Christmas needs the cross, part 2

December 19, 2013

In a current series of posts entitled “Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross,” United Methodist pastor, blogger, and author Jason Micheli writes the following (sorry—the man likes carriage returns):

Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same and, remarkably, every year so are the answers. The needle doesn’t move at all.

More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

As I said in yesterday’s lengthy post, I responded to his words above with the following:

Saying that Jesus “came to die” is an inelegant, un-nuanced way of expressing the truth that Jesus did, in fact, come to rescue us from our sin and reconcile us to God.

Yesterday, I began laying out why I disagree with Micheli (and why I find his overall tone—that any half-wit can see that he’s right and nearly everyone else is wrong—obnoxious, to say the least).

I felt slightly intimidated, however, because he says (without citing any sources) that he’s not saying anything that classic Christian thinkers such as Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus didn’t also say.

But of those thinkers, I’ve only read a little of Aquinas, so what do I know, right?

I thought, “Am I missing something?” Has my seminary education once again let me down? At Emory—which is hardly Bob Jones University, after all—we were never taught, for example, that God sent his Son for some reason other than to save us. “For us and for our salvation,” the Nicene Creed says, “he came down from heaven.” And this view certainly corresponds to Wesleyan thinking on the subject.

But to appreciate my insecurity, you must understand something about me: over the past five years, I have experienced nothing less than an evangelical reawakening. I have fallen in love with the Bible again. I believe in its infallibility. I believe that the Bible is sufficient to inform our thinking about God, humanity’s relationship with God, and Christian faith.

To put things in perspective, there was a time when I thought (to my great shame) that C.S. Lewis—C.S. Lewis!—wasn’t a sophisticated enough Christian thinker, unlettered as he was in modern theology! Isn’t that hilarious? I was literally sophomoric when I graduated from the Candler School of theology. (“Sophomore” literally means, from Greek roots, “wise fool.”)

By the way, Jason Micheli lost me the moment he prefaced a quotation of C.S. Lewis by saying, “I hate pastors who quote C.S. Lewis but…”

So here I am, trying to understand what the Bible says, believing that the Bible alone ought to inform our understanding of the incarnation. After all, the Bible already has much to say about it without resorting to philosophical ideas outside of the Bible.

In his defense, Micheli says he’s doing speculative theology, that he’s only speculating on ideas about which the Bible is silent but which are nevertheless philosophically necessary—as any trained chimpanzee could surely see, he might add.

In principle, speculative theology that’s unopposed to biblical theology is O.K., so long as our speculations don’t become dogmatized (as with the Marian dogmas or transubstantiation in Roman Catholic theology). But as I’ve tried to argue, Micheli’s argument comes into conflict with what the Bible actually says.

He says, for instance, that God can’t truly love us unless or until God becomes incarnate in Christ. I am always very reluctant, even in theological discourse, to say what God can and can’t do. I’ll let God speak for himself, which in this case I believe he has—in scripture! John 3:16, for example, certainly contradicts Micheli’s idea: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” Because God already loved the world, he sent his Son. The incarnation was a consequence of God’s prior love. Not to mention that God loved his people Israel in the Old Testament, as the Bible says in a thousand different ways.

Micheli also says, for instance, that it’s incorrect to say that God became incarnate to save us from sin. But against this idea, I read verses like Matthew 20:28: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. Or Galatians 4:4-5: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” God sent his Son to redeem. Or Hebrews 2:14: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” He partook of flesh and blood that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.

As Jesus turns his face to his impending suffering and death on the cross, he says, in John 12:27, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” In the context of John’s gospel, Jesus’ “hour” is his being lifted up on the cross. For this purpose I have come to this hour—to die on the cross. 

In the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, Paul connects the birth and incarnation (“having been found in human form”) directly to the cross (“he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on the cross.”)

But this is just me citing scripture. I’m no Duns Scotus, after all. So I consulted United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden’s systematic theology, Classic Christianity, which synthesizes the Bible and the the thinking of the Church Fathers. In his the section of his book entitled “The Necessity of the Incarnation,” Oden writes[†]: “Scripture states the point starkly: he came to die (Athanasius, Four Discourses Ag. Arians, 3:58). The relationship between his birth and death can be stated schematically,” and he includes the following schematic (click to expand):

oden

 

All that to say, I hope, that it is no theological mistake to say that the main reason God became incarnate was to save us from sin. To say that the meaning of Christmas is found in the cross. Or, indeed, even to say that Jesus was born to die.

Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 272.

5 Responses to “Christmas needs the cross, part 2”

  1. Clay Knick Says:

    Always a good move to quote Oden! Jason is playing the philosopher here, I suppose. There is an element of truth in what he says: incarnation is vital, but what we find is that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Reconciliation took place on the cross. We need both the incarnation & the atonement in order to be saved. Does Jason want an incarnation alone? And that statement that God can’t truly love us unless he became incarnate seems to weaken the Trinity, at least to me.

    But this is all speculative. I’d rather deal with what we already know: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree that the salvific event is more than the cross. The incarnation is all salvific. Irenaeus talked about recapitulation and how the whole incarnation restores the image of God. Gregory of Nyssa said, “That which isn’t assumed isn’t healed.” One doesn’t have to be Eastern Orthodox (no matter how sexy that seems in Methodist circles these days) to buy into that.

      But there is no picture of incarnation that doesn’t have our salvation as its end. And that’s where Jason started his blog: salvation from sin is secondary. I had honestly never heard that before, yet he writes as if it’s so obvious any child can see it. It got under my skin, obviously.

      Oddly enough, I didn’t remember to consult Oden until yesterday. That’s why I bought that book in the first place. I want to know where the boundary lines of orthodox Christian thought are.

      • brentwhite Says:

        One more thing… I’ve read enough Wright to beware of de-Judaizing Christianity. One thing that’s lost in this discussion of the incarnation is the role that the Messiah must play as Israel’s faithful representative. Dying is only one part of that… but still central.

        My point is, no philosophical discussion of the incarnation should take place outside of the context of Judaism, which is what Jason has been doing for seven blog posts now.

  2. jwlung Says:

    A tremendous treatment of this subject is Phillip E. Hughes, TRUE IMAGE: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ. Great series of posts.!!


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