Incarnation: implications of Christ as embryo

For this Christmas week I thought it appropriate to do some posts on the mystery of the Incarnation. The posts are prompted from a book I’m browsing by Oliver Crisp called God Incarnate: explorations in Christology in preparation for teaching a course on Christology in the New Year.

Today – an applied Christology of the person

In a chapter on ‘Christ and the Embryo’ Crisp develops an essay on the status of embryo as person and related modern bioethical issues.

[This relates to a Forum we had at church recently on start of life issues led which Dr Andy Neil reflects on here]

Interesting and important territory, rarely I suspect, covered.

To be honest I’m not a great fan of the highly rational, ‘analytical’ and somewhat speculative form of theological argument that Crisp is engaged in. It seems far removed from the earthiness,  reality and story of the NT gospels and epistles. But it does develop important theological perspectives but you’ve got to have your left side of the brain in gear to stay with it.

He offers a Christological argument for viewing humans as persons from conception. And further suggests that a properly Christian theological account of personhood cannot ignore the Christological implications that the Word became flesh.

Big chapter, so cutting to the chase:

To hold to a Chalcedonian orthodoxy of the person of Christ [Jesus Christ; fully God, fully man consisting of two natures, human and divine, united in one person] Crisp argues that Jesus must be considered a fully human being at conception.

Why? Orthodox Christology says that the Incarnation is where the divine Word assumes a fully human nature, the two are united in the one person of Jesus Christ. There is never a moment when the human nature of Christ is not united to his divine nature. To ‘delay’ this unity to a point beyond conception (say for example the foetus ‘becomes human’ at some later stage of development) would be to lapse into (a temporary) form of Apollinarianism (that Christ only appeared to be fully human but had not a human soul).

It is important for Christology that the human nature assumed by the Word is complete; otherwise the Word is not fully human at the moment of Incarnation.

And this has implications for how we think about human personhood generally.

Like Christ other human beings are conceived with a complete human nature.

This is not to say that this is a complete definition or description of human personhood – but it is a ‘minimum threshold’ for human personhood.

And it is interesting and slightly bizarre (and new to me anyway) that Thomas Aquinas did NOT believe that Christ had a normal foetal development. Because he believed that only a fully formed embryo could have a ‘rational’ soul (for males after 40 days), he held that Jesus was conceived as a fully formed embryo!

Crisp does engage with various objections to his proposal.

– If personhood begins at conception, what of all the wasted embryos? (perhaps 50% of embryos are lost naturally).

– Saying personhood begins at conception is easier than actually knowing when conception occurs – it isn’t that clear.

– Human personhood requires development of the embryo beyond a bunch of cells – perhaps a heartbeat, perhaps a primitive streak, perhaps a brain.

I haven’t space here to get into his responses – I will if someone asks in a comment ! 🙂

So Crisp concludes that if a compelling Christological argument can be made that human personhood begins at conception, there are significant bioethical implications for IVF, stem-cell research, and abortion.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

4 thoughts on “Incarnation: implications of Christ as embryo

  1. Although conception is hardly an immediate easily definable moment it seems at least easier to identify than a lot of the other points for defining personhood.

    cheers for the post

  2. I have read some Jewish sources who point to the moment the fetus is infused with blood as the moment the soul is united with the body. (Forgive me, but I do not recall when this element of fetal development occurs.)

    The basis for this life being in the blood. It is an interesting take on the beginning of the human life

  3. Thanks Andy and Emily
    On this point Crisp argues that while it is obvious that an embryo is not capable of conscious thought because certain ‘hardware’ has not yet developed – this does not negate personhood. After all there are many cases of adults not being capable of conscious thought but few are willing to go so far as to say they are no longer persons. And if you want to speculate you could throw in here the ‘intermediate state’ between death and resurrection – are those ‘asleep’ before their resurrection no longer persons because they lack a physical brain etc …

  4. I’ve read parts of Crisp’s book (namely, the sections you’ve mentioned) and the question that comes to mind is: What does it Crisp mean when he states that Christ became Incarnate at His conception? Perhaps, Christ’s conception was not an embryonic conception (though, this seems to be the Orthodox understanding — and Crisp’s understanding). All that seems to matter is that Christ’s conception and Incarnation occurred simultaneously — what exactly this means though seems murky in Crisp’s theology. Would you have any sources suggesting that Christ’s conception was in fact an embryonic conception and not something different? (It seems obvious that this is the case, but I’ve found that arguments for this are far and few between). If it wasn’t an embryonic conception, Thomas Aquinas’ picture seems a bit more plausible (look up the following article: immediate animation & delayed humanization by JF Donceel, S.J.).

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