Immanuel - Our God is With Us - Part VII - The Development of Incarnation Theology

This is the seventh and final installment of a series on Isaiah 7:14. 

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14 (Cf. Matt 1:23)

There is no question that in the line “God being with us”, lies incarnation theology. The problem arises when we affix to that incarnation theology a much later developed incarnation christology that focuses on a pre-existent deity taking on “human cloths." Rather than Jesus being born of or from Mary as the text says, being created by the Spirit of God in her, he is thought (as demonstrated in later creeds) to have come through her or that he came into her.[1] This metaphysical concept is foreign not only to the tradition of the Hebrews and their scripture, but also to the NT. N.T. Wright describes: 

Part of the problem here…lies in the confusion that still occurs about the meaning of Messiahship. To say that Jesus is ‘the Christ’ is, in first-century terms, to say first and foremost that he is Israel’s Messiah, not to say that he is the incarnate Logos, the second person of the Trinity, the only-begotten son of the father. Even the phrase ‘son of god’, during Jesus’ ministry and in very early Christianity, does not mean what it came to mean in later theology…[2] 


“‘Son of God’ in the first century was first and foremost a title for Israel, and then for the true Messiah… which to begin with certainly didn't imply any doctrine of incarnation...‘Son of God’ didn't get the full meaning that it now has within Christianity until much later...We may therefore safely say that, for the New Testament writers, the virginal conception of Jesus was not a way of asserting that he was, as it were, genetically divine on one side and genetically human on the other. That is a gross category mistake.[3]

Thus, one of the defining characteristics of this view on the incarnation is that Jesus personally pre-existed his birth (as a divine, quasi-divine or often thought, the logos).

In the first sense, an incarnational theology is one that affirms God’s involvement in human life. Thus in acting within human history (as depicted throughout the Hebrew Scriptures) God is present with us in the flow of time. The basic thought here is that human life and history are important to God, who is at all times ‘Immanuel’, God with us. In this first sense all versions of Christianity are incarnational; and so also are Judaism, Islam and Sikhism...This first and most general sense of incarnational thought is not in question here. A Christian theology can be incarnational in the sense of declaring not only that God is always involved in human life, but also that in the life of Jesus God was involved in a particular and specially powerful and effective way. In other words, Jesus was not just an ordinary man, but one who’s relationship to God as a universal significance.[4]

It is the ecclesiastical incarnation christology defined at the Chalcedonian Council that

“the assent to belief in the ‘incarnation’ becomes at the same time assent to the substance language of physis, hypostasis, and ousia.”[5]

Basically, for Jesus to fit the developing philosophical and Hellenistic eisegetical method of defining “God”, Jesus had to be redefined. Did they see a human or not, and what was the relationship between his divine and human selves? Was he (as the monophysites had it) “only one divine person”? How was he to be explained? In order to have an orthodox opinion of this matter, the Chalcedonian creed was of necessity, since there was no uniform opinion prior.

“As is well known, christology began quite modestly ‘from below’, from the perspective of the Jewish disciples of Jesus: not with lofty metaphysical speculations but with the questions ‘who is this?’ and ‘can any good come out of Nazareth?’ If we wanted to judge Christians of the pre-Nicene period after the event, in the light of the Council of Nicaea, then not only the Jewish Christians would be heretics but also almost all the Greek church fathers (at least in essence), since as a matter of course they taught a subordination of the ‘Son’ to the ‘Father’ which according to the later criterion of the definition of ‘sameness of substance’ (homoousia) was regarded by the Council of Nicaea as heretical. In the light of this we can hardly avoid the question: if one wants to make just the Council of Nicaea the criterion instead of the New Testament, was anyone at all orthodox in the early church of the first centuries?... [The exaltation of a human Messiah as Son of God] was suppressed by an incarnation christology beginning above (Logos christology), which ontologically intensified the lines of the Gospel of John or the individual statements about pre-existence and mediation at creation in the hymns in Colossians and Hebrews: the pre-existence and incarnation of the Son of God whose emptying and humiliation are the presupposition for his later exaltation to God. We can also say that in Old Testament terms, for the ‘ascending christology’, divine Sonship means an election and assumption as Son (exaltation, baptism, birth). It is now supplemented or even replaced by a ‘descending’ christology. For this christology, divine Sonship means an essential begetting of a higher kind-always to be described more precisely in Hellenistic terms and notions. Indeed, think of all that has been read into the New Testament a legitimated as apostolic!...Had people kept to the New Testament, they would have spared themselves the notorious difficulties which now arose over the relationship of the three persons ‘in’ God, all the speculations over the numbers one and three.”[6]

The idea of God present and dealing with the world through an anointed or appointed means is presented in passages such as:

Acts (10:38, 40, 42-43),

“God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the powerful holy spirit…God raised him on the third day and he was revealed. He commanded us to proclaim to the people and to confirm by our testimony that he is the one appointed by God as judge of those living and dead. All the prophets testify that forgiveness of sins is received through his name by all who believe in him.”

Acts 17:30-31

“…those epochs of ignorance God overlooked (for judgment). Now he 
[God] commands all men everywhere to repent, because he [God] has established a day in which he [God] is going to judge the world by a righteous standard, by the man [messiah] whom he [God] appointed. He [God] furnished everyone with trustworthy evidence for this coming event by raising him [messiah] from the dead.” 

Luke 1:67-70

“Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and provided redemption for His people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, just as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets in ancient times;”

Luke 7:16

“A sense of reverential awe swept over everyone, and they glorified God saying: ‘A great prophet has come on the scene among us’ and ‘God has visited his people.’”

These passages are just a few of the many that could be cited, where God has “visited”, “tabernacled”, “dwelt” or “come among” his people in and through Jesus the Messiah. The Messiah was filled with the “presence” of God (Isaiah 61:1, Matt 11:5, Luke 4: 18, 7:22). In the same way that God’s presence filled the tabernacle and the temples, it did not make the fabric tent and poles nor the blocks of stone “the God of Israel”. The tent and buildings were not God, rather God’s presence and glory filled and rested upon them. That is why the author of 1 Pe. 2:5-6 says,

“Moreover, you, yourselves[we us], as living stones are being constructed into a spiritual structure [temple], a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices suitable to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore, this text is included in Scripture: Observe this: I am positioning a stone in Zion, A select, first-rate keystone. And the one who believes in him will never be ashamed.”

This passage is about Jesus being the “chief cornerstone”. Paul states,

“God was in Christ [not was Christ] reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). 

To the Colossians it was said,

“Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ. For in Him [Messiah] the entire fullness of God's nature dwells bodily…”

The spirit of God is the fullness of God. God is spirit. Anyone with whom the “spirit” of God dwells has the “fullness of God” (Col. 2:8-9).

It also needs to be remembered that the Hebrews are strict monotheists. They believe in one God as revealed in the ages past (as revealed to the Fathers and prophets - Luke 1:67). They adhere to the Sh’ma, as Jesus himself taught (Deut. 6:4, Mark 12:30), where there is no sense of a humanoid half-God-half-man figure present. There is no homoiousian, homoousios or hypostatic union taught anywhere in the Scriptures. If God incarnate glasses are worn, it is God incarnate that will be seen, even if it means distorting the text and context. If play-dough is shoved through a triangular tube, it will come out the other end triangular.

The starting point of any exegetical inquiry should begin with what the OT clearly reveals instead of making assumptions based on anachronistic readings of the NT. Not for reasons of one being inferior to the other, but on the grounds that the NT assumes its audience has a familiarity with the OT; the NT is built on the foundation laid in the OT, and therefore does not try and redefine its content, including the revelation of the God of Israel. It begins with the premise that its readers already believe in the God of Israel as defined by the Hebrew Scriptures and seeks to show why Jesus, Yeshua of Nazareth, the promised coming one is “he”. Professor Anthony Buzzard put it,

“There is not a word in the New Testament about any such revolutionary changes in the definition of God. There is nothing in the recorded ministry of Paul which points to a new definition of who the God of Israel and thus of Christians is. I am alarmed at the hostility encountered by anyone questioning the dogma of the triune God. Instead of the Protestant principle of free and independent inquiry, there reigns a frightening atmosphere of anger and indignation that anyone might suggest that Jesus was not a Trinitarian. Have we forgotten that our Savior was a Jew?”[7]

In many ways, “God is with us” is a good way to describe the whole story of the Scriptures. God is fixing this broken world, and is with his people to do so. Eden, a place where intimacy with God was known, has been inaugurated through the New Creation done in and through the Messiah, Jesus, although the eschatological fullness of restoration on a renewed earth has yet to take its final shape.

“God, you would say, has already begun that ultimate, final world of new creation; by baptism and faith you have left behind the old order of sin and death, and by God’s spirit within you, you have God’s own resurrection power to enable you, even in the present, to resist sin and live as a fully human being at last; you must therefore live, in the present, as far as possible like you will live in the future.”[8]

The statement of covenantal promise:

“I will be their God and they will be my people”[9]

is echoed in the final statement of Revelation,

“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” (Rev. 22:21).

Immanuel, God is still with and for his people. There is much hope, so live like it.

End Notes:

[1] “the earliest and best manuscripts agree in introducing the passage with the words: ‘The beginning (γένεσις) [genesis] of Jesus Christ happened in this way’…Matthew began his Gospel by detailing the ‘book of the γένεσις’ [genesis, beginning] of Jesus Christ (i.e., his genealogical lineage; 1:1), making it somewhat more likely that he would here (v. 18) continue with a description of the γένεσις [genesis] itself. And so the majority of textual scholars agree that γέννησις [gennesis] represents a textual corruption, created perhaps out of deference to the following account of Jesus’ birth. At the same time, something more profound may be occurring here. Both γένεσις [genesis] and γέννησις [gennesis] can mean ‘birth,’ so that either one could be appropriate in the context. But unlike the corrupted reading, γένεσις [genesis] can also mean ‘creation,’ ‘beginning,’ and ‘origination.’ When one now asks why scribes might take umbrage at Matthew’s description of the ‘genesis’ of Jesus Christ, the answer immediately suggests itself: the original text could well be taken to imply that this is the moment in which Jesus Christ comes into being. In point of fact, there is nothing in Matthew’s narrative, either here or elsewhere throughout the Gospel, to suggest that he knew or subscribed to the notion that Christ had existed prior to his birth.” Bart D.Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2011), 88-89.
[2] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Fortress Press, 2003), 24.
[3] N.T. Wright, Who was Jesus (William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 79.
[4] John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age, 2nd ed. (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2006), 9f.
[5] Ibid.,10
[6] Hans Küng, Christianity: Essence, History, and Future (Continuum Publishing Co., 1994), 103, 173.
[7] Anthony F. Buzzard, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian, A Call to return to the Creed of Jesus (Morrow, GA.: Restoration Fellowship, 2007), 9.
[8] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture, Engaging Contemporary Issues (HarperOne, 2014), 95.
[9] Gen. 17:8; Jer. 24:7; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezek. 37:23, 27; Zec. 8:8.

No comments: