An Analogy for Thinking about the Incarnation

By John McKinley Feb. 24, 2012 4:15 p.m. Theology

My students usually have trouble grasping Chalcedonian Christology that Jesus, God the Son, lives as one person in two natures, simultaneously. I’ve thought about this repeatedly enough that the traditional formulation feels familiar to me, but students hearing it for the first time are confounded. Maybe I should be confounded more myself, and allow the mystery to creep in more heavily when I consider the Incarnation. I like to add that it’s appropriate when we think about Jesus and the deep things of God that we feel a bit dizzy.

But we still need to try and make sense of it however we may grasp at these deep things with our feeble minds. Often I find that the hardest thing is not in thinking that Jesus is eternally God the Son, or that he is a true human being, but that he lives a dual life by possessing both natures and living through them at the same time (the hypostatic union). The analogy I explain to them from our life experience is focused on understanding the simultaneity of the Incarnation for God the Son.

Compare Jesus’ two natures, divine and human, to two languages, thinking of a language as an analogy for a nature, a mode of being, the capacities one has for existence as a natural kind. Consider that Joe, a native English speaker, is one person with one language (because he’s an American and never saw the need to learn another language). In terms of participating in communication reality with the exchange of meaning and self-expression to other persons with minds, Joe has (only) one mode of being by virtue of his English language capacity.

Joe took a trip to Moscow and met the woman he would like to marry, Olga. The problem with their relationship is that Olga knows only Russian, and Joe knows only English. They don’t have a lot to say to each other. Such is Joe’s interest in Olga that he has begun learning her language, fervently. After several weeks of hard study, Joe has extended himself beyond his English language mode to add a second mode of communicative participation, now in Russian. Joe has a working Russian vocabulary of about 345 words when he next visits Moscow and meets Olga again. They now have a little bit to say to each other in Russian.

While fully retaining his capacity for expression and participation in the English language, Joe has gained a limited capacity for expression and participation in the Russian language. Sadly, he cannot do everything in Russian that he is able to do in English, and he must work within those constraints of his second language. Sometimes he astonishes himself at how he can read and send text messages on his phone in English while simultaneously he struggles to make himself understood in Russian—he must relate to people in restaurants and on the street as if he were a child, knowing very little (as compared to what he knows and can do in English). Olga’s friends tell Russian jokes, but these usually turn into an occasion to laugh at Joe, because he’s not able to get the jokes with his limited Russian capacity. Joe’s not good at language, so he muddles along within his limitations for the sake of making a relationship with Olga. No Russian, no relationship that may lead (hopefully) to marriage.

Joe’s experience is a little like Jesus, living as one person in two natures simultaneously. As God the Word, the eternal Son and second person of the Trinity lives unlimited in his omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, timelessness, etc. This is his life according to his divine nature. As the Son of God he also lives simultaneously in his recently acquired life as a creature under the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This is his life by which he suffers the multitude of limitations on his personal self-expression according to human physicality, temporality, created will and mind, etc. Simultaneously. And, because the Incarnation involves unchanging deity and humanity, Jesus will never develop his humanity to the point of parity with his deity (unlike Joe, who may, with Olga’s help, grow in his Russian capacity to match his English abilities or exceed them).

Thus did Jesus remain fully God and fully exercised his divine powers while (or, by means of which?) he took up life as fully man to suffer our hell and attain worthiness as a man under God for our sakes. And he remains one person in two natures for our sakes, so we will be able to relate to him and the triune God through his visible, tangible humanity. Forever. Are we dizzy yet?


  • Ken Berding Feb. 26, 2012 at 5:00 PM

    Analogies are tough, particularly when talking about the deep things of God, as you put it. But I found this analogy really helpful. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

  • Ken Wiens Feb. 27, 2012 at 3:54 PM

    I went thru the Mdiv/ThM at Talbot. I think your blog cleared this topic up for me more than I can ever remember in my studies at Talbot. Thanks much for sharing this analogy and explanation. And yes,l I am still dizzy! Lol.

  • Doug Dobbs Feb. 27, 2012 at 5:52 PM

    I think your analogy is good up to a point. However, I've come to the understanding (that's close to a conclusion but not as final) that Jesus did not exercise those divine powers beyond what is available to us. If he did, that punches a hole in the case for his identification with us in our weakness. If he can do a "Superman" moment and step into the phone booth and use those divine powers to get out of a jam, then he would have no idea what my little limited life is like. I tend to think his sinless humanity's unhindered fellowship with the Father empowered him to do things, but I don't see it as an exercise of his own divine nature apart from reliance on the Father. It's a fine hair to split, and I will not be starting a new denomination based on it. But I need a Savior who knows where I ache and bleed. And I think he does know because he did ache and bleed like I have, and worse.

    Does that make sense?

    Thanks for a thought provoking piece. Keep up the good work and tell Dr. Rigsby I said hello. I had the privilege of being his T.A. once upon a time. :)

    Doug Dobbs
    B.A., Psych., 1979
    M.A., M.F.C.C., Biola, '75

  • John McKinley Feb. 29, 2012 at 2:20 PM

    I am sensitive to your concern for the authentic humanity of Jesus, unenhanced by his deity. I agree with many Christologists who attribute all the divine abilities exercised in Jesus' life as the enablement of the Holy Spirit (he is the Messiah, cf. Matt 12:28; Acts 2:22; 10:38) in obedience to his Father. So, I don't look for the expression of his divine power in his human life (any more than Joe uses English while trying to communicate in Russian).

    But that is not to say that Jesus, being God the Son, lacked or experienced some new limitation of his deity because of the Incarnation. He added a true humanity, and lived truly as a man--simultaneously to living as truly God omnipresently. This is a long-standing theological idea from the Patristic era that was labeled in the Reformation by Lutherans as the extra calvinisticum. (Lutherans affirmed Logos non extra carnem in their disagreement with the Reformed). I have worked on this question in chs. 3, 11-12 of my book, Tempted for Us: theological models and the practical relevance of Christ's impeccability and temptation (Paternoster, Wipf & Stock, 2009).

  • Don Zeoli Sr. Mar. 4, 2012 at 4:26 AM

    When we come to discussing things that are not common to our empirical experience, analogy is our best tool. Even in the learning of a new language often there is no direct equivalence between words and concepts so it is nesessary to resort to analogical similarty. A common experiance for bible translaters. I find your analogy very usefull. Anyone that has ever attempted to understand or explain the hypostatic union knows the limitations of langage when contemplating such a deep mystery. However, I personaly am in agreement with Mr. Dobbs regarding the nature of Christ's miracles and sinlessness. In youre response to his remarks you restated a concept (that has been held as orthodox) that humanity was "added" to the Logos at the incarnation. This idea has always troubled me. It seems to clearly do violence to God's eternal nature touching such attributes as His Simplicity, Immutability, Infinitude, Omniscience and Prescience. Thanks for the new tool. Blessings in Christ. (If wer'e not dizzy,wer'e not thinking deeply enough) :}

  • John McKinley Mar. 4, 2012 at 9:21 AM

    I'm glad for the responses to this post. Here's a bit more response.

    I think the hypostatic union means that the union of the two natures is not to each other (a merger of deity and humanity) but the union of each nature to the person who holds them both as His possessions. In other words, the eternal Logos and Son of God possesses His deity, and uniquely he (only he, not the Father, the Spirit, or the divine nature that they co-possess) takes possession of his created human nature.
    By this formulation the hypostatic union preserves the immutability, simplicity, and fullness of the Son's deity, and explains how He can "assume" or take up His authentic human nature as His second life. Incarnation is not an essential change for the Son, only a relational change (much like the way Joe does not become a different person when he learns Russian, but extends himself into another communication sphere). (Other relational changes may be that God "becomes" Creator when He creates, and Savior when He saves, since these are actions in relation to something outside of God.)
    The Reformed theologians were adamant that the finite (human nature) cannot contain the infinite (divine nature), and in this I think they are right. Hypostatic union is necessary for the Chalcedonian boundaries in which the attributes of each nature are preserved (unchanged) in the union, and concur in one person.

  • Don Zeoli Sr. Mar. 5, 2012 at 2:46 PM

    Thank you professor Mckinley for your response. I very much appreciate the aspect of relationship between God and His creation as being the avenue for change concerning the Godhead. This attribute of God seems to me to validate, indeed demand, the necessity of a multi-personal Being as Creator. If God was not a relational (i.e. multi-personal) Being within Himself then it seems obvious that He would , by His very nature, remain static and alone eternaly. Your comments are chalenging and stimulating. May I suggest one further qualifier for the relationship between the divne and the human nature of Jesus. Syntactic correspondence of the communicable attributes of the Logos and the character of Jesus' rational human spirit and soul (Heb. 1:3). No acquring required. They are simply identical in essence and united in one Person. The Logos in accordence with His timeless foreknowledge remains unchanged. He neither learns nor experiences anything new through the union. Neither does the human nature change. It is as it was conceived, identical, as far as is possible, in every way with the divine.

  • Sarah Jan. 25, 2013 at 5:45 AM

    I teach high school Bible and today we're talking about Chalcedonian Christology. I had no idea how to even come CLOSE to explaining this to high schoolers. Thank you for a helpful analogy.

Post a comment

Your email will not be published as part of your comment.

Talbot School of Theology welcomes dialogue on The Good Book Blog. However, Talbot reserves the right, at its sole discretion, to screen and remove any comments that are deemed inappropriate. This includes, but is not limited to: content that contains commercial solicitations; is factually erroneous/libelous; or is off-topic. We request that comments remain civil, respectful and polite. Thank you in advance for your role in helping establish a safe and exemplary online community that respects and encourages others.

Subscribe (RSS)

Biola University
13800 Biola Ave. La Mirada, CA 90639
© Biola University, Inc. All Rights Reserved.