by Steven B. Cowan –

One of the central affirmations of the Christian faith is that in Jesus of Nazareth God became a man. The prologue of John’s Gospel makes this affirmation clear:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . .and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:1, 14)

Other biblical texts assert the deity of Christ as well (e.g. John 8:58; Phil. 2:6-7; Col. 2:9). Early Christian creeds echo this biblical data with doctrinal formulations that define the orthodox Christian position on the Person of Jesus Christ. The Nicene Creed (A.D. 325) declares that Jesus Christ is “Very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made. . .and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. . .” The Chalcedonian Creed (A.D. 451) asserts that Jesus is “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man. . .”

Thus, the Christian belief and the biblical teaching is that Jesus is fully God and fully man. It is just at this point, however, that a serious and puzzling question arises: how can one person be both God and man? If you are not sure why this question is serious, then consider some of the attributes of God and human beings respectively:

Divine Attributes        Human Attributes

Omnipotence               Limited Potency

Omniscience               Limited Knowledge

Eternality                    Temporality

Immutability               Mutability

Uncreated                    Created


The careful reader will observe that the two sets of properties are mutually contradictory. Every property listed under “Human Attributes” is the logical opposite of the corresponding property under “Divine Attributes.” So it would seem that the Christian belief that Jesus is both God and man leads to some obvious logical absurdities. That is, the doctrine of the incarnation seems to require us to believe that Jesus was both omnipotent and non-omnipotent, both immutable and mutable, etc.

How are we to respond to this problem? Is the doctrine of the incarnation logically contradictory? Or is there a way out of this conundrum? In what follows, I will first discuss some inadequate responses to the problem, and then outline what I take to be an adequate answer.

Some Inadequate Solutions

In Christian history, there have been several proposed solutions to the apparent logical absurdity of the incarnation. Most of these have failed for various reasons. It will be helpful to take a look at these inadequate solutions.

The Embrace-the-Absurdity Solution

A few Christians have looked at the logical problem raised by the incarnation and have asked, “What’s the problem?” These folks are not fazed by logical difficulties like the one raised in this article because they do not believe that Christian truth-claims are bound by the laws of logic. Some such persons (like perhaps Tertullian and Kierkegaard) would say they believe in the incarnation “because it is absurd.” In other words, this “solution” accepts and embraces the idea that the incarnation is contradictory, but does not see that as any reason to reject the doctrine of the incarnation. Truth in religious matters transcends human logic and is above the critique of human reasoning.

This solution, however, suffers from several fatal problems. I will mention just two. First, if we “embrace the absurd” we will be left without an apologetic to other religions. Those who take this approach to solving theological and philosophical problems may sound pious, but they actually undermine the Christian faith. For not only does a denial of the universal validity of logic supposedly preserve the incarnation from critique, but it would also preserve any belief of any religion from critique. If contradictory statements can be true, that is, then it will turn out that every belief is true. The Christian says that Jesus is God. The Muslim says he is not God. These two claims are contradictory. But, what’s the problem? Since religious truths are not subject to obey the laws of logic, both the Christian and the Muslim are right! Jesus is God and he is not God. More than that, the Hindu religion is true, too, as well as Buddhism, Judaism, Bahai, Mormonism, etc. So, by adopting the “embrace-the-absurdity-view,” we make it impossible to critique other religions, impossible to defend Christianity, and impossible to assert the exclusivity of Christianity.

Second, logic is crucial if we are going to know anything at all about God. Some Christians have been willing to say that God could have made different logical laws—that God can make square circles if he wants to! But, Christians believe lots of things about God. For example, we believe that God is good. And we believe that when we say “God is good,” we are saying something intelligible. But, if logic doesn’t apply to God or to statements about God, then contradictory statements about God can both be true. This means that the statement, “God is good,” is consistent with the statement, “God is evil.” And this means that when we say “God is good” we aren’t saying anything informative. And it means that concepts like “good” and “evil” are meaningless. In other words, in order to be meaningful and informative, the statement, “God is good,” must exclude the statement, “God is evil.” But, if contradictory statements can both be true, then “God is good” cannot exclude “God is evil.” No Christian should accept this or the previous conclusion. The “embrace-the-absurdity” view simply will not do.1


It is only because we assert that Jesus has two natures—divine and human—that we run into the difficulty of having to assert contradictory attributes of one person. So, some members of the early church, such as Eutyches of Constantinople (A.D. 378-454), taught that Jesus had only one nature. This view is called monophysitism (“one-nature-ism”). On this view, Jesus is neither fully God nor fully man, but is rather a hybrid being, possessing a third kind of nature resulting from a mixture of the divine and human natures.

The problems with this view should be obvious. First, since this view holds that Jesus is neither God nor man, it runs counter to the clear biblical data. Consider, for example, the language of Colossians 2:9, which says that in Jesus “the Godhead dwells in bodily form.” This text makes it clear that neither the divine nor human natures of Christ disappear in the incarnation.

Second, monophysitism undermines Christ’s ability to mediate between God and man. If Christ was not fully man, for example, he could not represent us in his atoning and intercessory work.

The Kenosis Theory
In Philippians 2:6-7, the Apostle Paul writes,

Who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

The word translated “emptied” (v.7) is the Greek term kenosis from which this next view gets its name. On this view, taking Philippians 2:7 for its inspiration, the second person of the Trinity divested himself of his divine nature when he came to earth as the man Jesus. The problem of the incarnation is solved, then, by claiming that Jesus was only human. He did not possess contradictory attributes because he left his divine attributes behind (“emptied himself”) when he was born of the Virgin Mary.

One problem with the Kenosis Theory is that it is inconsistent with God’s immutability. God cannot change (cf. Mal. 3:6; Jas 1:17). Yet, the Kenosis Theory would have us believe that God makes the most amazing change imaginable, namely, God ceasing to be God!

Second, like monophysitism, the Kenosis Theory runs afoul of the Scriptures. Once again, note that Colossians 2:9 asserts that the Godhead (the divine nature) “dwells in bodily form.” In the man Jesus, that is, dwells the divine nature. Moreover, Matthew, echoing Isaiah 7:14, tells us that Jesus is “Immanuel,” or “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). If Jesus was emptied of the divine nature, how could he be “God with us”?

But what are we to make of Philippians 2:7? Wayne Grudem comments on this text:

[W]e must recognize that the text does not say that Christ “emptied himself of some powers” or “emptied himself of divine attributes” or anything like that…[T]he text does describe what Jesus did in this “emptying”. . .by “taking on the form of the servant,” that is, by coming to live as a man, and “being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Thus, the context interprets this “emptying” as equivalent to “humbling himself” and taking on a lowly status and position…
. . .Therefore, the best understanding of this passage is that it talks about Jesus giving up the status and privilege that was his in heaven…2


So far we have seen a solution that denies that Christ was either God or man (Monophysitism), and a solution that denies that he was fully God (Kenosis). Now, we come to a “solution” that proposes that he was not fully human. Apollinarius, the bishop of Laodicea about A.D. 361, solved the problem by claiming that the human body of Jesus was simply a physical shell that housed the divine mind of the second person of the Trinity. In other words, Jesus had no human soul or mind.

Yet, the Bible is clear that Jesus was fully human, including the possession of a human soul. Luke, for example, tells us that the young Jesus “grew in wisdom and statue”(Luke 2:52). Jesus also tells us that he did not know the hour of his return (Matt. 24:36). Apollinarianism cannot explain these biblical texts.


This is the doctrine, originating with Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople (c. A.D. 428), that there were two distinct persons in Christ, a divine person and a human person. The problem of the incarnation is solved, on this view, by simply denying that there is one person with contradictory attributes. Rather, there is one person with divine attributes and another person with human attributes. These two persons, however, happen to share one human body. Of course, this view destroys the unity of Christ’s person and thus his ability to mediate between God and man. Moreover, the Scriptures never give us any indication of a dual personality in Jesus. He always speaks as “I,” not as “we,” when referring to himself.


In response to all of the errors outlined above, the early church strongly affirmed that Jesus is both fully God and fully man (contra Monophysitism, Kenosis Theory, and Apollinarianism). It also affirmed that these two natures existed in one person (contra Nestorianism), and that they did so without contradiction (contra the “Embrace-the-Absurdity” view). This is why the Chalcedonian Definition, referred to earlier, says not only that Jesus is truly God and truly man,” but goes on to say that Jesus is

. . .to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusely, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of the natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person.

Notice that the two natures are said to concur in one person (contra Nestorianism), and are “unconfused, unchangeable” (contra Monophysitism, Kenosis) and “indivisible,

inseparable” (contra Nestorianism). Chalcedon, being true to the biblical data, thus sets the parameters for an orthodox view of Christ’s Person.

The question, though, is whether the language of Chalcedon adequately resolves the logical paradox of the incarnation. Some theologians think that it does. R.C. Sproul, for example, writes:

Touching His divine nature, Jesus was clearly omniscient. Touching His human nature, however, He was not. . . .It is both possible and necessary for us to distinguish between the divine and human natures of Christ. For example, when Jesus was hungry and when He sweated, these were manifestations of His human nature, not his divine nature. God does not eat. God does not sweat.3

This strategy, which is known as reduplicative predication, seeks to solve the problem by keeping distinct the two natures and then always predicting any particular characteristic of Jesus of a given nature. In other words, reduplicativism requires, when making any statement about Jesus, that we be precise as to which of his natures we are talking about. Christian philosopher Thomas Senor explains:

So if we say, for example, Jesus Christ was thirsty or Jesus Christ was preexistent we fail to make ourselves clear. What we really mean to be asserting is with respect to his humanity, Jesus Christ was thirsty, or with respect to his divinity, Jesus Christ was preexistent.4


The idea behind reduplicative predication is that any statement about Jesus is potentially ambiguous, and it is the ambiguity that gives rise to the alleged contradictions involved in the incarnation. When we clear up the ambiguities by specifying to which of Jesus’ two natures a statement refers, then the contradictions disappear.

Reduplicativism, however, is not an adequate solution for the following reason: what is predicated of Jesus, regardless of which nature is involved, is still predicated of one person. Again Thomas Senor explains:

[E]ven if there are properties that Christ has with respect to his being human and other properties are had with respect to his being divine, the properties nevertheless belong to a single person. For example, if in virtue of being a professor, Richard has an obligation to spend the weekend preparing for his Monday afternoon seminar, and in virtue of being a father, Richard has an obligation to go on a Boy Scout camp-out with his son, it is nevertheless true that Richard (and not just Richard with respect to being a professor) has an obligation to prepare for class and that Richard (and not just Richard with respect to being a father) has an obligation to go camping. . . .Similarly, Christ’s being uncreated with respect to his divinity and created with respect to his humanity wouldn’t appear to change the fact that, on this view, he is both created and uncreated. So the problem persists.5

Another way of stating the problem is that Reduplicativism, as a solution to the logical problem we are discussing, runs the risk of collapsing into Nestorianism. This is not to say that the Chalcedonian Definition is false or useless. Quite the contrary. It is simply to say that more is needed to solve the problem of the alleged contradictions in the doctrine of the incarnation.

An Adequate Solution

What many theologians and philosophers take to be an adequate solution to the problem has been provided by the contemporary philosopher Thomas V. Morris. Recall the list of properties that we earlier attributed to human beings.

Human Attributes

  • Limited Potency
  • Limited Knowledge
  • Temporality
  • Mutability
  • Created

In his book, The Logic of God Incarnate, Morris argues that the apparent contradictions in the doctrine of the incarnation arises only because it is assumed that these properties are essential to human beings.6 But, perhaps they are not. Let’s explore this idea.

Properties: Essential and Otherwise

There are different kinds of properties. Most basically, we should distinguish between essential and accidental properties. An essential property is a property without which a thing would not be the kind of thing it is. If a thing loses one of its essential properties, then it ceases to be that sort of thing and becomes something else. For example, a triangle has the essential property of “three-sidedness.” If a figure lacks this property, then it simply cannot be a triangle. A tiger has (perhaps) the essential property of being feline. If it loses this property, then it is no longer a tiger (or any other kind of cat for that matter).

Accidental properties are properties which are merely incidental to a thing. They are properties which can be gained or lost by a thing without that thing ceasing to be what it is. For example, I have the property of having brown hair (though I am having a lot less of it than I used to!). If my hair were to change color, I would still be a human being and I would still be me. Brown-hairedness is not essential to me. There is a third kind of property called common properties. A common property is a characteristic that members of a particular natural kind7 typically have, but which are not strictly essential to being a member of that natural kind. For example, tigers commonly have black stripes. However, if a group of college pranksters dipped a tiger in bleach and so erased its stripes, it would still be a tiger. Likewise, human beings typically have two legs. Yet, a person with only one leg is no less human. Common properties can thus
be said to be “mid-way” between essential and accidental properties. They are not essential to something’s being a particular kind of thing, but they are not purely incidental, either. Common properties are common.


Fully Human vs. Merely Human

After distinguishing the various kinds of properties there are, Morris then makes another crucial distinction between being fully human and being merely human. Someone is fully human if he possesses all of the properties essential to being human. If someone possesses all of the essential attributes of humanity, then he is fully human. On the other hand, someone is merely human if he possesses all of the properties essential to being human, plus some additional common properties that humans as a natural kind typically have, but which are not essential to humanity.

The Paradox Resolved

Now we are in a position to solve the problem of the incarnation. Remember that the problem has to do with the apparent contradiction involved with one person (Jesus) having both divine and human attributes. God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc. But human beings are not omnipotent or omniscient. Remember also that this alleged contradiction arises only because the human attributes in question are understood to be essential properties of humanity. But, Morris rightly contends that there is no reason to think that these properties are essential to humanity. Rather, we need only see such properties as common properties of humanity. Human beings, that is, typically have properties such as non-omnipotence, mutability, being created, etc. But, there is no reason to see these properties as essential, rather than simply common, properties. A being could still be human if he lacked the properties of non-omnipotence, nonomniscience, mutability, etc.

In other words, Jesus is fully human, possessing all of the essential properties of humanity (whatever they are), but he is not merely human. Most human beings (you and me) are merely human. We possess all the essential properties of humanity, plus some common, limiting properties like non-omnipotence, non-omniscience, mutability, temporality, etc. But Jesus, as fully human, does not have those limiting common properties that the rest of us have. Therefore, there is no contradiction between the two natures of Christ. It is simply not the case that Jesus, the God-man, must be BOTH omnipotent AND nonomnipotent, BOTH omniscient AND non-omniscient, etc. Rather, he can be both fully God and fully man, and yet be simply omnipotent, omniscient, immutable, etc.


Where Chalcedon Comes In

We have solved the basic problem, having shown that there is no inherent contradiction in the idea that one person can be both God and Man. Chalcedonian orthodoxy, though, requires us to avoid two errors. On the one hand, we cannot so separate the two natures of Christ that we wind up with two persons (Nestorianism). Morris’ solution to the paradox is directly relevant to avoiding this error.

On the other hand, we cannot so join the two natures of Christ that they are no longer distinguishable (Apollinarianism, etc.). Now someone might think that Morris’ solution would commit this error, especially when we remind ourselves of some of the biblical data. We are told in Scripture that Jesus “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52), and that he did not know the time of his return (Matt. 24:36). And it is plausible to think that Jesus’ limited knowledge so expressed in those texts is a manifestation of his humanness at least during his earthly life. But, we have just argued that Jesus, the God-man, is omniscient. How are we to maintain, then, our solution to the incarnation paradox in the face of the limitations that Scripture assigns to Jesus’ earthly condition?

Thomas Morris has a solution to this problem, too. It is called the “Two Minds View.”8 On this view, the person Jesus has two minds, one divine and one human. The divine mind is omniscient, while the human mind contains limited knowledge. Also, this view would maintain that the human mind is somehow contained within the divine mind  and that the divine mind might communicate information to the human mind as needed, but could also withhold information.

We might look to contemporary psychology to understand this idea, distinguishing between the conscious and the subconscious minds—the human mind being analogous to the conscious mind and the divine mind analogous to the subconscious mind of Jesus. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig explain:

This understanding of Christ’s personal experience draws on the insight of depth psychology that there is vastly more to a person than waking consciousness. . . .Multiple personality disorders furnish a particularly striking example of the eruption of subliminal facets of a single person’s mind into distinct conscious personalities. In some cases there is even a dominant personality who is aware of all the others and knows what each of them knows but who remains unknown by them. Hypnotism also furnishes a vivid demonstration of the reality of the subliminal.9

So, the problems posed by Jesus’ apparent ignorance of certain facts while on earth is resolved by postulating in him two minds. One mind, the human mind, was Jesus’ conscious mind. This mind was a finite “compartment,” as it were, within the divine mind. The latter mind was largely subliminal or subconscious during Jesus’ earthly life which explains why the conscious mind of Jesus was not omniscient.


The Bible teaches that Jesus is both God and Man. Given the authority of Scripture, we readily accept the truth of this paradoxical doctrine. Yet, the job of Christian apologetics and Christian philosophy is to defend the truth of such key Christian commitments against objections by unbelieving skeptics. That defense must begin with a defense of the possibility of the incarnation. We cannot defend the belief that Jesus is in fact God incarnate unless we can first defend the very possibility that any man can be God incarnate. In this article, we have seen that the idea of a divine incarnation is perfectly defensible. AJ

Steven B. Cowan is Associate Director of the Apologetics Resource Center.


1 For more on the significance and universal validity of logic, see Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992); and my “’Aristotelian Logic’ in the Old Testament: A Biblical Refutation of a Strict Dichotomy Between Greek and Hebrew Thought,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Philosophical Society 14:2 (1991): 21-30.

2 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 550-51.
3 R.C. Sproul, The Glory of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1990), 47.
4 Thomas D. Senor, “The Incarnation and the Trinity,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael J. Murray (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 243.
5 Ibid., 244.
6 Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Cornell University Press, 1986), 56-70.
7A natural kind is “a group of objects which have many (perhaps indefinitely many) features in common” (H.H. Price, “What is the Relationship between an Individual and Its Characteristics?” in Metaphysics: The Big Questions, eds. Peter Van Inwagen and Dean W. Zimmerman (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 23]. Natural kinds are usually conceived of as biological organisms which can be categorized according to their common properties. The concept of a natural kind is contrasted with what are called “cluster concepts,” concepts which have as their content other concepts and can thus be analyzed by unpacking the subordinate concepts that comprise the cluster concept (e.g., the concept bachelor contains the concepts being male, being adult, being unmarried).
8 Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate, 102-107.
9 J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 610-611. I should point out that Moreland and Craig do not endorse Morris’ two-minds view per se, yet their belief that the divine aspects of Jesus’ personality were mostly subliminal is consistent with the two-minds view.