The Word Became Flesh: Evangelicals and the incarnation
Edited by David Peterson
Paternoster Press, Carlisle, 2003, 216pp.
Available for ordering from Moore Books
02 9577 9966
I recently heard a speaker encouraging Christians to ‘become flesh’ to people. By this he meant that Christians need to follow Jesus’ example and enter other people’s worlds—become one of them, identify with them and walk in their shoes in order to promote understanding and make their world a better place. This ‘incarnational’ model has been put forward as the primary means of Christian mission.1
For some time, evangelicals have faced the accusation that we ignore, or at least under-emphasize, the incarnation in our understanding of ministry. In our talk of evangelism and church growth—in our eagerness to preach the Bible—in the way our message centres on atonement and the forgiveness of sins, it has been suggested that we are missing out on key elements of the gospel expressed in the incarnation. That the Son of God became man shows a willingness on God’s part to identify with his poor and humble people, to become like us, and even to stand alongside us in our suffering. It proves how important we are to him that he would take this drastic step, living and suffering and dying as we do. It demonstrates what true humanity is and ought to be as Jesus lives the perfect human life. Incarnational theology, therefore, places an emphasis on Christians following Jesus’ example and expressing love to others by becoming like them, sharing their experiences, identifying with them and coming to understand them better.
But is this what the incarnation is primarily about? Is this truly the heart of the gospel—that God knows what it’s like to be one of us? Much of the above concern is admirable, and true gospel proclamation must always be accompanied by genuine love and desire for relationship and an outflow of good works as we seek to share the love of our Lord Jesus Christ. But in using the incarnation as a paradigm for Christian activity and mission, we raise the question of what the incarnation is really about. Why did God the Son become a man? Why did the word of God become flesh? Given that we affirm in the creeds “for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven”,2 the question then becomes, “What is the nature of that salvation?”
The Word Became Flesh is an evangelical response to both these questions and, more specifically, the liberal understanding of the incarnation that has, in many church circles, dominated since the 19th century. The book is a collection of papers given at the 2003 Annual School of Theology at Oak Hill College in London. It features a number of authors interacting with topics such as incarnation and mission, incarnation and Scripture, incarnation and Christian living, and incarnation and the Lord’s Supper. The book is more of a defence of an evangelical understanding of the implications of the incarnation rather than a thorough exposition of the doctrine. This makes it digestibly short, but slightly less than filling.
It begins by laying the foundations through interacting with a seminal liberal Anglo-Catholic work called Lux Mundi, edited by Charles Gore in 1889. Taking on board developments in the natural sciences of the day and an optimistic view of humanity, Lux Mundi posited an understanding of the incarnation as the consummation of the cosmic process of human development: Christ’s coming into the world was the continuing of humanity’s natural progression towards perfection. Thus, in contrast to evangelical thinking, the incarnation is independent of the Fall. That is, Christ’s coming is so detached from the idea of sin that “the Son of God would have become incarnate even if Adam had not sinned” (p. 6). Consequently, the incarnation becomes an affirmation of our progress, and shows us of what we might be capable if we try.
The other commonly held conception of the incarnation revolves around the idea of Jesus coming to show solidarity with the poor and oppressed classes. This view undergirds much of what we know as Liberation theology, which holds that the primary work of the church is to defend the powerless and the victims of oppression, and to set free those who are enslaved to political and economic powers. The word of comfort the gospel brings to those people is that Christ suffers with you and knows what you are going through. Christ’s life is seen as a protest against such oppression, and his death is that of a fellow victim.
In the end, however, both these views fail because they do not take a full account of either human sin or God’s holy judgement. Like so many heresies, they begin with too high a view of humankind and too low a view of God, and, as a result, the cross shifts from being the centre of theology.
The Word Became Flesh demonstrates helpfully that the doctrine of the incarnation cannot be thought of in isolation: it is closely tied up with our understanding of salvation (soteriology), our understanding of human beings (anthropology) and our view of the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The consistent theme of the book is that the incarnation must be understood hand in hand with the cross and the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. The incarnation was not an end in itself (as if divine positive affirmation would do); the incarnation is the means to the end: Jesus was born and he became one of us in order that he might die. He did not merely live with us and die with us; he lived for us, and suffered and died for us. His death was not the death of a co-sufferer—a statement that he is with us all the way; his death was the wrath-bearing, propitiatory death of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As Chris Green argues in Chapter 4, the atonement explains the incarnation.
In Chapter 3, David Peterson points out very effectively the dangers of playing down the connection between Jesus’ life and his death, the incarnation and the atonement, by examining the teaching of the Book of Hebrews. In Hebrews, it is clear that the significance of Jesus being one of us and identifying with us is precisely so that he might become our perfect, eternal High Priest and the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for our sins.
However, for me, Green’s paper on ‘The Incarnation and Mission’ was the highlight of the book—particularly the way the commonly felt tension between evangelism and social action was handled. This chapter reinforced powerfully the uniqueness of Jesus’ incarnation and mission by drawing attention once more to the connection between the incarnation and the cross:
Jesus’ principal ministry was to bring forgiveness of sins to the world by his death on the cross, and his life and teaching before that are to be seen in the light of it, rather than to be examined separately. (p. 119)
I also found it edifying to be reminded of Jesus’ ongoing physicality:
[J]ust as the incarnation and atonement are indivisible, and to seek a theology of one without the other is doomed to failure, so it is with incarnation and the ascension, reign and return of Christ. (p. 123)
In other words, the incarnation did not stop at the resurrection and ascension of Jesus; he is still a man now—still flesh and blood. Liberal Catholicism tends to see the church as the new embodiment of God on earth—the physical representation of God, taking on Jesus’ roles of prophet, mediator and sometimes even king—however this is biblically unjustified.
This point alone provides a great measure of assurance for us in our lives and in our mission. Christ is still at work in the world; he is the one building his church. The Book of Acts is not so much ‘The Acts of the Apostles’ as ‘The Continuing Acts of the Lord Jesus through his Apostles’. Ultimately, Green argues, our model for mission and evangelism ought to be Paul rather than the unique Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Our mission is explicitly a preaching, converting and teaching mission—“to witness to the lordship of Jesus and to call others to repentance and faith in his redemptive work” (p. 143).
All up, this book was a helpful reminder of the danger of examining doctrines in isolation, as well as a thoughtful discussion of the incarnation and its implications for a number of key Christian issues. Admittedly, it left me wanting a little more: I found myself craving a closer, more detailed exposition of the relationship between the incarnation and the cross, and (considering the title) a deeper exploration of the relationship between the word of God incarnate (Jesus) and the word of God inscripturated (the Bible). Nonetheless, The Word Became Flesh is an encouraging read.
1. The second Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Manila 1989 stated in its manifesto that “True mission should always be incarnational. It necessitates entering humbly into other people’s worlds, identifying with their social reality, their sorrow and suffering, and their struggles for justice against oppressive powers. This cannot be done without personal sacrifices” (http://www.lausanne.org/manila-1989/manila-manifesto.html. Accessed 19 May 2008).↩
2. Nicene Creed.↩