The problem with “the incarnational analogy”
October 28, 2014
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)