Imitating the Incarnation?

Eric Hutchinson
"'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.