The word Incarnation occurs quite frequently at this time of year; a notable example is one of the most popular of all Christmas carols: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. One wonders, as this song pours our from every broadcasting system in every Mall in the land, what the vast majority of listeners make of verse 2:
“Late in time behold him come, offspring of the Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the God-head see; hail the incarnate Deity”?
Even log-time members of one of the established Christian churches (of course, I do not refer to Episcopalians) have a hard time in explaining the theological implications of the word Incarnation. I am reminded of a ten-year old Sunday School student who, on being quizzed by his parents about that morning’s lesson (it was close to Christmas), said it was all about canned milk.
The Incarnation (from the Latin in which not surprisingly means ‘in’ and carnis, flesh), very baldly stated is the name given to the belief that in some mysterious way, the divine, or perhaps, The Divinity lived in, was joined to, was one with the human life of a man born in Galilee around 4 BCE and brought up in a pious Jewish household. You might gather from the fuzziness of this definition – either divine or The Divinity, and three attempts at describing the kind of relationship between God and Jesus – that whenever a try to say something about the incarnation, I am aware that a quagmire looms ahead. It may well be the case that one can hardly put together more than a sentence or two on the doctrines of the Incarnation or the Trinity without be accused as an heretic.
Carols & Metaphors
Consider the carol just quoted: “veiled in flesh the God-Head see”, and then consider verses from other carols: “God from God – Light from Light eternal, Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb” ( from O Come All Ye Faithful); or “How silently the wondrous gift is given! So god imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven” (O Little Town), and, finally, out of dozens of actual or implied views that might be quoted, “Behold the world’s creator wears the form and fashion of a slave” (From East to West).
There is a considerable variation in the metaphors used to describe the relationship that faith sees between God and the birth of Jesus. A ‘veil’ suggests someone (God?) walking around looking human, but, perhaps, not fully so.
O Come All Ye Faithful is a great deal more robust: it suggest that the divine presence – “Light from Light Eternal” itself spent nine months in Mary’s womb. Here we have a clear Trinitarian theology with Light Eternal being God the Father and the Light emanating thence being the Son, whom the 4th Gospel prologue calls the Word; moreover, says John, the Word is “the true light than enlightens everyone”, who came into the world: “The Word was made flesh and lived among us”. (John 1. 9 & 14).
At the other end of the spectrum is Little Town of Bethlehem. Here, the birth is an undefined ‘wondrous gift’ and its purpose is to give to all humanity the ‘blessings of [his] heaven’. This is, what one might call a very soft version of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and, perhaps, that explains the popularity of this beloved carol.
Early Faith to Developed Dogma
It seems quite clear from the early documents of the group that came to be called Christians that from the very first they believed that Jesus was inseparably close to God, and that God worked though him to break down the barriers they experienced in coming to God and embracing others They also embraced Jesus’ teaching about the Rule – Kingdom - of God. The Prophets had looked for One, who would come to inaugurate the Last Days, and Jesus was seen as fulfilling that promise; the parables of Jesus speak of the Rule of God already operating, but also point to a future fulfillment.
This is the beginning of a development that produced a specific “doctrine” of the incarnation, but it was not until Christianity became a lawful religion after the baptism of the Emperor Constantine in 356 C.E., that Christmas became a central festival, and the season we call Advent began its rather long liturgical development.
Before Christmas became the central winter festival, (mainly, as the church spread into northern pagan areas, to replace the rituals of the winter solstice, lighted fir trees and that kind of thing), Epiphany had been central; it was one of the times for Baptism and was preceded by some weeks of preparation for the candidates. It was this period of preparation that gave Advent its quasi-penitential element when it became the preparation for Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation. So it is that Advent has notes of joy in anticipation of Christmas, but also an undertone of penitence for the human failure that lies behind so much suffering and pain in the world.
A final ingredient was added to the Advent Liturgy somewhere around the ninth century: it was an emphasis on the Second Advent, the second coming of Christ at the end of the ages. The vibrant faith of the earliest believers that Jesus would return within their lifetime, had long centuries ago died, but as the fact that the end of the millennium was approaching sank in, there was a surge of interest in “the Last Things”. It seemed appropriate to put together the joy of the first Advent with the coming judgment of the Second, and a look at the readings for the season will quickly illustrate the point.
It remains true, however, that the reality encapsulated in the theology of the incarnation is central. Having said that this doctrine is central is not to say that it is paramount. Some theologians say so, for example, Samuel Wells in a recent guide to Christian doctrine writes, “The doctrine of the incarnation is the central doctrine of Christian theology, from which all other doctrines flow”. (Christianity – The Complete Guide, (CCG) Ed. John Bowden p. 617; my italics).
A good deal depends on how one approaches doctrine in general. Wells approach might be called a “systematic theology”; such an approach is concerned to produce an overall, neat pattern, which gives a somewhat theoretical picture. This systematizing tends to depend more on philosophical principles than on history. Early signs of this mode are seen in the fourth century where, in the Nicene Creed of 325, the Bishops resorted to a Greek philosophical, term, homoousios, in an attempt to nail down, categorize, the exact nature of the relationship between God and Jesus.
The apogee is seen in the Scholastic theologians of the 13th &14th centuries when it was argued whether the Incarnation would have taken place anyway, even without the fall of Adam. St. Thomas Aquinas thought not, and thus named the first transgression a felix culpa – a happy sin.
A more pragmatic approach is to begin with the foundation documents of the church, and, using the tools of historical criticism, to trace how the developed teaching about God, Jesus, humanity and the complex relationships between them developed. Since the Enlightenment, this has increasingly been the approach of those scholars who have not remained firmly in a conservative position, as in Calvinism and the Roman Catholic church.
It will, I am sure, come as no surprise to anyone who has read articles on Simonsurmises that this is the approach with which I feel most comfortable. So, I will begin with the biblical picture. It is often assumed that the doctrine of the incarnation is based, above all, on the stories of Jesus’ birth. It needs to be stressed, however, that of the four canonical gospels, two do not have an account of Jesus’ birth. Mark, our earliest witness, begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, and the 4th Gospel has an introduction strongly influenced by Hellenistic philosophy. That Prologue, as indeed the whole of the Fourth Gospel, was to be an immense influence in the development of Christian Doctrine; it is here, probably only here, in the New Testament, that there is an unambiguous statement of the pre-existence of Christ, expressed in the theology of the Logos.
The Central focus
On the other hand, all four gospels spend a disproportionate amount of time on the story of the Passion, and it is abundantly clear from the rest of N.T. that the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus were both the focus of individual faith, and the spearhead of the earliest preaching. It is also noteworthy that in the development of Christian worship, Holy Week and Easter were the first to have specific liturgies attached to them, almost four centuries before the celebration of Christmas became normative. The conclusion is clear: the central doctrine of Christianity is connected with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Background to Ministry of Jesus
So, paradoxical as it may seem, I think we need to start with the ministry of Jesus, and particularly with its climax in Holy Week and Easter. It is immediately clear, of course, that if we are to make any sense of the accounts of Jesus’ life and death, we have to go back much further into the seedbed of Judaism. The O.T. gives us a dramatic presentation of the faith of the Hebrew people, the first (at least, in the Western world) to embrace a belief in One God. A battle between the gods is a recurring theme in the middle-eastern myths appearing, in stories where the chaos monster is overcome and stability and order in nature are established.
Traces of these stories are embedded in the O.T. We find many references to a primeval chaos monster, slain by Yahweh. It is important to note that the Hebrew writers completely eliminated the idea of multiple gods fighting for supremacy; everything is achieved now by the One God, Lord of all creation and of all Nations. Sea monsters called Rahab and Leviathan are said to be slain by Yahweh. (Job 9.13; Pss. 74.13-14. 89.10; Isa 27.1; 51.9).
Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of Yahweh!
…Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep[?] (Isa. 51.9-10)
God’s creative activity consists in the overcoming of darkness and chaos and the establishing of light; essentially this battle sums up the message of the Prophets, which is foundational to the ministry of Jesus, and is central, also, in the rest of the N.T. The second story of creation in Genesis, the much older one tells of the beginning of the estrangement between the human race and God; in a sense, as John says centuries later, human beings loved darkness rather than light. By their hubris, the idée fixe that they we self-sufficient and smarter than God, they joined the forces of darkness and chaos.
The repeated offers of a Reconciling Covenant with Yahweh are met with repeated acts of disobedience and hubris. The Prophets see this disobedience not as ritual failures, but as a moral issue – the break down of justice, the exercise of unrestrained power and the blatant exploitation of the poor. Yet they consistently hold out hope that God will send a righteous leader.
The Early N.T. Traditions
All this (and so very much more) lies behind the writers of the N.T. as they record for us the early traditions about Jesus of Nazareth and, in the Letters, give us their first attempts to understand what it is that God is working out among them. There seems little doubt that Jesus collected a group of enthusiastic and committed followers, who listened to his teaching, and accompanied him as he journeyed round Galilee; above all, they spent that last period of his life with him in Jerusalem. Whether at the very early stage they called him Messiah, Christos, we cannot be sure, but it was a title that they applied very soon after his death, firmly believing that he power of God had been given him back to them in what thy called the Resurrection. The early speeches of the Apostles recorded in The Acts of the Apostles suggest that they were the ones who took out the message, what the, called the Euangelion, – the Good News.
We also learn from the same source that the simple declaration of faith required at Baptism was, “I believe that Jesus is Messiah (Christos)”: a Creed that would have seemed hopelessly inadequate to the Bishops who framed what we call the Nicene Creed in 325. [More precisely, the Creed we use liturgically is the Constantinopolitan of 381].
What did the Apostles Think?
It seems unlikely in the extreme that the Galilean fishermen, based firmly in Judaism thought that they were following a man who was also fully God (as the later creeds put it) as they went from village to village; it would be repugnant to their faith in the One God. But it also seems clear that by the end of his ministry and especially in his martyr’s death they came to the conclusion that he was unique among human beings; that God worked through him; that his teaching about the coming rule of God was an authentic divine message.
Perhaps most central of all, they experienced peace and reconciliation. This is portrayed again and again in the accounts of the miracles. A person tortured by madness (in 1st. century terms, possessed by a demon), is seen to be healed. The word in Greek is sõzõ, which also means to save. A saying recorded by Luke sums up so much of what they thought about Jesus. Luke uses St. Mark’s account of the Pharisees’ accusing him of casting out demons by black magic. As in Mark, Luke reports Jesus saying that if Satan is casting out Satan, then that is good news. But significantly, then adds, “If I by the finger of God cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you”. (Lk. 11.20). Jesus is understood to be a mediator of the love of God, making people whole, and overcoming the powers of darkness.
Even before the earliest Evangelist, St. Mark, Paul had written to the Christians in Corinth, somewhere between 52 and 54 C.E., that is, only two decades after the crucifixion:
“We are convinced that one has died for all…(17) So if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through the Messiah and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is in the Messiah God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us”. (II Cor. 5.14ff).
Here we have the germ of what was to be one of the fundamental doctrines of the church, the Atonement, but we also have the clearest statement of who the first generation Christians thought about the Relation of Jesus to God, and our relation to Jesus, and, thus to one another and to God.
Paul to Chalcedon
It is a long way from this to the “official” view of the Incarnation that was sealed in the 4th and 5th centuries, particularly in the Creed of Constantinople and in the statement issued at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E., known as the Chalcedonian Definition. How the Church got from St. Paul to Chalcedian is a long and fascinating story, which must wait for another time. However, the position of Chalcedon on the relationship between God and Jesus remained set in stone until the 18th century when critical study of the biblical texts began, and the dogmatic authority of the Roman church began to be challenged even more strongly than it had been at the Reformation.
Two Contemporary Views
I end by juxtaposing two contemporary views. One from Samuel Wells, who defends the immutability of the views set out in the Chalcedonian Definition and the other from John Robinson’s book, The Human Face of God. John was a C. of E. bishop and caused an almighty uproar when he published his first book, Honest to God.
First, Samuel Wells:
The doctrine of the Incarnation is that at a certain time, God the second person of the Trinity … took flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and growing from infancy to adulthood, walked on earth in human form. [Yet throughout his life] Jesus never ceased to be divine, the second person of the Trinity; nor did he did he [ever] cease to be human…nor to be one person… a person with divine and human nature; and [never did] the Creator and creature cease to be distinct orders of being. (CCG p.612)
Wells goes on to say that this doctrine is “not easy to grasp in today’s world”. Some of the critics of the Definition would go much further than that and say that the doctrine, in its traditional form, is incoherent, but that what it stands for is important for Christian faith.
So, John Robinson writes:
I believe that the word [incarnation] can just as truly and just as biblically (in fact, more truly and more biblically) be applied to another way of understanding it. This is: that one who was totally and utterly a man – and had never been anything other than a man or more than a man – so completely embodied what was from the beginning the meaning and purpose of God’s self-expression (whether conceived in terms of his Spirit, his Wisdom, his Word, or the intimately personal relation of Son-ship) that it could be said and had to be said of that man, ‘He was God’s man’ or ‘God was in Christ’ or even that he was God for us”. (Human Face (1973) p.179.