Weekend Extra – The Incarnation

September 27, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

In one of my favorite lines in the Old Testament, Solomon, as he is dedicating the newly finished temple to the Lord, asks in a prayer, “But will God really dwell on earth with men” (2 Chronicles 6:18)?  The answer to Solomon’s query, at least according to the ancient Greeks, was, “No.”

At its root, Greek philosophy was dualistic in nature.  That is, it held to a strict bifurcation between the material and immaterial, believing the material to be inherently evil while declaring the immaterial, or the spiritual, to be good.  An example of this kind of thinking comes in the work of Philo, a first century Jewish philosopher who sought to wed Judaism with Greek philosophy.  Philo talks at length about the creation of the world and the refrain which sounds throughout the creation story, “And it was good” (cf. Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25).  The question that Philo seeks to answer is this:  If creation, as that which is material, is inherently evil according to Greek philosophy, how can God call it good?  Philo answers:

In reference to which it is said in the sacred Scriptures, “God saw all that He had made, and, behold, it was very good,” what God praised was not the materials which He had worked up into creation, destitute of life and melody, and easily dissolved, and moreover in their own intrinsic nature perishable, and out of all proportion and full of iniquity, but rather His own skillful work. (Philo, Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit §32)

In order to avoid calling anything material “good,” Philo says that creation’s refrain, “And it was good,” refers only to the skill of God and not that which God’s skill produced – a material creation!  Thus is the extent to which the Greek philosophers would go to maintain their allegiance to a sharp dualism.

It is because of this sharp dualism that Greek philosophy abhorred the idea that God could ever dwell on earth with man.  After all, the immaterial and perfect God would never deign to dwell among a material and evil world!  And yet, this is exactly what the doctrine of the incarnation proposes.  The incarnation teaches that the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, took on human flesh and “made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

Such a doctrine raised the rankles of many Jews and Greeks alike who spent much time trying to discredit Christianity on the basis of the incarnation.  Consider, for instance, these quotes from Celsus, a second century Greek philosopher and antagonist of Christianity:

God is good and beautiful and happy, and exists in the most beautiful state.  If then He comes down to men, He must undergo change, a change from good to bad, from beautiful to shameful, from happiness to misfortune, and from what is best to what is most wicked. (Origen, Contra Celsum 4.14)

Dear Jews and Christians, no God or child of God has either come down or would have come down from heaven! (Contra Celsum 5.2)

Clearly, the Greeks believed that the perfect God of the universe would never take on the frail flesh of humanity.  But this is precisely what the Christians believed.  And this is precisely what the Christians taught.

The doctrine of the incarnation is foundational and fundamental to the Christian faith.  Why?  First, the incarnation assures us that Jesus is like us.  The preacher of Hebrews reminds us that, thanks to the incarnation, Christ is a God who can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15).  This stands in sharp contradistinction to the ancient Greek conception of God which called God apathes (“not suffering”), from whence we get our English word “apathy.”  The God of Greek philosophy was anything but concerned with human suffering and pain.  Jesus, however, is.  Second, the incarnation also assures us that Jesus is not like us.  After all, Jesus is not just a mere man.  He is God who became a man.  This means that Jesus has the divine power and prerogative to help us.  As Ben Witherington III states, “Jesus was as we are, and therefore He will help; He was not like we are, and therefore He can help” (Ben Witherington III, The Indellible Image, vol. 1, 423).  Jesus’ divinity means that He has the power to save us.  And this, finally, is why He became incarnate.  The incarnation is not simply an amazing feat, or a mind stretching wonder, or a theological locus.  Rather, God became incarnate to rescue us from sin, death, and the devil.  And so we confess that Jesus “Came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”  Why did He do this?  “For us men and for our salvation.”

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