Monday, December 22, 2003

The Cross and the Cradle 

The following are some brief and rushed thoughts on the relationship between the Incarnation and the Death of Christ. Were I to have more time to devote to this I would probably express this in quite a different way. With this necessary qualifier I will begin. Within Reformed circles we have often distinguished very sharply between Christ’s death and the rest of His life. We generally speak of Christ’s ‘active’ and ‘passive’ obedience as terms referring to two distinct periods of Christ’s life (rather than as aspects of His work — see Murray’s Redemption). Christ’s ‘active’ obedience, often conceived of as His obedience in life, is generally detached from His passive obedience — His obedience in death (of course, when we start to think in terms of the ‘faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ we will be saved from some of the errors that such language can tempt us into). Both of these aspects of Christ’s work are understood in terms of the Law. By framing Christ’s work in such a manner we risk losing sight of certain key aspects of His work. The Adamic nature of Christ’s work can easily be misunderstood when it is reinterpreted within such categories. The distorting concept of the covenant of works can all too easily come to the fore. Christ certainly came to fulfil the Torah, but when the Torah is understood as a timeless principle of merit-salvation and sacrifice, the nature of this fulfilment can be misconstrued. A number of aspects of our Lord’s work do not fit tidily into the system that is created when we understand our theology within such categories. One of these aspects is the self-emptying of the Son of God in the Incarnation. We cannot see how this could be an act of propitiatory atonement, nor do we see how it is fulfilling a positive commandment of the Law. Whilst an overly narrow view of the Torah is partly to blame for this failure, it is not my purpose to argue for a broader perspective on Christ’s fulfilment of the Law here. What I do intend to do is to draw our attention back to the Incarnation. Many people have said that the shadow of the Cross hangs over the Cradle. This is helpful. However, many have understood the Incarnation to be little more than the means towards the end of the Atonement, which belongs to Good Friday alone. That a narrowing of our understanding of this doctrine has occurred might be indicated by the etymology of the word atone, something I have mentioned in passing before.
The Necessity of the Incarnation
The Incarnation was not merely a necessary means by which Christ was to get to the cross. Before we explore this in more depth it might be worth commenting upon the fact that it was actually necessary for the cross. Why was it necessary that God the Son should first take our nature to Himself before dealing with the burden of our sins? This question is not asked as much as it should be. One common answer is that only like can atone for like. Whether this is the case or not, I believe that the biblical answer is far bigger than this. The atonement must reach to the very core of what man is and involve his very nature. For many Christians today the fact that Jesus was a human being from the Jewish nation has little if any place in their understanding of the atonement. The atonement is gradually wrenched from its historical setting and becomes an abstract event that rests like oil upon the water of the context in which it occurred. When the atonement is understood in this manner it can all too easily be detached from the events of Christ’s life also. Christ’s life is merely like a ladder which He climbed in order to be in the right ‘position’ to accomplish the Atonement. One this ‘position’ has been reached the ladder can be kicked away. I believe that the picture that the Bible presents us with is quite different from this. The events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, whilst forming the climax of Christ’s work, should not be allowed to blind us to the central importance of other events such as the Incarnation. We need to construct a view of the work of Christ that manages to reintegrate the self-emptying of the Son of God. We need to see the cross and the cradle as part of one action. The Person of Christ is the necessary prerequisite to the work of Christ. Christ both embodies and accomplishes reconciliation. He brings man and God together in His work and embodies this unity in His Person. Emil Brunner writes in The Mediator:—
…it is important that the doctrine of the Person of the Mediator should not be subordinated to that of His Work. The Mediator, in His Person, is not a means to an end, but a self-end… He is not merely—as, for instance, in the doctrine of Anselm—the instrument of the reconciliation. The doctrine of the Incarnation, the Christmas message, is as important as the doctrine of “satisfaction,” the message of Good Friday. Neither can be separated from the other, for both mean this, that God comes.
The Person and the work of Christ both act together to fulfil the great end of the bringing together of God and man. The Incarnation and the crucifixion form a unity, both being part of the same movement, spanning the gap between God and man. The humanity which Christ identifies Himself with in the Incarnation, He identifies with to the fullest extreme in the crucifixion. He identifies Himself so much with man that He even identifies Himself with that which alienates man from God, becoming sin for us.
The Incarnation as Atonement
The Incarnation of Christ can be thought of as an atoning act. I do not mean by this that the Incarnation pays for sin, or anything like that. What I mean is that this is one of the key actions by which fellowship between God and man is restored. Man’s distance from God is not merely to be seen in the fact that he is a sinner. This distance is also an ontological distance. True being is found in personhood, rather than in the nature. Man was created to find his being in communion with God. He was created in God’s image. Outside of relationship with God this image would be lost. Being As Communion[I have made many of the following comments on the Hornes.org Forums] Man’s true being cannot be understood apart from man’s relationships. Man’s plight is not merely ethical, but is in a real sense a problem of ontology. The source of man’s being is cut off when communion with God is broken. Like a branch cut from a tree man will wither and die. Man’s being (‘personhood’) is formed by giving and receiving. True being can only be achieved in fellowship with God, in the reciprocity of giving and receiving. As this chain is broken by sin, man is trapped by his nature. Man’s nature can only be perfected in this chain of reciprocity. As John Zizioulas observes, man’s ‘personality’ is gradually extinguished when he turns away from God. He is bound by the necessity of his own nature, the only ground in which he can be hypostasized as a sinner. Only in fellowship with God can authentic personhood be found and freedom be achieved. In communion with God in Christ man finds his hypostasis in the ‘God’ and is freed from the biological necessity (e.g. death, separation and individualism) of his createdness. In Christ man affirms his personal existence on the basis of communion with God rather than on the basis of his own biological existence. Man’s being is now rooted in the divine, rather than the created sphere. In the Incarnation we see God giving Himself to man. In the life, which culminates in the death, of Christ man is giving back to God. Christ’s obedience unto death is exactly the obedience which Adam failed to give. In the Incarnation, Christ identifies Himself with man’s nature in alienation from God (‘coming in the likeness of sinful flesh’). The atonement has the Incarnation as its basis. Christ was obedient to the point of death and gave His life so that He might take it up again. In the resurrection we see Christ taking up His life again, now no longer ‘in the flesh’ (in the constrained necessity of a biological hypostasis) but ‘in the Spirit’ (in the freedom of love and communion). The resurrection provides the hermeneutic for the Incarnation. The Incarnation has as its goal the perfecting of human nature in communion with God — the solving of the problem of man’s being. As Protestants we need to recapture the doctrine of theosis.
In the model presented above (one of numerous models by which we understand the mystery), the cradle and the cross belong to one action — God gives Himself to man in Christ and man gives himself to God in Christ. Anyone with their eyes open will realize that this truth is beautifully exemplified in the Eucharist. There is always a danger that the Incarnation might be reduced to the level of a mere doctrine. We can only be preserved from this by recognizing the atoning significance of the Incarnation. The fact of the Incarnation lies at the root of our existence as the church. As the Eucharistic community we have been formed by the action that comprehends the self-giving action of the Son of God and Son of Man in His Incarnation and Crucifixion. Man’s new being is found in the church as the body of Christ. As Nevin observed, the Incarnation would be ‘shorn of meaning’ were this not the case. The result of the Incarnation is that there is now the church.

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