Thursday, 28 February 2013

Incarnation

Last year I wrote a short series of posts on Jesus' miracles.  For some reason the first of the series has been read by quite a lot of people, although since not that many have read the subsequent posts it seems likely they didn't find what they were looking for.

What I was trying to say is that the miracle stories in the Gospels were not intended to demonstrate Jesus' divine power.  Jesus said explicitly that they were not, and if they were their message on this subject is at best ambiguous.  Rather, the miracle stories, like the other deeds of Jesus (I suspect the gospel writers didn't necessarily distinguish between miraculous and non-miraculous deeds), are dramas intended to illustrate aspects of Jesus' message and mission.  They dramatise the forgiveness, inclusion, abundance and peacefulness of the Kingdom of God.


Lately I've been thinking about the relationship between the miracle stories and the idea of the Incarnation - the idea that Jesus was God made human.  Paul expresses this idea in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This is an incredibly difficult idea to get hold of, and the cause of endless controversy in the church.  My atheist friends will tell me it's pure nonsense.  How can someone be both God and human at the same time?  Can a bird simultaneously be a fish?

Yet the fact that a concept is difficult and counter-intuitive doesn't mean it's nonsense.  Quantum mechanics is fiendishly difficult to get your head around.  How can something simultaneously be a particle and a wave?  Yet it is demonstrably true.  Sadly no similar demonstration is available for the incarnation but that doesn't mean it is necessarily false.

Yet the church has always struggled with the concept, and it was the source of some of the fiercest theological controversies in the early church.  A number of alternative explanations were debated and eventually declared heretical by the mainstream church, and these continue to have analogues in the present day.

At one end of the spectrum were the Ebionites who, as far as we can tell, were predominantly Jewish Christians who regarded Jesus as the Messiah but not as divine - he was an ordinary human being, son of Mary and Joseph, chosen by God for a special mission.  This type of thinking has had a spectacular resurgence in recent years, promoted in a modern form by writers such as Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong, and is also very close to the view of Jesus held by Islam.

At the other end of the sectrum are the various forms of Docetism (from the Greek docetai, meaning "illusionist") which held that Jesus was only pretending to be human, his body was an illusion, and he was entirely divine.

In between these two extremes were various "middle ground" positions, many of which made sense in the milieu of ancient Hellenistic philosophy but are difficult for us to grasp in the 21st century.  The Nestorians suggested that Jesus had two natures, existing side by side but not intermingling,  divine and human.  The Arians suggested that Jesus was created by and subordinate to God the Father as the "firstborn of creation", created before anything else and sent to earth in human form at the appropriate time.  Similar views continue to this day in parts of the Eastern Orthodox church and in Protestant sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Christadelphians.

The "orthodox" mainstream church steered an uneasy course between these various options.  The definitive word on this subject, formulated by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, tries to hold the two aspects of Jesus' nature in tension through a number of juxtapositions and negations.

...our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood...to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of the natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted nor divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, the only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ....
 
So what does all this have to do with miracles?  Well, of course the progressive Christians, our modern Ebionites, find Jesus' miracles difficult to accommodate and prefer to focus on his teachings, the most obviously human element of the gospels.

Evangelicals are not much tempted by Ebionitism but are greatly tempted by Docetism.  This, I think, lies beneath our desire to portray Jesus' miracles as displays of divine power.  I explained in my original posts why I think this is problematic.  One key point is that they are simply not very powerful.  The kind of miracles displayed in the Old Testament - sending plagues on the enemies of Israel, parting the Red Sea, causing the sun to stand still, appearing as a pillar of cloud or fire, leading his armies to victory against impossible odds - are replaced by simple healings and feedings.

I suspect the problem is a failure to come to grips with Jesus' humanity, as expressed by Paul. 

...he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,...

 
If we take Paul seriously on this point, Jesus' voluntary humiliation did not simply take place at the cross.  It started from the very beginning, in the womb and in the manger.  It represents God's conscious decision to win his people by humility and service rather than by force and fear.  Jesus was tempted many times to break this resolve - in the testing in the wilderness; by the Jewish leaders' request for a sign in Jerusalem; at the very end in the Garden of Gesthemane.  Perhaps his human perfection consisted in the fact that he did not fall to this temptation, did not lash out with the power he was presumed to possess as God, and finally allowed the crucifixion to go ahead.  For God to express his love, he needs to renounce his power.

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