Incarnation: Scandal and Foolishness, or Power and Wisdom?
“But we proclaim Messiah crucified, a scandal to Jewish people, foolishness to the goyim, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Messiah, the power of God and the wisdom of God” – I Corinthians 1:23-24
I have to admire Paul’s gutsy honesty here. He takes standard Jewish and Greek understandings with utter seriousness, and does not misrepresent or twist them to make them fit the gospel he proclaims.
The Christian doctrine of incarnation, that, as the gospel of John puts it, “The Logos became flesh and pitched tent among us” (John 1:14) simply was sheer foolishness, something completely incoherent in the standard Heraclitian/Platonic ontologies of the day. How? Because the entire ur-narrative of these Greek ontologies depends on Logos/Reason/Word/Wisdom remaining at a remove from the ephemerality, instability, and chaotic nature of material reality. Only at such a remove could the Logos become an informing, constraining principle of such material chaos. Communication was possible between the two, but any actual communion or intermingling was inconceivable. It was simply obvious, in this ur-narrative, that if the Logos were to become material, even worse, to become flesh, the most unstable and ephemeral of all material realities, all hope of order, civilization, even coherence itself would be lost.
Likewise, within the very narrative in Genesis from which we derived the biblical ontology we began to unpack in the previous post, there is a very significant additional agenda in place, one which likewise sees the co-mingling of human and divine realities as a source of chaos and destruction. Creation happens in Genesis 1 precisely because God keeps dividing one thing from another, creating boundaries which give room for each differentiated thing to have its place. The “Fall” in Genesis 2 happens in large part because humans have grasped after the knowledge of the Deity. The flood narrative beginning in Genesis 6 identifies a major cause of the contagion of violence ruining all creation as the “Sons of God” having offspring with “human daughters” generating the Nephilim, a race of superior warriors (Genesis 6:1-5). Later, God takes decisive action to end the efforts of humans to build a tower to reach heaven. Story after story, this message rings clear: God is God and humans are not and cannot ever expect to be God. Any notion of a human becoming God or God becoming human is therefore not simply foolish (Greek), but blasphemous. Calling Christian notions of incarnation a scandal to mainstream Jewish theology informed by the Torah may, indeed, be an understatement.
Of course, Paul isn’t even addressing incarnation, per se, in the quote taken above. He is rather dealing with the heart of his proclamation in Corinth: Messiah crucified. Corinth was the active capitol of Greek culture and economic and political power in Paul’s day. Athens was more of a cultural heritage site at that point. Corinth was also home to a significant Jewish diaspora community. Following an executed man, an ephemeral man judged not worthy of continuing life by his peers, was thus, indeed, foolishness to the Greeks. And it was sheer scandal in mainstream Jewish interpretation to claim Messiah, one of their own, had or could have been been crucified, for “cursed is anyone hanged on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23).
Paul makes a very different claim. Messiah crucified is “Messiah the power of God (Jewish) and the wisdom of God (Greek).” The gospel is the announcement of the paradoxical reversal of expectations that actually fulfills the true hopes of both cultures, Jewish and Gentile, which is to say, of the whole world, the cosmos.
Christians, with John and Paul, do proclaim Jesus as Word made flesh, God incarnate, and as Messiah crucified, buried, resurrected, ascended, and coming again. Both were and are foolishness and scandal when our earliest Christian ancestors declared them. Both still are. We, with Paul, still need to own this.
But in owning this, we need not retreat from the claims of incarnation or Christ crucified, raised and returning one iota. Because our ur-narrative is not a narrative of an ordering principle that must remain at some remove lest chaos ensue, and whose core work of ordering is the work of differentiation. Our ur-narrative is that narrative’s reversal, the undoing of entropy, not by remove or further differentiation but by fully-restored fellowship. Our ur-narrative, starting with the birth of the church at Pentecost, is of the full restoration of all things in all their variety, variability and even ephemerality, reading backwards from the undoing of Babel toward the ultimate undoing of the Fall. That which was set apart into isolation as a check against chaos is brought back into full communion, a communion that reflects the full diversity within the original creation but no more of the hostility set loose at the Fall. Our ur-narrative leads back to the possibility of God looking upon all things in all their ephemerality, fleshliness and variety, and delighting, as they delight, completely, announcing an eternal “Tov meod!”
Now, this vision of restoration, of ultimate Shalom, of Tikkun Olam (the healing of the world) is not and never has been foreign to all forms of Jewish philosophy or religion, then or, perhaps, especially now. Incarnation and our proclamation as Christians of Jesus as crucified Messiah remain scandalous. But the ur-narrative of the restoration of all things by God with us is one in which Christians and at least some Jewish denominations may be increasingly able to collaborate.
The Outpouring of the Spirit and Christian Biblical Ontology
There are three moments in United Methodist ritual where we especially embody our theology of incarnation, grounded in our biblical ontology. These are baptism, Holy Communion, and ordination.
In all three, our collective prayer, led by an authorized presider, says “Pour out your Spirit on X, that X may be Y.”
At Holy Communion we pray “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and upon these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”
At ordination or consecration we pray, “Almighty God, pour upon Name the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a deacon/an elder/a bishop in Christ’s holy church.”
And at baptism, which lies beneath and grounds the life of the whole church, and so grounds both Holy Communion and ordination, we pray, “Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and those who receive it, to wash away their sin and clothe them in righteousness throughout their lives, that, dying and being raised with Christ, they may share in his final victory.”
Always at these pivotal moments we call upon the action of the Holy Spirit, the one ever-moving over the face of ever-moving waters, the Spirit whose breath and whose outpouring of gifts never ceases.
And in all of these pivotal moments, what we seek is for the Spirit to start something new or afresh in us, to initiate a flow the Spirit will ever sustain, but we may or may not continue to abide in.
Starting, though not completed, at baptism.
In none of these cases in our theology as United Methodists, including baptism, does the Spirit’s action begun absolutely guarantee the outcome desired. Neither baptism nor ordination conveys any sort of “indelible mark” or “permanent alteration of character” in our lives or conduct.
Likewise, with many other Protestants and Anglicans, we deny transubstantiation, not because of any ongoing rebellion against Roman Catholic theology per se, nor any longer out of any proximity to the actions of the Council of Trent that led our Anglican forebears (and Wesley, copying them) to take such a strident stand against it as a doctrine that “overthroweth the nature of a sacrament” (Articles of Religion XVIII). Rather, we deny transubstantiation because our biblical ontology has no need of any “essences” or “substances” as a hedge against the contingencies and ephemeralities of our own material, fleshly state, or that of the bread and wine on which we also seek the Spirit’s blessing. Instead, we are assured by Jesus, God in our flesh, that the living God in whom we trust pours out the Spirit freely and abundantly for and upon all who ask (Luke 11:13).