Volume 5 - Issue 1

The psychology of incarnation

By Rob Cook

Concerning Freud’s concept of the unconscious mind Dean Matthews wrote: ‘I cannot help thinking that it is a reproach to modern theology that so little reflection seems to have been given to the bearing of this discovery on the doctrine of Incarnation.’1 Although written nearly thirty years ago, this judgement is still applicable for, with the one important expectation of W. Sanday whose ideas will be examined later, this concept remains unexploited by theologians. However, the same is not true of psychology generally. For centuries scholars have been fascinated with the issue of Christ’s subjective experience. This may be traced back to the Enlightenment and the beginnings of the Romantic period when theologians as well as artists became preoccupied with the experiential, so that one finds Schleiermacher, for example, rejecting the traditional, static, metaphysical Christology of Chalcedon in favour of a Christ whose uniqueness lay in His perfect consciousness of God. There followed the whole edifice of Liberal theology including repeated attempts to lay bare the mind of Jesus. Of course much harm was done, and the deity of the Lord was often obscured, but this movement did manage to re-establish His full humanity, which had been all but forgotten over the centuries. The Church was reminded that Jesus had been subject to a normal human development, for as a boy He ‘… increased in wisdom and in stature’ (Luke 2:52, RSV), and as the writer of Hebrews tells us ‘… he learned obedience through what he suffered’ (Heb. 5:8). It seemed now to scholars that Christ’s relationship with His Father was not ready-made or static but as Luke’s Gospel especially emphasizes, He needed to maintain a vital prayer life. The traditional view had been that Jesus performed miracles in His own power through His divine nature, but now scholars began to face the implications of the need for Him to receive the Spirit at baptism and to pray to His Father before doing supernatural works. Further, they noted for example that Christ has not been tempted to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and levitate upwards using His own power, but rather to jump and rely on the angels to catch Him. Such insights as these cannot be ignored by any modern attempt to formulate an adequate Christology, and in fact most recent constructions face squarely such questions as: ‘What must it have been like to have been Jesus?’, ‘What motivated Him?’, and ‘What was the nature of His self-consciousness?’

It is here that the problem begins for the modern Evangelical. We can appreciate the work done by nineteenth century scholarship in rehabilitating the humanity of Christ and we share with our contemporaries a fascination with the issue of His psychology, but unfortunately we can only admire the ingenuity of most modern attempts to produce a fresh Christology, we cannot accept them. Pannenberg’s widely acclaimed Christological model will provide an example. In Jesus God and Man, he portrays Jesus of Nazareth as an apocalyptic prophet with a unique sense of mission and as the herald of the imminent inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Although He was aware of having unusual authority, Jesus only saw Himself as a human being. His ministry was tragically terminated by His early arrest and crucifixion when it seemed that the credibility of His teaching was in complete jeopardy, but then the awesome miracle of His resurrection occurred which affirmed that in fact He had been God incarnate throughout His earthly life and that, unbeknown to the man Jesus, His death had been accepted as a sin offering for humanity. Undoubtedly, Pannenberg’s functional approach is very clever, as is the way he shifts the focus of the discussion from the conception of Jesus in the womb to His resurrection. Rather as from one point of view, a page of Hamlet is nothing but paper and ink, and yet from another it is sublime poetry, so Pannenberg seems to be saying that from an earthly and psychological perspective Jesus was nothing but a unique man, but that from the divine viewpoint He had been God all the time. Or, in Pannenberg’s own words: ‘His humanity is not synthesized with a divine essence, but it involves two complementary total aspects of his existence.’2 At this point, the reader might want to question Pannenberg concerning the adequacy of his view of Jesus’ sense of mission. Did not Jesus see himself, not so much as an apocalyptic prophet, but as Messiah, Son of God and the one who was to be sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins and subsequently raised from the dead? Pannenberg would answer this question emphatically in the negative, contending that the gospel passages which suggest such things are post-Easter interpolations of the early Church. In other words, Pannenberg rejects the inspiration and full historicity of the gospels and blatantly wields the hatchet of Higher Criticism, excising many key passages. Unfortunately then, as Evangelical Christians we must reject Pannenberg’s proffered model along with many other contemporary suggestions. The tragedy is that so few Evangelical scholars are prepared to speculate for themselves, whilst retaining a reverence for God and fidelity to the Scriptures, and using the conceptual tools of our age construct yet more adequate Christological models. This article will provide some suggestions, employing one or two recent insights from the realm of psychology.

After centuries of controversy, the Council of Chalcedon affirmed in a.d. 451 that Jesus Christ was one person having two natures, one human and one divine. This definition is, of course, still Catholic orthodoxy, and the Reformers found the doctrine unexceptionable in the light of the Biblical data. But many today feel that the grave limitations of Chalcedon become apparent as soon as one asks not ontological but psychological questions. In a sense this was done as early as the seventh century during the Monothelite controversy, when the question of whether Christ had one or two centres of will was at issue. The Council of Constantinople subsequently decided that each of Christ’s natures involved a separate will, although the human was always subject to the divine will. It also taught that His life was made up of two sets of actions, some human and others divine. Many now feel that this extrapolation of Chalcedon uncovers its intrinsic weakness: a model of Christ which implies a kind of schizophrenia. To quote Pannenberg again: ‘If divinity and humanity as two substances are supposed to be united in the individuality of Jesus, then either the two will be mixed to form a third or the individuality, Jesus’ concrete living unity, will be ruptured.’3 Eutyches had proposed Pannenberg’s first alternative and had been explicitly condemned at Chalcedon.

Further problems with the traditional view become manifest when one tries to marry it with the New Testament teaching concerning Christ’s real human development. Exponents of Chalcedon have either had to contend that the Logos in heaven progressively revealed knowledge to the incarnated Logos so that His divine nature developed in parallel with His human nature, or that in His divine nature Jesus was omniscient even from the cradle. The former contention suffers from a kind of divine schizophrenia of the Logos, while the latter implies such unacceptable corollaries as that of a day old baby who could propound Quantum theory if He chose! In fact, this second alternative, whilst escaping the charge of divine schizophrenia, opens itself to the charge of Docetism, since the qualities of His divine nature would effectively engulf those of His human nature. For instance, what must it have been like for Jesus to face Satan’s temptations in the wilderness? The answer would be that as man the choice was real and the outcome uncertain, but as God Jesus knew all things including the result of this confrontation. When the two natures are put together one is left with a person whose human ignorance was negated by His divine omniscience. But this Docetic picture will not square with the New Testament data which presents Jesus as limited in knowledge; for example, He admits ignorance regarding the exact time of His return (Matt. 24:36). It is no coincidence that throughout the early Middle Ages, the dominant artistic portrayal of Christ was of a fearsome God in human form; a kind of theophany driving men to Mary and the Saints, for only there could they find empathy with their human predicament.

Besides individuals like Pannenberg and Sanday, who have suggested their own particular alternatives to Chalcedon, there have been two main dissenting schools. As far as Evangelical Christianity is concerned, the first can be dismissed summarily. The Myth of God Incarnate4 is but one recent attempt to resurrect the ancient spectre of Adoptionism, which manages to preserve the true humanity of Jesus, but only at the unacceptable cost of rejecting the Incarnation altogether.

Kenosis is a more attractive alternative, particularly in its modified and more subtle form. Scholars like Forsyth, Mackintosh and more recently Vincent Taylor present a Logos who vacated heaven and ‘emptied’ Himself into a purely human psychology, having decreed that such divine attributes as omniscience and omnipotence should become latent or potential while He was on earth. Taylor feels that the New Testament evidence suggests that sometimes Jesus enjoyed a degree of divine self-consciousness, while at others He accepted His unique Sonship merely as an article of faith. Crudely speaking, the Kenotic model is of a divine person with only a human nature, and it thus escapes the tendency towards a schizophrenic model found in Chalcedon as interpreted by Constantinople. It also avoids the Docetic tendencies of the traditional view. Nevertheless, Kenosis has been heavily attacked in this century and although many of the criticisms have been ill-founded, based as they are on a Hellenistic rather than a Biblical view of God,5 there remain two areas where this model is decidedly weak.

The first area of weakness has been termed ‘cosmic absenteeism’. In Colossians we read of the Logos: ‘He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together’ (Col. 1:17), but this being so, how was the cosmos ‘held together’ during the few decades that its sustainer was absent from heaven during the Incarnation? Whereas Mackintosh and others refuse to speculate about this, some, like the earlier German Kenoticists, hold that the Father took over the Son’s functions for the duration. However, at the least this is an awkward aspect of the Kenotic view, and some will even agree with Temple that it postulates a divisible Godhead and thus a form of tritheism. Needless to say, this weakness is not shared by traditional Christology which teaches simply that: ‘The Incarnation is an episode in the Life or Being of God the Son’;6 in other words, that the Son never left heaven but merely extended His consciousness to include that of Jesus. In fact, it has been suggested that there is Biblical warrant for this traditional view and John 3:13 is cited, which reads in the Authorized Version: ‘And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven’; notice the present tense of the final verb. But although found in the Textus Receptus, this crucial clause is omitted in the most trustworthy manuscripts, and it is likely that it is an early interpolation introduced by advocates of a two-nature Christology.

The second, and more serious, area of weakness concerns the nature of the ascended Lord. If the Logos devoid of certain attributes becomes a man, surely once these attributes are regained He becomes just God again, yet Scripture clearly teaches that it is the man Jesus who ascended into heaven (e.g. Heb. 6:19f, Acts 5:30ff). This is to say that the Godhead added humanity to itself. Again, the two-nature Christology of Chalcedon is not embarrassed by this, but alternative views tend to be. For example, Pannenberg agrees with Schleiermacher that human and divine natures are so qualitatively distinct that it is fatuous to suppose that both could be brought together in the one person of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet if one accepts that in principle the two natures are incompatible, what can one’s view be of the exalted Christ?

Having outlined the various limitations and strengths of past Christological models, let us now attempt a new formulation which avoids on the one hand any tendency towards Docetism or schizophrenia in the consciousness of Jesus, and on the other the problems of ‘cosmic absenteeism’ and the nature of the ascended Lord.

With the last point in mind, we may state as an initial assertion that since the ascended Christ has two natures, there is no prima facie reason why Jesus of Nazareth could not have had two also. Further, a simple reading of key verses like: ‘For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell’ (Col. 1:19) seems to imply that Jesus was not only human but also fully divine. The proposed Christology is only superficially like Chalcedon, however, for while the latter is concerned with ontological categories, we are also concerned with the psychological. By ‘person’ the Fathers meant something like ‘unifying reality’, while for the purpose of this model we shall define it as ‘experiencing self’; that is, we are saying that He who experienced His thoughts, emotions etc. was none other than the Logos. By ‘nature’ we mean something like ‘psyche’. At this point it is important to emphasize that the present Christology in no way purports to be a restatement of Chalcedon in modern conceptual terms. It is incorrect to suppose that the architects of Chalcedon would have used the word ‘psychology’ instead of ‘nature’ or ‘person’, and on this issue Mascall should be respected when he writes:

‘That the doctrine of Incarnation may have consequences in the psychological sphere we need not deny … but the doctrine itself is not a matter of psychology, and thus any attempt to identify, for example, ‘person’ with ‘consciousness’ or with ‘personality’ (in the commonly accepted modern sense of that term) can lead to nothing but confusion.’7

However, Mascall is a little too conservative, wishing to retain Chalcedon as the definitive Christology.

Although we find it impossible to make psychological sense out of the idea that Christ has two wills and therefore have to reject that deduction of Constantinople, we are suggesting that He had two natures and now we must question whether such a hypothesis is a coherent one. Can any analogy be found for this unique state of affairs? G. E. Bray offers the interesting one of someone with a dual nationality:

‘… where a man might have two distinct identities and yet remain in the same person. When he is with us, we may assimilate him to ourselves, even to the point where we are surprised if we discover that the same person speaks a different language and carries within him a completely different set of cultural references. Such a man, of course, is neither a schizophrenic nor an impossibility; it is merely that we have failed to grasp the complete situation.’8

As has been mentioned, Constantinople asserted that Christ’s life was made up of two sets of actions, some human and some divine, and in fact this view is to be found much earlier in Church history; Leo wrote in his Tome (a.d. 449) for example: ‘To hunger, to thirst, to be weary and to sleep, is obviously human; but with five loaves to satisfy five thousand people … is without question divine.’9 One might use Bray’s analogy to illustrate such a position by simply saying that sometimes the man speaks in English and at others he speaks in, say, French. But the same analogy may be employed to make sense of the alternative view which is in many ways more preferable and that is that there was a personal union of the two natures such that the resultant being was a unit, who thought and acted as a unit. To return to the analogy, one might ask our subject to give us his impressions of London and Paris; he would then, as it were, utilize both ‘natures’ (‘sets of cultural references’) and give an integrated reply.

Yet even if it can be agreed that the idea of a person with two natures is a coherent one, there is still the problem of Christ’s limited powers and that of His development. Here we might learn from the Kenoticists with their notion of a Christ ‘emptied’ of certain divine functions and introduce into our proposed model the idea of ‘divine amnesia’; that is, prior to Incarnation the Logos decided that as the infant Jesus He would remember nothing of His divine nature and then gradually and perhaps intermittently He would recall, and have access to, His second nature. To return to our analogy, imagine the subject concussed in hospital and unable to remember that his childhood was spent in France; it is only when he is offered a Paris Match that a few words of French nudge into his mind.…

We must now introduce the concept of the unconscious into our model of a divine experiencing self with two natures, one of which is partially inaccessible. In order to escape the problem of ‘divine absenteeism’ we are suggesting that Jesus had not only a human but also a divine unconscious. Following Tillich’s advice that God is not to be found so much spatially above us as in the depths of our being, we are positing that just as the human unconscious of Jesus must have maintained such involuntary processes as His heart beat, so His divine unconscious maintained the ‘heart beat’ of the cosmos. Indeed, recent research has indicated that much poltergeist activity seems to be caused by psycho-kinesis, that is by energies emanating from the unconscious mind of a person nearby which result in objects being hurled about.10 Such people are psychologically disturbed and they bring chaos to their surroundings. Christ, in contrast, was supremely sane and brought harmony to the universe He maintained. If this view is entertained, one is left with such amazing corollaries as that while on the cross He was keeping in being the very nails that were killing Him.

The only issue left to discuss concerns Christ’s exalted state. Using the suggested model, in heaven He would have total recource to both natures and to all the functions which had hitherto been unconscious, since by definition an omniscient person must be conscious of everything. The practice of extending the conscious mind to include ‘involuntary processes’ is experienced by advanced yogis who claim to be able to alter their blood pressure etc. at will, and it is conceivable that in our resurrection bodies, we, like Christ, may have no unconscious minds but will be able to control directly all our psychic and physiological processes.

Admittedly, the foregoing suggestions are mere speculations and while some will find them outrageously bold, others will find them too vague and the analogies too approximate. But what is clear is that psychology is providing us with some exciting concepts which we must not be shy in using as we seek to provide our generation with Christological models that answer, where possible, the kind of questions that are being asked.

A brief examination of Sanday’s unorthodox Christology will serve as a post-script. Published in 1910 during the heyday of psychology as a nascent science, Sanday’s Christologies Ancient and Modern capitalized on the new concept of the unconscious, where he supposed Christ’s humanity and divinity were blended only to come to full expression in His completely human consciousness:

‘That which was divine in Christ was not nakedly exposed to the public gaze; neither was it so entirely withdrawn from outward view as to be wholly sunk and submerged in the darkness of the unconscious; but there was a sort of Jacob’s ladder by which the divine forces stored up below found an outlet, as it were, to the upper air and common theatre in which the life of mankind is enacted.’11

Attending especially to the testimony of the mystics, Sanday assumed that the locus of God’s activity in the human personality was the unconscious or the ‘subliminal consciousness’ as he sometimes called it. In parallel, Christ’s divinity was to be found primarily in this subliminal area. Sanday felt he had thus arrived at a model of the Incarnation which escaped the dualism of consciousness which bedevilled traditional two nature Christologies. But his theory was badly received and in the following year he wrote a pamplet retracting and modifying some of the more extreme aspects of his case.

Sanday’s Christology may indeed be open to criticism but those opponents who have gone into print have failed to demolish his position. Take, for example, the attack of Mackintosh, who assumed that the unconscious was an unfit receptacle for deity:

‘Why should we take this half-lit region of psychic life, regarding which we can only speak hypothetically or at secondhand—since it cannot of course be known directly—and say that it offers a truer and more worthy dwelling-place or medium of Godhead than is provided by the full intensity of consciousness?’12

Writing this in 1912, Mackintosh was evidently under the monumental influence of Freudian psychology, and indeed Mackintosh echoes Freud when he asserts that the unconscious only has affinities with sleep, with infant life and with instinct. But in this same year, Jung was breaking with the Freudian circle and was about to develop his own view of the unconscious as not only the receptacle of mental debris, but also the region from which emerges the deep wisdom of humanity and even divinity. Those for whom Jung’s views are more persuasive than Freud’s will find Mackintosh’s criticism thin.

More recently, Vincent Taylor13 has berated Sanday on the grounds that the prophets came to know God through conscious fellowship and divine revelation rather than via their unconscious minds, but this is surely too simplistic a picture. For example, it is an open question as to whether Isaiah’s inaugural vision in the Temple was an objective one or some kind of valid hallucination triggered by divine activity in his unconscious mind. Certainly God can communicate directly with one’s conscious mind, but Sanday was correct in affirming that some of God’s most important work is done at the subliminal level of our personalities. It may be time, therefore, to rethink exactly why Sanday’s hypothesis must be rejected.

1 W. R. Matthews, The Problem of Christ in the Twentieth Century (OUP, 1949), p. 44.

2 W. Pannenberg, Jesus God and Man (SCM, 1968), p. 337.

3 Ibid., p. 287.

4 Ed. J. Hick (SCM, 1977).

5 E.g. the view that Kenosis is impossible in the light of the doctrine of the immutability of God, cf. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Banner of Truth, 1958), p. 328.

6 W. Temple, Christus Veritas (Macmillan, 1925), p. 144.

7 E. L. Mascall, Christ, the Christian and the Church (Longmans, 1946), p. 41.

8 G. E. Bray, Can We Dispense with Chalcedon? (Themelios Vol. 3 No. 2).

9 Ed. J. Stevenson, Creeds, Councils and Controversies (SPCK, 1975), p. 319.

10 See for example: A. Doublas, Extra Sensory Power (Victor Gollancz, 1976), ch. 19.

11 W. Sanday, Christologies Ancient and Modern (Oxford and Clarendon Press, 1910), p. 166.

12 H. R. Mackintosh, The Person of Jesus Christ (T & T Clark, 1912), p. 488.

13 V. Taylor, The Person of Christ in New Testament Teaching (Macmillan, 1958).

Rob Cook

Redcliffe College