With the celebration of the resurrection and ascension of Christ, we may conclude that this marks the end of Jesus’ incarnation. He accomplished what he came to do, and has now returned to his disembodied estate (at least this is the way I pictured it as a young Christian). But is the incarnation a momentary affair in the life of God, in which the Son momentarily alights on earth (a mere 33 years) only to ascend and shed his body to take his place once again in the spiritual realm? I am not sure that I had thought it out or could articulate it, but I was not alone in picturing the incarnation as temporary and provisional. Unfortunately, this is a common presumption which gives rise to notions of salvation and the Christian life that are disincarnate (disembodied, otherworldly, “spiritual,” inward, individualistic, and focused on going to heaven). The provisional incarnation relinquishes the incarnate work of Christ in his real-world defeat of evil, and allows for a provisional evil to reign in his absence.
Incarnation as an Eternal Fact About God
The incarnation of Christ, in which the creator and the created, the divine and human, and heaven (the dwelling place of God) and earth are brought together, should have forever dispelled the division between the earthly and spiritual, typical of evangelicalism and of many forms of Christianity. The incarnation, according to Maximus the Confessor, is the explanation of creation:
The mystery of the Word’s incarnation contains the force of all the hidden meanings and types in scripture, and the understanding of the visible and intelligible creatures. The one who knows the mystery of the cross and tomb knows the true nature of these aforementioned things. And the one who has been initiated into the ineffable power of the resurrection knows the purpose for which God made all things.
Nature did not originally have unity with God, but according to Maximus, the incarnation has brought about this unity, in which both creation and God maintain an integrity “unaltered on the level of its essence.” By virtue of the incarnation and the union of creator and creation, nature will “continue to abide with its essence strictly intact and in every way undiminished” by sin. “In this way, the Word entered into ‘communion’ with human nature in a way that was ‘far more marvelous than the first,’ essentially uniting nature to Himself in a union according to hypostasis.”
God reveals himself in the incarnation, making of the created order a fit dwelling for his presence. God in Christ provides renewed life to Adam and the created order becomes lit up with his glory. As Lewis Ayres pictures it, Christians are to “see themselves embedded within a cosmos that is also a semiotic system that reveals the omnipresent creating consubstantial Word.” As Paul writes, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col 1:15–16). What is accomplished through him and for him is not a failed or temporary arrangement. Incarnation completes, heals, and fulfills creation.
According to Irenaeus, “He was incarnate and made Man; and then he summed up in himself the long line of the human race, procuring for us a comprehensive salvation, that we might recover in Christ what in Adam we lost, namely being in the image and likeness of God.” As Paul states it, “He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Eph 1:9–10). This summing up of the incarnation is an eternal and ongoing fact about God. In Maximus’ formula, (as I have described it here) “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Ambigua, 7.22). As Maximus explains it elsewhere:
This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings. (QThal., 60.3).
Provisional Incarnation Allows for the Continued Reign of Evil in a Heaven and Earth Divide
The issue begins with how seriously we take the incarnation and it ends with how we perceive the beauty of God and the ugliness of evil. If the incarnation is seen as provisional, then true Christian peace and beauty must be discontinuous with this world as we have it. Yes, the kingdom of God will usher in a new world, but if this kingdom is of another order, then so too the salvation, ethics, and politics of Jesus. The incarnation, in this understanding, points away from the earthly work of Christ to a spiritual transaction between the Father and Son. Salvation is primarily soulish and disembodied, so that ethics is secondary and various forms of evil may be seen as necessary (part of God’s plan). Christians can thus tolerate great ugliness and the injustices of the world, while simultaneously refusing the beauty of God’s glory with which the world is permanently imbued in the incarnation.
If the incarnation is temporary and provisional, then the division between heaven and earth, the transcendent and immanent, the spiritual and material, must be a permanent division in which the affairs of this world can neither bear the weight of God’s glory nor the ugliness of radical evil. The world is rendered a neutral grey with only slight gradations of brightness and darkness, while all that is truly good is bound in heaven and all that is truly evil concerns the soul. Embodied reality is rendered secondary, such that what one does in the flesh, or one’s ethical practices (whether good or evil), only pertain in a secondary manner. There is a division within reality in which the earthly, the embodied, and the created, are secondary realities. In this form of Christianity, the primary concern is with individual souls going to heaven and missing hell, and both the goodness and evil of the world are temporary and provisional – just like the incarnation.
With belief in this discontinuous incarnation, we miss not only the great beauty of God’s creation but the incarnate goodness of God and, as demonstrated in the history of the church, Christians will tolerate evil and the most profound forms of ugliness as these are considered temporarily necessary and expedient. Violence, war, racism, and ultimately the worst forms of cruelty and genocide have been associated with forms of Christianity which have not only tolerated but promoted colonialism, slavery, and violence in the name of a greater (disincarnate) good.
A provisional incarnation means the gospel pertains primarily to the “spiritual” realm and the injustices and cruelties of this world must be seen in light of this greater concern. As theologian Wayne Grudem states it:
In areas where there is systematic injustice manifested in the treatment of the poor and/or ethnic or religious minorities, the church should also pray and—as it has opportunity—speak against such injustice. All of these are ways in which the church can supplement its evangelistic ministry to the world and indeed adorn the gospel that it professes. But such ministries of mercy to the world should never become a substitute for genuine evangelism or for the other areas of ministry to God and to believers mentioned above.
Rather than the gospel addressing and correcting wrong, in this typical evangelical theology, the gospel, evangelism, and conversion are realms apart from injustice. The best one can do is “pray” and “speak out against injustice” but to do more would potentially distract from the real work, as these are only “supplements” to the “genuine” work. The gospel is limited to the disembodied soulish realm, and salvation is mainly from the world and not for the world while the presumed anthropology is absolute individualism.
This split between heaven and earth and the divine and human, renders ethics and practice realms apart from belief and doctrine. Again, according to Grudem, theology and ethics must be purposefully separated:
The emphasis of systematic theology is on what God wants us to believe and to know, while the emphasis in Christian ethics is on what God wants us to do and what attitude he wants us to have. Such a distinction is reflected in the following definition: Christian ethics is any study that answers the question, “What does God require us to do and what attitude does he require us to have today?” with regard to any given situation. Thus theology focuses on ideas while ethics focuses on situations in life. Theology tells us how we should think while ethics tells us how we should live.
According to Grudem, belief and practice are separate and thus ethics does not enter directly into theology, as if belief and doctrine do not already entail a set of practices. The presumption is that of René Descartes, that the soul and body are separate and thus belief is interior while practice is exterior.
Another problem with a discontinuous incarnation is that sin is relegated to legal transgressions and individual acts, and the corporate and incarnate nature of the problem is overlooked. Again, Grudem serves as an example of this legal and individualistic understanding of sin:
We may define sin as follows: Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature. Sin is here defined in relation to God and his moral law. Sin includes not only individual acts such as stealing or lying or committing murder, but also attitudes that are contrary to the attitudes God requires of us. . . .
The definition of sin given above specifies that sin is a failure to conform to God’s moral law not only in action and in attitude, but also in our moral nature. . . . It is far better to define sin in the way Scripture does, in relationship to God’s law and his moral character.
With temporary incarnation, sin is not connected to the orientation to death or the corporate evil that killed Christ, just as deliverance from sin is not connected to the defeat of this orientation. Sin is not related to the death dealing systemic evil, which Christ describes in all four Gospels, as that which would “save the self.” Sin is not connected to the deception Isaiah describes and which Paul focuses upon; the “covenant with death.” In Grudem’s theology sin is not related to the devil, evil spirits, systemic evil, or the world of darkness, which is the focus of much of the New Testament. Sin is simply understood in relation to God’s law and salvation is satisfaction of God’s “moral character” as expressed in the law. In this understanding the cross of Christ does not directly address the problem of evil. In other words, the life of Jesus, his teaching, death, and resurrection do not really figure into the central problem and its resolution, which is solely connected to the law.
Meanwhile, the problem of evil, which is thought to go unaddressed by the cross, is explained as part of God’s plan. After all, what greater evil could there be than the murder of the Son, and yet this too is part of God’s plan to find self-satisfaction. Evil then, has its purposes as part of teaching people to endure suffering and creating better souls, so that God deploys evil as part of a “soul-making theodicy.” Rather than seeing the cross as the challenge and defeat of evil, evil is given a role in God’s plan.
In fact, evil may be a difficult category to discern, as God must have designated certain persons to rule in patriarchy, slavery, racism, nationalism, and colonialism, so that the gospel can be spread and souls saved. Better to oppress, dominate, and even kill the body so that the soul might be saved. Colonialism spreads the gospel and slavery trains and disciples those who otherwise might remain ignorant of salvation.
In other words, where the solutions of the incarnation, in addressing evil on the cross, are set aside, evil becomes an instrument which may be directly deployed by the church or perhaps is not recognized as evil at all. As Duane Loynes describes in a survey of the literature, John Feinberg, in his comprehensive survey of evil and theological and philosophic approaches to the problem “fails to mention slavery, racism, genocide, African Americans, Native Americans, liberation theology, Cone, King, the Civil Rights Movement, or the American Church’s tragic history of injustice.” He notes N. T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God provides passing references to the horror of Hurricane Katrina as an inspiration for his text, but doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Black bodies were the ones who suffered the most.” Norman Geisler’s systematic theology, likewise “is dedicated exclusively to the topics of sin and salvation,” and yet makes no reference to corporate or systemic evil such as slavery or racism. He also provides examples from Catholic theology and concludes, “Because of this silencing and invisibility, there are not only voices that have not been heard, there are moral questions that have not been asked. . .” Questions of racism, colonialism, and white supremacy, have gone unasked and unanswered by multiple generations.
The New Testament Pictures the Body of Christ as a Continuing Community of Practice Bringing About Holistic Salvation
The teaching of the New Testament (and an observable truth) is that belief and practice cannot be separated and that practice reveals true convictions. This is why it is necessary to think out our convictions in a community of practice, as the fulness of doctrine and the fulness of salvation are lived-out beliefs expressed and learned through the practices and discipleship engendered in the church. One is not “saved” apart from the body of Christ any more than one can have a disembodied belief. Language and thought are not realms apart from the body but come to us through linguistic communities which embody certain beliefs in their practice. In the church, primary conviction is expressed in the ethic, the prayers, the hymns, the sermons, expressed in the life of the church – a life and set of practices that are salvific. The incarnation continues, and the church is a form of this continuation. Being joined to the incarnate One is not provisional or partial, but is holistic and eternal.
As Loynes writes in response to Grudem:
In examining the accounts of healings performed by Jesus in the Gospels, it should be obvious that they embody the union of spirituality and liberation. They are never juxtaposed as if one is opposed to the other. In fact, we sometimes find Jesus engaging solely in the work of ‘liberation’—healing people, freeing them from physical, earthly burdens—without preaching a ‘spiritual’ Gospel.
The problem is, where Jesus’ work is “spiritualized” (as deliverance from a legal category or deliverance from the wrath of God) the healing ministry of Jesus, and the historical life and death of Christ (or in short, the incarnation), are rendered secondary to the real story which is a-historical and “spiritual.” Jesus has born a spiritual and legal punishment which only indirectly pertains to historical events. The incarnation as provisional misses the eternal defeat of sin, death and evil – which in light of the eternal incarnation are defeated forever.
To know God is to know Christ in the world and to know the world through Christ. God has made nature new, including human nature, “returning it to its primordial beauty of incorruptibility through His holy flesh.” Certainly this is a work in process, but apart from this joining of humanity and God in the incarnation there is no salvation, no renewal, no defeat of evil.
(Register for the Class Marginalization and Restorative Justice, starting April 17th and running through June 9th, here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)
Maximus, Chapters on Theology and Economy 2.57‐58. Cited by Derrick Peterson, in “Maximus and Augustine: The Will, Incarnation, and Aesthetics of Creation” uploaded to academia-mail.com.
 Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 36.2.
 Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to 4th Century Trinitarianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 325. Cited in Peterson.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.18.1. Cited in Peterson.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 868. Cited in Duane Terrence Loynes Sr., “A God Worth Worshiping: Toward a Critical Race Theology” (2017). Marquette University Dissertations (1934 -), 94.
 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 26. Cited in Loynes, 97.
 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 490–491. Cited in Loynes, 100.
 Loynes, 110.
 Loynes, 100.
 Loynes, 111.
 Loynes, 94-95.
 Ambigua, 42.5.
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