Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Scandal of the Incarnation

"For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9)

Greek philosophy, and all pagan thought, pitted the realm of the spirit against the physical world. Plato, summarizing Greek thought, said that the eternal world of “ideas” or “forms” was imperfectly manifested in physical things. Thus, the goal of Greek thought was to get away from the physical world and from the physical body, and into a world of pure thought as much as possible. The same idea is found in Hinduism and by implication, one way or another, in all pagan thought.

The biblical doctrine is radically different. The Bible teaches that God is an eternal person and that He created the world, both the visible and the invisible aspects of it. Thus, the Bible affirms the goodness of the physical world. The Bible, for instance, celebrates the goodness of food with festivals, and the goodness of sexual pleasure in marriage (in the Song of Solomon).

That God would become incarnate as a human being was scandalous to the Greek mind. For them, the body was bad, and it was a contradiction that God would take on a body. For Christian thought, however, for God to take on a human body is not in the least bad or even humiliating. Humanity was created to image God. For God to wrap Himself in a human body was simply a way of glorifying Himself. Thus, we say that Jesus will never give up His humanity but will enjoy it in glory forever. (Of course, God did not merely take on humanity in the Incarnation; He took on a humanity that was under the curse of sin, and that was an act of self-abasement, as Philippians 2:6–8 teaches.) The philosophers in Athens listened to Paul until he began telling them about the resurrection and glorification of the physical body; then they scoffed at him (Acts 17:32).

This idea had infected Jewish thought as well, especially among the Sadducees, but also the Pharisees to some extent. The Pharisees believed in a physical resurrection, but they could only conceive of Jesus as some kind of spirit or angel (Acts 23:6–10). Now, in Colossae, the Jewish proto-Gnostics were arguing that Jesus could not have been a man in physical form; rather, He must have simply looked like a man, but really was some kind of angelic being.

The church fathers understood the importance of maintaining the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Despite this they allowed antiphysical biases to creep into the church—fasting replaced feasting, and celibacy was seen as “higher” than marriage. Don’t be influenced by such thought—celebrate God’s good creation.