This bookexplores the doctrine of the incarnationthe central fact of history and the greatest mystery of the Christian faithhighlighting implications for all of Christian theology, including the atonement and the church’s worship.
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About the Author
John C. Clark (PhD, University of Toronto) is associate professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He and his wife, Kate, live in Chicago with their two children.
Marcus Peter Johnson (PhD, University of Toronto) is assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. Along with writing his doctoral dissertation on union with Christ in the theology of John Calvin, he is also the author of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation and the coauthor (with John C. Clark) of The Incarnation of God: The Mystery of the Gospel as the Foundation of Evangelical Theology.He and his wife, Stacie, live in Chicago with their son, Peter, and are members of Grace Lutheran Church.
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The Supreme Mystery at the Center of the Christian Confession
THE INCARNATION OF GOD
"Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction; for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it." With characteristic playfulness, G. K. Chesterton makes an observation about which he is deadly serious, a profound point that none of us can afford to miss. All forms of fiction, no matter how skillfully, creatively, and compellingly crafted, are shaped by and limited to the confines of our imaginations. It simply cannot be otherwise, given that fiction is, at bottom, the product of human ingenuity. Truth, on the other hand, shares neither the origin nor the inherent limitations of fiction. It does not follow, of course, that the two are innately adverse. On the contrary, truth and fiction can sometimes coexist in harmonious and complimentary ways, as long as no illusions are cherished as to which is which. But whenever fiction is accepted as truth, whenever nonreality is confused with reality, dangers and difficulties inevitably ensue.
Due to the inclinations of our hearts and the prevailing convictions of our cultural milieus, it is all too easy for us to live under the influence of deeply seated and rarely challenged assumptions. Among the most basic and common assumptions of contemporary culture is that the nature, meaning, and goal of human existence is self-explanatory, that one's self-understanding is the proper starting point and controlling principle for understanding all of reality. Thus, as J. I. Packer notes in his modern Christian classic Knowing God, "It is no wonder that thoughtful people find the gospel of Jesus Christ hard to believe, for the realities with which it deals pass our understanding." Such "thoughtful people" pose manifold questions: How could Jesus of Nazareth have performed the numerous miracles recorded in Scripture? How could the sufferings of this man, culminating in his death between two criminals on a Roman gibbet, result in God's forgiveness of sinners? How could the same pierced, pummeled, and ruined body that was lowered from the cross and placed in a tomb have been raised to incorruptible life? How could this man have ascended into heaven, reconciling the redeemed to the God from whom they were alienated? Questions of this sort could certainly be multiplied.
Packer observes, however, that such questions arise when difficulties are found in the wrong places, when we fail to identify and apprehend "the supreme mystery" of the gospel. That mystery is not found in the Good Friday event of Christ's crucifixion or even in the Easter Sunday event of his resurrection. Rather, the Christmas event of Christ's birth is where "the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. ... Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation." This same point is stressed by C. S. Lewis, who remarks:
The Central Miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. ... Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. ... The fitness, and therefore credibility, of the particular miracles depends on their relation to the Grand Miracle; all discussion of them in isolation from it is futile.
These observations by Packer and Lewis are neither new nor novel. They merely echo a conviction deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Christian church from her inception. Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Reformer, notes that the "church fathers took particular delight" in the apostolic testimony that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Luther himself wholeheartedly shared the early church's delight in the incarnation, exulting:
He [Jesus Christ] condescends to assume my flesh and blood, my body and soul. He does not become an angel or another magnificent creature; He becomes man. This is a token of God's mercy to wretched human beings; the human heart cannot grasp or understand, let alone express it.
Yet while Packer and Lewis show considerable continuity with their Christian predecessors, they seem somewhat out of step with many of their Christian contemporaries. In 1937, Dorothy Sayers laments, "The Incarnation is the most dramatic thing about Christianity, and indeed, the most dramatic thing that ever entered into the mind of man; but if you tell people so, they stare at you in bewilderment." Bewilderment would be understandable, even expected, if Sayers were describing only the reactions of non-Christians or if by "bewilderment" she meant something akin to the sense of wonder Luther exhibits. Regrettably, this is not the case. Moreover, the situation Sayers describes has not shown signs of widespread improvement since she wrote. The supreme mystery that the Word became flesh, that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, participates unreservedly in the same human nature that we ourselves possess, is at the very center of the Christian faith. All too often, however, modern Christians view the incarnation with something closer to consternation than wonder, and as a result, they tend to push this grandest of realities from the center to the periphery of their confession.
Our contemporary situation notwithstanding, the incarnation must ever remain what John Webster calls "the primary affirmation of the church," for Jesus Christ can never be other than "the incomparably comprehensive context of all creaturely being, knowing and acting, because in and as him God is with humankind in free, creative, and saving love." This is an astoundingly bold declaration in that it situates the knowledge of all things in the context of our knowing Jesus Christ as the divine self-exposition of God and man, identifying the incarnation as the watershed between truth and fiction. The apostle Paul says nothing less when he announces that in Jesus Christ "all things hold together ... that in everything he might be preeminent" (Col. 1:17–18).
This book is a sustained yet necessarily nonexhaustive exploration of the incarnation, a subject as rich and unfathomable as the incarnate God himself. The aim of this chapter is to give this exploration some needed background and vocabulary, contours and context, a broad and sturdy skeletal structure to be filled in by the chapters that follow. We shall pursue this aim by discussing: (1) the nature and function of doctrine; (2) Trinitarian and christological developments regarding the incarnation in the early centuries of the church; and (3) several core convictions that characterize our approach to this supreme mystery of the gospel.
The Peril and Excitement of Christian Orthodoxy
It is not the case, of course, that modern Christians are in the habit of explicitly denying or overtly repudiating the incarnation. Rather, it is that modern Christians routinely find themselves in a subtle state of malaise regarding the enfleshment of God in the person of Jesus Christ, in that their ongoing affirmation of this essential feature of Christian orthodoxy is coupled with an ever-increasing vagueness as to its significance and implications. Among the most salient reasons for this malaise is the perception among many modern Christians of the doctrines that constitute Christian orthodoxy. In their assessment, doctrine in particular, and orthodoxy in general, suggest something petty, pedantic, outmoded, and irrelevant. Matters of doctrinal orthodoxy, including a doctrinally orthodox understanding of Jesus Christ, are thus met with exasperation, irritation, or, worse still, that most subtle and chilling form of contempt, indifference.
To be sure, such perceptions and responses are not completely lacking in warrant, given that the doctrinal expositions of some theologians possess all the winsomeness, clarity, and pastoral warmth of an electrical diagram for a nuclear submarine. It is altogether good and wise to be repelled by that which distorts and perverts, and caricatures of orthodoxy are certainly no exception to this rule. Yet it appears that modern Christians need to exercise a greater degree of discernment when experiencing such repulsion, because in rejecting caricatures of orthodoxy, many have come to undervalue and overlook the very nature and function of doctrine itself.
Chesterton makes an apt observation when he quips, "People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe." More insightful still is his retort to this tired and ultimately unfounded sentiment: "There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy." In other words, anything but tedious and benign, orthodoxy enriches, sustains, and heals precisely because its doctrinal substance enshrines the triune God of the gospel — singing to Jesus Christ and drawing the church ever more deeply into the inexhaustible wonders and innumerable implications of new life in him.
Yet what exactly is orthodoxy? In the sense it is used here, orthodoxy refers to a set of key doctrines articulated by the early church and, from that time forward, embraced by all major expressions of Christianity — Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. Though all doctrines are considered important, these particular doctrines are deemed to be so essential to the integrity of the church's confession that to deny them is tantamount to denying the triune God of the gospel, and thus to departing from the Christian faith. Significantly, the term orthodoxy is a combination of two Greek words, orthos, which means "right" or "true," and doxa, which means "belief" or "worship." Thus, the etymological structure and meaning of the term orthodoxy indicates that right belief and true worship are inextricably and symbiotically related, so that whenever one falls down, the other is certain to follow. In other words, because the church is first and foremost a worshiping community, she can exist with authenticity and vitality only when her worship is informed and impelled by sound doctrine. It is for this reason that whenever the church has been most robust throughout history, she has been marked by a passion for doctrine, not an aversion to it. For this same reason, the diminished and confused sense of worship all too common to the modern church is invariably attended by a failure to appreciate the importance of doctrine.
Lest we make an idol of doctrine, however, we must clearly grasp that doctrine is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an infinitely greater and grander end. Doctrine is neither a substitute for God nor a set of preconceived notions about God, as doctrine does not possess an abstract reality and truth independent of the God to whom it refers. Because the Christian faith is not a theory about God, it never has been, nor ever could be, merely a matter of formulating the right combination of words about him. The Christian faith is about the living Word. Thus, the substance and sum of the Christian faith is not a well-ordered series of factually true propositions, but a person who is himself the embodied Truth of both God and man, the Truth who is God as man. This person gives rise to doctrine the moment we begin to wrestle with the questions of who he is and what it means to be encountered, claimed, and redeemed by him.
Clearly, then, it is crucial to discern the nature of the relationship between the person who is the embodied Truth (John 1:14; 14:6) and doctrinal truths about the Truth. On the one hand, we acknowledge that there is a categorical, qualitative distinction between the living person of Jesus Christ and the propositional pronouncements the church makes about him; the two must never be confused or conflated. On the other hand, we recognize and embrace the living person of Jesus Christ as the Truth only as he comes to us clothed in his gospel, only as the propositional pronouncements of the church accurately describe the living Word for us and commend him to us. These truths about the Truth, these words about the Word, constitute the God-given, Spirit-vivified vehicle in and through which Jesus Christ gives himself to us and forges himself within us; thus, the two must never be sundered, severed, or set against one another. Doctrine, rightly understood, concerns both the propositional and the personal. That is because factually true propositions, apart from the living person of Christ, become dry, doctrinaire, and dead, just as the living person of Christ, apart from biblically sourced and normed propositions about him, becomes ambiguous, malleable, and unintelligible. As such, Christian orthodoxy sets itself sharply against arid rationalism and idiosyncratic subjectivism by the settled conviction that the Truth is always both living person and living Word.
Consequently, the peril of orthodoxy is determined by nothing less or other than the service these doctrinal truths render to the Truth; disregard for them is, quite simply, disregard for him. Yet the excitement of orthodoxy lies in the reality that the living Truth claims and masters us precisely as we continue to immerse ourselves in the truths by which he enhances our knowledge of him, intensifies our affections for him, quickens our trust in him, and enlivens our obedience to him.
Who Do My People Say That I Am?
As Jesus traveled with his disciples to a district of Galilee called Caesarea Philippi, he posed a monumental question regarding his identity and significance: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Then, as now, there was no shortage of speculation on this matter. Thus, the disciples answered, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." Pressing the matter further, Jesus replied, "But who do you say that I am?" Speaking for his fellow disciples, and setting apostolic precedent for the church ever since, Peter proclaimed, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:13–16).
Looking more broadly at the New Testament, we find two apostolic exclamations that affirm and develop Peter's statement. Together they constitute not only the earliest recorded witness of the Christian faith, but also the doctrinally orthodox understanding of Jesus Christ that has been integral to the Christian faith from its inception.
The first exclamation is that Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; 2 Cor. 4:5; Phil. 2:11). This earliest and most basic element of the church's confession speaks to Jesus's lordly claim upon his people and, in turn, to their fitting commitment to and worship of him. Further, this exclamation speaks to the nature of Jesus's relationship to God, in that the apostles seized upon the title kyrios, or "Lord," a title employed to translate the sacred name of God from Old Testament Hebrew into New Testament Greek, and used that title regularly throughout their writings to refer to Jesus (Rom. 1:7; 5:1; 1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 1:2–3; Phil. 3:8; Col. 2:6; 1 Thess. 5:9; James 2:1; Rev. 1:8).
The second exclamation is not so much a confession as a doxology, for unlike the first, it is not a proclamation of faith directed primarily to men, but a cry of praise addressed to God. That cry is "Abba! Father!" In the epistle to the Romans, we find that, after believers receive the Spirit, who bears inner witness to them that they are children of God, they cry to God as their Abba, or Father (Rom. 8:15–17). Or, as Paul writes elsewhere, "And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" (Gal. 4:6). Paul's words signal the coming to fruition of Jesus's promise that his Father would grant his disciples the Spirit, whose ministry would acquaint them with Jesus in an even more profound and intimate manner. The soon-to-ascend Jesus consoled his disciples by telling them that when he came to them in the indwelling Spirit, they would "know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you" (John 14:16–20).
The apostolic confession that Jesus is Lord indicates that from the outset Christians equated Jesus — the man from Nazareth, the son of Mary, born in Bethlehem — with God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the One who revealed himself to the Hebrew patriarchs as Yahweh. At the same time, we must not miss the implicitly Trinitarian context and meaning of the cry "Abba! Father!" This form of address is not a product of the church's own choosing or making. This address is distinctive to Jesus, who alone spoke of God in this fashion. To utter this cry after Jesus — or, better, in, through, and with Jesus — is to acknowledge that Christians learned to do so from Jesus himself through the indwelling ministry of the Spirit, who grants us the benefits that first belonged exclusively to the utterly unique and eternal Son of the Father.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Incarnation of God"
Copyright © 2015 John C. Clark and Marcus Peter Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Supreme Mystery at the Center of the Christian Confession: The Incarnation of God 17
2 Knowing the Father through the Son: The Incarnation and Knowledge of God 47
3 Beholding God in the Face of Jesus Christ: The Incarnation and the Attributes of God 71
4 Becoming Human, Becoming Sin: The Light Shining in Our Darkness 103
5 Christ for Us, Christ in Us: The Mediation of Our Incarnate Savior 127
6 The Abundant Blessings of Salvation: Our Union with the Incarnate Savior 157
7 Christ's Body and the Body of Christ: The Incarnation and the Church 183
8 The Gospel of Christ and His Bride: The Meaning of Marriage and Sex 209
General Index 246
Scripture index 252
What People are Saying About This
“The Incarnation of God is a theological juggernaut grinding into dust all modern dichotomous thinking about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Reclaiming grossly neglected biblical, patristic, and reformational teaching, Clark and Johnson reestablish the incarnation as the proper center and ground for all evangelical theology, and demonstrate with profundity and potency the tectonic implications of our Lord’s assumption of human flesh.”
Joel Scandrett, Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Director of the Robert E. Webber Center, Trinity School for Ministry
“Clark and Johnson clearly and eloquently lay out the significance of the incarnation as the centerpiece of Christian theology. Their fascinating reflections on the relation of the incarnation to other aspects of Christian faith introduce us to depths of truth that most Christians have never dreamed of, let alone explored. Their exposition grows out of the rich tradition of Christian reflection on the incarnation, and it is a joy to see my hero Athanasius and my late mentor T. F. Torrance figure so prominently in these pages. It is a pleasure to recommend this book.”
Donald M. Fairbairn, Jr., Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; author, Life in the Trinity and Grace and Christology in the Early Church
“Remedying a major deficiency in evangelical literature, this fine book on the incarnation informs readers of how the central apostolic confessionin Jesus of Nazareth, God has come among us as mangoverns our understanding of every aspect of the Christian faith, informs every feature of our discipleship, and grounds pastoral comfort in the heart of God. The authors of this profound study highlight why the incarnation guarantees our salvation, acquaints us with the only Savior we can ever have, allows us to know God, enlivens our obedience, renders the church the bride of Christ, and, not least, informs Christians concerning the logic of God’s intention for human sexuality.”
Victor A. Shepherd, Professor of Theology, Tyndale University College and Seminary; author, Interpreting Martin Luther and The Nature and Function of Faith in the Theology of John Calvin
“The Incarnation of God is an engrossing and stunningly well-conceived book. The theological significance of the great central miracle of Christian faith is laid forth with clarity and conviction. Reflecting an impressive range of research and timely apologetic concern, this is a book for thoughtful reading. I endorse it with enthusiasm.”
Andrew Purves, Jean and Nancy Davis Professor of Historical Theology, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary; author, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology and The Crucifixion of Ministry
“This tightly argued and comprehensive theology centered in the incarnation makes a fitting textbook for introductory theology courses. Clark and Johnson’s incisive claims reflect the decisive importance of Jesus’s incarnation for the Christian faith and life. The student not only will come away with a better grasp of the incarnation’s significance, but also will be grasped more profoundly in holistic worship by the incarnate Lord through this compelling read.”
Paul Louis Metzger, Professor of Christian Theology & Theology of Culture, Multnomah Biblical Seminary; coauthor, Exploring Ecclesiology; editor, Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology
“Recent attention to the theme of the believer’s union with Christ has stimulated renewed interest in the person of the Christ with whom Christians are united. In dialogue with the best of the Christian tradition and recent theology, Clark and Johnson explore the incarnation in ways that both academics and pastors will find helpful.”
William B. Evans,Younts Professor of Bible and Religion, Erskine College; author, Imputation and ImpartationandWhat Is the Incarnation?