October 21, 2020

From the Writer’s Worktable: Incarnation

jcstrSome of what I’ve been writing today as I start two chapters on essential beliefs about Jesus. This is part of a section on the incarnation:

The incarnation may be the greatest stumbling block that Christianity places in the road of faith, but that stumbling block is the cornerstone of everything Christians believe about Jesus.

What does the incarnation mean for all of us? The incarnation means that God has personally crossed the unimaginable gap between himself and every human being, becoming one of us, and making it possible for every person to know God by way of the path of being human. In Jesus, God comes to us as one of us, speaks to us in human language, relates to us and draws us into relationship with himself without requiring us to be anything other than what we are: creatures of flesh and blood, human beings to whom God is a mystery and the curtain beyond our limitations is impenetrable in our experience. In Jesus, God comes to us, in life, through death, beyond the curtain and in simple words and signs.

The incarnation is the complete refutation of every human system and institution that claims to control, possess and distribute God. Whatever any church or religious leader may claim in regard to their particular access to God or control over my experience of God, the incarnation is the last word: God loves the world. God has come into the world in the form of those of us who bear God’s fingerprints and live in God’s world. God has come to all of us in Jesus. The incarnation is not owned, controlled or distributed by a church. It belongs to every human being. In Jesus, God comes to every one of us with no one else and nothing else in between. The incarnation is not being sold or downloaded. It is a gracious gift to every person everywhere, religious or not.

To make the obvious point, I don’t think think those who affirm the real presence in the Eucharist are trying to control the incarnation. But it is a danger. In my tradition, the implications of the incarnation are seldom considered, and preachers act as if they are “connecting” people to God via sermons, services, music, etc. Our denomination actually suggested that churches use this motto one year: “First Baptist Church: Connecting People to God.”

I’m deeply distressed by that mentality in general, no matter what the specifics happen to be. I hope that the incarnation gives to all of us a sacramental view of reality, no matter what our view of the specific sacraments of the church happen to be. Jesus comes to every person and for every person in the incarnation. This is a truth that is not mediated by the church. It is proclaimed and offered, but not ever controlled.


  1. Aaron,

    I agree there has been many cases where Christian theologians mistakenly took symbolic illustrations literally (Gen. 1 for example). Words have many connotations. The following is a perfectly acceptable definition that illustrates my use of the word:

    “Incarnation: a person or thing regarded as embodying or exhibiting some quality, idea, or the like: The leading dancer is the incarnation of grace.”

    In this way, I affirm that Jesus is the incarnation of God’s values and character. When we live out the same sacrificial, merciful, and non-violent protests against imperialistic values, then we can become the body of Christ. That’s Paul’s metaphor, not mine. It would be problematic to imply some kind of physical/spiritual substance shift to these metaphors.

    When I got married I said my wife and were now “one”. I did not assume that meant we were one substance. I simply meant that the two of us were of like vision, like mission, and equally committed together on one path? To interpret the incarnation story as being a physical substance shift from some imagined non-physical substance to a physical substance is as strange as assuming I had a substance transformation when we said our wedding vows. But it does make for a beautiful metaphor!

    As with most religious squabbles, the problem is simply the inability of modern readers to understand a metaphor without trying to mistake it for modern history or science. We need better literature courses in schools to help people understand these common age old literary devices.

  2. The word “emancipation” is another big stumbling block to me. To say “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves” like that is some kind of historical fact really does violence to God’s true mission of emancipation, to free us from all of our false ideas that lead us to deny truth and justice.

    I don’t think “emancipation” needs to be a matter of mental assent, to say, “The slaves in the South were emancipated by proclamation on January 1, 1863.” That is just too narrow. We show we believe in emancipation not by reciting so-called “facts” about the “Civil War,” but by everyday acting out God’s mission of emancipation in our own “civil war” against injustice in our communtities.

    What I’m saying is really biblical too. We are “free in Christ,” but “we are slaves to Christ.” This shows that the line between slavery and freedom is just Cartesian dualism. it is really a shame that ancient interpreters of Scripture were so negatively influenced by reading Descartes.

  3. Brian,

    Another great illustration!

    If we say “Lincoln freed the slaves” (as if one proclamation can do such a thing), but we refuse to incarnate that idea into reality, then it would still be only an “idea”, right?

    Historical events happens only once, the truth-filled metaphors of our sacred text continue to happen on a daily basis. There were still many people in bondage after 1863. Forced labor continued for decades in the south along with beatings and deaths. The proclamation had not been “lived out” or incarnated into our nation. It still hasn’t. For many, it is still an immaterial unfulfilled dream waiting to be birthed into their reality. Simply declaring slaves free did not make those people or their children and grand children truly “free”. To accept God’s call of emancipation means we should seek the freedom of everyone who is held captive. To say “I’m certain slaves are free” does nothing if the statement is not incarnate in the world.

    You said: “This shows that the line between slavery and freedom is just Cartesian dualism”

    I’m not sure if you were being sarcastic. I can’t follow that logic. Do you know what dualism is? I’m speaking about both the Cartesian form we deal with in the post-enlightenment era, and the version of Plato, which the Church father’s used to build many of their doctrines and later fed Descartes views.


  4. Mike L. (are you aka “Progressive Faith”?),

    Does the New Testament present the incarnation as the kind of metaphor that you have described? Please show me clear evidence that it does.

    Has the church ever believed that the incarnation is the kind of metaphor you have described? Again, please show me some evidence.

    You wrote:

    “When we live out the same sacrificial, merciful, and non-violent protests against imperialistic values, then we can become the body of Christ. That’s Paul’s metaphor, not mine.”

    The only thing you have in common with Paul in these two sentences is that you both use the phrase “body of Christ.” But how does Paul use that phrase? I challenge you to produce one shred of evidence that for Paul the “body of Christ” means anything close to the political moralism that you are referring to here.

    There is a big difference between using biblical language and communicating biblical ideas. And my concern is that, if you have no concern for the ideas, you might as well drop the language too.

  5. Louisiana Catholic says

    Jay and others:

    Not to be the Catholic Theology police, but Immaculate Conception does not refer to Christ’s conception through the Holy Spirt. Christ’s conception is referred to as the “Virgin Birth” and is expressed in the Apostles Creed as “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and was born of the Virgin Mary” and in the Nicene Creed as “For us men and our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.”

    These Creedal statements are defining the Faith expressed in the St. Luke’s Gospel (Lk 1:26-38) and St. Matthew’s (Mt 1:23) where he cited the prophecy from Isiah 7:14 [cites from the Septuaigiant LXX version] which read “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

    pax et bonum

  6. sue kephart says

    My understanding is the Immaculate Conception is the conception of Mary, Mother of God, (Jesus) as born without sin. I also don’t think any Protestant denoms except this as truth.

  7. Louisiana Catholic says

    sue kephart:

    You understanding is correct, the Immaculate Conception is God’s special gift of Grace preserving Mary free of Original Sin, so as the a pure ark of the new covenant.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I used to get in trouble for saying “The Incarnation means God Almighty having to squat down and take a crap behind the bushes alongside a dirt road in Galilee.”

    Occasionally I’d get complete agreement instead of Flesh-to-Pile-of-Rocks, but nothing in between.