A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Jesus, the Son of God in the Flesh for All Eternity

Christ the KingSpot on stuff from Roger Olson:
I don't remember when it first occurred to me that the majority of American Christians seem to think the incarnation was temporary, a mere interim in the eternal existence of the Son of God, the Word, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity. Early in my career of teaching Christian theology to undergraduates (seventeen years at two Christian institutions of higher learning) I discovered that most of my students assumed that, to put it crassly, Jesus "dropped" his humanity at his ascension (if not before). Now, they believed, he is back in his purely spiritual existence with the Father and the Holy Spirit as he was before he was born in Bethlehem. Now, they believed, he is no longer a man, the man who died on the cross, but a super-spiritual, omnipresent, being who is not limited in any ways. After all, they argued, he lives in all Christians' hearts, doesn't he?

When I probed students about this belief they gave many answers.

Well, we expect these confusions to appear among fifth graders in Sunday School. It's common, garden variety Sunday School theology. But somewhere along the way, during my catechesis as a young evangelical, I shed these ideas and came to believe in the incarnation as an event in time (and in the life of God!) and as permanent.

I suspect, however, that somewhere along the way, during the 1960s through the 1990s and until now, most churches have abdicated their responsibility to teach Christian young people doctrine and theology. Over the years of teaching theology to Christian undergraduates I noticed a decline in their knowledge of basic Christian belief which is one reason I wrote The Mosaic of Christian Belief. I had students who grew up in pastors' and missionaries' homes declaring they had never heard of the bodily resurrection before and accusing me of introducing novel ideas when all I was doing was introducing them to basic Christian orthodoxy!

This is what I call the dominance of folk religion or folk theology in American Christianity.

One item of folk religion is the belief among Christians that the incarnation was temporary-- a mere interim and perhaps even a charade in the life of the Son of God, God's Word, the Logos. For many evangelicals (and others, I suspect), the incarnation was simply the Son of God "putting on human skin" for thirty-some years in order to teach us how to please God and then to die for our sins. Either at the moment of his death or at his resurrection or at his ascension he shed that human skin and returned to his glorious pre-incarnation existence as God's purely spiritual Son in heaven who also, somehow, dwells in every Christian's heart.

This is, of course, an informal form of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. It is a docetic Christology. Most of the time I find that people who believe the incarnation was temporary don't really believe in the incarnation at all! That is, they tend to think of Jesus' humanity as an act, an outward performance, not a real human nature and existence like ours. To many Christians "Jesus" was Clark Kent to the Son of God's super-human glory.

I fear that much American Christianity is very weak on the incarnation. We celebrate Jesus' birth, but do we really understand what this event was? I doubt it. It was, according to Scripture and the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy, God taking on our humanity forever. It was God adopting our lowly existence as his own in order to bridge the gap between him and us. It was the beginning of the dying of death, the conquering of sin and death, the union of God with creation. It was the "great exchange" in which, as the ancient church fathers put it, God became what we are so that we might become what he is (theosis)-- that we might share in his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

Somehow American Christianity (and I suspect Christianity in many places) needs to rediscover the Bible and basic Christian orthodoxy. The great irony is that we fight a "war" over Christmas with secularists while neglecting our own Christian belief about the incarnation, allowing it to slowly fade away into a bland, overly spiritualized, modern Gnosticism.
The entire post, "Is the Son of God Still a Human Being? A Meditation on the Incarnation," here.


Patrick said...

Excellent point.

When I first had my faith challenged as a young man, it finally occurred to me I was sort of doing this.

Jesus had become more of a spirit God to me.

Research into the historic Christ, THE historic MAN I could study on, served to cement my faith back.

Robert Brenchley said...

It's commonplace to hear conservatives banging on about the divinity of Christ, but I've never yet heard anyone insisting on his humanity in similar terms! I think we have the same problem on both sides of the Atlantic.

Patrick said...

I'll go so far as to say as a young man, I didn't like Jesus constantly referring to Himself as "the son of man".

It took a long while for me to agree that He is what God created as a fully human being and that's an awesome thing.