Cognitive Science, Incarnation, and the Fullness of Time

January 26th, 2018 by

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. – Luke 2:1-2

 I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead. – The Apostles’ Creed

Christianity is a faith concerned with history. Embedded within its founding documents and traditions are numerous hints that getting correct the times and places at which these events occurred really matters. Supremely important among these events is the incarnation of Christ. Christians claim that Jesus was born in a specific time and a specific place. Claims like this matter to Christians because it matters to them that the events of the gospel actually happened in history. Now, if Christians believe that it is important that the events of the gospel actually happened at these times and these places, we might wonder: does it matter to Christians that these events happened at the particular times and places that they in fact did? In other words, could the events of the gospel have happened in some other time and place? More specifically, given the actual course of history, could the incarnation have happened in some other time and place? Justin Barrett, Professor of Psychology and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science of religion, set out to answer this question.

Seminar Re-Cap

During our first Analytic Theology seminary, Barrett delivered a paper titled: “If God Were a Cognitive Scientist.” He pointed to some areas of contact between cognitive science and theology. Some theological issues Barrett suggested might benefit from the field of cognitive science include the problem of divine hiddenness, the revelatory nature of miracles, and the time and place of the incarnation. Barrett focused primarily on this last topic.

Leaning on his work as a cognitivist scientist Barrett explained that certain conceptual systems and cultural scaffoldings are necessary in order for communication to take place among human beings. Knowing that there were some people attending the seminar who were unfamiliar with the terms of cognitive science, Barrett explained that “cultural scaffolding” consists of those things which are external to us as humans which we use to address “processing” limitations. Thus, we might think of cultural scaffolding as “processing prosthetics.” Examples of cognitive scaffolding include drawing, writing, asking others, working in teams, thinking socially, etc. All of these things extend what humans are capable of thinking about.

Cultural scaffolding is required for successful human communication. The same is true for divine/human communication. Says, Barret: “If God were a cognitive scientist he would know some things about the conceptual apparatus necessary for communication.” Assuming that the incarnation is a foundational act of self-revelation, if God were going to ensure that humanity understood this self-revelation, then God would need to ensure that the conditions for communication were just right. Barrett, in an ode to Analytic Theology, helpfully articulated this thought in a series of lucid and brief theses:

P1 – The incarnation was an act of revelation, bridging a conceptual gap so that humans might understand who God is.

P2 – This revelation is for all people, and not just the local witnesses.

P3 – This revelation could not be transmitted via basic oral tradition but requires significant scaffolding.

P4 – Therefore the incarnation needed to happen at such a time and place where cultural scaffolding was available.

P5 – Cultural scaffolding was available widespread at the time, slightly before the incarnation, but not much earlier.

P1 and P2 seem pretty uncontroversial to me. P3 might seem controversial; after all, couldn’t God just “zap” his revelation as a series of propositions straight into human minds and bypass the need for cultural scaffolding? Given human nature as embodied beings, with the particular cognitive systems humans have, the answer (according to cognitive science) seems like maybe God couldn’t. P4 seems intuitive if one accepts P1-P3. P5 however is open to historical investigation. What were the cultural scaffoldings necessary for effective revelation? Were they actually available? Barrett suggested that in order for the self-revelation of God incarnate to make its way beyond local witnesses to the whole world then several things would have needed to be in place. These things include: writing systems, routine gatherings of groups of people, the practice of listening, habits of repetition and memorization, and modes of transporting communication to other locations. Given the existence of these things and practices it seems as though the right time for the incarnation to become a global act of revelation was precisely at or slightly before the actual time of incarnation.

Theological Additions

 Barrett’s argument is essentially a cognitive-scientific approach to showing that for the purposes of self-revelation the incarnation actually happened at the “fullness of time.” There are other approaches one can take to show this, for instance one might take a theological approach. For those interested in theological approaches, T.F. Torrance is a helpful resource.

In The Mediation of Christ, Torrance argues that if we are going to know God then “we need to have fitting modes of thought and speech, adequate conceptual forms and structures, and indeed reverent and worthy habits of worship and behavior governing our approach to him.” (6) Like Barrett who spoke of “cultural scaffolding” or “processing prosthetics” Torrance speaks of a set of “spiritual tools.” These tools include the appropriate forms of understanding, worship, and expression. Without these tools in place the knowledge of God would not be accessible to human beings. According to Torrance God has in fact given us these tools. He explains, “God’s revelation of himself through the medium of Israel has provided mankind with permanent structures of thought and speech about him.” (17) What are these structures of thought and speech? Torrance lists several of these: the Word and Name of God, holiness, messiah, savior, prophet, priest and king, father, son, servant, covenant, sacrifice, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, atonement, and the patterns of worship and liturgy. All of these concepts and practices were hammered out throughout the course of history in the life of Israel prior to the incarnation. One might consider these concepts and practices as akin to Barrett’s conceptual systems and cultural scaffolding – they are the things that enable us to receive God’s self-communication to us. However, these concepts and practices do more than just help us understand the self-revelation of the incarnation – without them in place the incarnation would not be received as communication. Here I quote Torrance at length:

If the Word of God had become incarnate among us apart from all that, it could not have been grasped – Jesus himself would have remained a bewildering enigma. It was just because Jesus, born from above as he was, was nevertheless produced through the womb of Israel, mediated to us through the matrix of these conceptual and linguistic patterns, that he would be recognized as Son of God and Saviour… It was because God mediated his revelation to mankind in that patient, informing way through the history of Israel and within the interpretive framework of its relation with God in salvation and worship, that people were able in that context to know God in Jesus and enter into communion with him, and to proclaim him to the world. (19)

If Barrett is right that certain cultural scaffoldings needed to be in place for the incarnation to communicate effectively God’s self-revelation and Torrance is right that without certain conceptual, linguistic, and liturgical patterns we would not understand the significance of Jesus, then perhaps when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal 4:4-5) And perhaps, the “fullness of time” was no other time than when the incarnation actually happened.

Christopher Woznicki is a PhD student in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He received a MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and a BA in Philosophy from UCLA. Christopher has written several journal and encyclopedia articles on Jonathan Edwards.

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