‘Questions about immanence may concern philosophers. And questions about miracles may agitate physicists. But the great dividing issue for the soul is neither the Bethlehem cradle nor the empty grave, nor the Bible, nor the social question. For the Church at least (however it be with individuals) it is the question of a redeeming atonement. It is here that the evangelical issue lies. It is here, and not upon the nativity, that we part company with the Unitarians. It is here that the unsure may test their crypto-unitarianism. I would unchurch none. I would but clear the issue for the honest conscience. It is this that determines whether a man is Unitarian or Evangelical, and it is this that should guide his conscience as to his ecclesiastical associations. Only if he hold that in the atoning cross of Christ the world was redeemed by holy God once for all, that there, and only there, sin was judged and broken, that there and only there the race was reconciled and has its access to the face and grace of God-only then has he the genius and the plerophory of the Gospel’. – Peter T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 73-4.
‘Right now, in the Advent and Christmas seasons, there is a lot of talk about Christ being born: about God becoming a human person, appearing in human form and so on. Making some sense of the reality of this claim is an enormous task: God, in one human person, within God’s own creation.
For many people, of course, the question is whether such a claim can possibly be true. I would tackle this question in a different way: I think it helps to ask, ‘How can we know this?’ Or, to put it in another way, if we were to know this, what kind of knowledge is it?
I don’t think it’s a matter of believing some things, about something which is said to have happened a long time ago, and refusing to consider other evidence or possibilities. I don’t think that’s faith at all. It has no creative and life-giving dimensions whatsoever.
What I think this means is something to be known in a personal and communal experience, in the present, which in some ways helps us to understand the past, and yet is also shaped by the past.
Recently, I found this quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. I must have read it before, but it struck me this time: p. 359, “One has to live for some time in community to understand that Christ is ‘formed’ in it’.” There is a reference here to Galations 4. 19, where Paul uses an image of childbirth, saying that he (the Apostle) is ‘in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.’ For Paul, too, there is this idea not only that Christ was a human person who lived in his recent past, but that Christ yet lives, and yet embodies, takes shape: Paul was convinced that the community of Christians, made alive in the Spirit, really is a living body of Christ, an incarnation of the same God who appeared to us as Jesus of Nazareth.
Bonhoeffer, especially in his Ethics, was interested in the idea that Christ ‘takes shape’ and ‘is formed’ in the world. This was his idea of whatever is meaningful in ‘the church’. It is a community in which Christ is taking shape. And to put it another way, his view was that wherever Christ is taking shape in the world that is where the church needs to be, where Christian people need to find themselves involved.
Incarnation is not an idea about once upon a time. It is a divine habit, indeed a divine habitation. It is something God perpetually does, and invites us to know, to be part of. This knowing is a present experience. We can discover ourselves becoming part of the ‘taking shape’, and Bonhoeffer rightly sees that this is something we learn in community, in deep and committed relationships.
More than that, such communities, usually informed and shaped by the story and vision which Jesus offered, his Gospel of God, also find that through these experiences of community, this sense of Christ taking shape among, within, between them, they can also more clearly comprehend the historic claims, the idea of God being ‘incarnate’, born among us, in the person of Jesus, in a messy world of power games and political intrigues, and little people being pushed aside, abused, slaughtered, and religion playing along with it all, for its own self-preservation.
We can believe that, because this is our reality too, and yet, —yet— we dare to acknowledge that within us, in our community, even , Christ is formed.
There’s a lot to think on, and to hope for, amidst the words and music and all the rest which is called ‘Christmas’, the birth of Christ.’
‘[In the Incarnation], God is doing what God is always doing, attempting to give all that God is to what is not God’. – Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology, p. 15.
‘That Cross was deep embedded in the very structure of Christ’s Person, because nowadays you cannot separate His Person from His vocation, from the work lie came to do, and the words He came to speak. The Cross was not simply a fate awaiting Christ in the future; it pervaded subliminally His holy Person. He was born for the Cross. It was His genius, His destiny. It was quite inevitable that, in a world like this, One holy as Jesus was holy should come to the Cross. The parable [of the prodigal Son] was spoken by One in whom the Cross and all it stands for were latent in His idea of God; and it became patent, came to the surface, became actual, and practical, and powerful in the stress of man’s crisis and the fullness of God’s time. That is an important phrase. Christ Himself came in a fullness of time. The Cross which consummated and crowned Christ came in its fullness of time. The time was not full during Christ’s life for preaching an atonement that life could never make’. – Peter T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 107-8.
Each year between 1926 and 1933, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth penned a Christmas meditation for a German daily newspaper. In his 1931 reflection, ‘It gives new lustre to the world’, Barth began by asking a question asked each Advent by Christians generally, and perhaps especially by those called upon to preach: ‘What does it mean to hear the Christmas message?’ He proceeds to say that if the question is put like that, ‘then it behoves us all, especially if we happen to be theologians, to keep our mouths shut and first to consider that the Christmas message is not a philosophy, nor an ideology, nor a moral system or anything like that’. Instead, the Christmas word is ‘the Word of God to which no one has the key and whose real meaning for us, now as in former ages, is God’s secret. Hidden is the point where the Christmas message concerns each one of us and our whole generation, where its grace and judgement, its promise and command affect us’.
However (and it is a big ‘however’), as Barth proceeds to note, the question posed above does not need to be put like that. We could ask, for example, ‘What does it mean that we have heard the Christmas message?’; in which case, while we cannot lay hold of the full reality of the Christmas message, interpret and apply it, as if it were some human wisdom, neither can we or should we ignore its testimony which speaks to us of its hidden reality, of its way and nature, whereby both we and every other generation are reminded of certain possibilities, which are, so to speak, the outer garb of an incomprehensible but real encounter between God and humanity. In the grace of God, we can and must speak that which we know and have heard. In the grace of God, we can and must bear witness, testimony, to God’s self-disclosure. And in the grace of God, this testimony is preserved for us in Holy Scripture.
When, therefore, the Christmas word seems too incredible to believe, we can hear … and believe again. And what is this word? Barth again:
If God had wanted to deal with us as He is free to do, and as we well deserved it, according to His principle, He would never have become man. But He was and is merciful, and therefore in Christ He has come together with us (with us!), though His holiness and our weakness and wickedness should really exclude any coming together on His part and any thought of cooperation on our part. But God did and does just this, the impossible or – should we say? – that which is practical only for Him the Merciful One, which must happen so that His free and merciful will be done. The fact that also in this respect human beings can believe the eternal Light, means that we do perhaps have the will to do that which concerns us most, and which under any circumstance must be done in common with others. – Karl Barth, Christmas (trans. Bernhard Citron; Edinburgh/London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959), 47.
(NB. This is a reposting of my contribution to the Advent reflections at Hopeful Imagination)
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard challenges Hegel’s undermining of the individual and his positing of the common ethic as the highest reality. In its place, Kierkegaard posits individual faith as the highest reality, a reality which is at core personal, paradoxical and beyond empirical or philosophical challenge. It is the individual who alone stands in ‘absolute relation to the absolute’.
Kierkegaard then proceeds to discuss the sin of despairing of the forgiveness of sins itself. He suggests two reasons for such despair: weakness or defiance. Weakness, or what he calls ‘a passive suffering of the self’, describes when one ‘does not dare to believe’, while defiance is when one ‘will not believe’. Both reasons are at core a resistance to not to will to be oneself, that is, a sinner, and so dispense with, or deny, the offer of grace and reconciliation that comes in the forgiveness of sins. Kierkegaard writes, ‘When the sinner despairs of the forgiveness of sins it is almost as if he were directly picking a quarrel with God, it sounds in fact like a rejoinder when he says, “No, there is not any forgiveness of sins, it is an impossibility”; this looks like a hand-to-hand scuffle. But yet a man must remove himself to a qualitative distance from God in order to be able to say this and in order that it may be heard, and in order to fight cominus he must be eminus; so strangely constructed in an acoustic sense is the world of spirit, so strangely are the relationships of distance arranged. A man must be as far as possible removed from God for that “No” to be heard, while yet in a way he wants to pick a quarrel with God’. Kiekegaard’s point is that it is a sin to in one’s own offense turn away toward a direction other than faith. While ‘one might praise the pagan who really managed to despair, not over the world, not over himself in general, but over his sin’, true Christianity (though not Christendom) altered everything, ‘for thou shalt believe in the forgiveness of sins’. Despair of the forgiveness of sins is an offense, Kierkegaard insists, because such despair issues from a wrong view of sin whose opposite is not virtue, but faith.
In the midst of this discussion, Kierkegaard offers a punchy critique of pantheistic tendencies within Christian theology too blindly entrenched in Hegel.
The fundamental misfortune of Christendom is really Christianity, the fact that the doctrine of the God-Man (the Christian understanding of which, be it noted, is secured by the paradox and the possibility of offense) is taken in vain, the qualitative distinction between God and man is pantheistically abolished – first speculatively with an air of superiority, then vulgarly in the streets and alleys. Never anywhere has any doctrine on earth brought God and man so near together as has Christianity; neither could anyone else do it, only God Himself can, every human invention remains after all a dream, an uncertain imagination. Neither has any doctrine ever so carefully defended itself against the most shocking of all blasphemies, that after God had taken this step it then should be taken in vain, as though God and man coalesced in one and the same thing – never has any doctrine ever defended itself against this as Christianity has, which defends itself by the help of the offense. Woe unto the slack orators, woe unto the loose thinkers, and woe, woe unto all the adherents who have learnt from them and extolled them!’ – Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death (trans. Walter Lowrie; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 248.
It’s been a while since I posted a quotation from Forsyth and this one reminds me again why his voice is both so unique and needed today to combat the heresy of (merely) incarnational theology:
‘… all Christ’s teachings about the Kingdom were only facets of His act of the Cross, which founded it where nothing can be shaken—on the holiness of God and what that holiness both required and gave. Roused, melted, or crushed by His words, we need more than a present God for a help in time of trouble; we need a God doing eternal and historic justice to what is the most perfect and real thing in the universe, and our own last interest there—to the holiness of His own love, which we have so deeply wronged. The effect on us of the mere spectacle of Christ carries us beyond spectacle. We need there an act of judgement and not merely of exhibition, of reparation and not mere confession. We need a confession so full and perfect as to be reparation—the full confession of the Holy by the Holy amid the conditions of universal sin. For the purposes of the Kingdom Christ preached. We need more than a God made mortal flesh; and what we are offered in Christ is God made sin for us’. – PT Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ, 88.
‘The kenotic community as an imperative which the Incarnation demands permits no distinction between the Christian and the non-Christian which resides intrinsically in the Christian (or the church) as such. When one ‘defines’ the church or the Christian, then, the distinctive must be solely in the ‘difference’ which has its source in the historical transcendence of God. The ‘difference’ is Christ, not that redemption is set over against creation, but so that man is liberated to participate in Christ’s ek-static fulfillment of all creaturehood through the life of the Spirit. The ‘difference’ is the centre (Christ) and not in distinctions drawn between men, or between the church and the world as entities’. – Ray S. Anderson, ‘Living in the World’, in Ray S. Anderson (ed.), Theological Foundations for Ministry: Selected Readings for a Theology of the Church in Ministry (Edinburgh/Grand Rapids: T. & T. Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 591.
‘And thus we shall have to posit the incarnation itself precisely in the fact that he, the eternal Son of God, the second person of the deity, gave himself over into the form of human limitation, and thereby to the limits of a spatio-temporal existence, under the conditions of a human development, in the bounds of an historical concrete being, in order to live in and through our nature the life of our race in the fullest sense of the word, without on that account ceasing to be God. Only so does there occur an actual entrance into humanity, an actual becoming-one with it, a becoming-man of God; and only so does there result that historical person of the mediator which we know to be the God-man’. – Gottfried Thomasius, ‘Christ’s Person and Work. Part II: The Person of the Mediator’, in God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology (ed. Claude Welch; A Library of Protestant Thought; New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 48.
O where, o where have all the good kenoticists gone? Christology needs them now more than ever.
There is a sense in which the nature of God’s own Godhood is such that God had to become incarnate. However, far from being a limitation, the Incarnation is the supreme act of God’s freedom and the concentration of God’s power in one person. God’s power is never aimless or wild. And no other limits God’s power. Divine power, true power, is limited insofar as it is always concentrated toward one goal or end. Any limitation is a self-limitation, and that for one end. For Forsyth, that end is the securing of holiness for God and for creation. Unlike the (super?)powers of this world, God’s use of power is ever with a view to love – to love the other, to love his enemies – a love that takes cruciform shape, dying even for those who would wish him dead.
… limitation is a power of Godhead, not a curtailment of it. Among the infinite powers of the Omnipotent must be the power to limit Himself, and among His glories the grace to bend and die. Incarnation is not impossible to the Infinite; it is necessary. If He could not come incarnate His infinitude would be partial and limited. It would not be complete. It would be limited to all that is outside human nature. It would be limited by human nature in the sense of not being able to enter it, of being stopped at its gates. God would be curtailed to the extent of His creation. And that would be a more fatal limitation to His power than any He could suffer from being in it. He may be in without being locked in. (PT Forsyth, God the Holy Father, 33)
Painting: Rembrandt’s Holy Family (1640); Oil on wood, 41 x 34 cm; Musee du Louvre, Paris.
– ‘The Christ that we trust all to is not one who died to witness for God, but one in whom God died for His own witness, and His own work on us. God was in Christ reconciling. The prime doer in Christ’s cross was God. Christ was God reconciling. He was God doing the very best for man, and
not man doing his very best before God. The former is evangelical Christianity, the latter is humanist Christianity. Christ’s history, His person, can only be understood by His work, and by a work that we apprehend in our moral experience even when we cannot comprehend it by our intelligence.’ – PT Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 27.