On The Incarnation

Did God have to redeem?

One of the more interesting theological questions that I hear asked from time to time pertains to whether God had to save us or not. I suppose most practical people wouldn’t spend too much time thinking about this because the reality of things is that He wants to redeem, and is in the process of redeeming. So, for many, whether He was obligated to redeem according to His character or not doesn’t accomplish anything.

Though, I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s an unimportant issue, but simply that it’s not one of those doctrinal issues which is salvific . This means that what one believes about it (a salvific issue) has consequences for their salvation. For example, was Jesus the Son of God? Did He die for your sins? Did Jesus live a sinless life? And of course, for perhaps the most hotly debated issue among Protestants as to whether it is a salvific issue, the nature of justification and works and how right and wrong can one be and still be saved (e.g. according to Protestant notions of justification, are Catholics saved?).

Those issues which are most often thought of as salvific are the ones most closely related to how we articulate the Gospel. It’s for this reason that Baptists and Presbyterians can divide so sharply over something as fundamental to the life of the Church as baptism, and yet still call each other brothers and sisters in Christ.

Christmastime and the Incarnation

In this Christmas season we will hear the story of Jesus’ birth many times; singing songs about the miraculous nature of His birth and being. The term which often encapsulates both the historical circumstances of His birth, and its theological implications is, Incarnation. Sharing the Latin root from which we get carnal, it means “into flesh”.

One of the more interesting related moments in Church history came about in the early 4th century, coinciding with Emperor Constantine’s rule. Prior to this Christianity had been outlawed and heavily persecuted by most Roman Emperors. But Christianity was growing like a wildfire in the empire and Constantine, who tradition says had a kind of vision of a cross which led to His victory in battle and accession to the throne, sought to unify this new empire of his.

Because Christianity had been persecuted so heavily, there wasn’t opportunity for the Church to come together as a whole and address issues, such as growing heresy, in a diplomatic way. Small sects of Christianity, which affirmed heretical doctrines, flourished for a time because of the lack of oversight by an institutional Christianity and Church. One of these heresies was Arianism, named after its major proponent, Arius. Arius believed and taught that there was “a time when Jesus was not”. Said simply, he believed that Jesus was a created being (this is a vast oversimplification). This was no minor heresy for two reasons: first, the theological implication about the nature of Christ and the doctrinal relationship to salvation; secondly, the great influence Arianism had over the church (perhaps 1/3 of the church believed this at the time).

Enter Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea.

Constantine, concerned over the influence Christianity has on his empire, and the growing division taking place in the Church, convenes an empire-wide church council which has come to be known as the Council of Nicaea of 325 A.D. There were many issues addressed at this council but the theological differences concerning Arianism seem to have taken center-stage. Arius main opponent, and main defender of orthodoxy was Alexander of Alexandria. Alexander also had a pupil who would later become the main defender of orthodoxy against Arianism. His pupil’s name was Athanasius.

Athanasius is an important figure in Church history not only for this moment though. He did and wrote several things for which the Church is greatly blessed by. Perhaps one of the more important legacies which follow him concerns his 39th Festal Letter wherein he enumerates the books which are accepted as canonical. This is the earliest complete list of canonical books still extant.

On the Incarnation

Of Athanasius’ works defending orthodoxy against Arianism, On the Incarnation is the most popular, even among today’s readers. As we look back to the question about God’s obligation to redeem, I am reminded of a thought which Athanasius repeats many times in this short book. Here’s the passage where he articulates this most fully:

“On the other hand, it was improper that what had once been made rational and partakers of his Word should perish, and once again return to non-being through corruption. It was not worthy of the goodness of God that those created by him should be corrupted through the deceit wrought by the devil upon human beings. And it was supremely improper that the workmanship of God in human beings should disappear either through their own negligence or through the deceit of the demons.

Therefore, since the rational creatures were being corrupted and such works were perishing, what should God, being good, do…It was proper not to have come into being rather than to come into being to be neglected and destroyed. The weakness, rather than the goodness, of God is made known by neglect, if, after creating, he abandoned his own work to be corrupted….It was therefore right not to permit human beings to be carried away by corruption, because this would be improper to and unworthy of the goodness of God.”

What Athanasius is arguing is that it is inconsistent with God’s character to not redeem the thing which He created. It is His goodness which obliges Him to redeem His creation, especially since part of creation bears His image (i.e. human beings). If God had not created, and that creation had become corrupted, then perhaps redeeming is a trait of God which must never be exercised (and as a consequence, is never personally known by His creatures). Some people might think that a world in which we know God’s redemption as fallen creatures is a better world, or that it gives God more glory, than a world where there is no redemption necessary. This is essentially one of the arguments for the reason for evil in light of a good God (theodicy). Some know it as the Greater-Good argument. For example, a world in which God’s grace is known and experienced is a greater world than one without. Because God’s purpose is to glorify Himself, and He gets more glory from a world where He administers His grace, especially towards sinners, then He brings about this world.

And this is why I think entertaining such abstract discussions can be profitable; because it helps us understand why it is God does certain things, and acts in certain ways. Why does God choose to redeem? Because it would be inconsistent with His character; two ways in particular that I will talk about. The first of which is that God is concerned with His own glory. To allow His good creation to waste away under the weight of sin and corruption does not honor Himself.

The second is that it is inconsistent with His love. God creates a world which He loves, filled with creatures which He loves. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” To allow the thing which He loves to languish under the weight of sin and corruption is inconsistent with the notion that He loves that thing. God’s love for His creation is what obliges Him to redeem it, and is consistent with His own character.

So, to simply say, that such a question which we first proposed is unimportant is false. It is an important and profitable discussion because such discussions demand that we reflect on God’s character and how that shapes how and why He creates and redeems. Another of those abstract questions which is a natural corollary to this one, is whether God had to love this world? Was it a choice for Him to love this creation, and as a consequence, to redeem it when it became corrupted? Or could He simply have chosen not to love His creation? Of course the practical person would say that question doesn’t matter because we know that He does love His creation which He showed by sending His Son Jesus to die for us. And perhaps, it is sufficient for this discussion to end on that point for now.

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