The problem with “the incarnational analogy”


Now it is time for some theological heavy-lifting, sort of. Trust me, this is fun stuff!

The “incarnational analogy” for Scripture is when the incarnation of the Son, in the hypostatic union of true man and true God, is used as a model for understanding the ontology of Scripture. Basically it goes like this: the humanity of Jesus is capable of union with the divine Word, therefore the humanity of the biblical texts is capable of union with the divine Word, and in neither case is the humanity’s constitutional integrity compromised. If the biblical texts were to be understood as something other than fully human, then you could be accused of being a “monophysite” in regard to the what-ness of the Bible.

This analogy sounds good at first, but I have my doubts. It is interesting to observe the contrary ways in which this analogy can be put to use. For example, we can look at Al Mohler and Peter Enns. In his contribution to Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan, 2013), Al Mohler uses this model:

The incarnational model of Scripture is, of course, genuinely helpful; it rightly recognizes the Bible to be both divine and a human book. But the truth of this model does not lead to the conclusion that Enns would have us draw. The incarnate Christ was fully God and fully human, but his humanity was without sin. Just as theologians have for centuries argued over whether Jesus could not sin or merely did not sin, theologians may argue whether the Bible cannot err or merely does not err. But the end result is the same in any event — Jesus did not sin and the Bible is without error. [p. 126]

You see how that works? Mohler slipped from “sin” to “error” without signaling a shift. For this to work, Mohler would have to argue that the humanity of Christ was without error, not just without sin. This is a scholastic-style debate, whether Christ could err during his earthly sojourn. Could Jesus get a math problem wrong? Mohler would seemingly have to say no. Otherwise, the analogical use of Christ’s humanity would fail when applied to Scripture, for those like Mohler who want to uphold that all error is precluded by the text’s divine nature.

By contrast, Peter Enns believes that the humanity of Christ was capable of error, which includes a wide range of matters, such as cosmology and cultural traditions and presumably math problems. Thus, following the analogy, the humanity of Scripture is likewise capable of error. For Mohler, we must uphold an exhaustively inerrant humanity for Christ, so that the analogy can support an inerrant Scripture. He believes that the perfection of Christ’s humanity as sinless is a basis for arguing for the perfection of the Bible’s humanity as without error. But, once again, this only works if “Jesus did not sin” is the same as “Jesus did not err.” That has to be proven first, in order for Mohler’s use of the analogy to work. Likewise for Enns, “Jesus did not sin” but “Jesus did err” has to be demonstrated first, before turning to its analogical use for Scripture.

In other words, the analogical use of the Incarnation for the nature(s) of Scripture is dependent upon and determined by one’s prior christology, as we would expect. For Mohler, a sinless Jesus needs to be an errorless Jesus in all respects, given Mohler’s commitment to an inerrancy that makes no allowances for “accidental” (non-essential) errors. For Enns, a sinless Jesus does not need to be an errorless Jesus in all respects.

As I see it, to err is not necessarily to sin. All sin is error, but not all error is sin. There may be another basis upon which we must claim that Jesus was errorless in all respects, so I will recuse myself from answering this question for now. But, prima facie, it should be evident that the incarnational analogy is not as helpful as may first appear, especially when figures as diverse as Mohler and Enns can use it for their purposes. But we should question fundamentally the legitimacy itself of using this analogy in respect to the Incarnation of the Son. Michael Bird, following John Webster, says it well:

…I categorically reject Enns’ proposal of an “incarnational model” for explaining Scripture as a divine-human book. I am aware that such a model is merely a starting point for explaining how the Bible is both a divine and human work. However, this incarnational model is, as John Webster calls it, “Christologically disastrous.” It’s disastrous because it threatens the uniqueness of the Christ event, since it assumes that hypostatic union is a general characteristic of divine self-disclosure in, through, or by a creaturely agent. Furthermore, it results in a divinizing of the Bible by claiming that divine ontological equality exists between God’s being and his communicative action. [Ibid., 131-132, quoting Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 22]

Thus, the doctrinal implications of the analogy are suspect, if you accept Webster’s argument. It is worth pondering.


Image: “Adoration of the Child,” by Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst (1590-1656)



  1. Here’s a thought: why equate, as Enns seems to do, humanity with error? Being ‘truly human’ is defined by being capable of error – humanity in its ‘natural’ state isn’t fallen, messy, error-making. ‘Messiness’ is a post-fall state, not humanity’s true nature.

    • Yes, this touches upon my cryptic statement that “there may be another basis upon which we must claim that Jesus was errorless in all respects.” If we conceive of Christ as having a humanity that is not tainted in any way by human fallenness, then that could be a basis for arguing that Jesus was without error of any sort. It would be a humanity of Jesus as it now exists at the right hand of the Father. If that is the case, we have to understand how and why it would be incorrect to claim that Jesus could get a math problem wrong, to use my favorite example! If so, then Mohler would be justified in using the analogy as he does…but only if Webster and Bird are incorrect about the legitimacy of doing this at all.

      Regardless, I think it is fair to say that neither Mohler nor Enns have done the work of demonstrating their christological presuppositions, before applying them to Scripture.

      Focusing on Enns, I do have serious problems with the extent to which he is comfortable with errors. As early as the late 19th century, John Henry Newman among others were formulating a distinction between accidental and essential matters of truth and error in Scripture. But for Enns, there is scarcely any matter in which Scripture is not capable of error — except his inconsistent basis for upholding the “mythology” of a virginal conception and bodily resurrection, while blithely dismissing a great Exodus and miraculous conquest of Jericho, and much else. I am surely not the only person to see how Enns is, unfortunately, presenting himself as a poor imitation of a liberal scholar.

  2. I like the original post. However, just to be clear, a necessarily errorless Jesus reminds me of a famous Larsen cartoon that hung in my study (before my wife kicked me upstairs to a smaller room when I retired). It pictures a quiz show, “Trivia Tonight”, with God sporting a great white beard and mane as one contestant, and a little geek with glasses as his opponent. The score is 1065 – 0. The emcee says: “Yes, that’s right! The answer is ‘Wisconsin’! Another 50 points for God, and … uh-oh, looks like Norman, our current champion, hasn’t even scored yet.”

    The idea that, say, Jesus couldn’t lose his keys, forget some guy’s name, get 725 on his Math SAT, or mistakenly say that Abiathar, rather than Ahimelech, was the high priest when, fleeing from Saul, David commandeered the show bread for himself and his soldiers (I Samuel 21:1-6) — but oops, that’s exactly what he did (according to Mark 2:26) — it strikes me as absurd, not to say docetic.

    • The docetic point is good. I have long tended toward Barth and Torrance’s “fallen humanity” of Jesus option, so I am certainly open to Jesus not being strictly errorless in his earthly sojourn. But I am also open to being persuaded otherwise, by those who argue for both an immaculate and infallible humanity in this regard. I have not been persuaded, so that is why my post tended toward criticizing Mohler more than Enns on this point.

      The real concern I have is with the nature of the errors in question. A math problem is one thing; a theological problem is another entirely, and the confidence with which we can see the Father through the Son is jeopardized. All of this is insufficiently treated by Enns.

  3. This analogy is one of those that seems so useful prima facie, but quickly falls apart upon closer inspection. Usually that seems to be because the person employing the incarnational analogy has failed properly to define the terms — i.e. where the analogy is pointing to similarity and where it clearly admits dissimilarity. In other words, it is perhaps just as important to point out where the analogy breaks down and doesn’t fit the subject any longer.

    Otherwise, we seem to be ending up losing sight of the fact that the supposed “divine-human unity” of Scripture is an analogical claim, not a univocal claim, and “divine-human unity” becomes not a heuristic indicator but an ontological category that both Jesus and the Bible fit inside.

    This may be what you are pointing out, Kevin, with Mohler’s slippage from “sin” to “error” (and evidently taking them as analogically equivalent when speaking here of Jesus’ humanity, and there of Scripture). It seems to me that your criticism is precisely right: Mohler seems to take it for granted that “error” in the Bible is analogously equivalent to “sin” in Jesus, rather than (say) “fallibility” in Jesus. Or how about “ignorance” (Mark 13:32)? Why is sin the go-to for the analogy?

    • Yes, the sloppiness is evident, but it is enormously attractive as a defensive maneuver. After all, who wants to commit a christological heresy in his or her doctrine of Scripture? The upshot is that you can locate yourself among the church fathers! As a result, you have effectively shut-down any argument against your position, at least that is the goal.

      Anyway, yes, we are missing the basic analytical skill of working through the definitions and the scope of the particular analogical claim. I would love to see us move toward a precise analysis of this whole question of “error,” which has to be rigorously defined. I could be an “inerrantist” if we are locating Scripture within the economy of the Trinity, which means that I cannot elide the legitimacy of propositional truth claims. As such, I am neither liberal nor “post-conservative,” whatever that means. But, I could not be an “inerrantist” if we are locating Scripture upon certain givens of an axiomatic order, whether rational or empirical. As such, many of my fellow evangelicals are misguided in their approach.

  4. Yes, Kevin, as you might infer, I follow Barth on the nature of the (sinful) flesh the Word assumed. Now all too briefly …

    I do not think that the virgin birth and the resurrection are comparable theological loci when it comes to their historicity. With Rowan Williams, we should be careful about using the word “necessary” when it comes to the to the former on the ho logos sarx egeneto, as if we could not speak of God-with-us without it — Mark, John, and Paul make it quite clear we can. And “miracle” is not the problem, the problem is “that we can see too clearly for comfort what job the story [of the virginal conception] is meant to do, and the means by which it might have been built up.” As for the resurrection, what Flannery O’Connor said about the eucharist: “if it’s a symbol, to hell with it!” Its non-historicity is certainly non-demonstrable, which is a damn good thing because its physicality is, for faith, essential (at least it is for me!)

    On the Exodus and the battle of Jericho, I think that intellectual integrity — indeed the integrity of faith — demands that we attend to the historians and archaeologists on the question of historicity, and make emendations to the print of belief accordingly, just as we have to follow the cosmologists, geologists, and biologists on the origins and evolution of the universe and homo sapiens (aka Adam), not to mention consulting the appropriate scholarship on the questions of genre in the Bible and the conventions of ancient historiography.

    • The physicality of the resurrection as essential for faith is why I also want to maintain the “physicality,” so to speak, of the exodus and other matters in the OT. Otherwise, these actions of God must be reinterpreted, as scholars do, as religious folklore having their ultimate origin in human agency, not divine agency. Or, to the extent that it can be attributed to divine agency, these events are projections from a profound spiritual or existential experience of God in their lives. The events — which didn’t really happen or happened in a drastically different manner — are expressions of faith, their confidence in Yahweh. Naturally, this gets applied to the resurrection rather easily. This is why I see it as “inconsistent” to carve out a special space here but not for the prior redemptive events in the life of Israel, which were foundational for their trust in Yahweh. (This is not to say that the empirical was sufficient without the miracle of faith, but I obviously disagree with certain “radical” Barthians who think that every movement of God in creation is radically non-historical, as in Barth’s tangent and circle image in Romans, which he later repudiated.)

      Having said that, I do realize the difficulty of all of this. I could be accused as being inconsistent for allowing cosmological ideas influence my interpretation of origins, while criticizing the value of archaeology here.

  5. What I find troubling in any of these concepts, even Webster’s notion of the Bible as creature, is the continuity presupposed between the creature and the Creator. The position exists at all for the simple reason that inerrantism requires some way around the human facts of the text, which it cannot simply ignore. It is not an abandonment of the assertion of the divinely-given nature of the Bible; it is only a course correction to try to keep that assertion flying today.

    Webster, Enns, and Mohler stand on a continuum of the differentiation they are willing to allow between this scriptural creature and God, but the fundamental point of calling the Bible a creature—whether we move toward Christ-like “uncreatedness” at one extreme or toward the uniquely human and potentially fallible modes of its expression at the other—is to declare that it is God’s creature, not ours. But this creature, even without the hubristic and unfounded assertion that the text is the flesh taken on by the Word of God, is still asserted to be of a different order than the rest of us poor mortals. This is always an elevating and alienating claim, even if it is used to reduce the level of elevation and alienation of scripture from us to something slightly more realistic. Mohler just has the strongest form here, and demonstrates that Enns cannot win by weakening the claim. The only way out of this game is to leave it altogether.

    • Put with greater brevity, because brevity for me is always a matter of staircase wit: These are all still doctrines of the condescension of scripture to us, and not of our witness to God. I am never surprised when such a yo-yo doctrine of scripture rolls back up into the heavens, because the doctrine leaves nothing to tether it to the earth.

    • I feel your trouble, Matt — but I don’t see how this sticks to Webster, who is arguing precisely against a presupposition of “continuity” between the Creator and the created text. Webster’s model is not one of divine projection (the text is the yo-yo come down from heaven) but of God’s appropriation of the text, as a creaturely reality, in order to bear witness to Himself.

      Thus, the following from the same passage in Holy Scripture cited above:

      “The Word made flesh [that is, the incarnate Christ] and the scriptural word are in no way equivalent realities. Moreover, the application of an analogy from the hypostatic union can scarcely avoid divinising the Bible by claiming some sort of ontological identity between the biblical texts and the self-communication of God. Over against this, it has to be asserted that no divine nature or properties are to be predicated of Scripture; its substance is that of a creaturely reality (even if it is a creaturely reality annexed to the self-presentation of God); and its relation to God is instrumental.” (p. 23, emphasis mine)

      • Darren, you’re right; I should have been more clear in distinguishing Webster from the incarnationist ideas in play. I still find him holding down the opposite end from Mohler, because of how much more thoroughly his idea of the annexation of this creature manages to devote this creature to God’s activity than, for example, Barth’s idea of God’s appropriation of words as the Word of God. But yes, he does prefer an adoptionist doctrine of scripture to an incarnational one. 😉

    • That’s a fascinating way to describe the problem, Matt. As Darren notes, Webster’s understanding of divine appropriation (not some form of accommodation that establishes continuity) is probably close to what you are saying. But, I need examples to know exactly how this works, including from Webster, especially on matters of historicity where the witness is pointing back upon itself in some way. That seems to be exactly what the text is doing when it relates the actions of God as an empirical phenomenon (not, thereby, verifiable as to its origin in God), which is then the basis for the confidence of the people in Yahweh.

      • To put it in simple layman’s terms, because that’s what I am: We identify God by the experience of him as the truth-teller and promise-keeper (if I may be forgiven for borrowing that term), but we can’t do this unless we have some history of both his truth-telling and his promise-keeping that itself is reliable and true. Yes?

      • Yes, Robert, that’s exactly what I was indicating above: namely, Israel’s faith in Yahweh was built upon confidence in God’s agency demonstrated (empirically, in some sense) in history without qualification. And this is precisely how the apostles think about the resurrection.

        I teach laymen every Sunday in our adult classes, so if I am not able to explain my theological point to them…then it’s bad theology.

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