So, yesterday, Tony Jones began progGod round two. This time (in the spirit of Advent), it’s on the Incarnation. As a progressive and a theologian-in-training, I’m providing my thoughts. If you fit the same description, you should too.
I have to admit, I’ve never really heard a good theology of the Incarnation. The one that was most familiar to me in my time at my evangelical-Baptist college had something to do with Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but since I (and many progressives) don’t hold to that Atonement theory, that Incarnation theory doesn’t work well. So we need something else.
When I read the Incarnation story, and the story of Jesus in general, I find five main reasons for Jesus’ coming (versus a divine act from on high without physical presence):
- Jesus came to restore creation to even more than its former glory, beauty, and fullness. In this, Jesus breathed new life into a creation in turmoil, giving it a new beginning and a new hope. Jesus did not come to “fix a problem,” but to completely undo and renew the whole of creation. This was a cosmological shift in reality. Not backwards to some previous perfection, not forwards to a coming utopia, but an altogether different direction.
- Jesus came to bring hope to the broken. By coming and changing the formerly unchangeable, Jesus stands as a beacon of hope for all who are broken and suffering, to say that better things are coming. This is where the “firstfruits” metaphor becomes relevant: Jesus sets in motion the beginning of a new age of hope and blessing.
- Jesus came to fight for the oppressed and marginalized. Jesus stood on the side of the outcasts of society, the otherwise unloved, and turned the whole system around to put them on top. We hear this one quite often, so I don’t feel the need to expound on this one much, I will say this: read the Sermon on the Mount if you have any question that this is true.
- Jesus came to issue a “revolutionary threat” to systems that produce injustice. Jesus stood up to those in power and called them into a new order; by submitting in a revolutionary way to their injustice, Jesus exposed it for exactly what it was and threatened its livelihood.
- Jesus came to teach followers how to reflect the divine to the world, and vice versa. Jesus came as both physical and divine, perfectly mirroring each realm to the other, and called us to do likewise. As the divine in the midst of humans, Jesus made love and all its compatriots abound. As a human uniquely and wholly intertwined in the divine, Jesus brought the world into relationship with the Creator in a way not previously possible.
All of this requires a physical existence:
- At the dawn of creation (however you choose to view it), God had to intervene in a physical way by creating existent matter. Jesus, in bringing about not simply repair, but restoration, must likewise intervene physically. A new beginning requires a new creation, and a new creation requires intervention.
- Jesus comes and does physical acts–feedings, healings, et cetera–as a promise that a new day is dawning. Without the physical presence of Christ, this promise is empty. Jesus is, as a human, the light in the midst of great darkness. Verbal or, more deeply, spiritual promises from God mean nothing if reality stays the same. Jesus broke through the wall separating God and creation and wove the promises into reality–physical healing and spiritual freedom, et cetera.
- Jesus cannot become one with the oppressed and marginalized without becoming oppressed and marginalized. Empathy and solidarity are two very different postures. Without Jesus’ suffering, we would not be able to confidently claim that God is on our side. Instead, it would appear quite the opposite.
- Holy texts have been used since their penning to justify horrible things. A physical Jesus cannot, while still present, be twisted in such a way. The “Word incarnate” language is relevant in this, that Jesus is a self-sent decree from on high which cannot be mangled when it can respond, dialogue, and critique.
- God cannot adequately teach humanity how to have a relationship simultaneously with the divine and the world if Jesus had not first modeled this. God cannot call us to this level of responsibility without modeling it first. If we are to be doing as Jesus did, Jesus has to have done this at some point.
All of this can be fairly well summed up to say that Jesus, in coming as both human and divine, was hope embodied. Hope for a creation groaning for restoration, hope for the broken waiting for a light to shine in their darkness, hope for the oppressed and marginalized in desperate need of a revolution, hope for leaders who have lost concern for justice, hope for all, that in this moment, the divine is being woven into the earthly. Hope that there is a God who is love and who desires for that very love to abound. When Jesus came, incarnate, hope dwelled among us. And the world was never the same.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”