Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Coherence of Christmas PART 1

Several days ago the majority of Christians in the West celebrated the most important event in the history of the Universe: the day that God came down from heaven, was born of the virgin Mary, and became man.

For many, however, this is a very difficult teaching. In fact, there is a serious prima facie case to be made that Christmas is a complete irrationality. It almost goes without saying that atheists, who doubt the very existence of God, find it impossible to accept; but, they are not the only skeptics. For, there are just as many theists who find the story of Christmas objectionable; arguing that the very idea of God becoming man is incoherent.

The question we shall endeavor to answer is this: Is the incarnation reasonable? By reasonable, in this context, I simply mean coherent or free from logical contradiction. The answer I shall defend in PART 2 is: yes, quite reasonable.

For now, however, let's take a closer look at the problem.

The Problem of Christmas 

Simply put, the problem of Christmas is that the doctrine of the incarnation is a logical contradiction and, thus, completely absurd. Let's unpack this inflammatory statement to see why.

The text book definition of a logical contradiction is as follows: the conjunction of a statement S and its denial not-S. To grasp what this means, here's a simple example:

     (a) Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit and not a Hobbit.

The reason (a) is a contradiction is because it violates what logicians call the law of non-contradiction--the rule that a statement and its denial cannot both be true at the same time and in the same respect. In other words, this law asserts that it can't both be true that Bilbo is a Hobbit and also true that he is not a Hobbit. Claims like (a) are simply incoherent.

If (a) is incoherent it also follows that it is metaphysically impossible for a Hobbit/not-Hobbit to exist.

Likewise, says the problem of Christmas, the incarnation violates the law of non-contradiction by claiming Jesus is both God and man. The 8th century Greek theologian St. John of Damascus, who was well aware of this objection, summed up the issue as follows:

"... how can one nature comprise different substances that are contradictory? How is it possible for the same nature to be at once created and uncreated, mortal and immortal, circumscribed and uncircumscribed?" (p272).
In other words, the doctrine of the incarnation, in asserting that Jesus is both God and man, asks us to accept the truth of statements like:

     (b) Jesus is both created and not-created.


     (c) Jesus is both mortal and not-mortal.

Like (a) these statements clearly violate the law of non-contradiction and are, consequentially, complete nonsense.

This, of course, creates a problem for Christmas; or, more precisely, for those who truly celebrate Christmas. For if statements like (b) and (c) are logically incoherent this counts as a defeater for the incarnation; because it entails the incarnation is a metaphysical impossibility. In other words, it means there is no possible world in which God could become man.

The problem of Christmas, thus, undermines the central tenet of the Christian faith . . . or does it? In PART 2 I'll respond to this objection and argue that the incarnation is both reasonable (i.e., logically coherent) and metaphysically possible.


St. John of Damascus. Trans. John, and Chase, F. (1958). Writings. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.




  1. Hi Joshua

    It's an interesting issue. I can follow your reasoning and it makes sense. But there is a problem.

    For a contradiction one member of the pair of statements must be true and the other false. In the case of 'Jesus is God' and 'Jesus is Man' you have not shown that one is true and one false, so it may not be a contradiction at all. It may just be that everything is God but usually appears to us to be distinct and individual. This entails no contradiction.

    This would relate to the idea that we are all God, such that 'enlightenment' (as discussed in, say, 'A Course in Miracles') is simply the realisation of this. That is, Man does not become God, but realises that he is already.

    In this way the identity of God and Man solves any contradiction. They would be the same thing, so a contradiction would be impossible.

    So, maybe the contradictions only arise for a particular view of God and Man, and cease to be a problem if we adopt a different view. Which would suggest that a different view than yours, one by which contradictions would not arise, would be a more plausible one.

    Tricky stuff.

  2. Peter, you now hold the high honor of being the first person to comment on this blog! Okay, in point of fact, it is I who am honored to have you as my first commentator.

    As far as it goes, all that is needed for a logical contradiction is the conjunction of two mutually exclusive statements; the truth value of the statement doesn't really come into play. In other words, Hobbits don't have to exist and it doesn't have to be true that Bilbo is a Hobbit in order for (a) to be a contradiction.

    However, I am in complete agreement with you that if one were to identify 'God' with the 'Universe'(e.g., to adopt pantheism) and to adopt monism (i.e., roughly the position that everything is really one thing) then the incarnation is not a contradiction.

    For this would mean 'Jesus' is not truly a distinct object but merely a phenominological impression of the One 'Universe' or 'God'. Hence, the incarnation is merely a tautology:

    (e) Jesus is God and Man (i.e., God).

    But, I'll argue in PART 2 that adopting pantheism and monism is not the only solution to the problem of Christmas.

    Thanks a lot for your comment Peter; it is greatly appreciated!

    1. I am honoured to be the first commentor! I hope you won't regret it!

      Aristotle is clear as a bell on the conditions for a true or legitimate contradictory pair, which he gives in 'De Interpretatione'. From memory the definition he gives is;

      "Of every contradictory pair one member must be true and the other false."

      If this is not the case then the three laws for the dialectic would not apply. If we do not know if this condition is met then we do not know whether the rules apply. If it is not the case then there is no formal contradiction. Remarkably, this is a ancient fact that few philosophers seem to grasp, and yet it could not be more simple.

      As for monism and pantheism, I would ditch both for 'nondualism' and the 'perennial' philosophy, for which there could never be a true contradiction.

      I would completely recommend C. W. Whittaker's book on 'De Intepretatione'. It was a real eye-opener for me. Few philosophers seem to take much notice of Aristotle's rules, and for me this would explain why few can make sense of philosophy. Whittaker explains it all brilliantly. (Not that anyone takes any notice).

  3. Peter, I am truly grateful for this comment and for the book reference. I have only recently become aware that there are some major differences between Aristotelian logic and modern symbolic logic. I will track down Whittaker's book with great interest. Happy New Year!