- God is immutable (unchanging).
- Humans are mutable (changing).
- Jesus is both God and human.
Er? How can it make any sense to say that Jesus is both immutable and mutable at the same time? Isn’t that a little like saying that I’m in Illinois and Washington at the same time? I may have put on a few pounds over the years, but I’m pretty sure that it hasn’t gotten that bad yet.
Looking at “logic” like this, many draw the conclusion that the incarnation, one of the central beliefs of the Christian faith, is more than just paradoxical; it’s absurd, a contradiction, a logical impossibility. It’s like believing in square circles, straight curves, or a good VMA awards show.
It’s no wonder that people think Christians are idiots.
Maybe It’s a Mystery
No, it doesn’t help to appeal to “mystery.” Square circles aren’t mysterious; they’re absurd. And saying that you believe in square circles isn’t a sign of spiritual depth, but an admission that you have no idea what the words “square” and “circle” mean. So if the incarnation falls into the same category as square circles, we’re dealing with a contradiction, not a mystery.
But of course, there’s more to the story. And that’s precisely what Timothy Pawl offers in this short video. He does a nice job explaining some difficult concepts in just a few minutes. But in case anyone has a hard time following what he’s trying to say, I’ll try to clarify somewhat below. Follow along.
The Law of Non-Contradiction
The point Tim makes in this video builds off a classic distinction in logic. Put simply, a statement is only truly contradictory if it affirms that two contrary propositions are both true at the same time and in the same way. Let’s unpack this definition just a bit.
- Contrary propositions: In this context, contrary propositions are any two assertions that seem mutually exclusive. If I said, “I am a human” and then said “I am a frog,” those would immediately appear to be contrary propositions. Human and frog are concepts that seem to exclude one another.
- At the same time: One possible way of resolving apparently contrary propositions is to point out that maybe they’re true at different times. Maybe I started out as a frog and then made out with some hot princess and turned into a human. So it’s possible that “I am a human” and “I am a frog” are statements that were both true of me at different times. So they’d only be contradictory if I said that they were both true at exactly the same time.
- In the same way: The third part of the definition blocks the possibility that maybe I’m using the two statements in completely different ways. Maybe I’m using the first literally (e.g. I am a member of the species homo sapien), but I’m using the second metaphorically (e.g. I love swimming so much that people think I’m amphibian). Used in different ways like this, the two statements, even when affirmed of me at the same time are clearly non-contradictory. But if I’m using them in precisely the same way (e.g. I’m both a member of the species homo sapien and of the species frogus latinus–obviously I’m far too lazy to look up real frog species), then they would seem to be contradictory.
So, following these three criteria, it’s only a contradiction to say “I am a human” and “I am a frog” if I affirm that both of those propositions are true at exactly the same time and in precisely the same way.
Non-Contradiction and the Incarnation
Getting back to Jesus, then, the question becomes whether the incarnation is contradictory in this way. And, according to the video, he’s not. Here’s why.
- Contrary propositions: Yep, we’ve definitely got those. “Jesus is immutable” and “Jesus is mutable” are about as contrary as you can get.
- At the same time: Yep, we’ve got this one too. Traditional theology maintains that Jesus is both divine and human at the same time. It’s not that he was divine and then became human–so that we can say he was immutable and then became mutable. No, traditional theology affirms both at the same time. So we’re two-for-two.
- In the same way: Here’s where the critical distinction comes in. As Tim explains, Jesus is not immutable and mutable in precisely the same way. He is immutable as regards his divine nature and mutable as regards his human nature. Since the two propositions are not being used in the same way, they are not logically contradictory. It’s roughly analogous to saying that I’m a frog-man. Both are true, but they’re referring to different aspects of who I am.
So, according to this defense, the incarnation is neither absurd nor contradictory because it does not affirm that contrary propositions are true of Jesus at the same time and in the same way.
Back to Mystery
None of this means that we really understand the incarnation, though. There is mystery in the incarnation, but it’s in a different place. If the argument above is correct, then there’s nothing contradictory about affirming that Jesus is both immutable and mutable because each refers to a different nature. But that argument doesn’t even attempt to explain how Jesus can have two completely different natures. How can one person have both a divine and human nature at the same time? I have no idea. Even if the incarnation is not a contradiction, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand.