothes and not having clothes are not the same thing.

BV: The analogy is problematic. True, Brandon is one and the same person whether clothed or unclothed just as the Son is one and the same person whether unincarnate or incarnate. But Brandon unclothed is identical to Brandon clothed. They are one and the same person. When he puts his clothes on, he does not become a numerically different person. No doubt, he become qualitatively different: he acquires the property of being clothed. But this is not to say that he becomes numerically different. It is crucial not to confuse numerical and qualitative identity/difference.

What is the difference between saying, "The Son = Jesus," (my formulation) and "The Son and Jesus are one person" (Brandon's formulation in effect)? It comes to the same thing. The person who is the Son is identical to the person who is Jesus.

Likewise (mutatis mutandis, of course), the Word of God is the same person as the Incarnate Word of God; but the two are not logically identical, because the Word of God can be unincarnate as well as incarnate.

BV: Your terminological shift muddies the waters. The question is how the Word of God (the Son) can be the same person as the man Jesus of Nazareth, who was born at a particular time, dies at a particular time, traveled here and there, but not everywhere, etc. Now it is true that the Word can be both unincarnate and incarnate. The problem, however, is to understand how the person who is the Son can, when he is incarnate, be identical to the man, Jesus.

Part of the problem is that you are using 'logically identical' in some idiosyncratic way that needs to be explained. I didn't use this phrase; I spoke of numerical identity. What do you mean by 'logically identical'? How is 'logically' functioning here?

It is not necessary for the pre-incarnate Word to have all the same properties as the incarnate Word; indeed, that would defeat the whole point of the Incarnation, which is the doctrine that the unincarnate Word took on incarnate properties.

BV: Sorry, but I don't think you understand what the doctrine says. The doctrine is not that the Son took on incarnate properties, but that the Son became a particular human being of the male sex, Jesus of Nazareth. This human being is a particular, not a property, set of properties, or conjunction of properties. God became a man, but withour ceasing to be God. To become a man is to become a particular man, and thus to become identical to a particular man.

There is no logical difficulty whatsoever in a thing acquiring an accidental (as opposed to essential) property. But the Incarnation is not a case of a thing acquiring an accidental property, or a set of accidental properties; the Incarnation is a case of a particular being -- indeed a necessary being -- becoming identical to a particular contingent being. And that is not easy to understand -- to put it mildly. (This is why Kierkegaard, et al call it absurd, i.e, self-contradictory, whether rightly or wrongly.) What you may be doing is interpreting the doctrine in a way that makes sense to you. But then you have to ask yourself the question: is the doctrine that makes sense to me identical to the actual doctrine?

The unincarnate Word is still the same person as the incarnate Word. There are not two persons, one unincarnate, the other incarnate; but there is one person, who has in the one case additional properties.

BV: You are right about what the doctrine says, namely, that there is one person in two natures. The notion that there are two persons is the heresy of Nestorius. But what you are not appreciating -- as it seems to me -- is that this one divine person becomes identical to a particular human person (not just a human body, but a human mind-body complex). The question is: How is this possible? You cannot answer this by saying that the Son acquires some additional properties, e.g., the property of being spatially located. Furthermore, how can the Son, who is spatially unlocated also be spatially located?

This, you will note, is what the Chalcedonian definition says. (3), which is the culprit in the incompatible triad, is a false characterization of Chalcedon and orthodoxy.

BV: I don't see that you have shown this for the reasons given above.

A major temptation of those with a sophisticated philosophical background, in this area as in the area of Trinitarian theology, is to treat the matter as a question of logical identity. It is not, and treating it as though it were inevitably will tie you in tangled knots.

BV: Whether or not it is a question of logical identity depends on what 'logical identity' means, and you have not told us anything about this. You will notice that I carefully explained what I meant by 'numerical identity.'

It is not surprising that such people begin to think of the doctrine of the Incarnation as involving contradictions. It is fairly easy to show that there is only one way in which the basic doctrine of the Incarnation could be shown to involve contradictions. Contradictions can only arise if X is A and Y is ~A in the same respect.

BV: I will be charitable and read the 'Y' as a second 'X.'

It would be a contradiction, for instance, if Christ were God and not-God in exactly the same way. But this, of course, is not the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christ is God because He is the Word; He is also human, and only in that sense not-God.

BV: You may be saying this: Jesus Christ qua Word is God, but Jesus Christ qua man is not God. Thus the respect in which Jesus is God is different from the respect in which he is not God, and so there is no contradiction. But this just shifts the problem to another spot: how can Jesus be both the eternal Word and a temporal man?

In other words, you removed one contradiction in the time-honored way that we learned at Aristotle's knee: you distinguished between respects. But the respects (picked out by the qua phrases) are themselves mutually incompatible. So I don't see any solution in this direction.

This is the whole point of Chalcedon, which has resoundingly and effectively closed off any attempt to locate an easy contradiction in the doctrine: Christ has both human and divine properties; for there to be a contradiction in this, Christ would have to have conflicting properties (e.g., omnipresence and containment in a limited space) in the same way. Christ (in his divine nature) has some properties (divine ones) and Christ (in his human nature) has some properties (human ones); what is true of Christ as God may not be true of Him as man, and vice versa. This sort of statement, in which we say, "X as Y is Z" is called a 'reduplicative statement'; and one of the things reduplicative statements do is block straightforward contradictions.They do not block all contradictions. In this case the reduplicative or two-natures response leaves open one way in which a contradiction could arise: namely, if it could be shown that there is a contradiction in one person being the subject of both divine and human natures. While I think there is a solution to this implicit in what has already been said, it is clearly the case that showing this route to contradiction is blocked is more difficult; Chalcedon doesn't explicitly show it.

To see it we have to turn from the Council of Chalcedon (451) to the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681). In my experience, the single biggest stumbling block people face to accepting the integrity of the doctrine of the Incarnation is this. We tend to think of ourselves as our minds; and thus people construct the following sort of dilemma: if God has taken up 'flesh enlivened by a rational soul' He can only do so by 1) taking up a human person; or 2) taking up less than what is required for a human person. The reasoning is that if the Word assumes a rational soul, he assumes a mind and therefore a person; but if He does not assume a person, He does not assume a rational soul and therefore does not become human. If this dilemma is acceptable, the sort of contradiction noted above would arise. However, if by 'divine mind' we mean 'divine capability for thinking' and by 'human mind' we mean 'human capability for thinking', then there is no clear sense in which this would be the case. It is not clear what else we could mean. And a single person can have two different capabilities, e.g., a physical capability for walking and a mental capability for reasoning. And this is, in essence, the point of the Constantinople III. They put it in terms of will rather than intellect; the reason I put it in terms of intellect is that this is where the problem arises nowadays. But the two cases are closely parallel. As the council said of wills:
And we proclaim equally two natural volitions or wills in him and two natural principles of action which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion, in accordance with the teaching of the holy fathers. And the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will. The only way to argue for a contradiction in the doctrine of the Incarnation, then, is to argue that it is logically impossible for one person to have two different capabilities (whether intellectual or volitional), one subordinate to the other. I don't have an argument that such an argument is impossible; but we can, I think, reasonably ask, on what basis would we make such an argument? Certainly on no basis proposed so far; and it seems doubtful, even from the point of view of mere reason, that we could absolutely rule out the possibility of one person having "two natural wills not in opposition". I put a "Part I" in my title for the same reason I did so with my Trinitarian post; all this is very rough and incomplete and will, no doubt, need a sequel at some point.

BV: This is actually very interesting. You ought to rework it to make it clearer. Your dilemma, I take it, is something like this. Either the Son assumes human flesh merely, in which case he doesn't become fully human, a requirement of the latter being possession of a human mind/soul. Or the Son becomes fully human in which case we have an apparent duality of persons (Nestorian heresy) or else the problem of how two persons can be one person. Your solution, I take it, is to construe the mind/soul of Jesus as something merely potential/dispositional rather than actual, an ability or capability for thinking. Unfortunately, I don't see how this could work: Jesus actually felt human fear, thought human thoughts, had human worries, dreaded his crucifixion. If Jesus was merely impassible God in a human body, there would have been no passion, and no expiation of the guilt of the Fall.

My criticisms notwithstanding, your post was a very good one, and by the standards of the blogosphere, outstanding. Best regards.