Fleshing Out an Incarnational Model of the Bible

I’ve been wanting to jot down some of these thoughts for quite some time, so here they are. As I have listened to reactions to my use of an Incarnational Analogy (IA) to describe the nature of the Bible, it seems that there are some misunderstandings that persist in some popular and even academic settings—irrespective of whether support for the analogy is expressed or disagreement.

So, below are some thoughts about the IA that I think may help move us toward greater clarity.

Analogies are by definition incomplete

The IA is an analogy, a model, a metaphor. Therefore, it does not aim at complete identification between Jesus and the Bible, and to argue that it should, or that I am claiming such a thing, or that the analogy is faulty because of this failure of complete identification, is to misunderstand not simply the IA but the nature of any analogy.

Hence, I understand that Christ has a divine and human nature and there is a hypostatic union, whereas these things cannot be said of the Bible (of which we can speak of divine and human authorship). This difference between the two is not an observation that cripples an incarnational model as if to say, “See, Jesus and the Bible cannot be equated, so you can’t speak of the Bible incarnationally.” The very function of analogy is lost when such identification is expected.

There are other viable models of Scripture

The IA is not the only useful model for describing the Bible. It may not even be the best, and I remain open, as I always have, to other models. For some, a Trinitarian model is more effective, where the Bible is analogous to the Spirit’s voice rather than the incarnation. Still others employ an ecclesial model, where the Bible is analogous to the church (i.e., made of up diverse voices each coming from different perspectives, no one of which tells the full story, etc., etc.). My use of an incarnational model is driven by its simplicity and conceptual accessibility for lay readers.

The challenges to traditional formulations, whether from advances in biblical studies or increasingly persuasive scientific paradigms, are quite serious, and I think Christians will have to be more exploratory rather than less in working out viable and persuasive ways of talking about the Bible.

An incarnational model is descriptive

The IA is descriptive, not prescriptive. It does not safeguard inerrancy or any other model of Scripture, and this does not detract one iota from its viability. It has no value in making sure one does not “go too far” in what one concludes about specific biblical phenomena as judged by the standards of competing models. In fact, if it has any prescriptive value, it is in calling into question the hegemony of alternate models.

It is also worth pointing out that even the most Fundamentalist of inerrantist models do not have the prescriptive value some claim, as can easily be seen by the diversity of interpretations even among members of that Christian sub-culture. An inerrantist model does not guarantee unanimity in interpretation.

The incarnation is an irreducible entity

An incarnational model states that, as Christ is both divine and human, so too does the Bible have a divine and human element. Both the divine and human are present fully, and both Jesus and the Bible cease to be what they are if any element is marginalized or relegated to secondary status.

I realize—as does anyone with even a cursory exposure to these things—that the divine is ultimate insofar as it is the point of origin for the incarnation—“God so loved the world that he sent his only son….” I am not calling that into question. But, this divine initiative has produced a product that is irreducible and sui generis. And what God has joined together let no theologian put asunder. The incarnation is essentially and inextricable a divine/human phenomenon. This means that, in speaking of the nature of the Bible, one cannot table the “human dimension” and prioritize the divine any more than one can do that of Christ and still speak of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is a very practical point, as it happens far too often that explanations of why, for example, the Bible contains very significant tensions on both the historical and theological levels, is explained in view of the ultimate “perfection” of the Bible that is deemed necessary on the basis of “priority of the divine.”

The problem here is that what “divine” means is divorced from the incarnation, as if we can apprehend the former apart from the latter. But incarnation, be it Christ or the Bible, is the means God himself chose to reveal himself to his people. In other words, one cannot get “behind” the incarnation to what God is really like and then judge the Bible (and those who read it differently) accordingly—as if God said, “Listen, I have this divine essence I want you to grab a hold of and be sure to maintain its priority, but the best I can do is to give you a divine/human expression of that essence. Your job is to use the incarnation to move beyond it, to see whether you can discern what is ‘really’ going on beyond this unfortunate divine/human mess I have had to deal with.”

A slight caricature, perhaps, but my experience is that such a view is not too far below a more sophisticated veneer. I do not think I am the only one to sense the Platonic, even Gnostic, overtones of such thinking.

What we have to work with is God’s preferred means of communication, which is scandalously incarnational. To divide the two and presume to know the one without the other is a fantasy. The fact that the application of an incarnational model can be problematic for a “divine priority” approach does not call into question the former but the latter.

“Error” in an incarnational model

A consistent application of the IA would say that, as Christ is both divine and human but without sin, the Bible has divine and human elements but is without error. This is true as far as it goes, but only so long as it is not presumed what “error” is apart from understanding that the Bible is an irreducibly “incarnate” phenomenon.

For example, Jesus was human but without sin, but that does not mean that he was not a product of his culture and embodied the limitations of any human being. The fact that Jesus showed fully all the marks of humanity is part and parcel of the incarnation—the atonement and resurrection depend on it. No element of humanity was withheld from him, other than sinfulness. In other words, any aspect of Jesus’ life that speaks to his human limitation is not a function of his sinfulness but of his humanness, for example: that he bled, got hungry, got sick, did not know when the end would come, thought the world was flat, did not understand String Theory, could not speak French. These things do not make Jesus less the Son of God, but are part of what is inherent in Immanuel, God with us.

The Bible participates in an analogous state of human limitation. So, the theological and historical tensions in the Bible, mentioned above, are not “error,” and therefore merely illusions or only apparent (rather than real) because, as a divinely written text, we “know” that ultimately all these things cannot be and all will be reconciled for us either in this life or the next. Rather, diversity—real diversity—is a function of the incarnate nature of the Bible. It is not an unfortunate mark of a Bible that we “know” will ultimately be shown to have none of these “problems.” It is rather a mark that is indicative of its irreducibly “incarnate” status.

Theological diversity is just one area of application of the IA, others being the ANE context of the OT and Second Temple context of the NT, both of which are virtually limitless fields of inquiry. Another very practical area of application concerns the continued synthetic work of bringing science and Christianity into meaningful dialog with each other.

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There is much more that can be said, and as things come to mind I will address them here. Also, if there are issues that you feel need to be addressed, either about this post or other aspects of an incarnational model, please pass them along and I will interact with them.

The IA is a useful and adequate accounting of why the Bible behaves the way it does. It is not exhaustive or perfect, but neither is any other model. Its great benefit is in accepting the Bible for what it is rather than laying over it a complex system of expectations where ubiquitous biblical behavior becomes a theological problem.


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