Was Jesus God Incarnate?

Since historical questions are easily disputed, let's lay them aside for the most part and see if we can we make any sense of the belief that Jesus was an incarnate God.

One modern attempt to defend the notion that Jesus was God incarnate has been made by Thomas Morris, in The Logic of God Incarnate (Cornwell Univ. Press, 1986), in which he defends the proposition that “Jesus of Nazareth was one and the same person as God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.” (p. 13).

Initially, such a view raises certain questions. Christians like Morris have three successive beings to reconcile with each other: 1) The 2nd Person of the Trinity who existed before time; 2) Jesus, who is God-in-the-flesh--a unique and new being in history; and, 3) The resurrected and glorified Jesus who now is purportedly “sitting at the right hand of God.”

Now keep in mind that the God-man Jesus was a fully human being, so any resurrected God-man must have a body in keeping with his humanity, otherwise the human part of the God-man ceased to exist, died, or his was simply discarded. But it can't be that God would destroy a sinless man, the man Jesus. Therefore, the resurrected Jesus, being a God-man, is a new and unique being, and this dual natured being is unlike the previous 2nd person of the Trinity.

When I asked about this problem of the glorified Jesus, my former professor, Dr. Ron Feenstra, had no trouble accepting the conclusion that the 2nd person of the Trinity took on a human form and now must keep it for all of eternity. [He edited, along with Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1989)]. I just find this whole belief extremely troublesome and implausible. If the human nature of Jesus is forever linked to the 2nd Person of the Trinity, then the full Trinity now includes a man, that is, the human side of Jesus. In heaven the 2nd Person of the Trinity must now forever live encapsulated within a human body (a glorious body, nonetheless, but a body). We now have an embodied God, forever! This whole thing seems contrived and is the result of believing, along with ancient superstitious people, that human beings could be gods (see Acts 14:11; 28:6).

The other possibility is that after the resurrection and ascension events of Jesus there are now two beings rather than one. In heaven there is the human Jesus, and then there is the 2nd person of the Trinity. There are now two beings who exist and arose out of one being, one person, here on earth. That is, the 2nd person of the Trinity discarded his human form to live for the rest of eternity unhindered, letting the human part of him to exist as a separate person in heaven with him. But incoherence sets in at this point, because the Chalcedon creed speaks of there being a “union” of the God-man such that the result is “but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.” How can such a metaphysical union be separated into two beings? The traditional orthodox doctrine is that Jesus is one person!

But this God-man union is exactly what Morris is trying to defend. To do this he proposes a two-minds theory: “In the case of God Incarnate, we must recognize something like two distinct ranges of consciousness. There is first what we can call the eternal mind of God the Son with its distinctively divine consciousness… And in addition there is a distinctively earthly consciousness that came into existence and grew and developed as the boy Jesus grew and developed.” (p. 102). In this way the second person of the trinity could know what was going on in both the conscious and unconscious mind of Jesus although Jesus could be totally unaware that he is even there.

Morris has some major difficulties when he tries to work out this theory involving two minds, even though he uses the results of modern psychology. If there are two separate minds, each with its own separate consciousness, then a major question is this: Was the earthly Jesus conscious of the second person of the trinity, or not? If he wasn't conscious of the divine mind, then this accurately describes all human beings who are likewise unaware of a divine mind. Jesus would act and think like a human being in every respect. There would be no guarantee that his behavior is to be a model for us, nor would there be any guarantee that he spoke the very words of God to us. The only possible guarantee that he did so would be to claim the divine mind directed the human mind of Jesus to act and say the things he purportedly did. But at that point it's not really possible to say that this accurately descibes a human being "like us in every respect." For if God directed our human minds in the same way, then we too would be sinless and we too would speak the very words of God.

If the human side of the God-man was conscious of the the divine mind, then why didn’t he exhibit the attributes of deity, like omniscience (Mt. 24:36, Lk. 8:45-46), and omnipotence (Mt. 14:3-13; 26:53)? The reason Stephen T. Davis suggests is that Jesus couldn't do this and still be fully human: “At any point in his earthly ministry, I suspect, Jesus could have called on his omniscience (or omnipotence, for that matter), but had he done so, it would have been tantamount to his no longer being truly human.” [Logic and the Nature of God (Eerdmans, 1983), p. 126]. For having these attributes of divine consciousness would also eliminate the possibility that he was fully human, and as such he would not be "like us in every respect."

So on the one hand, if the human side of the God-man was not conscious of the divine mind, then how can his actions be guaranteed to be Godlike? But on the other hand, if he was conscious of the divine mind, or if the divine mind infallibly directed the human side of the God-man, then we no longer have a true human being who was "just like us in every respect."

This whole problem can be seen most forcefully when trying to understand what took place if and when the human and divine minds of Jesus ever came into conflict, as in the case of temptation. Which mind made the final decision in what to say or in how to act? How can one person have two minds but one will? Does the “divine will” over-ride the “human will”? Jesus himself said that human beings could sin in their thoughts alone (Matt. 5:22,28). Was Jesus able to fully act as a human being, or was his will to sin always restrained? Morris suggests that Jesus had free will, but that if he ever acted to sin the second person of the trinity would have stopped him from doing so. But if Jesus’ will was restrained in this way, then how can it be said Jesus was truly like us? He would have a divine consciousness that we don't have, and as such he didn't have the same choices and freedoms we have as human beings. Being restrained from sinning is not praiseworthy at all, because being praiseworthy demands that we acted on our own accord and we thought and did good things, not bad things. But apparently Jesus couldn’t totally act freely, so there’s nothing praiseworthy about what he thought and did as a human being.

We’re told that Jesus was temped (Matt. 4:1; Heb, 4:15). To be temped would entail having thoughts about sinning. One cannot be tempted to do something if there is no desire to do it. If someone tries to tempt me to rob a bank it cannot be done, because I do not have that desire, and never will. This is no temptation for me at all. Theologians have been trying to make sense of this whole idea of the distinction between temptation and the sinful thoughts that Jesus condemns, I think, unsuccessfully. But since Jesus was tempted to sin there seems to be some small imperfections in him, since to be tempted means to have desires that do not accord with the nature of God, especially when we take seriously the whole idea that there are no imperfections in the Godhead at all. John Hick: “Even unfulfilled beginnings of evil must themselves count as imperfections; for in order for the divine mind to overrule them there must have been something there that required to be overruled.” [1) Jesus exhibited what we’d now call a racist attitude toward a woman (Mark 7:27); 2) Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18); 3) he didn’t respect his parents like the law would demand (Mark 3:31-5; Luke 14:26), and 4) he used violence in the temple when he cast out the money changers (Matt. 21:12).[The Metaphor of God Incarnate].

Paul Copan understands the seriousness of this problem, but to solve it he introduces an ad hoc theory. Without any Biblical support, he claims Jesus was voluntarily ignorant of the fact that “he was necessarily good,” and as such he really was tempted to sin but couldn’t, because of his divine nature. [“That’s Just Your Interpretation,” (2001), pp. 138-143]. Just how Jesus could be divine and still lack the recognition that as a divine being he was necessarily good, Copan doesn't explain. Copan offers an analogy to explain himself. He answers by saying this is the same problem with how Jesus could know he was divine and yet not know the time of his purported second coming (Matt. 24:36). However, this doesn’t solve either problem. One bad analogy doesn’t solve another one. For he still hasn't answered how Jesus could be divine and yet not have divine knowledge.

“What we are left with is…God incarnate in the sense that God singled the human Jesus out for a special role—namely by not allowing him to go wrong. It follows that if God, in addition to being omnisciently aware of the full contents of someone’s mind, were to prevent her from making any wrong choices, that person would be another instance of God incarnate.” “Those who talked with Jesus were talking to a man whom God the Son was invisibly monitoring and preventing from going astray.” This, according to Hick, is the specific problem “that proved fatal for Morris’ theory: was Jesus free to commit sin?” [John Hick in The Metaphor of God Incarnate, p, 58, 60).

In light of these things we can see why E. P. Sanders wrote: “It lies beyond my meager abilities as an interpreter of dogmatic theology to explain how it is possible for one person to be 100 per cent human and 100 per cent divine, without either interfering with the other.” [The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 134)].