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 The 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.