Friday, March 26, 2010

Two Approaches to the Incarnation

Here’s a question for you: Is the Incarnation the start of a battle whose outcome is uncertain until victory is achieved? Or is it an act of unparalleled condescension, the successful outcome of which is certain from the beginning? I reckon that the answer to that question is important for an understanding of other features of the Incarnation.

Incarnation as military conflict

Here’s the contrast put in rather different terms. On the ‘battle’ understanding of the Incarnation, the Logos takes on human nature and he enters into conflict with the forces of sin an evil. The question is: will he win out despite his handicap? On this view an important part of what makes Gethsemane a drama is the uncertainty of the outcome. Not simply that the outcome is certain but that the onlookers don’t know what that outcome will be, but that it is uncertain for the chief participants, particularly for the God-man himself. Will Christ win out over the demonic forces of evil arrayed against him? On this view, by an unimaginably deep and rich exercise of spiritual power he did prevail, and triumphed over the forces of darkness, making show of them openly. He led a host of captives and gave gifts to men. (Eph.4;8) He is the head of a triumphal procession. (2 Cor. 2.14) So he ‘won’ our salvation, battling against the odds, taking the risks where the outcome was in doubt, and so, once victorious, he is adorned with the conqueror’s crown, and so was able to merit redemption for us. The ‘yet without sin’ of Hebrews tells us that he could have sinned, but that so great was his resolve that he won through. And so he is praiseworthy: the Father put all things under the feet of Christ. Alternatively, the Cross was a military risk that ended as a tragedy in which Christ became the victim of circumstances which suddenly and unexpectedly was reversed as the chains of death were burst apart.

Initially, there might seem to be something to be said for such a view. For as we can see, martial terminology, and the terminology of victory, are ascribed to Christ in the New Testament. He is the captain of our salvation, he has a Victor’s procession, he triumphed over the forces of darkness. He destroyed the one who has the power of death (Heb.2 .14) He resisted unto death. ‘Now is the judgment of this world, now will the ruler of this world be cast’ (John 12.31) This is violent language, to be sure, but is it the language of a victory that could have gone either way until it was finally achieved?

Incarnation as Condescension

When we look closer at that language, we see that Christ’s conquering is achieved through a kind of passivity, through suffering, through renunciation and dedication to the will of his Father. When tempted into physical combat he resists, he scorns weapons, and rebukes his follower Peter, commanding him to put his sword away. He could have called legions of angels to defeat the forces. He won a victory, to be sure, and he triumphantly led a host to the enjoyment of it, but this is a victory in which ends and means were perfectly suited, in which the victory was secured by a resistance to temptation and sin that was total.

Our modern use of ‘condescension’ is unfortunate, for it suggests the unwilling lowering to one person to the level of another, a ‘patronising manner’ as the Concise Oxford Dictionary puts it. A person who has such a manner is generally unpleasant. No mere human being ought to think of himself sufficiently elevated above another to have it in him to ‘condescend’ to the other, and so such a manner is never warranted. But in the case of the Logos the lowering was far from unwilling or grudging, and the distance to be travelled was much greater. He humbled himself. Our Creator, filled with kindness and grace, veiled his glory, emptying himself without in any way losing or abandoning that glory, the glory of deity. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. In identifying with us, God gave himself in union with human nature.

Apart from the never-to-be forgotten fact that the Incarnation was an act of the eternal Logos veiling himself in our flesh, and not a an act of a man becoming divine, I offer two or three lines of evidence is support of the condescension view: no doubt there are more.

First, there is the evidence of the synoptic gospels, that as Jesus’ self-understanding grows and unfolds, as, say, in the Gospel of Mark, what he comes to understand is that Christ knew of his fate, and of the success of his ministry, from the beginning.

And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things…and be rejected by the elders…..and after three days rise again (Mark, 9.30-1)

There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see. kingdom of God after it has come with power. (9.1)

And thy will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise. (10.34)

But after I am raised up I will go before you into Galilee. (14.29)

Secondly, the primary emphasis of the New Testament in its depiction of the Incarnation is that it was a humbling. The key text here is Phillipians 2, as we have already noticed.

Thirdly, the NT, particularly the Letter to the Hebrews, sees the Passion in terms of suffering endurance. But there is never any doubt as to the outcome. Christ, whose sovereignty and impeccability are essential to him, is praiseworthy for his coming down. His victory is never in doubt, but what is astonishing is the manner of it, involving incarnation, humbling, denial, passivity, the need to resist the taunts and the intended seductions of sinful men. The temptation is the temptation to fight fire with fire. It is certainly not the temptation which takes its force from any possibility that the God-man might sin. He suffered, being tempted, tested. But what he was tempted to do was not to sin in the sense of break the law, but to sin by deviating from his calling. He endured face to face opposition, made all the more insulting because of his intrinsic dignity as very God.

The Hebrew Christians, to whom these words were addressed, were tempted to deviate from their calling as Christians to return to Judaism. The writer of Hebrews responds: you have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. It makes much better sense of the temptability of the Saviour as taught in this Letter to suppose that temptation and sin refer specifically to the temptation that the Jewish Christians were liable to; to apostatise from the Gospel, not to endure to the end. (The warnings against other sins, such as the failure to love the brethren, to be unfaithful in marriage, to be covetous, not to submit to lawful authority, and so on, are dealt with in Chapter 13, after the main argument has been completed, in a rather summary way, and without hardly a reference to the majestic argument of the body of the Letter.)

The writer shows that they have a Saviour who was tempted in all points like as we are, men and devils tried to him by offering him other alternatives. It was the very suggestion that was the trial, the test. It is not that Christ was tempted with every manner of sin, exactly as we are, but that we was tried by the repeated suggestion that he might abandon his calling in precisely the same kind of ways as Christians are tempted to abandon their callings to be the people of God. In his case, the very suggestion was a temptation. The ‘time of need’ (4.6) is precisely the time when the Hebrew Christians needed the grace to persevere: Jesus could give it, because he did endure, and so he can sympathise with persecuted Christians in their need. He ‘could have been saved from death’ (5.7) by his Father, but himself chose to suffer death, not deviating from the work that his Father had given him to do. He is a priest for ever, (not appointed as such after his suffering and death, but before it), and so, undergirded by the oath of God, he was able to guarantee a better covenant (7.17). He is not a mere temporary priest, an Aaronic priest, but the guarantor of salvation, one able to save to the uttermost those who come to God by him. Such a one was holy, blameless, set apart from sinners, (7.26)

Jesus endured the cross, the opposition of sinful men, despising the shame. He offered himself through the eternal spirit. Through him we have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken (12. 28), an enduring city (13.13) Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever. (13. 8) There is no suggestion anywhere in Hebrews, as far as I can tell, that Jesus might in any respect have failed what he had set out to do.

What, then, of the ‘yet without sin’? Could Christ have sinned? Which means, could he have failed? Could he have disobeyed his heavenly Father? The type of answer which says that he could have thinks that it is of the essence of temptation that the one tempted is liable to fail, or to fall. But tempting is testing, and the testing of Christ consisted in his summoning of resistance to the seductions of the tempters which he had never experienced before. He had to endure these affronts to his holy character. He learned obedience to his Father’s will by the things that he suffered from his mockers who hurled at him the taunts that he should fail. His testing lay in having to be in the company of, and to endure, the sheer wickedness of such enticements.