Book Review

To finish out my Existentialism class, I had to write a paper or book review on some book or topic that is pertinent to the content of the class. Since Kierkegaard, the father of Existentialist philosophy (philosophy that seeks to understand consciousness and other basic features of existing as a conscious being), based much of his philosophy on his view of the Incarnation, I thought I would address that somehow. I chose to do a review of Thomas Morris’ book, “The Logic of God Incarnate”. This is the review I’ve posted here. It is a concise summary of the problem many skeptics see with the idea of God becoming man, and a basic overview of Morris’ defense.

If you’re not used to reading analytic philosophy, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. I use some terms and some of the format common to analytic philosophy, but anyone should be able to understand it after a second or two of thinking about what’s being said (and maybe occasionally consulting dictionary.com). If you do like this sort of thing, Morris’ book is pretty excellent, and could probably be read, with a little difficulty, by most people. I hope you find this helpful. I expect that anyone who has not studied the problems with, and defenses of the Incarnation should, after reading this, feel better equipped to discuss those difficulties with unbelievers, and quell their own doubts.

Soli Deo Gloria.

—————————————

A Review of Thomas V. Morris’
“The Logic of God Incarnate”.

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation seems, surprisingly, to have played an important role in the formation and development of much existentialist thought. Kierkegaard, having taken the doctrine to be a logical contradiction, developed much of his philosophy to include a special, honorable place for those who choose to live and act in virtue of such absurdities. He himself aspired to just such a life, and philosophized in light of this way of life.

Though Kierkegaard did not deny the historically accepted formulation of the doctrine, he drastically departed from the Church’s belief that the Incarnation was logically coherent. Here I will offer a defense of the logical coherence of the Chalcedonian formulation of the doctrine of the Incarnation presented in Thomas V. Morris’ book, The Logic of God Incarnate .

Since Kierkegaard did not disagree with the adequacy of the doctrine as a metaphysical description of Christ, and so never presented some other, unorthodox account of the Incarnation, the polemical sections of Morris’ book won’t need to be accounted for here . This leaves us only to explore Morris’ defense against the charge of incoherence. To do that, we need a brief account of the charge itself.

The incoherence charge rests on the principle of the indiscernability of identicals. That is, if x and y are identical, they must share all properties in common. In the case of the incarnation, the charge is that the properties of being human and being divine cannot be simultaneously instantiated by the same bearer of properties. This is because the property of being divine would include at least being omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, eternal, and necessarily existent, while the property of being human would seem to involve being limited in knowledge and power, having spatio-temporal location, being morally imperfect, having come into existence, and being contingent. Since these properties are, respectively, the logical complements of the above listed prerequisites for divinity, no being could simultaneously instantiate both sets. Therefore, the incarnation is logically incoherent.

Here Morris makes a few distinctions upon which his defense is built. First, he points out that the orthodox claim concerning the divine identity of Jesus is:
(P): Jesus is God the Son
Not (P’): Jesus is God

This distinction helps us see the difference between statements of Jesus’ divinity as predications (Jesus is God), and identity statements (Jesus is God the Son). Armed with this distinction, we can focus on the statement in question, the predication of divinity. Morris here suggests that terms such as humanity and divinity are not concept words such as batchelor that have analytic content sufficient to identify them, a priori, as logical complements. Instead, Morris suggests we should understand them as natural kind terms. That is, humanity and divinity are essences – sets of properties individually necessary and jointly sufficient for membership in the kind.

Now the question of which properties properly belong to each kind arises. While most properties of divinity can be known a priori, it seems to Morris that the only obvious, necessary property of humanity that can be known a priori is the property of having at some point been conscious. For Morris, it remains to be seen that the natural kinds of humanity and divinity can legitimately be populated with contradictory properties.

At this point, Morris addresses one certain pair of complementary properties that might seem to belong to these respective kinds – for humanity, the possibility of annihilation, and for divinity, necessary existence. This challenge has been raised by A. D. Smith , and at first seems quite sound.

Morris analyzes Smith’s argument:
1. Human death involves the possibility of annihilation (ceacing to
exist).
1.1. People, when dying, fear annihilation
1.2. No one fears the impossible
Therefore: Death involves the possibility of annihilation
2. God’s ontological status is such that no divine being could
possibly face annihilation.
3. Therefore: No divine being could die a human death.
4. Jesus died a human death.
5. Therefore: Jesus was not divine.
6. Therefore: The incarnation is logically contradictory.

To diffuse Smith’s argument, Morris targets premise one. He distinguishes between several types of immortality (conditional, necessary, and absolute), and simply concludes that we have no better reason to think humans could face annihilation than to think they possess absolute (though contingent) immortality. Jesus’ death then did not involve even the possibility of annihilation, and Smith’s argument is diffused.

While many other such cases could arise concerning the compatibility of various properties, Morris goes on to raise a more foundational question – what reason do we have to believe that the logical complements of essential properties of divinity are essential properties of humanity? He thinks very little.

Another distinction here is raised between common and essential properties. Where common properties are those properties shared by most, or even all examined x’s, essential properties are those necessary for being x. Morris suggests that the anthropology of those who object to the incarnation has been developed in light of a sort of functional or perceptive view of human nature – that is, that such objections arise from a view of human nature that seeks to make common properties essential. Morris suggests that those who have become convinced of the Christian worldview though are not exhibiting muddled epistemic priorities when they seek to understand human nature in light of what they know about God (e.g. that He/She became man). Morris isn’t suggesting that preserving the Incarnation should be our primary epistemic priority in doing anthropology or theology. Indeed he admits that one must come to the doctrine with some idea of human and divine nature to even understand the concept, but, he argues, our conceptions of divinity and humanity should be subject to change, if presented with evidence that warrants such change.

At this point, Morris seeks to develop an understanding of human nature that would be justifiable on its own grounds, and still allows for compatibility with the divine nature. He does this first by spelling out what it would mean to be merely human. Morris presents the reader with something like an ontological hierarchy, using what he calls the “diamond analogy” to illustrate.

Morris has the reader imagine a diamond. The diamond has all properties of physicality – it has spatio-temporal location, it is made of matter, etc. He then goes on to have the reader picture an alligator. The alligator too has all properties necessary for qualifying as a physical thing, but it has other properties too, properties of animation. The alligator, then, unlike the diamond, is not merely physical. It is fully physical, but it has properties that give it a higher seat in the ontological hierarchy. Morris then has the reader picture a human. The human, like the diamond, is fully physical, but like the alligator is not merely physical. The human is also animate, yet, unlike the alligator, the human is not merely animate. It has properties that give it a higher ontological status – properties of cognition, complex, abstract reasoning, moral awareness, etc.

Morris suggests that we should not understand the claim of the Incarnation to be that Jesus was merely human. Instead we should understand it to claim that, while Jesus was fully human, he had properties that gave him a higher ontological status – divinity. He then argues that the properties that are allegedly essential to humanity and contradictory to divinity are only common properties essential to mere humanity. Such properties essential to being merely x are then limitation properties that keep the bearer of properties from taking a higher ontological seat.

Jesus then, is understood as fully-but-not-merely human, and divine. Whereas a mere human would be limited in knowledge and power and contingent, Jesus was not, but was fully human. This raises the question though of just how these two natures fit together. How was a man omniscient and omnipotent and omnipresent? Morris explores two options for understanding how these properties fit with Jesus as a human. First he explores the option of Kenotic theology, which suggests that, during the Incarnation, the Son of God emptied himself of the “omni” properties. While Morris spends considerable time on this view, he eventually admits that he has little faith in its viability.

The second option Morris presents seems more viable. He calls this the “Two Minds” View of Christ. Pointing out that no being is identical with any single range of conscious experience or belief states they might have, he suggests that, at the Incarnation, the divine mind possessed two distinct ranges of consciousness – one being the whole, eternal mind of God the Son, the other being an earthly consciousness that came into existence and developed and grew as Jesus did. These two minds bore what is called an asymmetric accessing relationship to one another where the earthly mind was contained by, but did not contain the divine mind, and, while the divine mind had access to the earthly mind at all times, the earthly mind only had access to the content of the divine mind when the divine mind allowed it.

Though difficult to imagine what such a consciousness would be like (like imagining the sonor-consciousness that bats have) such an experience would, for the divine mind, be something like dreams where one both acts as a character within the dream and also has a detached point of view where one can see their character in the dream.

This concludes Morris’ discussion of the incoherence charge. While certain questions of anthropology and theology certainly linger, it seems that Morris has gone far to systematically address many of the legitimate questions raised by skeptics. It seems to me that, in light of his arguments, it would be difficult to, with intellectual virtue, merely dismiss the incarnation immediately as a contradiction.

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  1. #1 by Ryan Junkin on 12.14.07 - 12.24 am

    Morris’ ontological hierarchy is interesting to me. Although I’ve certainly considered the differences between diamonds and alligators and myself concerning intellectual capacity (among other things), I’ve never considered it as Morris does (i.e., as a defense of the Incarnation). This seems to me, at first read, to be a rather strong defense, as far as coherence is concerned. What are your thoughts? Thanks for the post.

  2. #2 by Michael on 12.14.07 - 9.01 am

    The ontological hierarchy, and the analogy he uses, really helped me to understand how there could be classes of beings that are distinct, but not exclusive. That brought a lot of clarity for me.

    I don’t know if I will be able to get as much out of Morris’ book as a skeptic would. For whatever reason, the Incarnation never seemed contradictory to me. I don’t know if it’s because I just didn’t put thought into it or what. Even so, his arguments are like turning on a flashlight a lot of times.

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