Crisp on Edwards on the Incarnation
April 6, 2017 — 6:03

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Chapter 8 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Jonathan Edwards, Idealism, and Christology” by Oliver Crisp. This is the second of the two previously published essays, having appeared in another edited volume in 2011.

The first part of the essay provides an admirably clear overview of Edwards’ distinctive metaphysical views, particularly as they relate to God and creation. Crisp then goes on to draw out some consequences for Christology and defend the orthodoxy of Edwards’ position.

Crisp enumerates 11 Edwardsian positions he takes to be relevant, but it seems to me that there are really just three that are of central relevance to the question of the Incarnation. Using slightly different terminology than Crisp (in order to sum things up more briefly), we may call these; immaterialism, stage theory, and occasionalism. Each of these doctrines is important primarily for what it denies, not for what it affirms. Immaterialism denies the existence of mind-independent extended substances; stage theory denies that created objects persist over time in any metaphysically significant sense; and occasionalism denies that created objects are ever efficient causes. In all three cases, Edwards, like most other proponents of these views, tries to soften the blow of these denials: immaterialism doesn’t deny that there are bodies, but merely denies that bodies are mind-independent material substrata; stage theory doesn’t deny that there is some relation between the apple this morning and the apple this afternoon which makes us call it ‘the same apple,’ it just denies that this relation is, in truth and strictness, identity; finally, occasionalism doesn’t deny that one event happens because of another, it merely says that, in the oomphy ‘anti-Humean’ sense God, and only God, is responsible for making the events happen in this order.

Each of these theories, Crisp suggests, might be thought to cause problems for the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation. First and most obviously, Christian theology holds that the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, took on a body—in reality and not appearance only—and this might well be thought to conflict with immaterialism. Second, orthodox Christology holds that Christ became incarnate just once, in apparent conflict with stage theory which would have Christ bearing some relation to a series of human body-stages. Third and finally, the Third Council of Constantinople affirmed that Christ possessed a human will (faculty of willing) distinct from the divine will. Presumably the Council meant to affirm that Christ’s ordinary human actions were undertaken by ordinary human willing. But Edwards (unlike many other early modern occasionalists) makes no exception to his occasionalism for human minds/wills. Like Malebranche (the most extreme of occasionalists), he holds that when we will to move our arm God moves it for us. In what sense, then, can Christ’s actions be said to be undertaken pursuant to a human will?

Crisp’s answer to all three of these objections is fundamentally the same: the key point affirmed by the Chalcedonian Definition (in connection with Christ’s humanity) is that Christ is “perfect in humanity … consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects, except for sin” (quoted on p. 158). In other words, orthodox Christology is fundamentally committed to the claim that Christ became a human being like other human beings. It is not fundamentally committed to a particular metaphysical conception of human beings. Thus Edwards can say that Christ has a human body just like we do (which is to say, he was associated in a special way with certain divine ideas); that this body persists through time just like our bodies do (which is to say, it doesn’t really persist at all, but is preceded and succeeded by certain suitably related bodies); and that Christ undertakes voluntary actions in the body just like we do (which is to say, he wills certain actions and on the occasion of his willing God makes the actions occur).

This, I think, is all convincing. The real question becomes, can Edwards’ metaphysics make sense of all the things it needs to make sense of? But insofar as the challenge is to make sense of the ordinary case (and not the extraordinary case of the Incarnation), this is a question about the viability of his metaphysics, not a question of its theological orthodoxy. If Edwards can indeed make sense of the ordinary everyday cases, then he can do at least as well as the dualist in making sense of the Incarnation.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)