“Who for us…and…our salvation…became human,” is not just the heart of the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed but is at the heart of our faith’s claims about Jesus. This is the discovery that led some pious Jews to break with tradition and preach to the world their belief that there are now two names for the powers that rule in heaven, the Father and the Son who both reign in the power of the Holy Spirit. Why did Almighty God take on our humble flesh? “For us…and…our salvation.”
John’s first letter says that, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn. 4:8)
Contemporary critics have charged Christians with a sort of anthropocentric narcissism, “How arrogant,” they say, “that we humans should think that the Creator of the Universe would go to so much trouble for the likes of us.”
This is indeed the great scandal of the Incarnation – that a God of great magnitude – creator of “all things visible and invisible” (Nicean Creed) – for the sake of us humans entered into our space and time in Christ and fully embraces humanity, despite the cost.
Besides, to say that the Incarnation was, “For us…and…our salvation,” doesn’t mean that God’s love and salvific work is limited to us humans. Paul says the whole creation is groaning as it awaits deliverance (Rom. 8:19), suggesting that the saving work of God in Incarnation is more than individual; it’s cosmic.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Sometimes the church acts as if what Jesus said was, “For God so loved me and my church friends who resemble me…,” thus limiting the scope of salvation in Incarnation.
The claim that, in Christ, “God so loved the world,” (John 3:16) led early Christians to bound beyond the geographic confines of Judea charging throughout the world boldly making cosmic claims that seem all out of proportion to their small, beleaguered, disliked status in the empire. In just a few years after the resurrection, these once disheartened disciples became apostles, witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) who busily made disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19). His own experience of the Incarnation led Paul to tell the struggling little band at Corinth that even in their difficulties they must not forget that, “the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor. 3:22). It’s a rather preposterous claim to make for the poor Corinthians – unless the Incarnation is true.
Marcus Borg thinks that if you think Jesus thought of himself as “one anointed by God to be the climactic figure in Israel’s history,” then “thinking that Jesus thought of himself in such grand terms raises serious questions about the mental health of Jesus.” Borg declares, “I don’t think people like Jesus have an exalted perception of themselves.”
Borg says we have two ways to think about Incarnation. The first way is “supernatural theism” which Borg dismisses as “common in popular-level Christianity throughout the centuries.” He claims that this view naïvely “sees God as a being ‘out there’ and not ‘here.’” God is seen as an “interventionist” who, for about three years, inserted Jesus “as the unique incarnation of an absent interventionist God.”
The other view, which is Borg’s, is “panentheism or dialectial theism.” “God is not ‘out there’ but ‘right here’ as well as more than right here…. Within this view, Jesus as a Spirit person was open to the presence of God…. I see Jesus as the embodiment and incarnation of the God who is everywhere present. But he is not a visitor from elsewhere, sent to the world by a god ‘out there.’ He is not different in kind from us but as completely human as we are.” Is Borg an Arian or Docetist? You make the call.
Borg generalizes the idea of Incarnation into a vague divine permeation of earthly things, detaching the presence of God from the specifics of Jesus. As we noted earlier, rendering Incarnation into a vague sense of God’s presence in the world has long been a way to escape the potentially life-changing, challenging, demands of Jesus by rendering him spiritual and insubstantial. The world was created by God, so the reasoning goes, and God loves us and the world enough to send the Son, therefore let us be content with ourselves as we are and the world as it is.
No. Incarnation is an aspect of the Atonement, God’s setting right things between us and God. Bethlehem and Golgotha are linked. In Jesus Christ God said a divine, dramatic, loving “yes” to us; the God of the cross also said a resounding, decisive “no” to how we were living and to what we made of the world. Christ loved us enough to become one with us as we are but Christ loved us enough not to leave us as we are. As the creed proclaims, he became incarnate “for us and our salvation,” not simply to affirm our humanity or to condone our continued sin.
Borg’s pantheism is similar to Joan Osborne’s popular song that sings, “What if God was one of us?” “What if God was on a bus?” Incarnation stresses that God has indeed become like one of us, a full human being, but he came to us as Jesus, a very specific human being who lived, died, and rose in a specific way. Furthermore, Jesus is more than “one of us,” he is at the same time the full, unique revelation of God, which none of us are or ever will be.
N.T. Wright admits that incarnational thinking “entails a commitment of faith, love, trust, and obedience,” in the witness of Scripture. Borg has more confidence in his own insights about Jesus than the testimonies of Matthew, Mark, or Luke. His Christology is his reflection upon his own spiritual experience rather than upon the specifics of Christ because he sees the Gospels as products of human spirituality. Wright countered Borg by boldly stating that when he (Wright) talks about Jesus, “I do not think ….I am merely talking about the state of my own devotion…. I am talking….about Jesus and God.”
While we cannot ascend to God through our human thoughts and experiences, it is true that God descends to us and when that happens, we indeed experience of the truth of Incarnation. We bump against a God who is not merely a projection of our spiritual yearnings. Though experience of millions confirms the gospels’ testimony of God With Us, the gospels are more than testimony to inner human experience. In the rhythm of the church’s worship, we experience Incarnation. The pattern of prayer and praise that we follow on Sunday morning is a very human activity that takes place in earthly space and time. We wash with water in baptism; we ingest wine and bread in the Eucharist. In so doing we become vulnerable to the incursions of a God we did not concoct for ourselves. We dare to believe that God uses these thoroughly human activities – bathing, eating, and drinking – to come very close to us in all of God’s holy otherness.
We experience, maybe not every Sunday, but often enough to keep us at worship, the presence of God moving among us in our earthly worship. There we are, just going through the rituals, only to be surprised by the undeniable descent of the Holy Spirit. We find ourselves “lost in wonder, love, and praise” (Charles Wesley) and we exclaim with our progenitor, Jacob, an incarnational thought: “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16)
Standing at the baptismal font, offering a dear child to be baptized, we look up and there at the font are all the desperate, degenerate, despicable rogues, and knuckleheads whom our Lord has gone out and recruited for the kingdom of God. We are making Eucharist, meeting Jesus in bread and wine only to see across from us at the Lord’s Table Judas, and worse. One reason why we believe in the truth of Incarnation is not only because the Bible tells us so, but also because we’ve lived it in your church and mine.
We declare to you what was from the beginning, that we have heard, what we’ve seen with their eyes, what we have looked at in touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we’ve seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we’ve seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the father and with his son Jesus Christ.” (First John 1:1 – 3)
This is an excerpt from my book, Incarnation: Embrace of Heaven and Earth (Abingdon Press, 2013). I offer it for your reflections during this season of the Incarnation, Advent.