The Incarnation bids us to keep our ideas about God as complex as the God who comes to us in the Incarnation as Jesus. Quite early on the church realized that to get Christ wrong is to get God wrong. It took us four centuries to find ideas commensurate with the reality of Incarnation. We tried simpler solutions but none of them worked:
Adoptionism: Jesus was a wonderfully God-intoxicated human being, anointed by the Holy Spirit in much the same way as the prophets of the Old Testament, only more so. At his baptism, Adoptionists asserted, Jesus was “adopted” by the Father and became God the Father’s beloved Son, commissioned to preach the good news and to perform miracles in the name of the Father. Jesus is almost like God, but not quite.
Docetism (from the Greek, dokein “to appear”) in contrast to Adoptionism, said that Christ was fully divine but from time to time “appeared” to be human. Docetism fails to acknowledge Christ’s full humanity; it is inconceivable that an omniscient and omnipotent God could suffer human pain on the cross. Christ lovingly appeared to humanity as if he were one of us but spiritually insightful believers know that he was actually God in human disguise. Jesus was much like a human being, but not quite.
Sometimes the church has focused upon Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection and has neglected an emphasis upon his life and ministry. This is a docetic limitation of the truth of Incarnation. When we think about a real human being, we don’t just focus upon a vague image of what they look like, we also focus upon what they say and do. That Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary tells us something important about him; how he acted as an adult tells us even more. Jesus didn’t just enunciate a few high-sounding principles; he became a model for us to follow, a teacher who led by example. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” says Jesus in John’s gospel (14:6). In saying, “I am the way,” Jesus is surely speaking about the totality of his life and work here on this earth. We are to walk the way he walked. Neglect of Jesus’ life and work by exclusively focusing upon his birth, cross, and resurrection is Docetism in yet another guise.
Some popular contemporary preachers present sermons that extract kernel principles and noble ideas of contemporary relevance from the primitive husk of biblical narratives, as if the historical particularities of Jesus’ life and death don’t matter, that how Jesus actually lived in this world is detached from the alleged principles he taught. Or the infamous “Jesus Seminar” makes a big deal of voting up or down what they judge to be the actual words of Jesus, as if we worship the words of Jesus. Docetism lives!
We say in the creed that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” That is, Jesus engaged in the most universal and unavoidable of human conditions – pain. Any docetic attempt to back off from Jesus’ suffering, attempting to redo Jesus into some sort of impervious robot who was born and then died and whose bodily and spiritual suffering are only illusions, has always been resisted by church.
Jesus gave his followers absolutely no permission ever to impose suffering upon others and at the same time promised that they would encounter suffering because of him. “For to this you have been called, for Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:19-21) A docetic, almost human Christ tends to be irrelevant to human suffering. The scriptures say that Christ did not just come close to human suffering and mortality but dared to drink the cup of suffering all the way to the dregs. Down through the ages, countless Christians have discovered the pastoral truth of the Incarnation: only a truly human, suffering Savior can help.
Against Docetists of every age, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Orthodox theology has specifically insisted that Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.”
Arianism (from a fourth century cleric, Arius) was the main cause for convening the great Fourth Century ecumenical councils that affirmed the Incarnation. Arianism, professing great admiration for God the Father, said that God’s essence could not be shared, for such sharing would entail a division and diminution of God. Arius reasoned that Christ, The Eternal Word of God, can’t be fully one with God, but must be a creature formed by the Father. “Son of God” is therefore a sort of honorary title because of Christ’s superior character. Like the Adoptionists, Arius stressed Christ’s humanity, saying that though he was a human being, Christ was the highest and best of all God’s creatures, nearly God, but not quite.
While orthodox Christianity rejected Arianism, like Docetism, it never disappeared. Pick something about Jesus that you find appealing and emphasize that virtue as making Jesus very special. Those well-meaning folk who acclaim Jesus as a man of high moral character, or a great ethical teacher, or a spiritual leader, or an example of God’s love and justice in service to the poor (though not really “God”) show the resilience of Arianism. Arians tend to see Jesus as a teacher or “Spirit Person” (Marcus Borg); Jesus’ teaching is more important than Jesus himself. Jesus becomes a great example, among other human examples, of compassion and spiritual wisdom. The cross is reduced to an evil act done to Jesus rather than a human act that a redemptive God used to do something about us. The mysterious story of our redemption, the cross, is reduced to a sad tale of yet another good teacher whose teaching brought him to a bad conclusion.
Against all these attempts to make God With Us more accessible to our conventional thinking, in 451 the Council of Chalcedon worked out an elegantly philosophical defense of Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine. The Nicean Creed, and the more fully developed Constantinopolitan Creed that came shortly after it, refused to attempt to encase Christ in any sensible, logical but (in regard to what we know of Christ) simplistic and heretical attempt to conceive of the meaning of Christ. Much was at stake. Nothing within us can save us; we can be rescued, redeemed, enlightened only by God. In Christ, Chalcedon reasoned, God was rescuing and redeeming humanity, not simply working through a representative or highly placed emissary of God. At the same time our Redeemer must become fully like us in order fully to redeem all of us.
Chalcedon did not attempt precisely to define how Christ is fully human and fully divine, rather the council affirmed what the church had always known about Jesus Christ. Christ presents us with many tensions – the tension between our ways and God’s way, friction between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this earth, contrasts between present life and eternal life. Chalcedon blessed the tension that had been part of our encounter with Jesus from the first, letting the tension stand forever as a rebuke to any simplistic way of speaking about Christ.
Chesterton said that in our thought about the Incarnation, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.” I’m glad that, in thinking about Christ, the church in its wisdom did not falsely harmonize or overly simply this conjunctive truth but allowed to stand the “furious opposites” combined so wondrously in Christ.
The Doctrine of the Incarnation is opposed to all theories that surmise Jesus as a mere theophany, a transitory appearance by God in human form, such as we often meet among the world’s religions. In contrast, Incarnation asserts that there is an inextricable, abiding union between Jesus as Son of God and Jesus as fully Son of Man. So called “Progressive Christianity,” successor to liberal Christianity, seems prone to view Jesus as a fine revelation for his time, but one that can be surpassed in humanity’s ever progressing sense of God. No, says Orthodox Christianity. Jesus is actually the full truth about God, God’s descent to us because we could not progress up toward God.
Because God so fully loved the world, we may love as well. Christian faith is never exclusively, or even primarily about some future positive condition. Because of Incarnation we’ve got to love the world now, in the spirit of Christ love the world we’ve got because the Incarnation proves that God has got the world. “Eternal life” (at least in John’s gospel) is not some misty future destination. “Eternal life” is life lived now in light of the Word made flesh among us here and now. It’s what life is like once Jesus, the Incarnate Word, shows up.
The Incarnation leads us to try to love the world, the whole world, half as much is God loves in Jesus Christ, following the same suffering, self-sacrificial way that Jesus loved. Jesus went to the cross praying, “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven,” and taught us to do the same, loving the world as God presently loves the world, loving in the expectation of the final triumph of God’s intentions for the world.
This is an excerpt from my book, Incarnation: Embrace of Heaven and Earth (Abingdon Press, 2013). I offer it for your reflections during this season of the Incarnation, Advent.
3 thoughts on “Thinking Faithfully About Christ”
Bishop Willimon thank you in the Name of the Risen Savior for this well-thought out aid to our focus in the Advent Season. I have shared it in our prayer group; our pastors’ group and within our church social media avenues. Without exception this is the finest theological sharing of God’s Incarnation in the Christ-Child. Reverend Wayne Reed, Grayson Georgia
Well said. I’m reminded that in Eastern Orthodoxy heresy was not believing the wrong thing so much as proposing a belief that was inadequate to the fullness of the church’s experience of faith. So, fully human, fully divine; paradoxical to rationalists, but a creative, sustaining mystery to the many members of the one Body trying to grow up into Christ who is the head.
The Rev. Greg Johanson, Ph.D., UMC retired.