God Become Man: Toward a Richer Theology of the Incarnation

For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. —St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

A Mistake

It has been common these past few years to speak of “incarnational theology” as a way of describing the Christian mission to the world: we ought to “incarnate” Christ to the world as Christ “incarnated” the Godhead to us.[1] There is much to appreciate in this sentiment. It represents an appropriate recognition that humans are God’s image-bearers. It pays heed to the New Testament’s assertion that Christians are the body of and ambassadors for Christ. It takes seriously Paul’s shocking language of “filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). It rightly points to the synthesis of missionary activity and social activism that represents the best of evangelicalism.

Yet for all that, I think that applying the language of incarnation to believers is a serious mistake. It is not that this way of speaking is wholly wrong but that it tends to blind us to the uniqueness of the Incarnation of Christ. God becoming man was an astounding event, a greater thing than any of our philosophers or poets had imagined. Thus Lewis wrote, “It was the central event in the history of the Earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about” (Miracles). When we speak of ourselves “incarnating” Christ, we begin to blur out the sheer shock of the event. When Jesus came, God was here with us, but now we stand in the time between the times, waiting for him because he is not—not as he was, and not as he will be.[2]

Moreover, incarnational language is a hermeneutical failure: it is a misapplication of the New Testament “body” metaphor for the church. Whenever the apostles use bodily language to talk about the church, they do so to point to the unity of the people of God, not to the evangelistic impulse. The authors of the New Testament chose other images instead: fishermen, or servants working in the absence of their master, ambassadors and representatives to name just a few. Indeed, at no point does the Bible use the metaphor of the body describe Christian witness to the world. So we would do well to set aside the idea that we “incarnate” Christ. We do not incarnate him, because we cannot—the Incarnation was unique—but that does not negate the instincts of which the theology of the last few years has been an expression. It simply means that we need to do better in expressing those ideas.

Important as these semantic issues are, though, there is a much more significant problem: namely, how much we miss when our incarnational theology is about us instead of about Jesus.

On the Incarnation

I have come to tears in a class only once in my life—a few weeks ago, listening to my theology professor exult in what Christ did for us in the Incarnation. In evangelical churches, we often discuss Jesus’ death on the cross, and sometimes his perfect life or his resurrection.[3] Rarely, however, do we speak of the Incarnation. It usually only gets a mention at Christmas—usually when we talk about how the Virgin Birth was necessary for the fulfillment of prophecy, one of many confirmations that Jesus was indeed the foretold Messiah.

But the Incarnation means more than this. It always has. That God became a man is bigger than paying for our sins—marvelous though that alone would be. The language is there throughout the whole New Testament:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

—Luke 1:76–79

Zechariah’s prophecy includes salvation from sin, yes, but it points to something more: light coming into the world, death’s power ending, and peace reigning. How does Christ’s work accomplish those? It seems to be at least partly in his coming into the world.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And 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 bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

—John 1:11–18

John couples the Incarnation of Christ—not his death or resurrection, but his becoming flesh—to our becoming children of God once again. His description of the Incarnation points to our adoption.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

—Colossians 2:9–10

Paul goes on in Colossians to talk of the penal substitutionary aspect of Christ’s work in very definite terms—but he starts here by showing how we are filled in Christ even as the “whole fullness”[4] of deity dwells in him.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

—Hebrews 2:14–18

Hebrews shows us Jesus as propitiation for our sins—hallelujah!—and it also shows us his help for us because he has suffered under temptation just as we have. More: his death delivers us not only from the penalty from sin, but also from death and the power of the devil.

We could go on, and on, and on. The Incarnation matters, and it matters as more than a means of getting Jesus to the cross so that he could die for our sins. We evangelicals too often reduce everything to penal substitutionary atonement. Yes, the atonement is incredible and amazing. It is one of the central affirmations and joys of the Christian faith: our sins are paid for! Glory to God! But Jesus did more than that, and he is worthy of yet more praise. He did not stop at paying the price for our sins while leaving our bodies subject to corruption. He did not content himself with performing a judicial act while leaving our wills broken, certain to turn again to the same sin that led to our death in the first place.

Redemption is not less than substitutionary atonement, to be sure—but it is more, much more. Redemption is the forgiveness of sins. Redemption is the cleansing from unrighteousness—not only from its guilt, but from its corrupting stain on our souls. Redemption is our wills being unchained from the power of sin. Redemption is partaking in the divine nature. Redemption is resurrection from the dead—not a rescuscitation from which we will only die again, but being raised to immortality. Redemption is the mending of our communion one with another. Above all, redemption is the restoration of fellowship with God: Jesus took up our flesh that he might unite humanity once again with the Triune Godhead.

As we were in the beginning, so shall we be again—but better.

Saint Athanasius said it best long ago:

For being Word of the Father, and above all, He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father….

He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery— lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for naught— He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours….

And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father— doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.

—Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation

If Christ did not unite every corner of what it is to be human with his divinity—without the Incarnation—we remain guilty, foolish, wicked, common, enslaved, indebted, dead. But with the Incarnation, we have everything. We have been transformed from guilt to innocence, folly to wisdom, wickedness to righteousness, commonness to holiness, slavery to freedom, debt to heirdom, death to life. All of that in the Incarnation, where the God-man remade us as humans-with-God. Hallelujah.


If you have not read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, you should. It is one of the most important books in the history of the church, and therefore in the history of the world. It is also short. Do yourself the great favor of getting a copy and reading it well. For my part, I have made a commitment to read it on March 25—the day on which the church has traditionally celebrated the Annunciation of Christ to Mary—every year for the rest of my life. I think it is that important.


  1. The use of the adjective as a verb is annoying, but perhaps tolerable in light of the lack of a suitable alternative.  ↩

  2. Yes, the Spirit indwells us, and yes, God is everywhere. But the picture we have in the consummation of all things is God with us in a deeper way—and we do not have that yet.  ↩

  3. Though we spend far too little time on either Jesus’ life or resurrection.  ↩

  4. What a phrase!  ↩

email

The Love of God

The cross of Jesus Christ is the manifestation of the love of God to earth. As such, it is the most powerful image of love. It is the substance, the reality.

Is it possible to convey the reality of the love of God through metaphors or images that are not sacrificial? I am at a loss for how to do so without losing a specifically Christian concept of “love.”

Can Justice allow for substitution?

Question: In what way is substitutionary atonement and sacrifice just?

Problem: Generally, when justice is demanded, it not merely that a payment be made, but that a particular person make the payment. For example, when a woman is found raped and murdered at the bottom of the Mississippi, justice does not lead the police to handcuff the next man on the street, drag him to prison and give him the death penalty; rather, every effort is made to find the particular man who committed the crime, and drag that man to prison and give him the death penalty. Even if an innocent man were to step forward and offer to take the penalty in place of the guilty man, it would not be allowed–indeed, it would not be just for the innocent to suffer in the place of the guilty. I cannot think of a single instance where an injustice committed against a person’s body or soul can be made right by punishing anyone other than the perpetrator of the crime. The only cases where substitution can be satisfactorily made are cases involving money, property or goods–in such cases it is permissible for a benefactor to provide restitution for the stolen/lost/damaged goods in the stead of the guilty one.

It seems to me that the sinfulness of man is more analogous to crimes committed against body or soul (against the character, essence or personality of subjects), than to crimes involving stolen/lost/damaged money, property or goods (crimes involving inanimate, impersonal objects). When man sins he disobeys God, rebels against Him, and refuses to acknowledge His authority. The sin he commits comes from the depth of his being, and stems from a wicked attitude, mindset or heart that purposes to flout God’s commands and follow his own desires instead. This is an affront to God’s character; it is scoffing at His essence and character (crime against a subject), and is not merely taking or disregarding something external to God (an object).

Therefore, how is it just that Jesus paid our debt and covered our guilt when we stood guilty for crimes against the person of God? Further, how is it just that God accepted this payment and allowed sinful man to be counted free? (It seems to be even more unjust that God essentially paid Himself off since He was both the Sacrifice and the Judge).

Possible Solutions:
1) Sin is not analogous to crimes against subjects, but rather to crimes involving external objects like money, property or goods. However, if this is the case, it is hard to understand why blood is required for the sin. Can it be just to require that payment for an object be the death of a subject? This seem incongruous.

2) By becoming a man, God, as the second person of the Trinity, came to share in the corporate guilt of man and so could be justly punished as a man among men; however, just as all men became guilty through the sin of their corporate head, Adam, so all men could become guiltless through the punishment of their corporate head, Jesus. In other words, although Jesus himself never sinned against the person of God, He in some way could become guilty by association with men when He became a man (in the same way that newborn children can be guilty by association with men even though they have not personally sinned). Thus, He could be justly punished. However, being at the same time without sin, His punishment could be applied to men–again, by the same principle of association–and so all men vicariously share in the punishment without actually being punished individually. The main difficulty with this solution is understanding how punishment and absolvement can ever be vicariously applied through an individual who stands as a corporate head or representative; this seems contrary to our notions of justice in which the individuals committing the crime must be individually held accountable for their actions (see the original problem). The problem is only partially dealt with by somehow involving Jesus directly with the sins of man (i.e. He is now one of the individuals of whom justice can be demanded); however, if He remains sinless, it is still problematic to understand how He can atone for the crimes of others.

“Indeed”

On this day we commemorate the day when the Christ, the Lord of all, vanquished the power of death for all. Death was Satan’s final stronghold, and man’s final obstacle, and it was defeated on that first Easter morn.
Jesus in the Gospel of John states: “For God loved the world in this way, namely, that He gave His only Son.” By giving Himself over to the hands of men, God submitted himself to the unjust and unfair treatment of men. In so doing, he answered those who would claim that because of the evils of this world, God could not exist. He experienced the unjustness they claim is inherent in the world–He experienced Himself the sort of unjustified and senseless suffering that we often stumble over. Yet Christ overcame the power of death and sin–the senseless and cruel evils of this world are not strong enough to overpower the light of the goodness and glory of God, goodness and glory which are manifested in the redemption which Christ completed on Easter morning.
Christ has shown to us the path which we all must travel. Nietsche thought that what didn’t kill him would strengthen him. Christ reveals that strength is available only through the dying and rising again, a process which we celebrate on this happy Easter day.

Easter Prayer after reading Augustine’s “Confessions”

Lord, you are good and your promises never fail. I bless you most precious God, maker and sustainer of the universe. I am learning much through Augustine right now. He fell away from you and must return, but can only do so through and because of your wondrous grace. He and I can only return to you, our Home, our eternal and perfect and blessed God, source of all good, by the condescension made by our sweet Lord, Jesus Christ.
He did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but even then let it go to take on human form. Our blessed Lord became a man! And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. How great and awesome! May praises never cease to ring about this intoxicating truth.
Yet the story of redemption doesn’t end there. He did not only become a man, but lived a perfect life as a man: the life we all should have lived (and that you call us to now with all its blessings and joy in the easy yoke). Our perfect Lord did more than live a perfect life: He was obedient to death, even death on a cross. He endured unspeakable sorrow, rejected by all men, even his closest disciples. He boldly faced rejection by His Father, our Father, who is our source of good, who loves us and cares for us forever and ever. Jesus submitted to the Father’s scorn as all mankind was punished through Him as “justice cut the deepest lash.” (Herbert’s The Sacrifice) He suffered unspeakable agony on the cross, yet counted it joy for what was set before Him.
The joy is that He rose again. Life, sweet life, is now attainable through the Resurrection. He is seated at the right hand of God and sent His Spirit to help us through the rest of our journey.
Good Father, let us learn and reflect more and more upon you as we go. Let blessed Augustine be our example as he took time to be and not to be made up of a collection of doings. Let our lives be characterized by steady reflection and introspection, yielding great fruit as our meditations and disciplines allow us to love our brethren and the world around us. Let our lives look like the life lived (and died) by Jesus. Let us take up our crosses and trust that our loving Father, who loves us as His own sons, would raise us up again.
Praise God! Praise Him from whom all blessings flow! Praise Him all creatures here below! Praise now and always to the righteous, blessed, and glorious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the name of Christ! Amen.

The Quotable Karl

Barth, not Popper.

There is no doctrine more dangerous than the Christian doctrine of the atonement, it does indeed make “wild and careless folk” (Heid. Cat., qu. 64), if we do not consider it with this warning in view. The fact that it speaks of God making good what we have spoiled does not mean that we can call evil good (unless we would also call good evil). All our thinking and all that we say on this matter must be disciplined by an observance of this limit, and a refusal to transgress it in any circumstances, sense or direction.

Simply, those who proclaim “felix culpa” make a category error. The fall was not, and cannot be happy. To suggest that God’s making evil good means evil is good is to misunderstand the very nature of atonement, or so says Karl Barth.

I’ve recently had my baptism into Barth and have not been disappointed, especially since I get to read him with one of the finest minds I’ve ever encountered. The small slice of Barth’s theology (on the Reconciliation) I’ve read has been complex and dense, but compelling. Barth’s work needs a warning label–it is for the theological sophisticate, and shouldn’t be tackled without the help of someone acquainted with his work. However, if anyone wants heart-warming, intellectually robust theology that fits in the tradition of Calvin, Barth is the guy to go to.

Back from the Dead…

My brother’s recent “Best of” post reminded me of a conversation that I had left unfinished. He writes in response to my question about the point of his contentions:

[The point is that] Jesus can’t be taken at his word[.] Or, perhaps, his own closest friends didn’t have a clue to his intentions, pre- or post-resurrection. First they expected him to overthrow Rome. He didn’t. Then they expected him to return on his stated timetable. He didn’t. After the “disappearance of God” in the Old Testament, this has to be the second-greatest disappointment in Biblical history.

The response to this disappointment is simple: Jesus never claimed to return within the generation of his disciples. I will limit my comments to the Gospel of Matthew, though similar points could be made from Mark (and probably Luke, though I haven’t read that as closely).

Jesus, in Matthew, seems to claim his return is imminent in two places: 23:36, and 24:34. In both, he states that “all these things” shall happen during the lifespan of “this generation” (or the generation of his disciples).

On the other hand, Jesus seems to indicate that his return will be delayed in a host of other places. In 25:5 (the “Parable of the Virgins”), the bridegroom is delayed for so long that the virgins grow drowsy. Within the context of Chapter 24, this clearly refers to Christ. Furthermore, in the subsequent “Parable of the Talents”, it takes a “long time” for the master to come and settle accounts, which again seems to refer to Christ’s second coming.

Furthermore, Jesus claims in 24:14 that the gospel must be preached to the whole world before his return, and the “Great Commission” at the end of the Gospel implies that the disciples have a significant task to perform before his return.

One final point: in 24:36, two verses after Jesus allegedly claims he will return within that generation, Jesus reminds his listeners that no one knows the day or the hour of the Son’s return, “not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”

Clearly, then, it seems unlikely that Jesus Himself thought he was going to return within that generation. One can account for his statement in 24:34 by limiting the scope of “all things” to the destruction of the temple, a limiting that seems plausible in light of the disciples question in 24:3 and in light of Jesus’s reference to the “Parable of the Fig Tree” in 32 and 33. The fact that the fig tree has put forth it’s leaves only means that summer is near, not that it has arrived. The imminence of the fall of Jerusalem is not identical to the imminence of Jesus’s return.

Regardless, the evidence that Jesus claimed to return within that generation seems remarkably thin. Be not disappointed, brother, for the King is coming yet! Even so, come Lord Jesus.