Tuesday, January 05, 2016


Just a last quick Christmas thought before the decorations come down tonight.

I don't think we understand the incarnation.  To put it more strongly, I don't think we can understand the incarnation.  Think about what we say: we say that God became a man, took on flesh, clothed himself in our nature.  I think it's quite possible to understand some or all of these words and concepts - but is it really possible to grasp what they actually indicate?  Can we really have any understanding of what it means to say that God becomes a human being?

It's interesting to read the history of christological controversy in the early church as an attempt to understand this - and it is interesting that orthodoxy, as far as I can tell, always comes down on the incomprehensible side.  The heretics are trying, as a rule, to simplify things, or at least to bring them within the realm of things we might be able to grasp.  What is Arianism, after all, but an attempt to make the incarnation a bit less incomprehensible?  Arius does it by making the incarnate actually something less than God, and in so doing seems to avoid the apparent category mistake of the orthodox, who insist that it is actually God, the invisible God, who appears in the human nature of Christ.

Or the various disputes about the natures and will of Christ.  The monophysites want to make Christ a mix of divine and human (actually, whether they wanted to do this is debatable; certainly their theological descendants would repudiate this project.  But that is the tendency which the orthodox thought they saw in monophysite thought).  Although that is still pretty hard to understand, it does at least mitigate the harshness of saying that Christ is at once infinite and finite, invisible and visible, God and man.  A blend is easier to comprehend, but it is heretical.  On a less ontological and more psychological point, the monothelite want to give Christ but one will, the divine will standing in for the human.  Simpler, sort of makes sense.  But the orthodox insist that Christ has two wills, divine and human - even though this makes it more or less impossible for us to imagine or comprehend his inner life.

The point is that we don't understand, and that has to be okay.  If we understood, it wouldn't be God-in-the-flesh.  Our concepts can do nothing more than point us to the reality, which is Christ; that's why in Christian theology the story is prior to the concepts, which can only serve it.


  1. I understand that the greatest mystery of all is Jesus The Christ, and the emptiness of himself of all but love for us, and that is all I need to understand, that it is such a mystery. Happy new year.

  2. But I wonder if it could be useful to distinguish between "understand" and "comprehend". Just because, for me, to say we can't understand the incarnation sounds like saying, let's not try to understand it at all. And then what good are books like "The man Christ Jesus" by Bruce Ware (which I think Kate owns), which spends a lot of time picking out things to do with divinity vs humanity in Jesus' life? That book really changed my functional, practical, day-to-day understanding of Jesus.
    Whereas "comprehend" implies by its etymology "taking everything in", which I wouldn't claim to do or expect to do. But I could imagine "understand" in a physically metaphorical way - standing underneath the idea of God's incarnation, looking up at it, being subject to it, seeing part of it but remaining beneath and outside it.
    Looking at Andrew's comment above, I can agree in at least one sense (salvation-related) that all I need to understand is Jesus' love for me; but practically speaking, I feel I need to understand much more than that!
    Just some thoughts.

    1. Hi Hannah - thanks for comment. I think I'm (at least partly) on board with your comment. Clearly it is important that we do wrestle with this stuff and seek to understand what we are being taught. I think perhaps what I'm trying to say is that at bottom we're dealing with stuff for which we have no categories. What does hypostatic union even mean, for example? As a concept I can understand it, at least at some level, but we have to recognise that it was a concept invented in order to describe the reality of the incarnation, so it's without strict parallel or analogy. We can and should try to understand the concepts, but we need to recognise that what stands behind the concepts - the incarnate Christ - is in himself beyond all the concepts... I guess I'm just saying there is some need to maintain the sense of mystery here.

      On the Bruce Ware book, I personally found it very disappointing, and I think (as far as I recall) I tracked my disappointment down to something revealed very clearly in the chapter on why Jesus had to be a man (as opposed to a woman) - namely, that he was working as if we knew already just what it meant to be human, and then applying that to the gospel accounts of Jesus. I think that's backwards theologically, and more or less tainted everything else. I'm definitely not sure that trying to pick apart what Jesus did as 'human' from what he did as 'divine' is helpful for our understanding of either humanity or divinity...