How many Incarnations of God are possible?

UPDATED: Fr. Reginaldus has a post at the New Theological Movement blog on the topic of the Trinity. Most of what is said is a good explanation of the Nature and Persons of the Trinity. He even makes the point, found also in my speculative theology on the Trinity, that the Spirit proceeds primarily from the Father, and (as I put it) secondarily from the Son (but as one procession, as from one principle). This theological point is perhaps unique to my theology, so he may have derived his position on this point from mine.

But then, after an insightful article on the Trinity, he unfortunately closes the post with this claim:

Finally, even granting that the Lord should choose (per volutatem) to redeem man by means of incarnation, it is possible that any or all of the persons of the Trinity could become incarnate in one or multiple human natures. The Father or the Holy Spirit could have become incarnate. The Son could have become incarnate in more than one human nature. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit could have all become incarnate in the same human nature, or in multiple human natures. (Necessity and freedom in the Trinity)

Certainly, God’s salvation of man by means of Incarnation is of God’s will, not of His Nature. But the proposal that any Person or Persons of the Trinity could have become Incarnate, in any combination of one or more human natures, is a theological error. If Christ was incarnate in more than one human nature, what would distinguish one human will of Christ from the other, or one human mind of Christ from the other? All the distinctions that are possible would be merely superficial. And the same could be said if there were multiple human natures of the Trinity or of particular Persons of the Trinity.

There are three types of acts that God cannot do: (1) acts that are impossible because they contradict His Nature, (2) acts that are immoral, because He is Goodness and Justice, (3) acts that are truly and fundamentally foolish (not which merely seem foolish to us), because He is Perfect. The claim that Fr. Ryan makes about multiple Incarnations falls into the third category, and so is not possible for God.

For a summary of Fr. Reginaldus’ errors, see this page.

UPDATE: I think it is only fair to add to this post Fr. Ryan’s reply to my criticism.

“To all: My final claim that any of the three persons could have become incarnate in any number of human natures is based on the opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas (ST III, q.3, aa. 5-8), and has been held by many prominent theologians of our day: Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, Abbot Vonier, Fr. Journet. In fact, pretty much the only prominent theologian explicitly to disagree with St. Thomas’ opinion is Fr. Karl Rahner … personally, I will follow the Dominican Thomists over that particular Jesuit …” (from the Comments section)

As is his custom, Fr. Ryan replied to my criticism without mentioning my name, and without providing a link or citation to my post. My response is as follows.

First, his reply does not offer a theological argument at all. Saint Thomas held the opinion, therefore, he assumes that opinion. He sometimes offers an explanation of what St. Thomas means. But there is no critical thinking, no critical evaluation to consider whether St. Thomas is right or wrong (especially given that the Magisterium has been teaching for hundreds of years since St. Thomas wrote). Fr. Ryan never ventures to disagree with St. Thomas, even when St. Thomas is obviously mistaken, for example, on the inheritance of original sin.

Second, citing other theologians, who are simply referencing or agreeing with St. Thomas’ previously stated opinion, does not constitute a theological argument. If we look at the majority opinion of theologians faithful to the Magisterium, they would not necessarily be correct. Citing a few theologians does not establish an opinion as correct. If the Magisterium has no definitive teaching on a question, then any answer to that question by a theologian would have to be based on a theological argument, which Fr. Ryan does not provide.

Third, St. Thomas says that it was “most fitting” that the Son would become Incarnate [article 8] — not the Father, or the Spirit, or some other combination of Persons and human natures. My argument is that God is Perfect by His very Nature, and therefore He cannot do things that are thoroughly foolish or in some fundamental way imperfect. God would not become Incarnate in any way that was not most fitting, i.e. perfect. St. Thomas’ argument, in earlier articles of the same question, about the power of God, does not speak to this point. When St. Thomas does finally speak to the point of what is perfect (most fitting), he states that the Incarnation of the Son is most fitting, and NOT some other combination or set of incarnations. So referencing St. Thomas does not refute my argument; it supports my argument to some extent.

Fourth, St. Thomas does not go as far as Fr. Ryan does, in claiming that any number and combination of human natures and Persons would be possible: “any or all of the persons of the Trinity could become incarnate in one or multiple human natures.” And St. Thomas does assert that what is most fitting (i.e. perfect) is the one Incarnation of the Son in one human nature. So he distinguishes what is perfect, and Fr. Ryan does not. The positions of St. Thomas and of Fr. Ryan are not the same.

Fifth, my argument still stands that God cannot do what is fundamentally imperfect, because His Nature is Perfect (and because, in God, being and doing are the same). For example, could the Father become Incarnate in 17 human natures, the Son is 29 human natures, and the Holy Spirit in 666 human natures? Not at all. This type of scenario is not even a sheer possibility because it is contrary to the Perfection of God to behave in such a foolish manner. Any number of combinations of Persons and Incarnations could also be cited. For example, could the Father become incarnate in 2 human natures, the Son in zero human natures and the Spirit in 1 human nature? Not at all. Such an example is contrary to Perfection and so is impossible to God.

The Incarnation of the Son is perfect because it is in accord with the procession of the Persons. The Son proceeds from the Father; the Father does not proceed from the Son. So it is perfect for the Son to become Incarnate, being sent by the Father — this is a reflection of the procession of the Son which is a type of sending. And it is perfect for the Father and the Son to send the Spirit upon the Church, as the Body of Christ, since the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son — this is a reflection of the procession of the Spirit. So any Incarnation of Persons other than one Incarnation of the Son only, would be in conflict with the relationships between the Persons of the Trinity, as determined by procession.

Could the Son become Incarnate in two human natures (the other Persons in none)? This example is less easy to discern the answer. But there are several good arguments against it. If He were in two human natures, what would distinguish them? His human will is perfect, and his human mind is perfect. Only superficial qualities, such as His thoughts at the moment, or the accidents of His body would distinguish them. These two human natures would be essentially the same. If Christ were incarnate in two natures, which one would die for our salvation? Both or only one? Would one nature die for the Jews, and another for the Gentiles? Salvation would then be divided, and so would the worship of God.

What would happen to the Church as the Body of Christ? If Christ were incarnate in more than one human nature, would there be more than one true Church, since He would have more than one Body? What if the Trinity were incarnate, as Fr. Ryan claims is possible, in multiple human natures? Would there be multiples Churches for each human nature? For the Spirit to be sent to the Church and to be with the Church, guiding Her throughout the world, it would be thoroughly imperfect for Him to be incarnate in a human nature in a particular place. For the Father to be incarnate in a human nature on earth would be just as foolish: Our Father, who art in [a particular place on earth]….

Worse still, if Christ had two human natures, would he have two mothers, so that there would be two mothers of God? Or would the Virgin Mary conceive and give birth to the Son of God multiple times? Or if all three Persons of the Trinity became Incarnate, would they not each have a mother, so that there would be three women who were each the mother of God? Suppose that the Trinity became Incarnate, all three Persons in one human nature. Then the mother in question would be the mother of the entire Trinity — as if she were above God. And when we consider other combinations of multiple human natures and multiple incarnations, the problems become worse and the situations become ever more distant from the ABSOLUTE PERFECTION that is God.

Even if we suppose the mildest version of multiple Incarnations, the result is so thoroughly foolish and imperfect that it cannot be done by God. For example, suppose that each of the Three Persons is incarnate in each of three human natures. The result is one human nature for the Father Incarnate, one for the Son Incarnate, one for the Spirit Incarnate. The Three Persons are so thoroughly One that they have only One Nature. And yet, in this scenario, they become divided into three separate human natures. This separation is in grave conflict with the Unity of the Three Persons in one Nature, and so it is foolish and contrary to the perfection of God.

In another mild version of this false claim about Incarnations, suppose that all Three Persons are Incarnate in one human nature. This scenario is not the same as the true Incarnation, in which the Divine Nature is united to a human nature in Christ, but only one Person, the Son, assumes that human nature. Rather, in this scenario, all Three Persons assume the one human nature. But the Three Persons cannot share one human nature the way that they share the One Divine Nature. For the human nature is finite, and the Three Persons do not constitute the one human nature, the way that they constitute the Divine Nature. When the mouth of that human nature speaks, which Person is speaking? When the human will acts, which Person is acting? Again there is a conflict between the Three Persons as one Divine Nature and this scenario about Incarnation. The conflict makes the scenario foolish and contrary to the perfection of God, and therefore not possible.

From these hypothetical scenarios, we can easily see that the propositions of St. Thomas, and the more extensive propositions of Fr. Ryan, on the possibility of any Incarnations other than one Incarnation solely of the Son, are contrary to the perfection of God and therefore not possible.

Where is Fr. Ryan’s theological argument to the contrary?

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

Articles on Catholic Ethics
My work with Sacred Scripture

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