I was putting off responding to Tony Jones’ recent provocation to progressive Christians to answer the question “Why an Incarnation?”, but this cartoon a friend shared on Facebook made me decide to get to it sooner:
As someone who is not only a progressive Christian, but also a New Testament scholar, the conversation for me must always begin with whether an incarnation before moving on to why. A progressive Christian is one who is not merely open to rethinking things because of contemporary concerns, but also one who is open to returning to the wellspring of Christian tradition to find new resources, and one who is open to input from scholarship. All of those approaches lead to important questions about whether “incarnation” is an appropriate term to use, and even if so, whether it is the best term for how the earliest Christians saw Jesus and/or for how we think we should view him.
For the author of the Gospel of John, the eternal Word of God has “become flesh” – and that author even has Jesus speak as though conscious of having pre-existed in heaven. But John is the only one of the four Gospels to depict Jesus as speaking in that way. And when we read the Gospel of John and realize just how focused on himself Jesus seems to be there, the contrast with the kingdom-focused proclamation of Jesus found in the Synoptics. Jesus can even seem egotistical.
But then we take historical critical scholarship into account, and realize that the language of the Gospel of John isn’t in fact the way Jesus spoke. It is the perspective of Christian faith, which is like the bumper stickers in the cartoon above. If one slaps a bumper sticker on their own car, proclaiming their own success, that gives a very different impression than when a proud parent does so.
Do you think of Jesus in terms of an “incarnation”? Why or why not? And how does your view of him relate to historical study and historical evidence? What role if any do you consider it appropriate/necessary for scholarly study of the Bible to play for Christianity today?
Of related interest, see a repost from Fred Clark in response to Tony’s call, and also Larry Hurtado’s recent post on early Jesus devotion.