Friday, January 7, 2011

Would the Incarnation Have Happened if the Atonement was not Necessary

There is sometimes a debate in Christian theological circles on whether the Incarnation (God entering into the world in human flesh) or the Atonement (Christ's sacrificial gift as the sufficient and full substitute for humankind's sins) is the more fundamental phenomena. A great deal of nuance has often accompanied such discussions. This issue has reently been raised on the Confessing Christ discussion list which can be accessed here The following is a slightly elaborated reflection that I initially wrote on the CC listserv earlier today.

Would the Incarnation have Happened if there was not a Need for the Atonement?

Let us consider 2 Corinthians 5:19, "In Christ God was reconciling the world to him." Without the Fall of Adam would the reconciliation have been necessary? In this C.S. Lewis like fictional world the Word, who was in the beginning with God as God himself, would, one presumes have been present, though in some pre-incarnate form as that term is currently understood in Christian theology. On this interpretation both Incarnation and Atonement were secondary matters as a response to the Fall to which they are intimately connected.

Some place the Incarnation in the priority status in the central role of Christ coming into the world in human flesh. However, if one assumes that the Word made flesh coming into the world is not synonymous with the Son's begotten status as the Father's agent in creating the world, then there is no need to prioritize the Incarnation. While the revelation of God in Christ remains in many ways a mystery beyond human comprehension, without the Fall, in my estimation there would have been no need for the second person of the Trinity to have entered into the world at least in the manner as depicted in the New Testament. Similarly, without the Fall there would have been no need for the Atonement. This is not to deny that the second person of the Trinity would not have been present and even conceivably in an incarnational presence, but not in the manner depicted in the New Testament.

Stated otherwise, the comprehensive Christian story as it has come to humankind in its current condition requires due attention to the healing, teaching, and earthly life of Christ as well as to the crucifixion, resurrection, post-resurrection presence, the continuing gift of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the early church, and the ultimate promise of full earthly restoration of the New Israel in the pure light of the Kingdom of God. In terms of God in Christ reconciling the world in God, the Incarnation and the Atonement mutually contribute to the intended saving power of the Trinitarian revelation that comprises our faith.

There may be practical reasons for emphasizing one strand or another of basic Christian doctrine, but the story parts need to be placed within the context of the full narrative plot in which Incarnation and Atonement in their mutual work provide the healing power leading to human salvation and world restoration (Romans 8: 18-25).

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