Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Mystery of the Incarnation: How Can the Word Become Flesh?

The Christian church confesses that the eternal Son of God became a human being in Jesus Christ, lived a human life, and died a human death for our salvation. The prologue to the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (1:1). In verse 14, we hear that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The man Jesus is the eternal Word of God. Paul speaks about the one who dwelt in the “form of God” emptying himself and humbling himself to take on the “form of a slave” and to die on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). And in Colossians, he speaks of Christ as the one in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” The writer of Hebrews speaks of one who secured purification from sins as the one “through whom also God made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Hence the New Testament certainly teaches that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who existed with the Father before he was made flesh. But how did his disciples arrive at this knowledge, and what does it mean to say that the Word became flesh or that the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily? These questions are not easily answered. It seems clear, however, that the doctrine of incarnation was not understood during Jesus’ earthly life. Only after the resurrection did this become clear. What changed?

It seems to me evident from  the New Testament teaching about the resurrection of Jesus, his post-resurrection appearances, and his close connection to the sending of the Holy Spirit, that the disciples experienced the risen Jesus as one whom God had designated from all eternity as Lord, Savior, Revealer, Creator, and Judge. These functions cannot be carried out by a mere human or even an angel. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). But Jesus Christ could not be thought of as a mere instrument God used or a space in which God dwelt while doing this work. The risen Jesus is one with God in will and action. God acts “through” and “in” Jesus. But Jesus is not the Father. Nevertheless, in calling Jesus Christ the Word of God or the Son of God the apostles view Jesus Christ as some sort of “extension” of God.

The disciples did not realize fully the identity of Jesus as the Son/Word of God incarnate before the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. However, once they knew his true identity they concluded that from the very beginning of his human life he had been the incarnate Son of God. The resurrection revealed the identity of Jesus in glory, but it did not constitute it. The question I raised earlier becomes relevant at this point. What does it mean to say that the Word became flesh? We can readily see that the resurrected and glorified Jesus has been united to God, filled to overflowing with divine life, one in will and action with God. His body was transformed and spiritualized and his consciousness united with the divine mind. But how shall we understand his divinity during his earthly life before his glorification?

The first thing to keep in mind in answering this question is the truth I stated above: the actuality of the incarnation before the resurrection is a deduction concluded from Jesus’ resurrection and his status after that glorious event. It cannot be known from experience of his humanity or from pure speculation. And it could not have been established merely by a claim by Jesus or his followers. However, once that conclusion has been secured by the resurrection we can retrospectively see signs of Jesus’ identity in his earthly life: his miracles, the authority of his teaching, and his claims.

But accepting the resurrection-grounded truth that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God incarnate from conception onward does not grant us understanding of how this is possible or complete insight into the nature of the union between the Son of God and the human life of Jesus. Our expectations of what an incarnate God would be like create difficulties in thinking of Jesus as the Word made flesh. We tend to think that a divine presence in Jesus would necessarily manifest itself in a special divine-like consciousness and action through the agency of the body. But we cannot imagine a human consciousness that includes all knowledge or a human agency that exercises omnipotence. In the same way, we cannot imagine a divine consciousness that is limited to a human mind and bodily senses or a divine power bound by the limits of the body. Hence we get hopelessly entangled in contradictions. Some theologians develop theories of divine self-limitation, wherein the Word gives up or refuses to use some divine attributes and others think up theories that lessen the humanity by replacing the human mind with the divine mind or making the entire humanity a mere appearance.

The Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds assert that Jesus Christ is “truly God and truly man” and that he is “one and the same Christ…to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” These statements do not attempt to explain how this is possible or speculate about the psychological experience of the God-Man. Perhaps it is enough simply to confess the biblical and orthodox Christology and refuse to speculate further. I believe this stance is sufficient for the life of faith, and it is the foundation on which I base my thinking about the Incarnation. But we are curious to know the answers to these questions, and we cannot help imagining some sort of answer. And this curiosity can lead us to propose heretical or fanciful theories.

As I hinted above, I do not find it helpful to think about the Incarnation primarily in psychological categories, speculating about the union of divine and human consciousness and self-consciousness. I find it more helpful to think in ontological categories, that is, the being or existence of a thing rather than the self-consciousness of that thing. No right thinking person identifies their humanity fully with their consciousness. We are human even when we are not aware of the fullness of our human nature. Our humanity does not rise and fall with our self-consciousness. Human life is a life-long quest to understand and experience our full humanity and the humanity of others. The goal of all human existence is to become spirit, that is, to achieve identity between what we are in existence and in our self-consciousness.

Clearly, here and now there is a difference between my existing humanity and my ego or any other medium in which I am aware of my existence. Nevertheless, I can truly affirm that my existence is me and mine, even if I am not yet aware of all of it. I do not think or feel this way about the existence of other things, rocks, mice, planets or light beams. Why not? They are within my sphere of possible experiences. Indeed they are, but when I experience for the first time aspects of my existence, I experience them as me and mine, as having been me and mine all along. I do not experience other objects this way. I experience all dimensions of my existence as constituents of myself, and I realize that they were aspects of my constitution even before I knew of them.

Jesus Christ was fully human from conception onward. But like all human beings he grew in consciousness of his human existence and nature. It was not his consciousness and self-consciousness of his humanity that made him human. Jesus shared with other human beings the drive to know the fullness of his human nature and existence. But Jesus was also fully God from conception onward; that is to say, for Jesus the divine nature was a constituent of his existence. (For us, the divine nature is the cause of our existence but not a constituent of our persons.) In the same way that Jesus was not fully conscious of every aspect of his human nature from conception onward, he was not fully conscious of his divine nature always. And just as his lack of complete consciousness of his humanity did not make him less human, lack of full consciousness of his divine nature did not make him less divine. I think we can safely say that Jesus grew both in his awareness of his humanity and his divinity during his earthly life. And even if Jesus did not become fully conscious of the full depths of his humanity or his divinity until his glorification in the resurrection, this in no way diminishes the completeness of his pre-glorification divinity or his humanity!

Note: this is the 151st essay I’ve written and posted on this blog since August 2013.

 

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School — No Place for a Child

 

Some days I need to yell, “The world has gone crazy!” This is one of those days. Let me tell you up front that my wife and I homeschooled our children, and we’d do it again. So, this essay is not a cool analysis. One more caveat: I come from a family of public school teachers. I think many teachers do the best they can given their situation, and they are all underpaid. This “yell” is about the system and the culture, not about the individuals trapped in it. Okay, ready?

Yes, I mean it. A school is no place for a child. As a child nears 5 or 6 years of age she or he is made to believe that starting school is a glorious coming-of-age transition. You’ll become a big boy, a big girl. You’ll learn to read and write and do all sorts of fun stuff! You’ll get to make decisions for yourself—which actually means that you will give in to pressure to do what your peers are doing. At six years old the baby bird must leave the warm nest and learn to fly. At six! Is that crazy or what? You’ll learn to deal with ubiquitous bullies and pick up the ways of the world from older kids. Why? Because the world is full of bullies and you’ve got to face the world sooner or later anyway! (Actually, the only place I have ever been bullied is at a school.) Away from the protection of mommy and daddy you will be taught and protected by an underpaid and over-stressed teacher, who has 30 children to look after. And teachers are all-knowing and all-seeing. They always know what goes on in the play yard, the hallways, the athletic fields, and the restrooms. You might get a teacher who views the world like your parents and your church does or you may end up with teacher who views God, morality, life, and love in radically different ways. You don’t know in advance.

And what will you learn in the education factory, the state-run orphanage for parented kids? You will learn the least common denominator of moral values. Government schools are supposed to be religiously and morally neutral, and that “neutrality” is the heart of their religion and morality. You’ll read the books, hear the stories, and engage in the sort of activities that are designed to make you exactly like everyone else, a compliant, tolerant, and uncreative citizen. Excellence, creativity, thoughtfulness, and individuality are discouraged because they are disruptive. Everyone is equal, everyone is special, everyone is gifted, and everyone is right. And no one thinks.

The parent-child bond must be broken (at six years old!), because parents teach their children all sorts of crazy stuff about religion, race, and gender. Useful skills like language, writing, and mathematics must be subordinated to the really important task of socialization for life in a “pluralist society,” that is, of teaching children not to judge anyone for anything…except of course for believing in the difference between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, and good and bad. Or, for believing in the superiority of one’s own culture or religion. And the informal “socialization” you learn is how to survive in a school culture with 10 adults and 200 children near your own age. Such a social skills have nothing to do with those you’ll need in the real world.

Okay, I’ve had my “yell,” my rant if you like. I am not asking you to join my chorus. I just wanted your attention. My main goal is simply to plant a question in your mind: Does it have to be this way for me and my family? I want you to know that if you feel like there is something not right about giving up your parenthood when your child is five or six years old, that there is something crazy about that notion, you are right. And you don’t have to do that. You are not the crazy one.

The Church’s Christology Or The Real Jesus?

In the previous post we began a study of the identity of Jesus Christ. We looked at many New Testament texts that speak about Jesus’ identity. We spent most of the time examining the Gospel of Mark. We saw there and in the rest of the New Testament a very important distinction being made between the offices and functions that Jesus is said to have held and performed and his person, that is, the personal characteristics that qualified him to perform these functions. Perhaps divinely chosen and empowered human beings could hold some of these offices and perform some of these functions, for example, prophet, priest, and king. There were other lawgivers, exorcists, and miracle workers. But the New Testament makes clear that Jesus performs many of these functions by his own authority and some of the titles given to him clearly refer to his person as well as his offices. This is clearly true of the title “Lord” and “Savior” and “Word” and “Son of God.” It is impossible to imagine designating a mere human being by these titles.

Jesus’ Authority Over Kosher Laws

Before I move on to the question of the validity of the New Testament’s Christology, I want to consider one other text in the Gospel of Mark. Mark gives 23 verses to the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law over the disciples’ eating without observing the traditions about ritual cleansing before eating (Mark 7). Let’s take up the story at verse 14:

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

Notice Mark’s extension and application of Jesus’ statement in verses 18 and 19. “Jesus declared all foods clean.” Compare Mark’s observation with the story of Peter’s vision in Acts 10. Peter sees a sheet full of clean and unclean animals being lowered from heaven. A voice from heaven tells Peter to “kill and eat” (10:13). Peter protests. But the heavenly voice, whom Peter addresses as “Lord” (Jesus?) rebukes Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (10:15). Because of this encounter with the Lord, Peter understands that God has opened the door of the kingdom to gentiles. Mark contends that even during his earthly ministry Jesus had implicitly declared all foods clean. Mark clearly views Jesus as having the authority to change the Old Testament kosher laws. Jesus does not need a vision and a voice heaven to give him the right to make this declaration. He already has that right because of who he is.

The Origin of Christology

The New Testament views Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, the Word of God who has taken on human nature for our sakes. The wording of the Nicene Creed (381) in reference to Christ does not differ in content to the New Testament teaching:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.

But were the first disciples, Paul, John, and the writer of Hebrews making legitimate inferences from their knowledge of what Jesus actually said, did, and what happened to him to their high Christology? Can the church’s Christology be justified by the facts about Jesus? I dealt with this question from the angle of apologetics in the January 2015 posts on the resurrection. I shall address it here briefly as the question of the origin of Christology.

Apart from their belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the apostles’ embrace of such an exalted view of Jesus Christ as we find in the New Testament is inconceivable. [Note: the term “bodily resurrection” is redundant, but I use it anyway since Liberal Christianity claims Jesus was “raised” only in a spiritual or metaphorical sense, a use of the term resurrection I consider duplicitous.] It would never have occurred to anyone to see in the crucified, dead Jesus God’s triumph over sin and death. No one would have dreamed of preaching that Jesus’ death on the cross was the turning point of the history of salvation. Pursuing the question of the identity of Jesus would not have been worth the effort. Only the bodily resurrection could have provided justification for developing Christology. This much is certain.

The question I am asking, however, is not whether the bodily resurrection of Jesus provoked the origin of some type of Christology but whether or not it justifies the exalted Christology of Paul, John, Hebrews, and the Nicene Creed. For it is (superficially) conceivable that God could raise a human being from the dead for a reason other than declaring him to be the eternal Son of God. In the case of Jesus no such ambiguity was possible for at least three reasons:

(1) clearly the resurrection would be understood as God’s validation of Jesus’ teaching and activity and a declaration of his innocence of the charges that lead to his death. But as we have seen, Jesus taught and acted with unprecedented authority and his claims about his relationship with God were considered blasphemous by the Jewish rulers. By rescuing Jesus from the dead God declared Jesus’ claims to be true. Hence Jesus claims, his teaching, and his actions—as the disciples remembered them—became significant for the development of Christology.

(2) Jesus’ resurrection was not merely a return to his former life. It was the definitive salvation into eternal life promised for the end of the age. Jesus is the bringer of salvation. In him the end of all things has appeared and the meaning of creation has been completed. Christology seeks to understand the connection between the one through whom God brings salvation to the world and the God to whom Jesus prayed.

(3) Paul and the original apostles experienced Jesus alive after the resurrection in a way that convinced them not only that Jesus was alive but also that he was united to God, permeated with the Holy Spirit, and endowed with divine authority. Hence they called him “Lord,” worshiped him, prayed to him, obeyed him, and expected salvation from him. Their experience of the resurrected Jesus made necessary the development of an account of his person and his relationship to the God of Israel and the Spirit of God.

Taking all three of these aspects into account, we begin to understand why the apostles and Paul developed the very exalted Christology we find in the New Testament. Nothing less could do justice to the facts of their experience of Jesus.