Incarnation-Centered Christianity

Occasionally I’ll catch the Metro south and ride into the heart of D.C., jump off the train and hit the retro two-story Starbucks at 7th and E with just enough remaining time in my walk to finish my venti Americano before reaching the front door of the National Gallery of Art. It’s a great museum (over 30 Rembrandts, including a00015abThe Apostle Paul).

Inside the museum I’m struck by the number of paintings and sculptures that feature Christ, very often portraying Him as a baby. Popular are portraits of the nativity, and the virgin with the Child. This is a glimpse into church history. Study the writings of the early centuries and you’ll notice that the incarnation of Christ often trumps the crucifixion in its redemptive priority. But why? Why does the manger trump the cross?

The reason, says Reinhold Niebuhr, can be traced to the influence Greek and Hellenistic philosophy on the early theology of the Church. Greek philosophy centered man’s greatest need, not around freedom from personal sin nor freedom from God’s judgment, but around freedom from human finiteness. Man is limited in his humanity, and of course Jesus’s incarnation, rather than His atonement, answers this time-eternity question. Thus, being influenced by Greek philosophy, Christians like Gregory could write: “The word became man in order that thou mayest become a god.” It’s not uncommon to find Greek-influenced statements that point to the incarnational center of redemptive history and I believe you can pick up on this theme in modern literature like in the writings of Pope John Paul II (see his Redemptor hominis [Latin: “The Redeemer of Man”] for one example).

“The issue of Biblical religion,” Niebuhr writes, “is not primarily the problem of how finite man can know God but how sinful man is to be reconciled to God” (1:147). Very true. And when the center of redemptive history moves away from the atonement to anything else, we should be aware that secular philosophy is at the wheel determining the problem of man. And that problem will sound strangely different than the problem of personal sin, for which we need a crucified Savior.

You can read Niebuhr’s argument for yourself in The Nature and Destiny of Man (Westminster John Knox, 1941), in several places but especially in 1:144—147 and 2:59—60.

The incarnation, as glorious and magnificent as it is in the divine act is in itself, cannot be separated from the atonement. The connection between the two is unmistakable in passages like Matthew 1:21, John 3:16, Romans 8:3, and Galatians 4:4-5. Herman Bavinck insightfully wrote:

The incarnation is the beginning and introduction to the work of Christ on earth, it is true, but it is not the whole meaning, nor the most important meaning of that work. It is good to try to get a true understanding and a right idea about this, for there are those who think that the assumption of the human nature itself completes the full reconciliation and union of God and man. … The incarnation of the Son of God, without anything further, cannot be the reconciling and redeeming deed. It is the beginning of it, the preparation for it, and the introduction to it, but it is not that deed itself.

The nativity paintings are a good reminder of the historicity of Christ’s incarnation. But they are also a reminder that if we center redemptive history on the incarnation we will have missed the full scope of God’s redemptive plan, most likely misunderstood the holiness of God, and failed to understand man’s greatest problem and greatest need.

8 thoughts on “Incarnation-Centered Christianity

  1. This is a great post! Fascinating.

    I read a book on Athanasius (Athanasius – A Theological Introduction) and I found Athanasius’ emphasis on the restoration of the Image of God a bit frustrating in that it seemed to be overly-focused on the re-attainment of immortality.

    I’m not saying he was wrong, just that the emphasis bothered me.

    Athanasius does clearly indicate the marring of the Image of God in man is because of sin and sin must be dealt with to restore the incorruptible life to man.

    Again, great post.

    Also, it brought to mind that our culture more readily celebrates the Incarnation (Christmas) than it does the Atonement (Easter). Though the reason for Christmas is quickly disappearing from the minds of people, it seems that more people remember that the holiday is about Christ’s birth than remember Easter is about the Atonement.

    I like what Bavinck wrote about the incarnation being only the beginning of Christ’s work. Certainly a necessary beginning, but not the full deed.

  2. Great post – just an additional thought – could the focus on the Incarnation be that focus was shifting onto Mary, the mother of Jesus – she is also prominent in may of these paintings – she is the one who nursed God, soothed God, taught God! Slowly but surely the attention drifted from the Divine Son of God to the human & sinful from birth “mother of God”. Look at the more overtly Roman Catholic artwork and see how prominent Mary is there. Just a thought to add my pennyworth!

  3. Phil: Yes, I think this plays an important role. Mary of course is less central to the cross than then cradle which is why I think there is an emphasis here, too. The blog post had already grown in length and so I did not travel this path. Thanks for the comment! Tony

  4. I was just reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation this morning, particularly chapters 7-10. He does make clear that the Word satisfies our debt by his death. In this death he puts an end to the law and our condemnation and brings in the resurrection for us. The Lord needs to prevail over death and bring our resurrection to which Athanasius says “this is the first cause of the Saviour’s being made man.”

    It seems to me in this section of Athanasius’ work he puts the right emphasis on the link between incarnation and atonement. He also puts the emphasis on the goal of incarnation and atonement: resurrection. This, in Athanasius, seems to me what Bavinck gets at: the incarnation is not an end in and of itself.

  5. I wonder if this focus on man’s mortality and salvation being seen by most in and out of the church as the main contributing factor to choosing to follow Christ’s example would explain many Christians disbelief that human lifespans will ever drasticly be altered?

  6. Tim B: I have not read much of Athanasius…thanks for sharing that from On The Incarnation.

    A little late to the discussion but I just finished The Death of Christ by James Denney and thought I’d share this quote:

    “The New Testament knows nothing of an incarnation which can be defined apart from its relation to atonement; it is to put away sin, and to destroy the works of the devil, that even in the evangelist of the Incarnation the Son of God is made manifest. It is not in His being here, but in His being here as a propitiation for the sins of the world, that the love of God is revealed. Not Bethlehem, but Calvary, is the focus of revelation, and any construction of Christianity which ignores or denies this distorts Christianity by putting it out of focus. (325)”

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