the Lord of creation,
Reconciler of the world to the Father,
Redeemer of sinful humanity,
Victor over death
through his crucifixion and resurrection,
Foretaste and Herald of the Kingdom of God,
Incarnation of God, very God and very man.
Even though such affirmations about Jesus have been the center of the church’s preaching from its beginning, such Christological commitments to him have not had a prominent place in much modern preaching.
This has been true in the middle class church because it requires its preaching in the form of easily palatable moralisms about how to get through life without being disturbed by it or him. This has also been true for the contemporary college chapel because such language about Jesus is awkward to the ears of those who pride themselves on being secular men. These are those who believe their virtue depends upon being different from “crude” believers and some sort of virtue attaches to what secular men are able to disbelieve.
A great deal of preaching in the college chapel attempts to meet this situation by engaging in very clever apologetics to transform our unbelief into belief. But too often such preaching ends up declaring that our doubts are faith and that our little concerns are as good as believing in Jesus. In such a setting we are told to cherish our uncertainties because they are surely signs that we are among the blessed.
In choosing to talk directly about Jesus Christ, as very God and very man, I am quite consciously rejecting this style of preaching. I do this, first, because I find calling unbelief belief intellectually unintelligible and something of a bore. The shallowness of modern unbelief is exceeded only by the shallowness of modern belief. By giving us such petty unbelievers as critics, God is judging the pettiness of our own belief.
The feeble force of modern unbelief is not to be found in a profound rejection of God crucified on a cross. Rather it is embodied in the shrug of the shoulders that says it simply does not make a whit of difference whether one believes or not. As Christians we have no response to this because we have reduced the significance and depth of Christian belief not only for ourselves but also for the unbeliever.
Secondly, I reject this form of preaching, this glorification of unbelief, because it is but a form of pietism as spiritually vacuous as the pietism of belief. Both pietisms are preoccupied with the self and its little doubts or its little conversions. What a lost people we must be to think that God really gives a damn whether we believe in him or not! The pietism of unbelief and belief are both attempts to reduce God to our criterion of significance. In the light of God’s action in Christ, this preoccupation with self is insignificant; in theological terms, it is but an attempt to have the atonement without incarnation and crucifixion.
But, you may respond by saying that even if we do turn our attention from our selves and our doubts and toward the reality of Christ, we still are not sure what to think. A phrase like “very God and very man” stirs our imagination to think of an entity composed in some strange way of man substance and God substance. Or, if we are not given to metaphysical flights of fancy, we tend to enter into psychological speculation. Which faculty or function of Jesus is God and which is man? Or, if our imagination does not lead us into metaphysics or psychology, we tend to think of “very God and very man” in terms of a kind of fairy tale.
According to Kierkegaard, the fairy tale goes something like this. A young prince was riding through his estate one day and saw a peasant girl working in his fields. He, of course, falls in love with her and desires to make her his queen. However, being not only a prince, but a noble person, he wishes to win this maiden not by his position but by himself. So, he covers his kingly purple with the rough clothes of the peasant and goes into the fields and works alongside the maiden. Everything goes as it should in fairy tales, and since the young prince is handsome and noble, the maiden soon falls in love with him.
What is interesting about this tale is that our interest is not held wondering if the prince will get the maiden, for we know he will from the start. Rather, our interest is held by wondering when the prince will rip off the rough peasant clothes and reveal the purple. Will he do it at the wedding? Or perhaps he will be revealed in trying to save the maiden from distress when in conflict the rough is torn away to reveal the purple.
That such a story has a close parallel to how we think of the incarnation is apparent. God, creator of all, finding men condemned to the drudgery of peasants in his kingdom, resolves to love and help them. He comes to help them, disguising the purple with the flesh of men, and frees them from bondage in his fields.
The problem with such a comparison, however, is that unlike the fairy tale, the picture of Christ given in the gospel does not sustain our interest in the same way. At no time does Jesus ever rip back the veil of flesh and reveal the purple of the deity.
This mystery causes us to speculate endlessly about where the purple might be—is it in the birth story? or the miracles? or in the perfect moral life? or the resurrection? But, the Gospel makes clear that there was no purple revealed by these events because many saw all that happened and did not believe. The picture of the God-man presented in the Gospels disappoints us for it leaves ambiguous where the deity is firmly in evidence. And, this raises the hard question of how one can stake one’s eternal destiny on an ambiguous figure. To do so surely seems to make one a complete fool.
We are not unique, by the way, in having this problem, for it was also clearly the problem in the scripture. When Jesus asked where men thought the purple resided, they answered by giving the current Messianic theories of the day. But, while Jesus does not deny that his ministry was the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, he dissociates himself from such interpretations. Rather, he accepts Peter’s affirmation that he is the Christ, the long expected Messiah, the one prefigured in the promise of Abraham, the purpose of the Exodus, the meaning of the Law. He accepts all this and still the purple does not show.
It does not show because he immediately charged them to tell no one saying, “The son of man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and scribes and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Now, there’s the rub. What kind of redeemer is this? He was rejected by men and hung on a cross; his followers reduced to a few ignorant men who would have followed any equally good magician. One could hardly call this the showing of the purple of Israel’s expectations.
God and Man Doing Divinity Humanly
The difficulty is that we have got the problem wrong at its base. All our questions and expectations presuppose that this is a man who is doing divine things. But, we look at him, and we find nothing that he did exceptional that one cannot point to in the lives of other men. History is full of men doing divine things. Nor can the divinity of Christ be merely that in his life, being flawlessly good, there was no divergence from the divine will. Were that the complete case, Jesus might have fulfilled his function by remaining a model village carpenter all his days and dying a natural death at a ripe old age.
The gospel’s good news and mystery of the incarnation is not that this is the human doing the divine, but that the very human action of Jesus is divine action; it is what God does about the salvation of the world. In the common case of a good human life, humanity supplies the pattern, and God the grace. In Jesus, divine redemptive action supplies the pattern, and manhood the medium or instrument. A good man helped by grace may do human things divinely; Christ did divine things humanly.
This is the mystery of the incarnation that, unlike the prince who hid the purple under the coarse, in Christ the coarse turns out to be the purple. God is this kind of God. There is nothing to strip off to reveal God. Christ is no sham. The grace of the incarnation is in God’s choice to make man at the creation, and in his election of Israel, and in his dying on the cross to be the God of humanity. This is the real mystery of the incarnation. It is not some puzzling union between God substance and man substance. Rather, it is that God is the God who chooses to have his destiny bound up with man’s even to being born of women, calling disciples, suffering persecution, and dying on the cross.
But, this is just the kind of God we do not want. We want a God who through his purple is able to remove all suffering and ambiguity from our life. We want a God who through his power insures our bliss. The God of Israel and Jesus, however, is not such a God. He wills not to have men who are contented cattle but men who are able to love God as a friend and brother. Thus, God chose to be with man through his strange act of love. He decides to suffer with man so that man can be capable of being in love with God.
The meaning of the incarnation is finally that God wills to lose himself in order that man might be born. To be born is to recognize we cannot be gods but we can be men by learning to suffer in our lives in accordance with the Cross of Christ. Thus, the ambiguity of the figure of Jesus is the necessary Christological requirement to draw us into the very commitment that is necessary in order to recognize that this was surely the Christ.
Immediately after Jesus confessed his Christological being that leads to suffering and death, he says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” This is an indication that to adhere to Christ is not a matter of adhering to a doctrine called the incarnation. Rather, it is to be so involved with this kind of God that we will be willing to follow him to certain crucifixion for his sake.
I suspect the reason most of us today have trouble buying the doctrine of the incarnation is not really so much due to the intellectual problems involved. It is more likely that we are refusing to be drawn from our selves to regard the otherness of this being who asks us to become as he himself was. I do not think that such hesitation to follow Christ can be overcome by moral urgings and new layers of law. But, if we are not ready to follow Jesus, let us at least not continue to reduce Christ to the dimensions of our own spiritual life. Perhaps, if we maintain the integrity of the gospel, on the ashes of our sinful existence, some brave new generation of Christians will be born who are willing to walk such a road.