I. Al-Ghazali’s Erroneous Understanding of the Incarnation.
Al-Ghazali’s understanding of the incarnation is derived from the Egyptian Jacobites who believed that the incarnate Christ comprises a mixture of divine nature and human nature:
God created the humanity of Jesus, on him be peace, then he appeared in it, and united with it. They mean by the union that a connection occurred between him and it like the connective relationship between the soul and the body. Then with this connective relationship, a third reality occurred, different from each of the two realities, composed of divinity and humanity, and having the attributes of all that is required from each of them, with respect to him being God and man. [Al-Radd, pp. 127, 129]
The Jacobites represented the more extreme wing of monophysitism [from monos (single) and physis (nature)] followed Eutyches who taught that either the two natures of Christ must have been fused into a tertium quid [(a third thing that is indefinite and undefined but is related to two definite or known things] or that the humanity must have been swallowed up by the divinity. [J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine 5ed. (A & C Black, 1977), p. 333] God created the humanity of Jesus and then united with it in such a way that the third reality which results from this connection shares all the attributes of divinity and humanity.
The Jacobites defended their view with the claim that the connection between the divine and the human in Jesus is analogous to the connection between the soul and the body of a human being. However, Al-Ghazali rejects this analogy because there can be no connection between the essence of God and the essence of humanity. God is absolutely transcendent and it is impossible to combine two absolutely different things like divine and human properties. As such, if the third reality possesses the attributes of divinity, then it must be one of perfect divinity.
If that is established, it is not acceptable that the properties of the divinity and the properties of the humanity come together in this reality. This is because all of the attributes necessary to the divinity and others which are peculiar to it with respect to being divine and which distinguish it from anything else, if they are established in the third reality would be the divinity itself. [p. 133]
Al-Ghazali also rejects the analogy because it entails God having human attributes which are contingent, when by definition, God’s attributes are necessary.
Then we also say concerning the principle: if God, when he created the humanity, appeared in it, and united with it, then indeed an attribute newly occurred in him after he created it, which is his union with it and his appearing in it. Then we say: if this attribute is a necessary existent, it is impossible for it to be described as contingent, and if it is a possible existent, it is impossible for it to be an attribute of the Creator because all attributes of the Creator are necessary existents. This is because what requires its non-existence to be impossible is a necessary existent, and it is clearly impossible that the attributes of God entail non-existence. [p. 131]
Al-Ghazali argues that if God creates the humanity which is subsequently manifested in unity with him, God would have acquired a new attribute in the process of union and manifestation. By the same logic, God would be acquiring a new attribute every time he creates the world or even a single creature. The union becomes an attribute that subsists in God’s essence. However, it is impossible that a new attribute could be added to God’s essence.
According to the Jacobites, the union between God and the humanity of Jesus results in a third reality which has all the essential qualities of humanity and all its essential qualities of the divinity coming together. Al-Ghazali retorts that it is incoherent to assert that the third reality participates in all the properties of humanity (both its essence and accidents) and all the properties of divinity along with all its non-essential properties (accidents) and still remain as a reality distinct from the two antecedent human and divine realities. [p. 135] He elaborates,
Since the third reality is composite being, the whole of the composition depends on the existence of the parts and their distinctive combination. However, the perfect God cannot be a composite being. It cannot be the case of that the perfect God is composed of both himself and of man. Since the whole is dependent on its part, this would entail that the essence of God needs a man for its existence…Moreover, if the reality is perfectly divine then the characteristics of perfect divinity are established in it and among the attributes of perfect divinity are, that it is not composed of itself and of the humanity because it would entail that the essence of God needs the human being for its existence and be preceded by him and also by (the reality) itself. [p. 133]
Worse, such a view implies that the essence of God needs the humanity for its existence and that God’s existence is preceded by humanity itself. The Jacobites’ teaching obviously rests on dubious foundations because the divine nature and the human nature can only be affirmed when they are kept separate and distinct. Since the divine and the human nature are mutually exclusive, humanity is an attribute specific to man while divinity is an attribute of God specific to God. It is not possible to combine attribute divinity and humanity into a third reality without losing both of these attributes.
Al-Ghazali’s criticism of the incarnation comes across as compelling. However, his criticism is irrelevant since it is directed at Eutychianism which was a minority view officially condemned as a heresy at the Council of Chalcedon (451AD). The rest of this post shall demonstrate why the orthodox understanding of the incarnation is immune to the criticism raised by al-Ghazali.
II. The Orthodox Teaching on the Incarnation of Christ According to the Chalcedonian Creed
The Creed of Chalcedon is arguably the central pillar of orthodox doctrine of the incarnation:
We should confess that our Lord Jesus Christ is the one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the same of a rational soul and body, consubstantial [of one substance] with the Father in Godhead, and the same consubstantial with us in manhood, like us in all things except sin;. . . one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, made known in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference [distinction] of the natures being by no means removed [annulled] because of the union, but the property of each nature being preserved and coalescing in one person [prosopon] and one subsistence [hypostasis] – not parted or divided into two persons [prosopa], but the one and the same Son, only-begotten, divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Against critics like al-Ghazali, Chalcedon affirms the unity and distinction of two natures of Christ:
1. Unity of Natures
The unity of Christ is affirmed with a simple periphrastic expressions: ‘We confess that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son. This phrase one and the same has a venerable history stretching from as early as Ignatius of Antioch to the Council of Nicene and the Council of Ephesus.
2. Distinction of Natures
The phrase “The same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the same [consisting] of a rational soul and a body.”
Chalcedon affirms that the distinction does not weaken the unity of the two natures of Christ precisely because the one subject is Christ. “It makes a difference in fact whether I say ‘perfect God and perfect man of a rational soul and body’ (as does the Symbol of Union) or ‘one and the same perfect in Godhead and in manhood.’” [Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in the Christian Tradition (John Knox Press 1975), pp. 546-547]
3. Completeness and distinction of Godhead and manhood
“The one Christ, the one incarnate Son of God is truly and perfectly God and man! The Gnostic, Arian and Apollinarian denial of the completeness of Christ’s human nature is refuted: Christ has a rational soul and a truly human body. Nothing may be taken away from the human nature of Christ to explain his unity.”
4, Emphatic diphysitism [two-natures]
“Homoousios (consubstantial or of one substance) with the Father as to his Godhead, the same homoousios with us as to his manhood.”
This phrase rejects any monophysitism and its muddled version found in Eutychianism.
“made know in two natures”
“The Alexandrian delegates at the Council were shouting “one nature.” Their opponents from Antioch were shouting “two natures.” Chalcedon resolves the dispute with a fine-tuned balance: “Christ is one and the same Son, Lord, only begotten, but Christ is one in “two natures.”” [CCT p. 548]
Al-Ghazali understands the incarnation to be “from two natures”, but Chalcedon stresses that it is “in two nature.” Both the divine and human natures of Christ are preserved. The misconception of al-Ghazali cannot be more explicitly exposed. The unity of the natures is further reinforced by four qualifiers – without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference of the natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of the union but rather the properties of each being preserved’(σωζομένης δὲ μᾶλλον τῆς ἰδιότητος ἑκατέρας φύσεως). Thus the nature is the unimpaired principle of the distinction in Christ.”[CCT p. 549]
5. The unity in Christ is not to be sought in the sphere of the natures. Hence the concluding phrase, “but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (σωζομένης δὲ μᾶλλον τῆς ἰδιότητος ἑκατέρας φύσεως καὶ εἰς ἓν πρόσωπον καὶ μίαν ὑπὸστασιν συντρεχούσης, οὐκ εἰς δύο πρόσωπα μεριζόμενον ἢ διαιρούμενον, ἀλλ᾽ ἕνα καὶ τὸν αὐτὸν υἱὸν καὶ μονογενῆ, θεὸν λόγον, κύριον Ἰησοῦν)
III. The Coherence of the Incarnation
The coherence of the incarnation may be analyzed at two levels.
Question 1: Is the proposition “Christ is one person in two natures” a coherent statement?
We begin by clarifying the key terms used in the Creed.
“Nature” – Denotes the attributes or properties that are necessary or essential (rather than accidental) for the existence of a thing. The objectivity of “nature” makes a thing what it is.
“Person” – Ontologically speaking, a person is the who of a what, the subjective center of cognition, volition and purposeful or relational activity subsisting or cohering in an objective essence.
Note that “Nature” answers that question of “whatness of a thing” while “Person” answers the question of ‘who’ is the case.
“Subsists” – Refers to the self-existence of a being as an independent entity or substance.
We can unpack the Chalcedonian Creed to highlight the following propositions:
The Incarnate Christ is –
– Two whats in one who
– Two essences or natures in one person
– Two sources of objectivity subsisting in a single subjective center of volitional and intentional activity
We may now demonstrate why the Chalcedonian proposition, “One person in two natures” is not incoherent:
1) Alleged contradiction – For any nature to be both infinite and finite in its nature at the same time is a contradiction.
Answer – But Chalcedon affirms that one person subsisting in two natures, not that one nature subsisting simultaneously as infinite and finite which would be a contradiction.
2) Alleged contradiction – For any person to be both infinite and finite in its person at the same time and in the same sense is a contradiction.
Answer – But Chalcedon affirms that one person subsists in two natures, not that one person subsists in another person.
The two alleged contradictions may be combined accordingly:
3) Combined contradiction – For any person to be both infinite in one nature and finite in another nature without confusion, mixture, or division of the two natures in that one person at the same time and in the same sense is a contradiction. This would amount to saying “one person yet two persons, or one nature yet two natures.”
Answer – However, Chalcedon affirms one person in two natures.
We conclude that the proposition of Chalcedon is non-contradictory:
(1) For any person to be both infinite in one nature and finite in another nature without confusion, mixture, or division of the two natures in that one person at the same time and in the senses just specified is non-contradictory.
(2) Now it is claimed of the incarnate Christ that he is both infinite in one nature and finite in another nature without confusion, mixture, or division of the two natures in his person at the same time and in the senses just specified.
(3) Therefore, the claim that the incarnate Christ is both infinite in one nature and finite in another nature without confusion, mixture, or division of the two natures in his person at the same time and in the senses just specified is non-contradictory.
Question 2: Does Chalcedon offer an intelligible description of Christ as a coherent person or an agent with intentional and volitional activity?
Al-Ghazali reports that the Melkites (followers of Chalcedon) teach that the humanity of Jesus and the essence of God are two distinct realities (natures). There is no mingling or interpenetration between them as each reality preserves all the qualities attributed to it. However, for al-Ghazali, this view of the incarnation is just a play of word as “they establish a union with the universal humanity, which has no actual existence, so it would be united with what only exists in the mind.” [p. 139]. He rebuts the Melkites with a reductio ad absurdum – “The Messiah was crucified, and nothing of that which was crucified was divine, therefore nothing of the Messiah was divine.” [p. 139] He adds that if Christ “is a hypostasis of the divine reality only, and have believed that his reality is not composed, and have stated there is no mixture or blending with the human reality, they still believe in his crucifixion. Therefore, it necessarily follows that the crucified one is God.” [p. 143]
Al-Ghazali claims that if the person of Christ is solely divine, there is no humanity to which the suffering may be referred to. Universal humanity has no objective existence. It is just a concept and it is not possible for divinity to have connection with what does not really exist. Furthermore, if universal humanity is a species shared by every individual member of the species then God would have been united with every individual man which would be contrary to Christian doctrine which restricts the incarnation to an individual, that is, Christ. On the other hand, if the Melkites suggest that the incarnation pertains to a particular human then the resulting divine reality becomes dependent on a prior human reality. Al-Ghazali retorts that following the Melkites would entail having the temporal human reality becoming determinative of the eternal reality in the incarnation, “The attributes of God must necessarily exist and be established eternally in his essence. However, one of the two realities, which is a condition of the existence of the divine reality with the attributes already mentioned, is the human reality, and its temporality is already agreed, so how could it be a condition of what is established eternally?” [p. 141]
Al-Ghazali rejects Melkites’ view of the incarnation because he believes that it results in a third reality comprising a mixture of the divine and the human, “because if he is united with the humanity, this union would be an attribute added to his essence…it would entail that the essence of God needs the human being for its existence and be preceded by him and also by (the reality) itself.” [p. 133]. He accuses the Melkites of postulating that the divine reality or the nature of incarnation is “taken from the human nature and from God’s own divine nature.” [p. 141]. Unfortunately al-Ghazali’s criticism misses the mark as he wrongly attributes this teaching to the Melkites who upheld the two natures in the hypostatic union of Christ to be “incomposite and underived.” Evidently, al-Ghazali was relying on questionable secondary sources obtained from the Coptic Jacobites since there were few Melkites in Egypt when the al-Radd was composed.
Nevertheless, al-Ghazali has correctly identified a fundamental issue regarding whether it is the eternal divine reality or the temporal human reality that is determinative in the incarnation. Al-Ghazali rightly insists that it is impossible for temporal human reality to be determinative of eternal reality. However, it is questionable whether the Melkites are guilty of this error since they followed the Chalcedonian Creed. An accurate exposition of the Chalcedonian Creed is now in order as it will show that al-Ghazali’s criticism is misdirected and therefore irrelevant.
The Chalcedonian Creed affirms that the incarnate Christ is “One person with two natures.”
“Person” (hypostasis), initially refers to an objective reality with an individual subsistence. It answers the question “who is this individual.” For example, the “hypostatic union” refers to the subsisting individual that results from the union of the divine and human in the incarnation. Later, its meaning gained greater depths and refers to an individual capable of intentional and volitional activity.
“Nature” (physis) refers to a set of characteristics which belongs to an individual and determines what kind of individual it is. It answers the question “what a thing is like.”
Orthodox Christianity represented by the Council of Chalcedon teaches that the divine reality is determinative in the incarnation. In the incarnation, the eternal Son of God is the active subject who takes to himself a perfect and complete humanity. Furthermore, the Son assumed a human nature that is “anhypostatic”, i.e. “without a person.” This is not to deny that the humanity of Christ possesses individual characteristics that distinguish him from other individuals. Neither does it deny the incarnate Christ of his full humanity; it is to deny that Christ’s human nature has an independent existence apart from its subsistence in the person of the Son. When the Son became incarnate he gives to that human nature its “person.”
In what sense is Christ a human person? It is observed that the human nature of Christ is in fact a nature joined to a person (the Son), that is, “personalized” through the Son (“enhypostasia”). Christ’s humanity is not personal in that it has no independent, personal existence of its own even though it possesses consciousness and freedom. Instead, it exists as the humanity of the Son who is the divine subject of the incarnation. What personalizes the human nature of Christ is not a created person (which would be the case of all other human beings), but the Son who assumed the human nature. The human nature of Christ is personal, but with a personhood that is from above. The human nature of Christ is therefore both “anhypostatic” (not personal in itself) and “enhypostatic” (presonalized when united with the Son).
Chalcedon then affirms that the incarnate Christ is a divine person and that the Son is the active subject of both the natures simultaneously. The teaching of anhypostasia is to rule out any idea of dual agencies in the incarnate Christ. The unity of the person of the incarnation is preserved as only the Son is the subject of intentional and volitional activity of the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ. It should be clear from the incarnation that “person” has ontological priority over “nature” since person is what subsists by itself while nature subsists in the person. Every nature must have a person (hypostasis) in order to exist. As such, the human nature of Christ must have a person in order to have an identity. Furthermore, a nature could exist within a person without exhausting its capacity. Hence, as a person, the Son could give an identity to the human nature of Christ without distorting the human nature, and in this capacity he suffered and died on the cross. [Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ (IVP, 1984), p. 168]
The two natures of Christ leads to the belief that Christ has two wills. What this mean is not that Christ always willed two different (and possibly contradictory) things simultaneously, but that he had the ability to will as man and the ability to will as God. Unlike popular psychology which locates the faculty of the will in the person, the incarnation locates the will in “nature” and not in “person”. The reason is that locating the “will” in the person would undermine the integrity of Christ’s full humanity and his ability to act as a man.
We are now in a position to integrate the person, nature and will of the incarnate Christ as a unified whole. The “will” is part of nature, and nature subsists in the person which is the subject of the nature who wills and acts in and through the nature. In the incarnation, the Son wills and acts in and through both natures. The Son wills and acts both as God and as man. Since the Son is the active subject of the two natures, there is complete harmony between the human will and the divine will coincide. The Son as the subject of the incarnation at all times obeyed the Father according to his humanity.
In response to al-Ghazali’s question regarding who was the one who was crucified since God cannot suffer, the Christian answer is that the Son who cannot suffer (being impassible) has taken as his own the human nature that is capable of death, and through it has taken up the sufferings or punishment of sins for us and thus liberate us from the judgment of sin and death. It is also appropriate to say that the suffering was the Son’s personal suffering which he underwent through that human nature. Hence, the Apostle Paul writes, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5: 19)
The objections of al-Ghazali are answered accordingly:
Objection 1: The incarnation is an absurd idea that mixes human and divine nature.
Answer: This objection may apply to the Eutychian heresy, but not to Chalcedonian orthodoxy which affirms that in the incarnation, “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, made known in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference [distinction] of the natures being by no means removed [annulled]”
Objection 2: The incarnation would mean that the eternal divine nature becomes determined by temporal human nature in such a union.
Answer: Contrary to al-Ghazali’s stricture, Chalcedonian Christology affirms that in the incarnation, the eternal Son is the active subject who takes to himself a perfect and complete humanity.
Objection 3: The third reality arising from uniting the divine and human nature is an absurdity since it is an incoherent concept.
Answer: On the premise that “person” has ontological priority over “nature”– Since person is what subsists by itself while nature subsists in the person, it is demonstrated that the Son who is the active subject of the two natures wills and acts both as God and as man so that there is unity of intentional and volitional activity in the incarnate Christ.