Volume 14 - Issue 1
Truth, myth and incarnationBy Melvin Tinker
It is now some ten years since the controversial volume The Myth of God Incarnate1 entered the theological scene, creating something of a major storm the likes of which had not been seen since Honest to God in the early ‘60s. In the wake of the furore which followed, a wealth of literature was generated, the subject matter of which tended to revolve around some of the key issues raised by Wiles, Hick, Cupitt et al. Hard on the heels of Myth came another collection of essays entitled The Truth of God Incarnate.2 This was followed by Incarnation and Myth—The Debate Continued3 which formed the substance of a colloquy between some of the authors of Myth and others of a more orthodox persuasion. In the meantime a steady stream of articles and books have flowed from the pens of scholars showing that the Christological/Incarnational debate is still very much on the theological agenda.4
Of course, during the decade which has elapsed since the writing of the Myth of God Incarnate, many of the original contributors have moved on in their positions. John Hick no longer sees ‘Christianity at the Centre’ (the title of an earlier book) but prefers to speak of the ‘Centre of Christianity’,5 with the Christian religion being viewed as just one amongst many lying on the edge of a universe of faiths. Michael Goulder, feeling the tension between his personal convictions and those formally held by the Church of England in which he was an ordained priest, decided to resign his Anglican orders. Perhaps the most significant shift has been in the thinking of Don Cupitt, who has taken leave of God altogether, at least in so far as God has been traditionally conceived by Christians down the ages, so much so that on one television programme the renowned atheist A. J. Ayer claimed Cupitt as one of his own!
Such developments in themselves provide a clear indication of the central place incarnation doctrine has in Christian belief, such that a reinterpretation of this necessitates a thoroughgoing revision of all the other major strands of the faith if some sort of coherence and consistency is to be achieved.
For example, it has long been recognized6 in Christian theology that questions concerning the ‘who’ of Jesus are integrally related to questions about the ‘what’ of Jesus, i.e. what he has achieved by way of the cross (function) cannot be divorced from who he is in his person (identity). Accordingly, a shift in one’s conception of Christology will mean a necessary shift in one’s understanding of soteriology, and vice versa. But it does not end there, for there will be other knock-on effects in the related areas of revelation, harmatiology (nature of sin) and the uniqueness or otherwise of the Christian faith in relation to other religions. That such matters are still ‘alive’ is further indicated by the more recent concern over what has become known as the ‘Durham Affair’.
The purpose of this article is not to retrace old ground but to stand back and take another look at some of the claims of the mythographers to see just how viable their case really is. Instead of approaching the subject head on, we shall take a more indirect route via a consideration of a trilogy of concepts which lie at the heart of the debate, namely those of truth, myth and incarnation. Having examined each of these in turn, we shall then try and assess one major attempt at bringing the three together as made by one of the representatives of the Myth school, John Hick.
We begin with the notion of ‘truth’. What do we in fact mean when we say that such and such a thing is true? Even a moment’s reflection will reveal that no clear-cut universal answer can be given, for whatever answer might be proposed, it will largely depend upon what it is we are referring to and the given context in which it occurs. For example, we might want to make the claim that ‘This man is true’, by which we mean that he is an honest and reliable fellow and can be counted on without question. This obviously carries a different sense to the claim that ‘2 + 2 = 4 is true’. Here it is being maintained that given the basic axioms of mathematics, the relation between the numbers 2 and 2 are such that when added together they always yield the answer ‘4’. Following this through, even a cursory consideration of the way the notion of truth functions within different disciplines underscores the fact that the sense of the term varies. A literary critic may claim that certain of Shelley’s poems are ‘true’, a claim which has quite a different resonance to the physicist’s contention that Einstein’s theory of relativity is ‘true’. Therefore J. R. Lucas is quite correct when he writes, ‘There is no single criterion of truth. Different disciplines have different criteria, often unspecified, sometimes where specified, liable to conflict’.7
The plurality involved in establishing criteria for assessing a truth claim can be illustrated by way of three simple examples. The proposition that ‘All bachelors are male’ is of the order of an analytical statement and as such is necessarily true since the idea of ‘bachelorhood’ by definition entails the notion of ‘maleness’ and to deny the latter would involve a logical contradiction. Here the veracity of such claims can be determined by formally examining the relation between the concepts involved.
By way of contrast, the claim that ‘It is raining’ requires a different approach. Unlike the former example, this statement is not necessarily true, but is dependent upon its correspondence with certain facts. As such it is known as a ‘synthetic statement’. In this case it is relatively easy to establish the veracity of the truth claim—one simply goes outside to look and the coincidence of dark clouds and falling water droplets should convince any reasonable person of its truth status.
Our third example is the claim ‘My wife loves me’, which although belonging to the same class as the previous statement is a little more tricky to handle. The husband who makes the claim might feel justified in doing so on the grounds of a cumulation of evidence—e.g. the display of loving actions, faithfulness, verbal reassurances and so on. But someone might wish to tighten up this whole approach by introducing an element of ‘falsification’, by asking what circumstances would count against the original claim, thus rendering it false? Supposing for instance that the wife walks out on her husband, would this mean that the husband’s original claim was untrue? Not necessarily, for supposing that the husband had not been paying enough attention to his wife recently, such action may be a calculated means of jolting him into mending his ways and so far from falsifying the husband’s earlier claim, it becomes supporting evidence in its favour.
This brief discussion of different truth claims highlights for us a very important principle, namely that when it comes to human affairs and interaction between persons, determining what is ‘true’ can often be a complex, intuitive and subtle business. Indeed, there is every reason to suppose that this equally applies to scientific, historical and metaphysical pursuits. Thus going beyond Lucas, it might be more appropriate to view language as an interconnecting network with a wide range of truth claims aligned along a spectrum, with those of a formal analytical nature at one end, and those open to empirical sense verification at the other, with the majority of others lying somewhere in between, the truth value of which is ascertained by a mixture of reason, observation and inference. Within the personal sphere of activity, all of these factors come into play in determining what is the case, and yet it is important that allowance is made for that which is inherent in all human interaction, namely a degree of ‘opacity’ or ‘mystery’. Even when we disclose something of ourselves to another person, we at the same time hide something of ourselves. The mysterious (although not irrational) element and all the ambiguities that it can produce is vital for personal interaction since it elicits and establishes that which is integral to such interaction, namely trust.
All of this has direct bearing upon our present discussion, for it should sound a note of caution to those who would dismiss such talk about incarnation as ‘meaningless’ on the basis of applying too narrowly defined, and thus inappropriate, criteria. If the basic analogy of God’s relation to the world and his activity in that world is that of interaction between persons, then just as allowance is made for ambiguity and imprecision in the human domain, one would expect at least a similar degree of tolerance in the divine. Far from this being a plea for a new form of obscurantism, it is a passionate enjoinder that we take seriously the personal analogy between divine and human activity and recognize the useful insights it can yield in matters of doctrine as well as setting definite limits. This is not to say of course that one begins with the human and works towards an understanding of the divine (the weakness of natural theology), but that this is something which is given in God’s special revelation in Scripture and so should be taken seriously.
To summarize what has been said so far: the notion of truth is as varied as are the means of establishing it. As well as. paying close attention to the context in which the concept functions, we also need to note the way the concept is used. Here we may borrow a term from Wittgenstein and say that the notion of truth cannot be considered in isolation from the particular ‘language game’ in which it operates. Accordingly, some philosophers have designated the concept of truth as being ‘polymorphous’. Anthony Thiselton ably demonstrates that the biblical data itself bear this out in identifying at least six different senses associated with the word according to context and function.8
Although it is possible with some qualification to speak of truths varying according to context or language game, there must be certain features or ‘family resemblances’ between them which provide some sort of universal point of reference, otherwise it would not be possible to associate ‘truth’ in one field with that in another. At least four such features will be suggested here. In the first place, to claim that we know the truth amounts to maintaining that we can see things as they really are without substantial distortion or concealment. One may go so far as to claim that one has grasped the essence of a thing, and so come close to the Greek etymological root for truth—aletheia—a state of unhiddenness. In the second place, truth is contextual in that no truth claim can be considered independently of the wider framework of ideas of which it is a part. Thus the claim that ‘God is love’ by itself means very little. It begs the immediate question, ‘Which God are we speaking of?’ Is it that of Hinduism, Islam or the Judaeo-Christian tradition? What is more, whatever meaning is thought to be conveyed by this statement will in part be dependent upon purported divine action, for the notion of ‘love’ cannot be conceived in the abstract, but only in relation to events. Thus straight away one is drawn into a consideration of a constellation of other beliefs arising out of a desire to assess the truth status of one statement. Thirdly, we would propose that although contextual, truth is universal. This means that if Jesus is both God and man, he remains so regardless of culture or background beliefs. Finally, the actual perception of truth inevitably contains a personal element and as such it is something which makes its claim upon us for recognition. Although personal, truth is not subjective, the product of whim or fancy. In this way truth stands over and above us (being objective), sometimes coming home to us with considerable force such that we exclaim ‘it hit me between the eyes’ or ‘the penny dropped’.
These four features of truth converge in the traditional Christian claim that in the person of Jesus and the events surrounding his life, death and resurrection, God’s truth has been fully and finally manifest (Jn. 14:6; Heb. 1:2). The doctrine of the incarnation is in part an attempt to express that conviction conceptually—not simply that in Christ we have an expression of ‘truth’ in an abstract way, but that he is very God who is the Truth. As such the doctrine acts as an organizing principle with explanatory power. But as we shall see below, lying at the heart of the Myth debate is the challenge that such an understanding is both misplaced and outmoded, requiring a radical overhaul. Before we turn to this challenge, however, we would do well to look at the way truth at one level can provide the basis for development at a higher level.
In a highly stimulating paper, John Macquarrie9 draws attention to three levels of truth constitutive in theological investigation. These are: historical truth, theological truth, and metaphysical truth. Macquarrie proposes that there is a progression in significance as one proceeds from one level to another. This means that theological truth builds upon historical truth, so metaphysical truth is an outworking of the theological. Although Macquarrie himself does not suggest it, the relations between the three levels tend to be conceived like three stories in a building, thus:
The problem with this model is that it creates the impression that as one moves from a lower level to a higher level, the lower is left behind and is devoid of further relevance. Or to change the metaphor slightly, it can be likened to the different stages of a rocket: once the upper stages have been launched into orbit, the lower stages can be jettisoned as superfluous.
One suspects that something like this is occurring in the writings of those who would advocate a more existential approach to theology. A much more satisfactory way of conceiving the relations between the historical, theological and metaphysical would be as a series of concentric rings or spheres, with the historical elements providing the inner core which is taken up into, and transcended by, the theological and metaphysical, thus:
This representation safeguards the essentially historical nature of Christianity which has at its centre an historical person and particular events, providing not only ‘raw’ material for theological and metaphysical reflection, but checks and controls as well. It should be pointed out, however, that the actual relations are more subtle and complex than the diagram suggests since metaphysical presuppositions and beliefs will to some extent ‘colour’ one’s view of the ‘historical’, as well as the ‘historical’ shaping the ‘metaphysical’. Nevertheless, in serving to underscore the main features of interdependence between the three levels of truth, the above model provides a useful aid.
In speaking of historical truth, we are referring to what happened. The procedure adopted in order to ascertain this will involve some measure of sifting through the available evidence and attempting some sort of reconstruction. Theological truth arises out of a careful reflection upon that historical core, drawing out the significance in terms of God and man.
Metaphysical truth is the result of further exploration into the philosophical and conceptual implications of what is said to have occurred as having theological significance. To a large extent it is this process which underlies the formulation of the great creeds, themselves having been weaved within a metaphysical matrix. But in terms of language, the creeds contain a fine mixture of statements which are historical (‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’), theological (‘died for our sins’) and metaphysical (‘being of one substance—homoousios—with the Father’). But are any of the credal formulations to be considered ‘mythical’? Traditionally, much theological language, including incarnational language, has been taken as factual, informative (telling us about something) and explanatory (unpacking the significance). But some, like John Hick, are of the opinion that very early on in the church’s history, the category mistake was made of taking certain statements as explanatory in nature (akin to scientific hypotheses) when they should have been comprehended mythically. The upshot of this position is that while the idea of the incarnation might be mythically true, it is not literally true (i.e. factually true). Whether such a contention can be shown to have any solid foundation will in part be determined by one’s understanding of what constitutes ‘myth’, and it is to a consideration of this question that we now turn.
One of the major criticisms levelled at the book The Myth of God Incarnate is the way its different contributors tended to use the term ‘myth’ in a plurality of ways often without specifying the sense in which the term was actually being used. Invariably this led to some confusion and obscurity of thought which a book of such a highly provocative nature could have well done without. The reader who is perhaps entering this area of debate for the first time would be well advised to read Maurice Wiles’ helpful paper, ‘Myth in Theology’,10 in which he discusses several different usages of the concept ‘myth’. This would alert the unsuspecting student to the ways in which this term can be used in so slippery and evasive a manner.
Our starting point however will be George Caird’s work in Language, Imagery and the Bible11 in which he undertakes a most illuminating analysis of the various categories of myth in relation to different disciplines. In so doing, he clears away a lot of the fog which tends to bedevil most discussions of the subject. He begins by pointing out that ‘myth’ is used in two general senses. In common parlance, a myth is something which is essentially untrue and is thus a synonym for falsehood. Indeed, this appears to be the way the NT writers handle the word (cf. 1 Tim. 1:4; 4:7; Tit. 1:14). It would not be wide of the mark to suggest that it was this association that was in the minds of many when the notorious book hit the headlines and so was seen as an outright denial of the Christian faith. (This suspicion is corroborated by the appearance of the counter-book—The Truth of God Incarnate.) In theological circles however, the term has become linked with a movement which uses it as an overarching concept embracing all such ‘God-Talk’. The name which is best known in this context is that of Rudolph Bultmann who advocated a programme of ‘demythologization’ in order to make the ‘gospel’ intelligible to modern man. This is what Bultmann has to say on the matter: ‘Mythology is the use of imagery to express the other-worldly in terms of this world and the divine in terms of human life, the other side in terms of this side’.12 In effect what Bultmann is claiming is that myth is a theological use of metaphor, a non-literal way of speaking. Caird on the other hand makes out a convincing case that as far as the Bible is concerned, where myth is used it is a specialized form of metaphor.
According to Caird, this special literary class of myth is capable of fulfilling a number of different functions. It may be performative—able to change things, possibly leading people to a deeper sense of commitment. It may be evocative—appealing to the imagination through that which is impressive, mysterious, sublime. Myth may have a cohesive effect, binding a group together by creating a sense of identity through an inherited tradition. But myth may also be referential, pointing to something beyond itself—an ontological aspect of reality. Caird therefore likens myth to a lens whereby the user in effect says to his audience, ‘Here is a lens which has helped me understand the world in which we live and the way God relates to it; look through it yourself and see what I have seen’. Or to change the imagery, myth may be compared to a cartoon. At one level, a cartoon may be more representative of the character of a person or the hidden significance of a situation than a photograph. Of course, if it is a literal representation which is sought, then a photograph should do the trick, but if it is some underlying aspect of reality that is sought, then a sketch or cartoon might be more appropriate.
Caird cites what he considers to be an unambiguous example of myth in the Bible—Isaiah 14:12–15—where the prophet makes use of a story about the planet known to us as Venus, but which the Hebrews would have called ‘Heylel’—‘Bright Shiner’ or ‘son of the dawn’. According to the Babylonian myth, Heylel aspired to make himself King by scaling the mountain ramparts of the heavenly city, only to be vanquished by the all-conquering sun. Within the biblical context however, the myth is taken and reapplied to a different referent and so given a different sense, namely the king of Babylon. He like Heylel in the story had aspirations for world dominion and he too would meet with a similar fate, but in his case it is the one true God Yahweh who will bring about his downfall. In this way, Isaiah like any good preacher is drawing upon stories common at the time and giving them a spiritual edge and application and so bringing the point home in an evocative manner.
Now, given that there is some warrant for seeing the Bible as using myth in the way outlined above, is there any justification for claiming that the doctrine of the incarnation functions in the same way? This brings us to our final analysis in our trilogy—the use of the concept ‘incarnation’.
The English word ‘incarnate’ can function either as an adjective or as a verb. Verbally, it literally means to ‘render incarnate’ or to ‘embody in flesh’. Söderblom defines it as follows: ‘The term incarnation is applied to the act of a divine or supernatural being in assuming the form of a man or animal and continuing to live in that form upon earth’.13 However, both this definition and the verb ‘incarnation’ (Latin incarnatio) can be misleading, for they almost imply an entering into a man (incarnation—Greek ensarkosis), thus amounting to little more than a form of divine possession. Surely Professor Moule14 is right when he suggests, somewhat guardedly, that it would be more in line with the traditional understanding of the incarnation to speak of ‘carnation’ or sarkosis—God becoming man while not ceasing to be divine.
However, in Christian circles the term ‘incarnate’ is rarely used as a verb. Instead it is the adjectival form which is predominant, acting as a sort of ‘title’—‘Jesus—God Incarnate’. Even so, the verbal idea is the one which underlies this usage and is the most pertinent to our discussion.
Upon closer inspection, both the denotation and connotation of the term ‘incarnation’ reveals something rather interesting. In speaking of divine action, in the main we have to resort to analogy, usually the sort of personal analogies mentioned earlier in the article. Accordingly, God can be spoken of as ‘revealing’, ‘saving’, ‘forgiving’, etc.—activities which are equally found in human affairs, but in this case heavily qualified in relation to the divine. But the concept of ‘incarnation’ is not analogical, it is not something which is to be found in the sphere of human activity which in some ways has a corresponding aspect in divine activity. This means that ironically, according to Bultmann’s own definition of ‘myth’ given earlier, ‘incarnation’ falls outside this classification because it is not something which is ‘common to this side’ of experience. Nevertheless, it still might be argued that while ‘incarnation’ provides an instance where theological language is being used in a way that is strictly speaking not analogical, it still constitutes an elaborate and picturesque way of speaking, one which is akin to figurative speech and so in this sense might be termed ‘myth’ to distinguish it from factual discourse. This appears to be the position of John Hick, and it is to an assessment of his attempt to provide an account of the relations between truth, myth and incarnation that we now turn.
Truth, myth and incarnation—John Hick
In his book God and the Universe of Faiths,15 published before The Myth of God Incarnate, John Hick defines myth in the following way: ‘[Myth] is a story which is told but which is not literally true, or an idea or image which is applied to something or someone but which does not literally apply, but which invites a particular attitude in the hearer. The truth of myth is a kind of “practical truth” consisting in the appropriateness of the attitude it evokes—the appropriateness of the attitude to its object which may be an event, a person or set of ideas.’16 Here Hick distinguishes ‘myth’ as a story which functions to evoke an ‘appropriate attitude’ in the hearer (which he believes the incarnation is designed to do) from factual discourse, hypothesis or model. Hick maintains that mythical language is not ‘literally true’, which presumably means that it cannot be taken as being descriptive or explanatory except in a very oblique sort of way. By way of example, Hick cites the story in Genesis 2 of the fall of man, which he says has this mythical quality of being able to convey a timeless truth common to human experience. In his treatment of the story of the incarnation, Hick places it logically on a par with Genesis 2, pointing out that when in the past the incarnation myth has been taken as being of a theoretical nature, a type of theological hypothesis, this has led to a dead end as well as a morass of logical contradictions. The only viable alternative, according to Hick, is that the story be seen as ‘myth’. When that is done, then it functions perfectly well in evoking an appropriate attitude to Jesus as Saviour.
But one may ask, how did it come about, historically speaking, that Jesus of Nazareth, who was clearly human, was eventually conceived by his followers in terms of ‘God and Man’? Hick provides an explanation. He suggests that in experience the early followers of Jesus did seem to encounter God in a remarkable way through him and such was the nature of this encounter that their religious experience had to be interpreted in terms of the language of ‘ultimates’—a step which occurred within two generations of Jesus’ death. The end result of this interpretative process was the application of the ultimate language form, namely to speak of Jesus as God incarnate, which attained its full crystalization at Chalcedon. Thus according to this reconstruction of events, to say that Jesus is ‘God incarnate’ means no more than that God was encountered in Jesus.
Hick’s position is backed up by two other considerations, one philosophical, the other historical. Philosophically, Hick is of the opinion that incarnational language, if taken ‘literally’ (i.e. as explanatory), is incoherent. It appears to be of the same order as speaking of a ‘round square’. Historically Hick, together with many of the other contributors to Myth, believes that the amount of reliable historical information that we actually nave concerning Jesus is so scanty that it renders it impossible to construct such a lofty doctrine as we find attempted at Chalcedon. This means that if one is working to the model proposed in Fig. 2, then the inner historical core is so insubstantial that the outer layers become very thin indeed. Of course this is of little consequence to Hick for he considers it an error of the greatest magnitude to view the incarnation as ‘metaphysical truth’ anyway.
This, then, is Hick’s basic thesis. But in the light of the foregoing discussion, how convincing is it? We would suggest that it is seriously to be found wanting for the following reasons:
- Although there is some similarity between Hick’s presentation of ‘myth’ and that put forward by Caird, in that both are a means of ‘seeing-as’, the function of myth on Hick’s view is severely limited. While not denying the possible evocative effect of true myth, surely it amounts to something more than an effective tool producing some kind of ‘practical truth’ (whatever that might be)? It is not at all clear why ‘myth’ cannot have some explanatory role, providing some insight into the way things actually are. Neither has Hick satisfactorily demonstrated that the doctrine of the incarnation is of the same order as say Isaiah 14 or Genesis 2, rather it is simply assumed to be the case or perhaps more to the point it is placed within this category by default on the premise that it cannot be of a factual nature, which again is an assumption and is not demonstrated.
- As William Abraham has argued,17 it is highly questionable whether there is the inner religious necessity to describe an ‘encounter with God’ in the language of ultimates as Hick postulates occurred with the followers of Jesus. In the OT there are plenty of examples where God was encountered, especially through the prophets, but there is not the slightest indication that there was an attempt to apply the ‘language of ultimates’ to such people. When one enquires why this is so, then one comes across one of the most salient features of Judaism, namely its ardent monotheism, which resisted any identification of man with the divine, except in terms of divine action. And yet this is precisely the milieu in which the ‘high’ Christology began to develop, with the type of language normally reserved for God amongst Jewish monotheists being applied to Jesus (e.g.‘author of life’—Acts 3:15; ‘Judge of all men’—Acts 10:42; ‘Creator’—Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16; identification with Yahweh—Rom. 9:5; Phil. 2:10; cf. Is. 45:23). Pure religious experience (if there is such a thing) is surely an adequate basis upon which to construct an account for such a development. It is more plausible to postulate a cumulative interaction of factors which were brought to bear upon the early church to look for categories to provide some sort of explanation for this remarkable person and the events surrounding his life. Jesus’ teaching, his authority, self-understanding, lack of sense of sin, miracles, prophecies, resurrection and ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit, when taken together would cry out for some explanation, an organizing principle. Inevitably, the early Christians would have seized upon those categories which were ready to hand, especially those of the Jewish Scriptures in order to apply them to Jesus under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Hick is therefore quite correct in saying that the followers of Jesus would need to search for a language of ultimates to be applied to him, but grossly wide of the mark in suggesting a sufficient cause.
- Hick’s comparison of the incarnation with the fall also leaves much to be desired in that he ignores some very significant disanalogies which bring into question a major plank in his thesis. First of all, while it could be maintained that the story of the fall in some way reflects the common experience of man, that cannot be claimed with regard to the story of the incarnation. This is highly specific and does not flow from some general experience. In the second place, the story of the fall is set in antiquity, whereas the story of the incarnation is firmly placed within history, and relatively recent history at that. This fact creates a significant distance between the events related in the NT and their accompanying importance and the world of ‘myth’. Adolf Koberle’s comment is most apposite at this point: ‘The history of salvation that is directly linked to the name of Jesus is fundamentally different from the world of myth. By its very nature myth is without historical context, it describes events of nature that occur and reoccur in cycles’.18
- Hick’s main philosophical point is also open to question. Certainly the simple assertion ‘Jesus is God’ does appear to create the logical inconsistency that Hick describes.19 But when this is said (and note that it is not a term used in the NT; the nearest we get to it is ‘The Word of God’, which is later identified with Jesus) it is often as a form of ‘theological shorthand’. But surely, the great debates of the past resulting in the sophisticated formulations of the creeds in themselves testify to an awareness of the difficulties involved; hence the painstaking way in which formulations have been arrived at to ensure that such contradictions are avoided. Neither the NT writers nor the early Fathers ever thought that Jesus was God tout simple. Nevertheless, the conviction was expressed that although he was not totum dei (all that God is without remainder) he was totus deus (everything God himself is). Again this was forged out of the experience of Christ, moving towards some conceptualization of Jesus’ relation to God within the confines of monotheism. Certainly in so doing the church entered the realms of paradox, stretching human language to the limit, but nothing less than this would be expected if anything like the traditional doctrine of the incarnation is correct.20As we saw earlier, why do the my thographers not allow for a greater amount of ambiguity in the realm of the divine as they no doubt do in the sphere of human relations?
- Following on from this, one might also question Hick’s censure that one should not treat the doctrine of the incarnation in a way similar to scientific models, i.e. as having explanatory value. If the reply is that it is a myth and myths are not to be treated in that way, then that simply begs the question. What is more, the alleged gulf between the function of ‘myths’ and scientific hypotheses is perhaps not as great as some suppose. The American philosopher W. V. O. Quine has remarked that ‘The myths of Homer’s gods and the myths of scientific objects differ only in degree and not kind’. After all, what are models, but abstract representations of a reality formulated in accordance with the evidential data? Traditionally, the doctrine of the incarnation has been seen in this way and like the scientific models, some of which are antinomies (apparently contradictory), it has proved highly successful as a means of articulating and conceptually grasping something to which the biblical data decisively point, namely that in Jesus, God became man.
- In our view Hick’s historical scepticism is not wholly warranted. The question of the historicity of the Gospels is outside the immediate scope of this discussion and the reader is referred to other works which deal with this.21 Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that without sufficient historical warrants it is difficult to see how the Jesus story can even function as ‘myth’ in the way Hick suggests. Certainly it might provide a ‘good read’, may be being evocative in some way. But what reasons can be adduced to convince a person that it should be accepted, even as conveying some general religious truth, which in fact it does not purport to do? The traditional claim is that the story is rooted in actual events; whereas on Hick’s account what these events are we do not really know, and so the story functions simply as story, perhaps tugging on the heartstrings, but having little, if any, epistemic power to elicit rational acceptance.
What is more, if the amount of historical knowledge about Jesus is as scanty as Hick believes it to be, then why not look to some more recent figure in history about whom we know much more and in whom ‘God has been encountered’?
- It is not true to say, as Hick does, that the language of incarnation was designed to evoke an appropriate attitude towards Jesus. The creeds were written for those who already had an attitude of reverence and belief. In some measure they were an attempt to justify that attitude rather than to evoke it. The matter of evocation is secondary and consequent upon the primary matter of explanation. If Jesus is factually the eternal Son of God, then it is appropriate that I respond to him in worship and gratitude. If he is not, then what is it I am supposed to respond to? On Hick’s reckoning such a response is quite misplaced.
- What one is left with on the basis of Hick’s thesis is so vague as to be contentless. What does it mean to speak of ‘encountering God in Jesus’? Indeed what value is there in speaking of God ‘acting’ in Jesus? To speak of God acting in Jesus is as helpful as saying that Jones is acting. Unless there is definite specifiable content (which the NT and traditional doctrines provide), such talk is little more than verbal padding. Indeed, one suspects that the ideas of Hick and the other mythographers only gain credence by cashing in on traditional Christian currency which they have declared bankrupt. In other words such views are parasitic upon traditional Christianity and can only survive at the expense of the host doctrines which they are trying to sap of vitality.
While it may be conceded that there is a literary category of ‘myth’ through which truth might be conveyed, it is not the category most applicable to the doctrine of the incarnation. When this is attempted, as in the case of Hick, the resulting construct is unable to bear the theological weight placed upon it. Neither is it able to provide as satisfactory an explanation either of the biblical data or the historical and phenomenological factors leading to the formulation of the traditional doctrine of the incarnation. By far the most satisfactory understanding of the function of the doctrine is that it is informative, possessing great explanatory power and operative within the framework of factual discourse.
1 John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate (SCM, 1977).
2 Michael Green (ed.), The Truth of God Incarnate (Hodder, 1977).
3 Michael Goulder (ed.), Incarnation and Myth—The Debate Continued (SCM, 1979).
4 Cf. A. E. Harvey (ed,), God lncarnate, Story and Belief (SPCK); D. F. Wells, The Person of Christ (Marshall, Morgan & Scott); George Carey, God Incarnate (Arena); John Stott, The Authentic Jesus (Marshalls); H. H. Rowdon (ed.), Christ the Lord (IVP).
5 John Hick, The Centre of Christianity (London, 1977).
6 Cf. Martin Kähler: ‘… without the Cross there is no Christology nor is there any feature in Christology which can escape justifying itself by the Cross’, cited in J. Moltmann’s The Crucified God (SCM, 1975), p. 85.
7 J. R. Lucas, ‘True’, Philosophy Vol. XIiv (1969), p. 184.
8 Anthony Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Paternoster, 1980), pp. 411–415.
9 John Macquarrie, ‘Truth in Christology’, God Incarnate, Story and Belief, pp. 24–33.
10 Maurice Wiles, ‘Myth in Theology’, Myth of God Incarnate, pp. 148–165.
11 G. Caird, Language, Imagery and the Bible (Duckworth, 1980).
12 R. Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth 1 (1953), p. 16.
13 N. Söderblom, ‘Incarnation’, in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (T. & T. Clark, 1914).
14 C. F. D. Moule, ‘Three points of Conflict in the Christological Debate’, in Incarnation and Myth—The Debate Continued, pp. 131–141.
15 John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths (Macmillan, 1973).
16 Ibid., pp. 166–167.
17 William Abraham, Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticisms (Oxford, 1982), pp. 72ff.
18 Quoted in Carl Henry (ed.), Jesus of Nazareth, Saviour and Lord (Tyndale Press, 1966), p. 65.
19 For an excellent discussion of this see Richard Sturch’s paper, ‘Can one say “Jesus is God”?’, in Christ the Lord, p. 326.
20 For a more recent and thoroughly readable presentation of this line of thought see Alister McGrath’s Understanding Jesus (Kingsway, 1987).
21 Cf. I. H. Marshall, I Believe in the Historical Jesus (Hodder); D. Wenham, R. France and C. Blomberg (eds), Gospel Perspectives I–VI (JSOT Press).
The Reverend Melvin Tinker is senior minister of St John, Newland, Hull, UK. He has contributed a number of articles to Themelios over the years and is the author of several books, his latest being Intended for Good: The Providence of God (IVP, 2012).