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TH 302 Lecture 8

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TH 302 Lecture 8


Lecture 8: The Life and Work of Christ - Incarnation and Atonement



"Man's maker was made man that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother's breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that Truth might be accused of false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the healer might be wounded; that Life might die."  ~ Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 191.1


While it probably goes without saying, Jesus Christ is the central part of Christian theology. Other faith traditions have aspects that overlap with Christianity and that are shared among many traditions. The person and work of Jesus Christ, however, are the unique focal points of Christian living. We must make claims about who Christ was and what he was doing if we are to be Christians. At the same time, we will never reach the end of our attempts to understand Christ, so what we say now (and in the future) will always be somewhat limited and provisional.

To help us understand how we talk about Christ theologically, it is good to remember that there are many ways we can talk about Christ. Here are just some of them:


  • The Christ of Narrative- the Christ we find in the Scriptures, in the stories we find embedded in our cultural heritage, in the commentaries and on the TV or the movies. We are given many stories about Jesus.
  • The Christ of Witness- This is the Christ who was attested to by the earliest martyrs - Peter, Paul, Stephen, and so on. This is also the Christ who encountered the slaves in America and other peoples who have suffered, and it is the Christ we turn to in our own lives when we struggle and want to come close to God. We have a personal witness of Jesus.
  • The Christ of History- This is the Christ we find when all we want are "just the facts". There have been many searces for the "historical Jesus". There are some (like the present day Jesus Seminar) who claim that the only real Jesus is the Jesus for which we can find historical evidence. While that may sound reasonable at first, remember that there are many things about Jesus that can't be proven by historical data (his miracles and his resurrection are just two examples). We do have a Jesus of History - but there is more to Christ than what history alone might allow us to say.
  • The Christ of our Desires - So often the Jesus we see is the Jesus wewant to see. We make Christ over in our image, or the image of what we need Jesus to be at that moment. It is very hard to keep this Jesus clear from the "real" Jesus, oftentimes. It is also probably the hardest "Christ" to admit we are holding on to - the one that looks like us or our needs.


    While we will keep all these other aspects of Christ in mind, it is important to remember that we are trying in this class to focus on a very specific way of talking about Christ - the Christ of Doctrine.This is the Christ we attempt to name and understand from within the traditions of the Church itself, and in relation to the formal categories of systematic theology we have been studying. That doesn't mean we won't ever consider the Jesus of Scripture of of History - those and many other ways of talking about Christ will overlap and seep into our conversations. But let's remember that first and foremost - at least in regard to this class - we are keeping our eye on what Jesus is doing doctrinally.

    1. The Incarnation

    Classical Christian theology has often wanted to maintain a stark difference between the Creator and the creation. This distinction is of course not unique to Christianity, but it sets the stage for Christianity's most unique claim: that the Creator chose to transcend the stark difference and enter creation as a man. This is what we call the incarnation,and it has a distictly theological flavor to it. Contrast it with history, for example. Historically we can only say "a man was born" - but the claim of birth alone does not show us the Messiah.

    So, in terms of theology, the incarnation is the doctrine that says that the second person of the Trinity (the Son, the Word) is completely connected and embodied in the man Jesus of Nazareth. That is:

    [F] [HS]

    [S] ------------------------> JESUS


    Several things follow from this, theologically. Some of the things we say about Jesus doctrinally include:


  • The "Word became Flesh" - conecting Jesus to the eternal Trinity
  • "Born of a Virgin" - which - because there was no sexual intercourse involved - exempts Jesus from "original sin" (at least in Augustine's model)
  • Therefore Sinless - Jesus was human in every way - the way we should be - without sin
  • ...but Truly Human - possessing all the limitationsof human life. Jesus, while being fully God, was weak and helpless as a baby, tempted and sorrowed in life, and underwent a horrible death. The term for God's self-limitation in the person of Christ is kenosis.While this idea of God's "emptying" of the divine attributes is not held by every Christian or all theology, it is one way of trying to think about the consequences of Jesus' humanity.


    We can also say (following Scripture) that


  • Jesus hung out with sinners- Jesus went to the heart of the sin problem by befriending those who were trapped in it. While the language of the New Testament may have softened to our ears over the centuries, the meaning is clear: in today's terms, Jesus would have associated with the likes of drag queens, Iraquis, communists, and any of the other flavors of "unacceptable people" we (in our piety) might like to exclude.


    If this was allwe claimed about Jesus, however, then there would be nothing to distinguish him from any of the other "great moral teachers" of the ages, like Buddha, or Muhammad, or Gandhi. But Christians go on to claim that


  • Jesus had an ontological power over sin- meaning that Jesus didn't just hang out with sinners; he was able to change the very nature of their sin into something else. Jesus had the power to forgivesins, and to render the excluded and the marginialized back into community. This is more than good moral teaching, this is some form of cosmic power over sin.



    2. Doctrinal pitfalls to avoid

    There are also, according to the classical or "orthodox" tradition of Christianity, some things that we can't say about Jesus. Here are some examples:


  • Docetism - the name comes from the Greek word dokeis,which means "to appear or to seem". This position holds that Jesus only appeared to be human, but was in fact faking all the observed aspects of his humanity. He did not have to eat or sleep, and he didn't really die.


    The reason why orthodxy has resisted such claims is that is draws into question our own salvation. If Jesus did not really take on flesh, then how can our flesh be redeemed? Moreover, such docetic claims make it easy to deny or denigrate the value of the body and to overly spiritualize the Christian life, such that oppressive or inequitable power reations here and now are not questioned or challenged.


  • Ebionitism- the Ebionites were the opposite. They fully embraced the idea of Christ's humanity, but denied him any divinity whatsoever. For the, Jesus was simply the "great moral teacher" we considered above. Therefore, our task (according to the Ebionites) is to live as much as possible like Christ.


    While this is an admirable goal, it raises serious issues for orthodoxy. If our only task is to live like Jesus, is this not a form of works? Does this give enough consideration to the distorting and enslaving power of sin, preventing us from properly living like Christ? Where is grace in such a model, and what is the worth to us of Christ's dying on the cross if all we have to do is simply imitate it?

    In place of these erroneous claims, classically orthodox Christianity has maintained "the true God can accomplish the divine will in weakness as well as in might " (Guthrie 247). Fully God and fully human, Christ is the "Emmanu-el", the "God-with-us". God elects in Christ to stand with the unrighteous unto redemption. It is in Christ that we can speak concretely about what it means to be human and what it means to be God.


    3. Atonement

    When we turn our discussions to questions of what Christ accomplishes with regard to our sin and separation from God, we have begun talking about doctrines of atonement. Atonement can be seen as literally an at-one-ment; bringing two estranged parties back into unity.

    Classically, Christian theology has followed the Apostle Paul on this front, claiming that, just as Adam bound us all in his sin, so Christ brings a reversal of sin for all in his works of atonement. The trick, of course, is in describing precisely howthis is accomplished, both on Christ's end and on our ends. There are, as always, several options before us within the pale of "orthodox" Christianity. An introductory list of atonement models (albeit greatly simplified) might include:


  • Financial:The sin of humanity (both Adam's Original Sin and our own) puts us in "debt" to God - a debt which we have no means to fully pay (for a God of infinite goodness would require an infinite debt in the face of our unrighteousness). In this model, Christ steps in as the "price" paid for our debt - he assumes it in our place and satisfies the demands of God so we can stand before God.



  • Legal:Similar to the Financial model, this model assumes that God's infinite goodness is tied to God's infinite justice. Hence, in light of sin, we are deserving of great or infinite punishment. Again, Christ steps in to take on the punishment in our place, covering us like a shield from God's wrath.


    These two models are familiar to us because they use images that are drawn from our daily lives. We understand debt and we can grasp punishment easily as concepts.


  • Sacrificial: This model is not drawn from our everyday experience, although it is similar in many respects to the models above. In ancient Israel there was a complex system of sacrifice based around the Temple in Jerusalem. When you violated a commandment (for example, accidently performing work on the Sabbath), you were not judged as morally bad, but you had gained a ritual impurity that had to be cleansed by means of a sacrifical offering. In this system, a priest would accept your offering at the Temple and slaughter it according to the codes found in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Once the offering was made, the impurity was removed and the individual had "atoned" before God and made things right. Seen in this light, Christ's action on the cross is viewed as a sort of "ultimate sacrifice" - making permanent the atonement between humanity and God. In this model, Christ's death brings the end of the need for the sacrificial system entirely.


    Each of these three models above reflects what is termed a substitutionaryatonement. By this we mean that Christ substitutes for us in the place of debt, punishment, or sacrifice. Often in these models, then, we can say that nothing in us changes by Christ's action. We are still sinners, but that sin is "covered" by Christ and we piggyback on his righteousness, purity, or suffering. The righteousness we gain in such models is often termed imputed righteousness.

    The fourth model is also based in familiar images, but it is slightly different in that it focuses on mechanisms other than imputed righteousness and substitionary atonement:


  • Military:This model is often referred to by the Latin name "Christus Victor" (Christ Victorious or Christ the Conqueror). this model is much more dualistic that the three we have seen previously. Instead of having to appease an angry but just God, the Christus Victor model views humanity as caught in the clutches of a hostile power, Sin (what is often referred to in Paul as "The Flesh"). Instead of having to satisfy God's righteousness, in this model Jesus, in a variety of ways, makes war on Sin and upon Satan, defeating them and setting free those who are enslaved to Sin.


    In this model it is still Christ who is doing the work, but his work changes something fundamental in us - namely our state of enslavement to sin. It must be remembered, however, that this liberation does not (if we take Paul's words seriously) free us to autonomy or independence. Rather we are freed from sin to become "slaves to righteousness" by following the Will of God.

    Atonement, it must be remembered, is not a result of what wedo. It is always happening "while we were yet sinners" [Romans 5:8]. It is God who acts to restore the broken relationship, and God who makes peace with us.

    We must keep in mind that, both in our theology and in the "real world" - sin matters;it has consequences. The testimony of the Christian faith, however, is that God is greater than those consequences. While we live in the assurance of justification, we are still aware that sin, here and now, has detrimental effects. God overcomes these detriments, but the sting and the brokenness have to be accounted for in our thinking.


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