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Christian Essentials: Incarnation at the Center

One of my principles of constructive criticism is that one should generally be prepared to propose something positive. This doesn’t always work–sometimes you know one solution won’t work before you have an alternative, but generally I think it’s a good rule. So having said some negative things about the Together for the Gospel statement, I think I should say something about what I do believe.

As I thought about this project, I came to realize more and more that there are differences between what I consider the core of my experience and the logical center of my beliefs. But as I thought even more about it, they seemed to come back together. I see both now as kind of the layers of an onion, but we start at the center and move out, the core being the most essential, and the outer layers less so. I have previously discussed the importance of distinguishing essential and non-essential doctrines in order to have some unity or coherence of the faith, but at the same time be able to include and celebrate appropriate diversity. I think my best reasonable length statement on this is Unity, Diversity, and Confusion. You can follow some links from there. I also listed four doctrinal items that I hold as essential, which I derived from Elgin Hushbeck Jr.’s Consider Christianity books. (You can see a brief summary at Understanding Christian Apologetics.) But neither of those provides either the reason why I would consider those things essential, nor does it put the life into it.

I’m going to try to be brief on each of these entries (STOP LAUGHING!), but I will make a number of entries in this series. In the early stages I’ll be making statements that I will leave to back up later, and also I will use scriptures without developing their interpretation from the context, but I will try to remember to tie up all the loose ends as I go on.

So what does put life into it? I believe the life gets there by putting the right thing at the center and then keeping it centered.

I represented my view here as an onion, so let me use a crude drawing to illustrate. The drawing is crude because any drawing I do will be crude. :-)

Representing basic Christian doctrines by layers, starting with the incarnation in the center.

How do I arrive at the incarnation as the central doctrine. I start from scripture:

1Loved ones, don’t believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2In this way you can know the spirit of God. Every spirit that confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. — 1 John 4:7 (TFBV)

“Jesus has come in the flesh” means that God was among us, incarnate, i.e., in the flesh. I tie this directly to the two laws that Jesus expressed, love for God and love for others. How does that work? First, love for God. The incarnation is actually the reverse of this, God’s love for us. And yet, “we love, because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19). Thus our love for God, the first command, is simply the result of God’s love for us, expressed when “God so loved the world” that he gave.”

I further tie this core to the test of the spirits in 1 Corinthians 12:3. To call Jesus Lord is, I believe, to accept the incarnation. The book of Hebrews provides us with the two sides of the great high priest, both of which are required for Jesus to be the precisely correct high priest that he was. You can see a more detailed discussion of this idea in my post Jesus as Human and Divine Priest on my Participatory Bible Study blog.

I will develop my view of the incarnation, which I believe is fully consistent with an orthodox understanding of the same doctrine in several posts. Besides the basic definition, Jesus as fully divine and fully human, the key characteristics I see in this doctrine are:

  • Self-giving
  • Done for us, for humanity
  • Not earned, in fact, conceptually impossible to truly think of it as earned
  • Empowering, God’s power brought near.

(I reserve the right to work on defining this list better as I post through this series.)

Once I have discussed these characteristics, I will go to the parallel topics of how we know or comprehend the incarnation, and how we implement incarnational living.

In particular I want to note that I differ here with many liberal theologians who would hold the ethical teachings of Jesus at the core of Christianity. I do believe that the teachings of Jesus should be central, but I believe that they are imparted to us, understood by us, and only implemented by us by means of the incarnation itself. In fact, as purely ethical teachings, I don’t think they would have driven the founding of the Christian religion, and I don’t think they are unique enough to stand on their own.

Christianity can’t retreat into being simply a system of ethics. It involves ethics, but it also involves redemption and empowering, the means of creating ethical people by redemption, but even more the means of bringing people into touch with God.

To be continued and continued and continued . . .

7 comments to Christian Essentials: Incarnation at the Center

  • “In particular I want to note that I differ here with many liberal theologians who would hold the ethical teachings of Jesus at the core of Christianity. I do believe that the teachings of Jesus should be central, but I believe that they are imparted to us, understood by us, and only implemented by us by means of the incarnation itself. In fact, as purely ethical teachings, I don’t think they would have driven the founding of the Christian religion, and I don’t think they are unique enough to stand on their own.”

    I couldn’t agree more on that point. Yes, the ethical teachings of Jesus are important for Christians to follow, but we follow them because Jesus was the Christ.

  • [...] In a previous post I started a discussion of what I think are the essentials of the Christian faith. I think it’s going to be a bit difficult for me to keep clear when I’m talking about essentials, and when I’m talking about how I apply those in broader detail, but since I believe that is precisely what we, as Christians, must do, I will make every effort. [...]

  • [...] I hope I’m getting across the idea in this series (starting with Christian Essentials: Incarnation at the Center) that rather than a list of doctrines and of standards I prefer a hierarchy. Both logically and in terms of importance various teachings fall into a hierarchy. At the center of all of this I see the notion of incarnation. I’m going to discuss my understanding of many other doctrines later, including ones I regard as non-essentials, and I believe in each case we’ll find the incarnation shedding light on how that doctrine should be understood. [...]

  • [...] I’ve been discussing essentials of Christianity, as I see them, and emphasizing the doctrine of the incarnation. In the process I’ve mentioned implementing and expressing doctrines. What do I mean by those two terms? [...]

  • Christianity can’t retreat into being simply a system of ethics. It involves ethics, but it also involves redemption and empowering, the means of creating ethical people by redemption, but even more the means of bringing people into touch with God.

    Nicely put. And as an added bonus, it really needed saying.

  • [...] commented tangentially on this issue, though not in direct relation to ecology, in my post Christian Essentials: Incarnation at the Center: Christianity can’t retreat into being simply a system of ethics. It involves ethics, but it [...]