Christian Theology and Apologetics

Attributes of God: Incorporeality Part 2, The Incarnation

Spas_vsederzhitel_sinayIn the previous post in this two-part series, I discussed some of the challenges to the divine attribute of incorporeality. Perhaps the largest difficulty regarding the incorporeality of God is the Incarnation of the λόγος (Logos) into flesh. How could an immaterial God become an embodied human being?


Biblical data regarding the incarnation is scant, but relevant to this discussion:

            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 came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.[1]


From this passages alone, it is clear that Christ was an uncreated being that existed coeternally with God, the Father.

John also mentions the Incarnation of Christ:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only-begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.[2]

Paul speaking to the Philippians regarding having the attitude of Christ, remarks:


who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.[3]


Given the above passages, we have good Biblical warrant for the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ. But how is this to be reconciled with God being an immaterial being? Can a being that possesses Omniscience or Omnipotence inhabit a fleshly form, especially considering that attributes such as those are necessary for God?


Jesus, the God-Man

In the first four centuries, Christian theologians faced the problem of articulating Jesus Christ’s status in regards to both his humanity and deity. The debates that ensued, led to several councils such as Nicaea and Chalcedon.[4] In the second century Irenaeus of Lyon already understood the implications of a correct understanding of the doctrine of Incarnation. “For unless man had overcome the enemy of man, the enemy would not have been legitimately vanquished. And again: unless it had been God who had freely given salvation, we could never have possessed it securely.”[5]

Thus, Irenaeus understood that in order for man’s foe (sin) to be beaten, a man (Christ) had to defeat it. Though this was known early on, it was difficult to articulate. No one was sure how Christ could be both God and Man. Arius of Alexandria argued that Christ was a created being and had a beginning like all other contingent things.[6] He argued that God who is a spirit, could never identify with humanity, which is material in essence; the two types were irreconcilable, hence the need for the created Logos.

At the council of Nicea (325 A.D.), Arius position was formally condemned, and he was considered a heretic. The doctrine of the Incarnation took classical shape during the council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. after the controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries.[7] In this council it was affirmed that Christ was both truly divine and truly human. It is this definition that is the yardstick of orthodox Christianity. There were many discussions after Chalcedon regarding how to reconcile Christ’s humanity with his deity, but for the sake of brevity, it is best to focus on modern opponents of the doctrine.


Modern Objectors to Orthodox Christology

John Hick postulates that Chalcedonian (orthodox) Christology is docetic in nature. He postulates that it’s impossible for Christ to be fully God and fully man; the two are logically contradictory. Hick believes that thinking Christ could be fully God and fully human is tantamount to a squared circle.[8] In Hicks opinion, it is just impossibility. Rather than the Chalcedonian Christology, Hicks takes the accounts in Scripture and reinterprets them according to his presuppositions in order to render a metaphorical interpretation; this says more about Hicks philosophical presuppositions than his hermeneutical acumen.


Contra Hicks, Ronald J. Feenstra remarks:


Although it skirts many of the difficulties confronting Chalcedonian Christology, the metaphorical interpretation, with its preconceptions about divine and human nature, inevitably concludes that no literal incarnation could occur, and therefore rejects or reinterprets both Scripture and orthodox Christianity.[9]



The logical contradiction supposed by Hicks stems from a misunderstanding of human nature according to Thomas V. in his book The Logic of God Incarnate. Morris distinguishes between three concepts of importance to the discussion: (1) essential versus nonessential properties, (2) essential versus common properties, and (3) the difference between being fully and being merely human.

Essential properties to God would be omnipotence, omniscience, etc., were any one of these to be removed, he would cease being God.

The argument against Christ’s Incarnation is focused in the direction of human nature. Critics argue that it is an essential to humanness not to possess omniscience, omnipotence, etc., and thus if Christ indwelt human flesh he would not be fully human. However, why should one think that lacking omniscience is essential to humanness? Is it an essential property or a common property to lack omniscience? It seems to me that a person could be omniscient and still be human. For instance, a common property to humans is opposable thumbs, but it is not essential to humanness to possess this property. A person could be born without them and still be human.


Morris argues:

. . . an individual is fully human [in any case where] that individual has all essential human properties, all the properties composing basic human nature. An individual is merely human if he or she has all those properties plus some additional limiting properties as well, properties such as that of lacking omnipotence, that of lacking omniscience, and so on.


Thus, orthodox Christianity argues that Christ was fully human, without being merely human.


Theories of the Incarnation

How is one to reconcile biblical statements regarding Christ’s limits to the necessary attributes of divinity? In Matthew 24:36, Christ was not aware of the time of his return; how can an omniscient being be ignorant of this?


Kenotic Theory. One theory that attempts to resolve this tension is “kenotic theory.” This theory credited to Zinzendorf, who posited that during the incarnation the Logos either divested himself of divine attributes or subjected himself to limitations.[10] Proponents of this theory claim the biblical data lends credence to the theory (see Philippians 2:6-7 above). Hence, the aim of kenotic Christology is to develop a concept of God that allows predicating both divinity and non-omniscience of Christ, while recognizing that omniscience is, in some sense, an essential divine attribute.[11] It must be said that kenotic theory is a radical departure from Chalcedonian Christology, which emphasized that even in the incarnation the divine attributes remain undiminished. It seems to me that it would be hard not to charge kenoticism with a denial of the deity of Christ.

For instance, if the Logos gave up omnipotence at the incarnation and then later regained omnipotence at the resurrection, then he actually never gave up omnipotence because it’s a modal property, which says what one is able to do. And, if one is able to regain omnipotence, he must be omnipotent to do so, thus, omnipotence is not a property that can be divested. It is for this reason that kenoticism is to be rejected.

But, what can be said of the biblical data used to support kenoticism? Philippians 2:6-7, which is used to support kenoticism states that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.”[12] “Emptied” in the Greek is κενόω, which means to remove or eliminate elements of high status or rank.[13]


In regards to κενόω, Peter T. Obrien observes:

Part of the reason for abandoning the Philippian passage as a support for the doctrine was due to an increasing recognition that κενόω is being used in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense, and that the participle λαβών is coincident with the main verb (ἐκένωσεν) in the first line: ‘he emptied himself in that he took the form of a servant’.[14]



Thus, Philippians 2:6-7 isn’t speaking of Christ emptying himself of divine attributes, it’s speaking of Christ manifesting the form of God in the form of a bondservant. Thus, biblically, the kenotic theory doesn’t seem to have a leg to stand on.


Two-Minds Theory. Another theory called “two-minds” has been put forth in an attempt to ease the tension between the Chalcedonian claim that Christ was fully divine and fully human. Theorists postulate Christ may have two distinct ranges of self-consciousness because Christ grew in knowledge as a human (Luke 2:52) and was ignorant of his eschatological return (Mark 13:32). Thus, what the two-minds theorist is putting forth is that Christ possessed the omniscient mind, and a human mind, which was able to learn and grow.

The difficulty with this theory is in formulating a model of a single individual possessing two minds. For instance, if Christ had two minds and his omniscient mind had the knowledge that he was unable to sin, and the human mind did not, could we say that Christ was tempted to sin in any real sense? Rather than there being genuine temptation, we have disingenuous illusion. For the human mind doesn’t know he couldn’t sin, though he perceived he could sin, this was not the case, as the omniscient mind would have kept him from doing so.

Three Plank Model. Recently, William Lane Craig has offered a model, which stays within Chalcedonian orthodoxy and has more explanatory scope than other leading theories. For lack of an official title, I will call this model the three-plank model.

In the first plank, Craig affirms that Christ has two natures within one person. One should not get this confused with the two-minds theory above. Rather than Christ possessing two minds, Craig postulates as the Chalcedon council had, that Christ has two natures (divine and human).

The second plank is where this model is controversial, and Craig readily admits this.[15] In this plank, Craig wants to affirm what Apollinarius (310-391 A.D.) contended, that the “rational soul” of Christ was the divine Logos (Jn. 1:1).[16] Apollinarius thought that only the divine Logos could be the savior of man with his inherently changeable and fallible mind or soul.[17] This led Apollinarius to deny that Christ in any sense had a human mind or soul; he believed that the redeemer could not have a human spirit, which was liable to sin. This theory led to the logical conclusion that Christ was not fully human for the reason that there would be no development in Christ’s life. Thus, Apollinarius’s opponents charged that his model couldn’t account for a full atonement, only the physical elements, as only Christ’s physical body was human, while his soul or mind was not. The other church fathers believed that which is not assumed is not saved and it was on this basis that they labeled Apollinarius a heretic.

According to Craig, the strength of Apollinarian Christology is its focus on a common element between the divine and human nature—the Logos—or mind of Christ. Craig astutely points out that the Apollinarius’ colleagues thought he was advocating a preexistent flesh of Christ in the divine nature of the Logos. However, careful study of Apollinarius statements doesn’t support the conclusions of the church councils that condemned him.[18] For instance, in explaining the virgin Birth, Apollinarius posited that the Divine Spirit entered Mary’s womb and was born flesh.[19] Thus, Apollinarius did not see the Logos (Divine Spirit) as a physical entity, as the church councils thought.

Craig posits that Apollinarius may have been advocating that the personality of Christ was pre-existent in the Divine nature. That is to say, the essential attributes for personhood weren’t unified with a body sans Incarnation, but at the conception of Christ, they were.

In support of this view, Craig uses Genesis 1:27, which speaks of God creating man in his image, and considering God is incorporeal as discussed earlier, it must be referring to the immaterial property of man.[20]

On this understanding then, in order for Christ to be fully God and fully man, the Divine nature would have to bring along with it those aspects of personhood into a human body. Thus, Christ is fully God and fully man. Then, distinguishing as Thomas V. Morris in the above, we could say that Christ had a soul that was truly human, but not merely human, that is to say, Christ was also divine.

In the third plank of Craig’s model, he postulates that the divine aspects of Christ were somehow subliminal during his earthly ministry prior to his resurrection.[21] Human minds are both conscious and subconscious; memories are kept subconsciously until retrieved. At first glance, this may seem similar to the “two-minds theory” in the above, but a close evaluation sheds any similarity.

On this model Christ’s ignorance of his eschatological return is for the reason that his conscious mind didn’t have the information that was stored unconsciously. This means, asking Christ about cosmogony, would have been a pointless endeavor, unless Christ had the information revealed to him through his subconscious. In all aspects, Christ learned just as any other person. In this understanding when Christ read the Scriptures, it would akin to a person looking back on a previously written journal entry that had been forgotten; Christ knew the information, yet his conscious mind wasn’t aware of the contents. In this sense, Christ knew everything subconsciously, but consciously was ignorant of certain facts, such as his eschatological return. So, it wasn’t that Christ had two minds; he had just one mind as any other human being.

This view also avoids the pitfalls of kenotic theory, where Christ emptied himself of divine attributes in that Christ loses none of his attributes, and gains the property having a human body. It also has greater explanatory power than Chalcedonian Christology. Craig readily admits that this model, could or couldn’t be true, the purpose of the model is to show that it is not logical incoherent to show that Christ could be human and divine. With the supposed logical contradiction overcome regarding Christ’s incorporeality, we have good reasons for holding to God’s incorporeality and Christ’s incarnation.




[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Jn 1:1–3.


[2] Ibid., Jn 1:14.

[3] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Php 2:6–7.


[4] Phillip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro, A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1997), 533; R. C. Sproul, What Is the Trinity?, vol. 10, The Crucial Questions Series (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2011), 28.

[5] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 448.

[6] James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 29.

[7] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 830.


[8] Melvin Tinker, “Truth, Myth and Incarnation,” Themelios: Volume 14, No. 1, October/November 1988 (1988): 15; A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1997), 533

[9] A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1997), 536.

[10] John Miley, Systematic Theology, Volume 2 (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1893), 59.

[11] A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1997), 533


[12] Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 218.


[13] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 739.

[14] Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 218.

[15] http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/s6-6#ixzz3oZjpShsG


[16] Ibid.


[17] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 87.


[18] Apolinarius was formally condemned at the councils of Alexandria (362) Rome (376) and a final time between 376 and 381 A.D.


[19] R.E. Webber, “Apollinarius,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 30.

[20] http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/s6-6#ixzz3oZjpShsG


[21] http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/s6-7#ixzz3oaLVaB4G


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