Is the Incarnation part of Christianity’s core?

Is the Incarnation part of Christianity’s core? October 22, 2007

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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