Why Did Jesus Even Need to Die?

The incarnation accomplished what can only a cosmic Mack Truck could do:

“The Word became flesh.” By his Incarnation Jesus restored in himself God’s creation of man and woman at the beginning of human history in his own image. Jesus is the perfect image of the Father and thus becomes the source of restoring all of humanity as the image of God. Jesus renews the original dignity of the human being, indeed now raising it to a still higher status. Recall what the priest prays during the Preparation of the Gifts at Mass when he pours a little water into the chalice of wine: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Humanity is called now to deeper share in the life of God and this intensifies the regard that men and women have for one another. Because of the Incarnation all human beings are connected to Christ and destined to find eternal fulfillment in him. In his Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio St. John Paul II wrote: “Jesus came to bring integral salvation, one which embraces the whole person and all mankind, and opens up the wondrous prospect of divine filiation.”

The Church’s defense and protection of all human beings and human rights flows not simply from a philosophical principle, or from the natural law, but even more profoundly from its belief in the connection of all human beings to Christ and their destiny in him because of the Incarnation. This connectedness and destiny of all humanity to and in Christ is also the foundation of the Church’s solidarity with all peoples. Respect for the dignity and rights of others entails more than just the observance of the Ten Commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus commands the cultivation of virtues which ennoble not only one’s own self but, even more, enhance the well-being of others. Thus, for example, we are commanded not only not to kill another, but also not to be angry at someone or call a person a “fool” (cf. Mt. 5:21-22).

You’d never know that Jesus condemned the Pharisees, wasn’t particularly concerned to see Judas restored, or prophesied doom on Jerusalem. That’s okay. We can find a text in the Bible to support whatever virtue we like.

By the way, those Reformed Protestants inclined to the cosmic significance of the gospel should pay attention and make better arguments.

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All that Flesh, and No Where to Put It

Mark Jones departs from the Puritan opposition to Advent and Christmas by posting about the incarnation. But once again his excitement to make a point may get the better of him:

This shows us just how much God loves “flesh” (i.e., human nature). God is forever identified with humanity because of the incarnation. Thus, heaven will be a “fleshly” place. Not at all “sinful,” but certainly a place where we will be more truly human than we are now. If our bodies and souls are to be redeemed, Jesus had to possess a body and soul, since whatever is not assumed by Jesus cannot be healed. One is not more important than the other, as though we yearn for the day when we can shed our bodies and live as “free-floating” souls. Far from it. We yearn for the day when our bodies and souls are both transformed into the likeness of Christ’s glorious body (1 Jn. 3:2 “…we shall be like him”…).

Funny thing is, this will be an odd sort of fleshly existence where men and women won’t have an obvious reason for those parts of the human body that Paul says are “unpresentable” (1 Cor 12:23).

Golden Oldie (part one)

From the archives of Modern Reformation, excerpt from “The Incarnation and Multiculturalism“:

One of the ways, however, where the church has become conformed to the world concerns this very notion of how Christ is like us. One of the assumptions which governs so much of our lives is the idea that it is impossible for an individual of a particular race, gender, or sexual orientation to understand the experience of someone different. Or put differently, that people from one kind of background cannot identify with someone from a different background. This perspective tells us that the conditions of knowledge change according to differences in gender, race, ethnicity and whatever else distinguishes individuals in the census data. This is the outlook behind various political initiatives to affirm the rights and livelihoods of various minorities, advertisements which portray living white European men as little more than unthinking, uncaring louses, and various efforts in the academic and artistic worlds to include the expressions of oppressed outsiders and demonize the expressions of dead white, European men. Conversely, the idea that the experience of a particular human being is somehow universal or representative is increasinly regarded as arguable if not downright foolish.

That followers of Jesus Christ would capitulate to such thinking is well nigh remarkable. Yet, evidence continues to mount which shows that Christians are more and more faithful to the dogma of multiculturalism than to orthodox Christian teaching. Mainline Protestants have been at this game the longest. When those communions embraced the idea that Protestant orthodoxy was the product of a bygone age with little relevance for the knowledge and social arrangements of the modern world, mainstream Protestantism opened the door of the household of faith to arguments which deny that theological truth, religious practice, and ecclesiastical office transcend the time and place. Still, conservative Protestants, even conservative Presbyterians have made up for lost time. At many conservative colleges and seminaries one hears an increasing number of calls for greater racial and gender diversity within the faculty, student body and curriculum. White male professors and the traditional theological curriculum, it is said, are neither representative nor affirming of the peoples to whom the church is called to minister. Along the same lines run some of the arguments for home missions and church growth. If we try to establish churches among either urban minorities or suburban baby boomers, can we really expect the truths of the Westminster Confession of Faith or the piety of seventeenth century Puritans to make any sense? Don’t we need to contextualize the gospel in a way that makes the gospel relevant to the problems which confront African Americans, Hispanics and unchurched Harry and his wife? So many church planting experts devise strategies for establishing churches that will appeal to different age or ethnic groups. Then there is the steady stream of study Bibles which evangelical publishers continue to produce, the woman’s study Bible, the men’s study Bible, the Bible for teens, and the Bible for seniors. So too does worship suffer at the hands of multiculturalism. Advocates of contemporary worship forms insist that older patterns and forms of corporate worship are meaningless and hence oppressive to younger believers who have grown up with television and rock ‘n roll. And to take but one more example, the debates in some Reformed denominations about the ordination of women follows from the logic that human experience is not universal but rather partial or specific to different kinds of people. So many who favor women’s ordination argue that women clergy are much better equipped to address the needs of the church’s largest constituency, other women because they, and only they know what it is like to be a woman. So, if you think that the question of cultural diversity is only one for the politicians in Washington or the professors at our leading universities, think again. More and more God’s people are succumbing to the notion that men and women, African-Americans and whites, young and old, and urbanites and suburbanites are fundamentally different, with little in human experience binding them together or giving them a common frame of reference.

The reason for going on at such length about this is not the problem it poses for public life. To be sure this is a problem. But the church has a different task than to make the United States a harmonious place to live. Rather, the danger of such thinking is that it flies in the face of the gospel. It directly contradicts what our text here teaches, that is, that Jesus is like us.

If we were to capitulate entirely to the habits of our culture about personal identity, that we are merely products of our various physical traits such as skin color, family background, sex, socio-economic status, or career, then we would be people of little hope. For we would not be able to identify with Jesus or he with us. The Christ whom we worship, who calls us into his presence and makes it possible because of his sacrifice for us to enter into the holy of holies surrounded though invisible by the saints and angels, is really very different from according to the contemporary mindset. This Christ, who is supposed to belike us in all things, except for sin, is far removed from us. After all, he was and in some sense still is in his glorified body a single, male, Jew who lived in first-century Palestine and worked throughout most of his life as a carpenter. All that he has in common with Americans living in the late twentieth-century is not much more than a pulse. And this is the real danger of such ways of thinking. Because if Christ is so different from us, then he really could not have identified with us and cannot set us free from our guilt and misery.

The way Americans commonly identify themselves has little to do with what the Bible teaches. The incarnation, the truth that the second person of the trinity took to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, teaches that what matters most in human experience is not what physical characteristics divide us but rather it teaches what is universal to the human condition. Our physical traits may matter to the world and so hurt or help our chances of find a job and living a well-adjusted life. But these concerns are insignificant in the light of eternity. What matters most men and women is that they are created in God’s image and for the purpose of having fellowship with him. Of course the possibilities for that fellowship have been ruptured by sin. That is why Christ took human form, why he assumed the image of God given to humanity, that he might restore his beloved to fellowship with God. This is the real significance of the human form that Jesus took, that it was a form given for the purpose of glorifying and enjoying God, not for the purpose of wielding power over others or proving our standing as victims of oppression. Jesus was and is like us in his humanity despite his being a Jewish, male heterosexual bachelor from working class background. And his similarity to us is crucial to our salvation.

The Limits of Logic and the Benefits of Geography

Jason Stellman continues his brief for Roman Catholic superiority with the twist of posting at his own blog and, making his membership in Jason and the Callers complete, at at Called to Communion. Apparently, Bryan Cross and Sean Patrick will now edit comments on Jason’s posts so that Jason can do more televised interviews. The funny thing about this arrangement is that posting at CTC has not united Bryan’s logic with Jason’s style. In fact, if Jason’s first post is any indication, Bryan’s scholasticism has taken a back seat to Stellman’s intuition. But the oxymoronic ecumenical (call to communion) polemics (we’re better than Protestants) abide.

It turns out — surprise — that Roman Catholicism makes better sense of the incarnation than Protestantism. The simple logic is that since Christ assumed and maintains a physical body that could and can be seen, an ecclesiology that features visibility beats one that invokes invisibility. But the logic of Jason’s argument is almost as confusing as his understanding of geography.

If there is a connection between Christology and Ecclesiology (Umm, hellooo ? The Church is the Body of which Christ is the Head, so I’d label this connection as “uncontroversial”), then the idea that the eternal Son assumed human nature and took on a real, flesh-and-blood body just like ours, is more consistent in a visible-church paradigm than in an invisible-church paradigm. The physical body of Christ was visible; you could point him out in a crowd or identify him with a kiss as Judas did for the Roman soldiers.

The key word here is was. Jesus’ body is no longer on earth and cannot be seen. And by sending his Spirit to be with the church after he left planet earth, Jesus could very well have been teaching that the nature of the church, its bonds of fellowship and its worship, is going to be spiritual, not visible (like Old Testament devotion was with the altar, sacrifice and priests — sound familiar?). In fact, Jesus tells the woman at the well that the new pattern of worship emerging is one where place matters less than spirit and truth. And then Jason has the problem of being so insensitive to believers whose relatives have died and no longer have bodies. Are they visible? Are they excluded from the church because they don’t have bodies? Or is it the case that an ecclesiology that so features physicality is shallow compared to one that recognizes a fellowship among those saints who are both seen and unseen. (Hint: if God the Father is spirit and cannot be seen, fellowship with the unseen is important. Duh!)

Not to be tripped up by such theological or logical subtleties, Jason stumbles on to give two big thumbs up to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist.

Is Christ present at the Table or not? Like with the question “Is the church visible or not,” the answer here is, “It depends.” If the worshiper is a worthy receiver, then yes, he indeed feeds spiritually and truly upon the body and blood of Christ. But if the worshiper is unworthy and faithless, then what he is eating and drinking is not Christ’s body and blood, but simply ordinary bread and wine. This also smacks of Docetism, as if Jesus of Nazareth could have been truly present with Zaccheus, partially present with Nicodemus, and completely absent with Judas, even though they were all standing right in front of him in the flesh.

First, Jason gets the Protestant position wrong. The unworthy receiver eats and drinks judgment. The last time I had ordinary bread and wine, I was not sinning overtly or deserving judgment. But that inaccuracy notwithstanding, second, the idea that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper to everyone equally, just like he was to the people with whom Christ lived, walked and talked, commits some sort of Christological error — can’t remember which one — because the nature of a body is being limited in time and space, and if Jesus is not here then he can’t be here in the same way that he was here to Zaccheus. And since Jason doesn’t mention the Spirit, the person of the Trinity that helps Protestants understand Christ’s real presence in an omnipresent way, his bad logic suffers again from poor theology.

Jason’s last point exhibits a Romophilia that makes chopped liver out of the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople.

Moreover, the Catholic paradigm makes much better sense of the Incarnation by its gospel demonstrating the need for the ongoing and continual humanity of Christ. If salvation consists largely (almost exclusively to hear some Protestants tell it) in the forensic imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ by which the sinner is legally justified in the divine court, then the need for Jesus’ humanity can be said to have expired after the ascension. But if, as the Catholic Church maintains (echoing the fathers), salvation consists primarily in the deifying participation of humanity in the divine nature, which happens by means of Christ’s glorified humanity and risen flesh, then what happened at the Incarnation was a much bigger deal than some Protestants realize.

The deifying participation of humanity in the divine nature is what the Eastern Churches call theosis. In fact, Jason’s entire post may vindicate his personal decision to leave Presbyterianism but his boosterism apparently blinded him to the substantial difficulties he raised for his own ecclesiology from Eastern Orthodox challenges. After all, Jesus never made it to Rome to found a church — if we take the physicality of the incarnation seriously. He did though found a church in Jerusalem. If Jason wanted to talk about the Jerusalem Catholic Church he might have a point. But since he wants to root, root, root for his new home church, he needs help from Bryan to make his argument coherent.

Meanwhile, Jason may want to pay more attention to what’s going on in his visible church than tilting at Protestant windmills:

I think it is obvious that Wuerl belongs to the more traditional, pilgrim model and always has. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the prophet model was invoked mostly by liberal theologians to justify their positions. In the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century, it was conservatives who claimed the prophetic mantle for themselves. Both groups forgot that in the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets were reluctant to accept the mantle. Both groups forgot that the dominant Catholic mode of leadership has almost always been the pilgrim model, and when the prophet model dominated, ruin came: Savonarola, Saint- Cloud, Pio Nono. The Church is not at Her best when Her leaders are busy hurling epithets or indulging what Pope Francis has called a “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism.” Wuerl strikes me as one of those bishops who does not over-inflate his own significance. Yes, he takes his job seriously and expects his collaborators to do so as well. But, like Pope Francis, he leaves room for the Spirit to do its work. Let us have more bishops like this in the coming year. The first test will, of course, be Chicago. No need for extensive previstas from the nuncio on this nomination as all of the candidates will be well known. The rumors of any particular names have dried up, which usually means those who are being consulted are shifting from speculation to decision. I have no idea who it will be but I will venture one prediction: Some jaws will drop. . . .

The divisions within the Church are not going away, but they are likely to change in the coming year. I predicted early on that you would begin to see cleavage within the Catholic Left between those who are thrilled by the Holy Father’s focus on the poor, and for whom that focus is enough, and those who argue for changes where no change is likely to be forthcoming, the ordination of women, same-sex marriage, etc. And, on the Catholic Right, you will see a similar cleavage between those who will allow themselves to be challenged by Pope Francis and those who will shift towards a rejectionist position, either completely gutting the pope’s words of their obvious meaning and import as Morlino did in the article mentioned above or, for the more extreme members, moving towards schismatic groups. The Left, when it gets disaffected, just walks away. The Right causes trouble. In 2014, many bishops will face the prospect of clear, unambiguous dissent on the Right and it will be curious to see how they respond.

Take, Eat, This Is My Baby Given for You

For low church Protestants who partake of the Lord’s Supper monthly, usually the first Sunday of the month, the juxtaposition of remembering both the baby Jesus’ fleshy form and the adult Jesus’ broken body and flowing blood rarely occurs. We can have our Lord’s Supper at the beginning of December and hear sermons on the birth of Jesus at the end of the same month, never having the links between the baby fat of the nativity scene and the wounded body of the crucifixion pressed upon our consideration of the incarnation in all of is wonder and agony.

But a recent Lord’s Supper evening service brought the realities of Christ’s birth and death into closer proximity and was a poignant reminder of the continuity between the body and blood of the babe whom the shepherds adored and spiritual eating of that same flesh and blood in the sacrament. Since the service, as a prelude to Christmas without being explicitly an Advent observance – low churchers don’t do Advent unless it becomes a time to affirm the family (as in families lighting the Advent wreath candles) – included several hymns related to Christ’s nativity, the reminder of the fleshy character of the incarnation was right there next to a call to discern Christ’s body in the Supper.

Consider the following Christmas (or Advent – I can’t keep them straight) hymn lines:

All praise to thee, Eternal Lord, Clothed in a garb of flesh and blood (first line of Luther’s 1524 hymn)

To human view displayed, All meanly wrapped in swathing bands (“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”)

Born of Mary ever blest, God in flesh is manifest (“Savior of the Nations Come”)

Veiled in flesh the godhead see, Hail the incarnate deity (“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”)

Word of the Father, Late in flesh appearing (“O Come, All Ye Faithful”)

All this mention of the flesh of Christ in the manger right before the observance of the Lord’s Supper brings the body of the baby into much closer proximity with the body and blood of Christ’s sacrifice than I had ever before contemplated. To use the language of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Christ who “took upon him the very nature of man, of the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary” (A 35), is the same Jesus whose “crucified body and shed blood are the true meat and drink, whereby our souls are fed to eternal life.” In fact, in the bread and wine we really become “partakers of his true body and blood by the operation of the Holy Ghost as we receive by the mouths of our bodies these holy signs in remembrance of him” (A 79).

Maybe plenty of low church Protestants made this connection long before I did. And I suspect that many believers who refuse the sentimentality that haunts nativity scenes and Advent candles have long known that the baby we adore as a warm up to unwrapping gifts and devouring fresh ham was born precisely to do the work of the one and only high priest who would offer up his own body to take away the sins of the world. In which case, for those who take the atonement seriously, the joy of Jesus’ birth should always be calibrated according to the rest of Christ’s humiliation which began with his taking human flesh and included graphically the torture of his body on the way to descending into hell.

But I do wonder if Christians observed the Lord’s Supper more frequently, or at least during Christmas pageants and concerts, they would also be struck that, in the words of the Belgic Confession, the sacraments we hold “in our hands and eat and drink it in our mouths,” which sustain our spiritual life and are “the true body and true blood of Christ”(Art. 35), are the same flesh and blood celebrated in the form of an innocent baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, to prevent the chill of Bethlehem’s frigid winter. (Kidding, of course about Bethlehem’s weather; today the city of Jesus’ birth will experience a low temperature of 50 degrees.)

Note to readers rightly concerned about images of Jesus: the photo included with this post is intended as a generic portrayal of babies and their fleshy existence.