Linus or Manmas?
There have been a number of attempts, of late, to do away with any kind of public celebration or acknowledgment of the real meaning of Christmas. The latest one I read concerned an atheist group that was wanting to ban "A Charlie Brown Christmas" from television. These attempts shouldn't surprise us; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, the world hates Jesus, and they hate him without a cause (John 15:25). Santa Claus and snowmen are not offensive, but Linus, on public air waves, quoting Luke 2:8-14 as the real meaning of Christmas cannot be tolerated.
Something else I read recently, however, was even more troubling. A pastor who calls himself orthodox and evangelical was arguing that the only biblical way to understand God was by way of a "kenotic Christology." The word "kenotic" is taken from Philippians 2:7, where God says (through Paul) that Christ "emptied himself." The Greek word for "emptied" gives us the word "kenotic."
There are differing versions of kenotic theories, depending on differing views of just what, exactly, Christ emptied. Whatever the version or view, however, kenoticism holds that Christ gave up some aspects, or perhaps all, of his essential deity. He ceased, in some way, or altogether, to be God. But Christians who want to maintain the label of "orthodox" or "evangelical" should recognize that no version of kenotic Christology can merge with such labels. Just as J. Gresham Machen chided liberalism for its dishonesty, so also here. One is free to hold such an aberrant view as kenoticism, but one is not free to pretend that such views are orthodox. Like liberalism, kenotic Christology cannot be transplanted into orthodox Christianity; it would be rightly rejected as a foreign substance in an otherwise healthy and growing body. The reasons for this are as basic as orthodoxy itself.
First, the text of Philippians 2:7 explains what "emptied" means. Paul does not say that Christ emptied himself of his omnipotence, or of his omniscience, or even of his deity; it is much more sweeping than that. Paul says that Christ emptied himself. If no more is said, then the conclusion would have to be that Christ became a completely different person; the "self" who was Christ is no longer. But Paul makes clear that the emptying of Christ includes the fact that he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (Phil 2:6). That is, there was a point (in eternity) at which the Son of God agreed to his own humiliation; he agreed to a self-emptying. But Paul goes on to say that Christ's voluntary self-emptying was by addition, not by subtraction. He emptied himself, not by subtracting his deity (which is impossible), but by taking on the form of a servant. That is, Christ's emptying is by taking on something (a human nature) that itself presupposed humility (a humility, we should note, that this passage says Christians should mirror).
Second, there is no way to hold to an orthodox (i.e., biblical) view of the Trinity if Christ emptied himself of his deity. Since Christ is first the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, he must always be that person, and he must always be fully and completely the Son of God. If he were to empty himself of his deity, then there would be a "binity," not a Trinity. Not only so, but if Christ emptied himself of his deity, then God could, indeed, deny himself (2 Tim 2:13); he could become what he essentially is not. Just as God cannot lie (Num 23:19; Rom 3:4; Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18), he cannot change his character as God. This truth not only grounds the glory of who God is, but it grounds our trust in his faithfulness as well (Heb 6:13-20).
Third, if the Son of God were to give up his deity, there would be no salvation for man. To put it, as Scripture does, in the simplest way, the Christmas message is that the one who will save God's people from their sins is "God with us," Jesus Christ (Matt 1:21-23). If there is to be salvation, it will have to be accomplished by one who is Emmanuel; it could not be accomplished by one who used to be God, but who is now with us.
The Jews who were blind to Christ's own identity as God were, according to Jesus, not of Abraham, but of the devil himself. Abraham rejoiced to see the day when the "I Am" would come to redeem his people. When Jesus called himself the "I Am," the Jews knew he had just made himself out to be the Yahweh of the Old Testament, so they picked up stones to throw at him (Jon 8:48-59). Salvation - in its clearly revealed (and forward-looking) presentation in the Old Testament, as well as its clearly revealed (and already/not yet) presentation in the New Testament - requires that God condescend to be with his people, and to be with them to redeem them, and all to his glory.
No denuded deity can provide real salvation. Scripture and history make no sense if the one who came to save us is only one of us. A kenotic Christmas is a Santa Claus Christmas; its focus is only on a special man, not the God-man. It is a Christmas that provides wishes and gifts, that sets its mark on some kind of "special" messenger. It fades away as soon as the reality of a New Year brings its inevitable regrets. It is the Christmas of man, which is not Christmas at all, but Manmas.
The Christmas message is the message of all of redemptive history, from Genesis 3 to the new heaven and new earth. Since the entrance of sin in the world, and in us, there is a cosmic war being waged. There will be no peace in that war until and unless the Prince of Peace comes to defeat the enemy. That coming of the Prince of Peace is clearly shown to the Lord's people in the Old Testament. It reaches its climax, when the time had fully come, in the Incarnation of the Son of God.
So magnificent was that climax - so awe-some and majestic - that its announcement came through an angel, and it "suddenly" provoked a "multitude of the heavenly host praising God" (Luke 2:13-14). That announcement included the central truth that the one who is coming is "Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11). Those who heard that announcement would have known, immediately, that this was no mere prophet who was to come, neither was it one who was simply superior to others who had come before. This was "the Lord;" it was the One who himself had been fighting with, guiding and redeeming his people throughout redemptive history. The "I Am" (Ex. 3:14) of redemptive history was about to be born! What God was about to do in his Son could only be wrought by a supernatural wisdom, a wisdom from above, and never by the wisdom of this world (1 Cor 1:20-25). Manmas is man-made and man-centered. But Christmas is that which no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined (1 Cor 2:9).
The wonder of Christmas is the wonder of the Triune God's free decision to create, and to redeem a people for himself. It is the wonder of God's eternal commitment to carry out the plan of redemption in history. It is the wonder of God committing himself to a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). It is the wonder of grace, the wonder of favor undeserved. It is the wonder of cosmic peace yet to come, but already accomplished. It is the wonder of resurrection life. It is the wonder of a new heaven and a new earth. It is the wonder of the glory of God, a glory that is manifested to the likes of sinful man. It is the wonder that God the Son, while remaining God, can also be one of us, and can suffer and die, that we might live forever.
At no other time of the year do so many, who do not know this wonder, hear (perhaps even sing) "Joy to the World! The Lord is come." At no other time do so many enemies of the cross hear (perhaps even sing) "O come, let us adore him." At no other time, do so many who crave autonomy hear (perhaps even sing) "Son of God, love's pure light radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace." At no other time do so many who worship and serve something created hear (perhaps even sing) "Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord! Late in time behold him come, offspring of the Virgin's womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the Incarnate Deity, pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel." Christians sing these words, by the grace of God, as the gospel truth. Others who hear (or sing) them are called to respond to them with repentance and faith.
Only if Christmas is "God with us" can its real message be preached and sung. Christians believe and hear that message every day, not just once a year. But the enemies of Christ need to hear it more desperately; only by hearing it is there any hope of true and lasting peace with God for them. So, maybe once or twice more, many will hear Linus remind Charlie Brown of the real meaning of Christmas - "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did'st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.
Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory
John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet
Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland