The Incarnation. Some Considerations About the Platonic Gap
Updated: Aug 6, 2022
Dr. Reg McLelland is a philosophy professor at Covenant College, Georgia. Excerpts from a lecture on the Incarnation of Christ and it’s importance and implications for us today.
A fundamental, core, non-negotiable doctrine of the Christian faith is the INCARNATION. Chapter 1 of the Gospel of John says quite pointedly that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” In Colossians 1:19 we read, “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Jesus Christ.” The Westminster Confession of Faith says:
The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.
The Difficulty With Such a Position:
One of the chief objections to Christianity is the doctrine of the Incarnation. Jesus may be a prophet from God; but no human being could ever, ever, be God. The Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders tore their clothes in two when Jesus presumed to be “the Son of God” by telling people that their sins were forgiven.
A lot of philosophical and theological ink has been spilled trying to explain how an infinite, eternal, being can have a finite expression and a temporal order. However, when you get right down to it, to posit a fully God, fully human being in the same person is a clear violation of the law of non-contradiction, or so it seems. The distinction between a spiritual, or transcendent, and physical, or space-time, reality is a fundamental one in the history of philosophy.
In his dialogue, Phaedo, Plato argues that “true being,” cannot be part of the physical, changeable, world of becoming. Truth, for Plato, is that which does not change, and as we all know, the physical world is continually undergoing change. True philosophers are those are “occupied in the practice of dying,” in the sense of denying the physical world and seeking to transcend it.
Throughout the history of the Christian church are repeated attempts to either emphasize the Deity of Christ at the expense of his humanity, or emphasize his humanity at the expense of his Deity. Why is it so important that we get the exact nature of Jesus Christ correct in our statement of what the Bible teaches about this nature?
The Redemptive/Salvific Reason
The medieval theological/philosopher, St. Anselm, wrote a theological work called, Why Did God Become Man? We also have to ask why, in doing so, did God have to “stay” God?
In Hebrews we read, Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore, approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebr. 4: 14-16)
Jesus, as complete human being can fully identify with our humanity, what it is like to be hungry, to be tempted to sin, to be tired, sleepy, and hungry, irritable, frustrated, even disappointed with the unfaithfulness of his closest friends. Further, as a true human being, he is qualified to take our place in judgment. Yet, as God, being without sin, he does not have to pay for his own sins, since he has none. His substitution for us on the cross can truly be accepted by God the Father, as payment for our sins since Christ is not paying for his own.
The Implications of the Incarnation for the Creation (The Cultural Reason)
The early Church adopted an ascetic, or world-denying, attitude toward the physical creation. There was the mind of the world and the mind of Christ. The goal of the Christian was “to mortify, or to put to death, the flesh.” They took the status of a life of chastity as having a special spiritual merit and value. Eventually, the Church made the distinction between a life in the spirit and life in the physical world to be a mark of piety and religious.
In the Middle Ages, life was considered a travail, a time of testing, the painful interlude that one had to endure to be prepared for the next world. There was the dimension of grace and the dimension of nature and they were anti-thetical to each other.
With the advent of the Italian and later northern European Renaissance and certainly with the Reformation of the 16th century, a new attitude began to express itself about the world of ordinary human experience and the creation itself.
The Cultural Mandate:
Throughout Genesis 1, God continually refers to his physical creation as good. He takes pleasure in his creation, in his bringing about the phenomenal world of our experience. He commands human beings to exercise a delegated authority over the created order—a “dominion.” Culture—language, art, economics, science, society, politics, etc., are not just arbitrary, chance, pragmatic discoveries on the part of human beings in some evolutionary development. Our obedience to God in the pursuit of a right relationship with him involves our proper response to, and expressions, of these aspects.
The Concept of Calling:
In God’s plan for his creation, both physical and human, there is no spiritual hierarchy of God approved vocational pursuits. The very world ‘vocation,’ comes from the Latin word for “call. God has sanctioned all proper employments; every kind of work can serve him and bring honour to him. All of human life is sacred. All aspects of life are “spiritual” in the sense that they have been established by God and are to be properly expressed within the context of his righteousness.
We live coram deo, before the face of God. If we are performing our work, our professions, our places, in life to which God has called us and placed us, we are offering him our worship. It is important to see that all our life is a liturgy, a form of worship in the doctrine of Calling.
It must be emphasized that in arguing that the Platonic gap is an unbiblical distinction, that this is not to say that there is no transcendent world. The Bible in no way claims that the physical world is all there is. It is true that one can “spiritualise” our human existence to the degree that the physical world is an unimportant, indeed, even evil or negative, element in our existence. However, it is equally true that one can engaged in a materialistic reductionism that makes a human being nothing more a temporal, molecular reality, which is not biblically true either.
The Doctrine of Common Grace:
We can speak of Special Revelation—i.e., that the revelation linguistically expressed in the Christian Bible, but we can also speak of General Revelation.
General Revelation consists in “embodiment of God’s thought in the phenomena of nature, in the general constitution of the human mind, and in the facts of experience or history. God speaks to human beings in His entire creation, in the forces and powers of nature, in the constitution of the human mind, in the voice of conscience, and in the providential government of the world in general, and of the lives of individuals in particular.” (Berkhof, Manual, pp. 26-27.)
While God extends a special grace to those who have responded to his offer of redemption, he also extends a grace or favour to his general human creation. God allows human beings, even outside redemption, to insights into his truth about the nature of reality. Non-believers, in the approach to the world of God’s creation and the unfolding of that creation, have the ability, up to a point, to see his truth in that creation and Christians can take advantage of such insights and profit by them. Non-Christians can create wonderful works of art, write insightful novels about the human scene, develop appropriate scientific theories, and put forth insightful views of politics, economics, history, psychology, etc. This is another way in which God shows us the importance of his creation and how it embodies his truth.
Unfortunately, there are Christians who are caught up in the spiritual-secular dichotomy or distinction, and continue to divide all human thought into anti-thetical schools. In the view of these Christians there are two ways of thinking about things: The Mind of the World, and The Mind of Christ. There is no truth, no good, no beauty, no insights, to be found in the non-redeemed world and thought. Thus, all so-called “secular aspects or expressions of the creation” cannot be trusted or seen as expressing any real truth about anything.
The creation has been subjected to the effects of the human fall. Due to our sin and the distortion of the world, we must continually to bring the Mind of Christ to it as a corrective measure. But, God still intends for all of humanity to see his truth and his character in his creation. God calls us to appreciate the created order, to use it for his glory, and to enjoy it and “to be glad in it,” as the Psalmist says.