God With Us...How? Metaphysics and Christmas

"Do you think you could contain Niagara falls in a teacup? Is there anyone in our midst who pretends to understand the awesome love in the heart of the Abba of Jesus that inspired, motivated and brought about Christmas? The shipwrecked at the stable kneel in the presence of mystery. God entered into our world not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory, but in the way of weakness, vulnerability and needy. On a wintry night in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him” -- Brennan Manning [1].

Around Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. The celebration embodies more than the belief that God sent someone to save us from our sins (Matthew 1:21). In addition, the belief is that Immanuel had come -- God with us (Matthew 1:22-23). This is the remarkable proclamation at the heart of Christianity: God became a man. God doesn’t merely give us a set of ideas to believe. He doesn’t communicate from a distance. He comes himself, in a form that is most intimate and familiar to us. But whatever aesthetic reactions surround this claim about divine condescension, a puzzling question surrounds it too. How could God become a man?

I don’t intend to consider all the questions that surrounds this matter [2]. Still, can any steps be taken toward an intellectually satisfying view of the incarnation? First, it might be said that we shouldn’t expect to understand something so complex. The problem lies with our grasp of reality, not with the coherence of the incarnation. The metaphysics of God, parts, wholes, persons, properties, substances, and so on, is complicated stuff.

I think there’s something to this response. But I prefer a more modest version of it. I think there are good reasons to accept and reject certain views about the nature of the world, persons, God, and the interaction between these things. I don’t think we should be skeptics about metaphysics. Still, there’s plenty of room for error and fallibility on these matters. Moreover, the metaphysics surrounding the claim “Jesus was fully God and fully man” isn’t the only thing to weigh when considering its truth or falsity. In addition, we need to look at any historical or theological evidence for thinking that Jesus was God. If you’re highly confident that the doctrine of the incarnation is metaphysically impossible or incoherent, then maybe no further evidence will matter. But if you think our grasp of the relevant metaphysics has a moderate degree of fallibility surrounding it, then the historical-theological evidence can make a difference.

You might think (as I do) that the historical and theological evidence for the doctrine of the incarnation is pretty strong -- stronger than the recondite deliverances of metaphysics. If so, here’s a respectable move available to you: since the historical-theological evidence for the incarnation is strong, it is rational to be more confident that the incarnation is metaphysically possible than that it is not. We are free to explore any theories of persons, God, substances, properties, etc., that might help us understand the incarnation, but we don’t need to wait for one to come around before we can believe that the incarnation is metaphysically possible or coherent. There’s good evidence for its occurrence, after all, so the metaphysics must work out somehow. This is a lot like having strong evidence that light has wave-like and particle-like properties and, yet, not knowing exactly how this works. The evidence is there, so the physics must work out somehow. Models may be developed that make sense of our evidence, but we aren’t being irrational if we believe in the wave-particle duality of light without knowing how it works. The same goes for the incarnation.

Second, I think a plausible view of personal ontology can take us a few steps closer toward a plausible model of the incarnation. Consider substance dualism. Substance dualism says there are two basic kinds of things in the world (two substances): material things and immaterial things. Regarding human persons, it says that a person is a body-soul composite. Each human person possesses a body to which a soul is related. The immaterial thing -- the soul -- is the real center of one’s mental life. It is the person (alternatively, every person essentially possesses a soul).

If this view of personhood is right, it might help us understand the incarnation. Jesus, the second member of the trinity, is a person. As such, Jesus is a divine soul (or has a divine soul, if you prefer that view). Before becoming incarnate, Jesus was an un-embodied soul. The incarnation involved the “connecting” of this divine soul with a human body, in the same way that our souls are connected to a human body. In other words, 2000 years ago, the second member of the trinity confined his causal and noetic powers to a biological substance with human DNA. In this way, Jesus is fully God (since it is the divine mind/soul of Jesus “behind” the body) and yet fully human (since it is a soul confined to a human body).

This is only a suggestion of what the incarnation involved. Some might think it treads too roughly on the immensity of it all. It’s a mystery that can’t be unraveled by philosophical reflection. I understand that sentiment. Again, this is only a possible model. Moreover, it leaves a variety of questions open for further reflection [4]. So there’s plenty of mystery for those who want it and plenty of work for those interested in making sense of it. Whether it’s the mystery of God’s incarnation or the mystery of God’s human-pursuing love (or both), Manning’s words can resonate with all Christians:

"The shipwrecked at the stable kneel in the presence of mystery” [5].


About the author. Cleanthes is currently working on his PhD in philosophy. He enjoys thinking about practical ethics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, the historical Jesus and about all the things he (Cleanthes) would do in his free time if he had any.



[1] From Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.

[2] For a helpful discussion of some puzzles surrounding the incarnation (as well as proposed solutions), see Craig and Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations of the Christian Worldview.

[3] A helpful first start for thinking about the evidence for a traditional, high view of Christology is Joel Green’s The Truth of God Incarnate. Alister McGrath’s Understanding Jesus is also a helpful place to start.

[4] Here’s an example. If God is omniscient, then Jesus must have been omniscient (since he was fully God), no? But he doesn’t seem omniscient according to the Gospel’s portrayal of him (I think the above model provides a way of making sense of this). Also, to be fully human, must one have a human soul? If so, my model above seems to be on the rocks. I guess I'm just not sure what a "human soul" amounts to. For more philosophical discussion surrounding the incarnation, see the entry “Philosophy and Christian Theology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[5] From Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.

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