Warfield on the Incarnation
December 15, 2015
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.