Some thoughts on the Incarnation

The Incarnation is both cosmologically grand and appealingly chthonic at the same time. It supposes that the Great God of a universe of more than one hundred thousand million galaxies, the Supreme Being who created this universe and perhaps an infinite number of others, condescended to earth to live life as a poor Jewish man in the Eastern Mediterranean two thousand years ago. The story is full of miracle — virgin birth, resurrection from the dead — and yet strangely familiar. There is fear and love, hope and failure, loyalty and betrayal, with Jesus’ humanity palpable and proximate. Peter Steele captures well the Christian awe of this incarnate God: “in the face of this mysterious reality [the incarnation], either we could talk for ever, or we could find ourselves wordless.”[1]

Incarnation, derived from the Latin incarnatio, refers to God’s being “made flesh.” In classical Christianity this means the human birth of God in his person as the eternal Son of God, who, as Jesus of Nazareth, was both fully human and fully divine. There is something unique in this Christian doctrine, but for a moment let us consider examples of divine incarnation beyond Christianity.

Belief in the human incarnation of pre-existent human souls is at least as old as Plato, and older still if we include the Indian notion of reincarnation. O’Collins demonstrates certain important differences, however, with the Christian view of God incarnate:[2]

  • Platonic embodiment/reincarnation is not something freely chosen;
  • Such souls are neither complete nor divine;
  • Embodiment will not necessarily be in human form;
  • These souls do not have a mission involving the salvation of the world.

In contrast, God chose freely to come to Earth as a man; he was fully divine before birth; and he came to offer redemption to the whole world.

The Hindu Srivaishnava doctrine of Avatara, best illustrated by the fourth chapter of the Bhagavadgita, offers a view of incarnation closer to the Christian doctrine. Lord Krishna, an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, explains how he comes to earth to combat evil and inspire good people to proper worship and conduct. Here again, however, there are important differences: Christ is a unique incarnation whereas Vishnu has ten primary avatars; Christ, as well as being fully divine was fully human too — Vishnu’s mortal incarnations only seem material (a view of Christ shared by the Docetist heresy); the Hindu avatars heroically vanquish local evil but do not submit to torture and death in order offer a universal salvation. Christ’s bodily resurrection is also unique.

There can be little doubt that the earliest Christians believed Jesus was both man and God. There were still puzzles to be solved, however, especially as nascent Christianity encountered the disciplines of theology and philosophy and faced internal doctrinal schism. In what way was Jesus the “Son” and what sense could be made of his own mortal references and prayers to his “Father”? Christianity’s Jewish heritage could not easily countenance a view that there were two Gods (the Jewish God Yahweh on the one hand, his Son Jesus Christ on the other). The modalist solution (Sabellianism) –- that Christ was a mode of God for human view only –- was considered apostate, although it is possible that at one time it was the dominant view in Christianity.[3] To the casual view the difference may appear slight, but it is important to understand that the orthodox solution — classical Trinitarianism –  does not believe that God only appears to have three forms, but that he is, as a matter of ontology, three distinct persons in himself. God has been and is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost eternally. These are considered to be intrinsic and immutable aspects of his being.

Despite certain historical misgivings in some branches of Eastern Christianity, the classical form of the Incarnation doctrine follows the Chalcedonian Definition of 451, viz., that Jesus is fully human and that Jesus is truly God. The idea of Kenosis -– how the Son “emptied” himself of certain divine attributes in order to be properly human -– points at some of the difficulties inherent in formulating a systematic theology of Incarnation. After all, in emptying himself to become human, how was he also divine? A more strident critique is the suspicion voiced by some that the historical Jesus has had “loaded upon him a back-breaking assortment of metaphysical longings” and that the result is the “labyrinthine complexity of the credal formulae”.[4] Whilst the majority of believers are probably content to live with mystery, still others worry about prickly issues such as Jesus’ maleness (begging a feminist critique) and his specific, distinctly non-universal status as a Jew (rather than, say, a Sumerian or an Eskimo).

Most Christians do not worship with words like Incarnation, Kenosis, and Chalcedonian on their lips, but even without the vocabulary of theology, the belief in God-as-Man is central to Christianity and a source of continual religious inspiration. For Christians there is both the cosmic view of atonement and salvation made possible through the Incarnation, and the collapse of the gulf between God and man through a God who became man, who laughed, and cried, and grieved, and healed, and died. Such felicities can also have implications for practical Christianity: if God chose to live his mortal life among the poor, the unwanted, and the oppressed, Christian theologies of liberation find their raison d’etre.

That the Incarnation is heralded by Christians of all stripes is demonstrated by the “Hymn to the Only Begotten Son,” part of the Orthodox and Byzantine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

O only begotten Son and Word of God,
Who, being immortal, deigned for our salvation to become incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, and became man without change;
You were also crucified, O Christ our God, and by death have trampled Death,
being One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit — Save us!

To these beautiful words I would add the stirring Christology of the Book of Mormon, particularly in Nephi’s vision (1 Ne 11):

And the angel said unto me again: Look and behold the condescension of God! And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world, of whom my father had spoken; and I also beheld the prophet who should prepare the way before him. And the Lamb of God went forth and was baptized of him; and after he was baptized, I beheld the heavens open, and the Holy Ghost come down out of heaven and abide upon him in the form of a dove.

And I beheld that he went forth ministering unto the people, in power and great glory; and the multitudes were gathered together to hear him; and I beheld that they cast him out from among them.

And I also beheld twelve others following him. And it came to pass that they were carried away in the Spirit from before my face, and I saw them not.

And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the heavens open again, and I saw angels descending upon the children of men; and they did minister unto them.

And he spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Lamb of God going forth among the children of men. And I beheld multitudes of people who were sick, and who were afflicted with all manner of diseases, and with devils and unclean spirits; and the angel spake and showed all these things unto me. And they were healed by the power of the Lamb of God; and the devils and the unclean spirits were cast out.

And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.

And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.

Interesting that one rarely hears the word “incarnation” in Mormonism, although “condescension” in Nephi seems like an adequate synonym. Perhaps it is too Latin to our low church ears. Nevertheless, beyond quarrels of ontology and Trinity, it is a belief we are happy to herald. Perhaps we can also sing with Athanasius, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”

_______
1. Peter Steele, “On Saying Yes,” unpublished sermon. Cited in O’Collins 2002, 1.

2. See O’Collins 2002, 9-10.

3. Tertullian, Against Praxeas, III.

4. Wells, 616.

O’Collins, G. (2002) Incarnation, London: Continuum.

Wells, S. (2005) “Incarnation,” in J. Bowden (ed.), Christianity: the Complete Guide, London: Continuum, 612-617.

Comments

  1. Having being raised a Catholic and becoming a Mormon at 17 I found this article thoroughly interesting. Thanks for taking time over it.

    David

  2. Aaron R. says:

    Thanks for this Ronan. I am not sure why, but I felt uncomfortable with the notion of condescension – I suspect that might be because of desire to consider myself to be the same type of being as God. I did however until I discovered the notion of Kenosis and for some reason that made alot of sense to me at the time and I now tend to see references to condescencion in those terms. I think posts like this are helpful in assisting Mormons situate their theology into the broader domain of Christian thinking.

  3. Aaron,
    “Condescension” and “kenosis” seem to go quite well together.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice. And culturally timely–avatars!

  5. StillConfused says:

    I couldn’t get passed the big words in the first sentence

  6. Thank you. I love posts like this. I learn a lot about myself and LDS beliefs by studying other faiths.

  7. Aaron R. says:

    #5 – There were definitely some words that I had to look up, but that it is a worthwhile use of time. I don’t think Ronan is guilty of being intentionally obscure or intellectual.

  8. I’ve favored the use of the word “condescension” from the book of Nephi, but not necessarily as a synonym for “incarnation.” Simply put, I just don’t think we hear the c-word enough in Mormonism; and to me, that word evokes the pathos and drama of the event (while the word “incarnation” paints a slightly different image, that of a wondrous mystery). But after reading this post where the concept is fleshed out a bit more, I think the term “condescension” has become even fuller to me.

    Thanks, Ronan. To me, this post represents the best of teh Mormon interwebs.

    (But what about that word “chthonic”? What does a Taiwanese black metal band have anything to do with the Incarnation?)

  9. Ronan, Good stuff. Also, most Evangelical protestants are modalist in outlook (if not in actual doctrine).

    I think that part of the reason for God’s condescension is our necessary condescension. I think that D&C 122:8 demonstrates some of the ways that we should use this idea in Mormonism. We all need to be willing to descend below some things in life.

  10. Very cool post — love this stuff and glad you put pen to paper on it.

  11. This is a great post, thank you. I must say I’m shocked by the Anthanasius quote, considering the utterly nonsensical creed that bears the name of the same. Like Mike S, I too love readings like this, which raise doctrines and understandings from the perspectives of other Christian denominations. What I find really interesting about this post is the Nephi excerpt in context, particularly the following words: “Look and behold the condescension of God!” Because Nephi, the Angel, or Mormon here uses “God” in the singular, it raises the question of whether LDS believe in the traditional trinitarian version of the in incarnation that you summarize above (i.e.–God The Father left the heavens, took on a body as “the Son”, and then lived through cruxifiction); or do we as LDS believe that the incarnation was the process whereby God The Father ‘sent’ and sacrificed his Son (as a literal separate existent being) to live and be crucified for us. To me, both are a “condensation” or deifict “incarnation” as they involve a deity taking on a human body. What is interesting is that the incarnation of God can support a belief in either the Trinity doctrine or the three-separate-beings doctrine of the Christian concept of “God”. Nephi’s summary of his vision and what the angel said, when it says the condensation of “God” (singular), to me, it suggests the trinitarian version of God.

  12. We Mormons believe in a continuum of spirits and abilities. This is the origin of the Adam-God theory, for example. Who were the spirits just a little less capable than Jesus? What did they do? Could they have been suitable replacements for Jesus had he failed (if failure were possible in this fore ordained creation).

    Abraham 3,19 And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.

    Lucifer was #2 (?), who were #s 3,4,5 and how much less intelligent were they? Obviously #2 was very intelligent but had some moral defect in emotional intelligence.

    How does this fit with the OP’s contention that:
    “It supposes that the Great God of a universe of more than one hundred thousand million galaxies, the Supreme Being who created this universe and perhaps an infinite number of others, condescended to earth to live life as a poor Jewish man.”

    Let us suppose that Joseph Smith were #3 who condescended to come to earth and be shot in a crummy jailhouse in Carthage. Or maybe you were #1,101,237 and came to earth to sit in a cubical and raise children? How much lower “than God” are you?

    Psalm 8:5 New American Standard Bible (©1995)
    Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty!

  13. Eric S., I firmly believe in the condensation of milk, but not so sure about the condensation of God. Heh.

  14. Condensed milk must have divine qualities to it based on how it makes deep-fried Pilsbury dough and Thai pancakes taste when you dribble it on top.

  15. Adam Greenwood says:

    Bravo, RJH.

  16. Christine says:

    Didn’t Ostler give a theory of condescension as kenosis and attempt to reconcile the conflicting divine/human properties in terms of the respective emptied-of-fulness-of-divinity (kenotic state during mortality) and glorified states (before and after his mortality)?

  17. Bleak Oyster says:

    I don’t think so, Christine. I’ve read everything Blake’s ever written on every theological topic under the sun, and I don’t remember any such theory.

  18. Christine says:

    What about ch. 14 of the Attributes of God, “A Mormon Christology” and in particular “A Modified Kenotic Theory” on pp.459-74?

  19. Bleak Oyster says:

    I’m pretty sure that section of Blake’s first volume was arguing something different, Christine. I could be wrong, but that’s unlikely, since I have a near-photographic memory for these things.

  20. Steve Evans says:

    I agree with B.O. Christine, your memory is clearly faulty. If Blake were here, I’m certain he wouldn’t appreciate you misinterpreting his remarks so drastically.

  21. Nope, I’m pretty sure that Christine got it just right. Really.

  22. Bleak Oyster says:

    Christine, I don’t think Blake would appreciate you impersonating him like this. Now go check out Vol. 1, and take a look at what Blake really says …

  23. Bleak Oyster — that isn’t Christine impersonating me. email me at blake@blakeostler.com and I’ll prove it to you.

  24. Bleak Oyster says:

    I dunno, Christine. The lengths to which some people will go to impersonate others … it’s really shocking. (Personally, I still haven’t gotten over that John Lott gun control brouhaha of a few years ago). So I guess what I’m saying is, I wouldn’t put it past you to create a fake email account impersonating Blake.

    Always best to ask yourself: What would Jesus do?

  25. I’m pretty sure I’m me. OK. What can I do to show you?

  26. Bleak Oyster says:

    Perhaps explain your relationship to Christine then. Is she a friend of yours who just happened to bring this thread to your attention, or did you just happen to be at the site this evening?

    Also, Christine’s feminine aura seems to resonate forth from her writing, like she’s an authentic daughter of Zion (albeit one who might be misquoting Ostler). Whereas, your writings, “Blake,” lack a certain machismo which makes me suspicious that you’re really her.

  27. Well, my wife is named Christine — but she’s asleep. While I don’t know this particular Christine, I’d be glad to meet her. I’m glad that you see my writings as lacking a certain machismo. some people seem to read me as being too arrogant or cock-sure of myself.

  28. Bleak Oyster says:

    Perhaps some people feel this way about Brother Ostler, but I think his philosophical and theological works are just dandy, and as a result, I can’t even listen to criticisms of him without exploding in a rage.

    And so your criticisms of Blake (“arrogant,” “cock-sure”), even though fairly muted, are again making me wonder … Would the real Blake insult himself in this way? I doubt it. Consider this alongside the misrepresentations of Blake’s first volume, and I just have to ask:

    Christine, are you trying to malign Brother Ostler? Why would you do such a thing? Is this morally or ethically justifiable?

  29. Bleak Oyster says:

    Perhaps the real “Christine” will return at some point and affirm that she isn’t Blake. I would find sworn testimony directly from her more credible, as I’ve found it’s easier for people to be dishonest when they are using pseudonyms.

  30. OK. Look up my lawfirm in the phone book and call me tomorrow and I’ll answer. My firm is Thompson Ostler & Olsen. I know that anyone could get that at my website, but only I can answer the phone for me. I look forward to speaking with you. And thank you for the kind words.

  31. Bleak Oyster says:

    Hmmm. An interesting proposition. But what if you’re really Christine, Christine? Perhaps you’re just sending me on a wild goose chase, and trying to get me to disrupt Blake at work? That would be a rotten thing to do, and I don’t want any part of that.

    Again, it will be interesting to see if “Christine” returns to this thread and clarifies her true intention with respect to Brother Ostler.

  32. I wouldn’t do it, Bleak. It’s probably just a joke to get you to bug Br. Ostler at work. Seriously–don’t feed the trolls.

  33. Bleak Oyster says:

    I dunno, Scott. I’m on the fence about this. I don’t want to harrass Blake, but at the same time, I do think someone should make him aware that this vicious woman is impersonating him and misrepresenting his work, if that’s indeed what is going on.

  34. Scott. I appreciate the consideration, but I’d be delighted to speak with Bleak given his kind comments. I have too often strayed near troll territory in the past, but I’m repenting of that — at least I’m giving it my best. I came back to comment at First Things re: whether Mormons are Christian and just saw this post. I thought Christine did a decent job of summarizing my view so I commented. If you want, send me an email at my law firm and I’ll respond tomorrow.

  35. Oh, and I’m sorry that this side-issue has taken away from comments on Ronan’s excellent post.

  36. Bleak Oyster says:

    Would the real Blake Ostler post the full name of his law firm in a blog comment? That’s the question I’m asking myself right now. I’m thinking he wouldn’t. So again, I must ask in all sincerity:

    Christine, would you PLEASE come clean and admit to impersonating Brother Ostler in this thread? Or swear on a Bible, or your mother’s grave, or on whatever it is you hold sacred, that you are not the author of all of these “Blake comments?

    Thank you.

  37. Latter-day Guy says:

    Comments 16 – 36 constitute one of the most surreal blog exchanges I’ve ever read.

    …and, oh, cool post RJH!

  38. im not educated..does this mean, not understanding the fancy words without a dictionary, i wont get accepted into Gods kingdom when i die? you want to make disciples? ease up on the fancy wording.thank you. paul

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