David Johnson’s NDPR Review

In his NDPR review (2018.06.06) of Klaas Kraay’s Does God Matter? (Routledge, 2018), David Johnson (Yeshiva University) remarks that the chapter Paul Franks and I co-wrote for the volume (see here) is a “nice example of a carefully argued paper in which everything seems to work except the main point.” Well, that doesn’t sound very good. What seems to be the problem?

Dr. Franks and I argued as follows. Let ‘J’ stand for Jesus’ identity property (i.e. being Jesus)--that individuating property essentially unique to Jesus. On the standard Christian view, J will include both GS (the property of being God the Son) and H (the property of being human). The question arises: Is J a creaturely essence: an “essence entailing is created by God?” [1]. If it is, then (on Plantinga's view) like all creaturely essences, J will be subject to transworld depravity, in which case (we went on to argue) dire consequences befall Plantinga’s ‘O Felix Culpa’ theodicy.

That J entails is created by God (C) can be seen as follows:

Since J entails GS and H, it entails H. But it is a necessary truth (on theism) that every property instance of H (e.g., Adam's humanness, Jesus' humanness, and so on) is created by God. By the transitivity of property entailment, therefore, J entails is created by God. Hence, J is a creaturely essence (Does God Matter? p. 212)

But this “seems absurd,” says Johnson; for “the pre-incarnate Jesus is not a created being.” Here is Johnson’s quick way with the argument:

Either the pre-incarnate Jesus was always human, or he wasn't. If he wasn't, then obviously there was a time at which someone had J without having H, in which case the former does not entail the latter. If the pre-incarnate Jesus was always human then, since (as is the case according to orthodox Christianity) the pre-incarnate Jesus is not a created being, H does not entail C. Therefore, either J does not entail H, or H does not entail C. (link)

So it’s a dilemma. And the idea is that on either horn, J does not entail C. Thus what Johnson calls “the main point” of our chapter fails.

Like the rest of his review, which strikes the reader as downright grumpy, Johnson moves too quickly here. The dilemma (in particular its disjunction) is premised on a false assumption: that there is (or could be) such a thing as “the pre-incarnate Jesus.” This is false—at least given how we’ve defined J. For (necessarily) anything identical with Jesus has J, and thus co-exemplifies GS and H. If there were an object answering to the description “the pre-incarnate Jesus,” it would exemplify contradictory properties. It would exemplify H (in virtue of having J) but also non-H (in virtue of being pre-incarnate). It’s an impossible business.

Of course it might be that Johnson is using the expression “the pre-incarnate Jesus” in a slightly different way. Perhaps he’s using it as shorthand for “the pre-incarnate Son”—i.e., God the Son prior to his acquiring H. There’s certainly nothing incoherent about that. The question is whether this move helps Johnson’s dilemma at all. The short answer is: It doesn’t. For then his first conditional premise comes out false. Making the appropriate adjustments, it would read as follows:

CP:  If God the Son was not always human, then there was a time at which God the Son had J without having H.

However, while on standard Christian doctrine, CP’s antecedent is true, its consequent is certainly false. For it implies that it’s possible that God the Son has J. But if so, God the Son is essentially human; and if being human entails being embodied, it will then be necessary (given that God the Son is a necessary being) that material bodies exist. All of this is just a bit much to put up with as far as Christian doctrine goes.

The important thing to see is that what CP’s consequent depicts is impossible: that there is a time at which God the Son lacks H while having J. It’s not possible. So we have a false conditional: CP’s antecedent is true; its consequent is false.

In the end, therefore, I can’t see that Johnson’s four sentence dismissal of our chapter is very convincing. I would greatly welcome from him a more charitable, nuanced, and careful critique of our arguments in any of the fine peer-reviewed journals in philosophy of religion.

— Richard Brian Davis


[1] Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 188, fn. 1.