Warfield, the Incarnation & Self-Sacrifice

Eric Hutchinson
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.