A Christmas Eve Reflection on the Incarnation from "Christology, Ancient and Modern"
Amazingly, the Church has cycled through another year of the liturgical calendar, arriving at the moment where we celebrate the coming of the Savior of the world. If you’re like me around this time of the year, I need to intentionally make time to consider the majesty and grandeur of this moment, or else I’m liable to slip right past it.
So I’ve taken liberty to compile some thoughts—for me as much as for you!—on the incarnation of Christ using the wonderful new book on the subject, Christology, Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics. This Christological resource brings together proceedings from the first annual Los Angeles Theology Conference. This work surveys the field and articulates the sources, norms, and criteria for constructive theological work in Christology.
It is the perfect book for reflecting upon the reason for the season, as they say. What follows are a number of reflection on the incarnation drawn from the collection of essays to help us reflect upon this magisterial moment, beginning with the point of the incarnation in the first place: atonement for the sins of the world.
First, Oliver Crisp reminds us of the intimate connection between Christ’s birth and life and death. “[The early Christians] believed that the incarnation and atonement were two aspects of one organic whole. Both were parts or phases of the one seamless work of Christ.” They couldn’t have imagined separating the atonement from other aspects of His work, or, more importantly, from His person. “The idea was not merely that the incarnation is a necessary prerequisite to the atonement (though this is true). It was that the incarnation is part of the work of Christ that culminates in the atonement and resurrection.” (23, emph. mine)
Reflecting on the incarnation wouldn’t be complete without reflecting upon the early Church's reflection on that mystery. Crisp reminds us of Chalcedonian Christology: “Christ is one person; Christ has two natures, one divine and one human; the two natures of Christ retain their integrity and are distinct–they are not mixed together, nor are they amalgamated into a hybrid of divine and human attributes (like a demigod); and the natures of Christ are really united in the person of Christ–that is, they are two natures possessed by one person.” (29) Chalcedonian Christology resulted in what we call the the two-natures doctrine and a distinction between anhypostasis and enhypostatsis.
Using this terminology, Alan Torrance reminds us that the incarnation does not denote a single movement from God to humanity but a twofold movement: "it denotes the God-humanward movement (the anhypostasia), Jesus Christ is come as God. But intrinsic to the doctrine is the affirmation that God was truly human, representing humanity to the Father as our fellow human. It also denotes, therefore, a human-Godward movement—enhypostatic movement.” (193-194) Torrance suggests unless we take this latter movement seriously we run the risk of confusing the importance of Jesus’ person and nature. “The relationship that underpins salvation, reconciliation, and participation in Christ becomes a relationship between Jesus’ human nature and the Father, rather than between the incarnate Son and the Father.” (195)
Katherine Sondergger has a similar warning, "the Incarnation teaches us that it is a Person who becomes flesh, not simply God simpliciter, God in his Ineffable Being and Nature.” She believes that much of our theology of the incarnation “pays scant attention to the salience of the Divine Person, rather than Divine Nature per se, as Subject of the Incarnation.” This is a mistake, she insists. Tomorrow when we celebrate the birth of Christ we do not huddle around the manger exalting a nature, but a Person. She follows the Reformed instinct, here: “the Person of Jesus Christ is the Subject and thus, Object, of our study and worship and contemplation; not the ‘natures,’ divine and human.” Therefore our affections and attention should be turned not toward Incarnation wrapped in swaddle, but the Child.
Jeremy Treat extends our reflection further by reminding us of the humiliation of the person whom we worship. “From the cradle to the cross it is plain to the human eye that the life of Jesus is one of humiliation. However...even during his time of humiliation Jesus is being exalted, glorified, and enthroned as king. The most common and explicit way Scripture speaks of Christ’s pre-Easter exaltation is with the language of glorification.” Treat insists to rightly understand the person of Christ is essential for his pre-Easter exaltation.
“In accordance with Chalcedonian Christology, Jesus is not only truly God and truly man, but his two natures are united in his one person. This means, first of all, that he as God-man is exalted and glorious in his divinity.” This is an important point, because it means that Christ’s divinity “was by no means absent from his person during his ministry on earth.” Thus we must keep a proper balance and appreciation of both: “His humanity need not be subsumed into his divinity (the Lutheran tendency) nor treated in isolation from his divinity (the Reformed tendency) but in union with it. As eternal Son of God he does not need to be exalted, but as the incarnate Son of God he is exalted for us.” (106)
Finally, to my favorite book in the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews. I love how the author intimately connects the Jesus Story to the Jewish Story, particularly the Priestly Story. Torrance once again reminds us of the significance of the incarnation by turning our attention to the first criterion for effective priestly role fulfillment: that every high priest must be chosen from among human beings (Heb 5). Of course Christ meets this criterion of solidarity with humanity through his incarnation.
“The one who is exalted at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (1:3) is truly one of us—flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. He can represent us to the Father as one who has not only shared our human condition, notably, growth, suffering, and death (5:7-9), but, still further, has been tested or tempted in every way (4:15) such that he is a high priest who can sympathize with our weakness.” (192)
This, of course, is the brilliance of the season for which we celebrate: the Son of God becoming one of us, and one with us—for me, for you, for the world. All in order to rescue us from sin and death, re-create us anew, and open wide the door of participation into the divine life between Father, Son, and Spirit.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
Sign up complete.