Skip to content

The Instrument of the Divine: Christ’s Human Avatar?

August 3, 2011

The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory,
glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

I’ve been enjoying a bit of conversation this week with James Anderson (Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC), who made a guest appearance on the Gospel Coalition blog on Tuesday. Anderson thoughtfully and rigorously engages a reader’s question about divine immutability — in short, whether becoming human in time means that the eternal God has changed. By the reckoning of John 1:14, this ‘becoming’ seems to me to have a great deal of ontological force.  On the other hand, the Christian tradition has regarded it as important to explain the incarnation in ways that do not lose divine immutability.

In a follow-up post tomorrow I’ll come back to some of Anderson’s comments on the relation of the two natures in Christ (a relation of unity-in-distinction).  For now, I’d like to discuss the analogy he offers to illustrate his point:

In the movie Avatar the protagonist, Jake Sully, is enlisted to operate a Na’vi-human hybrid body. Given the close mental connection between Sully and his ‘avatar’ — he acts and experiences everything through that body — we might well say that he inhabits the hybrid body and that he now has two bodies. So consider this question: Can Sully run? Well, yes and no. He can’t run with respect to human body (he’s a paraplegic) but he can run with respect to his avatar body. Similarly, we can say that Jesus was resurrected with respect to his human nature but not with respect to his divine nature. Only in his humanity did he undergo change.

Anderson acknowledges that the analogy is imperfect and only meant to illustrate how a subject can act in a human way (or, in the analogy, in a Na’vi way) without himself being changed by the ‘becoming.’ Furthermore:

I should note as an aside that this analogy is not meant to imply that God the Son merely inhabited a human body! That would be the ancient heresy of Apollinarianism. It’s only meant to illustrate how we can apply the distinction between Christ’s two natures. According to Chalcedon, Christ’s humanity consisted of a soul as well as a body.

In context, the illustration is meant to demonstrate how we can think of Jesus acting with respect to his humanity in some things and with respect to his divinity in others. The relationship between the subject of the Word of God and his human body is therefore analogous to the relationship between Jake Sully and his Na’vi flesh — the Word exists in a divine way and a human way, and can act distinctly in and according to each. He sustains the universe in His divine way of being, and dies in His human way of being.

The Avatar analogy is reminiscent of the instrumentalist view of the incarnation. Now let’s be clear that Jake really does fully inhabit this body, even while he remains, mind and body, in the safety of the laboratory. In the same way, Anderson says, the Word did not merely ‘inhabit’ a human body (i.e., as if His true subjectivity was elsewhere). This point is vital: the connection between Jake and Na’vi, or Word and flesh, is stronger than, say, that of a video game player and his on-screen avatar. The latter indicates a disembodied control: the player is never herself present in the game environment, but acts upon it viz. a digital point of influence. But Jake fully inhabits his Na’vi counterpart — he sees through its eyes, feels sensation on its skin, and perhaps even begins to think in Na’vi ways of thinking. Human flesh is not a mere tool in the Word’s hand, since He joins His Self to it. To fail to acknowledge the fully embodied nature of the instrumentalist account is to not do the position justice.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington)

This notwithstanding, the Word still retains not simply two natures but two distinct ways of being, and the relationship between these two is instrumental. The agent of the Word transcends His human existence in a way similar to Jake Sully, who exists independently of his avatar. In the same way, then, Anderson suggests that the Word of God experiences some things that are proper to his human body (death, resurrection) only in the human way.  These experiences do not apply to his divine life, because — like the human Sully back at the lab — there is an uncompromised distinction between the two natures.

The analogy seems to have broken down at this point: Sully’s more authentic self or ‘subjectivity’ is back in the lab, and he can disconnect himself. Scraping his knee while running through the forest doesn’t affect his human body. Here I’m pressing the analogy much farther than Anderson intends. But what becomes clear is that a greater risk than Apollinarianism is Docetism — the belief that the Word of God only appeared to take on flesh.  The worry over Anderson’s Avatar analogy is that Jake doesn’t really become a Na’vi (well, let’s save the end of the film for the spoilers section) — he embodies and controls a Na’vi, and ontologically speaking those aren’t the same thing.  Jake has a life apart from his avatar (the extra Calvinisticum?); he is a part of the Na’vi when he is plugged in, but the Na’vi isn’t a part of him (again, the end of the film shakes this up). Ultimately, Jake has the ability to disconnect from his avatar — even leave Pandora and return home. When he takes control of his Na’vi avatar he brings his mind and soul with him, but leaves his human body behind — a better analogy for an out-of-body experience or reincarnation than the incarnation.

Perhaps is might be worth exploring whether Jake’s state at the end of the movie is the better analogy for the Word’s authentic becoming. But that would have its own problems: Jake, though his mind and soul are human, leaves behind a key part of his humanity.

Granting the imperfections of the analogy, the question I would like to ask is this: Are we willing to suggest that the Word exists so independent of the flesh that He can decouple from it and leave it behind? That the Word controls or embodies a human life, but does not become irreducibly human? I suggest that instrumentalist ways of thinking about the relationship between the Word and his humanity can’t sustain the fullness of Christ’s humanity. Because they hedges on ‘becoming,’ these accounts must ultimately end in a separation of God from authentic human experience.

What do you think — not just of the Avatar analogy and the work it is doing for the distinction between the two natures in Christ, but of the instrumentalist way of viewing the Word and his own human ‘avatar?’

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2011 2:14 pm

    I’m just amazed anyone made it through this film.

    Thanks for this intro to the issues at hand Darren. I’m looking forward to part two.

  2. August 4, 2011 5:43 pm

    Thanks, Jon — I’m amazed anyone made it through this post! I’m happier with the second one, which is really only tangentially related to this question of instrumentality.

  3. August 4, 2011 6:06 pm


    Thank you for the post. I haven’t seen Avatar yet, not sure I really ever want to 😉 . I am still pondering your question. I think instrumentalism, as it relates to the Logos’ life is never a good thing (which the christological heresies attest to). I too look forward to how you will further unfold this in your next installment.

  4. August 4, 2011 9:59 pm


    I tend to think that ‘instrumental’-ish analogies are quite helpful. I suppose one comes to this type of thing with a set of concerns which will determine the extent to which one finds the analogy helpful. For instance, I think the revision of classical metaphysics and the locating of the humanity of the Son in God’s eternal being (as you argued on TGC) gives up more than it accomplishes. I tend to think impassibility/immutability is/are quite important, and taken in conjunction with a concept of essence/contingency, the Avatar analogy works (reasonably) well for me.

    There have, I think, been good defenses of this type of analogy on a more sophisticated level than what was offered at TGC (see, for example, Leftow and Crisp). Moreover, I think that everyone who thinks that McCormack/Jenson/et al. are right about the eternal humanness of Christ will think that an instrumental analogy borders on Docetism, since anything less than an eternal and ontological becoming is only (in their minds) an ‘appearance’ of incarnation.

    For my money, I am inclined to worry that instrumental analogies verge towards Nestorianism, so this is (potentially, at least in my mind) the harder of the objections to overcome.

    I look forward to reading your post tomorrow.

  5. August 4, 2011 10:41 pm

    Great post, Darren. Lots to think about.

    “Are we willing to suggest that the Word exists so independent of the flesh that He can decouple from it and leave it behind? That the Word controls or embodies a human life, but does not become irreducibly human?”

    I might need to think about this question a little more – maybe I don’t have a strong enough handle on whats at stake here – but my instinct is to see this question as ambiguous until we make clear that pretty much all “can” or “could” questions applied to the Word made flesh hang on grace. The Word COULD have refrained from becoming flesh at all, but at the same time he HAD TO become flesh in order to accomplish God’s plan of salvation. In the same way I think I’d be totally comfortable saying that as to the union of Christ’s two natures in his one person he COULD have decoupled at any time, but at the same time by grace he chose to take on humanity and so he COULDN’T have decoupled from that humanity in light of his salvific mission. The union is important and, I think, eternal, but it is beginning to end a union of grace, one perpetually reliant on the gracious decision of God. I almost wonder if the kind of irreducible humanity you’re looking for isn’t too metaphysical…does that make sense?

  6. August 5, 2011 1:58 am

    Thanks for commenting, guys.

    Bobby: I do pin the instrumentalist model on Athanasius, as well. I think the theological machinations of the fourth century make for an interesting study, showing that instrumentalism can be taken a number of different directions (depending on one’s other theological priorities). Marcellus of Ancyra, for example, was a pro-Nicene pal of Athanasius, but ended up spinning off his instrumentalist view of the incarnation into Sabellian modalism.

    James: I’ve misled you if you gather from this than instrumentalism is only an analogy. If it were, I’d have no problem with it — and, in fact, I suspect that’s how several theologians in the history of the faith have taken it, at least after the fourth century. (I argue that the Council of Constantinople’s decision that Christ’s human nature includes a human soul effectively dead-ends instrumentalism as a live option for orthodoxy.)

    The analogy here is to the movie’s portrayal of the ability of one type of being (a human) to live through another type of being (a Na’vi). But the instrumentalist view to which this is analogous is very real in the history of theology. There certainly are sophisticated defenses of it out there, but when there are other options for construing the Word’s relationship to His humanity I can’t shake the feeling that instrumentalism is only adopted today in order to protect God from the messiness of real human experience. Whatever good it might do (we could try to brainstorm …), surely there are better ways.

    Adam: Awesome. I’ve been caught up this week in (re)thinking through the metaphysics of the incarnation. I’ll happily take the correction in your last sentence. You’re absolutely right to point out that the incarnation itself, as well as the way in which it takes place as the union of a divine subject and creaturely existence, occurs by the will and grace of God.

    That the Word (who is free) remains flesh is by virtue of that same grace by which He became flesh. The grace of the One who loves in freedom, and not metaphysics, is what sustains the unio personalis.

  7. August 5, 2011 12:44 pm


    I didn’t mean to say that instrumentalism is only an analogy.

    Why is it that you think Christ’s having a human soul renders instrumentalism impossible for orthodoxy?

  8. August 5, 2011 1:43 pm


    The short version: The instrumentalist view of the incarnation relies on the direct identification of Christ’s personhood (in the modern sense) — his identity or center of consciousness — with the Word of God. The Word is the acting agent, and the human flesh is the means by which He acts in the world. One the church’s understanding of Christ’s humanity expands to include the soul, which we take to be more closely related to the seat of conscious selfhood, it becomes increasingly difficult to locate Christ’s subjectivity entirely apart from his humanity.

    It may not be impossible to continue to think in instrumental terms after Constantinople I, but I do think it gets much trickier — exponentially more so after Chalcedon, and fractally(!) more so after Constantinople III and dyothelitism. That Christ has a human soul, of course, paved the way for Nestorius’ dual subjectivity in Christ and the debates of the fifth century. I take this as a natural doctrinal progression. But the Cyrillian solution was not to reassert instrumentalism (by arguing, for example, that the human soul of Christ doesn’t count as a ‘person’) but to find a new way of speaking of the Word’s relation to human existence.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Shored Fragments

Theology in the Far Country

Resident Theology

Theology in the Far Country

Storied Theology

Telling the story of the story-bound God


Theology in the Far Country

The Fire and the Rose

Theology in the Far Country

Inhabitatio Dei

Jealous is the night when the Morning comes

Faith and Theology

Theology in the Far Country


Theology in the Far Country

%d bloggers like this: