Christian Doctrine (12)

Image - John Calvin
Let’s talk about God the Redeemer in Christ for awhile.

Summary notes for [and some thoughts on] Chapter 12 of Christian Doctrine1, “Where is God? The Doctrine of the Incarnation”:

Continuing to follow the pattern established in the Apostles’ Creed for reviewing the doctrines of the faith, Guthrie moves on to “and in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,” beginning with “who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” Not the doctrine of the virgin birth, although that doctrine is implicated, but the doctrine of the incarnation: the affirmation that God, in the person of Jesus, genuinely became human and lived a full human life on earth, along with all the rest of us – with the significant difference that Jesus lived a human life without sin.

The teaching of the virgin birth, which is recorded in two of the birth narratives in the gospels, Matthew’s and Luke’s, though in different ways, is misunderstood in various ways according to Guthrie. On one hand, some Christians “demythologize” it and regard it as inessential. On the other, some insist on it as a fundamental, in part because of its appearance in scripture, but perhaps also in part because of its “difficulty” for modern rational empiricists. Guthrie spends time on this, because he wants to emphasize that the “meaning” of the affirmation of the virgin birth is what’s critical from the perspective of thinking about who Jesus is for Christians (theologically speaking, “Christology”).

“Whatever else they may mean, the birth stories of Jesus emphasize that the Christian belief that ‘God is with us’ (Matt. 1:23) is not just a beautiful idea or an abstract theological truth. It happened! (234)” This means that whatever pertains to the specificity, the particularity of a human life, pertains to Jesus’ life: specific historical time and place, political and economic and social context (so, socialization, tradition), etc. [Specific length of life, specific manner of death, that, too.] In other words, the real human world that we ourselves live in, in the same universal-in-the-particular way. The myth-busting corollary is that Jesus is NOT “half man-half God,” as if the Holy Spirit substitutes for a human male in conception [I actually had a friend of mine at seminary articulate this very idea in very chromosomal terms, and I have read that Billy Graham more or less told the story that way as well, so Guthrie is not setting up a straw man here – no pun intended.] That idea would actually be more similar to various Greek myths, the ones that underwrite the Percy Jackson series, rather than Christian orthodoxy. One version of this idea, that Jesus had a human body but a divine “soul,” is actually the named heresy of Apollinarianism. Here’s Guthrie clarifying:

“Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit” really means not that the Spirit is the father of Jesus, but that according to his human existence Jesus had no father at all. This phrase is not a biological explanation of Jesus ‘two natures.’ It means that there is no explanation, that the Word became flesh purely by the will and word of God. God spoke, and Mary heard and responded, ‘Let it be with me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38). The proper analogy here is not the physical process of procreation but God’s original creation of all things “out of nothing” when God simply spoke and it was done. (236)

Somewhat ironically, Guthrie notes that Karl Barth [Mr. “Father is the Revealed Word we Have To Use For God” patriarchal theologian himself] here claims that the virgin birth is a way of shifting human storytelling away from the stories of power-ful men and making a woman the agent of God’s work in the world. [Or maybe not ironically at all, since Barth’s corollary, according to Guthrie, is that everyone’s task in the world is that of Mary’s feminine servanthood vis-à-vis God and God’s divine Fatherhood, even if God isn’t Jesus’ bio-dad, so this is not a human-gender-binary-upsetting idea for Barth, or even a re-valorization of that binary, but more a use of that gender binary to subordinate human masculinity to God’s divine masculinity – at least, if not ontological masculinity, then masculinity for the purposes of revelation in extant humanly intelligible symbolic categories. Just sayin’. Whether that’s a liberating, or the most helpful, way to think about this is open to discussion. I like Karl Barth, but I don’t subscribe to the inerrancy of Church Dogmatics.]

Jesus was a real human being. Docetism, the idea that Jesus was only appearing to be human but was really God all along, is an ever-popular heresy. Being “born of a woman” combats the apparently-human idea. It makes Jesus a real Jewish human being; a real male human being; a real experientially needy and finite human being, not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally and spiritually. Jesus’ life was a human life, the same kind of human life all of the rest of us have. Jesus was really tempted to sin – because that’s where we live – and then unlike us, Jesus really did not sin. [So this has to make us think hard about what we mean by temptation, and by sin. See Guthrie ch. 11 on why sin is a ubiquitous but not an essential component of humanity.] Guthrie emphasizes that Jesus’ sinlessness has to do with his way of life, which was the perfection of love for God (all his heart and mind and being) and for others (his neighbor as himself), making him the friend of sinners. Also making him dangerous: an offensive and undeniable challenge to every other way of life around him, a living example of the distortion, wrongness, and inadequacy of every other formula and commitment. Which explains why, at one crucial (pun intended) point, even though he was the friend of sinners, all the sinners (except for “the women”) stopped being his friends.

Jesus is really God-with-us. “In this real flesh-and-blood man, Jesus of Nazareth, God was uniquely present in the world. (243).” So, knowing Jesus is knowing God. (“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” John 14:9) This is another meaning of the affirmation of the virgin birth: “His miraculous birth is a sign of the fact that where he comes from, who he is, and what he does cannot be explained in terms of the ordinary process of human life and history. This man comes from God. What he says and does is God’s word and action. (243). This doesn’t become clear to his contemporaries, for the most part, until after his resurrection from the dead, which allowed them to re-experience their already-established relationship with his human person in light of this testimony to his divinity. That pattern is significant, because theoretically it is also the pattern of the church’s (body of Christ’s) witness: living humanly differently, establishing somehow extraordinary ordinary human relationships, as the basis for the experience of that difference as having its source in God. [When it works. And it does sometimes.]

To get at what it means that Jesus is really God (with us), Guthrie unpacks the title “Son of God.” On one hand, it’s a title of authority, that underwrites what Jesus says and does. But in that sense, the title is not unique; the kings of Israel and Judah, the Roman Caesars, et al. took this title, too. Jesus as son of God is not a state power monger, but a lowly, weak, suffering and vulnerable-to-death figure. And most important, that lowly, weak, suffering vulnerability is the revelatory form of Christ’s divinity. God’s “power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The story of the incarnation is “the story of a God who becomes little, weak, and powerless so that human life may be affirmed, protected, and defended” (247).

More traditional theological terminology involves Christ’s “exaltation” and “humiliation,” which is not what people sometimes think – that Jesus is exalted purely “up there” at the right hand of God in divinity and humiliated as a human “down here” – but which involves the self-humiliation of God, and the exaltation of humanity. By taking up human life, God puts a definitive “seal of approval” on that human form of life. This has dramatic implications for anything and everything that supports the fulfillment of human – we might want to say, truly human – life, liberation from forces of enslavement and abjection, restoration of human freedom for full humanity … God is for all that, and Jesus’ human life as God-with-us is the testimony to that. This also means that God’s power, goodness, and holiness is not incompatible with “coming down” to our human level to share life with us; God’s self-humiliation, God’s divestiture of what we might have thought of as the essence of divinity, doesn’t in fact make God any less divine. [Which means we need to re-vise our stuck metaphors for divinity.] Here’s more Guthrie lyricism:

Whoever will have God only in heaven, in church, and in religious affairs, or only where there is personal and collective success and happiness; whoever will not look for God in the everyday world, among ordinary human beings, participating in secular human affairs, present also in human failure and suffering – that person will never know God at all. For God is the God who comes to us in the man Jesus, who was born in a stable, grew up to be the friend of sinners and advocate of all who are poor and oppressed, and was (therefore) tried and condemned in a courtroom and executed at public execution grounds. (248)

In the end, we don’t try to explain the incarnation. We just do our best to articulate the upside-down-ness it creates in our received categories, along with the good news that upside-down-ness is for us and our received categories, and then try to live (by the grace of God, it doesn’t quite go without saying) like people who actually trust this as a fundamental truth about the Reality we live in.

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