Essay / Theology

Defending the Idea of a Two-Natured Thing

The heart of Tim Pawl’s In Defense of Conciliar Christology is his attempt to solve what has been called the fundamental challenge. He states the objection several ways, but the book’s most elaborate statement of it is as follows:

Anything with two natures, one divine, and one human, will have some predicates aptly said of it in virtue of one of those natures, but others apt of it in virtue of the other nature. Some of these predicates will be inconsistent with one another. And so anything with both a divine and a human nature will have inconsistent predicates true of it. Consequently, nothing can have both a divine and a human nature. Thus, Conciliar Christology, since it entails that Christ has both a divine and a human nature, is false (75).

What Pawl offers in response to this fundamental challenge is an explanation of “a way in which the predicates could be understood such that they are not incompatible.” (p. 6) It is very important to his project to recognize what he is not doing: he is not simply applying and refining a qua solution. That qua solution is an attractive and venerable option: it involves taking the predications as picking out different aspects of the reality they point to, for example speaking of the thing as passible qua human, impassible qua God.

This qua formulation is extremely useful, and Pawl devotes considerable time to explaining variations on how it can be understood, used, defeated, defended, and defeated again. He ultimately finds it lacking. This discussion is bound to be instructive for theologians who, like me, have generally been fairly easily satisfied by qua accounts. (While reading these sections, I came very close to understanding not only qua, but qua qua qua.)

The key move Pawl makes is rather to revise the conditions of truth as they apply to the apparently contradictory predications. In each case of contradictory predications, Pawl points out, the conflict arises because of the initial truth conditions assumed. For example, the initial truth conditions of “visible” may be stated as “able to be visually perceived,” which would conflict with “not able to be visually perceived.” But Pawl argues that it is also possible to revise the truth conditions to something like “visible” means “has a nature that is able to be visually perceived.”

Pawl inserts this extra step precisely because he has in mind a particular thing which has two different natures: the incarnate one. Specifying that “visibility” applies to a thing that has a nature that is visible seems like an ad hoc addition to a set of truth conditions, and Pawl freely admits that he was motivated to do because of the special case of the incarnation, but here he is willing to sin boldly. There’s no law against adjusting truth conditions to account for all the phenomena.

Or at least there’s apparently no law against it. Speaking as a theologian who doesn’t do much philosophy, I was surprised to learn that it’s possible to apply for a license to adjust truth conditions. The trick, apparently, lies in truthmaker theory, which is an interesting area of modern metaphysics and epistemology. In Pawl’s case, natures serve as truthmakers for predications of the subjects which possess them.

The result is that what seemed to be a set of incompatible pairs of predications, “properly understood… are not incompatible with one another.” “Properly understood,” for Pawl, “requires building into predicates a clause about the subject having a nature in virtue of which something is apt of it.” (p. 175) So when you think you’ve got a contradiction, try inserting “has a nature that” into the troublesome predication, invoking the relevant truthmaker and clarifying what’s really going on.

Now this is a tidy solution, and the only thing I want to point out about it is something that I will say as non-technically as possible: the solution occurs not so much on the level of things but on the level of talking about things. That is, a reader who comes to this Defense of Conciliar Christology troubled by the apparent contradictions of Jesus being simultaneously passible and impassible will be told that the trouble can go away if we talk about it differently. Talking about it differently works because, as it turns out, talking about it wrongly was the cause of the apparent contradiction in the first place.

So Pawl inserts a kind of linguistic gasket into the predications, diverting their referentiality from the realities to statements about the realities. At least that’s what I gather is happening in Pawl’s solution: He adjusts the meaning of the predicates rather than the relations of the properties. It’s tempting to say there is a kind of linguistic turn here, such that we are no longer taking about Christology, but talking about talking about Christology. (It seems like everybody talks about Christology, but nobody ever does anything about it!)

But perhaps this solution is satisfying, for two reasons. First, we would expect an analytic theological statement of the incarnation to involve a transposition of the Christian claims into concepts altogether. We can accept such a transposition because it is not a transformation: the Christian message does not stop being itself and turn instead into a set of concepts. Instead, it remains what it is in reality and gives rise to concepts by which it can be talked about.

And secondly, it may be satisfying because it uses predication’s solutions to solve predication’s problems. When philosophers explain problems with Christian doctrine to me, I sometimes have the sensation that they have talked themselves into these problems by over-thinking something. In such cases, I suppose that I give myself the right to ignore them for a while, on the assumption that they thought their way into a problem and they can think their way out of it. And often, that’s what happens: they tied a knot and can untie it.

I also feel the need to add that Pawl’s essay does not simply change the subject from metaphysics to epistemology. In fact, though the key solution to the fundamental problem takes place at the level of adjusting the truth conditions of the predications, Pawl provides plenty of metaphysical commitment for the basic terms of Christology. Most of them are borrowed from Thomas, and they run quite deep: plenty of metaphysics here for all.

I’m just a spectator when it comes to Real Live Analytic Theology of this caliber, but what I’ve shared here, in about a thousand words, is the gist of Pawl’s argument. It seems to me to be an important project, and I see that he already has a sequel available, extending his work into further details (descent to the dead, questions of the will and knowledge of the incarnate one, etc.) of the entire tradition of Conciliar Christology. Which is a thing.


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