Connecting Incarnation and Atonement


Icon of the incarnation

Andrew Purves, in his work, Exploring Christology and Atonement, says something very enlightening about the work of Christ: “Atonement is not so much a work of Christ apart from who he is, but rather Christ himself as work” (p 35).

What does this statement mean? He means to say that much of the western construals of the saving work of Christ are abstracted from who he is as incarnate God. Or to put another way, too many atonement theories disconnect Christ’s work from his identity. John McLoed Campbell says about the atonement: “The faith of the atonement presupposes the faith of the incarnation” (p 35). In other words, the theology of God’s incarnation cannot be detached from God’s work for us in his death and resurrection. The incarnation must inform what we believe about the work of the cross.

However, this is often not the case. Many theories of the atonement could and in fact do do away with the incarnation and still remain intact. The incarnation is an add on, an accidental necessity, not inherently necessary. Purves notes that many understand the atoning work of Christ as something “external to his person” (p 37). He quotes TF Torrance who calls this an “instrumental” view of the work of Christ. Christ took on human flesh, not because it was absolutely necessary, but to use as an instrument. He took our flesh in order to make payment, or to satisfy justice. However, he could have atoned in some other way.

Purves continues:

Such a view [of the atonement] need not but will likely tend toward a perspective on the atonement in which God needs to be propitiated in order to be gracious toward us. In such a view the love and forgiveness of God may be seen as the effects of the atonement. Further, an instrumental perspective on the atonement as an external work of Christ, as something that he does rather than having its ground in who he is, implies a corresponding view of our relation to Christ that is developed in terms of an external arrangement. In the scholastic Protestant tradition this is conventionally developed in terms of an imputed righteousness, in which, while we are and remain sinner, God, for Christ’s sake, regards otherwise… (p 37)

Put another way, Christ became man to give something externalized to God: Christ becomes man and gives God an externalized obedience, and God receives that on behalf of the sinner who, despite God’s forgiveness, remains a sinner. This type of atonement theory does not really need the incarnation. Christ became man so that as a man he could offer a receipt of obedience and payment; but he could have made atonement as the divine Son without his humanity.

Purves is right in noting that this view becomes very common in the scholastic Protestant tradition. For instance, in the Heidelberg catechism, it is asked, why did God become man? The answer:

He must be a true man
because the justice of God requires
that the same human nature which has sinned
should pay for sin.
He must be a righteous man
because one who himself is a sinner
cannot pay for others (Q 16)
Notice, why did God become man? There is nothing necessary in this incarnation except that as man Christ can now pay a price for sin. This is a legal reality located outside of the inner logic of the incarnation. It presumes that perhaps Christ could have paid for sin without becoming fully man.


But now, if we are to connect the incarnation to the atonement, as Purves says, what new theological situation do we find ourselves in?

On the other hand, it is precisely the union of the incarnation and the atonement that excludes the view of the atonement is reducible to a forensic transaction as fulfilling of a legal contract, or to Christ propitiatingly bearing the cost construed as divinely meted punishment… [Rather], an ontological rather than an instrumental connection must be made between the Christ who makes atonement and the atonement that he makes. Or, in a different set of images, we look for an organic and personal rather than a mechanical and legal connection between Christ and his atonement and ourselves (p 37-38)

If the incarnation is an ontological, metaphysical reality, then the atonement itself must be posited from within the humanity of Christ, rather than legally outside of Christ. It must be seen organically, rather than extrinsically.

Purves explains the atonement in terms of a “magnificent exchange”. This is a term that began with the early fathers, but was also received and used both by Calvin and Luther. The magnificent exchange grounds the atonement in God’s work of the incarnation. A key text used by all the fathers was 2 Corinthians 6:9:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Purves explains how the fathers and early reformers understood this verse:

Christ exchanged his place with our place in an atoning reversal of our status, making an atoning exchange. Christ puts himself in our place so that in him we might be put in his place. This is the meaning of reconciliation, which is an act effected on the basis of exchange (p 104)

In other words, the incarnation relates to atonement by way of an exchange of places. This isn’t a legal exchange: it’s an actual exchange. Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is. Purves continues:

The magnificent exchange must be set in the context of the whole movement of Christ in his descent and ascent… From this we see that the magnificent exchange is not at its core something that Christ does; rather, it is the working out of who he is in his history in our flesh. Christ is the magnificent exchange as God’s gracious saving movement toward us. In himself Christ is the word/act of God to us, and he is the responding and acceptable filial human movement toward God (106)

This is a great passage. Purves rightly says that in himself Christ is God condescended to us in our fallenness and sin, and in our humanity Christ is the perfect filial response of man to God. Thus there is atonement in his own person. God and man are united in this one divine Person.

Thus we can see: the incarnation is itself atonement. God the Son unites himself to us, and in a downward/upward movement makes God and man at one. As Purves says: Christ does who he is!




The Scandal of the Incarnation


Icon of the Crucifixion (source)

Tertullian once said that “the flesh is the hinge, the decisive criterion, of salvation”. What did he mean by this? What he meant was that the full assumption and renewal of the “flesh” by God the Son in the incarnation is of utmost importance for mankind’s redemption. If God the Son did not assume a fully human nature, if he did not renew it completely, then mankind is not fully saved.

Irenaeus, echoing Tertullian, says this about the incarnation:

There was no other way for us to receive incorruptibility and immortality than to be united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be united to incorruptibility and immortality without incorruptibility and immortality first becoming what we are, the perishable putting on imperishability, the mortal putting on immortality (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54), ‘so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (Gal 4:5)? Advurses Haereses, III 19, 1

In other words, salvation is not possible unless God takes on human flesh. This is where the early church come up with the formula of the great exchange: God becomes what man is, so that man might become what God is. Irenaeus says it this way: “The Son of God became the Son of Man, so that through him we might receive adoption. This takes place when man receives and bears and embraces the Son of God” (Ibid, III 18, 7). God the Son takes what is ours — the fallen flesh — and bestows upon it a participation in his divine sonship. Irenaeus continues by saying:

The Word of God became man, assimilating Himself to man and man to Himself, so that, by His resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father… When the Word of God was made flesh… He restored and made fast the likeness, making man like the invisible Father through the visible Word” (ibid, V 16, 2)

Crucial to the gospel is the flesh, the worldly. God has descended to earth not to get us out of the world, but to recreate and refashion the flesh according to the divine pattern of life. This is what the early fathers call theosis or divinization: it is to participate in God through the descension of God the Son into our fallen situation. The gospel is principally the glorification of the flesh through the humiliation of the Son. It is the ontological raising up of mortal humanity that lies in death, endowing man with God’s own eternal glory.

This of course sounds scandalous, and it is! The shock of the gospel is, as Balthasar says, that “God becomes nothing, so that nothings might become God” (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 53). How can the ineffable God raise us up in this manner? Surely this is too good to be true! But it isn’t: God has united himself to man and has risen him up to such great heights in Christ.

One reason the doctrines of incarnation, theosis, divinization, are so scandalous, is because Gnosticism, though not explicit, is a common presumption within western Christianity. Gnosticism was the earliest of the church heresies. Gnosticism in its most elemental form was “the belief that the lower, material sphere, the ‘flesh’, the world of the ‘psychic’, was contemptible, something to be vanquished, while the higher, spiritual world was all that was excellent, the only thing worth cultivating” (ibid, 1). Therefore the goal of redemption was not for God to glorify the flesh, but for man to escape from the material world into the spiritual life of God.

There were numerous myths about how the material world came to be. In any case, the world was understood within Gnosticism to be a lower or fallen state of being. The fall within Gnostic myth was the imprisonment of the spiritual in the material. Even more, to think that God, the highest of all beings, would not only embrace the flesh, but become flesh, was unthinkable. Irenaeus explains:

[The gnostics] reject the commixture of the heavenly wine. They only want to be the water of this world and will not admit god into commixture with them. And so they remain in the Adam conquered and cast out of Paradise. They fail to see that, as at the beginning of our formation in Adam the breath of life which comes from God was united to what had been formed, animating man, and showed him to be a rational animal, so, at the end, the Word of the Father and the Spirit of God, united to the ancient substance of Adam’s formation, made man living and perfect, capable of knowing the perfect Father (Advurses Haereses, V 1, 3)

What results from this Gnostic mindset is a radical anti-materialism. The end goal of the spiritual life is not for the world to be fitted with God’s life, divinized, but rather for man to find the spiritual god outside of the world. For this reason, the Gnostics were anti-sacramental, anti-worldly, rather, in favor of a higher spiritual “knowing” which lifted them out of the world. Balthasar explains:

The Gnostic impulse secretly or openly animates all those modern world-views which see body and spirit, bios and ethos, nature and God, in antagonism or opposition… One of ancient Gnosticism’s favourite doctrines, vigorously satirized by Irenaeus, is the glorification of the ‘eternal quest’, the idea being that the supreme principle, the ‘Groundless One’, is unknowable. It is not difficult to see why this emotional attachment to seeking, which despises as bourgeois, should have revived in our own times. But the clearest proof of the continuing relevance of the second-century struggle against Gnosticism is the fashionable interest, within the Christian church, in Zen meditation. This is essentially anti-incarnational. All sensible images, all words and concepts must be removed, so that there is nothing left but the unfathomable void in which a supposedly superobjective insight (gnosis) can flourish. However mutually contradictory these currents of thought may at first sight appear to be, they are united in their ‘spiritualizing’ flight from matter and the ‘flesh’. Modern materialism seems to be an exception, and yet it too is opposed to the Christian principle of Incarnation. (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 5-6)

Balthasar explains here the modern influence of Gnosticism: the quest to find God by emptying oneself, by ridding oneself of the objects and materials that “get in the way”. God is that unknowable spiritual principle to which we must escape. This, to Irenaeus, is anti-Christian, precisely because it is ant-Incarnational.

Balthasar concludes his thought:

In practice, [modern Gnostics] regard matter as something to be dominated, and in man himself as the way to power. Myth and Christianity are opposed on every point. Myth seeks the ascent of man to spirit; the Word of God seeks descent into flesh and blood. Myth wants power; revelation reveals the true power of God int he most extreme powerlessness (ibid, 6)

Gnosticism is ignorantly rampant in western Christianity. What we must return to is the scandalous gospel of God’s own descent into man’s fallen situation; his very gift of life to raise us up; his very desire to unite heaven and earth!

Incarnation and Non-Competitiveness

The nativity

Here is an excerpt from Robert Barron’s Catholicism that I have always loved! He says that the incarnation means that God is non-competitive with his creation. And actually, the closer the divine life gets to us, the more alive we are:

The incarnation tells us central truths concerning God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature the he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation. In many ancient myths and legends, divine figures such as Zeus or Dionysus enter into human affairs only through aggression, destroying or wounding that which they invade… But there is none of this in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. The Word does indeed become human, but nothing of the human is destroyed in the process; God does indeed enter into his creation, but the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God of the incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song. 

And the incarnation tells us the most important truth about ourselves: we are destined for divinization. The church fathers never tired of repeating this phrase as a sort of summary for the Christian belief: Dues fit homo ut homo fieret Deus (God became human so that humans might become God). God condescended to enter into flesh so that our flesh might partake of the divine life, that we might participate in the love that holds the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in communion. And this is why Christianity is the greatest humanism that has ever appeared (p 1-2)

The All-inclusive Humanity of Christ


This is the start of a few posts where I “show my cards”, as it were, to some doctrinal developments in my own theology, which has happened over a period of 2-3 years. In this post I’m going to critique the theology of limited atonement and offer an argument for universal atonement or better put, objective atonement.

I’ve become convinced within the last couple years that limited atonement is not a biblical doctrine; rather, it is a logical conclusion based off of Augustine’s and Calvin’s doctrine of unconditional election. This post is not a critique of election, but it is a critique of taking logic too far. Limited atonement historically, it is almost certain, was not a doctrine that Calvin held (or even had the categories for), but is rather a Reformed scholastic development of the logic Calvin’s doctrine of election. The logic is that if God has determined to save only the elect, then Christ must’ve died only for the elect. Thus, the atonement is limited, not in its power of course, but certainly in its scope and embrace. Whatever you think of election, what I want to propose here is that the doctrine of limited atonement might be logical, but it is not biblical. The reason I say this is because limited atonement bases its doctrine after the scope of election, when in fact atonement doctrine should be based off of the reality of the incarnation (election is a decretal reality. It should not affect the Christological doctrines, including atonement theology). Put another way, I am arguing that the incarnation is intimately connected to the atonement and demands that Christ’s cross-work be all-embracing, objective and for every human being. 

What do I mean? I want us to consider: what happened in the incarnation? It is not simply that God the Son become a man to be a representative or a legal head. That is true, but not true enough. When we think of the incarnation, we must consider the metaphysical, ontological realities involved. The incarnation was a dramatic, reality shifting event: God the Son took upon himself a human nature and entered into the common, shared reality of mankind. And in doing so, he altered the human condition forever.

I’m convinced that this is something the Western Christian world, with its individual emphasis, fails to realize: within the biblical worldview, the human race is not a collection of individuals; rather, the human race is a collective unity. The nature that all humans share is an ontological oneness. We all share in the same nature, thus uniting us all in a unique way. This is why when Adam fell into sin and death, we all fell with him. We are a unity. We are all metaphysically joined, and Adam’s sin affects us negatively because of that unity. Thus many of the Eastern Fathers have tended to talk about original sin in medical terms instead of legal terms. If a leg is amputated, the foot and toes die too. This is because they are all connected. It is the same with humanity.

This affects our view of the incarnation and consequently of the death and resurrection of Christ: Christ’s death and resurrection was not simply on our behalf; of course, it was. But it was also a radical participation in humanity’s shared fallenness. Through his union with the human condition in the incarnation, Christ participated in our common death and overcame it in his resurrection. Thus it was not simply that Christ died on the cross: the entire Adamic reality died with him in the cross. And it was not simply that Christ rose in the resurrection: the last Adam lifted humanity out of the grave through his victory over death, thus glorifying and divinizing humanity in himself. The cross and resurrection are massive, ontological, reality-shifting events when placed in this light.

JB Torrance, a Presbyterian minister, coined an important phrase to describe the importance of the incarnation: the all-inclusive humanity of Christ. What did he mean? Gary Deddo explains:

By identifying Jesus’ human nature as being “all-inclusive” JB was pointing out that Jesus’ humanity was vitally and really, that is ontologically, linked to all humanity, to every single human being. The human nature that Jesus assumed was not simply his own individual or autonomous humanity, one relatively independent of all other human beings. No, the human nature he possessed was shared by all humanity. The human nature he assumed he held in common with every human person…

The grounds for JB’s emphasis on the all-inclusive humanity of the incarnate Son of God is not found simply in the fact that Jesus, as accounted for in the New Testament revelation, has all the characteristics of being a human being in the same way we are. The foundation is laid in the meaning and significance given by the biblical revelation to his humanity in relation to all others. This reaches a high point in Paul’s designation of Jesus as the prototypical Adam (the created Adam being the type, Rom. 5:14) and as the last (eschatos) or second (deuteros) man/Adam (1Cor. 15:45-47). This Jesus is presented in biblical revelation as the actual new life-giving head of humanity, not just in name, but in being and so in actual effect. He is in fact the Lord of all humanity — as one of humanity. Witness to this fact can be found not only in Romans 5 but also in Ephesians 1 where, as Irenaeus saw, the place where all humanity was re-gathered, reunited, reheaded up (anakephalaiosis, v. 10) was in the very person of Jesus. (Participatio Journal, volume 3, “JB Torrance on the All-Inclusive Humanity of Jesus Christ” by Gary Deddo, pp 247, 250)

Gary Deddo goes on to describe humanity is terms of a tree (see the icon above). Adam was the first human off of whom we branch. His death was ours, not legally per se, but actually; his apostasy corrupted all of humanity, and thus all are born into death. Jesus is the second Adam who, by uniting himself to the whole of the human tree, entered into our condition and through his death and resurrection, shifted the ontological state of humanity in an important way. Thus, and this is the point, what happened to Christ in his life, death and resurrection, happened to all humanity. All-embracing. 

This also accounts for the striking universal statements about human salvation in certain Pauline texts. To be sure, Paul speaks of wrath and judgment, and of the need for conversion. But there are also striking, indeed alarming texts which speak of the cross-work of Christ as affecting all men without exception. For instance, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18 that in Christ God was “reconciling the world to himself”. Or Romans 5:18: “therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men”. Or Colossians 1:18-19, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross”. What can we do with these texts? If we are truly and really honest, we must say that in Christ something fundamental has happened to mankind. Mankind has been saved from death and sin!

How can this be so? The incarnation: God’s union with our common humanity renders the atonement holistic and not limited: what has happened to Christ has thus happened to the whole of the human nature without exception. Thus in Christ, all mankind and the entire cosmos is in principle saved. This is why many of the early church fathers taught that the incarnation was in itself a saving event

But, what about the need for individual conversion? Does this mean that we’re all saved and we just don’t know it (something that Barth taught)? No. To clarify, I want to bring in one more voice, and that is the Lutheran tradition. The Lutherans have a doctrine that they call “objective justification”. Jordan Cooper explains:

In the nineteenth century, American Lutherans began making the distinction between objective justification and subjective justification. Objective justification refers to the historia salutis reality of Christ’s justification at his resurrection. The resurrection is Christ’s own vindication before God, and consequently becomes that of the Christian through faith. This appropriation of Christ’s objective work through faith is subjective justification…

Objective justification flows from the reality of the incarnation. In being born as a human, Jesus takes upon himself not simply the nature of one individual man, but of all humanity. Thus all Jesus accomplishes and does with his life is accomplished for all of humankind. His vindication at his resurrection is thus the justification of all people. (Cooper, Jordan. The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology. Kindle Locations 3870-3873, 3878-3881)

Thus Jesus’ resurrection affects all people; it is an objective work that shifts the human existence as we know it. However, it must be subjectively received and applied. Mind you, the Lutheran church believes in unconditional election! But they don’t buy limited atonement. Thus this teaching of objective justification verses subjective justification.

I’ve gone long enough. In the next couples posts I will look at justification from the perspective of Paul’s very first sermon, and then at differing models of atonement.




The Incarnation as a Saving Reality

The nativity

Patrick Henry Reardon, in his new work, Reclaiming the Atonement, argues that the incarnation was an integral and necessary part of mankind’s redemption. In other words, the incarnation was not a step along the way to the “real saving work” of the cross. Rather, the incarnation was of primary importance in the schema of redemption.

His initial starting point is the assumption that the end goal of humanity is not simply moral uprightness, obedience etc; rather, the end goal of humanity at-one-ness with the Triune God. Man was created to be in a vital, living union with his Creator; to be initiated into the love-community of Father, Son and Spirit. Having this union broken through man’s apostasy, God’s redemptive goal is once again to be at one with his creatures. This at-one-ness is accomplished first through the union the Son with human nature in the incarnation and completed in his death and resurrection.

Reardon explains:

In the scholastic theology known to me, the Incarnation was essential to our redemption, not so much as an act [but] as a condition. That is to say, the Incarnation was not, in itself, redemptive; it made redemption possible.

In the Church Fathers, however, I began to discover another perspective. I learned that, if the goal of redemption is the union of man with God, then the Incarnation was far more than a condition for our salvation. It served, rather, as the effective model and exemplar of salvation. The Church Fathers insisted that the “full humanity” of Jesus Christ was essential to man’s redemption, because “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.”

“Whatever was assumed was not healed” is a quote from Gregory of Nazianzus, who in response to the Apolloniarian controversy, argued that Christ’s incarnation of full humanity was pertinent to mankind’s redemption and renewal. If the entire human nature is fallen and corrupted through the fall, then God must redeem and sanctify all of human nature in the incarnation. Therefore, the incarnation is a necessary element of salvation.

Reardon goes on to explain:

“Whatever was not assumed was not healed.” This assertion, which came to be accepted as a principle, meant that the Son’s full assumption of our human nature was required for the work of redemption. A qualified or limited Incarnation would not satisfy. If God’s Son had not become a full human being, he could not have been a Mediator between God and the human race. In other words, only the Word’s full assumption of human experience could satisfy what was needed for human beings to be saved…

If the fact of the Incarnation means that the Word adopted the fullness of human experience— sin excepted, says the Epistle to the Hebrews— then nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. The Word, embracing our humanity, took possession of all of it in order to redeem all of it…

Reardon’s last point is paramount in my estimation: nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. If the incarnation means that Christ assumes a human nature, then the incarnation must fall under the category of redemption. Put another way, it is not right to parse out “soteriology” from “Christology” or “anthropology”. They are all intimately connected to one another. And they all fall under “soteriology”. Reardon spells this out by highlighting that the early fathers of the church originally headed soteriology under the “part of Christology; its foundational thesis declared that what Jesus accomplished on our behalf, and for our benefit, depended entirely on who He was”.

Reardon goes on to cite several early fathers who understood the incarnation of Christ to be the initiatory process through which humanity was being healed of sin and corruption. One central part of Christ’s life is his baptism at the Jordan river. During the baptism, the Spirit is said to “remained” on Christ. Reardon explains the significance of this:

Among the gospel references to this event (Jesus’ baptism), only John explicitly stresses the permanence of the Holy Spirit’s descent on Jesus: “He remained (emeinen) upon Him”—“ remaining (menon) on Him.” This Johannine detail of the Spirit’s descent has long been the object of Christian observation and comment. In the second century, for example, St. Irenaeus of Lyons regarded it as indicating the spiritual renewal of the human race. He wrote on this point by way of commentary on Isaiah 11: 2, “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest (anapavsetai) upon him.”

Irenaeus also commented that the Holy Spirit

“descended on the Son of God— who was made the Son of Man— becoming accustomed with Him to reside (skenoun) in the human race and to abide (anapavesthai) among men and to reside in the workmanship of God, accomplishing in them the will of the Father and renewing them from what is old to the newness of Christ.”

The Holy Spirit’s “abiding” on Jesus, for Irenaeus, referred to a renewed state of humanity by reason of the Incarnation.

Reardon contiues:

Almost three centuries later, St. Cyril of Alexandria pursued Irenaeus’s interpretation of the text, but he placed it within the Pauline theology of the New Adam. Into the body and soul of the first Adam, wrote Cyril, God had “impressed, like a seal, the Holy Spirit, that is, the breath of life.” Because of this creative activity, man’s nature was “established for every kind of excellence, by virtue of the Spirit given to dwell in it.” The old Adam, however, had failed to safeguard this state of grace. He and his seed had lost the presence of the Holy Spirit conferred at Creation. What was needed, Cyril believed, was a Second Adam, who would not forfeit the gift of the Holy Spirit. From the old Adam the Holy Spirit “flew away” (apepte), but on the Second Adam He came down and remained. The Spirit descended on Jesus, wrote Cyril, “that He might become accustomed to remain (menein) in us.” Thus, the Holy Spirit, descending on Jesus at His Baptism, found a permanent and completely suitable dwelling in the human race.

The point here is that the incarnation began the initiatory process of human redemption. We may call the cross the climax, but not the beginning. It starts with the incarnation.



Barth on the Incarnation


Karl Barth has an interesting take on the incarnation. Many theologians see the incarnation as God’s “condescension”, or “humiliation” — indeed it is God condescending to mankind, becoming one of us. But all too often, the incarnation is presented as God doing what is against his nature: it is against his exalted Lordship to condescend, to become lowly, to serve, to bear our burdens.

However, what Barth contends is that the incarnation is what makes God God. His becoming low, his servanthood, his coming near to us, his loving will to redeem and elevate mankind to himself: this is what proves and reveals his Lordship. It is what makes him God in contrast to all other false gods. 

As Barth says: the incarnation contrasts the true God with false gods “who cannot and will not be servants, who are therefore no lords, whose being is not a truly divine being”. (Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader, Michael Allen, 143) In other words, all other  gods command that we come up to them, to ascend to their level, not because they are truly gods, but in fact because they are false, unable to come to us. They are, as Barth says, “empty loveless gods which are incapable of condescension and self-humiliation” (145). They will not serve, indeed they cannot serve in their impotence.

In contrast, the incarnation is proof of God’s divinity. It is proof of his unlimited love and power that he is able to limit and even condemn himself for our sakes.

Barth explains:

[The incarnation] is how God is God, this is his freedom, this is his disctinctness from and superiority to all other reality… This one, the one who loves in this way, is the true God. But this means that he is the one who as the Creator and Lord of all things is able and willing to make himself equal with the creature, himself to become a creature; the one whose eternity does not prevent but rather permits and commands him to be in time and himself to be temporal, whose omnipotence is so great that he can be weak and indeed impotent, as a man is weak and impotent. He is the one who in his freedom can and does in fact bind himself, in the same way as we are all bound…[God’s glory consists] in the fact that because he is free in his love he can be and actually is lowly as well as exalted…

[The incarnation distinguishes God] from all false gods by the fact that they are not capable of this act, that they have not in fact accomplished it, that their supposed glory and honour and eternity and omnipotence not only do not include by exclude their self-humiliation (142-43)

I think this is a great insight: God’s strength and greatness is displayed in his ability and willingness to limit himself, to bind himself to our weakness, and thereby lift us up. No other gods can do this!

Jesus: God and man?

Frank Sheed has a very lively and helpful discourse in his Theology and Sanity on the incarnation. Is Christ God? Is he man? How can he possibly be both? Is this some sort of schizophrenia?

Sheed explains:

God the Son was a Person, a Someone, possessing the nature of God in its fullness, and this in the eternity of the Divine Being. At a certain point in time He took to Himself and made His own a human nature. Thus we have the unique instance of one single person with two natures, divine and human. To the question “Who are you”? Christ would have but one answer. He is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God the Son, the Word. But to the question “What are you”? Christ Our Lord would have two answers, for He has two natures; He is God and He is man.

What Sheed explains is that the person and the natures must be understood when examining the mystery of the incarnation. It was the person of the Son who became incarnate. But that person possessed two complete natures: God and man.

How this can be is simply a mystery. But this does help us understand who and what we are talking about when we think of the incarnation.