Counterpart theory and the incarnation. Cos why not?

While I generally try and avoid the philosophy of religion unless I’m bored of an afternoon, this year I have been teaching ‘metaphysical issues in religion’, and so have been forced to get to grips with some of the issues.

One issue that’s not been uninteresting is a familiar problem regarding God’s incarnation as the man Jesus Christ. Christ is both human and divine. This is to say that he has a human nature and a divine nature. As the Council of Chalcedon put it in 451AD, “the same Christ . . . [is] to be acknowledged in two natures . . . the characteristic property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person.”

The threat is that this leads quickly to outright contradiction. Associated with the divine nature are properties of perfection, such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence; but associated with the human nature is the absence of such perfections. Humans are neither omnipotent, omniscient nor omnibenevolent. And so we seem driven to saying that Christ both is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent (in virtue of being divine) and not omnipotent, omniscient or omnibenevolent (in virtue of being human): a contradiction three times over!

How to respond? One option is to deny that it follows from having a human nature that one doesn’t have any of the qualities of divine perfection. Certainly, it is no part of the human nature that a human have these qualities: but it hardly follows that in virtue of being human a thing must lack those qualities – being human might simply be silent as to the presence or absence of the divine perfections. In that case Christ’s humanity simply doesn’t speak to his having or lacking omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. As far as his human nature is concerned, it is simply an open question whether he has those properties or not. The door is closed, however, because of his divinity, which ensures that he does indeed have them. And so Christ simply has the divine perfections, and there is no threat of contradiction.

Such a view is taken by Thomas Morris. Morris distinguished between being wholly human and merely human. Christ is wholly human because he belongs to the kind human. And if it makes any sense to speak of things as partially belonging to a kind, Christ does not only partly belong to it, he wholly belongs to it. But he is not merely human. To be merely human is to have no more essential properties that what are guaranteed by being a member of the kind human; and Christ does have more, because he also has the properties that are guaranteed by his divinity.

This view avoids the paradox, but at a cost. There is a strong temptation to hold not only that being human doesn’t entail the possession of the divine perfections but that it entails their absence. To say otherwise, after all, is to invite the theologically immodest claim that even we mere humans might have been omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. We are not in fact as God is; but we could have been.

But also, there is some desire to be able to say that Christ the man lacked them. Think of Christ in Gethsemane: it appears for all the world to be the story of a man who is worried about the future. But why would such concerns arise unless Christ lacked knowledge about how things would turn out? Think now of Christ being tempted by Satan: it appears for all the world to be a story about a man overcoming temptation. But unless there was the possibility of his succumbing, there was nothing to overcome. And so the threat of contradiction is pressing. Christ, we want to say, is both limited and unlimited, both perfect and flawed. How can this be?

One thing we might be tempted to say is that Christ has the divine perfections qua God but not qua man. But what do such locutions mean? Well, there’s a familiar story about how that can be the case; and surprisingly it has received no discussion, to my knowledge, in this context. I want to put this option on the table: the option is counterpart theory.

Compare the case of Christ and omnipotence with a familiar case which is structurally analogous: the case of the statue and the clay. The clay can be squashed but the statue cannot. And yet many of us feel the pressure to say that there is only one entity here: the lump of clay simply is the statue. How, then, are we to avoid the absurdity that one and the same thing both has and doesn’t have the property of squashability?

As above, there is a temptation to say that this one thing is squashable qua lump of clay but not qua statue. But what does this mean? Counterpart theory gives us an answer. The properties of this one thing remain constant, but whether any of its properties deserve to be called the property of squashability depends on contextually variant factors, which means that whether or not the entity satisfies the predicate ‘. . . could be squashed’ can itself vary from context to context. When we speak of the one thing as the clay, this is enough to make salient the clay-ness of the entity, and in such a context one of the properties had by this entity deserves to be called the property of squashability, which is why we speak truly when we say that the clay could be squashed. When we speak of the one thing as the statue, on the other hand, this is enough to make salient the statue-ness of the entity, and in such a context none of the properties had by this entity deserves to be called the property of squashability – including the one previously correctly so described! This is why we speak truly when we say that the statue could not be squashed. And this is what we mean when we say that the entity can be squashed qua lump of clay but not qua statue.

That is enough to show that there need be no inconsistency in saying in one context that an entity satisfies some predicate and in another that it lacks it (despite not having undergone change): to generate an inconsistency one needs the further assumption that the property being picked out by that predicate is the same in both contexts. Since the predicate ‘. . . could be squashed’ is picking out a different property depending on whether the subject is referred to as the statue or as the clay, there is no inconsistency in saying that the statue couldn’t be squashed but that the clay could, even though they are one and the same thing. Likewise, if ‘. . . is omnipotent’, ‘. . . is omniscient’ etc pick out a different property depending on whether the subject is referred to as God or as man then there is no inconsistency in saying that Christ the man lacks omnipotence and omniscience etc and that Christ the God possesses them, even though the God is the man.

Omnipotence is a modal property like squashability: it is the property of being able to do anything possible. One needn’t actually do every possible action to be omnipotent, it simply has to be within one’s powers, which is to say that for any possible action one could do it. In that case, the counterpart theoretic solution can simply be carried over to the case of Christ and omnipotence. It is true to say that Christ the God is omnipotent and false to say that Christ the man is omnipotent. Why? Not because there are two entities, but because different standards of similarity are invoked depending on whether it is the divine or the human characteristics of one and the same entity that are made salient. If Christ’s divinity is salient then no possible being would count as dissimilar to Christ in virtue of doing some possible action – and so, for any possible action, there is a counterpart of Christ that performs that action, which is why Christ satisfies ‘. . . is omnipotent’. But if Christ’s humanity is salient then beings that perform miraculous feats like creating the universe ex nihilo don’t get to count as Christ’s counterparts, since humans just can’t do such things. And so, in this context, it will be true to say that there are things that Christ (the man) just couldn’t do, and thus true to say that he is not omnipotent.

Does the counterpart theoretic story carry over to the other divine perfections, such as omniscience and omnibenevolence? I think the prospects aren’t terrible. It is easy to construe such predicates as being implicitly modal. It is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that to be omnibenevolent it is not enough simply to have managed not to actually do anything wrong: rather, one must have had the disposition to act rightly no matter what the circumstances. (You don’t get to be omnibenevolent by moral luck!) And so whether an object satisfies ‘. . . is omnibenevolent’ depends on whether or not that object has counterparts that do wrong things, and so the above story applies. Likewise with omniscience: it’s not enough simply to know all truths – the omniscient being would know even the propositions that are actually false, had those propositions been true. And in general, when we’re dealing with the divine perfections, they will concern not just how the bearer actually is but how it could have been. Perfection implies a counterfactual robustness – you don’t get to be perfect y accident. God’s perfection with respect to knowledge or power or etc concerns how he is and how he could and must have been: a being does not get to share in these properties by virtue of chance or luck. And as soon as one insists on counterfactual robustness one makes these predicates modal, which invites the counterpart theoretic solution to the threatening paradox.

What about God’s actual knowledge of all actual truths? Don’t we want to deny this to Christ the man as well? (Consider his apparent lack of knowledge, in Gethsemane, as to how the future would turn out.) If so, then to run the above story we must accept a modal account of what it is for an agent to know something. But this is not implausible. It’s what Ryle held, for example. x knows that p iff, roughly, x is disposed to act in a p-believing way in suitable circumstances. Now, of course, Ryle combined this with a behaviourism about the mental and an account of dispositions as brute truths; but we needn’t join him in either of those theses to find plausible the linking of knowledge ascriptions with ascriptions of some complex dispositional. It needn’t be an analysis of what it is for x to know that p for x to be disposed in a certain manner in order for the truth of the knowledge ascription to go hand in hand with the truth of the dispositional ascription. And if the truth of the knowledge ascription is sensitive to the truth of the dispositional ascription then context sensitivity in the latter will result in context sensitivity in the former. Christ the God can be correctly ascribed knowledge that p because all his relevant Godly counterparts act in a p-believing way when in the appropriate circumstances, but Christ the man cannot correctly be ascribed knowledge that p because he has manly counterparts that fail to exhibit p-believing behaviour even when prompted appropriately.

Here’s an interesting consequence of the counterpart theoretic view: it commits us to saying that while the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, in fact incarnated as the man Jesus Christ, he might not have done. Counterpart theory, familiarly, commits us to the contingency of identity. The statue is in fact identical to the lump of clay, but it might not have been: had the lump of clay been squashed, it wouldn’t have been identical to the statue. Likewise, Christ the God, the second person of the Trinity, is in fact identical to Christ the man (who is also therefore, given Leibniz’s law, the second person of the Trinity). But Christ the God might not have been identical to Christ the man: had the man been flawed he wouldn’t have been identical to the God. And so whilst Christ the God is essentially the second person of the Trinity, Christ the man is only accidentally the second person of the Trinity.


3 responses to “Counterpart theory and the incarnation. Cos why not?

  1. Fascinating stuff… Omniscience does seem to be the sticky one. Would Manly counterparts to Christ that weren’t Godly have been counterparts to Christ? But we can have knowledge that isn’t accessible to us, e.g. during the time it takes us to recall some fact that we do know. So if k. is w.t.b. then maybe Christ did know everything but could not (not without changing his human brain, which He would not have wanted to do, since He wanted to be fully human) access it all (only a relatively human amount). But anyway, why assume that to be divine is to have all those properties? Why not almighty, all-knowing, all good and everywhere present in the sense natural to our Creator? That is, as an author knows everything about his work (excepting only the bits that he chooses to leave open), which is just as he wants it to be, and which is all present to him (in that work-transcending way) for alteration at will, so that the work is just as he wants it to be (i.e. good), ideally.

  2. …such attributes would be associated with the divine by us creatures, but what would make Christ divine would be Him being the same 3 = 1 person(s) as our Creator, God’s soul (or one of them) in a human body (e.g. brain). Christ said that after we leave these bodies we are as angels, so maybe we have our human attributes mostly because of our human bodies, in which case He might thereby count as fully human too without having to be too different spiritually; any difference might be made up via the Holy Ghost, and the relation of Christ to His Father might be (even more loosely) akin to that of ourselves in our dreams to ourselves as the dreamer. (Mind you, that does seem messier now I put it down, so maybe not:)

  3. None of that has anything whatsoever to do with REAL questions about the nature of here and now existence-being, and the FACT that the meat-body that you are currently identified with is going to disintegrate and die.REAL questions leed to the possibility of REAL self-understanding which is the base from which ALL True philosophy begins. Who or what am I as a conscious being?What is my relationship to every thing “else”?What is the meaning & significance of death?ALL philosophy is necessarily both a description of the person who does it and of their limitations and UNINSPECTED presumptions about themselves and everything else.

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