Is the Incarnation part of Christianity’s core?

In discussing Philip Kitcher’s book with other faculty, one colleague referred to the ‘core of Christianity’. When I asked what the core consisted of, the two things he mentioned were incarnation and resurrection. To many, these might seem like absolute essentials, without which one is not dealing with anything that could be called “Christianity”.

This initial impression may well be wrong. In this post, I will focus only on the first mentioned ‘core component’, namely a doctrine of incarnation. The term ‘Christian’ is closely connected with the Acts of the Apostles, and Luke’s two-volume work does not present Jesus as God incarnate. Indeed, I once shocked a fellow student by saying that the only person presented as claiming to be God incarnate in Luke-Acts is Simon Magus! We can go even further, after noting the points of intersection between Luke and John, and speculate that Luke’s portrait of Jesus may not have been merely traditional (or ‘primitive’, as they used to say), but may have consciously rejected the sorts of developments to which the Johannine literature witnesses. Luke’s portrait emphasizes a human Jesus, who grows in wisdom as well as years, and does amazing things because of the Spirit at work in him.

Since Luke’s writings are in the canon (indeed, they represent a substantial portion of it), it becomes all but impossible to argue that incarnation is a sine qua non of Christian identity – otherwise, we would have to say that part of the Christian canon was authored by someone who wasn’t in fact a Christian.

This need not lead to the other extreme, of a rejection of the doctrine, and of other doctrines that in turn result from and depend on it. For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity presumably would not exist, had there been no doctrine of the incarnation.

Personally, while I don’t feel that one can argue in a straightforward manner from the historical figure of Jesus to the doctrine of the Trinity, I nonetheless have great appreciation for Trinitarian theology. Perhaps this is a result of reading works by Staniloae, Moltmann and others who have made this particular symbolism come alive. Provided one is not overstretching what we can hope to know, and overly confident in our ability to define the nature of the divine essence, the symbol of trinitarian language can be extremely powerful and helpful. It allows for Christian theology to make the claim that God is eternal love. Since love that is not egocentric requires more than one person, the interpersonal nature of the depiction of God as Trinity incorporates this element in a central way. It also can helpfully symbolize the fact that, while we may say (with Hans Küng) that God is “at least personal”, we also need to add that God is “more than personal”, and this tripersonal symbol can be helpful in pointing us not merely to personal language but beyond it.

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  • Ian

    Well, if incarnation is a necessary condition, then I can’t call myself Christian. But then, if “belief in God” is a necessary condition, I’d run into trouble (“it depends on how you define God”).

  • Quixie

    Yeah . . . I am disqualified on both fronts if both resurrection and incarnation are absolute essentials.Good post. I too have a great appreciation for trinitarian theology (from a mythological standpoint). Always interested in the phenomenology of faith, I like to get insight into people’s sources of it. The trinity concept has been one of the world’s classic unsolvable mysteries since before its Christian manifestation (e.g. like the Aum in Hinduism). I enjoy reading attepmts to describe the tripartite nature(heck, one could argue for polypartite unity from some of the animistic religions) of the divine.Here’s a couple of posts, a long one by a secular humanist—ironically, enough—, and a shorter one by a Catholic humanist (if such a tag be allowed): comments about the humanity that Luke continually insists was Jesus’ throughout his gospel are well put — although . . . I wouldn’t lump Luke/Acts into a single untit as some scholars are wont to do. I don’t think those two books were written by a single author . . . I realize that’s the conventional view, (even the consensus view), but I find the arguments of John Knox and Joseph Tyson and Stephan Hoeller pretty compelling (i.e. re: Ur-Luke and later redactions by Marcion and Polycarp). But that’s a subject all its own.btw . . . . I managed to contribute 70 grains of rice to that website . . . it’s hard!! . . . . . I guess one way to solve that doomsday puzzle is to have a dictionary handy.It’s okay, though; by all accounts this tripartite divine thingy would be okay with cheating in order to feed people. 😀

  • Weekend Fisher

    Core of Christianity as incarnation and resurrection? I know the crucifixion has to be implied by a resurrection, but the crucifixion sheds much new light on God, and renders certain ideas about God nearly untenable … Take care & God blessWF

  • Quixie

    OK . . . I went to that free rice site again . . . . I thought it was a game to see how many grains of rice one could amass before mispelling a word . . . . It turns out you can keep going after you miss one . . . . silly me.

  • Nick Norelli

    Have you read Simon Gathercole’s monograph The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, (Eerdmans, 2006)? He argues for preexistence in the Synoptics via the ‘I have come’ + purpose formula in many of Jesus’ sayings. I’m thinking that if Luke espouses a doctrine of preexistence then it follows that a doctrine of incarnation is also present in at least his Gospel (if not also in Acts).Any thoughts?

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for your comment I’m answering both here and on your blog, where you mentioned my post and asked the same question/made the same point. I read Gathercole’s book, but I found it wholly unpersuasive. The only way that one can find the idea of pre-existence in Luke-Acts is if one has it in mind already, which quickly leads to a circular argument.To suggest that the very common words “I have come” can not only bear the weight of Gathercole’s argument, but can be taken as indicative of an incarnational Christology not made explicit in other ways, does not seem at all persuasive.An important question to ask is whether the early Christians understood Jesus in a way that radically redefined monotheism as understood at that time. If not, then suggestions made by Tom Wright and others that Paul had ‘split the Shema’ need to be rethought. If so, then one has to explain how the early Christians managed to do so without it being controversial – since in early Christian writings we do not find Jews and Christians disagreeing over monotheism.For the rest of my argument, you’ll just have to wait for my book The Only True God to appear. I can’t reproduce the whole thing here! :-)One thing I neglected to mention – I know Simon from our Durham days, and get along really well with him, so it baffles me that we seem to disagree on just about every exegetical issue he and I have written on! :)

  • Nick Norelli

    Dr. McGrath,I replied on my blog and will here as well. Thanks for the comment! I actually find Gathercole’s argument quite persuasive. I think what clinched it for me was that the ‘I have come’ statements were such that they summed up Jesus’ entire mission. But I can’t wait to check out your book.What are the chances of getting a free review copy??? :)

  • Weekend Fisher

    I don’t think it’s necessary to “split the Shema” for an incarnation to be valid, in that other constructions of the incarnation are possible and may be as valid as the later conciliar definitions (e.g. Shechinah, pick your favorite English transliteration). I think it’s an anachronism if we limit “incarnation” to the later conciliar definitions and assume that, lacking those Greek categories, therefore they had no analogous concept of Christ … Take care & God blessWF

  • James F. McGrath

    That’s a good point – I was using ‘incarnation’ in the later credal sense, but there are plenty of ways that the term could appropriately be applied to earlier Christian writings and Christologies that might nonetheless differ from the definitions embodied in the later creeds.

  • Phil Sumpter

    I wonder how one discovers the centrality of a doctrine to the Christian faith? The Bible is a witness to Christian faith,it is not the faith itself. As such, the frequency with which a concept occurs cannot be an indicator of its significance. It’s significance should be determined by the role it plays within an overall theological system, based on the total witness of the two-testamental Canon, but not identified with it. There’s a difference between prophetic/apostolic witness and mature Christian reflection on their time-bound witness.