The Incarnation: God’s Redemption of Man
There is no issue more central to Christianity than the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As we consider the reasons for the Word becoming flesh we should be careful to focus on those prophecies concerning His first coming, Jesus’ words regarding why He came and the writings of His Apostles and their disciples on this issue. As we drift further and further away from these sources and begin embracing the opinions and philosophies of men whom Jesus never affirmed we will inevitably encounter various errors. It is the obligation of each Christian to draw near to God, study the Scriptures and ensure they are embracing sound teaching.
Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the numerous views on the incarnation and redemption of man, or thought there was only one orthodox Christian view, then you’re far from being in the minority. Human beings tend to fellowship with those whose beliefs are the closest to our own and Christians are no exception. As a result, our understanding of church history and our doctrines often suffer from being underdeveloped. No one intentionally sets out with the goal of having their theology suffer from stagnation, but denominational barriers often achieve just that. Rather than studying what the early Church believed we tend to study commentaries on modern philosophies and theories which have evolved over time, becoming revered traditions.
Proponents of each redemption theory do have various proof texts from Scripture which they will point to as affirming their particular belief and often these arguments are very logical. However, upon closer examination we may discover some error, some contradiction; verses used to support a position at odds with their context or at odds with statements elsewhere in Scripture.
As we follow God, we should do so with a commitment to truth and love; being courageous enough to question those things which we assume are sound. If we discover they are, then we’re better for it - but if we discover we’ve embraced error then we should lay it aside and pursue God less encumbered.
I am confident we can trust Jesus. We can trust His words and the teachings of those He appointed to grow and guide the church. I am far less confident in the opinions of modern theologians and philosophers. Thus it is my belief we should strive to be as close to Jesus as possible; both relationally today via drawing near to Him in spirit as well as historically sound considering the earliest Church doctrines.
The word “incarnation” itself in fact does not appear in Scripture. It is derived from the Latin “in” and “caro” which means “in flesh”. Today there are a wide range of opinions and theories on exactly the reasons for the incarnation, that act wherein The Word, Jesus Christ, became man. To be clear while the term “incarnation” is not found in Scripture, the concept is undeniably present throughout. It is first hinted at in Genesis 3:15, the protoevangelium and carried through all the way into Revelation.
"By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” 1 John 4:2-3
Scripture is very clear, if we get the incarnation wrong and deny Jesus has come in our flesh, we are in the spirit of the antichrist. The importance of the incarnation cannot be understated.
“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Hebrews 2:17 “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.” Hebrews 4:15
There are a few views on the incarnation and redemption of man which can be traced back to the early Church within a hundred years after Christ’s ascension or possibly even earlier. Among them we find Ransom, Recapitulation and Moral Influence to be the oldest.
This view is often called Ransom to Satan, but it is better understood as Ransom from Satan. Ransom holds that when Adam rebelled and ceased following God that he submitted himself and all of creation, which God had given him charge over, to Satan. Essentially, Satan now had legal rights to mankind and so the Word became flesh, like us in every respect, in order to break these demonic chains for us. A ransom was the cost one would pay to free a captive taken in war and so under this view God literally became man in order to lay down His life so that we might live, being set free from the hold of the grave and devil. Think of the term redeeming as one would use it in the sense of redeeming a coupon. Here the redeeming shed blood of Christ is viewed as reclaiming man as His own, not that Satan became richer for the exchange but that the exchange destroyed the works of the devil.
While Adam chose disobedience, Christ chose obedience even unto death. While Adam went astray into sin, Jesus remained innocent and faithful. In this view, Jesus succeeds where Adam failed and by process of being fully human, like us in every respect, yet also being fully divine He leads mankind back to eternal life and the purposes for which they were created. Jesus did what we were too weak to do, that is to perfectly realize obedience to the purpose of God. Here God’s redeeming is a demonstration that He considers man worthy once more – deeming man good again.
In moral influence we see Christ’s death demonstrate how much God loves us, but also how we should live in response to this revelation. This theory is an extension of Matthew 22:36-40, essentially “Love God and love others.”
“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” 1 John 3:8
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Hebrews 2:14-15
The one common theme among these earliest Christian views on the incarnation and redemption of man is theosis; the transformative process wherein one is made or conformed in the likeness of God and established in union with Him. This theosis, while instigated by God, is only achievable through man’s cooperation. We recall the words of Christ in John 15:4
“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
These ancient redemptive theories also have their modern expressions in such models as Christus Victor and Restored Icon. Both of which seem to meld these three theories into one cohesive narrative rather successfully.
Now that we’ve addressed the ancient Christian models and understanding of the incarnation of Christ and redemption of man, it’s time to focus on what have become the most commonly held today. These are rather recent inventions, not found in the early Church, but based on the understanding of medieval and modern theologians trying to reconcile hundreds of years of philosophy with their Western understanding.
Between 1095 and 1098 ad the Archbishop of Canterbury, a Benedictine Monk by the name of Anselm formulated this particular theory. In his Cur Deus Homo? (Latin for “Why God Became a Man”) Anselm set out to give his particular take on the topic, as he found the ancient beliefs to be insufficient. Growing up in a world wherein a European Lord was seen has having more rights and honor than peasants, Anselm extended this to his view of God. If a peasant was working in the field and did not hear his Lord approach and make proper acknowledgement, the Lord could take offense and have that peasant punished or even executed. So too, according to Anselm, if we sin and dishonor God, He demands satisfaction. Accordingly, rather than see a loving God who came to deliver us from the hold of the grave and the works of the devil, Anselm saw a wrathful Lord so offended by our sin that He demanded payment as His honor demanded it. He saw Jesus as the perfect vessel for the wrathful Father to pour out His anger upon in a universal restitution for mankind’s offense to God’s honor. Nevermind that Scripture says the fullness of God dwelt in Christ and that they were of one purpose and one mind: Colossians 1:19, Colossians 2:9, John 17:21, etc.
Based in large part on Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory, Penal Substitution was first formally expressed by Charles Hodge in his 1865 publication entitled Systematic Theology. In this view, Hodge claimed that God was either unwilling or unable to simply forgive repentant sinners, but that He had to first receive satisfaction for their offense. Here Jesus did not come to save us from the hold of the grave and works of the devil, demonstrating His love and redeeming us to fellowship with Himself, but rather Jesus came to save us from God’s wrath. In Jesus giving Himself up on the cross, He allowed the Father to pour out His wrath on Him. So rather than God forgiving sinners, in this model He demands and receives payment for sin, the life of the Son.
While these two relatively modern views create division among the Godhead and completely upend the historic and Scriptural reasons for the incarnation and redemption of man, they are arguably the most widely held today.
To be clear there are many other theories beyond those I’ve addressed here. The one common theme shared by all of them is that Jesus came in our flesh, like us in every respect to deal with the consequences of sin and reconcile us to the Father in Him. It is this common theme that still points to the need for Christ. But this thread that seemingly connects them all, also serves to give a false sense of authenticity to their adherents. Those who embrace Satisfaction and Penal Substitution believe that because these theories address Jesus coming to deal with the consequences of sin that they are therefore sound and beyond reproach. But what do these latter theories do to the character and nature of the Holy and Living God? How do they shape our view of sin and self? Are they a accurate representation of Jesus, God with us?
I believe they create a false narrative wherein the sinner remains fearful of returning to God in Christ, rather than running to Him in gratitude and reckless abandon.
I hope that this serves to spur you on to further study the various incarnation and redemption theories so that you may be well rounded in your Church history and doctrine, but most important of all I hope this calls you to draw near to God in Christ, accepting and returning His love, that you may become transformed into the image of Christ and be a light in this dark world.