Myth and Incarnation

by Jerry H. Gill

Dr. Gill is professor of Christianity and Contemporary culture at Eastern College, Saint Davids, Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in the Christian Century December 21, 1977, p. 1190. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


If the transcendent is an especially rich dimension of reality which is humanly known by mediation, then it is only fitting that our talk of the transcendent be couched in metaphor, for such language allows one dimension of reality to be revealed in and through another.

When it came out in England earlier this year, The Myth of God Incarnate (SCM Press) raised orthodox hackles and stirred up more public furor than theological works normally do in Great Britain (see Trevor Beeson’s “Debating the Incarnation,” August 3-September 7 Christian Century). Now that Westminster has brought out the book in the United States, this controversial collection of scholarly essays (edited by John Hick) can provide an occasion for fresh thinking here on the central theme of Christian faith. It is not my purpose to offer a full-scale critical assessment, but rather to examine a cluster of assumptions at the heart of The Myth of God Incarnate. Nor am I concerned to deal with the question of the heretical or nonheretical character of the authors’ ideas. My interest in and ultimate dissatisfaction with the book stems rather from the importance and fundamental naïveté of its philosophical and theological presuppositions.

Early Christian Myth-Makers

To begin with, there is a great deal of confusion among the seven contributors about what is perhaps the book’s central concept, “myth.” On the one hand, the traditional doctrine that Jesus Christ was both fully God and fully human is frequently treated as a myth in the sense that Bultmann has made popular -- a spiritual or existential truth that New Testament writers couched in historical and physical events. As the preface puts it, the book contends that “the later conception of [Jesus] as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us” (ix). On the other hand, the concept of myth is frequently employed, especially in the chapters by Maurice Wiles, to express the modern-day “demythologized” christological doctrine which is being offered as a replacement for the traditional notion. This ambiguity is never resolved in The Myth of God Incarnate.

In addition to the above confusion, the authors tend to strike a condescending note when speaking of the theological beliefs and/or language of earlier Christian thinkers. Repeatedly we are told, in effect, that those incarnational modes of thought may have served more primitive minds well, but they will hardly do for us today. This might be termed the “man-come-of-age fallacy” -- the assumption that later interpretations are ipso facto better, and that at any cost the contemporary mind must not be offended. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this posture is its naive confidence in the state of current scientific knowledge. One need he no romanticist to question the basis of such confidence when many scientists themselves are the first to admit the limits of their knowledge.

‘Proclamation’ and Historical Fact?

Next, there is a serious muddle over the use to be made of recent biblical criticism. Sometimes the proposal being presented sounds like a warmed-over version of the 19th century liberal “quest of the historical Jesus.” Over and over again we are told that Jesus did not himself claim to be God, for this was the invention of the later New Testament writers and early church fathers (see especially the chapters by Michael Goulder). At other times the authors take a more contemporary stance, reminding us that the New Testament is “proclamation” through and through, thereby making it impossible for us to know what Jesus actually said or did not say (chapter two by Frances Young).

What is never faced by these authors, however -- or for that matter by the Bultmannians -- is the question of whether or not the proclamation character of the New Testament writings necessarily obviates their historical authenticity and linguistic reliability. Simply to point out that interpretation is involved in no way establishes the unreliability of the account given.

A similar flaw in reasoning undermines the authors’ repeated argument that because the incarnation concept was extant before and in proximity with the inception and development of Christianity, the Christian notion of incarnation is neither unique nor valid. Behind this argument is the assumption that any form of “conceptual borrowing” invalidates the insights and/or claims of the borrower. This assumption is not intuitively obvious, nor is it defended by the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate. In contrast, it can be argued that the Christian notion of incarnation, as the New Testament literature actually embodies it, is quite distinct from the Neoplatonic idea of emanation and the Samaritan gnosticism discussed by Goulder in chapter four, and from Philo’s Logos doctrine as presented by Frances Young in chapter five. The obvious and simple humanity of Jesus Christ in the gospel account -- especially his servanthood -- is hardly derivable from any of these doctrines.

Fact Versus Metaphor

This brings me to the most fundamental presupposition of all, the cornerstone of nearly all the arguments offered in support of the book’s composite position: the superficial dichotomy between literal language and all forms of metaphorical and/ or mythological language. The former is assumed to express factually true statements (or false, as the case may be), while the latter is claimed to be either “merely poetic” or “existentially significant” (or insignificant). Factual language is cognitively meaningful while metaphorical speech expresses attitudes and/or commitments.

Not surprisingly, the most straightforward articulation of this basic dichotomy is found in the chapter written by John Hick, “Jesus and the World Religions.” Hick is very well known for approaching the whole issue of religious language from a rather orthodox empiricist perspective. Cognitive significance, Hick maintains, can be preserved only by showing how an utterance understood as an eschatological prediction meets the empiricists’ “verifiability criterion of meaning.” Accepting such a narrow standard of cognitive meaning from the very beginning hardly equips one to deal with the variegated richness of religious, theological and biblical literature.

Hick’s application of this definition of meaning to the doctrine of the incarnation is pinpointed in the following remarks:

I suggest that its character is best expressed by saying that the idea of divine incarnation is a mythological idea. And I am using the term “myth” in the following sense: a myth is a story which is told but which is not literally true, or an idea or image which is applied to someone or something but which does not literally apply, but which invites a particular attitude in its hearers. Thus the truth of a myth is a kind of practical truth consisting in the appropriate. ness of the attitude to its object. That Jesus was God the Son incarnate is not literally true, since it has no literal meaning, but it is an application to Jesus of a mythical concept whose function is analogous to that of the notion of divine sonship ascribed in the ancient world to a king [p. 178].

Hick concludes his analysis of the logical status of incarnational language by expressing the hope that

there will be a growing awareness of the mythological character of this language as the hyperbole of the heart, most naturally at home in hymns and anthems and oratorios and other artistic expressions of the poetry of devotion. Christianity will  -- we may hope -- outgrow its theological fundamentalism, its literal interpretation of the idea of incarnation, as it has largely outgrown its biblical fundamentalism [p. 183]

I have termed the reliance on such a simple dichotomy “naïve” because it completely ignores the insights of important thinkers working in diverse fields but converging on the theme that language is much more complex and metaphor-based than this dichotomized view allows. Wittgenstein’s attack on the superficiality of such a narrow view of meaning and truth is never even mentioned, let alone answered. The important work of phenomenologists on the nature of language, from the later Heidegger to Merleau-Ponty, goes unrecognized. Moreover, the insights of such literary critics as Owen Barfield about the bedrock character of metaphoric language seem to have completely escaped the authors of this book. I am not arguing that any or all of these other points of view are correct. But a study which purports to deal with myth in biblical and theological literature ought to reflect an awareness of them and address the issues they raise.

A corollary to this simplistic dichotomy between factual and metaphorical meaning is the authors’ implicit use of a narrow empiricist interpretation of knowledge, whereby “raw” evidence is gathered and “logical constructs” or theories are built on it by means of inference alone. Not only does this view run counter to how in fact scientific knowledge is actually acquired, as the work of Michael Polanyi and others makes clear; it also gives the impression that one can make an absolute distinction between fact and theory. Thus the authors can treat incarnation doctrine as a theoretical “interpretation” of God’s revelation in Christ, but not the incarnation in itself as part of the revelation. They can affirm the reconciling character of God’s activity without implying a historical incarnation as such.

What they fail to mention, however, is that by their own criteria the very notion of God’s activity in human life is itself an “interpretation.” In addition, to speak of the “facts” of Scripture as providing “evidence” for a “logical” interpretation of Christian faith and theology betrays a naïve understanding of the concept of fact in history as well as in literature.

A Dimensional Model of Reality

I should like now to offer some brief suggestions of my own as to how the foregoing difficulties can be avoided and a fruitful approach to the notion of incarnation can be undertaken. My proposal involves changing the models on which we traditionally have based our thinking about reality, knowing and language. Obviously only a sketch can be offered here.

Western thought has consistently portrayed reality according to a “realm model.” Classical thought was constructed around the notion that reality is essentially dualistic: the natural world and the “other” world of Forms and/or divinities. In contrast, modern thought may be characterized as maintaining that there is but one world, the natural order; and much energy has gone into invalidating the possibility of a “higher” world or at least its knowability. Traditionally Christian theology has held to the dualistic view, while the efforts of many modern theologians -- including the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate -- have been directed against such an understanding.

The difficulty with this modern endeavor, however, is that it has sought to set aside the dualistic interpretation without first removing the realm model upon which it is based. Such thinkers end up affirming a naturalistic or humanistic interpretation of reality because they have consented to operate within the “two-realms-or-one” framework.

I would propose shifting to a “dimensional model,” in which different aspects of reality form a simultaneously interpenetrating dimension -- the richer, more complex aspects being mediated in and through the less complex. An example of such mediation ready to hand can be found in the way the meaning of these very sentences is conveyed to you in and through the words and grammatical structures. How odd it would be to say, “Unless the meaning can be shown to exist independently of the words and grammar, it can be nothing more than the words and grammar. Clearly the meaning is more than words organized in certain ways; it cannot be reduced to an account of them. But neither can it be experienced apart from some words in some grammatical form.

In the same way, then, we can think and speak of the incarnation as the mediation of the religious dimension in and through the historical dimension. We can assert this meaning without having to puzzle over the two-realms question of how Christ could “leave” the divine world and “enter” the natural one. The incarnation can, in fact, be taken as a paradigm of mediation. Ironically enough, my own thinking along these lines was initially stimulated by John Hick’s excellent discussion of the mediational model of reality in his book Faith and Knowledge. I can only hope he will reread his book again before too long.

Where Knowing Begins

In a similar vein, Western theology has consistently bought into the epistemological dichotomy between explicit (objective) and mystical (subjective) knowledge. This dichotomy parallels that of the realm-model in metaphysics, with explicit knowledge corresponding to the natural realm, and mystical knowledge corresponding to the divine. In the modern era, the denial of mysticism’s viability has left theologians embracing explicit knowledge as the only mode of knowing. Thus the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate are continually pressing for a factual approach (whether historical or metaphysical) to theological thinking and speaking.

My own proposal is to jettison this dichotomy between the explicit and the mystical in favor of a more flexible and functional distinction between explicit and tacit knowing. According to this view, all cases of the former are grounded in the context provided by the latter. In knowing, we work from certain factors which are accepted acritically to others which we examine focally. All knowing begins somewhere, and not all beginning points can be justified explicitly -- otherwise we would never get started in the first place. This model of knowledge fits nicely with the model of mediated dimensions of reality: the particulars which comprise the mediating dimension and yield explicit knowledge take their meaning from the mediated dimension which is known tacitly.

The divinity of Jesus Christ can be said to be encountered in and through the particulars of his teachings and activities, but that unique identity cannot be reduced to their sum as empirical facts.” The incarnation is a mediational phenomenon. Its meaning is neither simply factual nor merely mythological, for the divine dimension is embodied in the human dimension without being exhausted by it. Our discernment of this meaning involves an awareness of the historical particulars of Jesus’ life but goes beyond them as well; thus our knowledge of the particulars is explicit, while our knowledge of the incarnation is tacit in character. Such tacit knowing can no more be fully articulated than can knowing of any mediated reality, such as the aesthetic or moral dimensions of life. Therefore the way we talk about the incarnation need not be either straightforwardly explicit or couched in “merely poetic” phrases which are debunked as bogus.

The Richness of Language

Traditionally Western theology has based its understanding of language on a dichotomy which is related to the two dichotomies already discussed: namely, literal versus symbolic meaning. For a long time all language, including talk of God, was taken as seeking to provide a picture or mirror of reality. In modern times language in general has come to be viewed as having diverse functions, and religious language in particular has come to be understood as symbolic in order to escape being classified as nonfactual and therefore meaningless.

Here again theologians have generally continued to play within the rules set up by the dualistic model, confining themselves to arguments over whether God-talk should be taken as literal or symbolic. The authors of The Myth of God Incarnate have clearly opted for the latter. More important, they have failed to consider the possibility that the simple dichotomy between literal and “poetic” meaning hardly does justice to the richness of language -- religious language in particular.

What is needed here, I submit, is the replacement of the picturing model of language with a functional model, one which emphasizes the vast variety of jobs that get done by means of linguistic activity. To take description-giving as the primary task of language is to put the cart before the horse. Not only are there other functions of language -- such as the imperative, the evocative, the convictional and the performative -- but these functions are logically prior to the descriptive function, in that it is in the process of engaging in these other linguistic tasks that one’s descriptions become relevant. Rarely, if ever, do speakers give descriptions for their own sake. Rather, descriptions are employed as part of an order, an invitation, an explanation, or a story as a means to an end in a concrete context.

This functional model of language is coupled with an appreciation for the primordial character of metaphoric speech. According to the picturing theory of meaning, metaphor is simply foam on the surface of the stout. A functional model of meaning, on the other hand, acknowledges that metaphoric meaning -- which contains a certain degree of interpretive openness and double-entendre -- is logically prior to the more precise descriptive function, which must take place within the context provided by metaphor. Some meaning must exist in order for it to be made more precise.

All of this is not to deny the importance of cognition nor of the descriptive function of language. The question of whether talk about transcendence is true is not to be sidestepped. The concern here is simply to place this question in perspective by recalling the broader and deeper purposes of language. The concept of truth is far more complex than many theologians seem to realize. What needs exploring is the ways in which metaphor, and its extended expression in parable and story, can be related to enriched concepts of cognitivity. If the transcendent is an especially rich dimension of reality which is humanly known by mediation, then it is only fitting that our talk of the transcendent be couched in metaphor, for such language allows one dimension of reality to be revealed in and through another.

When applied to the notion of incarnation, this more functional, metaphoric view of language allows us to avoid the either/or dichotomy which lies at the heart of the confusions in The Myth of God Incarnate. For now we can. understand such expressions as “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” without having to affirm either that the sense of “in” is the same as that of “The book was in the drawer,” or that the word is being used “merely poetically.” Rather, we are free to explore other uses of “in,” such as “I’ll keep you in mind” or “The meaning of his remark was in his face.” In fact, the incarnation itself might well serve as a paradigm of such mediated meaning in every-day speech.