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)

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

God in the Flesh: Pondering the Incarnation

We are quickly approaching another Advent and Christmas season. As I begin to reflect upon my preaching for those times, I am pondering again and perhaps somewhat anew, the incarnation. It is one thing to affirm that in Jesus Christ God has become flesh in our midst. It is quite another thing to explain what that means. Of course, first and foremost, before the discussion begins, we must confess that what we are attempting to handle is mystery. The limits of human intellect and language can only reflect and express an understanding of God in the flesh quite inadequately. That does not mean, however, that the doctrine of the incarnation cannot be expressed satisfactorily.

One of the problems encountered in many accounts of incarnation is that theologians attempt to squeeze their concept of God into their understanding of Christ. They work through the nature and attributes of God-- his omnipresence and omniscience, his sovereignty and holiness-- and with that notion of God as wholly other, they attempt to package that in their doctrine of Christ. The result all too often is a divine Jesus that is too aloof and detached from the humanity that God has come to embody. Thus to keep the divine Jesus pure and perfect, theologians have had to play interpretive gymnastics with portions of the biblical text. Could a divine Jesus actually have been tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13)? Could a divine Jesus not know the hour of his return (Mark 13:32)?

The difficulty, it appears, is working through our Christology with a previously worked out doctrine of God, in which Jesus ends up having to exhibit all the characteristics and attributes of our understanding of God in order for the affirmation of his divinity to have any integrity. Thus, we end up with a functionally docetic Christology in which Jesus is affirmed as human, without having the characteristics and nature required to make one human.

Perhaps a better way to get at this is to turn the issue on its head, so to speak; to start with Christology and work through our understanding of Jesus Christ and how he illuminates our understanding of God. Instead of squeezing our doctrine of an immense God into the person of Jesus, we should utilize our doctrine of Christ in order to formulate our understanding of God. It was the great theologian Karl Barth who argued that the Son was the coordinating concept of the doctrine of the Trinity. Barth has been criticized by some for this view because it can undermine the equality of the members of the Godhead, placing the Son at the center in a way that might erode the very doctrine of the Trinity itself.

But when viewed from the vista of historical theological reflection, this makes good sense. It was precisely through its early Christological reflections that the church moved into Trinitarian theology. It was the affirmations of the person of Jesus that necessitated reflection on the doctrine of God as Trinity.

Beginning with Christology in our Trinitarian reflections frees our theology from a divine Jesus that is less than human. It is no longer a problem to have a divine Jesus who is ignorant of the Father’s timing. It is no longer a dilemma to have a divine Jesus who is really tempted to act contrary to godly character. It is no longer an issue to have a divine Jesus who gets hungry and tired and who breathes his last on the cross. It remains a mystery, to be sure, but when we no longer feel the need to squeeze our doctrine of God into our understanding of Christ, we are free to probe the profound depths of how it is that God actually takes on flesh in order to share the very humanity God comes to save. The great theologian and hymn writer Charles Wesley expresses it well,

“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
     hail th’ incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
     Jesus our Emmanuel.”

The very presence of God is veiled in the flesh of Jesus. In taking on human flesh, God has chosen to get into the muck and the mire of the human situation, to “roll up his sleeves” and work for us on our behalf in this all too imperfect world. Here is a God who willingly gets down and dirty in order to cleanse us and make us whole. In this Jesus, the divine and the human meet so that we flawed and frail human beings might be renewed in the image of the divine.

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