Doctrine of Christ (Part 7): The Incarnation (7)

February 08, 2017

A Possible Model of the Incarnation (Cont’d)

We’ve been looking at a proposed model for understanding the deity and humanity of Christ. I suggested first that we need to affirm with the Council of Chalcedon that Christ has two complete natures – human and divine. Secondly, I suggested last week that we can think with Apollinarius of the Logos (the second person of the Trinity) as being the soul of the human nature of Jesus Christ. In virtue of the union of the Logos with the flesh, Christ’s human nature becomes complete so that he has a complete human nature as well as a complete divine nature.


Student: I asked you a couple of months ago if you had heard of this book by Andrew Lincoln called Born of a Virgin. He is, as I understand it, an evangelical New Testament scholar from the U. K. In that book he raises questions about the doctrine of the virgin birth. He has textual issues and biological issues and so forth. I am not suggesting we should abandon that doctrine but do you think that the virgin birth is essential to the two natures of Christ doctrine?

Dr. Craig: That is a subtle question. I do affirm the truth of the virgin birth of Christ. I think biological objections to it are just trivial because it is a miracle. It is supposed to be a supernatural act of God which is naturally impossible. The question would be whether or not this is a doctrine that is taught in Scripture. It seems to me that it is. We have two independent narratives in Matthew and Luke of the virginal conception of Jesus. It seems to me that there is good warrant for thinking that this is a commitment of New Testament doctrine of Christ – that Christ was virginally conceived.

Is this essential, however, to his full humanity or fully deity? I don’t see that it is. It seems to me that God could have produced Jesus through a natural human intercourse – natural conception. That wouldn’t do anything to reduce either his full humanity or his deity. Christ doesn’t have deity in virtue of the way in which his human nature was conceived. He has deity because he is the Logos, the second person of the Trinity. The person of Christ is divine. Remember there is no human person who is Christ. That is Nestorianism. That would say there are two persons – one human and one divine. There is only one person in Christ and that is a divine person, the second person of the Trinity. So however the human nature of Jesus came to be created, whether it was through a miraculous conception or through a natural birth doesn’t reflect upon his full deity it seems to me, much less his true humanity. So I don’t see this as a doctrine that is essential to the deity of Christ or to his humanity.

Student: Andrew Lincoln, I think, has been considered an evangelical. He taught at Gordon-Conwell at one time. I was kind of surprised at his book.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I’m surprised, too, quite frankly. I just read an article this week by Andrew Lincoln on the doctrine of justification in the book of Romans. It was very helpful. I wound up actually quoting it in an article that I am writing on the atonement in which he emphasizes the legal nature of our justification before God through the atoning death of Christ.[1] You are right in terms of his bona fides as an evangelical theologian. But this is an odd departure from that, I think.

Student: Last week you said the principal problem with this second item . . . my notes aren’t very good. Can you just briefly repeat that?

Dr. Craig: Good! Yes, I would like to because that forms a nice segue to our third plank.

I said, quoting the Scottish theologian A. B. Bruce, that the chief difficulty with this model is that if the Logos is the human soul of Jesus then it is really hard to explain the cognitive limitations of Jesus. How do you get a genuine consciousness of a human being that begins in infancy and then grows up through boyhood into manhood and never does arrive at full omniscience? Jesus himself said he didn’t know the date of his second coming. So it is really hard to see how you don’t get a sort of charade here – a sort of Superman disguised as Clark Kent, which is certainly not the kind of doctrine of the incarnation that we want. We want Jesus to have a genuine human consciousness, not just to be playing a charade for us while in fact he really does know everything.

I don’t think that the device of reduplicative predication helps to solve this. Reduplicative predication, you will remember, is predicating attributes or properties of Jesus with respect to one or the other nature. I suggested it is fairly easy to see how that would work with some properties. Jesus could be omnipotent with respect to his divine nature but limited in strength and power with respect to his human nature. Or he could be omnipresent with respect to the divine nature but spatially limited with respect to his human nature. That makes good sense. But how can you say that Jesus is ignorant with respect to the human nature while omniscient with respect to the divine nature? You are supposed to have a single conscious subject who is the person of Christ, especially on this Apollinarian view. So it is hard to understand how this comports with the limitations of Jesus that are so graphically described in the Gospels. In particular, how can he be genuinely tempted with sin? It would seem that he would just blow sin away. God can’t be tempted with evil. Yet, I think we want to say that the temptations were real. His struggles in the Garden of Gethsemane and prayer as he faced his crucifixion were real struggles and not just a charade. That seems to me to be the chief drawback of this model as so far described.

Student: When it comes to the co-equality of the persons, as Christians, are we trying to say that it is neither greater nor lesser to have a second nature?

Dr. Craig: I think that is an open question. Jesus said, The Father is greater than I. That raises the question: in virtue of what? I don’t think we can say that he is greater than Jesus in virtue of his divinity because Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. So in what sense is the Father greater than him? I don’t think you’d say that Jesus having a human nature makes him less than the Father because he still has his divine nature which makes him equal. I suspect that that saying has something more to do with the economic Trinity. Remember we distinguished between the ontological Trinity (which is the three persons in their own nature) as opposed to the economic Trinity which is the different roles that they play in the plan of salvation. In the economic Trinity the Son submits to and does the will of the Father. In the context of that passage where Jesus say The Father is greater than I, he speaks of being sent from the Father: The Father has sent me. I think in that economic Trinity Jesus can be said to be subordinate to and therefore not as great as the Father.

Student: Going back to the virgin birth, isn’t the virgin birth linked to Christ’s sinlessness since he was not contaminated by the human seed of the Father?[2]

Dr. Craig: Do you hear his question? Isn’t the virgin birth connected in some way to Jesus’ sinlessness? I would say, as a Protestant, no! Now, Catholics believe that it is. But I, as a Protestant, don’t believe that. The difficulty in saying that it is in virtue of his being born of a virgin that Jesus doesn’t have Adam’s original sin is that Mary should have carried original sin just as much as his father Joseph. In virtue of being born of Mary, Jesus should still be the heir of original sin. It is not enough just to have a virginal conception. As long as he is born of a human mother he would have original sin. So how does the Catholic Church propose to deal with this problem? They postulate the doctrine of the immaculate conception. It is important to understand that the immaculate conception does not refer to Jesus’ conception. Jesus’ conception was a virginal conception. The immaculate conception refers to Mary’s conception. God did a miracle so that Mary was conceived without original sin. That is why being born of Mary didn’t make Jesus the heir to original sin. Mary didn’t have any original sin because she was immaculately conceived.

I think all of us would probably agree that this is a doctrine which has no basis in the Scripture whatsoever. It is the result of Catholic tradition that eventually was promulgated by the Pope in the 19th century. I don’t see anywhere that it suggests that in virtue of being born of a virgin that Jesus is sinless. It would seem to me that if God can do an immaculate conception of Mary, he can do an immaculate conception of Jesus just as easily. So Jesus’ conception would be virginal but also immaculate in the sense that he doesn’t inherit original sin.

Student: I agree with that, but could you not also interject an emptying of himself with that doctrine? When he truly becomes in the flesh then he has the limitations of fallen Adam. He is cut off. Everything he knows is through his fellowship through the Holy Spirit, so he has to learn things through the Holy Spirit. He didn’t truly come in the flesh if he is not of the same body, one blood.

Dr. Craig: I think that is, again, a nice segue to my third point. When you hear this third point it will probably resonate with this idea that there was a kind of self-emptying of Jesus in the incarnation. Not a giving up of his attributes, but of, as I said, a state of humiliation where he enters into a condition where he doesn’t have the full exercise of all of his divinity in the incarnate form prior to his death and resurrection.

Student: That Jesus was born of a virgin we know meant that . . . the way God did it we know that Jesus was directly the Son of God. So without a virgin birth wouldn’t he just be, say, the son of Joseph or the son of someone else if it had been some other way?

Dr. Craig: No, I don’t think so because the person Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity. That person existed prior to his incarnation. However that person chooses to assume a human nature, whether through a virginal conception or through a special creation of the human nature, he will be divine in virtue of his divine nature. It is not in virtue of his birth; it is in virtue of the divine nature that the second person of the Trinity already has prior to the incarnation that he is fully God.


I want to suggest, as my third plank in this model, that we postulate that certain divine aspects of Jesus’ personality were largely subliminal during his state of humiliation or this condition of emptying that we just spoke of.[3] Certain divine aspects of Jesus’ personality were largely subliminal during his state of humiliation.

I want to suggest that what the philosopher William James[4] called the subliminal self is the primary locus of the superhuman elements in the consciousness of the incarnate Logos. Thus Jesus possessed a normal human consciousness in his experience. But the human consciousness of Jesus was underlain, as it were, by a divine sub-consciousness.

This understanding of Christ’s experience draws upon the insight of depth psychology that there is vastly more to a person than his waking consciousness. Indeed the whole project of psychoanalysis is based upon the conviction that some of our behaviors are rooted in deep springs of action which we are not even aware of or only dimly aware of if at all.

A particularly striking illustration of this fact is the phenomenon of multiple personality disorders where a single person will have multiple personalities. This would be an example of the eruption of these subliminal facets into conscious experience as distinct personalities. Not distinct persons – there is only one person, but they are distinct personalities.

In some cases of multiple personality disorder there is even one dominant personality who is aware of all of the others and who knows what each of them knows but who is himself unknown by those other personalities. This would be an illustration, I think, of these subliminal factors that are at work in subconsciousness.

Hypnotism is also a very vivid illustration of the reality of the subliminal. Charles Harris explains that a person who is under hypnosis can be informed by the hypnotist of certain facts and then instructed to forget them when he awakens. But, Harris says,

the knowledge is truly in his mind, and shows itself in unmistakable ways, especially by causing him to perform . . . certain actions, which, but for the possession of this knowledge, he would not have performed.

What is still more extraordinary, a sensitive hypnotic subject may be made both to see and not to see the same object at the same moment. For example, he may be told not to see a lamp-post, whereupon he becomes (in the ordinary sense) quite unable to see it. Nevertheless, he does see it, because he avoids it and cannot be induced to precipitate himself against it.[5]

So this hypnotic subject is told not to see a lamp post, and when he awakens he can’t see it. It is invisible to him. But if you tell him to walk to the other side of the sidewalk he will go around the lamp post. He won’t run into it. Why? Because he really does see it even though he is not aware that he can see it.

Similarly, in the incarnation, at least during his earthly state of humiliation, the Logos allowed only those facets of his person to be part of Christ’s waking consciousness which were compatible with a typical human experience. The bulk of his knowledge lay submerged with his other cognitive perfections like an iceberg beneath the water’s surface, submerged in subconsciousness.[6]

On this model Christ is one person but in that person conscious and subconscious elements are differentiated in a theologically significant way. Unlike Nestorianism this does not imply that there are two persons anymore than the conscious aspects of your life and the subconscious aspects of your life constitute two different persons. It is one person but you have both conscious and subconscious elements.

I think this model provides a satisfying account of Jesus as we see him described in the Gospel portrait. For example, in his conscious experience Jesus grew in knowledge and wisdom in the same way that an ordinary human child does. You don’t have the monstrosity of the baby Jesus lying in the manger contemplating the infinitesimal calculus. He had a genuine infant consciousness.

In his conscious experience, moreover we see Jesus genuinely tempted by the devil even though he is in fact impeccable (that is to say incapable of sin). But the enticements of sin were really felt. He really was tempted. They weren’t just blown away like smoke. Rather, resisting temptation required spiritual discipline and moral resoluteness on Jesus’ part.

Moreover, in his waking consciousness, Jesus is actually ignorance of certain facts. Even though I think we can say he is kept from error and often supernaturally illumined by the divine subliminal. Even though the Logos possesses all of the knowledge of the world from quantum mechanics to auto mechanics, nevertheless there is no reason to think that Jesus of Nazareth would have been able to answer questions about those subjects because he had stooped so low in condescending to take on the human condition.

Moreover, on this model, in his conscious experience, Jesus knew the whole gamut of human anxieties and worries. He felt physical hurt and fatigue.

This model, moreover, will also preserve the integrity of Jesus’ prayer life. Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane were not just charades. He really struggled in his consciousness with facing the cross.

It also explains how Jesus was capable of being perfected through suffering. Like us, Jesus of Nazareth needed to be dependent upon his heavenly Father moment by moment in order to live victoriously in a fallen world and to carry out successfully the mission that his Father had given him.

All of the traditional objections, I think, to the Apollinarian perspective that the Logos is the mind of Christ seem to melt away before this understanding of the incarnation because here we have a Jesus who is not only divine but who also shares the human condition. It is not just that he has a human nature, but he shares the human condition with us as well in this sort of emptying or state of humiliation.


Student: I don’t think of Mary as sinless, but she purposely submitted to God’s will. That submission allowed the divinity of Jesus to take full measure of God’s nature. We are called to submit to God’s will and purpose in the same way so that God’s will can be done on Earth as it is in heaven.

Dr. Craig: That is certainly true, isn’t it? I think the question raised by what you said would be: would Mary’s complete submission to the Holy Spirit in saying Let it be to me as you have said. I am the handmaid of the Lord and she submits completely to going through this humiliating experience of becoming an unmarried mother – the question would be whether or not that submission would serve to cancel original sin.[7] I just can’t see any reason to think that. If you believe that original sin is now endemic to the human nature then all persons who are normal descendants of Adam would carry the corruption of human nature and the guilt of original sin that Adam incurred. I think the Catholics recognize this in appealing to the immaculate conception. There had to be a miracle that would exempt Mary from that. It is not enough just to say she was submissive because when she was born (before she was submissive as a child) she would already bear Adam’s sin. As much as her submission is important, I don’t see that it would deal with the problem that was raised about original sin.

Student: What you said a minute ago about Jesus sharing in the human condition, should we maybe nuance that and say he only partially shared in it? Because sometimes when we say that phrase “human condition” we are implying sinfulness, and certainly Jesus did have that.

Dr. Craig: Ah! Obviously, I’m not implying sinfulness. No. Sin isn’t essential to the human condition. Right? Because Adam and Eve were humans prior to the fall. It is not as though they were some other type of being prior to sinning. Sin is not something that is essential to the human condition. I think Jesus can share the human condition and a human nature without being sinful. So, yes, it is good to make that explicit. I wouldn’t want to suggest that Jesus struggled with guilt feelings, for example.

Student: You know how it says in the Old Testament, While Adam was without sin, as he grew older at the end of his day, I think that also refers to his life – he walked with God in the garden. So here is Christ – he’s subliminal, he’s been emptied. Only through the walking and growing up and living this life he comes to walk with God, have access to all of his nature. As far as he has to be completely identified with us, as he grew to learn his nature he came to redeem us. Therefore he had to be just like us. He had to take our sin upon himself at the cross. He will make a way for salvation to everybody that hopes in this. That is what he did. He did at the cross finally become the full measure. He truly was cutoff from God the Father. He, like all of us, was cutoff from knowing too much. In the original fall, we were prohibited . . . Mary could never come to be sinless. As she comes closer she would be more and more convicted of her sinfulness. You need Christ’s atoning death. If you read the book of Nahum it says From God’s presence – he is in the unapproachable light. It says, You are tormented from his presence – not away from it. There is outer darkness in the abyss but the lake of fire is being in his presence without a covering.

Dr. Craig: That forms a nice segue again to the next section of this class.

We’ve been talking about the person of Christ. In the next section we are going to talk about the work of Christ. What did he accomplish? Why did he come? What you are referring to there is the doctrine of the imputation of sins to Christ. Protestant Reformers held that our sins were imputed to Christ so that he was punished in our place for our sins. The question is: how shall we understand that? Does that mean that Jesus became literally a sinful person – he became evil and immoral? Or is there another way of understanding imputation that doesn’t involve Christ’s actually becoming a selfish, lustful, greedy, materialistic person? That is what we’ll be talking up next time.[8] This touches on my current work on the doctrine of the atonement that I have been doing this year. In this next section I am very excited to be sharing a lot of new material with you that is the product of my recent study of the atonement that I am very excited about. That will be what we’ll take up shortly.

Student: As I understand, what you are saying is in Christ’s conscious mind he went through a process of coming to understand who he was as first the Messiah and then the Logos. Early in life he may not have even understood those things in his conscious mind?

Dr. Craig: I think that is right. Yes. Jesus lying in the manger as a little baby isn’t thinking “I am the Messiah of Israel. I am the second person of the Trinity.” Those sorts of things. That would be, as I say, a monstrosity and not a genuine incarnation. By the time Jesus gets to be twelve years old we have the story of him being left behind in the temple and debating with the scribes there. When Mary and Joseph ask him, Why did you do this to us and not come home with us? Why would you do such a thing?, his reply is so telling. He says, Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business. Already there is this sense at twelve of being God’s Son in a special way. I think by the time of his baptism Jesus is fully aware of, as you say, his Messianic status and his role as the Son of Man. This then comes to fruition in the ministry that he has. But I think there is no problem in saying that this is a consciousness and a realization that gradually dawned on him as he grew older.

Student: When we were talking about the attributes of God, I think the definition of omniscience was “God knows and believes all true propositions.” Does that mean that Jesus of Nazareth could believe false propositions?

Dr. Craig: Not if he’s omniscient. Go ahead. I think I know where you are going with this.

Student: I’m asking about this with respect to his human nature.

Dr. Craig: Right. I know.

Student: If not, then did he have access to his omniscience? How was he taught?

Dr. Craig: The model leaves that open. Did Jesus in his waking consciousness have access to his subliminal but just refrained from doing it – from accessing it? Did he have the ability to reach down deep so to speak and pull out the knowledge of quantum mechanics if he wanted to? Or in this state of humiliation, had he really given up access to this? That is something the model as explained doesn’t resolve. You can hold to either alternative, I think, coherently. You could say that Jesus had the ability to access the subliminal but simply refrained from doing so. Or you could say that Jesus did not have access to the subliminal but nevertheless this divine subliminal undergirded him and kept him from error in what he did believe in his human waking consciousness, or that the Holy Spirit so guided his waking consciousness as to keep him from error. It seems to me either one of those would be a perfectly plausible account.

Student: That would still apply to today and forever to Jesus of Nazareth?

Dr. Craig: That depends on if you think with the ascension (with the state of exaltation) that now Jesus has full access to every part of the consciousness of the Logos. That would seem to make sense. The state of humiliation in classical theology lasts from the virginal conception through the burial. But then after that comes the state of exaltation with the ascension into heaven and the seating at the right hand of God. There it would seem very plausible to say that now Christ, though incarnate, has full access to all of the knowledge of the Logos. I think that is a more pleasing model of Christ’s exalted status in any case.[9]

Student: In John 1:48 Jesus sees Nathaniel under the tree. There you have an example of where he had some sort of superhuman knowledge even though . . .

Dr. Craig: Yeah, could it be that on occasion aspects of the divine subliminal would surface in consciousness so that he is able to say to Nathaniel, I saw you under the fig tree, or maybe in prophesying the future? Aspects of this sort were available to him. Or, alternatively, one might say, no, it was the Holy Spirit who revealed this to him so it was through the Spirit of God that Christ was guided, kept from error, and illumined. Again, I think either alternative would be a plausible theory.


In conclusion, if this proposed model does make sense then I think that it serves to show that the classic doctrine of the incarnation is perfectly coherent and plausible. Not only that, but I think it serves religiously as well to elicit praise to God for his self-emptying act of taking on our human nature and its condition with all of its struggles and limitations and weaknesses for our sake and for our salvation. Thus our heart can rejoice with the words of Charles Wesley in his great hymn:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity.
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”[10]



[1] 5:00

[2] 10:12

[3] 15:19

[4] William James (1842-1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher.

[5] Charles Harris, cited in A. M Stibbs, God Became Man (London: The Tyndale Press, 1957), p. 12.

[6] 20:00

[7] 25:16

[8] 30:00

[9] 35:00

[10] Total Running Time: 37:25 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)