#ProgGOD 2: The Incarnation

#ProgGOD 2: The Incarnation November 29, 2012

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.

Our earliest sources agree strongly about Jesus’ humility. Christians then and now have come to glimpse something important about God “made flesh” or “embodied” in the life of Jesus. And if we don’t realize that that glimpse of God comes across precisely through and in the midst of Jesus’ humility, then we are liable to end up with a very different sense of who Jesus was, and of what God is like. If we think that Jesus really walked around proclaiming himself as the central focus for Christians, then it really won’t matter whether you think you’ve glimpsed God in Jesus because God was active in his life, or because God in some more literal sense became human, or because you think that Jesus’ life embodies something important about Ultimate Reality. You’ll have missed Jesus’ humility, and so whether you think primarily in incarnational terms or not, and if so, whatever you happen to mean by the term, it will be at odds with the character of Jesus and of Jesus’ God in crucial ways.

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.


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  • 1) Paul had Jesus as a descendant of Abraham, Jesse, David and Israelites (& a woman) (so no God as genetic father) but acknowledged the pre-existence (incarnation by some mysterious way!).
    2) gMark does not say anything about incarnation or pre-existence. And Jesus has a mother, brothers & sisters, implying he has a human father also.
    3) gLuke & gMatthew have God as the genetic father, but no allusion of pre-existence.
    4) gJohn has the pre-existence but acknowledge Mary as the mother and Joseph as believed to be the father by his contemporaries. Therefore the incarnation is, again, by some mysterious way.
    Note: gLuke, gMatthew & gJohn acknowledge Jesus had brothers (as in gMark).
    So, in conclusion, I cannot accept Jesus was pre-existent in heaven and got incarnated.

  • Rob Davis

    Dr. McGrath, I always enjoy your posts. They definitely always make me think…

    “If we think that Jesus really walked around proclaiming himself as the central focus for Christians…You’ll have missed Jesus’ humility”

    This is similar to what I was trying to get at here:

    (plus my own contribution to Tony’s challenge)

    My personal approach is to take very seriously the historical study of the Bible as just that – history. But, my own commitment to the Way of the Christ doesn’t necessarily even require him to have existed. I would still believe that his Way is the most beneficial to all of “Creation” (if that word is appropriate).

    • Thanks for sharing the link to your contribution to the discussion!

  • Pseudonym

    Oddly enough, I was just talking about the “kenosis passage” of Philippians 2 in another forum. This is, of course, probably the earliest appearance of what eventually turned into a “doctrine of incarnation”.

    I was wondering if you have any thoughts on that particular passage.

    One thing that I think is important is that “orthodox” christology developed slowly over the course of many decades, if not centuries, and probably hasn’t finished developing yet. As a rule, the earlier the book was written, the less likely it is to resemble what we now think of as “incarnation”.

    However, what a lot of people don’t fully appreciate is that it probably had to be that way. If the “Jesus = God” notion was dumped on the early Christians fully-formed, they may not have remained monotheists. What we ended up with may be over-complicated, arcane and not terribly practical, but at least it’s monotheistic!

    • I’m sympathetic to Dunn’s interpretation of the Philippians passage in Adamic terms. Whether Paul thought in terms of Jesus’ pre-existence is hard to say, since it was possible to use pre-existence language and mean something more like predestination. In 1 Corinthians 15:46 Paul seems to indicate that he doesn’t think that Jesus literally pre-existed Adam. But either way, the ending of the section in Philippians, in which it is God who exalts Jesus to a position higher than he had before, bestowing the divine name upon him, seems to indicate that, if Paul thought of Jesus in terms of pre-existence, that doesn’t mean that he thought of him in terms of “divinity” in the sense that later Christians would – although as with so many things, it all depends what you mean by that term! 🙂

      • Pseudonym

        Who is Dunn?

        (Unlike an undergraduate, I’m not going to apologise for asking that question. I don’t claim academic credentials in history, linguistics or theology, so I’m not expected to know these things! Still, it sounds like an interesting take on it.)

        • James D. G. Dunn. His book Christology in the Making proposed that Paul wasn’t thinking in terms of pre-existence in Philippians 2:6-11.

          • Pseudonym

            Thanks, I’ll check it out.

  • The focus seems to be on John, and that Gospel is the only that emphasizes pre-existence. But is pre-existence (in the way John conceptualized it) necessary for “incarnation”? It seems to me Matthew and Luke both conceptualize an “incarnation” where some manner of divinity is present in Jesus (as a result of the Holy Spirit’s contribution in conception). I could be wrong, but impression is that the ancient understanding of conception was that women were essentially containers for a man’s “seed”. So, when acknowledging the Holy Spirit’s role in conception, it isn’t as if they would have considered Jesus some God-man halfbreed. He would have been considered “God become flesh”. However, that assumes they would have considered the Holy Spirit as “God”.

    In any case, if we look at it as 3 of the 4 Gospels advocating for “incarnation”, then the case seems to become stronger. However, I would note that if the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 is to be considered bare-bones criteria for “Christianity”, then there doesn’t necessarily seem to be a *need* to believe incarnation (other than if you believe it’s true, of course).

    • I am not as convinced that the authors of Matthew and Luke saw Mary as the receptacle of divine sperm, as opposed to viewing the Holy Spirit as responsible for causing Mary to become pregnant with a human child. But perhaps I should look into that subject more. Luke-Acts, at least, seems to depict a Jesus that is genuinely and fully human without qualification.

      • Luke seems to emphasize the “Son of God” designation, similarly to how Mark emphasizes “Son of Man”. My understanding was that “Son of God”, in a Roman context (and Luke was supposedly gentile), indicated divinity – for the emperor at least. That doesn’t pertain to the issue of incarnation per se, but I am curious how you interpret that title in light of the fact you feel Luke-Acts treats Jesus as “only” human. Forgive the presumption, but I assume you see it as indicative of his messiah-ship only?

        • Simply being a Gentile is not all that matters, from this perspective. Sometimes converts are more adamant about a religion’s stance than those who grew up with it. “Son of God” in a Jewish context could mean several different things. It is the overall depiction that we need to look at, to see what Luke meant by the term. And in Luke-Acts, the only person who claims to be something like God incarnate is Simon Magus, not Jesus. 🙂

          • Fair point that the issue is more complex than having a gentile perspective. So, looking at the “overall depiction”, what i see at the end of Jesus’ life (as portrayed by Luke) is that He affirms that He is the “Son of Man” and that He will “be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” (Luke 22:69). He later does not deny (but apparently does not affirm?) that He is “the Son of God”, simply saying “You say that I am” (v. 70). I guess I’ll have to be honest and say that I do not know quite what to make of this, but that it seems obvious to me that whatever Jesus claimed was obviously considered worthy of death, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that He claimed to be God. Nevertheless, claiming that you will rule with God at His right hand is a very bold claim, seemingly much more than just being the messiah (which probably would have been ho-hum). Does claiming the destiny of ruling at God’s right hand reveal anything about the “Son of God” terminology in Luke?

          • It seems clear to me that such language is, contrary to what you wrote, firmly messianic imagery, connected with the anointed ruler from Chronicles through to the Similitudes of Enoch and beyond. What made the claim controversial was presumably (perhaps among other things) the fact that the one making the claim was not accepted as the anointed one by those in authority, and was arrested and handed over to the Romans and eventually executed by them.

            (Of course, we need to distinguish between what if anything may have been said when the historical Jesus was arrested, and what the Gospel authors depict concerning a “trial” about which, if such a thing ever transpired, they would have had little or no information).

          • I am no expert, and so not being familiar with “apocryphal”
            works especially, I will simply defer to you that interpreting Jesus’ declaration about being at God’s right hand (assuming He did, in fact, say that) is consistent with a strictly messianic outlook. Thanks for the interaction!

  • We’re all incarnations of God; as Jesus points out in John 10:34-36, using Psalm 82:6 as reference. This sort of thinking is always regarded as blasphemy, as Alan Watts notes: