Incarnational model of Scripture

Why do I hate buzz-words so much? I think it’s because their use makes it hard to judge whether the use of the word actually stands up to scrutiny. So as soon as you speak of God’s making a free creation, you imply (or even trumpet) that disagreement means opting for a coerced creation. If that’s true for general vocabulary, it’s far more so for theological words. Tie your creation to the crucified God, and whether it is a legitimate concept or not you subtly suggest that anyone who disagrees devalues the death of the Lord Jesus.

Peter Enns’ view of Scripture as “incarnational” is a case in point – and it is, remember, the view on which pretty well his whole theological project depends. The incarnational view of Scripture means that, like Christ, it is both divine and human. Jesus was genuinely and fully human, ergo so is the Bible; and since humans make errors in all kinds of areas, so does the Bible. With a bit of reverse reasoning, for Jesus to be fully human he too must have made errors, and that explains why he seems to believe Adam was historical, Moses wrote the Torah, and so on.

But the incarnation of Christ is not a vaguely conceived conceit about Jesus being both man and God. It was absolutely key to the understanding of the Christian faith, which was why it was bitterly disputed over several centuries against the errors of Doceticism, Arianism, Patripassarianism and many other heresies until the Church accepted the definition of Chalcedon of 451. This was agreed at an unusually large assembly representing 370 bishops. Some Eastern churches dissented – but that matters not for our purposes because they held that the divine and human natures actually became one in Christ. That, of course, would mean one could not distinguish human and divine elements in an incarnational view of Scripture.

It would be a useful thing at this point to look at the wording, which isn’t long. It is obvious that if an incarnational model of Scripture is to be legitimately Christian, and mean any more than an illegitimately purloined buzz-word, it will have to match as far as possible the understanding of incarnation given here, though one can immediately see the problems of trying to press ideas like the hypostatic union on the inspiration of Scripture. But that is the task that those like Enns have set us, so we must proceed.

The first thing I note is that Chalcedon says that Christ is like us in all respects apart from sin. Clearly without a sinless Christ there is no atonement. But does that exclusion include factual error?  Historically, the Church has said it does, though that must be nuanced by the understanding that Christ accommodated his words to his hearers’ limited understanding. But there are some things that would turn “error” into “sin”, and that would include both speaking untruth about God and the claim of Jesus himself in John 12.49-50:

“For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”

This has interesting implications, for it ought to be directly transferable to the incarnational Scriptures, since they consist of words too. If these words could not be emblazoned on the title page of the Bible, then the incarnation metaphor fails. But suppose, for argument’s sake, that Chalcedon does not preclude human error, but only sin, on Christ’s part. That has even more far-reaching implications for Scripture. Here’s a quote about the Bible’s inspiration from the Robin Collins essay I referred to in my last post :

One who holds this view must either hold that this guidance was very limited, or that such guidance often preserved the culturally conditioned viewpoint of the author, even for those cases in which the viewpoint is in contradiction to the moral and spiritual truths affirmed in other parts of scripture.  For example, in Ecclesiastes , the author states that “humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity” (3:19) and in Psalm 137:9, a blessing is pronounced on anyone who will smash the babies of the Babylonians against a rock.  Each of these passages clearly express the viewpoint of the author, not of God.

Now this, of course, is not all a unique attitude: the Canaanite slaughter, for example, is widely used as an example of the human limitations of Scripture, though usually without thinking of its theological consequences, like the implications for the covenant with Abraham on which all salvation history depends (eg Galatians 3). But if one wants to accuse Scripture of promoting sin, then one cannot  at the same time call it incarnational in the historic Christian sense, for the incarnation was sinless.

It’s been pointed out by others that Enns’ view of Scriptural incarnation, by avoiding Docetism (“it only seems to be a human book”), risks lurching into Arianism (“it isn’t divine at all”). In what precise way is Scripture God incarnate, rather than a mere human effort to understand God (which Jesus was certainly not)?

Chalcedon helps us. I’ve said that some Eastern brethren dissented because it seemed to leave the human and divine imperfectly united, but it certainly did its best by a series of carefully chosen words:

…εν δυο φυσεσιν, ασυγχυτως ατρεπτως, αδιαιρετως αχωριστως.
…in two natures, without separation, without change, without division, without separation.

This formula forms the heart of the definition. It means that Jesus didn’t become any less than God in the incarnation, and furthermore that, distinguishable or not, you can’t get a cigarette paper between the human and divine. Orthodox Christian doctrine (and that even includes the dissenters from Chalcedon) says that it is impossible to point to a word or act of Jesus and say “that bit is divine” or “that bit is human”. And that is inevitable, because the whole point of the incarnation is that the invisible God becomes that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched. Or in Paul’s words:

[I]n Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.

We don’t see God through Christ – we look at Christ and see God. And, relevant here, we hear the words of Christ and hear God speak. Need I spell out the implications of this for an incarnational view of Scripture, handled in a Christian way rather than as a deceptive analogy? I will anyway – as soon as you start trying to sift out the human from the divine words in Scripture, you have departed from a truly incarnational view of it. The worry is that you also hold a completely heretical view of Christ’s incarnation too, but let’s not go there.

As far as Peter Enns’ model is concerned, the alternatives are either that in attributing error to Scripture he is misapplying his incarnational model, or that in fact it is not a truly incarnational view of Scripture at all, but something else masquerading as one. And if so, he needs to account for what it actually is, and therefore explain how it can be seen as “Evangelical”.

In point of fact, the buzz-word “incarnational” isn’t restricted to a doctrine of Scripture. It also does service as a very Christocentric-sounding doctrine of creation, too, for some TEs. If I understood just what it meant, I’d apply the definition of Chalcedon to that as well. It would probably dump me straight into panentheism, of course, but on the other hand because of the “without sin” phrase it would solve the “problem of natural evil” at one Patristic stroke.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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7 Responses to Incarnational model of Scripture

  1. Cal says:

    Hey Jon, it has been a long time!

    Anyway, when I read Enns for the first time shallowly when he said “incarnationally”, I said “Yes! The Scripture is written by men and Spirit. It is in human words the words of God! Therefore we can trust it!”

    Funny how that happens!

    On a semi-related note, I find it interesting that orthodox Christians submit that there is no way to say that is the human part of Christ or that is the divine part. That certainly should make one pause when discussing the immutability of God in regards to suffering. He suffers and weeps and breaks and yet He never changes. Not a contradiction, just beyond our rationalisms and ultimately a comfort.


  2. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi, Cal! Yes, it has been long time. Welcome back, and thanks for commenting. So important to dig for what people mean when they use words!

  3. Cal says:

    Thanks for having me!

    As a side note: my tone in my last part of the comment makes it sound like I’m talking about “those orthodox Christians” as if I don’t consider myself apart of that stream. I certainly do.

  4. Jon Garvey says:

    Ah, but will they let you in???

  5. Cal says:

    Oh I do hope, no one else will take me! 🙂

  6. Jon Garvey says:

    Well, you’re welcome here, at any rate.

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