The Incarnation of God

Article by   December 2015
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Marcus Johnson and John Clark. The Incarnation of God: The Mystery of the Gospel as the Foundation of Evangelical Theology. Crossway, 2015. 256 pp.

Marcus Johnson and John Clark's The Incarnation of God is a much-needed and well-conceived treatment of the central mystery of the Christian faith. They contend that much modern evangelicalism has progressively de-emphasized the doctrine of the Incarnation (and indeed, with it, the theological significance of his life, resurrection, and ascension) in favor of an almost morbid obsession with his death, together with an abstract and extrinsic account of how the benefits of his death are applied to believers. Lost in this account, they argue, is a true sense of the "at-one-ment" that is both the precondition and the consequence of Christ's death: the scandalous truth that God identifies himself with us in our fallen condition, the healing of our nature that he inaugurates by uniting it to himself, the vicarious obedience he renders on our behalf as truly one of us, the life-giving union and foretaste of resurrection life that he offers us through the Spirit, the reign that he promises to us and shares with us by ruling at God's right hand as the Son of Man. All this and more is part of the richness of the Christian confession that "the Word was made flesh," and yet comparatively little of this picture receives emphasis, or even mention, in much contemporary theology. 

To be sure, Johnson and Clark are hardly the first to make this complaint: John Williamson Nevin (from whom Johnson and Clark take some inspiration) leveled very similar charges in the 19th century, and plenty of others have worked to put the doctrine of the Incarnation back on center stage in recent decades. However, often the task of theological writing is not to say something that's never been said before, but to keep yelling loudly and insistently something that hasn't been heard sufficiently. If Johnson and Clark's book helps modern evangelicals (including Reformed ones) regain a reverent appreciation of the breadth and depth of Christ's redeeming work, then we have much to be grateful for. That said, the book cannot claim to be a simple restatement of catholic truth; it has a number of idiosyncrasies, and in particular is deeply indebted to the work of T.F. Torrance, for good and for ill. Before saying any more on this, however, let me give a brief outline of its structure.

Their book is broad in scope and well-organized. Chapter 1 offers an introduction to the importance of the topic, contending, with John Nevin, that "The incarnation is the key that unlocks the sense of all God's revelations," as well as some historical background on the Nicene and Chalcedonian shaping of the orthodox doctrine. Chapters 2 and 3 focus primarily on the divinity of Christ, explaining how the Incarnation reveals to us the truth about who God is and what he is like. Chapters 4 and 5 focus particularly on his humanity, with chapter 4 arguing that Christ fully shares in our human condition, yea, even our sinful condition, and chapter 5 arguing that, by virtue of this complete sharing in our condition, Christ is able to vicariously live and die a properly human life, mediating not merely God to us but us to God. Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the implications and application of the Incarnation, first with regard to individual soteriology (the authors naturally argue for a much more participationist account than has often been common in American Protestantism) and with regard to ecclesiology (they argue for a recovery of a rich sacramentology, though, it should be noted, they equally emphasize the dynamic presence of Christ in the preached word). The final chapter seeks to show the practical implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation on a set of issues particularly pressing for contemporary Christians--marriage and sexuality--arguing, with Paul in Ephesians 5, that we cannot understand the meaning or purpose of marriage outside of the relationship of Christ and the Church.

There are, however, four main weaknesses to this book that I want to briefly survey, in hopes that the authors might address them in subsequent work on the subject. First, and perhaps least seriously, one wishes for more engagement with primary sources throughout the Christian tradition and perhaps especially within our Protestant heritage. Luther and Calvin receive frequent mention, but they are virtually the only figures between the Patristic era and our own that do. 16th century theologians such as Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and Richard Hooker had quite a bit to say about the Incarnation, and could have been quoted with profit. Second, although chapter 1 does offer some important history of the development of Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy on the doctrine, there really is not as much precise definition in this groundlaying section as the topic demands. Although clearly reverenced, the Chalcedonian formula is never really expounded at any length, nor are the subsequent controversies over its meaning (monothelitism, monoenergism, etc.) addressed. Standard Christological distinctions such as anhypostasis and enhypostasis are treated only in fleeting footnotes, if at all. The particular danger of this under-exposition is that we might fail to grasp how it is that the two natures exist together without confusion or change, in the words of the formula. Now, the authors might well reply that they did not want to scare away their readers with overly technical language, and I suppose the important question is whether this paucity of distinctions and definitions does any great harm to the subsequent exposition, beyond leaving some points rather too vague. For the most part, it does not, but there are a couple exceptions, such as where the authors seem to endorse a theopaschite formula in treating the crucifixion: "many Christians try to mitigate the mystery and gravity of Christ's death by claiming that only his humanity died, not his deity. This we cannot and must not do. Christian orthodoxy flatly rejects any Nestorian disjunction between the divine and human natures of our Lord that would posit that the man Jesus died independently from God the Son" (p.145). This move is hardly surprising in light of the authors' previous explicit rejection of divine impassibility (pp. 96-98), but it is made easier in this context by their failure to be clear about what Nestorianism is and isn't.

Third, although the authors seem clear that there is something wrong with contemporary evangelical understandings of the Incarnation, they are rarely clear about their precise target. We are generally told that "modern evangelicals" lack this or that, without any citations. Now this is partly unavoidable in the nature of the case; for, if what you are diagnosing is a lack (as they often are), it is hard to quote examples of what you are talking about, and if the lack exists largely at the level of popular piety, so much the more so. However, there are plenty of places where more clarity could have helped distinguish when they are objecting to popular evangelical piety, or explicit formulations of modern or even historic evangelical theology, or in some cases, the majority of the Christian tradition (as in their repeated polemics against natural theology--about which more in a moment). To criticize the last under the guise of attacking the first is perilous. There are exceptions to this tendency within the book, to be sure; in fact, chapter 4, on Christ's assumption of fallen humanity, is perhaps the strongest chapter in the book by reason of its extensive interaction with both historic and contemporary literature, even if many readers are likely to find its argument controversial.

Fourth, then, is the matter of natural theology, a sustained target of some of the book's strongest polemic in chapters 1 and 2, where modern evangelicals are accused of an "epistemic Pelagianism" by thinking that some knowledge of God is possible without Christ. Of course, if this is indeed a problem, it is hardly one confined to contemporary evangelical apologists, as they later grant, by extending their critique to the Thomistic viae. Clearly their worries here are motivated by a Barthian-Torrancian Christocentrism, but it is not at all clear just how far they are trying to go with this critique. At times they seem to distinguish between a mere propositional knowledge of God ("the demons believe, and tremble") that might be partially obtained by natural revelation, and a relational, affective, and therefore true and saving knowledge which is possible only through Christ, a standard enough distinction. But at other points (e.g., p. 52), they seem to deny that the former knowledge is possible at all, and make statements that seem very difficult to square with Romans 1:19-21--for instance, "anything or anyone that is not God cannot make God known" (p. 51). I'm sure that critics of natural theology are just as sick of hearing Romans 1 quoted at them as same-sex ethical revisionists, but the fact is that it is there in the Bible, and I don't think St. Paul would take very well to being called an "epistemic Pelagian."

As a result of this last weakness in particular, I worry that many readers will conclude that their suspicions of an incarnationally-centered theology are well-founded, and will retreat back into familiar theological categories where an abstracted doctrine of the atonement, slapped on top of a generic theology of God as creator, anchors and indeed almost exhausts their whole theological outlook. This would be a mistake. Johnson and Clark are right to highlight for us the benefits to be gained by a robust retrieval of the Incarnation as the central mystery of the Christian faith, which anchors and reshapes our understanding of all the rest of theology. This contention can be made, I think, without the kind of Barthian revisions of epistemology and theology proper that the authors feel compelled to make, and I hope that, by continued resourcement from the best expositions in the tradition, they will find examples of such a well-ordered incarnational theology.

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com

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