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Born of a Woman—Atonement and the Incarnation

The Bible can drive you crazy. Or it can take a tradition that drives you crazy, and open a door to deeper understanding. Consider these quotations from the New Testament:

[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God.…As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him…… For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. (Col. 1:15 and 2:6, 9)

…and the Word was God…and became flesh and lived among us.… (John 1:1, 14)

…God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.…No one has ever seen God; if we love one another God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:12)

…they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions…And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. (Luke 2:46, 52)

Then [Jesus] withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ (Luke 22:41, 42)

…he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.…he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Heb. 2:17; 5:8, 9)

…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. (2 Cor. 5:18)

Confusing? Perhaps. But from later Christianity we inherit creedal statements that really are confusing. The well-known Nicene Creed (the version made final in 381 C.E.) declares: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.”

The Athanasian Creed, from somewhat earlier, and very influential down the years, declares: “Now the Catholic Faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.…For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.…And in this Trinity none is before or after the other. None is greater or less than another, but the whole three Persons are co-equal and co-eternal together.”

The Chalcedonian Creed, dating from about 451 C.E., declares that “our Lord Jesus Christ” is “complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man…, of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood.”

All this underlies, I expect, the Study Guide’s statement (see comment for Sunday, November 16) that the incarnation is about “the union of the divine and the human.” The lesson author says that “what took place was not simply the indwelling of the divine in the human but a real incarnation.” What he means is that “Christ is truly God and truly man.”

Ask your class two questions: (1) “How can you make sense of this?” and (2) “Why should you have to?”

The first question will stump everyone. No attempt, however valiant, will resolve the puzzle of how Jesus could have had, at the same time, all the traits of God and all the traits of humanity.

The second question will open a way to a different, and perhaps more helpful, perspective. Whether you have to make sense of the creeds or not depends, after all, on what the Bible says. And when you look closely at the passages above, you can’t help noticing how human Jesus was. He asked questions. He grew in wisdom and in favor with God. He prayed. He learned obedience. He became perfect.

We don’t think of God as growing in favor with God. We don’t think of God as praying to the Father. We don’t think of God as learning to obey, or growing into perfection. Is there some God above God, to whom the God we know as Jesus must report?


But now the passages at the top of the list lend help. Doesn’t the Bible say that God dwelt in Jesus; that God lived in Jesus; that God was revealed in Jesus? And doesn’t the Bible suggest that God’s relationship with Jesus is similar to the relationship God may have with us? No one (not even Peter, James, and John) has ever seen God. But many saw God’s love revealed in Jesus. And when love defines who we are, people can see God’s love revealed in us. God lives in human flesh—not only in Christ’s but also in ours!

As the inkling of Christ’s resurrection grew into settled conviction, the first believers began to say, unmistakably, that God was in the Jesus story. And this was far more than a titillating notion. It was a life-changing answer to a life-changing question. Who is at the bottom of things? What is the identity of God? With their affirmation of the resurrection, the first believers answered that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.”

But this need not force us to say more than the Bible does. And it doesn’t mean the creeds are holy writ. What the Bible suggests is that in Jesus the story of God and the story of humanity somehow converged. In this one life—the one life God declared, by the resurrection, to be, without qualification, his own—the divine and human stories, as one theologian said, were “at last indivisibly one.”

What does the incarnation mean? It means that God’s true colors shine through Jesus. Jesus is different from us. But he is different in degree, not in kind. He is different in that in his life the divine will and way became, by the Father’s grace, singularly visible on earth.

Singularly—and unambiguously—visible. And thus Jesus became, again by the Father’s grace, the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. God was in Christ, after all, reconciling the world to himself.

Charles Scriven chairs Adventist Forum and is president of Kettering College of Medical Arts, Kettering, Ohio.

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