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"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

The Incarnation is surely the central claim of the Christian faith. Unsurprisingly, it is also controversial. Chief among its critics are Muslim apologists, who routinely accuse Christians of committing idolatry (shirk) by teaching that Jesus Christ is the divine Word made flesh, God made Man. 'Incarnation-bashing' seems an ancient Islamic tradition, since it goes at least as far back as Ibn al-Qayyim, a medieval Muslim intellectual who opened a well-known polemical poem with the following words:

"O Christ-worshippers! We want an answer to our question. If the Lord was murdered by some people’s act, what kind of god is this?"

We may read this as an objection to the effect that being "murdered" is unbefitting of divine majesty. And sure enough, Al-Qayyim lists various other dishonourable things which Christ engaged in or underwent, such as being fed in the womb, eating and drinking, and yes, defecating.

Perhaps a more interesting reading would be that God, by his very nature, could not have underwent what Christ underwent. In particular, God being by nature immortal and indestructible, could not have experienced physical death, let alone death on the cross. But Christ did experience these things. Therefore, Christ cannot possibly be God made Man.

This is ironic, because a very useful way of beginning to make sense of the Incarnation is to take a look at the traditional Sunni Islamic teaching on the nature of the Qur'an, Islam's holy book. Sunni Muslims (i.e. 80-90% of all Muslims) are indeed taught that the Qur'an is uncreated. In the words of the great 10th Century Muslim theologian Al-Ashari,

"God has said: "When we will a thing our only utterance is that we say to it 'Be!' and it is". So if the Qur'an had been created, God would have said to it "Be." But the Qur'an is His speech, and it is impossible that His speech be spoken to (...) [hence] it is false that the Qur'an is created" (source)

The Quran is thus the eternal speech of God; uncreated, unchangeable and indestructible. Such lofty titles make it difficult to resist drawing parallels with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, as does the Islamicist Wilfried Cantwell Smith, who writes that "What corresponds in the Christian scheme to the Qur’an is not the Bible but the person of Christ".

Sure enough, the Sunni view of the Qur'an raises questions similar to those mentioned above. The 'speech' of God is supposed to be an eternal attribute or mode of God. But the Qur'an has many features which would seem to preclude its identification with said 'speech'. First of all, it is a book, and all books necessarily come to being when they are written down for the first time. Further, written books can and have been completely destroyed. It wouldn't help to say that the Quran isn't in fact a written book, but an oral recitation, because oral recitations (like songs) likewise come to being when they are first uttered, and cease to exist when no one remembers them anymore. Finally, the Qur'an is in Arabic, and Arabic, like all languages, is a created thing.

The Sunni doctrine of the Qur'an thus faces a familiar-sounding challenge: the eternal speech of God, by its very nature, is uncreated and cannot possibly undergo destruction. But the Qur'an, like every other book, was created and can be destroyed. Therefore, the Qur'an cannot be the eternal speech of God.

How may one respond to the challenge? Al-Ashari's followers distinguished the eternal speech of God itself from two other 'levels of speech', i.e. utterance and writing*. These two clearly are created things. But they are also means through which something uncreated, i.e. divine speech, is expressed. In other words, the uncreated, eternal speech of God is made manifest in a created, transient thing.

Hence we are left with two sharply distinct things, one divine and the other created, which are nevertheless closely united, for the purposes of divine self-revelation and human salvation, enabling human beings to access the divine component through the created one.

This of course is in many ways analogous to what Christians have always taught about the relationship between the Father's Eternal Word, i.e. his perfect Wisdom or self-knowledge, and the created human nature to which it became united, for the salvation of mankind. The divine nature dwells in the weak, suffering and dying human nature so derided by Ibn Al-Qayyim. The natures remain distinct; neither is absorbed into the other, nor are they fused into a single nature. They are nevertheless perfectly unified, in what Christian theologians call the hypostatic union.

Let us conclude, then, that if Sunni Muslims are going to object to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, they will need to point to something objectionable which isn't also instantiated by their own doctrine of Quranic uncreatedness.

But there is much, much more to say about the Incarnation. Stay tuned for the next few articles.

*Abdullah Sa'eed (1999)

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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

Such was the "rallying cry" of Ancient Christianity, according to Prof. John Peter Kenney (2018, p.107). This statement pithily (and provocatively) summarises the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. In particular, it connects nature of the Incarnation ('God became man') with its aim ('that we might become God'). It might seem natural to begin by explicating the former, before moving on to the latter. But sometimes the best way to understand what a thing is to look at what it does. We might therefore benefit from starting with what the Incarnation is supposed to accomplish, and work our way backwards from there.

The result of the Incarnation, then, is that it enables human beings to 'become God'. This obviously shouldn't be taken to mean that we are to become our own 'Gods'. The mere fact that we are and always will be creatures necessarily precludes this, since the divine essence includes absolute independence, and thus uncreatedness. In any case, Scripture offers some clarification on this point: "he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4). We are called to 'become God' in the sense of having a share in his Being, i.e. in his perfect Goodness.

This isn't quite sufficient. Indeed, we saw in another article that God creates by sharing his Being with his creatures, which may be said to reflect or participate in the Being of God, each in their own way. If that's right, then it seems that all creatures partake of the divine nature, just by virtue of being creatures.

But even so, the extent of the partaking varies from creature to creature. Not all creatures reflect God's being to the same extent. For example, since God is perfectly rational, creatures with rational capacities share in more of his Being than creatures that don't.

So, being called to 'become God' must mean being invited to share in far more of God's Being than that which we already partake in as rational creatures -- specifically, to participate in his divine life. To see as he sees, to love as he loves, to experience his perfect joy and peace, and to do so eternally.

The incarnation, then, is the means by which God offers the gift of Himself to humanity. This is true not only in the sense of sharing his divine life with us, but also in the sense of allowing us to enter into perfect fellowship with God, the Supreme Good, whereby we 'know Him fully, just as we are fully known', to paraphrase St Paul (1 Cor 13:12). This is why the ultimate outcome of the incarnation is spoken of as a marriage between redeemed humanity and the incarnate God (Rev 19:7-9). In fact, the two senses go hand in hand: we cannot possibly enjoy intimate union with God without being sufficiently like him, any more than mice can have deep friendships with human beings. Conversely, we cannot be changed into his likeness without allowing him to pour his life into us, which itself presupposes some degree of union.

Origen of Alexandria compares this process to a piece of iron acquiring the characteristics of fire when place in it:

"If, then, a mass of iron be kept constantly in the fire, receiving the heat through all its pores and veins, and the fire being continuous and the iron never removed from it, it become wholly converted into the latter (...) In the same way, that soul which, like an iron in the fire, has been perpetually placed (...) in God, is God in all that it does, feels, and understands"

This brings us to my final question: how exactly is it that God's incarnation in Christ brings about these things? Though I hope to write more about this in future articles, I still have some space for a few vague comments about this. The event of the Incarnation, as understood by historic Christianity, involved the conjoining of a divine nature -- the eternal Word of the Father -- to a particular human nature. This enabled said human nature to achieve what humans had thus far failed to do, i.e. to live a life of pure self-giving love and willing obedience to God, even to the point of death on a cross. This opened a way to reconciliation and union with God, so that all human beings could embrace the perfect intimacy that Christ enjoys with his Father. In Christ's own words,

"All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you." John 16:15

In other words, the Incarnation does not strictly end with Christ -- rather, it continues in the life of his people, who receive the divine life that he himself receives from his Father. Thus we have come full circle: God was made man, so that we might be made God.

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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

Christian theology has always taught that God creates ex nihilo, from nothing. God's relationship to the universe isn't analogous to the one that holds between an engineer and his machine. The engineer merely arranges preexisting component parts in such a way as to make them serve a beneficial purpose. The parts themselves don't depend on his activity. The God of traditional theism, in contrast, gives every thing its being, not just its structure. Rearranging preexisting bits of matter doesn't strictly bring about new being, rather it changes the being that is already there. Hence, God's job description requires him to create ex nihilo.

This might seem odd, or even unintelligible at first : how can anything be brought into existence from nothing? When we create things, don't we always do so by putting bits of matter together?

But as strange as it is, creation ex nihilo is all around us, even though (and as we're about to see) our linguistic practises tend to obfuscate this. Take, for instance, the case of an object heating up due to being left out in the sun. The standard explanation of this, which we all learned at school, is that something is being transferred from the sun to the object. That 'something' is thermal energy, or simply heat. Our 8th grade science teachers would have us believe, then, that heat is a 'thing' that can passed on from one object to another, like a baton.

The problem with saying this is that heat, unlike a baton, isn't actually a thing! Rather, it is a way a thing is, just like colour, weight or shape. It doesn't have its own existence, it cannot logically exist without being had by anything (no such thing as heat without some hot thing). Therefore, unlike a baton, it isn't something that can literally be passed on from one object to another. When we say that heat is 'transferred' from the sun to the object lying outside, we mean to say that the object acquired a new way of being, namely being hot, as a result of the sun's acting on the object. Crucially, this new way of being isn't some preexisting part that was attached to or incorporated into the object -- parts can conceivably exist without the things that have them, ways of being cannot. Hence, the object's new way of being did not preexist the object. It was given to it from nothing.

The same lesson applies to all instances of so-called 'energy transfer'. In all such instances, an energy source brings about new ways of being in other objects, without literally giving them some preexisting thing. If this can be done by a burning ball of gas, surely it can also be done by God. The difference is merely one of degree: the sun gives the object some of its being ex nihilo, i.e. its heat. God, in contrast, gives things all of their being.

But there is more to the analogy. While the sun creates in the object its heat ex nihilo, this does not mean that the sun is radically unconstrained in what it can bring about. Specifically, it can give no more than what it already has. It is able to make the object turn hot, only because it itself is hot. We may say that the object acquires its particular way of being by 'reflecting' or 'imitating' the sun's particular way of being. There is therefore a sense in which the sun shares some of its own being with the object. Again, the same applies to other energy-sources.

If this is the way in which new ways of being are brought about within the natural order, there is no reason why God shouldn't bring about being in this manner as well. There is therefore a sense in which divine creation is ex deo, i.e. 'out of God'. God creates by sharing his being with the rest of reality, which reflects his being, each particular thing in its own way.

We may draw two conclusions from this: first, that divine creation itself is a self-giving act on the part of God, who 'radiates' his very self to creation. Secondly, all created beings, as Leibniz put it, express God to various extents, depending on how much of himself God shares with them.

"For with you is the fountain of life, in your light do we see light" Psalm 36:9

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