Results tagged “Incarnation” from Reformation21 Blog

Of Mary's Virginity and Humility

A seasonal quotation from Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent and Christmas:

"Who is this Virgin so reverently saluted by the angel? and so lowly as to be espoused to a carpenter? Beautiful commingling of virginity with humility! That soul is in no small degree pleasing to God, in whom humility commends virginity, and virginity adorns humility. But how much more worthy of veneration is she, in whom fecundity exalts humility, and child-bearing consecrates virginity."

"Virginity is a commendable virtue, but humility an indispensable one. The first is of counsel, the latter of precept. Of the one it is said, "He that can take, let him take it." Of the other, "Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." To the one reward is offered: the other is exacted under a threat. Again, we can be saved without virginity, not without humility. A soul that has to deplore the loss of virginity may still be acceptable to God by humility: without humility, I will venture to say that even the virginity of Mary would not have been pleasing to Him, the Divine Majesty. Upon whom shall my spirit rest, if not on him that is humble and peaceable He says not on the virgin, but on the humble. If, therefore, Mary had not been humble the Spirit would not have rested on her. If the Holy Spirit had not rested on her, she would never have become fruitful; for how without Him could she have conceived of Him? Therefore, as she herself testifies, in order that she might conceive of the Holy Ghost, God the Father "regarded the humility of his handmaid," rather than her virginity. And if by her virginity she was acceptable to Him, nevertheless, it was by her humility that she conceived Him. Hence it is evident that it was her humility that rendered even her virginity pleasing to God."1

1. Bernard of Clairvaux (London: R. & T. Washbourne, LTE, 1909) p. 28.

*This post originally appeared at Reformation21 on December 21, 2007. 

The Wondrous "Why" of Christmas

Christmas is a time of mystery and wonder. The Virgin Mary was told by the angel that she would conceive and bear a son: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God" (Lk. 1:35). It is hard to encounter a more exalted event than this! The mystery of Christmas is celebrated in our churches amidst scenes of beauty and majesty that prompt the hearts of children of all ages to rejoice in wonder!

The marvel of Christmas is amplified by the prologue of John's Gospel. In his theological Christmas account, John writes: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...All things were made through him." This is who Jesus is. Then comes Christmas: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14).

John encourages us not so much to consider the mystery of the how of Christmas. The Divine Word, who was with the Father in the beginning, by whom all things were made, has come into our world as a baby! How could the Creator-Son enter the experience of a fragile baby we can never fathom! But the why of Christmas is given in Scripture as a source of wonder and endless joy. Let me suggest three lines of thought regarding the marvelous why of our Christmas celebration of Christ's incarnation.

First, in keeping with his emphasis on the priestly office of Christ, the writer of Hebrews states: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). Here is one why of Christmas: God the Son came into our world to know the entirety of the human condition and to sympathize with our weakness and sorrow. The incarnation is the ultimate fulfillment of God's question to Adam and Eve in the garden after the Fall: "Where are you?" (Gen. 3:9). Man being unable to answer, God has come seeking in the person of his Son. Some theologians argue that it is impossible for God to have gained information by means of experience, since he eternally knows all things. This objection, while true, misses the point. Genesis 3:9 and Hebrews 4:15 involve not a denial of God's transcendence but rather the mystery of the transcendent God becoming immanent.

We may therefore take at face value this wondrous why for the incarnation: Christ became human to draw near to you and know you experientially, so as to sympathize fully with your weakness. As you bathe in the lights of a Christmas tree and sing carols in the church, open your heart to a Divine Savior whose love wanted to draw near to you in a way that required the taking on of mortal flesh. You are not alone, for he came to know, sympathize with, and help you. Perhaps Charles Wesley has put this mystery best: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th'incarnate Deity, pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!"

A second why of Christmas was given to Joseph in the famous verse giving our Savior his name: "you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Mt. 1:21). Jesus became incarnate to seek but also to save us from our sins. To this end, Jesus' birth launched a series of divinely planned events culminating in his death on the cross. Hebrews 2:17 states plainly that Jesus "had to be made like his brothers in every respect. . . to make propitiation for the sins of the people." How we impoverish Christmas if we isolate the incarnation from the atonement! The best of our Christmas carols celebrate the first with an aim to the second: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear."

A third wondrous why of Christmas returns us to the book of Hebrews. In his second chapter, the author tells us that Christ was incarnate not only to give us sympathy and make atonement for our sin, but then to sanctify us for an eternity in heaven with him. Hebrews 2:10 states that "it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering." Did you catch the phrase: "in bringing many sons to glory." This is the final why that makes Christmas such a joyful wonder. Wesley celebrates: "Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth!"

How did the eternal Word, the Creator-Son who was with the Creator-Father in the beginning, actually become a baby boy? This is a mystery in which little progress can be made. But why? Here is a wonder for us to know and celebrate: Christ came to draw near to us in sympathy, to make atonement for our sins, and ultimately to bring us into heaven for eternity with him. We say that Christmas is a time for gifts. But this is because it declares God's great and wondrous gift to us. May the why of Christmas fill you with wonder and joy over the gift God has given to you in his Son. What a wonder John has exclaimed, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14).  

Warfield, the Incarnation & Self-Sacrifice

As was noted at the conclusion of the second part of this series, Warfield, in "The Example of the Incarnation," believes that there are four inferences to be drawn from the content of Phil. 2.5-8.

First, God is capable of self-sacrifice. If Christ is God, and Christ gave himself for us, then the conclusion naturally follows. I note in passing that some of Warfield's language in this section sits rather uneasily with the doctrine of divine impassibility: "Men tell us that God is, by the very necessity of His nature, incapable of passion, incapable of being moved by inducements from without...". Allowing for some generic flexibility, however--he is preaching a sermon, not writing a summa--we can understand that he does not seem to mean "passion" in the etymological sense of true passivity (God is surprised by something that comes to him from outside, which he is powerless to prevent and which he must suffer), but something more like a combination of our "emotion" with ethical action: God really does love and respond to creatures in need. 

Thus Warfield denies that God is "untouched by human sufferings or sorrows" and affirms--this should be noted by the monstrous regiment of those who accuse Calvinists of "voluntarism" and "nominalism"--that "moral heroism has a place within the sphere of the divine nature: we have Scriptural warrant for believing that, like the old hero of Zurich, God has reached out loving arms and gathered into His own bosom that forest of darts which otherwise had pierced ours." Further confirmation is found in what Warfield quotes to illustrate what he believes to be the opposite view: six lines of Tennyson's poem "Lucretius," where the gods (Warfield changes Tennyson's plural to the singular) haunt 

The lucid interspace of world and world,    105
Where never creeps a cloud, or moves a wind, 
Nor ever falls the least white star of snow, 
Nor ever lowest roll of thunder moans, 
Nor sound of human sorrow mounts to mar 
Their sacred everlasting calm! 

The view he is opposing, then, is the Epicurean one, where the gods, if they exist at all, exist far removed from the lives of men, about whom they care nothing at all. There is no providence; there is no divine love. For Warfield, in contrast, "the fundamental conception in the Christian idea of God is that God is love; and the fundamental dogma of the Christian religion is that God so loved us that He gave Himself for us." So, to reiterate: God is capable of self-sacrifice.

Second, we should apply this divine example to our own lives in imitation of Christ. For Warfield, "a life of self-sacrificing unselfishness is the most divinely beautiful that man can lead." The adverbial modifier is significant: there is something of the divine in the imitation of the most fully human life ever lived, something exalted in purposive humility. Christ is not only Savior; he is also model and exemplar. There is an important distinction to be noted in this connection. That is, what Warfield and Paul call their readers to is not self-devaluation, but self denial: "[I]t is not self-depreciation, but self-abnegation, that is...commended to us....[W]e must...not degrade ourselves but forget ourselves, and seek every man not his own things but those of others."

Warfield goes on to note that such an attitude is essential for all well-functioning, healthful human society, in both world and church--and this far more than the other "ideal of life" so regular in human affairs: 
We see its working on every side of us : in the competition of business life, -- in the struggle for wealth on the one side, forcing a struggle for bare bread on the other ; in social life, -- in the fierce battle of men and women for leading parts in the farce of social display ; even in the church itself, and among the churches, where, too, unhappily, arrogant pretension and unchristian self-assertion do not fail to find their temporal reward. But it is clear that this is not Christ's ideal, nor is it to this that He has set us His perfect example.
The divine ideal, rather, calls us to "self-forgetfulness and self-sacrifice," that is, to ministry, for Christ "by His ministry has glorified all ministering forever."

Third, such self-sacrifice is to be unlimited, both in terms of its depth vis-a-vis the individual and its breadth vis-a-vis the Christian society. With respect to the individual, the imitation of Christ's example is not restricted to only a part of our lives; it is not "some self-denial but all self-sacrifice" that is required. With respect to the Christian society, the imitation of Christ's example is not restricted to a specifically "religious" class of Christians, "but to all who would be Christ's servants." How can we say anything else when we reflect upon what God has done? "Into the immeasurable calm of the divine blessedness He permitted this thought to enter, 'I will die for men!'" Thus, when we apply this thought to ourselves, we are to say, "Let all thought of our dignity, our possessions, our rights, perish out of sight, when Christ's service calls to us."

Fourth, we should remember that this call is not to a life of morbidity; it is not an unnatural denial of human life (he again quotes Tennyson, this time from "St. Telemachus"). The life to which Christ calls the Christian "issues not in the destruction of the self, but only in the destruction of selfishness." Warfield memorably remarks that self-denial leads "not to unselfing ourselves, but to unselfishing ourselves." 

Equally importantly in our own day is Warfield's insistence that the self-denial Paul is after is not an exercise in self-cultivation. It is for the sake of others, not our own. The latter, for Warfield, is "ascetic, monkish." 
It concentrates our whole attention on self -- self-knowledge, self-control -- and can, therefore, eventuate in nothing other than the very apotheosis of selfishness. At best it succeeds only in subjecting the outer self to the inner self, or the lower self to the higher self; and only the more surely falls into the slough of self-seeking, that it partially conceals the selfishness of its goal by refining its ideal of self and excluding its grosser and more outward elements. Self-denial, then, drives to the cloister; narrows and contracts the soul; murders within us all innocent desires, dries up all the springs of sympathy, and nurses and coddles our self-importance until we grow so great in our own esteem as to be careless of the trials and sufferings, the joys and aspirations, the strivings and failures and successes of our fellow-men. Self-denial, thus understood, will make us cold, hard, unsympathetic, -- proud, arrogant, self-esteeming, -- fanatical, overbearing, cruel. It may make monks and Stoics, -- it cannot make Christians.
The above quotation is long, but it is worth pondering, particularly at a time when the so-called "Benedict Option" is receiving so much attention. "Self-sacrifice," Warfield says, "means not indifference to our times and our fellows: it means absorption in them." Our way in the world has nothing to do with lifestyle preference or the advertisement of the meticulously crafted self. Our way is to be the way of service; it is the way of the cross. For Christians, it is not one choice among many. It is the lofty call of the lowly Lord Jesus Christ, who, being God, "made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." May that mind which was in Him be in us as well.
O God, who resistest the proud, and givest grace to the humble; Grant to us that true humility, whereof Thine only-begotten Son hath given in Himself an example to the faithful; that by our foolish pride we may never provoke Thine indignation, but receive the gifts of Thy grace in lowliness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen[1]


[1] Book of Common Worship, pp.145-6.

Imitating the Incarnation?

"'Christ our Example': after 'Christ our Redeemer,' no words can more deeply stir the Christian heart than these. Every Christian joyfully recognizes the example of Christ, as, in the admirable words of a great Scottisht commentator, a body 'of living legislation,' as 'law, embodied and pictured in a perfect humanity.' In Him, in a word, we find the moral ideal historically realized, and we bow before it as sublime and yearn after it with all the assembled desires of our renewed souls."

"Do we not rightly say that next to our longing to be in Christ is our corresponding longing to be like Christ; that only second in our hearts to His great act of obedience unto death by which He became our Saviour, stands His holy life in our world of sin, by which He becomes our example?"

Were a contemporary Reformed or evangelical writer to pen those sentences, he would stand a good chance of being accused of "moralism." But those are the words of B.B. Warfield. In this brief essay, his sermon "The Example of the Incarnation" (more recently reprinted as "Imitating the Incarnation"), preached in the chapel at Princeton Seminary on 8 January 1893, will serve to elucidate those elements that should guide our thinking about how we ought to live in response to the overcoming of sin and death by the Incarnate Christ.

Warfield takes as his text Philippians 2.5-8: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus; who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." After explicating what the text tells us about Christ in his estate of humiliation, Warfield goes on to say what it tells us about our own duties. This he structures around the motif of imitation, and, driven by the text in Philippians, particularly around the motif of imitation of Christ "in the great act of His incarnation itself." Care is obviously called for here: one does not imitate Christ in becoming a divine person hypostatically united to an assumed human nature, or by being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. But that, of course, is not what Warfield (or Paul) means. What he does mean will become clear in the following exposition.

Though Philippians 2.5-8 is rich with theological significance, Warfield warns that we must not "lose ourselves in a purely theological interest" in the passage. We should instead "seek to feel the force of the example of Christ as [Paul] here advances it, for the government of our lives." Warfield's reminder is salutary, because so often a "purely theological interest" can be employed precisely to avoid the divine address and confrontation that is part and parcel of the sanctified reading of Scripture. To "feel the force of the example of Christ," we must first understand what the passage says about Christ himself. Here there are three main points. 

  1. Christ is God Himself; this is the force of Paul's saying that Christ had the "form of God," a manner of speaking "first given general vogue by the Aristotelian philosophy." Modern readers might be tempted to think that the phrase means that Christ was only a pretend God, only seemed to be God, when in fact Paul's meaning is the opposite. Christ's full deity thus underlines the stunning character of his voluntary humility: "It is not the abstract conception that Christ is God that moves us to our deepest admiration for His sublime act of self-sacrifice: but rather our concrete realization that He was all that God is, and had all that God has,--that God's omnipotence was His, His infinite exaltation, His unapproachable blessedness." It is from this lofty state that Christ came in the fullness of time. 
  2. The second thing we should note is the action of this divine person, the Son made flesh. That action is servanthood. The divine person of the Son did not change his divine nature in becoming incarnate; he assumed--took to himself in addition--a human nature hypostatically united to his divine person; he took "an actually servile nature, as well as of a subordinate station and a servant's work." Christ's servanthood too was real rather than pretend: this one who had the "form of God" for our sakes took the "form of a servant."
  3. The third item to be noted is Christ's spirit in doing so: a spirit of "pure unselfishness and self-sacrifice." In his incarnate person and work, we see Christ "making no account of himself." This is a point to which Warfield gives great stress, because it has import for how Christians are to imitate the Incarnation: "[T]he emphasis of the passage is thrown upon the spirit of self-sacrificing unselfishness as the impelling cause of Christ's humiliation, which the Apostle adduces here in order that the sight of it may impel us also to take no account of ourselves, but to estimate lightly all that we are or have in comparison with the claims of others on our love and devotion." Note the application: we engage in mimesis of the Incarnation not by an overrealized ecclesiology that sees the church as (somehow) continuing the Incarnation on earth, not by a disordered notion of the totus Christus so appealing to those who long for divine mystery and majesty in an otherwise humdrum life. It is rather through something much more homely, much less exciting, much less appealing to our projects of the self that we are so inclined to embark upon--and therefore much less likely to induce us to put the stress in the wrong place and transform the Christian life into an exercise in self-cultivation. We imitate (not "continue") the Incarnation by considering ourselves of no account and considering all others as more important than ourselves. Paul's goal is one that is at once (paradoxically) lofty and lowly, and self-evidently more difficult to reach than the ecclesiological version. Reflection on what the Apostle says in this passage should drive us to our knees in repentance for our manifest failure even to approximate having the "mind...which was also in Christ Jesus" in our daily practice, and to recall the reason for Christ's divine mission that we saw in the first installment: to save us from our sins, and to restore us so that we may die to them more and more, and live more and more to God. Only so, with the Spirit's help, can we begin down the path Paul sets out in Philippians 2.5-8.
Though we have already been given an indication of how the previous three points cash out for us, Warfield goes on more precisely to delineate the inferences that should be drawn from these truths. We shall look at those in the final post. 

A Christmas Reflection

If the dank earth forming marrow and flesh does not entice your wonder, then neither will the Incarnation. 

This Christmas season, I have been thinking of how integrally related Adam and Christ are in redemptive history, as made plain in Romans 5:12-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:42-49. The Trinitarian God spoke Adam into being and formed him from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7). The Father uttered; the Son manifested; the Spirit gave life (cf. Job 33:4). Out of soil came a son.

In the Incarnation, the same Trinitarian God spoke, but this time in the tongue of redemption. The Father sent (Gal 4:4; 1 John 4:10); the Son complied (cf. John 5:19-20); and Mary conceived by the Spirit (Matt 1:18; Luke 1:35). Out of a womb came the Word (John 1:1).
At Christmas we are ever reminded that the Son of God took on flesh and dwelt among us. 

This, we are told, should bring us to well up with joy--a glorious joy fit for proclamation by an angelic host (Luke 2:13-14). And it should! But reminding ourselves that Adam lies in Christ's shadow may serve to deepen that joy. Here are a few thoughts to remind us of how the beauty and wonder of the Incarnation builds upon the beauty and wonder of creation.

Just as God did not have to redeem, God did not have to create.[1] "Creation was not required, not mandatory, not extracted from God, neither by any necessity imposed from outside nor by any deficit lurking within the life of God."[2]  Creation is the result of a voluntary, gracious, and loving decision. All that we see around us "is a work of God's grace, flowing from God's love."[3]

The creation of Adam, seen in this light, is not ordinary or expected in the sense of being the product of some mechanical law of evolution. Adam was not simply bound to be there in the beginning. Adam was there only because God chose to speak him, and nothing can thwart the sovereign choice and holy speech of an almighty God. Creation was voluntary, not compulsory.

In this sense, Adam's life can be seen as a gift from the Trinitarian Giver. Creation, not Christmas, is the origin of gift-giving. That, perhaps, is part of the wonder of humanity's genesis. Ours is a beginning wrapped and tagged by the Trinity: Adam and his progeny are the gifts God gave to himself--not in divine greed but in divine grace. 

Now, juxtapose this with the Christmas story in the New Testament. If the wonder of Genesis is that God gave humanity the gift of life, then the joy of Christmas is that God gave us new life. And the packaging of both gifts resembled one another. The temporal son took on flesh and bone, as did the eternal Son. The "man of dust" (1 Cor 15:47) had no biological father, and neither did the "man of heaven." 

But there are also stark differences: the temporal son failed where the eternal Son succeeded; the man of dust could offer no salvation, but the man of heaven had salvation in his bloodstream. The first Adam exchanged the words of God for the words of a creature; the last Adam (1 Cor 15:45) crushed the words of a creature with the words of the triune God (Matt 4). 

Given this redemptive-historical relationship between Adam and Christ, we would do well to remember them both at Christmas, with greater emphasis, of course, on the Incarnation. Adam, we said at the outset, is in Christ's shadow, not the other way around. And yet, our appreciation for the utter uniqueness of the Incarnation is deepened when we contrast it with that ancient incarnation of sonship in Adam. What a wonder it was for God to breathe life into the dust and form a person! Such wonder is outweighed only when we reflect on the miracle of God breathing the second person of the Trinity into flesh and blood! We should be awed by Adam, but overwhelmed by Christ. The former brought death through life; the latter, life through death. 

This Christmas, as you focus on the glory of the Incarnation and the gift of the Son of God, remember that this Son cast a long shadow in which a lesser son was born. The world began with a gift; we might not be so surprised, then, to see it restored through one--a far greater and more costly gift: God himself. Such a gift is worth more than gratitude. It is worth our adoration.

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore Him, 
Christ the Lord. 

- John Francis Wade


[1]  Herman Bavinck, in my opinion, has one of the best treatments of the Triune God as creator. See God and Creation, vol. 2 of Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), pp.420-26. God created not simply to have something isolated from him, but to dwell in relationship with his creation. That is why redemption is so frequently spoken of as a restoration or reconciliation with God. Or, for Bavinck, it can be described as a return to God. "Creation thus proceeds from the Father through the Son in the Spirit in order that, in the Spirit and through the Son, it may return to the Father" (p.426).

[2] Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), pp.64-65.

[3] Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), p.47.

Warfield on the Incarnation

Cur Deus homo? "Why did God become a man?," Anselm asked. This is a question that has exercised theologians for hundreds of years, with the canonical materials receiving their first deep and searching analysis in Athanasius' On the Incarnation of the Word of God. The question received new urgency after the rise of a school of thought that held that the Incarnation would have occurred regardless of the fall of man in Eden--because creation itself, teleological as it is, seemed to demand it. What nearer manifestation of God could man have had than for God to dwell among us? And how could man have possessed happiness fully without him so dwelling? If the perfection of created nature can only be achieved through its close union with God, the Incarnation, it may seem, would have occurred whether or not man sinned. And yet the Scriptural witness runs in precisely the opposite direction. Is there any way to hold that witness together with what many have felt to be the goal of creation as such? Should we want to?

We can get some help from Benjamin B. Warfield, whose brief essay "The Principle of the Incarnation," first published in 1900 in The Bible Student, is a lucid treatment of these issues.

So, first: the issue of the Scriptural witness. The testimony of the New Testament is nearly unanimous that what Warfield calls the "motive" for the Incarnation was soteriological rather than ontological: the Incarnation as presented in the New Testament sprang from the need of man as wrecked and undone by sin rather than from the need of man as such. 

One can easily assure himself that this is the case by a perusal of both the Johannine and the Pauline writings. Warfield's comment on "For God so loved the world..." can be taken as a summary: "The emphasis thrown upon this teaching in the great passage, John iii. 16sq., indeed, is so intense as to be almost oppressive: the gift of God's Son is accounted for, it is intimated, only by the intensity of His love for the perishing world, and it is added with explicit iteration, that God sent the Son into this sinful world only 'that the world might be saved through Him.'" Elsewhere in the essay Warfield refers to this love as God's "Holy Love," which he calls God's "consummate attribute," the fierce, invincible, leonine love that purposes to rescue those who would sooner spit in the face of God with head held high than beg for mercy on bended knee. This Holy Love of God, that is, takes form soteriologically, as a response to man's suicide; thus Warfield calls sin the "proximate occasion" of the Incarnation and redemption its "prime end." The "principle of the Incarnation" is found "in the provision of a remedy for human sin." Its proximate cause cannot be found "either ontologically or ethically in God, or in the nature of the Logos as Revealer, or in the idea of creation, or yet in the created product and especially man as made capable of receiving God and therefore not finding his true end until he is raised to union with Him."

What, then, of seeing in the Incarnation the consummation of creation, the answer to man's longing for fullness of being in union with God? Is it to be dismissed as just so much pious pantheistic nonsense, a contentless romantic longing to be swallowed up by the Absolute in the ecstasy of an overindulged and malformed aesthetic sensibility? To be sure, it could take this form, and probably often does. But it need not--and anyway, abusus non tollit usum; and Warfield is surprisingly candid in his endorsement of the partial truth of what advocates of "Incarnation anyway" (I borrow the phrase from the title of a recent book by Edwin Chr. van Driel) propose--of the deep insight regarding the chief end of man that they want to protect. Warfield remarks that "[t]he Incarnation is so stupendous an event that it is big with consequences and reaches out on every side to relations that may even seem at first glance to stand in opposition to its fundamental principle." He goes on:
It is certainly true that all that is, is the product of the hand of God, and has, as coming from Him, somewhat of God in it, and may well be looked upon as a vehicle of the Divine. And surely it is true that He has imprinted Himself upon the work of His fingers; and that as the Author of all, He will not be content with the product of His power, until it has been made to shadow forth all His perfections: and it cannot be wrong to say that so far as we can see it is only in an Incarnation that He could manifest Himself perfectly to His creatures. Similarly the Logos as the Revealer must be supposed to desire to make known to the sentient creation all that God is, and preeminently the height and depth and length and breadth of that love of His which passes knowledge, and which assuredly lies at the base of the Incarnation and was its impulsive cause. And above all it cannot be doubted that it is only in the union with God which is the result of Christ's incarnated work, that man attains his true destiny--the destiny designed for him from the beginning of the world and without which in prospect as the goal set for His creatures by the Holy Love which God is, so far as we can see, man never would have been created at all. There is scarcely a mode in which the absolute necessity of the Incarnation has been asserted, indeed, which cannot be perceived to involve an element of truth which it would not be well to permit to slip from our cognizance.
No one doubts that "the Gospel" is embodied in creation itself, and that, as the Scriptures teach, it was "in the Son of His love" that "all things were created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers," that "all things have been created through Him and unto Him" and that He is therefore the goal to which all creations tends.

I have quoted Warfield at some length, because readers may be startled at how far he is willing to go to meet the partisans of "Incarnation anyway." But how does one square these affirmations with Holy Scripture's insistence that the occasion and end of the Incarnation were sin and redemption?

Warfield finds the solution in the "order of the decrees," something that perhaps on first glance sounds stridently Calvinist and therefore catholically useless--so goes the assumption of fuzzy ecumenical thinking. That is to say, the decree of Incarnation follows in God's plan as a consequence of the fall. Note what this allows Warfield to do, viz., to view the Incarnation as both predestined to occur before the creation of the world (in keeping with suprlapsarian Christology) and as contingent (in keeping with the infralapsarianism indicated by the apostolic witness). Therefore the world--this world, the world we live in--was created with both fall and Incarnation in view, and so it would make sense for us to be able to see traces of the divine counsel respecting man's fall and man's restoration by the God-man bodied forth in creation itself. "It can be truly said," Warfield says, "that the Incarnation was contemplated and provided for in creation itself and we may seek to discover and trace the provisions for it made in creation." The divine plan included redemption from the beginning, and it can therefore be seen to be indicated in creation itself as we know it (we should not be surprised at the close connection between creation and redemption; the history of redemption is the true history of postlapsarian creation, after all). God governs the universe absolutely, and creates in accord with his own sovereign plan and purpose. For that reason, the world that he has made--again, this world--reflects that purpose. The Incarnation is part of that purpose, and therefore the world as we know it reflects the Incarnation. "To such a God," says Warfield, "there belongs of necessity an all-inclusive plan for the government of the universe; and He contemplates this in all its parts from the depths of eternity: and in the unity and completeness of this plan the fall too will take its place, and the Incarnation as contingent upon it, but not therefore in any way uncertain of occurrence,--towards which therefore the whole creation may move."

What Warfield means, I think, is that God planned and saw omnisciently all that would occur before he created anything at all; and the world that he then made was the theater in which the great events of his mighty hand and outstretched arm were to occur. What kind of theater would it be if it did not have a set coherent with the action of the play? When we know how to look at it in the right way, the set gives us clues as to the story being told. And just as the set finds fulfillment only when the right story is played out against its backdrop, so our world only finally makes sense when seen in light of the unfolding of the history of redemption, and particularly of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection.

Finally, the predication of the Incarnation upon the fall is for Warfield not only true because it is the Scriptural scheme; affectively it answers to something deep in the bones of our faith. His witness here is the Seraphic Doctor: "And surely we may say with Bonaventura, that even if some other opinion of the motive and end of Christ's coming into the world seemed to us more consonant with the rational judgment, it would nevertheless be this [that is, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners] that would commend itself to the Christian heart,--'because it more ardently kindles the affection of faith.'" "Only so," Warfield concludes, "is the answering love of the saved sinner drawn out to its full height." In part 2, then, we will look at the way in which the Incarnation functions as an example for the redeemed sinner.

This is the sixth post in a twelve-part series on the current Christological confusion taking root in China's emerging Reformed community (see part 123, 4 and 5).

Second Statement: Platonic Dualism

As noted at the end of the previous post (see part 5), his discussion of the incarnation under the distinction between human nature and humanness vaguely sounds like Origen (or Isaac Watts). Origin believed in the pre-existence of human souls and taught a two-stage incarnation of the Son, the first consisting of his union with the un-fallen human soul of Jesus from the beginning of creation and the second a union with a human body in Mary's womb. The prior union of the Son with a human soul is why, he reasons, "throughout the whole of Scripture, not only is the divine nature spoken of in human words, but the human nature is adorned by appellations of divine dignity."[1]

Our speaker makes similar claims, drawing the same conclusion about the biblical witness to humanity's "dignity and glory" prior to the incarnation.[2] Though he does not endorse the pre-existence of the human soul, his notion of humanness as the original, pre-existing form of the humanity later embodied in Jesus of Nazareth and prototype of all created humans comes close. Traditionally, the human soul (anima) is conceived as the form of the human body (forma corporis). Most Reformed theologians adopted a broadly Aristotelian interpretation of this, in which the form (soul, in this case) only properly exists in the particular thing formed (the embodied human).[3] Like Origen, however, our speaker embraces a version of Platonic dualism in which forms really exist independent of the thing formed:
Humanness is the essence within human beings, the essence by virtue of which human beings are human. This human essence has existed from all eternity, and is something within God's being that he intended to use as the gene for his creation of humankind. It is the image of God; it is the ontological being of Christ [4]
In other words, the original, pre-existing form of humanity (humanness) is not just an idea in God's mind but an actually existing thing, which he, unlike Origen, declares eternal and locates within God's being.

The implication of this for understanding the unique moment of the incarnation in Mary's womb is taken up in the next post.


[1] Origen, De Principiis, 2.6.3-5. See also Isaac Watts, "The Glory of Christ as God-man" in The Works of the Rev. Isaac Watts, vol. 6 (Leeds: Edward Baines, 1813), pp. 484-670, and the discussion of this work in Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 423-28.

[2] First Recording

[3] Ordinarily, form and matter are considered inseparable in this tradition. The separation of soul from body in death is a temporary, abnormal state.

[4] First Recording

The Incarnation Apart From Sin?

Christological supralapsarianism can take on a variety of forms. In connection with this doctrine, I would like to address whether the Son would have become incarnate if Adam had not fallen (Cur Deus homo si Adam non pecasset?). Reformed theologians have asked what reward Adam would have received if he did not fall (and have disagreed on the answer), so I do not think it is inappropriate to ask whether that reward would have included a sight of the God-man.

Those affirming the view above have a fairly inauspicious history of theologians joining with them, whose names begin with "S": Scotus, Suarez, Servetus, Socinus, and Schleiermacher (and oh-Siander). With company like that, well...there's always Cardinal Bellarmine for the other side to even things out. Of course, a material similarity does not necessitate a formal similarity, o lovers of Republication! In fact, my position doesn't quite follow the arguments put forth by the aforementioned theologians and heretics. 

The fightback against this medieval "chimera" is well documented, especially by Reformed theologians. Calvin argued that the question involves unnecessary speculation (Institutes, 2.xii.5). G.C. Berkouwer seems decidedly unhappy with the idea because speculation tends to move us away from what actually happened (which is really what matters). The supralapsarian, Thomas Goodwin, did not want to address the question of whether the Son would have become incarnate if Adam had not sinned, even though he was prepared to say: "Christ did not come into the world for us, but we came into the world for Christ," which is a form of Christological supralapsarianism. 

We can look at this question from our perspective as well as the perspective of the Father. In this post I want to focus primarily on the reasons "from below" more so than the reasons "from above."

Did God will (understood in terms of "divine permission") the Fall - a sort of felix culpa - in order to achieve the greater good of sending his Son to redeem sinners? I doubt it. If the Son became incarnate as a response to the entrance of sin, Christ becomes, as it were, an "accidental identity" (so David Bentley Hart).

The Son (as theanthropos) must be at the centre of God's creating purposes, not simply his redeeming purposes. The creation of the world exists for the sake of the Son, otherwise we can make no sense of Colossians 1:16, which has in view the Son as God-man (i.e., Christ), not the Son simpliciter. Hence, Adam and Eve were created for Christ and by Christ.

Salvation from sin is not the highest end for humanity. That view conceives of the purposes of God too negatively. Rather, the highest end for humanity is uninterrupted (eternal) communion with God. However, in order to enjoy the fullest and highest blessings of communion with the triune God, we need to be glorified. Because of the Creator-creature distinction, God must nevertheless condescend before we can "ascend." The incarnation provides the only way God can have perpetual, unimpeded communion with man whereby man lacks nothing in terms of his ability to fully enjoy and know God because man is now Spirit-filled by the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9).

Adam was without sin, but that does not mean he was perfect; nor in the Garden did he reach glorification. Even Christ eventually reached "perfection" ("and once made perfect") in his high priestly role and awaited glorification (Jn. 17:5; Heb. 2:10; 5:9). Adam was naked in Eden. He was not yet clothed as he needed to be. The Son is clothed in the flesh of humanity. This formerly "weak" flesh is now glorified flesh (Rom. 1:4). We reach this same destiny when we are given new "clothing" in Christ (resurrected bodies, 1 Jn. 3:2; cf. Rom. 5:15-17).

I do not believe Adam could have gained for humanity what Christ was able to gain. He simply could not merit anything from God, much less could he merit the same blessings as Christ was able to merit as the God-man. Our union with the God-man brings us into a state far greater than what would have happened if Adam did not sin. The incarnation adds an incredible and immense dignity to our nature. Moreover, our adoption is on a higher level, for we are united to the God-man, not just a man. In Eden, Adam was a son indeed, per gratiam creationis, but not a son per gratiam adoptionis, that is, not in Christo, vel per Christum

Adam's personal sonship required development, just as Christ's own mediatorial sonship required development. Jesus, who was "for a little while" lower than the heavenly beings, is now superior to them in every way and for all eternity (Heb. 1-2). Adam desired from God what he was not yet ready for concerning the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Christ, however, remained patient, eagerly desiring the gift of the Father according to the timing and promise of the Father. Christ did not snatch his bride, but waited for his reward.

What does this all mean? Very simply, God's intention for humanity could only ever be fully realized through the incarnation. Why did God create humanity? To bring into being a bride for his Son, who would assume a human nature. This was best realized in the incarnation where God made it possible for us to commune with him in and through Christ alone by the Spirit.

Christ is not only God's reaction to sin. Sin did not necessitate the incarnation. True, things were made more difficult for the Son and for us as a result of sin, but God's basic telos has not been altered. The king of creation, to whom creation would bow, could not ultimately have been Adam. It had to be Christ. Christ, the heavenly man, makes possible what was ontologically impossible for the earthly man (1 Cor. 15:49). Full rights of eternal sonship must come through the eternal Son, not the temporary son (Adam), who was of the dust. Union with the God-man must be eternal because God hates divorce and cannot allow himself to be implicated in a divorce, which would be the case if something were to separate us from his love in Christ. Because of the incarnation, we truly belong to the same family of God when we are in Christ.

So, however it would have happened, the Son would still have become incarnate, ruled over creation, and brought about the possibility of full communion with the Father through the Spirit. As van Driel says in his book, Incarnation Anyway, attempting to respond to the charge that this view is overly speculative:

"I ask about the incarnation as it happened, about the Christ as we have him; and my point is that the incarnation as it happened gives us so much, is so rich in gifts of divine friendship and intimacy, that it cannot be explained as only a divine countermeasure against sin. There is no speculation here about a hypothetical situation; there is no discontent with the Christ as he is; rather, I am so impressed with the Christ as he is that I argue that the category of redemption is not rich enough to explain the wonder of his presence" (pp. 164-65).

In a nutshell, we are able to reject the "felix culpa" argument (so Schleiermacher) and also move away from unnecessary speculation based on this model. We give Christ the priority in all things (Col. 1:16), and we rejoice that God has always desired to bring us into communion with himself through the Son, who was always destined to be the man of the Spirit, par excellence, so that we could likewise be people of the Spirit in the fullest measure possible (i.e., maturity). This is something only Christ could give us, and not Adam. 

Perhaps most importantly, the incarnation gives us the highest blessing possible: the beatific vision. We see the face of God in the man, Christ Jesus (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 3:18, 4:6; 1 Jn. 3:2). We behold God's glory in the God-man (Jn. 14:9). Apart from the incarnation, we would be without this great blessing. But the incarnation gives us a sight of God that Adam could never have attained to. 

Thus the incarnation best displays God's love for humanity, by gifting us with the greatest gift possible: sight and enjoyment of the God-man. To think that we would have missed out on this if Adam had not sinned makes little theological sense to me. Indeed, it makes little sense that a loving God towards his creatures would withhold from them the greatest blessing he can give to them: an ocular, not just intellectual, sight of God in the flesh. 

While Goodwin does not wish to speculate on the incarnation (anyway) as the medieval schoolmen did, he does make an important point worthy of our consideration as we wrestle with this question:

"Whereas to bring [Christ] into the world only upon occasion of man's sin, and for the work of redemption, were to subject Christ to us...Whereas he is the end of us, and of all other things. This were also to have the person ordained for the benefits (such as redemption)..., which are all far inferior to the gift of his person unto us, and much more the glory of his person itself. His person is of infinite more worth than they all can be of."

Therefore, to acknowledge the pre-eminence of the gift of Christ's person over his work might be the first step to acknowledging that perhaps the Son would have become incarnate even if Adam did not sin. If there was no incarnation, the universe would be without its crowning glory. The man that God most delights in is the man, Christ Jesus (Isa. 42:1; 1 Tim. 2:5) - one of the arguments "from above".

Those who dealt with this question and rejected the position of incarnation apart from sin (see Johannes Hoornbeeck, Socinianismus Confutatus, II.253) usually point to the plethora of passages which speak of Christ coming into the world to deal with sin (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:15). Of course this is true, though there are certain types of "ends" that would have to be addressed before the case becomes a slam dunk. But just because Christ came to save sinners does not mean he wouldn't have come if there was no sin.  The force of habitual interpretation may explain why some assume that if Christ came to save sinners then he wouldn't have come if there were no sin. 

Finally, all of the arguments I have read against Christological supralapsarianism - the type I have advanced - haven't actually dealt with the issue of the ocular beatific vision. That is, I think, a major plus for the S-men, though I can't recall any of them actually making that specific argument. Had they, I wonder whether the reaction against their position would have been so vigorous. 

Pastor Mark Jones has nothing to hide, and, like Steve Biko, writes what he likes. (*A special sign-off for a special student and his special professor at a special seminary). 

Suarez (1548-1617?)


So wrote Luther to Erasmus in his Bondage of the Will. Few if any phrases from Luther have been more misunderstood. One regularly sees Luther's words invoked to emphasize the transcendence, the otherness, of God. Luther criticized Erasmus, it is assumed, for failing to grasp God's freedom and sovereignty, particularly as those attributes find expression in the exercise of God's grace.

To be sure, Luther reserved plenty of criticism for Erasmus for failing to appreciate God's free and sovereign prerogative to discriminate between elect and reprobate sinners. But that was hardly his point when he suggested Erasmus's "thoughts about God" were "too human." These particular words were triggered by Erasmus's suggestion that some theological questions were unprofitable to discuss before the masses. Erasmus illustrated his point by recalling the scholastic question of whether God is present in the hole of the dung beetle. Not particularly savoring the idea of occupying a dung beetle hole himself, Erasmus had a hard time seeing any relevance or fruit in theological speculation that places God there.

Luther, somewhat ironically and uncharacteristically, came to the rescue of the scholastic theologians on this point, pointing out that God is very much in the business of occupying rather unpleasant territory. Indeed, God occupied the most unlikely and unpleasant territory of all -- the human womb -- in order to achieve the salvation of his people. The medieval divines who asked whether God was present in the hole of the dung beetle, then, weren't necessarily out of theological bounds in their questioning.

When Luther rebuked Erasmus for thinking "too human" thoughts of God, then, he was criticizing him for failing to grasp the immanence of God, for failing to realize the lengths God went to in the incarnation in order to rescue his people.

Here are Luther's words in full:

"You are condemning as unprofitable the public discussion of the proposition that God is in the hole or the sewer. Your thoughts about God are all too human. There are, I admit, some shallow preachers who, from no motives of religion or piety, but perhaps from a desire for popularity or a thirst for some novelty or a distaste for silence, prate and trifle in the shallowest way. But those please neither God nor men, even if they assert that God is the heaven of heavens. But where there are serious and godly preachers who teach in modest, pure, and sound words, they speak on such a subject in public without risk, and indeed with great profit. Ought we not all to teach that the Son of God was in the womb of the Virgin and came forth from her belly? But how does a human belly differ from any other unclean place? Anyone could describe it in foul and shameless terms, but we rightly condemn those who do, seeing that there are plenty of pure words with which to speak of that necessary theme even with decency and grace. Again the body of Christ himself was human as ours is, and what is fouler than that? Are we therefore not to say that God dwelt in it bodily, as Paul has said (Col. 2.9)? What is fouler than death? What more horrifying than hell? Yet the prophet glories that God is present with him in death and hell (Ps. 139.8). Therefore, a godly mind is not shocked to hear that God is present in death or hell, both of which are more horrible and foul than either a hole or a sewer."

Luther's rebuke of Erasmus is a warning to us all. Let us not fall into the trap of thinking "too human" thoughts of God, of failing, in other words, to appreciate that God goes to much greater lengths -- or rather, depths -- than we creatures could ever anticipate or dream to be with us, to accomplish our salvation and to restore us to eternal fellowship with his Triune self.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

"To Nazareth came Gabriel, a herald of God's love"

[I probably do not need to inform regular readers of this blog that Christmas is not my favourite season. Nevertheless, I try to take the opportunity to use the occasion. Recently, preaching from Luke 1, I was disappointed with the range of hymns available that focused on the miraculous conception. What follows is a first attempt at addressing that lack. For those who enjoy such things at this time of year, I trust it is a blessing.]

D.C.M. (Haydn)

To Nazareth came Gabriel, a herald of God's love,
A message of rich grace to tell of mercy from above;
"Rejoice, you favoured of the Lord, for you indeed are blessed!"
But when the virgin heard his word, she felt a deep unrest.

"Fear not, for this is grace from God, and you shall bear a child!
The Son of God, and Jesse's Rod, a Saviour undefiled;
And he shall reign on David's throne, and all before him bend;
He reigns o'er Jacob's house alone, his kingdom without end."

"How can this be?" the virgin said, "I do not know a man."
The angel bowed his lofty head, and told the heavenly plan:
"The Holy Spirit will descend, God's mighty power apply -
The Holy One he thus will send, the Son of God Most High."

And Mary bowed her humble head, raised no untrusting cry,
But, full of faith, she sweetly said, "God's maidservant am I!"
And we, O Lord, would likewise bow, and trust the heavenly word,
Each heart embrace the Saviour now, and own him as our Lord.

Jeremy Walker
See other hymns and psalms.

See other hymns and psalms.
See other hymns and psalms.
See other hymns and psalms.See
See other hymns and psalms.
L.M. (Eden)
Behold the blessèd Lamb of God,
Who for the world poured out his blood;
He died and suffered on the tree
That men the grace of God might see.

Behold the bleeding Sacrifice -
Salvation at unmeasured price.
He came to this dark world below,
God's greatest blessing to bestow.

Behold the Saviour, Christ the King,
Let all his ransomed people sing
Of him, who to redeem us died,
But reigns now at the Father's side.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.
- See more at:
L.M. (Eden)
Behold the blessèd Lamb of God,
Who for the world poured out his blood;
He died and suffered on the tree
That men the grace of God might see.

Behold the bleeding Sacrifice -
Salvation at unmeasured price.
He came to this dark world below,
God's greatest blessing to bestow.

Behold the Saviour, Christ the King,
Let all his ransomed people sing
Of him, who to redeem us died,
But reigns now at the Father's side.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.
- See more at:
L.M. (Eden)
Behold the blessèd Lamb of God,
Who for the world poured out his blood;
He died and suffered on the tree
That men the grace of God might see.

Behold the bleeding Sacrifice -
Salvation at unmeasured price.
He came to this dark world below,
God's greatest blessing to bestow.

Behold the Saviour, Christ the King,
Let all his ransomed people sing
Of him, who to redeem us died,
But reigns now at the Father's side.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.
- See more at:
L.M. (Eden)
Behold the blessèd Lamb of God,
Who for the world poured out his blood;
He died and suffered on the tree
That men the grace of God might see.

Behold the bleeding Sacrifice -
Salvation at unmeasured price.
He came to this dark world below,
God's greatest blessing to bestow.

Behold the Saviour, Christ the King,
Let all his ransomed people sing
Of him, who to redeem us died,
But reigns now at the Father's side.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.
- See more at:

Heaven Kissed Earth: The Incarnation

What is the incarnation? It is the kissing of heaven and earth. 

To borrow a phrase from Thomas Goodwin, when the Son became flesh, "Heaven and Earth met and kissed one another, namely, God and man."

The incarnation makes theology possible. It makes communion with God possible. Whatever saving benefits we have as a result of the incarnation and Christ's obedience to death, we must never lose sight of the fact that Christ brings us to God (1 Pet. 3:18).

I'm probably - in fact, I am - in the minority of those who believe that the Son would have become incarnate, even if Adam had not sinned. (I may post on my reasons in the future). After all, as Professor Swain noted, piggybacking off Goodwin, "Christ did not come into the world for us, but we came into the world for Christ."

In the unity of the two natures there is the greatest distance involved. The creator is identified with a creature. In Christ, one sees eternity and temporality, eternal blessedness and temporal sorrow, almightiness and weakness, omniscience and ignorance, unchangeableness and changeableness, infinity and finitude. All of these contrasting attributes come together in the person of Jesus Christ. 

As Stephen Charnock so eloquently wrote many years ago:

"What a wonder that two natures infinitely distant should be more intimately united than anything in the world...That the same person should have both a glory and a grief; an infinite joy in the Deity, and an inexpressible sorrow in the humanity! That a God upon a throne should be an infant in a cradle; the thundering Creator be a weeping babe and a suffering man; the incarnation astonishes men upon earth, and angels in heaven."

The incarnation opens up the possibility of communion between God and man, which would otherwise be impossible. The Son, to use Warfield's words, "descended an infinite distance to reach man's highest conceivable exaltation" (Phil. 2:6-11). God cannot commune with man except by some form of voluntary condescension. The incarnation is not only a voluntary condescension, but also the most glorious form of condescension possible from God, because through Christ we are brought to God.

After all, if Jesus were in all things only a man, he would be, like us, at an infinite distance from God. In the same way, if Jesus were in all things only God, he would be at an infinite distance from us. As the Mediator, however, he bridges the gap between the infinite God and finite man. All that belongs to God, Jesus possesses. All that makes someone truly human, Jesus possesses. Charnock's words would be hard to better on this point: 

"He had both the nature which had offended, and that nature which was offended: a nature to please God, and a nature to pleasure us: a nature, whereby he experimentally knew the excellency of God, which was injured, and understood the glory due to him, and consequently the greatness of the offence, which was to be measured by the dignity of his person: and a nature whereby he might be sensible of the miseries contracted by, and endure the calamities due to the offender, that he might both have compassion on him, and make due satisfaction for him. He had two distinct natures capable of the affections and sentiments of the two persons he was to accord; he was a just judge of the rights of the one, and the demerit of the other."

Jesus learned and Jesus knew all things; Jesus died and Jesus gives life to all living creatures; Jesus drank from his mother's breasts and Jesus provided his mother the milk to feed him. Only the incarnation of the Son of God can explain such statements. 

The incarnation of the Son of God means that Jesus is forever God and man. He does not - indeed, he cannot - relinquish his humanity after ascending into heaven, as many Christians have imagined and still do today. The union is indissoluble; he is raised the Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4). The brilliant Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper, meditating on John 1:14, once wrote: "The Word has become flesh! It has become flesh never to be separated from that flesh again! Not even presently on the Throne...The Word having become flesh creates therewith the real possibility that this Child takes your place and that this Child of flesh and blood saves, reconciles, and glorifies you, made of flesh."
This shows us just how much God loves "flesh" (i.e., human nature). God is forever identified with humanity because of the incarnation. Thus, heaven will be a "fleshly" place. Not at all "sinful," but certainly a place where we will be more truly human than we are now. If our bodies and souls are to be redeemed, Jesus had to possess a body and soul, since whatever is not assumed by Jesus cannot be healed. One is not more important than the other, as though we yearn for the day when we can shed our bodies and live as "free-floating" souls. Far from it. We yearn for the day when our bodies and souls are both transformed into the likeness of Christ's glorious body (1 Jn. 3:2 "...we shall be like him"...). 

In sum,
Man's maker was made man,
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother's breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.
- Augustine of Hippo (Sermons 191.1)

Ends of the incarnation

Christmas (along with Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost) is one of five "evangelical feast days" that celebrate key moments in the Son of God's saving mission. On these days, the church turns its attention in a special way to the redemptive historical events that mark "the fullness of time" (Gal 4.4; Eph 1.10): the time that realizes God's saving purpose and therefore that decisively determines all other times for the people of God (Rom 6; Col 2.9-10; 3.1-4). As we approach Christmas, it is worth reflecting upon the incarnation, the first epochal moment in the saving mission of the Son of God. 

Reflecting theologically on the incarnation requires that we consider three topics: (1) the uniqueness of the incarnation in relation to other historical events, (2) the nature of the incarnation, and (3) ends of the incarnation. Following some brief comments on the first two topics, I will focus a bit more fully on the third. 

(1) The uniqueness of the incarnation

Although the incarnation fulfills various Old Testament promises and prophecies, most notably those related to the Davidic Covenant, the incarnation does not follow from prior historical antecedents. The incarnation is a "new thing," an event that exists in a class by itself. The incarnation is a mystery, once hidden but now revealed: "Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh" (1 Tim 3.16). 

For this reason, it is (strictly speaking) improper to classify under the label of "incarnation" any events or activities that happened before or after the coming of the Son of God in the flesh (see Todd Billings's excellent discussion of this point). In a proper sense, there is and only ever will be one incarnation: the incarnation of the Son of God. Though the incarnation opens up new ways of seeing and acting in the world (see Luke 1.46-55), Christmas is not the occasion for launching an "incarnational" social program. Christmas is the glad announcement that God's saving program has begun in the incarnation and it is the announcement that God's saving program will be consummated when the incarnate one returns (Heb 9.26, 28). 

(2) The nature of the incarnation

The uniqueness of the incarnation follows from the nature of the incarnation. The incarnation is a divine invasion of human history from outside of human history: "I have come down from heaven . . .," the Lord repeatedly declares (John 6.38; 10.36). Unlike prophets and apostles who are called by God from their mothers' wombs into their vocations as ambassadors of God's word (Jer 1.5; Gal 1.15), the eternal Son is sent from the Father's side into his mother's womb to assume human nature into union with his divine person: "when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman" (Gal 4.4). 

This divine invasion is necessitated by the human race's impotence to deliver itself from its self-imposed state of sadness and misery, an impotence signified in the fact that a human father has no role to play in Jesus' conception in Mary's womb (similarly, see Rom 8.3). The incarnation reveals that only God can help us. And the incarnation reveals that God has indeed helped us by stooping down to become one of us. "In Christ two natures met to be thy cure" (George Herbert).

(3) Ends of the incarnation 

To speak of "ends" of the incarnation is to speak of "reasons" for the incarnation, to address Anselm's question, "Why the God-man?" The Bible presents at least five answers to this question. 

First, the Son of God became incarnate in order to become the kinsman-redeemer to God's elect children. "It is not angels that he helps," according to the author of Hebrews. "He helps the offspring of Abraham" (Heb 2.16). In order for the Son of God to help us, God's law requires that he assume a kinship relationship to us (Lev 25.25), that he assume the nature of his siblings: "Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Heb 2.17).

Second, the Son of God became incarnate in order to satisfy our debt to God's law. By nature and by choice we were slave-debtors to God's law, having failed to fulfill all that the law requires and being liable to bear the full extent of the law's curse. Through the incarnation of his beloved Son, God made provision to satisfy our debts. "God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law" (Gal 4.4-5). 

Third, the Son of God became incarnate in order to secure our adoption as God's sons and daughters. Not only is the incarnation ordered to our redemption, it is also ordered to our adoption. The one who is Son of God by nature assumed our lowly human state in order that we might become sons and daughters of God by grace: "God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, ... so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal 4.5).

Fourth, the Son of God became incarnate in order "to destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3.8). The incarnation of the Son of God was the first strike in God's plan to vanquish the devil and his kingdom (Heb 2.14). The incarnation put the principalities and powers of this age on notice (consider Herod's response!). Luther's hymn well summarizes this incarnational end:

The Son obeyed his Father's will,
Was born of virgin mother;
And God's good pleasure to fulfill,
He came to be my brother.
His royal pow'r disguised he bore;
A servant's form, like mine, he wore
To lead the devil captive.
Fifth, the Son of God became incarnate in order that he might be worshiped as the firstborn son among a family of redeemed siblings (Rom 8.29). The ultimate end of the incarnation of the Son of God is the glory of the incarnate Son of God (Ps 2.7-8; Col 1.18; Heb 1.2). Thus Thomas Goodwin observes: "God's chief end was not to bring Christ into the world for us, but us for Christ. He is worth all creatures. And God contrived all things that do fall out, and even redemption itself, for the setting forth of Christ's glory, more than our salvation." 

Throughout the year the church sings and celebrates the saving mission of God's beloved Son. As we celebrate the first moment in that saving mission at Christmas, let us celebrate the glorious ends of the incarnation as well. Above all, let us celebrate him (Matt 2.11; Heb 1.6).

"He stepped from his high throne"

6 6. 6 6. 8 8 (Rhosymedre)
He stepped from his high throne,
And laid aside his crown,
And to this sinful world
The Son of God stooped down:
He came as our Immanuel
That God as man with men should dwell.

The virgin brought him forth
As promised from of old;
The Word in flesh appeared,
The Saviour long foretold:
He came as our Immanuel
That God as man with men should dwell.

The angels praised the Lord,
And shepherds came to see;
In royal Bethlehem,
The wise men bowed their knee:
They worshipped our Immanuel,
For God as man with men did dwell.

He came in servant form,
A King of David's line;
And those who looked for hope
Beheld redemption shine:
They looked on our Immanuel,
For God as man with men did dwell.

Messiah mediates,
The breach with God to mend;
He served because he loved;
He loved us to the end:
He came as our Immanuel
That ransomed men with God might dwell.

And Jesus was his name -
He died and rose to save,
And we shall know in full
His triumph o'er the grave:
For he is our Immanuel
And man at last with God shall dwell.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

Torrance and the Incarnation


Like Steve, I too have recently acquired T. F. Torrance's The Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (IVP, 2008), but the work on Springsteen (why would I want to read something written by a unitarian?). It's far too early for a review or anything like it, but I have dipping into it. Two initial impressions are: