Incarnation vs. the Cross

This morning I was reading the lectionary’s epistle passage assigned for this Sunday (Phil 2.1-13) and then read Dave Warnock‘s post on what makes an evangelical.  He writes, ‘The Christocentrism has been redefined (no incarnation, just the cross),’ when he speaks of evangelicals’ emphasis on the cross when compared with their use of the incarnation (or rather, their lack of it).  This isn’t about his post, really.  I agree with most everything he says in it.  Just reading his post and the Philippians passage one after the other, I did start wondering about how much emphasis can we put on the incarnation, especially with regard to the cross.

How much does the Bible emphasise the incarnation, anyway?  Of course, I realise it’s there.  Obviously, with Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives and John’s opening prologue.  Even in Paul in the verse I mentioned above.  Still, none of the biblical authors seem to make that big a deal about it, especially compared with the Eastern Orthodox, for whom it is central (e.g., their theology of icons is based in their understanding of the incarnation).  Yet overwhelmingly, the message of the gospel hangs on the cross (and resurrection – Paul did say he preaches Christ crucified, but it would make little sense without the resurrection).

From my experience of my evangelical upbringing and friends, Dave is right:  evangelicals don’t seem to make much of the incarnation.  The virgin birth was a doctrine to believe in, but if we were honest, it didn’t have any practical value other than to ‘prove’ something about Jesus (or the Bible’s inerrancy).  I don’t want to lose the understanding I have now of the incarnation and what it means to say in Jesus we have God in human form.  Still, what is the proper balance, especially if Paul and others didn’t make much of it?


23 thoughts on “Incarnation vs. the Cross

  1. To say that St. Paul did not make much of the Incarnation would be wrong I think. It is St. Paul who inverts the name “Christ Jesus” for Jesus Christ. This is itself an ascension truth – the Glorified Man and also the Hebrew writer (whether St. Paul or is Pauline in its orientation) speaks to the Incarnation profoudly! (Heb. 2, etc.)
    Note, 1 Cor. 15: 45-47…here the argument is from both the natural, earthly to the spiritual or heavenly!

    Fr. Robert

  2. I have to agree with Fr. Robert; I think to say that Paul didn’t make much of the incarnation is a mistake. The incarnation is the presupposition underlying the cross and resurrection. Without the incarnation we don’t have either event, at least not in the sense Paul speaks of them. I don’t think we can gauge the importance of an issue by how much it is mentioned, but I’d say that Paul mentions it (assuming Pauline authorship for the Pastoral epistles) more than many give him credit for (see esp. 1Tim.).

  3. Yes indeed Nick, the incarnation is central for St. Paul, Paul knows the deep and real humanity of Christ on the cross, there making Atonement, somehow in “Himself”…overcoming evil with good, and as Denney said, “subsumed evil under good.” Yes Jesus suffers in His passion the pains which men inflict, but in His Agony He suffers those that He inflicts upon Himself, (Acts 2:32). But not human but Almighty is the hand that brings this torture. And HE must be Almighty to bear it. Only the God-Man can make Atonement!

    Fr. Robert

  4. Thanks for your responses, Father Robert and Nick. I don’t disagree with either of you! I guess there is part of me that wonders if Paul had as deep an understanding the incarnation as the two of you indicate. I took more biblical studies classes in seminary and that may affect me! Bible Scholars don’t always seem to think Paul had as high a Christology as theologians (as always, depends on who you read).

    I don’t deny it’s in Paul, but I would say Paul begins first with the cross and resurrection. The resurrection reveals more about the cross than the incarnation. I agree, Nick – without the incarnation, the rest wouldn’t matter, but would we have this discussion at all if there was no resurrection? Paul’s theology is more cruciform. He bases most of what he says on the cross rather than an appeal to the incarnation.

    I also want to affirm what Fr. Robert said: this is not ‘just a man’ suffering torture, but God himself as priest and sacrifice.

  5. Will,

    It is always good to keep thinking “theologically”, but we must also stay close exegetically in the Text itself. And certainly there is something of the developmental in our theology also. Here the Orthodox really are ahead of us in the West.

    And Will I have been (and still) go up these roads. I have both the D. Phil., and the Th.D. I taught theology in Jerusalem for several years. I am well into my 50’s.

    Thanks for the good thoughts.

    Fr. Robert

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Fr. Robert. I hope you will again!

    You are right – it is good to keep going on these roads. As I was just saying on Nick’s blog (above), I agreed that we have to go to the blog to talk theology!

  7. Will,

    I am not really a hard blogger, but it is a good tool. Can I say this? Don’t get to far from the Text itself..we can really only build any theology on the biblical reality itself! And the Incarnation must needs be still thought as historical, God entered human history at a specific time and place – Gal. 4:4: “But when came The Fullness of the Time, God sent forth The Son of Him, having Come from a Woman, having Come under law.” (lit. Greek..I state it here for it’s force!) For St. Paul, Jesus incarnation is always or first Jewish. And for St. John and his Gospel Jesus is always still Jewish! (John 4:22) See, also Rom. 15:8-9..note here the text takes us over into the Gentiles. There is only One Covenant of Grace!

    These are often overlooked in theology! At least in the West. As we can see in the past “historical Jesus” push, which has brought on the false ‘Jesus Seminar’ mess!

    Anyway, God’s best mate.

    Fr. Robert

  8. I agree that I don’t think Paul makes a lot of the incarnation qua incarnation, but Christ needed to be incarnate in order to suffer and die.

    I think that the idea of ‘a god who suffers’ is actually an important meaning of the cross. Christ’s suffering is ‘foolishness to the gentiles’ and part of God’s upside-down economy.

    God could have remained remote from human life and conquered suffering by eliminating it and conquered death by eliminating it.

    Instead, he conquered suffering by suffering and he conquered death by dying. Salvation happened from the inside-out rather than from the outside-in.

    That’s why the incarnation is important to the cross. It’s much more than ‘God needed someone to pay the price and so became incarnate.’

    Hope this makes sense!

  9. Calvin is the one to press the incarnation for the atonement. But then he makes a great effort theologically of Christ as prophet, priest and king.

    “Whoever does not know the office of Jesus Christ can never trust in God, nor make prayers and supplications: he will be always in anxiety and doubt and dissimulation. Unless faith comes and shows us the way, it is certain (I say) that we shall never have access to God.” – Calvin, Sermon on Luke 2:9-14.

    Too strong? And is not the medatorial work of Christ really also based on the incarnation, even above?

    “We also, in our heart of hearts, tend to slur over the risen “manhood” of Jesus, to conceive Him, after death simply returning into Diety, so that the Resurrection would be no more than the reversal or undoing of the Incarnation.” – C.S. Lewis, Miracles

    Fr. Robert

  10. Here is a book I recommend, it is by an American, but can be had (as my copy) thru T&T Clark here in the UK.

    Jesus Ascended – The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation, by Gerrit Scott Dawson.

    Fr. R.

  11. Pam: I think I have the same sense of Paul as you. I think I am just a little reluctant to say that Paul had a fully developed theology of incarnation and that he seemed to begin with resurrection. But, I am hearing (and starting to think through myself) that we do need to keep the doctrine of the incarnation up front.

    Fr. Robert: Nice quotes, and I will look into the book.

    I do want to stress that I don’t deny the incarnation! I hold to it quite strongly, including the virgin birth! I just have been wondering if we can start there rather than at the resurrection because Paul seems to start at the resurrection.

  12. Will,

    I am not a Calvinist, but always check and enjoy Calvin! Though I do like Barth when he is ontological also.

    I think theolog’s, and I am one.. sometimes make too much of their pet ideas, rather than allowing the biblical text and it’s tradition to speak. Remember slience is not really an argument. To play the Resurrection against or first in Paul’s mind verses the Incarnation of Christ. I think is a poor supposition. This is basically a western theological element. Note, the Eastern Church and Orthodox do not do this! If you note this is where the liberal theolog’s get their idea that the virgin birth is not that important, etc.

    Also, note St. Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 15:3-11.

    Fr. Robert

  13. Another book of note here is Brevard Childs last book (RIP). He looks at continuity and discontinuity.

    The book: The Church’s Guide For Reading Paul – The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus.


  14. I don’t think I am trying to play off the incarnation and the resurrection – just thinking about one’s starting point, and looking at Paul and Acts, the starting point is the resurrection. I believe now we need to see the cross/resurrection through the lens of the incarnation, but to the early church I wonder if that was as big a deal. Now, of course, we want to guard against this idea that God needed to satisfy his wrath and oh, look, there’s someone – ok, I can befriends with humans again because I poured out all my hate on this guy. That’s one area the incarnation guards against.

    I feel like I am starting to speak like a heretic, and I don’t want that, so I will end it! I don’t think any of us who have posted are far apart.

    Thanks for the suggestion on B. Childs. I enjoy him!

  15. Will,

    We can be done. But really at whatever point you engage Christ you will find that Him “incarnate” still. But in a certain way we work backward with the Resurrection…if that is your point? I even wrote a blog on this months ago.

    I know also that we went thru a phase in Anglican theology when everything was “incarnational.” I hope we are done with this?

    Thanks to let me join in mate.

    Fr. Robert

  16. Sorry, I didn’t meant to say that I was ending the discussion! I was just going to stop on that comment. Sometimes, heresy comes when you try to say too much.

    My largest influences are Tom Wright and Richard Hays, two bible scholars who put a lot of emphasis on the cross/resurrection. I don’t want to say that I deny it and I really don’t want to de-emphasise it.

    Where is your post?

  17. Will,
    I must confess that I was quite into Barth when I was much younger. I still value him, but mostly when he speaks ontologically. In the west I have valued my friend Alister McGrath’s work. Very profound thinker…his, ‘A Scientific Theology’ (three Vol.)

    I am myself close to Orthodoxy, indeed their Incarnational and Trinitarian theology is very profound! In many ways people like Andrew Louth and his works are certainly on the best curve right now. His essay on The Place of Theosis In Christian Theology, in the book: Partakers of the Divine Nature, was very good. In the west we have lost something of both the Church and the Incarnational in my opinion. Also the Finnish Lutherians have some very good things to say of late.

    The Cross and the Resurrection are indeed everything! And of course St. Paul’s Christology here is center stage…Phil.3, etc. The best of the New Perspective is an advance in my opinion also.

    My blogs (and I am not a hard blogger..the time element), is under irishanglican, etc. The one to read of interest here is very simple and not long, ‘Light, Life and Love.’

    In the main I am a historical theolog, we simply must stay close here. The Anglican and Wesleyan history is rich in real evangelical, but also catholic spirituality. And here has been our best Judeo-Christian contributions I think.

    Fr. Robert

  18. Will,
    As I said, I am not really much of a blogger. I have been doing more hospital chaplain work, and I really feel the need to respond there.

    To close this out for me, on the subject of the Incarnation at least. Behind the Eastern view of the icon, is the reality of the premiere Icon, of course Christ Jesus! When the early Fathers began to contemplate this profound revelation of God becoming Man, it was the beginning of a new truth transcending Judaism as well as Hellenism. And of course the Greek spirit touched and to some extent even determined Christianity even in its inception. Thus when we look to the Resurrection or the Cross of Jesus, this great reality and doctrine has already gone before, and will certainly finish in the eternity of Christ, the True Image..the Origin and Destiny of Humanity In Christ! (Col.1:28)

    Fr. Robert

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