Incarnation Anyway?

A couple of years ago I read through Edwin Chr. van Driel’s important work, Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology. In it, van Driel explores the question, would God have become incarnate even if there were no sin from which to rescue humanity? Or, to state the question differently, in the eternal plan of God, is God’s decree to become incarnate in Christ logically anterior to his decree to permit the fall (supralapsarian)?

Van Driel admits that in the Western traditions, the answer to this question is (for the most part) decidedly, no. Calvin is representative on this point:

One such [vague] speculation is that Christ would still have become man even if no means of redeeming mankind had been needed…But since all Scripture proclaims that to become our Redeemer he was clothed with flesh, it is too presumptuous to imagine another reason or another end. We well know why Christ was promised from the beginning: to restore the fallen world to succor lost men….In short, the only reason given in Scripture that the Son of God willed to take our flesh, and accepted this commandment from the Father, is that he would be a sacrifice to appease the Father on our behalf (Institutes 2.12.4).

But van Driel suggests that this line of reasoning begs the question in some important respects. Is it actually the case that Scripture gives us no reasons for the incarnation other than those tied to Christ’s work of sin-bearing atonement? For example, does Scripture not also speak of the incarnation in creational and eschatological terms that transcend (without occluding) the incarnation’s redemptive rationale?

But what would a scriptural case for the “incarnation-anyway” position look like? What Scriptures have proponents of this view marshaled as evidence for their position? Many supporters of the position have pointed to the sweeping Christological claims of Ephesians and Colossians with regard to Christ’s place in God’s creational agenda. Ephesians 1:10 maintains that God’s purpose in Christ was “a plan for the fullness of time to unite (anakephalaioo; recapitulate) all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Likewise, Colossians 1:16 speaks of Christ—not just the Son of God as such, but the incarnate Christ—as the one through whom and for whom all things were created. So it appears that the incarnation has a creational, not merely a redemptive, dimension.

Van Driel also makes three interrelated theological arguments in favor of the incarnation-anyway position. He suggests that there are a number of goods that we would not have apart from the incarnation:

  • The superabundance of the eschaton. The eschaton (the final state) is not merely a return to the proton (the first state). It transcends Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden because it involves an eternal, permanently sinless, face-to-face encounter with God in the face of Christ.
  • The vision of God. Relatedly, when we are transformed in the eschaton, we will experience the beatific vision. But how so? First John explains that the glorified saints will be like Christ, because they will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). Our experience of God will not merely be one of intellectual contemplation, but we will see our God in his incarnate state. As embodied creatures, we will know God in an embodied way.
  • Divine friendship. As van Driel argues, “for friends, presence is what counts.” God is not content to remain at a distance, but he makes himself “maximally available” to his creatures. This he accomplishes finally and fully through the incarnation.

So we have these superadded gifts only in light of the incarnation. But do we really want to say that these eschatological goods are entirely contingent upon the presence of sin? Was the fall, then, actually a felix culpa, a happy fault, that was necessary in order for God to bring about these final purposes for his creation? This view is problematic for van Driel, because it seems to make God’s good purposes dependent upon evil. Instead, van Driel maintains that these creational purposes were intended by God all along, with the added necessity of redemption entering into the picture posterior to the decree to permit the fall (I use the word “posterior” rather than “after” because we must remember that the decree of God is eternal; it is not as if the fall took God by surprise and only then did he determine to send a Savior; the decree to permit the fall and provide redemption was willed “before the foundation of the world” no less than the decree to create. So we are not dealing with a temporal but a logical priority here).

So what are we to make of this case for the incarnation-anyway position? I admit that I find many of these biblical and theological arguments quite compelling. The New Testament, especially Paul’s cosmic Christology, does seem to teach what Myk Habets has referred to as the primacy of Christ–that the incarnate Christ is preeminent in all of God’s purposes, for creation and consummation no less than redemption. But it should be noted that the overwhelming majority of texts that speak of the incarnation do situate it in terms of God’s redemptive work. And there may be other problems for the incarnation-anyway position that I need to think through more carefully. But at the moment I am inclined to think that incarnation has primacy in the eternal decree of God. So perhaps–wonder of wonders–God in his infinite love determined to be Immanuel, God with us, all along.

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2 thoughts on “Incarnation Anyway?

  1. While “incarnation anyway” may be a minority position in Western theology, it is a pretty substantial minority; Robert Grosseteste, Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great, John Duns Scotus (and subsequent Scotists), Robert Bellarmine, Francisco Suarez, and a fair few other Jesuits all upheld the doctrine. Not only that, but there have been some Reformed theologians who held the doctrine, Thomas Goodwin, for instance. My point is, it’s not nearly as much of a doctrinal outlier as, for instance, Berkouwer would have you think. (I would add that this shows the danger of seeing Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin as being theologically representative of their respective eras.)

    • Well said, Nathanael. And we could add to the list. Van Driel interacts especially with Dorner, Schleiermacher, and Barth. But it is still the minority report and questions related to the decree in general remain suspect in many quarters.

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