One of my top three reads for 2013 was Marilyn McCord Adams’ (MMA) Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology. Parts 1-6 are available for catch-up if you like. In the next few installments I’d like to present her Ch. 5 in which she attempts to work out a metaphysics of Incarnation faithful to Chalcedon, that is, a view of Incarnation where the Son is truly incarnate without ceasing to be all he eternally is in experienced triune relation and uninterrupted creational vocation. I’m going to re-present her entire chapter 5. It’s a piece of ‘metaphysical thinking’ — so both our Orthodox friends and Barthian-McCormack fans might wince a bit. But once presented, we’d like to come back and focus on those features we find especially helpful. Her Ch. 5 divides in to smaller sections numbered 1 through 4. This post (Part 7) contains sections 1 and 2. Section 3 of her chapter covers Richard Swinburne’s work on the Incarnation. I’ll be omitting this section and moving in Parts 8 and 9 to present sections 4 (which comprises MMA’s view) and 5 (Conclusion). If you’re familiar with the earlier posts on MMA, you know she’s a brilliant, thoroughly thoughtful and articulate writer.
5 | Recovering the metaphysics: Christ as God-man, metaphysically construed
Central to my “Chalcedonian” approach to Christology is the insistence that it is God who becomes human. Positively, from the viewpoint of my cosmological hypothesis, Incarnation is key to satisfying God’s unitive aims in creation. Negatively, Divine solidarity is key to the solution of human non-optimality problems: Stage-I defeat requires that it is God who participates in horrors. Both ways identify God as the One of Whom we affirm that He was born of the Virgin Mary; that He walked and talked; spat and touched; ate, drank, and slept; that He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, died, was buried but rose on the third day.
Yet, common sense joins with philosophy and Myth-of-God-Incarnate theologians to press Mary’s question: “how can this be?” (Luke 1:34). By way of an answer, I shall outline two accounts of the metaphysics of Christology: one offered by Richard Swinburne in his book The Christian God; and the other inspired by a family of formulations defended by thirteenth- and fourteenth-century medieval Latin school theologians. Like all theories, each has its costs and benefits. My own preference is for the second, but I believe that either is sufficient to rebut the mythographers’ charge that the notion of a God-man is unintelligible.
1. Doctrinal desiderata
First, a brief reminder of the historical parameters of the discussion is in order Chalcedon laid it down that
(T1) in Christ there are two distinct natures—one human and one Divine;
(T2) in Christ, there is a real unity of natures in a single person or supposit;
While Ephesus made their corollary explicity;
(T3) in Christ, there are two wills—one human and one Divine.
Already in the first quarter of the sixth century, Boethius took it for granted that “person” or “supposit” (suppositum, hypostasis) means the same thing in the doctrine of the Trinity (one God, three persons) as in Christology (two natures, one person), because the second person of the Trinity (i.e., God the Son, the Divine Word) was supposed to be the One Who became Incarnate. Boethius’ definition—
(D1) a person is an individual substance of a rational nature;
and its implicit companion understanding:
(D2) a supposit is an individual substance—
had the authority of a classic by Anselm’s time. Thirteenth-century medieval Latin school theologians had reached consensus on the following interpretive theses:
(T4) in the Incarnation, human nature is assumed by the Divine Word;
(T5) the Divine Word is its own supposit/person and hence the single person or supposit in Christ;
(T6) the Incarnation of the Divine Word is a contingent matter of Divine free choice;
(T7) the Incarnation of the Divine Word is reversible (having become human, the Divine Word could cease to be human) but will in fact never be reserved.
Yet, both Boethius’ definition and medieval Latin school theology’s metaphysical developments of these doctrines found their philosophical roots in Aristotelian philosophy, to which we now turn.
2. Aristotelian background
Metaphysics is inherently controversial. But in the Categories, Aristotle aims to articulate the common sense view that there are things, which are characterized by features, some of which are more permanent than others.
Seeking to order such intuitions, he distinguishes substance from accidents, and primary substances (eg., Socrates, Beulah the cow, Brownie the donkey) from secondary substances or substance-kinds (e.g., man, cow, donkey).
(i) The secondary substance or substance-kind is “said of” the primary substance and is that through which the primary substance is constituted as the very thing it is (e.g., Beulah the cow is made the very thing she is by bovinity; Socrates, the very thing he is by humanity).
(ii) Accidents “exist in” primary substances and characterize them in ways that the primary substance could exist without (e.g., Socrates is pale in winter but becomes tan in summer, was once, but in adulthood is no longer, shorter than his mother, etc.).
(iii) Primary substances neither exist in (like accidents) nor are said of (like secondary substances) anything, but are the ultimate subjects of the properties.
Aristotle took the substance- and accidents-kinds with which he was concerned to be natural kinds, not nominal essences — kind-terms (like “desk” or “bachelor”) that are the products of human linguistic conventions. Human and whiteness are real essences: what -it-is-to-be human or white is what it is prior to an independently of human attempts to conceptualize and talk about the world.
Medieval interpreters, harmonizing across Aristotle’s works, read him as an essentialist — that is, as holding that
(T8) for each primary substance x, there is a secondary substance-kind K that pertains to it per se and is essential to it, in the sense that x could not exist without being a K.
Because the necessary connection is not between concepts (as in “a bachelor is an unmarried, post-pubescent male”) but between the thing (Socrates or Beulah) and the kind (humanity or bovinity), the connection is said to be necessary de re. Because such essential substance-kinds constitute the primary substance as the very thing it is, Aristotle also held:
(T9) for each primary substance x, there is only one second substance-kind K that pertains to x through itself and is essential to it, in the sense that x could not exist without being K.
It is impossible for any substance individual to have two substance-kind natures essentially, for that would involve its being constituted as the very thing it is twice-over!
How, then, can one individual be both Divine and human? If the Divine Word is constituted as the very thing It is by Divinity (together with the person-distinguishing property of Filiation), how could it take on human nature as its own? This problem remains commonsensical. What Beulah is is a cow. Surely, Beulah could not also be a donkey; nor could Beulah be a donkey instead!
Unmodified Aristotelian essentialism raises a problem for how a substance individual could have two substance-natures essentially, in such a way that it could not exist without them. Unmodified Aristotelian essentialism rests here, because it doesn’t envision any other way for a substance individual to have or be characterized by a substance-kind.
But the doctrine of the Incarnation does not assert that the Divine Word possesses two substance-kinds essentially (and so does not run afoul of [T8] and [T9]. Rather it maintains that the Divine Word is essentially Divine, couldn’t exist without being Divine, but contingently begins to be human (in c. 4 BCE). The doctrine of the Incarnation holds that
(T10) it is possible for a primary substance x that is essentially of substance-kind K also to possess/be/come to be of substance-kind K’ (where K is not the same as K’) contingently and non-essentially.
Nowadays, this is terminologically confusing because substance-kinds are often referred to as essences, setting up an equivocation between contemporary-sense essential possession (x possesses K essentially=def x couldn’t exist without possessing K) and essential possession as possession of a substance-kind as one’s own (x’s being K where K is a substance-kind). But the former usage of “essential” refers to the way the property is possessed (in such a way that the thing couldn’t exist without it), while the latter refers to the type of property possessed (a substance-kind property rather than an accident). Commentators needlessly worry that if the Divine Word does not possess human nature in the way that we do—i.e., contemporary-sense essentially, in such a way that we could not exist without being human—then the Divine Word isn’t fully or perfectly human—i.e., doesn’t really possess all of what goes into being a human being. What the doctrine requires is that the Divine Word—while essentially Divine—contingently come to possess human nature in such a way as to be characterized by such features. So far as I know, no one (not even the total absolute kenoticists of chapter 4) has envisioned the Divine Word’s possessing human nature essentially in such a way that the Divine World couldn’t exist without being human. Most Christian theologians would agree: not only is this false; it makes no sense!
Even if Incarnation does not require the idea that one substance individual has two natures contemporary-sense essentially (in such a way that it could not exist without them), mere characterization is enough to make the so-called Contradiction Problem arise:
1. Jesus is God (Chalcedonian definition).
2. Jesus is a human being (Chalcedonian definition).
3. God is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, eternal, immutable, impassible, infinite (partial analysis of what it is to be God).
4. Human beings are rational animals and so generable and corruptible, mutable and capable of being causally affected and suffering; finite and so of limited power and knowledge (partial analysis of what it is to be a human being).
5. Therefore, Jesus is infinite and finite, immutable and mutable, omnipotent but limited in power, omniscient but limited in knowledge, immutable and impassible, ingenerable and incorruptible but susceptible of growing in wisdom and stature and suffering death on a cross—which is multiply contradictory.
Faced with statements apparently of the form “x is F and x is not F,” one may choose between two basic strategies for removing the contradiction and eliminating the assertion that genuine contradictories are true of the same subject in the same respect eternally or at one and the same time. One is to argue that it is not really the same subject x that is the proximate subject of contradictory properties, so that really the situation is that x is F but y is not F, or that z is F and y is not F (where x is not identical with y, and y is not identical with z). The other is to argue that the predicates only appear but are not really contradictory, so that it is not a matter of x’s being F and not F, but of x’s being F and not G. Obviously, one can also combine the two strategies, insisting that same-subject and same-property affirmed and denied are both only a matter of appearance.
In Christology, however, these strategies represent complementary risks and temptations. The first — arguing that different subjects are Divine and human, respectively — seems to flirt with Nestorianism. The second—maintaining that the predicates are not really contradictory — may redefine Divinity and humanity in ways that no longer capture what Chalcedon intended (a problem charged against some versions of partial absolute kenosis descussed in chapter 4).