This edition of Connections is about telling stories — chiefly stories about congregations engaging their neighborhoods in brave, new, creative ways.
There are also stories behind what the church teaches. Doctrine is nothing other than the distillation of the lived experience of Christians as they strive to follow him.
As I write this we are approaching Christmas, which is the feast of the Incarnation. We generally think of Christmas as the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and so it is. But Incarnation means more than that. The term literally means becoming enfleshed, that is, becoming embodied. So the twelve days of Christmas, and the season of Epiphany that follows, are not just about Jesus’ birth, but also about how God became a human being in Jesus Christ. That divinity and humanity are joined in Jesus is one of Christianity’s two central teachings. (The other is God as Trinity, which I will come to shortly.)
So what is the story behind the doctrine of the Incarnation? From the very beginning, Christian faith has embraced Jesus of Nazareth as a human being adopted by God to be God’s representative, both because of Jesus’ total openness to God’s will and because God willed him to be so open. Theologians have a name for this understanding of who Jesus is as the Messiah. They call it “adoptionism.”
There are echoes of this early understanding of Jesus in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, where the voice of the Father is heard saying, “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” This echoes Psalm 102:7, where the reference is to David, Israel’s ancient king. This fits with initial interpretations of Jesus as fulfilling and perfecting the checkered reign of David.
“As Christians we can stand behind the notion of a godhead that is relational at its heart”
But already in the Gospels, and also in the earlier letters that can confidently be attributed to Paul, it is clear that Christian faith very quickly moves beyond adoptionism. Jesus is Lord, and he is Lord because he is worthy of worship. Let’s not forget that most early Christians were Jews, and they would never attribute lordship to a human being. They found in Jesus a direct experience of God. Jesus was not merely a righteous man adopted by God as God’s son, but a manifestation of the mercy and salvation of God placed in the midst of the human race. As Matthew says, Jesus is Immanuel – God with us.
Nevertheless, this raises a problem. If Jesus as Lord is God-with-us, who is the Father to whom Jesus teaches us to pray? If Jesus is God, who else is he praying to? Are there two gods here, or one? If we are not to fall back into adoptionism, then we must face (as the early church did face) the charge that Christian faith is not monotheistic.
Of course, Christianity is monotheistic. John’s Gospel, the latest of the four (c. 100) takes this question head-on. Over and over again, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” It is John who introduces his version of the Gospel by declaring that Jesus is the pre-existing Word of God “who became flesh and dwelt among us.” He can be worshiped because he is the embodiment of God’s own will for us.
Here we come to the threshold of what is meant by the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. God’s will for us from the foundation of the world finds its fulfillment in Jesus.
John’s teaching could, of course, be viewed as a highly developed form of adoptionism: God’s everlasting will, taking on flesh in Jesus. But the church went a different direction. It took the bold step of seeing Jesus as the incarnate Word of the Father who had always been in personal relationship to the Father. This had the immediate effect of re-imagining God as an irreducible dynamic of love: the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father.
Once we look at God in this way, it is no surprise that the Holy Spirit comes into view in a new way. The Holy Spirit had always been important as something closely connected to Jesus. Right after his baptism, Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus promises his disciples that he will send the Holy Spirit to guide them and advocate for them. From the very beginning, Christians experienced the Holy Spirit in their worship as powerful evidence of God’s care for them. But how that fitted into the Christian understanding of God was not clear from the beginning. Indeed, the presence of the Holy Spirit was so great in the early church that it seems to have been taken for granted.
Irenaeus, one of the early great theologians of the church, did not take it for granted. He reckoned that if Jesus as a person was the embodiment of God, then the Holy Spirit, who constantly accompanies and empowers Jesus and his disciples, must also have its own relationship to God. When describing the formation of Adam out of the earth, he spoke of the Son and the Holy Spirit as God’s two hands working the soil to fashion him. This is referenced in our Book of Common Prayer in Eucharist Rite One, where we ask God to bless God’s gifts or bread and wine “with thy Word and Holy Spirit.”
By the fourth century it was clear that if God was about the relation of the Father to the Son, then it was also about the Holy Spirit promoting the movement between them. At the risk of oversimplifying a profound idea: the Holy Spirit has presented the Son to the Father as a stranger to be reckoned with. So, within the Godhead there is the embrace of otherness.
We need to be clear that we are not talking about three gods here, but about one God whose internal dynamic, laid open for us in Jesus Christ, is the divinity we worship Sunday by Sunday. Even within God’s own life, God is about relationship.
As we work back through Scripture, this idea holds true. Stepping back from Scripture and the Christian tradition, I offer this thought. There is no way we can account for the existence of God in the first place. That is (and probably should be) beyond our ken. But as Christians we can stand behind the notion of a godhead that is relational at its heart. It is such a God who made this world to honor and delight in it, and as Son to enter fully into it.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal serves as Bishop of Southern Ohio. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.