Posts Tagged ‘incarnation’

Jesus is God?

Posted: September 2, 2013 by J in Mission, Theology
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Jesus is God: one of the biggest emphases in the evangelical teaching I’ve heard over the years. Especially teaching on the Gospels. It’s their main message, right? It’s the point of all those miracles, etc: as the kids’ song says, “Only God could do that!” The focus is firmly on Jesus’ identity.

Jesus is God is a powerful statement. It tells us something historical: that in first century Palestine God came down and entered into our world in a special way. It tells us that Jesus is worth paying attention to, he has a special status. We should listen to what he has to say.

But it’s a limited statement. For one thing, it’s not exclusive. Dogs have four legs, but that doesn’t mean that only dogs have four legs. Jesus is God – but that doesn’t exclude other people from being God. God could manifest himself differently at different times and places. Maybe Jesus was the manifestation for the first century? Jesus is God doesn’t assert uniqueness and challenge the relativism of our pluralist age.

Jesus is God also doesn’t in itself involve us. We are not necessarily implicated. It might be a deeply interesting fact, but it’s removed from us by 2000 years. In fact, someone might believe this message and still ask, “So what?” Nice to know God visited some people back then, now can I get on with my life – or with my buddhism?

Jesus is God tells me about Jesus. It’s the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” Jesus is God. What it doesn’t do is tell us which god. Where I live there are many gods. If I tell people Jesus is God they may well ask, “Which god is he?” The message assumes a shared view of God’s identity and character – we already know who God is, but now he’s become Jesus. But that shared view doesn’t exist in my part of the world. And does it exist anywhere?

Of course we can surround Jesus is God with extra details, which boost its impact. “Jesus makes exclusive claims” “Jesus is alive” etc. But the basic structure of the thought, the core message which we so often revert to – a message about the divine identity of Jesus – remains unchanged, and remains fairly weak.

If the message of the Gospels is Jesus is God, that doesn’t give me a very good reason to read them carefully or repeatedly. Once I’ve got the message – job done. I’ve mastered the Gospels, discovered the secret, and I can move on, right? Maybe leave the ministry years, and just focus on the passion and resurrection. Or more likely, leave the Gospels and focus on the doctrine in Paul’s epistles? Or maybe Jesus’ teaching is still worth studying – but his ministry more generally? If its point is to identify Jesus as God, then it probably doesn’t need ongoing attention. Nothing more boring than preaching to the converted. No wonder our people don’t keep reading the Gospels!

As I have read the Gospels over the years, I have gradually noticed that they actually have very little interest in saying “Jesus is God”. It just doesn’t seem to be in the top five of things they’re trying to communicate. Especially the synoptics, Matthew Mark and Luke. So it seems strange to me that we keep finding this as the core message there.

I do think the Gospel writers, like us evangelicals, are interested in Jesus’ identity. “Who is Jesus?” is an important question to ask. But I think we’re giving the wrong answer. The Gospels’ answer is usually: Jesus is Messiah. That’s definitely in the top five.

And I do think the Gospels have something to say about Jesus and God and identity, but I think it’s something different. That’s for tomorrow.

st.athanasiosWell, I’ve been reflecting more on Big A’s On the Incarnation. Now that I’ve got over my initial horror, I can discern some good things there that are worth talking about. So rather than keep up the critique, I’m changing tack. Here’s some of them:

1. Athanasius understands by ‘incarnation’ the history of Jesus of Nazareth, from birth to resurrection and glory. He doesn’t exclude the element of time, as my dear friend Luke C recently pointed out here. This is not a mere analysis of issues of ‘nature’ or essence. Athanasius has a story to tell us, and it’s (something like) the gospel story. A dynamic, not a static discussion. Thank God!

2. He doesn’t limit his discussion to a part of the Jesus story, either, but deals with the whole thing. So incarnation becomes a large Christological category for him.

3. The story Big A really wants to tell, is of the restoration of humanity. Or of ‘human nature’ or ‘the human body’. (He seems to use the terms more or less interchangeably.) This is a really exciting thing about On the Incarnation. Athanasius has plenty of things to say about the achievement of Christ, including the idea of the payment of our debt at the cross. But the big idea, the overarching and truly integrating idea of his treatment, is this theme of humanity’s restoration in Jesus. Using this he manages to give coherence to his account of every part of Jesus’ life and work, from birth to resurrection. Which is something I haven’t come across often in the modern theologies I grew up with. In fact, the theme itself is hardly at the top of the list of things we evangelicals want to say about Christ’s achievements. So that’s pretty refreshing.

4. In telling the story this way, Athanasius achieves something not many theologians have managed since then: he holds creation and redemption together. Redemption is the renewal of the creation, not a restart, or an escape from it. He’s quite explicit about this:

But once man was in existence, and things that were, not things that were not, demanded to be healed, it followed as a matter of course that the Healer and Saviour should align Himself with those things that existed already, in order to heal the existing evil.

5. The way Jesus is said to rescue fallen and corrupt humanity is quite something. He redeems it by entering it. He takes it over from the inside, and then takes it down to the grave, and then up into life:

You must know, moreover, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life also might be engendered in it.

If death had been exterior to the body, life might fittingly have been the same. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off. Suppose the Word had come outside the body instead of in it, He would, of course, have defeated death, because death is powerless against the Life. But the corruption inherent in the body would have remained in it none the less.

Naturally, therefore, the Savior assumed a body for Himself, in order that the body, being interwoven as it were with life, should no longer remain a mortal thing, in thrall to death, but as endued with immortality and risen from death, should thenceforth remain immortal. For once having put on corruption, it could not rise, unless it put on life instead; and besides this, death of its very nature could not appear otherwise than in a body. Therefore He put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out. And, indeed, how could the Lord have been proved to be the Life at all, had He not endued with life that which was subject to death?

Good stuff, eh? Worth reading that over a few times. It really summarises his whole thesis about the incarnation.

6. Notice the pivotal significance of the phrase ‘risen from death’ in the quote above? Big A’s story climaxes at the resurrection. It reminds me of the shape of the NT story about Jesus – that’s pretty rare too, compared to our tradition. In Jesus’ resurrection, humanity is renewed and filled with glory and incorruptibility. Like. Have a listen to this:

…through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.
You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.

7. It’s important to notice, that foundational to Athanasius’s Christology is the idea that God the Son took to himself fallen human nature with all its weakness and corruption. This was the thing he redeemed. And he redeemed it by entering it fully. If he had taken a pre-sanitised humanity, he would have had nothing to do, for his mission was to take fallen humanity down to the grave, put and and to its corruption, then bring it up to life in resurrection. Big A insists that Christ could not achieve this from the outside, he had to get inside fallen humanity to do his saving work in it.

He clarifies that God the Son is not polluted or tainted in any way by thus filling fallen humanity. He as God does not take on the nature of the thing he fills. Rather he cleanses it so it takes on his glory.

So far as I can make out, this view seems to represent Nicean ‘orthodoxy’. Gregory of Nazienzus, for e.g., said the same thing. And he was the absolute bomb, so far as church- fatherly orthodoxy is concerned.

Athanasius’s On the Incarnation is a dangerously sub-Christian work, shockingly ignorant of the Trinitarian nature of the gospel story. However, by taking seriously Christ’s work as a narrative, and treating it as a whole, he gets a lot further than we normally do in giving a coherent account of the achieving of redemption. There’s plenty here to challenge and stretch our thinking.

What do you think of his thesis, that Jesus’ mission is the restoration of humanity from within?

imagesMy other main beef about Athanasius’ On the Incarnation has to do with how he sees Jesus’ humanity. Most of the time the Big A talks about it as simply a human body. Occasionally he mentions that it’s human nature the Son has assumed. Apparently this is more-or-less the same thing as human body. What is notably absent is any reference to human mind or personality in Jesus. There is no hint of human involvement in his will or intentionality. All the willing, all the acting, is initiated by the Word in the body.

Is humanity then merely a glove, a kind of shell, an instrument within which the divine mind can operate? Like a fork-lift, with the Word in the drivers’ seat? Athanasius often described it in much this way. Jesus’ body was:

the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.

His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument.

though He used the body as His instrument, He shared nothing of its defect…

He was made man, and used the body as His human instrument. If this were not the fitting way, and He willed to use an instrument at all, how otherwise was the Word to come? And whence could He take His instrument, save from among those already in existence

It was natural and right, therefore, for the Word to use a human instrument

The Word of God thus acted consistently in assuming a body and using a human instrument to vitalize the body.

If the body was his instrument, was it truly him? Was he truly human? Could he, for example, put off the instrument again once the job was done? Could he, having restored humanity, leave it again? Athanasius never says, the matter is left uncertain. Uncertain, too, is the status of the humanity the Son assumed – did it become integral to his identity? We are not told, but the repeated language of instrumentality points pretty strongly the other way.

An human instrument that doesn’t seem to have a mind of its own: this all sounds very much like a famous heresy, called Apollinarianism. Apollinaris taught that the Word was dropped into a human body, so Jesus was a divine mind inside a human ‘shell’. No human mind involved. Interestingly, this heresy was condemned at the council of Alexandria, 361. And guess who the chief prosecutor was? You guessed it: Athanasius.

But it’s hard to see much difference between Apollinarianism and his own writing here in On the Incarnation. 


Tomorrow: what’s good about On the Incarnation

Ikone_Athanasius_von_AlexandriaI’ve been reading Athanasius’s classic work On the Incarnation. It has much in it that is interesting and insightful. However, overall I was distressed by its failure to give a Christian account of Jesus’ story. I will try to articulate what I find so troubling about it. It’s a complex work, it won’t be easy. Here goes.

1. Big A’s argument about the incarnation is deeply non-Trinitarian. Though Jesus is sometimes called the Son, he doesn’t function like a son in Big A’s account of him. ‘Son of God’ functions as a title that effectively means ‘God’, but he rarely describes the Son doing anything sonlike. Normally he calls him the Word. A much less personal, relational title is prefered to a familial one.

More troubling by far is the complete absence of any mention of the Holy Spirit in the entire discourse. Stop for a sec, read that sentence again. It’s staggering. Scandalous. Perhaps it’s just the translation I was reading, but it just wasn’t there. The whole incarnation story was something the Word achieved himself. Apparently by his own power. At every point Big A attributes to the Word the efficacy to carry out the incarnation plan, as something which he possesses in himself. Conception, birth, life, miracles, death – even the resurrection! In this story, there’s no need for a Spirit at all. You might say, no room for a Spirit.

Now this is seriously sub-Christian. It’s just too, too bad. Jesus effectively represents the presence of a monadic God who acts alone.

Compare this to the NT way of talking about Jesus:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:35)

she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Mat. 1:18)

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. (Matt. 12:28)

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee… (Luke 4:14)

…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:38)

the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God (Heb 9:14)

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit (1 Peter 3:18)

and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 1:4)

I find it distressing because in it I recognise my own Christian upbringing, I hear the ways I was taught to talk about Jesus. Non-trinitarian ways. Telling a story about one person acting solo, rather than three persons acting in concert. And I realise, it goes back to the fourth flippin century. The rot had already set in by then, it’s been with us ever since. I find that a depressing thought. So wrong, for so long.

There’s more. But this is the mother of all failures. I’ll get stuck in farther into Athanasius in a later post.