Reflecting on the Incarnation

Daniel at Sibboleth has been commenting on my comments on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which I’d like to offer a few further thoughts about.

Firstly, I apparently take up a ‘wholesale adoption of the Barth-world’s: “Jesus, not the Bible, is the Word of God — John 1!”‘

This I find intriguing. I know very little about Barth, and in so far as Barth influences me it is second-hand, either through tutors or, possibly, through someone like Eugene Peterson, who I like a lot. Yet shifting the topic to one of contemporary theological debates is, I think, a red herring. Far more important than what Barth may or may not have said is, for me, the logic of Christian doctrine, supremely in terms of the Creed. Sven’s other test is probably more accurate in terms of where I am coming from. In other words, I see the emphasis upon Jesus as the Word of God – ie, the determinative interpretation of the phrase “word of God” – as simply an implication of Christian doctrine. As I understand it, this is mainstream Christianity as accepted throughout Christian history by the vast majority of Christian believers and thinkers. It is the idea that the written text is the determinative interpretation of the phrase ‘word of God’ which I think is a recent development, certainly post-Reformation, and one which has been corrupted by the influence of modern philosophy (principally Cartesianism).

To unpick that, and to comment on something else Daniel says (“I don’t think Mark or Paul thought Jesus was the logos of God; I don’t think Luke did either, tho his writing seems to hint at Jesus’ divinity more than Mark’s.”) I want to have a look at one of my favourite passages: Colossians 1.15-20

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

This rather philosophical language echoes the Johannine understandings (or vice-versa) and, crucially, it doesn’t refer to ‘word of God’ at all. Yet the implications for Christ’s status are – rather obviously – profound. In particular the phrase ‘all things were created by him and for him’ is key – for that means that all created things reflect him, and our written texts are created things. In other words, the importance of the text, or of anything else within our world, can only be discerned through their relation to Christ. (Sven wrote something about the 2 Tim passage related to this recently). In other words, Scripture gains its sense through being referred to Christ, not the other way round. And this principle applies to everything.

What makes this marvellous is that, in the Incarnation, we get to see the blueprint – the underlying purpose of the whole shebang is revealed. That is what I understand the claim in the Creed to be:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

This seems to me to render much more precisely the theological weight of such wonderful passages as Isaiah 55:

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

Somehow it seems to make much more sense for a Christian to see this ‘accomplishment’ of the Word of God being a reference to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, rather than being a reference to the story about the life, death and resurrection. It is only in a culture which was dominated by the text, and by modernist presuppositions about the role of text in the shaping of a society’s norms and practices, that such a bizarre theology could take hold. That is not, of course, to undermine the importance of the story – telling the story is how we share in the work of the word (at least in large part), and it was how the church maintained itself – but the work of salvation was accomplished by the living Christ, not the description of the living Christ.

In other words, it is the Incarnation which is the hinge for all of Christian life and thought, and the life of the Christian is to reflect that Incarnation. Scripture gains its value precisely through being a reflection upon the Incarnation, but it is not the only reflection, or even, arguably, the most important (I would say that the Eucharist is that).

Daniel finishes with some rhetorical questions: “Is it anything other than bad theology and bad use of scripture to disclaim scripture as the word of God simply because two verses in John happen to say that Jesus is the word of God? Christians accept the OT and NT as the word of God, and this phrase is entirely appropriate. This, however, is the beginning of our difficulties, not the end: what does it mean to confess that precisely this kind of book—better, these kinds of books are the word of God?”

The first question rests upon a false dichotomy, it seems to me. I’m not wishing to deny any sense at all to referring to Scripture as the ‘word of God’ – I’m only wishing to deny the attribution of imperfection (inerrancy) to it. But the second question I think is more troubling. To reflect upon the Incarnation is, it seems to me, about changing our humanity, the whole of our lives, all that was assumed and that is now healed. Making the central focus Scripture seems too cerebral, and to leave some of that humanity behind – in just the same way that, so often, Jesus’ humanity seems to be left behind in fundamentalism.

The Incarnation is when the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. It is precisely the becoming flesh which is important for the Christian – without it, we are sucked into the varieties of gnosticism against which the Johannine writers warned (2 John 7-8)