Physicalism and the Incarnation

Philosophy of mind Theology / Biblical Studies

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Does physicalism about human persons pose a problem for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation? I don’t think so.

Although I believe that non-material things exist (God being the most obvious such thing), when it comes to human beings I’m a physicalist, a monist, call it what you will. We, unlike God, are physical beings. And yet, like all Christians (i.e. this is one of the doctrinal litmus tests for being a Christian), I believe that in the person of Jesus, God became one of us.

Every now and then a fellow Christian tells me that this means I’ve got a real problem on my hands. Physicalism, it is alleged, just doesn’t allow for a non-material being like God the Son to become man, if men are physical. The orthodox view, I am told, has no problems here. The pre-existent non-material person (God the Son) could become human and we would have no trouble describing this if humans themselves are non-material beings (or beings that have a non-material part at least).

But is all of this true? Am I the one with a problem, while my dualist friends have none at all? I’ll grant that it’s very easy to name the event of the incarnation in dualist terms – that is, to apply labels to what took place. The non-material Logos took to himself a human body and soul and became fully man while remaining fully God. There. That was easy. But clearly I’ve explained absolutely nothing. I’ve just put labels on what I am alleging to have taken place. Labelling is just as easy for the physicalist, like so: The non-material Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. But again, nothing is explained here. This is merely a profession of faith about what, in the very broadest of terms, happened.

Once or twice someone has taken the risk of trying to snare physicalism in Christological heresy, and in my view been unsuccessful. That said, I do wonder how fair it is to try to have a “gotcha” type of victory against physicalism on the grounds that it can’t give a fully satisfying account of how God in Christ became fully human. I say this because dualism, in my view, can’t do the job either. In fact such is the minefield of Christology that it’s very easy when trying to actually explain it, to slip into a view that is historically regarded as heretical.

Example 1. Back in 1993 Christian apologist William Lane Craig debated atheist Frank Zindler on whether the evidence best supports Christianity or atheism. Bill won, hands down. But during the Q and A session, a member of the audience asked Bill how he could account for the idea that God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Here, Bill supposed, dualism would be able to swoop in to provide a swift and easy solution.

I believe that human beings are units that have immaterial and physical portions. And in essence what the incarnation says is that the mind or the soul of Jesus of Nazareth was the Second Person of the Trinity. And therefore, I don’t see any more difficulty in having an incarnation of a divine mind than I do in having an incarnation in our own case of a human finite mind.1

Students of church history or theology may recognise this as the view dubbed “Apollinarianism,” the view expounded by Apollinaris the Younger, Bishop of Laodicea in the fourth century. It is the view that shared the dualism of most Christians, with a physical body and an immaterial soul. However, whereas most Christians would have thought of us as having a human body and a human soul, Apollinarius said that Jesus had a human body and a divine soul, and that his divine soul being united to a human body constituted him being incarnated. Essentially, the non-physical son of God put on the clothing of a human body.

Those same students will also be aware that orthodox Christianity condemned Apollinarianism. The view was overtly rejected by several Church Councils, and the Council of Constantinople in 381 added Apollinarianism to the list of heresies. Although educated theologians might have a refined enough understanding of the complexities to steer clear of Apollinarianism, simply based on personal experience I maintain that it is the view held by the majority of everyday evangelicals: That God the Son, the immaterial being, entered a material human body and lived out his days as a man on earth.

Example 2. Bill is not alone among evangelicals who have trodden on a proverbial landmine here. J P Moreland affirms the view that Bill expressed in the quote above at some length in a book co-authored by Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, in which they speak quite favourably of Apollinarianism.

Example 3. Systematic Theologian Millard Erickson, a champion of Christological Orthodoxy among Evangelicals, wrote a substantial work on the incarnation in 1991: The Word Became Flesh: A Contemporary Incarnational Christology. In it, one of the things he sets out to do is to address a whole range of questions that the doctrine of the incarnation raises. One set of such questions has to do with whether or not Jesus was capable of sin. Millard says that he would have been capable, and then discusses what might have happened had Jesus actually sinned – or rather, what might have happened to prevent Jesus actually doing so:

At the very brink of the decision to sin, where that decision had not yet taken place, but the Father knew it was about to be made, the Second Person of the Trinity would have left the human nature of Jesus, dissolving the incarnation…. Had the Logos departed, Jesus would not have died. That would only have been the case only if the person had been merely divine, only the Logos, as various forms of Apollinarianism required. Rather, Jesus would have survived, but would have “slumped” to mere humanity, and sinful mere humanity at that.2

True enough, Erickson has avoided Apollinarianism. But what is now left in its place? The possibility suggested by Erickson is that when the divine Logos departs from the human nature, the divine person would have returned to the Father and the human person Jesus would have continued to live in Israel. Now we have, not a divine soul with a human body, but in fact two people capable of living apart: one human and one divine. It may not be Apollinarianism, but it is another heresy equally clearly condemned by Orthodoxy: Nestorianism. Nestorianism depicted Jesus’ “human nature as a complete man, and represented the Incarnation as the assumption of a man by the Word.” There is a clear similarity here with the Ebionite Heresy, where Jesus of Nazareth was a person who was not divine, and upon whom the divine Spirit (Christ) descended. In fact, if the incarnation could be terminated in the way that Erickson suggests, the Ebionite view is essentially correct. I have sympathy for Erickson’s plight. He doesn’t want to fall into Apollinarianism, and he is lumbered with the task of saying that in the incarnation you’ve got a human body and soul – which in dualism generally counts as a complete human person, and you’ve also got the immaterial Logos – God the Son, who was surely a person from eternity past. It’s hard to put all that together and still have no more than exactly one person!

I’m not an Apollinarian or a Nestorian. But at the same time, I would definitely not relegate Craig or Erickson to the legions of the damned – far from it! But then, I’m not someone who thinks (to hijack the language of the Epistle of James) that whoever affirms the entire faith but goes awry on one fine detail shall be found guilty of rejecting it all. The fact is that sorting out the fine details of complex doctrines that none of us think God has spoken explicitly or at length about through Scripture is a perilous business, and we should extend grace to one another.

That brings me to my view. I have once heard someone say that any Christian with a physicalist view of human beings must commit to Apollinarianism and say that the non-material Logos took a human body like a hand in a glove. But of course, this is merely a misrepresentation of a physicalist view about human persons. Physicalism is not just a strict dualism minus the soul (leaving a passive body), and we certainly would not think of the human body as anything like a glove. On the contrary, the human mind – what dualists take to be the human soul – is produced by the body. The accusation of Apollinarianism really does not get off the ground when aimed at physicalism. Perhaps a more plausible – although still mistaken – accusation of Christological heresy to throw at physicalism would be that of Eutychianism, the view named after Euthyches of Constantinople, that in the incarnation there are not really two natures but one new nature that is neither human nor divine, but a sort of halfway house. After all, doesn’t it seem that physicalism has to somehow bundle everything that Jesus was into one physical entity?

Even if that is what physicalism does, the accusation of Eutychianism cannot stick, because a substance is not a nature – even in classical theology (in classical theology, having a nature or form is what makes something a substance).

I want to tread carefully, because there are people who I respect who have said that the Christological implications of physicalism bother them. I do not mean to describe them all in the way I am about to but this does apply to some: Sometimes we disagree with a position, we think we’ve found a problem for it, and because we disagree with that point of view and cherish our own we quite frankly don’t want there to be a solution for those who hold that point of view, so even if we’re not really sure how our own point of view copes with the issue, we declare – with more confidence than we really deserve – that the position in question is in an irresolvable bind. I recall someone telling me – as a reason for me to give up physicalism – that he told a theologically minded friend who he respected that some take a physicalist view of human nature and still say that Christ became human, and that his friend’s immediate reply was “heresy!” This fellow stressed to me that his friend was able to spit this reply out “without even thinking.” I recall thinking at the time – “it sure sounds like it!” Like any new way of thinking about the incarnation, given the complexity of that doctrine, a physicalist view of human nature deserves the time to be turned over in the mind and probed carefully – as does the doctrine of the incarnation itself – to see if there might be some way of preserving the essentials in a way just as cogent as a dualist view. I take those essentials to be that Jesus Christ is truly man and truly God, that he had always been God prior to the incarnation, that he is one and only one person both actually and potentially, and that he maintains two distinct natures (i.e. his human nature is not divine and his divine nature is not human).

In fact some provocative and I think quite persuasive explanation of how a physicalist and yet orthodox view of the incarnation (orthodox in the sense of maintain these four essentials) has been explored in more than one place by Oliver Crisp. He points out where the conflict lies: Traditional Christology has taught that Christ’s human nature involved having a “rational soul,” that is, a human, immaterial soul. The Athanasian Creed refers to Christ being a perfect man “of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.” But the point in saying this was to stress that Jesus didn’t just have part of a human, but he had a fully human nature, not lacking in any part. My take has always been that a physicalist can maintain this without believing in a rational or reasonable soul in the dualist sense, provided the physicalist thinks that a complete human does not have a rational or reasonable soul in the dualist sense. Fortunately, this is precisely what we do think. It was refreshing to see Crisp make this same point. He uses the term “restricted materialism” to mean “materialism as a view about human persons, but not necessarily about everything that exists.” He says:

Now, it may be that the Fathers of Chalcedon thought that the only way to rebut Apollinarianism was to fall back upon some version of substance dualism. But the restricted materialist would be right to point out that if this is true, the Fathers of Chalcedon were mistaken. For it turns out that restricted materialism is consistent with Christ having the requisite sort of irreducibly mental life necessary for being fully human, such that Apollinarianism is blocked. Yet restricted materialism postulates no human soul in order to do so. One might construe the Chalcedonian claim that Christ had a ‘rational soul’, that is, a human nous, to mean the mental part or component of a human being. … But that, the materialist will point out, is consistent with the tenets of restricted materialism given local property dualism, and is also anti-Apollinarian. Such reasoning does justice to what Chalcedon says about Christ’s ‘rational soul’, without appeal to an immaterial substance.3

In the end, Crisp suggests a kind of cost benefit analysis. There are costs to being a Christian physicalist when it comes to Christology – just as there are costs involved in dualism. One such cost for dualism, noted by Crisp, is that if one takes a Cartesian view of the soul and believes that having a body is not essential to being human, then they must say – as Craig and Moreland do explicitly (Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 609) that becoming embodied was not necessary for Christ to become truly human. The incarnation was literally unnecessary in order for the Logos to become human! But of course, not all dualists need be Cartesians. One cost for materialism is that it simply would not persuade anyone who thinks that the “reasonable soul” in the Athanasian Creed had to be thought of in dualist terms. I have no doubt that the framers of that creed did think of that term in terms of dualism, but I hope at least some dualists will appreciate why the same intention of that creed can be upheld without maintaining dualism about human persons. Another cost, one that Crisp acknowledges to be substantial, is that of tradition. Orthodox theologians since Chalcedon have thought of Christ’s rational human soul in dualist terms, and this understanding has thus become a mainstay of Christology – yet physicalists maintain that this view is mistaken.

Still, this leaves not fully answered the precise relationship of the divine Logos to the physicality that is a human being. I confess to not being overly worried by this fact, since all orthodox dualist formulations that I know of leave more or less unanswered the question of the precise relationship between the divine Logos and the human soul and body (I say “orthodox” here in such a way as to exclude those who, with Craig and Moreland, effectively have the same question to answer as a physicalist, since they appear to remove the ordinary human rational soul from the picture). You could call this the problem of interaction – which, so my dualist friends tell me, is no problem at all. I happen to think it may be a problem in terms of everyday mundane human life, but perhaps less of a problem if we have already accepted that the event in question – the incarnation – is nothing short of miraculous.

At the very least, my request would be that we don’t number a person among the heretics simply because they fall afoul of the duty to be able to account for their view in the ludicrously precise and yet at the same time often completely opaque turns of phrase that one finds in historical Christology. Do I affirm that God the Son became man in the person of Jesus, and that he was and is one person with a human nature and a divine nature? Absolutely! Can I give a full account of this by appealing to philosophical anthropology? No, and for that matter I have yet to meet anyone who in my view has succeeded where I fail.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. William Lane Craig and Frank R. Zindler, Atheism vs. Christianity: Where Does the Evidence Point?, 1993. []
  2. Millard J. Erickson, The Word Became Flesh (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 563-564. []
  3. Oliver Crisp, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (London: T & T Clark, 2009), 152. []
{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Thomas Larsen February 9, 2012, 10:47 pm

    Glenn, some interesting thoughts here. I’m sympathetic towards the physicalist understanding of human persons, but I do think it poses a few issues.

    Probably the biggest problem I see with physicalism (as it pertains to human persons) is this: it provides no way to ensure a meaningful connection between a person who dies with a badly damaged brain and the “same” person in a resurrected body with, presumably, a new and perfect brain. They might as well be two entirely different people, in which case the person who dies with a badly damaged brain cannot claim “God will resurrect me,” but only “God will create a new person in a glorified body who will have some of the same memories and personality traits as I currently do.” Some kind of dualism helps to address the difficulty: “At present,” the brain-damaged person may claim, “my brain is a broken conduit for my mind; but it will one day be made perfect.”

    By the way, if you haven’t read it already, N. T. Wright’s article Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body: All for One and One for All—Reflections on Paul’s Anthropology in His Complex Contexts is worth a look.

  • Glenn February 9, 2012, 11:20 pm

    Thomas, there are a whole range of different angles from which to discuss the problems with dualism or physicalism. Here the issue is Christological, but yes the different question of continuity between death and resurrection does come up from time to time. I dedicated a podcast episode to it some time ago when I did the series “In search of the Soul.” Part 4 (see here) is the episode that covers this.

    My point in this blog entry however is not to convince anyone that physicalism about human persons is true. I’m just trying to get people to see it as compatible with the basics of Christian orthodoxy.

  • Thomas Larsen February 9, 2012, 11:34 pm

    Thanks; I’ll check out that podcast.

  • Dave February 10, 2012, 5:09 am

    Thomas: Other than the fact that the idea seems “just weird”, is there anything unbiblical about the possibility that the resurrected “you” will be markedly different / non-continuous from the current you? Presumably the resurrected you will be missing not only any brain damage you might have, but also the sinful attitudes and habits that you now have too. I know there are parts of me that I don’t want showing up in eternity. Who knows, maybe God will see fit to make multiple copies of the new you (seeing as they’ll all be perfectly “you” and sinless from God’s point of view)

  • Jeremy February 10, 2012, 10:01 am

    I am not sure about monism as opposed to dualism. I am told that the Hebrews originally had no concept of the Greek idea of a spirit as opposed to the body, i am also told that whereas we now use the words soul and spirit interchangeably, previously they were distinct, “soul” refering to the whole person [ body mind spirit ] while “spirit” referred to this incorporeal and disputed part. The question remains does “mind” proceed from the brain alone. God certainly has mind, as i understand it He has no brain as we do. What does being made in the image of God mean? One thing is certain, the resurrected body will most certainly not be continuous with our current one. Virtually all bodies are destroyed and dispersed one way or another and their component atoms incorporated in to other life. The atoms that comprise your body have previously been part of other peoples bodies hrough time, whats more the physical constiuents of your body are changing continuously through your life. It is easy to see how the idea that the “essential” you is something other than just your physical body. Even the ancients could see this dilemma.
    I have seen it suggested that we are software running on hardware, without both there is no life or awareness, but God can preserve the software and associated accumulated data when the hardware dies, and later provide us with new improved faultless hardware. This is a modern analogy not available to the church fathers. It is not compulsory to discuss these kinds of questions only in terms and concepts avialable 2000 years ago.

  • colin February 10, 2012, 11:57 am

    Great article Glenn.

    I find it interesting that, as a physicalist, you still believe in general-dualism – that God and presumably the angels occupy an alternate domain of reality (presumably the same one that dualists say our soul occupies).

    Also, just because some old dudes declared something a heresy, does that make it so? I think we’d be better served exploring what was so heretical about these views than just writing them off based on tradition.

  • Dave February 12, 2012, 8:28 am

    Aside (sorry, not directly relevant to physicalism that I can see)
    Jeremy: you asked “What does being made in the image of God mean? ”

    We just covered this in our bible study last week and I found it interesting that the answer to that question (I’d never noticed this before) is right in the same verse as the topic itself:

    1:26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”

    i.e. being made in God’s image means (of course being no scholar I could be misinterpreting) we are made to be rulers over creation, just as God rules over everything and Christ rules over the Church, we are to rule over everything God states there. I think its fair to observe that no other animal has that ruling impulse built in like we do.

    I guess Tears for Fears was right – “Everybody wants to rule the world”

  • Jeremy February 12, 2012, 10:02 am

    interesting observation Dave, many would believe being made in God’s image also includes rationality, sentience, moral awareness and responsibility and a “spiritual” as opposed to a solely physical component

  • Marc Belcastro February 15, 2012, 9:28 am

    Glenn:

    What are your thoughts on Lynne Rudder Baker’s paper “Christian Materialism in a Scientific Age”? I think it’s in the third installment of your “In Search of the Soul” series where you discuss Corcoran’s constitution thesis, and I recall that you expressed some sympathy with the view. Since Baker appeals to a slightly different variant of constitutionalism to address worries about bodily resurrection, the Incarnation, and the intermediate state, I suspected that you might find her account attractive.

  • Glenn February 15, 2012, 12:07 pm

    Marc, I’ll read that article soon and let you know. 🙂

  • Glenn February 19, 2012, 11:21 pm

    A comment has been removed from this thread as it does not conform to the blog policy on advertising. I don’t always leave a notice when comments are removed due to such violations, but just to let you know I do it…. I occasionally do. 🙂

  • Tim April 3, 2012, 7:30 am

    Doesn’t the genetic code captured in our DNA address a lot of these issues, specifically the one about a damaged brain? The information encoded in our DNA is certainly immaterial, yet is required by our bodies to make us who we are, no matter what the condition of our bodies in this life. How much of our personality, desires, weaknesses, etc. is determined by our DNA is up to debate, but to me it solves some thorny issues regarding the incarnation and the physicalism / dualism debate.

    If God has a library, as it were, of everyone’s DNA that ever lived, it makes sense that when we die we are “with God.” It also nicely solves questions of the resurrected body: what will our bodies by like? how will it be me? It think it was John Polkinghorne who said something to the effect that the resurrection is downloading software onto new hardware.

    -Tim

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