Friday, December 28, 2012

Could God have become incarnate as a non-person?

The Logos became incarnate as a human being, to save us from our sins. There would have been no similar point to his becoming incarnate as a cat, an oak or a photon? But could he have done so, if he had a purpose to?

Suppose we say "no" to at least one of the three options (cat, oak or photon). Why would we? Assuming we accept that the Logos could have become incarnate as a human being, we would have to suppose some relevant difference between humans and cats, oaks or photons. What the difference is will depend where one draws the possibility-of-incarnation line. If one thinks that God could have become a cat but not an oak, that's presumably because one thinks that sentience is crucial to the possibility of incarnation. And one will presumably then deny that God could have become a photon. If one thinks God could have become a human but not a cat, then presumably one thinks sapience (and I won't worry about the details of what the consists in, say agency or abstract thought) is crucial.

But we human beings don't always exhibit sentience, much less sapience. We don't exhibit sentience for the first weeks of life after conception, and we don't exhibit sapience until at least around one year after birth. Moreover, when unconscious we do not exhibit sentience and need not exhibit sapience (though, maybe, sapience doesn't always require consciousness). In becoming one of us, the Logos would have become a being that wasn't always sentient or sapient. So if one thinks that sentience or sapience is crucial for incarnation, and yet one accepts that the Logos could become a being like we who does not always have sentience or sapience, one has to say that it is something like the potential for sentience or sapience (depending on which view we are considering) that is a necessary precondition for incarnation or that it is sometimes having sentience or sapience that is necessary.

Consider first the "sometimes" view. This presumably requires that the incarnation cannot precede the developmental attainment of sentience or sapience (for the incarnation does so precede, we could imagine it terminating, with the destruction of the finite nature, before that attainment). If sapience is the relevant condition, then we get the view that barring miraculous precociousness, God cannot be incarnate as a newborn, which at least to us Christians will be absurd. If sentience is necessary, then we get the view that, again barring miraculous precociousness, the incarnation couldn't have happened simultaneously with conception. (Interestingly, Aquinas actually goes for miraculous precociousness here—his view that we don't come into existence at conception but a significant amount of time thereafter forced him into holding that Jesus came into existence fully formed in Mary's womb.)

Still, the "sometimes" view just seems implausible. Why would the incarnation require initial exercise of sentience or sapience without the need for exercise of sentience or sapience thereafter?

Now consider the potentiality view. This, too, does not seem all that plausible to me. Presumably the pull of saying that God couldn't become a cat or an oak or a photon is that these beings are so very unlike God. But potentiality is very much unlike God's perfect actuality, too. In the end, I think that once one reflects on the fact that human beings often exhibit neither sentience nor sapience, the pull to thinking the Logos couldn't have become a cat or an oak weakens.

How about a photon? There the relevant difference would be something like life. But again it seems hard to see why life is a necessary condition for an incarnation. There are, plausibly, infinitely many attributes as significant as life that God has and that human beings lack. The gaps between the photon and the oak, the oak and the cat, and the cat and the human are infinitely less than the gap between humans and God, a gap that God can bridge, we have assumed.

The above arguments are not very strong. But I think they do give one a presumption in favor of the view that if God can become incarnate as a human, he can become incarnate as any kind of being.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe the strongest argument for a negative answer is this. If God becomes F, it is by virtue of a divine person becoming F. But a divine person is essentially a person, and so a person is F. But it is a contradiction to suppose that a person is a non-person.

I think this argument just means we need to be cautious when we use the term "non-person". Suppose a divine person becomes incarnate as an oak tree. Then that person has taken on a non-personal nature. But it is not absurd to suppose that a person has a non-personal nature as well as a personal one. In such a case, we would need to be careful in saying "God became a non-person", but as long as we interpret this in the same way we interpret "God died on the cross"--i.e., that God took on a nature and with respect to that nature died on the cross--we should be fine.


Tinchin said...

Dear Dr. Pruss,

Sorry if this is a stupid question from a philosophical perspective but... what would be the difference between the 2nd person of the Trinity becoming incarnate into an oak, an the oak being transubstantiated into Him (as it happens with bread at Mass)?

Best regards!

Alexander R Pruss said...

If the oak became transsubstantiated, there would no longer be an oak, but at most the appearance/accidents of an oak.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Oaks were sacred to ancient Latvians (my ancestors). They are part of our folklore. Culturally oaks are still important and oak leaves are found on the Coat of Arms of Latvia. It has been customary for Latvians to be buried in oak caskets as my grandfather was; however, rising funeral costs have impacted this. As a Latvian, I would be overjoyed if somehow oaks were to become transubtantiated.

Ashton said...

Some comments. First, the traditional feature which makes the Incarnation possible is rationality, not the exercise of cognitive functions. Rationality is a constitutive (definitional) element of human nature. Second, the term 'incarnation', as used in the tradition, refers to the Son uniting himself to a human nature. What I am calling attention to is this: the Son would not be hypostatically (= personally) united to a nature if that nature were not rational. You might say, "True, but what I am entertaining here is non-hypostatic union." So let me continue. Suppose the Son (S) unites himself to a nature (N). In order for it to be a true union (i.e., not an accidental union a la Nestorius) it has to be either substantial or hypostatic (there aren't any other options, since in the Christian conception of God there is only substance and person in God). Now the union in question cannot be a union of substance: S does not become consubstantial with N (plainly impossible). Therefore, it must be personal, or hypostatic. But by definition, a hypostatic union of two things, X and Y, obtains only if X and Y are identical in person. So in our case S and N have to be personally identical. But since a person is an individual subsistence of a rational nature, this can only happen if N is a rational nature. For if N were not a rational nature (e.g., a cat, oak, photon, or whatever), then the individual subsistence of N could not be a person. In that case, we would have two subsistences, one rational (S) and one not rational (the concrete instance of N), and so they would not be identical in hypostasis. So no, the Son can't unite himself hypostatically to a non-rational nature. Which is just to say the Son can't become incarnate as a non-person. Third, the metaphysical distance between N and S is irrelevant to ascertaining the possibility or impossibility of incarnation, unless by "distance" we make reference to the rationality criterion explained above, in which case I think we should just avoid talk of distance and stick to rationality. Finally, a word of caution: be careful before publicly musing about such things, as it is easy to go into the realm of unorthodoxy or encourage unorthodox patterns of thought in your readers. Not I am claiming you did so here, but it's a real concern with these kinds of quick musings on difficult subjects with a long history of discussion. -Ashton Wilkins

Alexander R Pruss said...

"Hupostasis" and "person" are not synonymous, even though Western documents tend to use "person" where Eastern documents have "hupostasis". As Aquinas correctly explains, a person is a special kind of hupostasis: "Among the Greeks the term 'hypostasis,' taken in the strict interpretation of the word, signifies any individual of the genus substance; but in the usual way of speaking, it means the individual of the rational nature, by reason of the excellence of that nature."

So one could say: "In the case where the natures being united are both rational, a hypostatic and a personal union are the same. But a union between a divine and a non-personal creaturely nature would be hypostatic without being personal."

But it might actually be that there could be a personal union between the Logos and a non-personal creaturely nature. First of all, all one could mean by "a personal union" here is that one and the same person is divine and, say, an oak tree. This person isn't, however, a person in virtue of his oakenness but in virtue of his divinity.

There is an apparently orthodox tradition that is hesitant to say that Christ is a "human person". He is, of course, fully human and a person, but his personhood is divine personhood. On this tradition, when we talk of a personal union, the personhood of the Logos is divine, though of course the Logos is united as one person to a human nature as well. There is an ontological priority to the divinity in the union. On such a view it is even easier, I think, to allow for Christ to become incarnate as a non-rational being. For even in the actual personal union between the divine and human natures, the personality involved in the union comes from the divine nature.

Certainly, speculation on these matters can be dangerous. But such speculation can also lead to a deepening of one's understanding of the actual Incarnation. For instance, witness our discussion: it forces on us the important question of the conceptual relationship between hypostasis and person, hypostatic and personal union.

In Part III of the Summa, Aquinas considers possibility questions of a similar sort. Could one divine person become incarnate as two men? Could more than one divine person become incarnate as one man? Answering these questions as he does (consistently in the positive) helps us get clearer on his picture of the Incarnation, and answering these questions differently would help us get clearer on where, if anywhere, his picture is flawed.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


Just where did you get this idea - “Suppose a divine person becomes incarnate as an oak tree…”? You might just have some Latvian DNA and not know it.

I am continuing on from my previous response to this post on December 28. Please excuse the length of this post and if my response goes off topic because I would like to provide a certain cultural/historical perspective.

I will begins with an excerpt from this link:

‘“Ozols” is “oak tree” in Latvian. Oak trees are an important symbol in Latvia, a deep-rooted tradition. Keeping with ancient Latvian’s pagan folkloric roots, the mighty oak was a male symbol and was considered sacred. Medicines using infusions of oak bark were common. Farmers tilled their fields around large old oaks, leaving them to grow, out of reverence. Even today, Latvia’s coat of arms is traditionally wreathed in oak branches.’

Here is a brief description of the Latvian Coat of Arms:

The oak tree and being Latvian are almost synonymous. Many Latvians have Ozols (Oak) or Ozolins (dimunitive of Oak) as a last name. A wreath of oak is worn by anyone name Janis (pronounced Yahnis, English translation John) on Janu Nakts (John’s Eve). Janu Nakts is celebrated on the evening of the Feast of Saint John the Baptist which occurs near the summer solstice in June and has its roots in the pre-Christian summer solstice celebrations. It is a national holiday in Latvia. It is celebrated with bonfires, buckets of burning pitch placed high on poles (some people unfortunately substitute tires here). Foods include pork filled pierogies, and a special cheese called Janu Siers (John’s cheese). Young people set off in the evening on the quest of a blooming fern said only to bloom on this night. Also consumed is lots of beer, and special songs are sung. Sometimes people will jump over a fire. I remember as a child seeing my maternal grandfather, whose name was Janis, wearing an oak wreath on Janu Nakts. He put the wreath on me, as my head was much smaller then, his wreath hung around my neck with my head sticking through.

In ancient Latvian mythology trees, especially oaks could be indwelt by different dieties. Oaks trees were sacred to the ancient Latvian god Perkons (Thunder). While the oak tree had a special relationship to Perkons, I have been unable to locate any information that he indwelt it. I have been unable to find any information on Latvian pre-Christian beliefs that any diety was incarnated as an oak tree or any other type tree, only that they indwelt them at best. On this indwelling of an oak tree there is nothing to indicate a transubstantiation of any sort. Perkons himself was not the chief diety. Dievs (God was). I could not find any information if any of these ancient Latvian dieties were incarnated into anything.

For a brief description on the old Latvian religion here is this link:

For further information on Latvian Oaks:

This website lists the trees (oaks and other species) in Latvia that are protected natural monuments:

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Christianity in Latvia has unfortunately had an unhappy history. Ancient Baltic tribes were every bit as fierce as their contemporaries, the Vikings, when it came to raiding, and were feared in their part of Europe during the Dark Ages. There were original Russian Orthodox missionaries and settlements in parts of Latvia in the 11th century. At the end of the 12th century when Meinhart, an Augustinian priest, came from Germany to convert the people in Latvia to the Christian faith. In 1186 Meinhart became Latvia's first bishop, establishing his church at Ikskile. Following that there were other missionaries whose initial efforts were unsuccessful, and Crusades were launched into the Baltic Region under the Teutonic Knights to convert the pagans by the sword in the 1200’s. The barbarism of the crusaders ensured that the hearts and minds of the Latvian people were never fully won for Christ, and the attitude toward the German crusaders by Latvians down through the centuries to this day was that the crusaders were evil people. Once paganism in Latvia was overcome by the sword and the people forcibly converted, their feudal German masters reduced them to serfdom and they were never regarded as brothers in Christ. Instead they were treated in a manner similar to the black slaves on a southern plantation. The conquered Latvians were seldom if ever taught a proper catechism. The end result of this was that for centuries the Latvian peasantry was only nominally Christian while retaining the old pagan practices and over time developed a certain syncretism between Christianity on the one hand and the old religion on the other, in some cases probably seeing a difference between the Christ of the Gospel and their oppressive masters. This syncretism has heavily influenced Latvian culture. Nor did the Church authorities (often German) do anything to correct the situation because of their contempt for the Latvian people. With the Protestant Reformation, the German lords became Lutheran and signed their Latvian serfs up as Lutherans. The same problems continued as before, but under German Lutheran Clergy resulting in the following situation:

“In general, a deep social chasm separated pastors from the congregations. Pastors were
dependent on their patrons or wealthy landed gentry and socially were on their side,
while the peasants were kept down by the yoke of hereditary oppression. Thus it was
impossible to establish those sincere and sacred relationships which are necessary
between a pastor and his congregation....[Pastors] viewed catachetical instruction as a great burden. The publication of civil punishments from the pulpit and the execution of civil corporal punishment at the church associated the church in the minds of the people with unpleasant memories and frightful
images....The forced labor demanded by the landed gentry hindered the peasantry’s
participation in church services...”

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

However, it would be wrong to say that all German Lutheran clergy were like this. There were some who really did care for their flocks, and it was through the Lutheran clergy that a public education system was established, and way to write the Latvian language with the Germanic alphabet and spelling was standardized. My family has a reproduction of a Bible from this era with the Germanic alphabet and spelling. A copy of this Bible was (I don’t know if it still is) on the altar of Saint Paul’s Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Farmington Michigan outside of Detroit. This method of writing and printing in Latvian remained in use until the 1920s or 30s, and we still have some old magazines published this way.

It would be wrong to say that all the German rulers were bad. One highly respected one was Jacob Kettler, Duke of Courland (Kurzeme) who transformed his duchy into an economic power house and was able to establish for a time a colony in Tobago.

The southern part of Latvia, Latgale, was under Polish control at the time and so remained Catholic. Among those Latvians who did understand Christianity, Brethren Churches and Baptists were an attractive option. The Moravian Brethern Churches/Congregations of Brothers/Hernhutism used ethnic Latvian pastors and laid a heavy emphasis on actually teaching the people the Gospel. When Latvia was made a part of the Russian empire, and an offer was made by Russian officials to the Latvians if they joined the Orthodox Church, the Czar’s Faith, they would receive land. Many did join; however, no one got any land. (I was much amused by the Seinfeld episode where George converts to the Latvian Orthodox Church to woo a Latvian girl.)

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

The Lutheran Church, though largely German dominated, also underwent changes in that more Latvian oriented congregations were emerging at the end of the 19th century. In the 19th century and early 20th century there was the rise in Latvian nationalism and cultural revival. With this rise in Latvian nationalism, there was a corresponding rising in a Latvian Lutheranism separate and culturally distinct from its German parent. At this time Latvian play-writes, novelists and composers put a strong emphasis on Latvian cultural themes. Some of their works dealt with the medieval battles with the Teutonic Crusaders with the pre-Christian Latvians cast as the heroes and the Teutonic Crusaders as symbols of foreign oppression. Most noteworthy of this type-casting is the play “Uguns un Nakts” (Fire and Night) written in 1905 by Janis Rainis. (Rainis also wrote a Biblical play “Jazeps un vina brali” (Joseph and his brothers). At the end of World War I, Latvians fought both Russians and the German Freikorps to establish an independent Latvia. When the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church emerged with the independence of the Latvian Republic after World War I it was culturally Latvian. On a whole, Christianity in its Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox forms was now culturally Latvian. However, the spiritual damage from the crusades, the Feudal serfdom and quasi second class citizenship during the days of the Russian Czars were still with the Latvian psyche and there was an emerging movement – Dievturiba (God keeping) which aimed at not only restoring Latvian culture to its original, but also at restoring the old pre-Christian Latvian religion. This movement was established in the 1920s, but had only a limited following. Though it still exists today, its following is still limited. Actually it is a new religion rather than the old religion. For one thing, there were certain practices in the old religion which were best left not revived such as leaving debilitated elderly people in the forest to die and animal sacrifice. More details on Dievturiba can be found here:

During the Soviet Occupation of Latvia from World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union, all religion in Latvia was severely repressed and restricted. Many Latvians went into exile from Latvia including my family to escape from the Soviets. It was the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church that formed the center of the Latvian community in exile and was the glue that held it together.

With Latvia once again independent the Christian churches are faced with problems – a population that has for some two generations not received a solid religious foundation, Western-style secularism, and incursion of non-Christian religious beliefs.