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Is the Incarnation an historical fact?


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#21 Owen Jones

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Posted 09 September 2012 - 01:05 PM

another point -- to what end do human beings suffer? There are no facts that can address that question.

#22 Jeremy Troy

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Posted 10 September 2012 - 01:13 AM

It looks to me like we're equivocating about the word "history". When I see the question "Is the Incarnation an historical fact?", I interpret that question as asking whether or not the Incarnation actually occurred at a particular time and place. In other words, I interpret the question as being the same as this one: When we say that Jesus Christ was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was born into the world, do we mean that in a straightforward and literal sense, or do we mean it in some sort of non-literal, figurative sense? For Orthodox Christians the answer is that we absolutely mean it literally. While we certainly affirm that all the actions of Christ's life resonate throughout eternity, we do not mean that to deny that they also took place at particular times in the history of the world. If what our faith proclaims is not based on facts, then it is based on falsehoods. And Orthodoxy is not false.

#23 Owen Jones

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Posted 10 September 2012 - 08:44 AM

I understand your points, Troy, and I think your viewpoint is probably overwhelmingly representative of Christians today. But that reflects that modernist bias of historicism. I don't wish to be repetitive, but facticity does not prove something to be true in a meaningful sense. Furthermore, there is no historical fact that proves that Jesus was God, for the many reasons I have cited. We know it to be true by faith: Heb 11:1.

Here is your problem. You could say, realistically, that there is enough corroborated testimony that there was a man, Jesus, who lived in Israel, who performed miracles, who garnered many intense followers of his spiritual movement, who was politically persecuted and put to death, and that a handful of people saw him after his death walking this earth. There are even a couple of non-Biblical citations. None of this proves He is the incarnate God. It took the Church 600 years to even come to grips with what that means. Oh, and, btw, there are many, many Haitians who report seeing zombies who have come back from the grave! Jesus being the Christ was not even known to the Disciples until Pentecost, when they were given the power of illumination from the Holy Spirit. They had gathered for the eucharist out of obedience to Him. But Jesus as the Christ was still in its infancy in terms of meaning, understanding and substance. This is something that each person in each generation has to learn for himself, not as a fact, but as a living faith that changes you. The only fact involved is the experienced and observable changes that take place in the believer. I think the underlying problem here is the Cartesian intellectual environment that we live in in which for something to be true, it has to be objectively proven, otherwise it is deemed a subjective opinion. These are false alternatives. We've already addressed the problem of facticity in several ways in this thread, but a fact, in and of itself, has no meaning. You could still say what you say, that the INcarnation was an historical fact, but so what, someone might ask. Who cares? That's really the issue. What does it have to do with me? Why should I actually believe IN Christ, put my life completely in His hands? Those are the relevant questions to which any debate over facticity is really irrelevant.

#24 Owen Jones

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Posted 10 September 2012 - 08:47 AM

I should add that the exact same issues and questions apply to the "real presence" of Christ in the Eucharist. There is a thread on that subject as well. The Eucharist is not an objective fact. In fact, there is no Eucharist apart from believers participating in it, and furthermore, they must be prepared spiritually to receive.

#25 Jeremy Troy

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Posted 10 September 2012 - 02:26 PM

I'm going to be brief here: In attempting to defend against what you see as one example of modernism ("Cartesianism", as you've called it), you've given yourself over entirely to several versions of postmodernism. No version of relativism fits well with Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Christianity is about proclaiming truths, and there are no truths if there are no facts. I'm using the word 'fact' here to describe something's being the case. So, if it is the case that Christ is risen (which the Orthodox Church proclaims), then it is a fact that Christ is risen, and ONLY THEN athe sentence "Christ is risen" becomes true. Now, I'll grant you that a knowledge of facts by itself isn't a sufficient basis for faith. But that's beside the point; you've asked whether the Incarnation IS a fact, not whether it is ONLY a fact.

#26 Owen Jones

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Posted 10 September 2012 - 02:53 PM

Jeremy, I couldn't disagree with you more. I'm sorry. I certainly do not wish to be argumentative or contentious. But what I am talking about has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with relativism. And you are right. I have said that there is no fact of the Incarnation. So I should never have alluded to it being ONLY a fact.

Now, to say that there are no truths if there are no facts is, sadly, the worst kind of vulgarized empiricism. The truths of our faith are axioms, first principles, stemming from the Arche of all that is Good and True. Axioms and First Principles are not subject to demonstration and proof in a factual way. They are the givens from which every thing else that is rational must proceed. Facts do not give life to life, give spiritual substance and purpose and direction to life. God Himself is not a fact, and neither are your or I facts, other than in a very limited corporeal sense. But our existence as humans is not a fact. To be human requires something a lot more than just facticity. The realm of facts is of fairly limited utility when it comes to discerning what it means to be human. What am I supposed to do, conduct a statistical analysis? Let's say that statistics prove that 99% of all human beings have sexual relations at some time between puberty and death, and therefore, one must conclude that the most overwhelming fact of human existence that we share is to have sex. Oh, but wait, 100% of all humans breath air. That is a fact. So now, let's see. We have another fact that makes us human. Breathing. Oh, and eating. Fact is, everyone eats. So, let's see, what makes a human being is to eat, breath air, and have sex. Because those are all objective indisputable facts. But then some snotty person comes along and says, "wait a minute, that's not enough. I believe that what makes a human being is the capacity to love God and to do His will in all things. Oh, and wait a minute, it's not that he really always wants to do those things. In fact, most people don't want to do that most of the time, but, you see, I believe that that is what makes us human, because there are some exemplars among us today and in our history, that have shown us and I believe that is a much more inclusive and much more sublime understanding of what it means to be human. But, you know, most people these days would probably disagree with me."

Does that make that view of what it means to be human relativistic? Because not everyone agrees? Really? Anything that people disagree about automatically becomes a relativistic concept?

#27 Jeremy Troy

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Posted 10 September 2012 - 04:16 PM

Owen, I don't want to be argumentative about this either, and I apologize if what I've said came across as so. I'm worried that whatever we say to each other is going to like running up against a brick wall. Let me just clarify my position quickly: when I talk about something being a fact, I'm not talking about that thing's provability. There may very well be facts that are necessarily unprovable. You're right to say that axioms are unprovable (that's a matter of definition), but that doesn't mean that the correct axioms are not factual. So, I'm worried that you're attaching much more to the concept of a fact than I am, and it's causing us to talk past each other. When I say that a thing is a fact, all I mean is that that thing is the case. It has nothing to do, for me, with that thing's being provable. If you're using a different definition of "fact", then we're actually just talking past each other rather than disagreeing.

#28 Owen Jones

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Posted 10 September 2012 - 05:51 PM

I guess there are two questions. Is it an historical fact? Is it an historical event? Although I suppose you could say that's a distinction without a difference. In each case I would answer, "no." It's true. It exists. But it is of a different order, and in a different realm than that which we normally mean in the mundane sense in which we refer to history. I know it all sounds a bit too cloudy and ethereal to your ears, but what else can I say???

I'm sure you are quite concerned that if the Incarnation is not a fact then it must be, what? Nothing? But that's not the case.

#29 Jeremy Troy

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Posted 10 September 2012 - 06:57 PM

I would agree that Christ's Incarnation-- and all the events of Christ's life-- is of a different order from mundane truths (e.g. "the pen is on the table") but I would say that it is also of the same order as those truths. That's why the Incarnation in particular is so profound; while remaining infinite, God takes finitude onto himself. And his finity is not merely an appearance, but is as true as his infinity.

#30 Owen Jones

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Posted 11 September 2012 - 08:38 AM

Yes, but that is not an historical fact! It is a truth known to us only in and through faith, and the transformation of our minds that takes place in and through faith. Heb 11:1 please.

#31 Ryan

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Posted 11 September 2012 - 02:48 PM

I think I sort of understand what you're getting at Owen, and I see your point about truth vs. fact, but we do believe that Christ assumed human nature like everyone else's, sin excluded. This means he had the fullness of humanity existing on all the various "levels," including flesh that could be poked, prodded, and examined by a vulgar empiricist (I'm not calling Saint Thomas a vulgar empiricist but his examination does satisfy that approach). Otherwise we are in danger of some sort of semi-docetism it seems to me.

Christ's enemies certainly could see that he existed, though they didn't understand that he is God. This is different, say, from the bread and wine becoming his body and blood, which is completely true but could not be proven in a lab.

#32 Jeremy Troy

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Posted 11 September 2012 - 04:28 PM

Again, Owen, you seem to be taking me to mean "provable" when I say "factual". But that's not what I mean at all! Yes, we believe through faith that Christ became incarnate. We have no access to this truth other than through faith. But that does not mean that the object of our faith is not factual. When I say "X is factual," I don't mean anything by that other than "X is the case." So, while it's absolutely true that no sort of scientific analysis could prove that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ at the Eucharist, we nonetheless believe (through faith, and the testimony of the Church) that it is the case that that very thing occurs. So, we say that it is a fact that it occurs. If you're using a different definition of "fact" than the one that I've said I'm using (which is the common one, as far as I'm aware), please make it explicit. I agree completely with Ryan here; Christ's body was a fleshy one that real people in 32 A.D. could go up and poke. That's all I mean by saying that the Incarnation is a fact.

#33 Owen Jones

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Posted 12 September 2012 - 08:46 AM

The Incarnation is a fact of experience, that, alas, seems not apparent to all. It is not an historical fact. And, yes, I think St. Thomas was a vulgar empiricist. One of the things I like about our God is that he condescends even to vulgar empiricists.

The important issue is historicity. What does it tell us. Does it reveal anything to us? And what is history anyway. As I've mentioned, I think most people today (we live in an age of historicism) think of history as a series of facts placed on a time line culminating in the present, but also allowing us to, in a sense, predict the future. In other words, history has an intrinsic meaning quite apart from what you believe. This is simply not the case. History exists in the realm of myth. It is a form of mythologizing. There is a multiplicities of histories, depending on what your belief, what myth grabs you. There is the liberal progressive myth. There is the myth of dialectical materialism. There is the myth of the thousand year reich, etc. There is also history according to Ecclesiastes, which is, I believe, much more true. So history, in and of itself, proves, demonstrates nothing. Again, I think you are confusing the issue of corporeality with history. To debunk a theory of history has nothing in common with docetism. I'm not denying corporeality! Either of the God-man or of myself!

#34 Owen Jones

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Posted 23 September 2012 - 03:02 PM

This thread seems to have died out but I wanted to comment on today's Gospel in relation to the topic. Luke and Cleopus, on the road to Emmaus, encounter the Risen Glorified Christ but do not recognize Him at all, either as Jesus as the man they once knew, or as the Risen Christ. They first have a normal conversation with Him as if he's just any Joe. It is not until they receive communion that their eyes are opened and Christ is revealed to them. Up to that point, they are aware of the empty tomb but they have no idea what it means, and they still refer to Jesus as a prophet, but that His mission as the redeemer of Israel has failed, cut short by his persecution. In this we see revealed the true mystery of the Incarnation and the Resurrection (which cannot be separated into distinct categories), a revelation to the human heart that is made known in communion with Him that results in a falling away of their spiritual blindness. This is of an entirely different order than a historical fact. I see it as absolutely critical and essential to know the difference.

#35 Steve Roche

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Posted 01 October 2012 - 04:45 AM

CS Lewis, for example, is famous for having said that in the Incarnation of Christ myth becomes fact.


I did not know that. Which book did he state that in?

CS Lewis discusses myth in this doco:

His version of myth, though, is not quite the same meaning as "lie" or "fiction"; he means 'the christian myth' as the archetypical truth.

Edited by Steve Roche, 01 October 2012 - 05:11 AM.


#36 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 01 October 2012 - 10:17 AM

I would say that to talk of divine things occurring in time (and space) as historical events is too limiting. I was taught that the things of God exist outside His creation which, as we all know, includes time. Created things are limited by time and space but the uncreated know of no limitations. We know of the pre-eternal counsel at which God decreed the creation the world, and decreed the Incarnation which would be accomplished for the intimate union between God by way of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and His creation.

Thus, all divine ‘events’ exist both outside time and space and in them. If we look at the texts of the services for the Annunciation, we see this expressed -

Gabriel came at a specific time:

In the sixth month the chief of the angelic hosts was sent to thee, pure Virgin


Gabriel also came to a specific place:

and coming to Nazareth


Of the Virgin, the text says:

God hath loved thee from eternity


The eternal and the timeous stand together:

Revealing to thee the pre-eternal counsel, Gabriel came and stood before thee, O Maid


As we all know, the services of the feast say ‘Today . . . ‘ This expresses the existence of the divine within time and also beyond its limitations.

In holy scripture we see the same expression of the eternal and the timeous:

Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you: 1 Peter 1:20


Just to add that all this is expressed in St Andrei Rublev's Holy Trinity icon.

#37 Aidan Kimel

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Posted 01 October 2012 - 02:50 PM

J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson discussed the question of myth and fact at great length on the night of September 19, 1931. This discussion contributed significantly to Lewis's conversion to Christianity. He later wrote an important essay "Myth Become Fact," published in God in the Dock. Here's one oft-quoted passage:

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens--at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. ~C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, "Myth Became Fact" (1944)


He also wrote the following to his friend Arthur Greaves after this meeting:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn't mind it at all; again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself, I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god… similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho' I could not say in cold prose "what it meant".

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God's myth, where the others are men's myth: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call "real things". Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a "description" of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God choose to (or can) appear to our faculties. The "doctrines" we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that what God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.


Tolkien also wrote a poem in response to that conversation:

To one [C.S. Lewis] who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver'.


Philomythus to Misomythus


You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are 'trees', and growing is 'to grow');
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star's a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.


At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o'er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain's contortions with a separate dint.
Yet trees are not 'trees', until so named and seen
and never were so named, tifi those had been
who speech's involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.


He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers bencath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, 'twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.


Yes! 'wish-fulfilment dreams' we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise -- for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.


Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow's sway.


Blessed are the men of Noah's race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.


Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.


I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.


I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God's mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker's art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.


In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land 'twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God's picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

--J.R.R. Tolkien

#38 Steve Roche

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Posted 01 October 2012 - 11:13 PM

That is an intense poem. I do not know very much about either author. I have watched the movies and read the Screwtape, but that’s about it. I was impressed how they both used the ancient form of story-telling for a modern audience in much the same way that myths and legends were produced.

Lewis’s language is cryptic. He appears to say one thing yet means another. Tolkien said at one time, “I will play the Pilate and wash my hands of it all.” The bible certainly affected the thinking of the idea giants. This is the undeniable power of the scriptures… Homer, Hesiod, Seneca, Darwin, Jung, Marx, Nietzsche…, they were all deeply influenced by the scriptures.

There seems to be large collaboration of ideas between Tolkien, Lewis, Jung (Man and his Symbols) and Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces; The Masks of God). The same thread of thinking is explored generation by generation. Socrates and Plato tried to interpret the symbol of the myth into political and social structures. This seems to be the common denominator of atheist, philosopher and theologian… the pursuit of meaning. It shows that deep down we are all pursuing similar things. In my opinion it is the message of God which requires us to seek restoration and pardon that is the offense to people, not the language itself. The language (parable, myth) is simply an out for people who do not have faith in this basic message.




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