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Blessed Contingency? Exploring Whether the Savior Had to be Born.



The image above is of The Adoration of the Magi, a painting by the Italian artist, Giovanni di Paolo, completed in about 1460. It portrays the magi adoring the infant Jesus in worship, recognizing that He is the Lord's anointed one, the Messiah. One of the magi in the painting even stoops to kiss His feet. The image is one of stark contrast. On the one hand, as Christians, we can admire the faith of the first people to see and testify to the identity of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. On the other hand, what's portrayed is, frankly, insane. Who would stoop low to worship a baby?


Often, doctrines such as the doctrine of the incarnation, which holds that Jesus Christ is at the same time both truly God and truly man, are described as a mystery. Mystery can have several intended meanings. It could refer to something is difficult or impossible to fully understand. Certainly, the doctrine of the incarnation is mysterious in that sense. But, in the biblical usage, a mystery is something hidden that has been revealed. For instance, consider Romans 16:25-27 (NASB, emphasis is mine):

"Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now has been disclosed, and through the Scriptures of the prophets, in accordance with the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen."

In this passage, Paul uses "mystery" to refer to something that had previously been kept secret but had now been disclosed. Thus, the mystery is not something of which we're unaware today. Rather, it is something that, because of Jesus Christ and the testimony of His apostles, we're now aware of. In this sense, the incarnation of Jesus Christ is a revealed mystery. It is part of God's revelation of Himself and His own self-disclosure of His purposes and plans for man's salvation.


The Christmas season is about the doctrine of the incarnation. You might read this and be surprised. In the midst of all the music, decorations, and gift-giving, it might seem strange to say that the core of Christmas concerns a difficult-to-comprehend Christian doctrine. Yet this is true. Nativity paintings and scenes include imagery such as can be seen in The Adoration of the Magi above. An infant boy's feet are kissed as if he is a king. He is worshipped as if he is God. An integral part of the revelation of Christ is that the very same boy who was born of Mary is worthy of worship as the Creator of the universe. Great Christian Christmas music expresses this juxtaposition between humility of Jesus' first moments and the infinite greatness of His person and work. For instance, one of my favorite Christmas songs, Mary, Did You Know?, has these words:

"Mary, did you know that your baby boy Is Lord of all creation? Mary, did you know that your baby boy Would one day rule the nations? Did you know that your baby boy Is heaven's perfect Lamb? That sleeping child you're holding is the great, I Am"

The last line of this section of the song identifies the "sleeping child" of Mary with the name of "I AM," the name that the Lord assigns Himself when He reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush (see Exodus 3:13-14). This is His proper name, which is YHWH in Hebrew. To assign the name of YHWH to a suckling newborn is either one of the most profound statements of truth in human history or an egregious instance of blasphemy. To Christians, it is the former, and this is why we worship Jesus as God.


But did it have to be this way? The title of this post is "Blessed Contingency?," and that title is intended to raise eyebrows. It isn't often that religious language is attached to dry philosophical language. In this post, I will explore whether the Savior had to be born. That is, was it necessary, given the fallen state of the world, for Jesus to experience a physical birth? Though this question may appear uselessly speculative, I will argue that the exploration of this question can deepen our appreciation for the event we celebrate on Christmas.


This post will be split into three parts. First, I will define and explain the difference between contingency and necessity. Second, I will explore relevant questions in our consideration of the question of whether Jesus' birth was necessary, given the fallenness of the world. Third, I will give my answer to the question and explain why meditating on the contingency of Jesus' birth can be edifying for the Christian. My hope is that you, having read this post, will come away with a deeper appreciation for the birth of Jesus. Having written the post, I hope the same for myself as well. Now, let's move on to an exploration of the difference between contingency and necessity.


The Difference Between Contingency and Necessity


One of the most important developments in the history of Western philosophy in the last century has concerned how philosophers discuss contingency and necessity. Many of these developments stem from influential books such as Saul Kripke's Naming and Necessity and Alvin Plantinga's The Nature of Necessity. The field in logic that deals with contingency and necessity is called modal logic, and though you may not be aware of these books or developments in the field, the standard terminology and concepts today have to do with these developments. In fact, if you've read posts on this blog, such as "Interpreting History Through a Christian Lens: Part 3" or "The Argument From Contingency," then you've been exposed to modal reasoning. It figures very heavily in Christian philosophy today in several areas. So, if you're already well-versed in modal reasoning, you can safely skip this section of the post.


If this is your first time thinking about these issues, don't despair! I will try to explain things as simply as I can. At bottom, the difference between contingency and necessity has to do with the nature of an object's existence. That is, why does the object exist? In modern science, the answer to this why question is provided by an examination of physical causes of physical effects. In philosophy, however, a deeper examination of the nature of the object is required to answer this question. That is, we are not looking for the particular cause of the existence of the object; rather, we're looking for the explanation for the object's existence. This will require a knowledge of the kind of the object we're examining.


Consider the earth. It is the planet on which we live. It is a physical object. Could the earth have failed to exist? That is, can we imagine a set of circumstances in which the earth does not exist? The answer to this, obviously, is yes. Such a set of circumstances is easily conceivable. For instance, had the earth been destroyed by a massive meteor early in its formation, then it would not exist (or would have ceased to exist). Because of this, we can affirm the following statement about the earth:

  • The existence of the earth is contingent.

The statement above is a statement about the nature of earth's existence. To say that it is contingent is to say that the earth's nature is such that it could have failed to exist, given a different set of circumstances. Its existence is a matter of external causes, not some aspect of its nature. Scientists today are keenly aware of the contingency of the earth's existence and are working tirelessly to ensure that it continues to exist, in light of threats such as massive meteors. There are other ways to express the contingency of the earth's existence, such as:

  • The earth could have failed to exist.

  • The earth does not exist necessarily.

  • In some sets of circumstances, the earth does not exist.

Not all objects, however, are contingent. Whether one believes in the existence of these objects, there is another class of objects that, if they exist at all, exist necessarily. That is, they could not have failed to exist. Another way to put it is that there is no possible set of circumstances in which these objects fail to exist.


Consider, for instance, God. Could God have failed to exist? If we follow the Christian philosopher, Anselm's, insight that God is "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" (also called the "greatest conceivable being"), then God is a Being whose greatness in every area is as great as can possibly be. As William Lane Craig has often said, if there were a being greater than God, then that being would be God. If God's nature is that He is the greatest conceivable being, then we can ask what would be greater: a God that could fail to exist or one that could not fail to exist. Obviously, the God who could not have failed to exist is greater than one who could fail to exist. Thus, God, if He exists, is such that we can affirm these statements about Him:

  • The existence of God is necessary.

  • God could not have failed to exist.

  • God exists necessarily.

  • God does not exist contingently.

  • In every set of circumstances possible, God exists.

(For more on God as greatest conceivable being, see my post, "The Ontological Argument.")


Notice that we discovered that the earth is contingent and that God is necessary merely by thinking about their nature. These discoveries about the nature of the earth's existence and the nature of God's existence are more basic and fundamental than particular discoveries about particular causes. One must know that an object's existence is contingent before exploring the particular cause of its existence. Thus, scientists who study the conditions under which the earth was formed must first know, whether or not they realize it, that the earth is contingent. Otherwise, there is no reason to search for the particular external cause of its existence.


Now that we've established a basic understanding of contingency and necessity, let's consider what it means to refer to what I've, until now, called "sets of circumstances." Note above that we've stated the contingency of the earth's existence and the necessity of God's existence using the following statements:

  • In some sets of circumstances, the earth does not exist.

  • In every set of circumstances possible, God exists.

Some objects must not exist, and statements about such objects can be formulated in terms of possible sets of circumstances. For instance, consider this statement about married bachelors:

  • In no possible set of circumstances does a married bachelor exist.

Married bachelors cannot exist because the meaning of the terms involved in denoting them involves a strict logical contradiction. "Bachelor" means "unmarried person," so there cannot be a married unmarried person. Thus, the existence of some objects is impossible.


Another way to express possible sets of circumstances is through the more formal language of possible worlds. Possible world semantics is the formal language in modal logic for thinking of contingency and necessity. In this semantic, a "world" does not actually exist; rather, it is a maximal description of all the propositions that could be true in a certain set of circumstances. Since different combinations of propositions are possibly true (i.e., because of contingency), then there are an infinite number of so-called "possible worlds." The description of all propositions that are true constitute the "actual world," or our world. But not all true propositions in the actual world remain true in every possible world. Thus, we can affirm these statements:

  • The earth does not exist in some possible worlds.

  • The earth exists in the actual world.

  • God exists in every possible world.

  • God exists in the actual world.

  • Married bachelors do not exist in the actual world.

  • Married bachelors do not exist in any possible world.

  • Unicorns exist in some possible worlds.

  • Unicorns do not exist in the actual world.

In the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I have to be careful to note that I'm not claiming that all of these alternative realities exist. This is no traversable multiverse like in Dr. Strange. Rather, this is just a helpful way of thinking about contingency and necessity.


Now that we've briefly overviewed the difference between contingency and necessity, let's move on to consider the relevant questions we must explore in our consideration of the question of whether Jesus' birth was necessary, given the fallenness of the world.


Relevant Questions About the Necessity of Jesus' Birth


With an introductory understanding of contingency and necessity, one can begin to ask interesting questions. For instance, one can ask whether the existence of the earth is necessary. (Note: in modal logic, this question isn't asking whether the earth is necessary for something else, such survival of the human species. Rather, to ask whether the existence of the earth is necessary is to ask whether it could have been the case that the earth had failed to exist.) As we've already seen above, this question is not difficult to answer. The earth could clearly have failed to exist. But it might be more interesting to consider under what sets of circumstances the earth could or could not have existed. Consider, for instance, this question:

  • Are there any possible worlds, in which the universe does not exist, in which the earth exists?

Consider all possible worlds (remember, all possible sets of circumstances). This question doesn't concern all possible worlds, since there are many possible worlds in which the universe exists. This question asks whether, in that smaller "neighborhood" of possible worlds in which the universe does not exist, the earth still exists. Now, exploring this question in depth will take us too far afield for many reasons. First, as it stands, the question is somewhat ambiguous. What does it mean to say that "the universe" doesn't exist? Are we referring merely to our own universe, or any universes whatsoever? If the question is intended to exclude only our universe, then there are other universes, in which planets could exist, in these possible worlds. (Also, what exactly is our universe?) If the question is intended to exclude any and all universes, then obviously, the earth could not exist in these possible worlds, since some space-time reality must exist in order for planets to exist. Second, even if the question only excludes our universe, it's not terribly clear how we can identify whether a planet in one of these alternative universes is earth. What's necessary to the earth's existence? Does part of what it means to be earth, rather than some other planet, include existing in the space-time reality of which we're acquainted? I say all of this just to illustrate how challenging it can be to answer just one question we can pose in modal logic. Precisely addressing these issues in modal logic has taxed philosophers for well over a century.


Nonetheless, it seems best to me to pose the question before us concerning Jesus' birth in this way:

  • Are there any possible worlds, in which the world is fallen, in which Jesus Christ is not born as a baby?

I've decided to pose the question in this way for several reasons. First, notice that the negative way in which I posed the question implies that, if the answer is yes, then Jesus' birth is not necessary. If the answer is no, then in any possible world in which the world is fallen, Jesus is born. Second, note that the phrase "the world is fallen" can be ambiguous. When you read that phrase, assume that I mean "the world is fallen, due to human sinfulness." This will be important later in this section. Third, I chose to restrict my consideration of Jesus' birth to only those possible worlds in which the world is fallen because expanding our discussion to possible worlds in which there is no human sinfulness will get us into a much lengthier discussion that I don't want to get into. That is, whether Jesus is born in possible worlds without human sin really has to do with whether Jesus becomes incarnate in such worlds, and I don't want to address so-called "incarnation anyway" models in this post. (For more on that topic, see Oliver Crisp's excellent discussion in chapter 6 of Analyzing Doctrine: Toward a Systematic Theology, 121-138.)


Even with the restriction of our question to just those possible worlds in which the world is fallen, more questions emerge. Jesus' being born is clearly an aspect of the incarnation. Had the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, not become incarnate, then He would not have been born as a human baby. This, however, leaves us with a question:

  • Must the Son have been born in order to be incarnate?

Think about it. Why could Jesus not have just appeared out of thin air, fully grown and ready for His earthly ministry? He would have possessed a human body. Somehow, this suggestion doesn't seem right, but we need to explore why.


The next question that emerges has to do with whether, in all possible worlds in which the world is fallen, the Son becomes incarnate. If not, then He obviously is not born in all of those possible worlds. Thus, our final question for consideration is this:

  • Are there any possible worlds, in which the world is fallen, in which the Son does not become incarnate?

With the relevant questions posed, we will, in the final question, endeavor to answer them and discuss why this exercise can be edifying for the Christian.


The Proposed Answer And Why It Matters


In the third and last section of this post, I will address each of our three questions in this order:

  1. Are there any possible worlds, in which the world is fallen, in which the Son does not become incarnate?

  2. Must the Son have been born in order to be incarnate?

  3. Are there any possible worlds, in which the world is fallen, in which Jesus Christ is not born as a baby?

I've decided to address these question in this order because of their implications. If the answer to the first question is yes, then the answer to the third question, our primary question, is yes. Thus, if we answer yes to the first question, then we're done. We have our answer to the main question we want to answer in this post. However, if the answer to the first question is no, then we have to move on to the second question. If the answer to the second question is yes, then the answer to the third question is no. If it is no, then the answer to the third question is yes. Thus, we must answer these questions sequentially because of their implications.


First, are there any possible worlds, in which the world is fallen, in which the Son does not become incarnate?


Notice that this question qualifies the range of possible worlds we're considering to just those worlds human sin has resulted the Fall. Other than this important similarity, these worlds may look similar to or quite different from the actual world. The crucial question is whether, no matter the other differences between these possible worlds, the Son becomes incarnate in all of them.


Our answer to this question will depend in part on what we take to be the motivation for the incarnation. Though this theological issue - that is, that which motivated the incarnation - might seem needlessly speculative, it has been important in the history of Christian theology. In his famous book, Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-Man?), Anselm of Canterbury argued that the incarnation was necessary so that human sins could be forgiven. Jesus must have been truly human because it takes the sacrifice of a human life to stand in the place of another human's sin. He must have been truly divine, so that His death, which was of infinite value, would be sufficient to atone for the sins of all mankind. Anselm's argument became standard in the history of Christian theology, settling the question of whether anyone else could have possibly done what was achieved through Christ. This, it is clear that in worlds in which sin exists, at least, the primary motivation behind the incarnation is redemptive. It is the salvation of mankind.


But this is not enough to answer the question above. If we take Anselm's argument seriously (as we should), then we know that, in any fallen world in which Jesus comes in the flesh, He will be motivated by the desire to save mankind from his sin. That does not tell us whether there are any possible worlds, in which human sin exists, in which the Father chooses not to send His Son at all. Is it conceivable that God the Father could have decided to leave human beings to their own devices, ensuring that they would face God's wrath without any chance for salvation?


Different Christians, I suspect, will think of this differently, so I dare not be dogmatic here. Attempting to answer this question will take us deep into various considerations of God's nature and character. For now, let me share what, I think, are a few important things to consider. First, notice that God's justice is not in any way violated if He chooses not to save. I, as a sinner, deserve my punishment, whether or not salvation is offered to me. If God chooses not to save, then He is no less just. Second, God's choice to save primarily demonstrates His mercy and grace. In a world in which God chooses not to save, His grace and mercy won't be obvious (or as obvious) to human beings.


Third (and this point is more speculative), it seems plausible to me that God is motivated to actualize a more optimal or good world than one in which salvation is never offered to mankind. Imagine a world in which the story of human history ends in divine eternal punishment. In which salvation is never offered. Such a story would be coherent and understandable. Deserving sinners end up being justly punished. But such a world would seem less optimal or good than a world in which salvation is possible. Assuming that God is motivated to actualize a more optimal or good world than one in which salvation is never offered, then He would not actualize worlds in which He never offers salvation, even if such worlds are possible. Thus, there is no possible world, in which the world is fallen, in which the Son does not become incarnate.


So, the answer to our first question is "no." Though the way we got to that answer is somewhat speculative, I think that it is nonetheless plausible. Given that the incarnation is necessary for man's salvation (because it is necessary for atonement to be achieved), the only way for human beings to find salvation is for the Son to become incarnate. So, if there are fallen possible worlds in which the Son does not become incarnate (worlds that God would be willing to actualize), then God, in some circumstances, would be willing to allow sinful human beings to face punishment without the possibility of salvation. Such possible worlds, conceivably, exist. But, if God wants only to bring about an optimally good world, then He is unwilling to actualize those possible worlds in which He never offers salvation. Thus, if sin exists in any possible world, then God the Father will endeavor to save mankind through His incarnate Son. His self-sacrificial love, mercy and grace extend not just throughout this world but in all possible worlds in which we are foolish enough to fail.


As I've already indicated, I am not dogmatic about this answer, though I find it plausible. If you answer "yes" to this question, then you know the answer to the third question above, which is the one that we really want to answer. If you agree with me, then let's move on to the second question.


Second, must the Son have been born in order to be incarnate?


To me, this is a fascinating question to explore, as it takes us into several overlapping considerations about what's required for a true incarnation as well as whether certain experiences are necessary somehow for being truly human. I can't get into all of these issues in a blog post, so I have to limit myself to only a few points. The stakes, however, are clear. If the Son could have been incarnate without having been born, then being born is not necessary to the incarnation. Thus, His birth in the actual world might have been motivated by some other aspects, of which we know little, of God's will. If this is the case, then there is no necessary connection between the Son's incarnation and His birth. He could have just appeared immediately as an adult man, His flesh fully developed and ready for His earthly ministry. In some ways, that would have been less messy and confusing.


Another way of thinking about this is to consider whether the following argument is sound:

  1. If the Son became incarnate, then He was born as a baby.

  2. The Son was not born as a baby.

  3. Therefore, the Son did not become incarnate.

(For a short primer on logic, check out this post.) Notice that to deny premise (1) of this argument is, in effect, to say that it is not the case that the Son must have been born in order to be incarnate. That is, if premise (1) is false, then the Son could have become incarnate without having consequently been born. If premise (1) is true, then being born is a necessary condition of becoming incarnate as the God-man (along with other necessary conditions, such as being divine, etc.).


Determining whether premise (1) is true is not easy. We could argue that premise (1) is true because being born is necessary to being a human being. In that case, premise (1) would be a particular instance of a broader claim: that "if a person is a human being, then that person was born as a baby." But there is an obvious counterexample to this broader claim: Adam and Eve! They were created as adults, without having been born as babies, yet they are nonetheless human beings. So, premise (1) cannot be true as a result of this broader claim that being born as a baby is a necessary condition for being a human being. In that case, it is false that Jesus must have been born in order to be incarnate.


So, question answered, right? In one sense, yes. The answer to our second question is "no." Since being born as a baby is not necessary for being a human being, then it isn't true that the Son had to be born in order to be incarnate. God the Father could have simply sent the Son as a fully-developed adult male, ready for His earthly ministry. Nonetheless, this possibility seems awfully weird. Additionally, that being born as a baby isn't a necessary condition for being a human being doesn't prove that premise (1) is false. It just makes premise (1) a bit more difficult to defend. And I still think that premise (1) is more plausibly true than false.


Imagine the kind of scenario in which Jesus simply appears, fully developed, without having been born. How is His incarnate state able to be differentiated from a mere theophany (i.e., a physical appearance of God)? Genesis 18 tells us that the Lord, appearing as a man, appears to Abraham and is even fed bread (v. 5). In Genesis 32:24-32, Jacob wrestles with the Lord, who appeared to him as a man. When God simply appears in physical form, it is much more plausible to account for this appearance as a theophany, rather than a full-fledged incarnation. Therefore, it seems to me to be very plausible that God would ensure that this confusion never occurred. It is a contingent reason for Jesus to be born, but perhaps a strong enough reason to show that premise (1) is true.


So, while we are forced to admit that the Son did not have to be born in order to be incarnate, it seems nonetheless plausible that the Son would have been born in any possible world in which He becomes incarnate, so that His incarnate state is not easily mistaken for a theophany. This brings us to our final question.


Third, are there any possible worlds, in which the world is fallen, in which Jesus Christ is not born as a baby?


I must admit that I had initially set out to show that the answer to this question was a definitive "no." Wherever the Son becomes incarnate, I thought, He must be born. But this post just goes to show that careful reasoning sometimes alters your views. While I think that the answer to this question is likely "no," I can't defend that answer with the sort of strong deductive reasoning I initially intended to use.


Nonetheless, we've had much to consider as we've explored our initial question as to whether the Savior had to be born. In all possible worlds in which the world is fallen, God becomes incarnate so as to save human being. The reasoning that led me here is speculative, but I think that it is ultimately right. While God is fully within His rights as God to allow human beings to die in their sin without being offered salvation, I think that He is motivated to actualize a more optimally good world than that: a world in which the awesome scope and power of His self-sacrificial love, mercy, and grace are on full display. By His grace, this is the world in which we live, one in which He has freely chosen to offer us Himself for our salvation, and one in which His Son was born in a manger for the sake of that salvation. Though we couldn't establish that the Son had to be born in order to be incarnate definitively, the Son's lowly birth is an unambiguous demonstration of the incarnation and the lengths to which God was willing to go for us. Thus, as we celebrate this Christmas season, we can remember these things.


Why meditate on these things? In short, I believe that intellectual contemplation is just as important as spiritual meditation. Writing this post has led me to appreciate with more clarity the love of God for me. When we're able to do this via an intellectual exercise, our hearts respond with greater readiness and submission, leading us to a deeper worship of God. So, my hope for you as you read this post is that you may be better equipped to "comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled to all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:18-19 NASB). In that sense, you will surely be edified as I have been in writing this post.


That's it for this post! I hope and pray that you have been just as edified and encouraged by reading these words as I have been in writing them. If you'd like to reach out to me, feel free to email me or message me on Facebook. Otherwise, you can comment on this post. Also, please consider liking the post and sharing it with others. Thank you for reading!

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