Volume 40 - Issue 2

The Incarnation of God: The Mystery of the Gospel as the Foundation of Evangelical Theology

by John C. Clark and Marcus Peter Johnson

In this well written and in many ways splendid book the authors contend that “modern Christians” have neglected the incarnation. The focus of much theology and piety has been on the death of Christ. A coherent account of this supreme mystery, in its place at the heart of the gospel, has been missing. The authors are brilliantly clear in pointing out that a true knowledge of both God and humanity is to be sought in the God who comes to us in and as the man Jesus (p. 36). They apply this to union with Christ, redemption, the church and ethics. If the book fosters greater appreciation of the wonder of the incarnation and so to the assertion of the primacy of the person of Christ in salvation and theology, it will have done immense service.

The argument follows closely the thought of T. F. Torrance; it reminds me of repeated discussions I had with James Torrance, my PhD supervisor, back in the seventies. As such it has all the towering strengths of Torrance’s theology together with its weaknesses.

I will focus my comments on chapter 4, which addresses the question of what kind of humanity the Son of God assumed. The thesis is that for Christ to identify with us in our fallen condition, it was necessary for him to have a fallen human nature. By assuming humanity in its fallenness he redeemed it from where it actually is, otherwise he could not have saved us in our actual state as fallen human beings. This is akin to the teachings of Edward Irving and Karl Barth, as well as Torrance.

This argument is a protest against all tendencies to docetism. An unfallen nature, it is held, would mean his humanity was not a real one for it would be detached from the world in which we find ourselves. Rather, Christ acted in redeeming love from within our own nature, sanctifying it and offering it up to the Father.

The authors cite Gregory of Nazianzus’s famous dictum “whatever is not assumed cannot be healed” to argue that if Christ did not have the same nature as ours we could not be saved. However, Gregory wrote this against Apollinaris who claimed that the incarnate Christ did not have a human mind. Gregory was opposing an ontological claim, not asserting an ethical one. The authors, following Torrance, add other patristic citations in support. I consider, like Douglas Kelly (Systematic Theology [Fern, Scotland: Mentor, 2:310–313]), that these refer to the full humanity of Christ in contrast to claims of a heavenly body, one without a human mind, or the like. They oppose ancient heresies on ontological grounds rather than support modern ethically oriented ideas to which they could not be privy.

The argument paints an appealing picture of Christ living a sinless life within the precise conditions we are in, healing our humanity from within, so achieving a complete and thorough deliverance for us. Like Irving, Barth, and Torrance, the authors defend Christ’s sinlessness vigorously (p. 121–22). Indeed, they argue that his triumph is magnified by his living a sinless life from out of the depths of our own fallen nature.

There are a range of problems with the claim. At best, it entails a Nestorian separation of the human nature from the person of Christ. The eternal Son—the person who takes humanity into union—is absolutely free from sin but the assumed humanity is fallen. If that were to be avoided, another hazard lurks; since Christ’s humanity never exists by itself any attribution of fallenness to that nature is a statement about Christ, the eternal Son.

The authors do not consider biblical passages that tell against their views. Romans 5:12–21, crucial for understanding Paul’s gospel, is not mentioned. If Christ had a fallen human nature it is unavoidable that he would be included in the sin of Adam and its consequences. In short, he could not have saved us since he would have needed atonement himself, if only for his inclusion in the sin of Adam.

The authors state that Christ assumed flesh “corrupted by original sin in Adam” (p. 116, italics original). He took a humanity “ruined and wrecked by sin” (p. 119), “corrupted human nature bent decisively toward sin” (p. 121). He healed the nature he took from us (p. 117). In this they acknowledge that a sinful nature and original sin are inextricably linked and that Christ himself needed healing. Such a Christ cannot save us for he needed saving himself.

Christ’s healing of human nature happened from the moment of conception (p. 121–22). He was without sin. Thankfully this obviates the problem mentioned in the previous paragraph but simultaneously it destroys the argument for it means Christ’s humanity was not entirely like ours after all. Indeed, a citation of John Webster follows, in which he emphasises that Christ does not identify with us to the extent of being a sinner, has “a peculiar distance” from our own performance, does not follow our path, and has an “estrangement from us” due to his obedience (p. 122–23).

The book’s argument can be turned on its head. For it to be sustained Christ should have a complete identity with fallen human nature and be a sinner. In this case he really would have been just like us. This Clark and Johnson, quite rightly, find unacceptable. A line has to be drawn somewhere.

Throughout, the authors oppose the idea that Christ took into union a nature like Adam’s before the fall. However, this is not the only alternative. Reformed theology has taught that Christ lived in a state of humiliation, sinless and righteous but with a nature bearing the consequences of the fall in its mortality, its vulnerability and its suffering—but not fallen. Furthermore, the NT witness is that the incarnation is a new creation, the start of the new humanity, not a re-pristinization of the old. Christ is the second Adam, not the first. In the position the book opposes I fail to recognize the classic Reformed Christology.

The authors’ premise is that anything other than a fallen nature would diminish Christ’s identification with us in our humanity. However, a fallen nature is intrinsic to a fallen human being but it is not definitive of, but incidental to, a human being.

While the book’s emphasis on the atoning life of Christ correctly integrates the atonement with the incarnation (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, 37) we miss the repeated stress in the NT on atonement being achieved by the blood of Christ, his life laid down in death. Instead of “redemption by his blood” (Eph. 1:7) and reconciliation by the death of the Son (Rom. 5:9–10) these realities are established “within the being and life of our Mediator” (p. 128). In seeking to correct a problem the book is in danger of presenting, in a phrase of R. P. C. Hanson’s, redemption by a kind of sacred blood transfusion.

There are sweeping references to “modern Christians” throughout the book—who have consistently got it wrong. The tone is strident. The historical positions are painted as heretical, versions of what Torrance called “the Latin heresy.” Yet the putative antidote is itself a modern idea. Attempting to correct a perceived imbalance the authors have set up one of their own.

Robert Letham

Robert Letham
Wales Evangelical School of Theology
Bridgend, Wales, UK

Other Articles in this Issue

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The book of Job is an obvious place to turn when a Christian suffers, but it is not easy to discern what God means to teach his people through this difficult book...