Here’s the first of three sketches of posts:
Incarnation and trinity
I’ll try to be brief.
Have you ever heard the history of trinitarian thought taught like this:
Once upon a time everyone was a strict monotheist. And then the incarnation happened. And it messed with our heads for the first 4 centuries of the church. But eventually, through some philosophical sleights of hand, we managed to slip Jesus into our assumed monotheism. Phew.
Ok that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But perhaps you’ll recognize that order of explanation – i.e. the incarnation forces us to do trinitarian theology.
Now – as you’ll probably know – I firmly believe that Christ is the foundation for all knowledge of God. Christ, as He introduces us to His Father and Spirit, is indeed the starting point for trinitarian theology. But – as you’ll also probably know – I think Christ is revealed long before the incarnation! And therefore it is not ‘incarnation’ that makes us think ‘trinity’. It’s ‘trinity, revealed in the eternal Son’ that then helps us think through ‘incarnation.’
And here’s the pay off: Attributing divine honours to the One Sent from God is not a New Testament novelty. To give one example – Christ appears often in the OT as the Angel of the LORD. As such He is One in Whom God’s Name dwells (Ex 23:20ff), One Who is Himself called LORD (everywhere!) and Who, as God of Abraham, is the Object of prayer and Source of blessing (Gen 48:15,16). A proper Hebrew doctrine of God is already comfortable with the One Sent from God being distinct from God and yet Himself God.
Now fast forward to the New Testament and let’s confront those questions that the incarnation naturally throws up:
Why doesn’t Jesus just say ‘I am God’? Why all this ‘I am sent…’ stuff?
Why does Jesus keep saying things like: ‘I can do nothing by myself’? (e.g John 5:19,30)
How come Jesus sleeps?
How come Jesus doesn’t know when He’s returning?
Typically such questions make people question His divinity. ‘How can He be other than God and yet be God? How can He be divine when He defines Himself as the ultimate servant?’ Yet if we’d properly understood the OT doctrine of God, such considerations might well make us affirm His divinity!
You see it’s a revelation of His divine nature (and not a concealment) that we see in Jesus such dependence on the Father. When He says ‘I am sent’ it reveals His divine nature as the eternal Son of the Father – THE Angel. When He says ‘I can do nothing’ it reveals His divine nature as the eternal Servant of the LORD. When He sleeps it reveals His divine nature as One dependent upon the ever-wakeful Father. When He says He doesn’t know when He’s returning He reveals His divine nature as One sent from God. He waits on the Father’s command and does not initiate His first or second coming.
All of this means we can take His humanity with the utmost seriousness. He really can’t do anything by Himself. He really does sleep (He really does die even!) He really doesn’t know when He’s returning. He says He doesn’t, let’s just go with the Word on this one.
We don’t need to assign these differences in Jesus to some ‘human nature’ locked off from a special sphere of uncorrupted deity. Jesus’ deity is not insulated from these differences, it includes them. It is the Man Jesus who says ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.’ It is the Man Jesus who says ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ In His differences, in His complete humanity, He is the living God.
So for all of this He is no less divine. In fact all this is the very expression of His triune Godness – a Godness that has always included distinction and servitude. Jesus is God precisely because He is the Spirit Anointed Servant of the LORD – in other words, the Christ, the Son of God. This divinity is not at odds with His humanity but fully expressed within it. (For more on this see Nicea comes before Chalcedon.)
In this way the incarnation is not a departure or a nuance but a true expression of God’s nature.
And this is where I’d like to end for now – to see Jesus of Nazareth is to see into the deepest depths of the divine life. Jesus is not like diluted orange squash – His humanity watering down a divinity that would otherwise be too strong for us. The Man Jesus reveals the eternal life of God at full strength and in its true nature. Because the life of God is a life of Offer and Receipt, Command and Obedience. It has ever been outwardly curved. It has ever been a being towards incarnation.
Christmas is not our best shot at getting an angle on God. Christmas is looking into the manger and staring the trinitarian God full in the face.