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Brian Hebblethwaite on the Centrality of Incarnation

The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology (Cambridge University Press: 1987), pp. 1-2, 3, 6-8.

There can be no doubt that the doctrine of the Incarnation has been taken during the bulk of Christian history to constitute the very heart of Christianity. Hammered out over five centuries of passionate debate, enshrined in the classical Christian creeds, explored and articulated in the great systematic theologies, the doctrine expresses, so far as human words permit, the central belief of Christians that God himself, without ceasing to be God, has come amongst us, not just in but as a particular man, at a particular time and place. The human life lived and the death died have been held quite literally to be the human life and death of God himself in one of the modes of his own eternal being. Jesus Christ, it has been firmly held, was truly God as well as being truly man. As we have seen, this belief is not only expressed in the doctrine of the Incarnation, but also in countless hymns and devotional rites that belong to the very stuff of living Christianity, not to mention the art and sculpture which it has inspired down the centuries.

… Both writers [Cupitt and Hick] are so convinced that a literal doctrine of Incarnation cannot be true, that they try to represent this as a logical impossibility. Yet as soon as we examine these assertions it becomes clear that no case whatsoever has actually been made out for the conclusion that incarnation-talk is self-contradictory. What, after all, is the basis for comparing talk of one who is both God and man to talk of a square circle? Certainly a square circle is a contradiction in terms. The terms ‘square’ and ‘circle’ are precisely defined terms, and their logical incompatibility is obvious from the definitions. But ‘God’ and ‘man’ are far from being such tightly defined concepts. It is difficult enough to suppose that we have a full and adequate grasp of what it is to be a human being. We certainly have no such grasp of the divine nature. Who are we to say that the essence of God is such as to rule out the possibility of his making himself present in the created world as a human being, while in no way ceasing to be the God he ever is?

… Many writers have spoken of the appropriateness of the Incarnation. Not that we could have predicted it very easily, although there are significant intimations of the notion elsewhere in the history of religions. But given the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the experience of the gift of the Spirit, the resultant doctrine of the Incarnation evokes our immediate recognition of its appropriateness. Many creative innovations in religion and ethics have this curious ability at once to introduce something new and to make us say, yes, it could not have been otherwise.

Of all the writers I mention at the beginning, John Hick is the one who has come up with the most persuasive reason for demythologizing the Incarnation. Only by so doing, on Hick’s view, can one make moral and religious sense of the relation between the developing world religions as different and equally valid channels of the saving encounter between God and man — man, that is, in his different historical and cultural traditions. I say that this global ecumenism makes moral and religious sense, but one cannot proceed in an a priori manner in these matters. One has actually to look at the beliefs and doctrines of the religions as they have emerged, and it is very hard to see that the specifically Christian claims can really be made to fit this pattern. Moreover I have to set against the appealing nature of Hick’s relativistic hypothesis the moral and religious sense of the doctrine of the Incarnation as I have tried to expound it above. This, I urged, depends on our recognising in the man Jesus God himself amongst us to make himself known in personal encounter and to take the brunt of the world’s evil upon himself. This, one realises, could only be done at the cost of introducing an asymmetry into the history of religions. (The notion of many incarnations cannot carry the same force, if God is one, and a particular man can be God to us in a fully human personal context. To suppose that God might have several human faces is to lose the real personal revelatory significance of the Incarnation.) Consequently, whatever knowledge and experience of God is mediated to our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist friends by their respective traditions — and it is a mistake to depreciate that knowledge and experience — the Christian cannot withdraw his invitation to them and to all men to see in Jesus Christ something more, and something necessarily unique.