Wednesday, December 17, 2014

And the Word Became Flesh: A Metaphorical Incarnation Cannot Provide Salvation

 The following partially satisfies the requirements for Dr. Jamie Dew's class: Faith, Reason and the Christian Mind at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

And the Word Became Flesh:
A Metaphorical Incarnation Cannot Provide Salvation

The deity of Jesus of Nazareth has been the cornerstone of orthodox Christian belief since the fourth century. However, starting in the late eighteenth century, critical examination of the New Testament began to gain momentum. Throughout the enlightenment and into the post-modern world, more and more liberal theologians and religious philosophers have claimed that Christ never said he was God, and was in fact only an eccentric Rabbi, who was a good moral teacher. If Jesus were not God, the Gospel would not be a gospel at all and would just be a legend. From the followers of Arius in the fourth century to modern pluralists, the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth is historically one of the most troublesome challenges to Christianity.

A metaphorical view of Jesus Christ opens the door to the pluralist view that Christianity is no better than any other religion. Philosopher John Hick has written extensively to try and justify religious pluralism. He attempts to systematically break down the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was literally God Incarnate and tries to show that this view cannot be rationally held. He famously states that “to say, without explanation, that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was also God is as devoid of meaning as to say that [a] circle drawn with a pencil on paper is also a square.”[1] Hick also promotes an idea of divine incarnation that is best understood metaphorically, believing that Christians who believe in the traditional idea of the incarnation of Christ live in an intellectual cocoon.[2] In Hick’s eyes, if he can take away the validity of the incarnation, he can take away the fact that God founded Christianity. That is the one thing that makes Christianity superior to other religions.

The ultimate question is if the Incarnation is logically justifiable, as well as if it has to be logically possible for it to have occurred. First, going back to John Hick’s “square circle” language, Hick in a later work adds to this by saying “The question, then, is not whether it is possible to give any coherent literal meaning to the idea of divine incarnation, but whether it is possible to do so in a way that satisfies the religious concerns which give point to the doctrine.”[3] Second, another common argument according to Stephen Evans, is that since an essential property of God is that God exists necessarily, God cannot die. If Jesus is God he cannot die but if Jesus is human he can die, so it is “incoherent to affirm that it is both possible and not possible for Jesus to be annihilated.”[4] Evans goes on to say that while it cannot be denied that the idea of God incarnate can be problematic and mysterious, it does not mean that a lack of comprehension is a basis for concluding that the doctrine is logically incoherent.[5] Although we know a lot about God, we only know what has been revealed to us. One of Evans’ claims is that in order for the incarnation to be deemed logically impossible, one would have to know everything that is an essential property to God’s being.[6] Therefore, one cannot claim that the incarnation is logically impossible.

Just because something is not easily understood does not mean that it is illogical or untrue. Simply having both the essential attributes of a human and the essential attributes of deity is not logically absurd. The incarnation would only become a logical fallacy if it were to be asserted that Jesus had both the essential attributes of deity while simultaneously not having the essential attributes of deity.

There is a difference between those who are merely human and Jesus, who was fully human. As Thomas Morris claims, there are two distinct, yet interrelated minds in the person of Jesus, with an asymmetric relationship between the two minds. Morris shows that there was a metaphysical and personal depth to the man Jesus that is lacking in individuals who are merely human. He writes: “The divine mind had full and direct access to the earthly [mind] resulting from the Incarnation but the earthly consciousness did not have such [full and direct] access to the overarching omniscience proper to the Logos, but only such access, on occasion, as the divine mind allowed it to have.”[7] Morris goes on to state “the personal cognitive and casual powers operative in the case of Jesus’ earthly mind were just none other than the cognitive and casual powers of God the Son.”[8] By contrast, Hick argues, “A composite mind whose determining element is divine…would not have the freedom to act wrongly. The human part might intend to sin, but the divine part…[would] over-rule or circumvent the intention.”[9] Scripture tells us in Matthew 4:1-11 and Hebrews 2:18 that Jesus was tempted. James, on the other hand tells us that “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13 [ESV]). There now seems to be a contradiction in Scripture. Morris ultimately argues “Jesus could be tempted to sin just in case it was epistemically possible for him that he sin. If at the times of his reported temptations, the full accessible belief set of his earthly mind did not rule out the possibility of his sinning, he could be genuinely tempted.”[10] Therefore, it seems epistemically possible for Jesus to have been tempted if he was not aware of the goodness contained in the consciousness shared with God the Son at that particular time.

John Hick believes that the traditional position held by the Christian Church since the fourth century is wrong. He that Jesus did not “understand himself to be God, or God the Son, incarnate.”[11] If the early Church, as well as modern evangelical Christians is correct in the interpretations of Scripture currently held as true, then John Hick’s pluralist view is incorrect. In an attempt to discredit the biblical accounts, Hick makes the astounding statement that “none of the writers was an eye-witness of the life that they depict. The Gospels are secondary and tertiary portraits dependent on oral and written traditions which had developed over a number of decades.”[12] Although the authors of the three Synoptic Gospels were not eyewitnesses, John, one of the twelve was an eyewitness, and it is John who gives some of the most significant proof of the deity of Jesus.

The Apostle John famously makes the divine nature and eternal history of Christ very clear in the prologue to his account of the gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14)

This presentation of Jesus as God by John has been viewed by some—such as the followers of Arius in the past and Jehovah’s Witnesses today—as saying that Jesus was a god rather than saying that Jesus was God. John is proclaiming that Jesus is God, and that He has existed from eternity past, even before the creation of the world. In addition to the Word language in the prologue, Jesus is called “Son of God” eight times in John’s Gospel, “Son of Man” nine times, which references the Ancient of Days vision in Daniel 7. In addition, there are seven “I am” statements by Jesus in John’s Gospel: “I…am He” in 4:26 referring to Himself as the Messiah, “It is I; do not be afraid” said to the disciples in 6:20 after walking on water (which implies deity), in 8:24, 8:28, 13:19, and in 18:5, 6 and 8 Jesus says “I am he”, referring to Himself as divine, also in 8:58 Jesus says “before Abraham was, I am” pointing back to Himself existing before Abraham (and implying before the foundation of the world). Also we see, in 20:28 that Thomas calls Jesus “My Lord and my God” showing that he knew that Jesus was God.

There are also a few examples in Scripture from Paul. First, in Philippians 2:7, Paul writes that Christ took “the form of a bondservant” and came “in the likeness of men.” Then in Colossians there is the passage known as the “Christ Hymn” in Colossians 1:15-20, which as premier New Testament scholar Douglas Moo proclaims is “reckoned among the most important Christological passages in the New Testament.”[13] In this text Jesus is shown to be eternal (v. 15), in verse 16, Paul says, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,” which shows that Jesus was the agent of creation. In verse 17, Paul goes on to say “and in him all things hold together” showing that Jesus is also the sustainer of creation. Therefore, if one holds to the infallible, inerrant nature of Scripture it is very clear that Jesus was, and knew he was the Son of God incarnate.

The traditional Christian belief states that Jesus was the substitutionary atoning sacrifice for the sins of those who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The pluralist view of salvation put forth by Hick states that “no one of the great world religions is salvifically superior to the rest.”[14] Moreover, Hick says it is “misleading to see an acceptance of the Christian mythology of the cross as the only way to salvation for all human beings."[15] Hick’s pluralistic view doesn’t seem to require an atoning sacrifice as he states “if everyone acted on this basic principle [of love and compassion], taught by all the major faiths, there would be no injustice, no avoidable suffering, and the human family would everywhere live in peace.”[16] He is saying that by simply being religious, and having a relationship with any divine being, affects the moral compass and makes one a better person.

The Christianity that Hick proposes in his writings is one that is so far removed from traditional Christian belief that it is unrecognizable. If one believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, they see that the incarnation is essential to our salvation. Without it, we have no way of being reconciled back to God the Father. Going back to the Christ Hymn of Colossians, we see that Paul says “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). When Jesus was on that cross, it is as if he took us sinners in one hand, and God the Father in the other hand and brought us together. Without his deity, Jesus could not have lived a perfect sinless life, and would not have been an atoning sacrifice for our sins. A metaphorical incarnation, like the one that Hick proclaims cannot save us from our sins.

The identity of Jesus is undoubtedly linked to Christianity. If Jesus was not fully God and fully human as Hick’s pluralism suggests then there is no hope for salvation because Christianity is then no better than any of the other world religions. The complete revelation of God in human form was Jesus of Nazareth and the Bible is the complete revelation of God’s word to us. If one upholds the true, inerrant, infallible nature of Scripture there is hope for salvation and Christianity is in fact unique and superior to all other religions. The claims that Jesus was not God in the flesh cannot be upheld in light of an inerrant view of Scripture. Though the incarnation is mysterious the Christian Church must continue to uphold the biblical truth that Jesus is in fact God Incarnate.

Works Cited

Evans, C. Stephen. The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History. Oxford : New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Hick, John. “Religious Pluralism and Salvation.” Faith and Philosophy 5, no. 4 (October 1988): 365–77.
———. The Metaphor of God Incarnate, Second Edition: Christology in a Pluralistic Age. 2 edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
———. , ed. The Myth of God Incarnate. SCM Press, 1977.
Moo, Douglas J. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.
Morris, Thomas V. The Logic of God Incarnate. Wipf & Stock Pub, 2001.

[1] John Hick, ed., The Myth of God Incarnate (SCM Press, 1977).
[2] John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, Second Edition: Christology in a Pluralistic Age, 2 edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).
[3] Ibid. 4
[4] C. Stephen Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History (Oxford : New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
[5] Ibid., 122-123.
[6] Ibid., 125.
[7] Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Wipf & Stock Pub, 2001), 103.
[8] Ibid., 161–162.
[9] Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, Second Edition, 59.
[10] Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate, 148.
[11] Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, Second Edition, 27.
[12] Ibid., 16.
[13] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008).
[14] John Hick, “Religious Pluralism and Salvation,” Faith and Philosophy 5, no. 4 (October 1988): 365–77.
[15] Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, Second Edition, 132.
[16] Hick, “Religious Pluralism and Salvation,” Faith and Philosophy 5 368.

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