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Lecture XV. The Idea of the Incarnation


WE have, in the last two lectures, seen that the aim of all theories of the Incarnation is to reconcile the apparently contradictory character of the two elements, the infinite and finite, the divine and human, and to render the union of these two elements in one self-conscious personality rationally conceivable. The various heresies on the subject, which have been condemned in successive authoritative declarations of the orthodox faith, have been simply attempts to achieve this result by modifying or explaining away one or other side of an impossible combination. Starting from the idea of the real and proper humanity of Christ—from the presupposition, in other words, that whatever else He was, He was veritably and completely human, limited in power and knowledge, subject to the imperfections, the progressive changes, the pains and sufferings, the moral temptations, which are common to every member of the race—the apparent impossibility of conceiving of Him as at the same time the conscious possessor of divine attributes, as omnipotent, omniscient, superior to all change and imperfection, was attempted to be overcome by various modifications of the latter or divine element in Christ's person, two of which I have endeavoured to explain and criticise. The first of these attempted to make the union in one person of a divine and a human nature conceivable by reducing the former to a mere communication of divine influence, analogous in kind to prophetic inspiration. The second of these theories, with which we were occupied in the last lecture, is that of the kenosis, the voluntary humiliation or self-limitation of God, according to which the Eternal Logos is supposed, by an act of infinite condescension, to have denuded or emptied Himself of so much of His divine nature as would have rendered Him incapable of entering into union with, or constituting an ingredient in, a finite human personality.

I now turn to the consideration of those theories in which the problem is attempted to be solved by modifying in some way, not the divine, but the human element in Christ's person; and I shall confine myself to one specimen of these theories, which I select for examination, not only because in its day it attained to no little notoriety and influence, but also because—as we have seen in another instance—though itself untenable, it contains an element of truth and the suggestion of a real solution of the problem, after which its author was unconsciously groping.

Is it possible to conceive of two complete spiritual natures, two self-conscious, self-determining beings, as losing their separate individuality and becoming so blended as to constitute one self-conscious personality? Leaving out of sight for the moment the opposition of infinite and finite, can we think of one conscious being as dropping its independent identity and passing into that of another, or of two such beings as abandoning each its own independent consciousness and spiritual life, and becoming so transformed as to constitute a new personality which is both in one? Writers of fiction, giving the rein to their imagination, have sometimes pictured a single human being as leading two lives, not only distinct from each other, but each characterized by intellectual and moral qualities in glaring contrast with those of the other. But, to render this conception not palpably absurd, the separate lives are supposed to be led, not at one and the same time, but successively or alternately; so that in one phase of his existence the subject drops all consciousness of the preceding phase, and feels no more sense of moral responsibility for the acts and intromissions of his former self than if they had been those of another and different human agent.

But the wildest imagination has never attempted to represent a single personality as, all through its career and at every moment of it, possessed of a double consciousness, or a single self which was the combined result of two selves reduced to one. Material substances may by chemical composition lose their separate characteristics and be reduced to a third which differs from both; but is it not the essential characteristic of a spiritual subject—that which raises it above the unconscious existence of nature, above the life of the animal in which the race is all, the individual nothing—that it possesses an individuality, an isolated identity, in virtue of which it is for itself to the exclusion of every other, which can be invaded or shared by no other, and the moral life and acts of which are inalienably and unalterably its own? Even if it be possible to think of two human beings as so closely alike in their intellectual and moral natures that their ideas should be perfectly coincident, their feelings and affections absolutely sympathetic, their wills in every volition and action all through life completely concurrent, they would still be, not one mind and will, but two: the intelligence of each its own intelligence, the process by which its opinions are reached a process going on in its own mind and not in the other's, the moral acts of each involving a personal responsibility intransferable to the other. However close, again, the relations of kindred, community, nationality, of friendship, affection, common interests and inclinations, can the closest of these for a moment break down the impassable barrier between each and every other human soul? Moreover, does not the notion of a single personality embracing two complete and independent individualities become, if possible, still more inconceivable, when the union is that, not of two finite natures, but of an infinite and a finite, a divine and a human nature? Even if two finite intelligences and wills could be conceived to act together and retain their individual freedom, when mysteriously united in one personality, could we say as much of a finite nature in personal alliance with an infinite? Can an infinite consciousness co-exist with a finite consciousness without absorbing and swamping it? Can an omnipotent will be conceived to reside in the same spirit with a limited, human will without dominating and suppressing it? In such a coalition, would not all real activity on the part of the latter be suspended, and its moral independence, its very existence, be virtually extinguished?

Now it is this apparent impossibility of a human nature in all its individual completeness, co-existing in the same personality with a divine nature, which led the early writer to whom I have referred, Apollinaris, Bishop of Laodicea in the fourth century, to propound a theory of the person of Christ which—however strange it sounds to the modern ear, and however crude and untenable it may appear—is not without its value as pointing to a deeper solution of the problem after which its author was unconsciously striving. Two spiritual natures, two self-consciousnesses and wills in one personality, is, according to the view just stated, an impossible conception. Neither a divine nor a human spirit can renounce its individuality, can invade or suppress the essential, inviolable independence of another, or fuse and blend itself with another so that they become no longer two, but one. In the person of Christ, as little as in that of any purely human agent, can there be two souls. Unless we rend His personality asunder, the spiritual, self-conscious nature in Him must be one; it must be either human or divine, but it cannot be both. If, therefore, we hold that in Christ's person there is a union of a divine with a human nature, the only conceivable way, it was maintained, in which this union can exist is by the divine spirit taking the place of the human spirit in the composite personality. Thus Christ's personality, whilst it resembles all human personalities in this that it consists of a bodily organism and a spirit, differs from all merely human personalities in this that the human, corporeal nature is animated by a divine, not a human spirit, that in Him the bodily organism is human but the spirit is divine.

In support of this theory it was urged that it is the only view which is consistent with, or lends meaning to, the language of the New Testament writers, and especially of the fourth Gospel, and to our Lord's own utterances as therein narrated, which seem to claim for Him the consciousness of a being and life, not only prior to His earthly existence, but co-eternal with the very being and life of God. In outward appearance He was a being simply and wholly human, the son of an earthly mother, whose memory could go back only to the brief term of years embraced in His earthly career; yet it is declared that He was the Logos or Word that was in the beginning with God, and that was God, and by whom all things were made, whose own consciousness immeasurably transcended the brief period of His human life, and who could speak of Himself as the only-begotten Son who was eternally in the bosom of the Father, of a glory which He had with God before the world was, and to which He was to return when His transient mortal life should be ended. The consciousness which could thus express itself, though by human lips, was the utterance of a mind that far outstripped the range of finite memory, and was nothing less, under an earthly appearance, than the self-consciousness of God.

The main argument by which this theory was supported was that to which I have already referred, namely, that it is the only theory that is consistent with the unity of Christ's person, or escapes from ascribing to it elements absolutely incompatible. There is no more difficulty in conceiving of Christ's person than of that of any other human being as the union of a body and a soul. But a body inhabited by two souls, and especially by a divine and a human soul, is altogether unthinkable. If the consciousness of Christ be not broken up into an impossible dualism, it must be either human or divine, but it cannot be both; and to those who hold by the divinity of Christ, it must be only and wholly divine.

A theory from which modern thought has so completely departed it is scarcely necessary to criticise, save only in so far as the criticism may bring to light the element of truth that underlies it or to which it points. In the first place, it is obvious that it gives us no real union of the divine and human in Christ's person, but only the union of a maimed or mutilated humanity with the divine. In order to achieve that union, it leaves out of the nature that is to be united with God its highest and most important element. If human nature consist of body and mind, or—according to the psychology of the time of Apollinaris—of body, soul, and spirit, that is, of a corporeal or fleshly organism, of a principle of animal life common to man with the animal creation, and, finally, of the spirit, the principle of intelligence and moral action,—that is no real union with the divine which strikes out the latter, nobler element of human nature, and conceives of God as uniting Himself only with that in man which he shares with the beasts that perish. The result, in short, which it gives as the representation of the person of Christ is, not a divine in union with a human nature, but a divine nature in union with the nature of an animal.

Again, the whole redemptive work of Christ would lose its value and significance if the soul—the spiritual element in Him—were not really human. The remedy must be co-extensive with the disease; and the malady of sin is one which affects our higher or spiritual nature, and not primarily our corporeal or animal nature. The merely animal nature is incapable alike of moral good and moral evil. The ultimate source and seat of sin is not, as we have seen, in the merely animal impulses and desires, but in the depraved spirit that turns these impulses and desires into its instruments, wastes its boundless energies on the gratification of the flesh, and finds its good in that which is incommensurate with them. The estrangement from God, in which lies the very essence of sin, is the estrangement not of the body but of the soul, the selfishness that taints and corrupts the moral nature at its source. The salvation, therefore, which we need is one which goes to the very source and root of the moral disorder, and introduces a new and heaven-born life into the morally diseased organism of humanity. The being, therefore, who is the primal origin of this new life for man, must be, not simply a divine spirit, but a human spirit in whom the barrier of selfishness that separates the soul from God is broken down, and the whole nature of man is brought into perfect unison with the divine.

Lastly, it is just here that we find the answer to the speculative difficulty in which this imperfect theory originates. To its author, the union of a real and complete human nature with a divine seemed to trench on the inviolable individuality and independence that are essential to the moral life, and to involve the absurdity of two souls, two self-consciousnesses, in one personality. The nature and life of a God-man seemed to him equivalent to the impossible fusion of two persons into one, or into what was virtually a person neither human nor divine, but a monstrosity produced by a combination of both. But, in so thinking, his error lay in applying outward and mechanical categories to the realm of spiritual things, and in his failure to conceive of that highest of all unities of which only spiritual natures are capable. So far from its being true that the existence of a finite, human spirit in the person of Christ excludes the presence therein of a divine spirit, it may rather be said that all spiritual life rests on the indwelling of the divine spirit in the human, and that union with God is the presupposition of all intelligence, all goodness, all moral and spiritual activity in man. Instead of the presence and action of God in the human spirit involving an impossible dualism, or a suppressing of human individuality, the true conception is rather that the divine life is the condition of the human, the atmosphere in which alone all spiritual life can exist; and that it is only in union with God that the individual spirit can realize itself and become possessor of the latent wealth of intelligence and goodness that pertains to it. It is true, indeed, that there is something unique in the person of Christ, and that a participation in the being and life of God can be predicated of Him as distinguished from all other members of the human race. But however true it be that the relation of the divine and human in the person of Christ transcends, in one sense, all earthly parallel, it must yet be a union of which by its very structure and essence humanity is capable.

It may be well, therefore, to consider briefly what union with God or participation in the life of God, under the essential conditions of human nature, is possible. Can the Infinite Spirit dwell in the human without absorbing it, or involving a double consciousness? Can the spiritual life of man in any sense be identified with the life of God?

Now, in answer to these questions, I think I have already shown that the highest kind of unity is not that which is repelled, but which is created and conditioned by moral and spiritual individuality; that, in other words, the oneness which is most real and absolute is not that which is attained by the absence or suppression of individual distinctions, but that which involves yet transcends them. Of all the different kinds of unity, which is the most real and complete? The parts of a stone are all precisely alike, the parts of a piece of mechanism are all different from each other; in which case is the unity the deeper—in that in which all distinction is absent, or that in which each separate part has a distinct character and function? In a mass of sandstone there is the unity of sameness; in a watch, a steam-engine, or other elaborately constructed machine each part has a distinctive character, a place and function of its own. Yet who will hesitate to pronounce which of the two unities is the deeper—the unity of mere sameness or juxtaposition, or the unity of parts each of which is necessary to the others, the unity of a common idea or design running through the whole and making every part necessary to every other?

But there are deeper unities than this. A living organism is, like the machine, a unity of parts each of which fulfils a separate function necessary to the rest. The various members and organs of the living body have absolutely no separate existence; each lives in and through the rest, their life its life, its life not its own but theirs, ever flowing into them, and returning enriched upon itself. But more than that, in this case there is the new element of feeling, of sensibility, of common experience and reciprocity of pleasure and pain; so that each member suffers in the injury, is happy in the happiness and well-being of the rest, and each member attains to the fullest, richest development in surrendering itself to the unity in which it is comprehended.1

Once more, there is a unity of which it is still more profoundly true than of mechanism and organic life, that it involves, not the suppression but the realization of the individualities which compose it—the unity of spiritual self-conscious beings in their relation to each other. For when we rise to the realm of consciousness we enter on a domain of which the unity of organic life is only the imperfect type. On the one hand, we are confronted here by that isolated, inviolable individuality of which I have spoken, that separate, solitary self-identity, which makes each human spirit, for good or ill, the bearer of its own burden; and yet, on the other hand, it may be shown that this is not the last word in the account of the spiritual nature and life of man. The conception of a solitary individualistic unity gives place to the higher conception that no man liveth to himself, that the highest life of the individual can be realized only by taking the life of others into and blending it with his own; and lastly, and above all, that the perfect life of humanity can never be reached till our separate individual life is surrendered to the universal and infinite life, and by dying to self we begin to live in the eternal life of God.

There is, as I said in a former lecture, a sense in which it may be said of every living intelligence that it is not one, but two; that there is a second self, in and through which alone it can know and be itself. Locked up in its mere abstract unity, it is only a blank potentiality of intellectual and moral existence; it needs another, an objective, external self, in relation to which only can it find or realize the hidden possibilities of its nature. We grow in elevation and nobleness of nature just in proportion as we merge our own life with the life of others, or, otherwise expressed, take their life into and make it part and parcel of our own. Love, friendship, self-devotion, are never absolutely pure; but what in their ideal purity and intensity they would mean, would be the giving up of all thought of self and its own particular interests and pleasures, the sacrifice of time, thought, ease, pleasure, personal ambition, all that most men hold dear, nay, if need be, of life itself, for the sake of others. And, in so acting, what the lover or friend would show is that the life of others has become, not merely part of his own, but more really his than his own. Further, if we could conceive such love to be reciprocated, each carried away from all self-regarding thought and aim, each losing himself in the other's life, to find himself again, enriched, expanded, fulfilled, in a life that was not that of the one or the other, but of both,—would there not be here the breaking down of that hard, isolated selfhood which we are apt to regard as the inalienable attribute of humanity; would there not be here at least an approximation to what at first sight seems an impossible conception, the blending of two souls, two self-conscious natures in one personality, yet without any real loss—nay, with infinite gain—to the independent life of each?

But let me add, finally, it would, at most, be only an approximation. In no merely finite being-can a human spirit find the perfect complement of itself. Absolute surrender to such a being, however great and noble, must always involve some loss of individuality, some limitation of the moral freedom of the individual, some narrowing or impairing of his spiritual life. To no finite being can there be that absolute self-surrender, that merging of the individual life in the life and being of another, of which we are in search. The perfect oneness of life with life, spirit with spirit, is never to be attained in the relation of one finite being to another, but only in the relation of the finite spirit to God. Only in the union of the human with the divine can that unity which is absolute be reached. Only in union with God can I utterly lose myself and completely find myself again, perfectly surrender my isolated existence, and yet maintain and enlarge my individual life.

And the reason is that, from the very nature of the human spirit, it is only an infinite intelligence and will to which it can yield an absolute surrender. With no merely finite intelligence, with no merely finite will, is it possible for me to identify my own mind and will. However much I may desire intellectual harmony with another, I cannot surrender my own thoughts, my own convictions, my own judgment of what is true, to his, or substitute his intellectual life for my own. In so far as his convictions agree with mine, it is not because either yields himself up to the authoritative intelligence of the other, but because in common they yield themselves up to an authority, a power, that is working in both alike. I may, indeed, outwardly profess to accept the opinion which some external authority would impose on me; I may even suppress my own mental activity and cease to think at all on the subjects on which we differ; but the result would not be intellectual harmony, the latent disharmony would still exist; and the suppression of individual thought, the borrowed conviction, instead of enriching and expanding, would starve and impoverish my own intellectual life.

The same thing is true of the moral life. I cannot by any voluntary determination take up the moral life of another and pass it over into my own. His ideas of duty, his desires, affections, volitions, the moral character which is the result of his past actions, are incapable, by any immediate process of transference, of becoming mine. I cannot put his will into mine or mine into his. If he be a better or a worse man than I, there is no moral harmony. If we are at the same moral level, alike in spirit, disposition, aims, activities, however close the union created by sympathetic feelings and acts, however great the benefit accruing from mutual example and imitation, there is still no identity, no bridging of the gulf that separates each individual life, in its moral history and responsibility, from every other. And here again the coincidence, in so far as it obtains, arises from the deference, which each renders to a moral authority that is common to, but infinitely higher than, both.

But that which is impossible in the relation of man to man, of the finite to the finite, is possible in the relation of man to God, of the finite spirit to the infinite. That absolute surrender of thought and will which no man can yield to another, it is the supreme ideal of man's intellectual and moral nature to be capable of yielding to God. We cannot, I have said, take up and transfer to ourselves the convictions and beliefs, the affections and volitions, the intellectual and moral life, of any other finite being; but it is the very glory of our nature to surrender our intelligence to the Infinite Wisdom, our will to the All-perfect Will: to abandon all opinions, to suppress every volition that pertains to us as mere individuals, and to let the infinite and eternal life flow into and dominate our whole life and being.

Nor is this surrender simply the submission of our thought and will to a higher or absolute external authority. If that were all, if the spiritual life consisted simply in obedience to the absolute mind and will of an Almighty Ruler, it would fall far short of the perfect union of the finite with the Infinite. Truth and duty would still have for me the aspect of a foreign thing, a law which I respect and obey, but which is still outside of me, and in conforming to which I would still be conscious of a self which is distinct from it, though overborne and repressed.

But there is a union with God which is deeper far than this. It is possible to attain, and then only have we reached the perfection of our being when we have attained, to a spiritual life in which the very mind and will of God become identified with our own, in which it is God's thoughts our mind thinks, God's will that worketh in us, the very life of God in which we participate. When eternal truth discloses itself to the mind, it dissipates all mere individual opinion, it subjugates thought with an absolute, irresistible authority; but it is not an authority which is external to me, but one which utters itself in and through my own mind, and which I recognize as at once a divine authority and that of my own reason or intelligence. And then only have I attained to the true knowledge of divine things when the voice that speaks to me is at the same time that which speaks in me; and there are not two concurrent voices, that of a finite and that of an infinite mind, but only one indivisible voice of eternal reason sounding through the inmost depth of the soul of man.

When, again, the imperative of duty utters itself to a human spirit, it is with an authority to which the human will is constrained to bow. But then only have I attained to a real moral and spiritual life, when I have come to recognize the law of righteousness as prescribed, not merely to me but in me, not by an external authority, but by an authority which is wrought into and is one with the very essence of my own nature; when, in the very inmost utterance of my own spirit, I listen to a divine teacher; when the dictates of conscience not merely echo but are the voice of the living God, and in yielding myself up to their dominion, it is not two wills but one will, at once human and divine, that reigns within me.

Nor does this identification involve any pantheistic obliteration of human freedom and individuality. For whilst, in one sense, we surrender the life of self and every thought and volition that is merely that of this particular self, yet that to which we thus surrender ourselves is in reality our own truer self, that in conformity with which we rise to and realize the ideal perfection of our own nature. It is not the extinction, but the development and perfection, of any individual intelligence, that it yields itself up to absolute truth. It is not the annihilation, but the highest freedom, of any individual will, that it throws off the yoke of selfish desires, and consciously and voluntarily yields itself to that which is not only the law of God, but the law of its own being. Absolute identity of our mind and will with the divine mind and will, could we attain to it, would not be a state of things in which our conscious life would be extinguished, but in which it would rise into perfect life and freedom.

It is true, indeed, that the union with God, which I have now described, is for the best and holiest of men only a faint and imperfect approximation, and that, as we believe, only once in the ages has it been presented to us as a full and perfect reality. The union of the human with the divine in the person and life of Christ does, indeed, according to the Christian conception of it, include an element which differentiates it from the spiritual life and experience of all other men. In the life of Christ there is the manifestation of a principle which was not a birth of time, but which had its source and origin in the eternal being and life of God, and which He Himself is represented as describing as the glory which He had with the Father before the world was.2 Nevertheless, whatever else the union with God in the person and life of Christ contained, it did contain that absolute identification of the human mind and will with the mind and will of God of which I have spoken. For the best and holiest of other men this union with God is only, as I have said, intermittent and partial: a broken, fitful, imperfect thing, an ideal, a dream of perfection, of which their most exalted moral and spiritual experience, in moments few and far between, is only a faint and transient realization. If we might compare it to what takes place in another and different sphere, may we not say that, in the realm of art, it is not always and continuously that the mind of the man of genius realizes the presence and power of the ideal, feels his soul glowing with the ecstasy of creative intuition? The greatest artists have their long lapses of uninspired experience, and are profoundly conscious that even when the vision comes, their efforts to realize it fall immeasurably short of an ideal which itself is only half-revealed and half-concealed.

So, in like manner, amidst the limitations of our earthly life, in the atmosphere of worldly interest and passion, amidst the perturbations of the life of sense, there is for the saintliest of men much to interrupt the consciousness of the presence of God within them, and to arrest the flow of that current of thought and feeling which unites the life of man to the life of God. In the struggle with their lower self they are conscious of boundless possibilities which are only feebly and fitfully realized, of hopes and aspirations to which, even when the will to realize them is present, the results in the actual life are miserably disproportionate. Nevertheless, the ideal divine-human life is not a mere dream of the pious imagination. It is not merely theoretically, as a matter of speculation, that we can conceive of the absolute union of the human and divine, nor is the splendour of spiritual greatness, hid under this vesture of decay, only at best a dim forecast or far-off prevision. It is the very central fact of our Christian faith that once for all it has been realized, and that in the person and life of Christ we can recognize a nature from which every dividing, disturbing element has passed away—a mind that was the pure medium of Infinite Intelligence, a heart that throbbed in perfect unison with the Infinite Love, a will that never vibrated by one faintest aberration from the Infinite Will, a human consciousness possessed and suffused by the very spirit and life of the Living God.

  • 1.

    Cf. Vol. I., p. 59 seq.

  • 2.

    Cf. Vol. I., p. 75 seq.