In my previous article on the atonement, I offered the following argument:
PI. The atonement has a final cause.
PII. That final cause is redemption.
PIII. But all people are not redeemed.
C. Therefore, the atonement and the redemption it accomplishes are limited in scope.
No one will object to (P1), since all Christians everywhere agree that God does all things with purpose (1 Cor. 14:33; Ecc. 3:1; Is. 53). Some may take issue with (P2), instead understanding the final cause of the atonement of to be an offer to all people. In other words, the purpose of the atonement is to offer atonement or redemption, but is not redemption itself. If this were the case, then the atonement has achieved its goal even if the number of people atoned for is indefinite, since the atonement, it is thought, is only to be offered yet not definitely applied.
There are a few issues with this conception of the atonement. In Isaiah 53:4 we are told, “Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows…” Who’s sorrows? Who’s griefs? Does Christ’s coming have a purpose? Surely it does, and it is to carry our sorrows. This is not a mere offer, this is a definite action, born or carry (נָשָׂא) being in the perfect tense in v. 4a. In v. 4b, the same is true with the expression, “carried our sorrows.”
If this is something Christ has definitely achieved, has He achieved it for the whole world? If so, is the whole world saved? No. For we are told in Matthew 25:41 and elsewhere (Jn. 5:29) that those who are resurrected unto judgement will be thrown into the everlasting fire. Thus, (PIII) appears to hold true.
In Isaiah 53:5, things become clearer: “But He was wounded for our transgressions…” Was He really wounded for or because of transgressions? If so, who’s transgressions? The transgressions of the whole world? Again, this is not merely an offer of Jesus’ wounds to cover a person’s transgressions. This is a direct statement that tells us Jesus has performed a work for some purpose beyond a mere offer. Verse 5 ends, “And by His stripes we are healed.” Again, healed, as with bore and carried, is in the perfect tense which, in Hebrew, signifies something that has been completed or accomplished.
In Isaiah 53:8b, we learn, “For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.” This ought to be the nail in the coffin. Here is a direct statement, corroborated by others such as Ephesians 5:25, which declares the purpose of Christ’s Sacrificial, priestly work, and that purpose is confined to a people, not people in the abstract. Christ gave Himself for His church. The atonement, while offered to all in evangelism, does not have a final cause of atoning for all people, nor is its final cause to merely serve as an offer. It has achieved something, that is, to “make an offering for sin (Is. 53:10),” or to atone for the people of God (v. 8).
This all amounts to Christ coming for a purpose, that is, to bear our guilt and to bleed for our sins. The question, therefore, becomes, Did He really do this? The Bible declares that He has (Jn. 19:30).
If Christ didn’t purchase the human mind, He didn’t purchase you at all.
Individual redemption is an all or nothing kind of thing. Christ didn’t only redeem the soul of man, or the spirit of man, or the body of man; He redeemed it all, the whole man (1 Thess. 5:23). But, how can Christ redeem the whole man? By becoming in every way like us in our nature, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). Christ redeems everything in us that He Himself possessed according to His human nature; a human body, a human mind, a human spirit.
If Christ didn’t have a human understanding, the human understanding couldn’t have been redeemed. If He didn’t have a human soul or will, then neither the human soul nor the human will could be redeemed. Christ was Himself under the law to redeem those who were under the law. He has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). If Christ didn’t have a whole human nature according to which He was subjected to the law and the punishment for our transgression thereof, no human person could be redeemed.
This makes standpoint epistemology an all the more frightening redefinition of the gospel.
Earlier on Facebook I submitted a post using this term, standpoint epistemology. Another word we might use is perspectivalism. The idea of standpoint epistemology, in short, is that different kinds of men have different kinds/ways of knowing. In the present context, if you’re white, you know according to whiteness. If you’re black, you know according to blackness. So, black Christians and white Christians read the Scriptures according to distinct ways of knowing or rationalizing. I know differently than a black person or an asian person knows and because of this, we bring “unique perspectives” to the text of Scripture.
Usually, this dynamic is described in terms of life experience. On this view, life experiences not only inevitably shape how a person comes to the text, but they should shape how a person comes to the text. A black man should feel perfectly comfortable bringing his black experience to the table while using that experience as a helpful guide or tool in interpreting God’s Word. The same goes for white men, asian men, brown men, etc (well, maybe all except for white men). And, these particular standpoint epistemology advocates may also add that these experiences, when taken together, help to bring the gospel into clearer focus. The plethora of different perspectives help to bring the gospel into clearer focus.
A white person cannot interpret the Bible like a black person because both of these groups have differing sets of variables acting upon them which prevents one from filling the intellectual shoes of another. The implication, of course, is that black people know like black people, white people know like white people and so on. Of course, this is said to be all experience driven. So, the objector might say, “it’s nothing about being black or white per se that gives these groups differing ways of knowing Scripture. It’s the experiences that affect how we know Scripture which inevitably come with growing up in black or white culture, respectively.
If this were true, the problem wouldn’t be so grave. After all, varying life experiences are a given. We all have them. We all come to the Bible with them in hand (like it or not). But the claim to a difference between black/white theology isn’t so superficial. The term experience is used because no one denies we all have differing experiences. But, if it were only life experience that separated blacks from whites in their quest for biblical truth, why not say there’s also an angler interpretation of the Bible, an Australian interpretation of the Bible, a pharmacist interpretation of the Bible, a rocket engineer interpretation of the Bible, a left-hander’s interpretation of the Bible? All of these groups of people have differing life experiences. Why limit life experience only to skin color or ethnicity. It seems so arbitrary.
There has to be something deeper than experience separating blacks and whites when it comes to the task of Christian theology. It can’t be mere experience because experiences can be sorted out into countless, arbitrary categories.
The standpoint epistemology advocate suggests men know according to their respective experiences. However, we should be asking the question, Why narrow those experiences to ethnicity? Why not something else? There has to be a reason behind why these men have chosen to narrow experiences almost exclusively to ethnicity. That reason must be that blacks and whites are different in some way; different beyond skin color or life experiences. It’s really ethnicity that becomes the distinguishing factor.
If all these life experiences must be categorized according to the ethnic backgrounds, then ethnicity is the controlling variable here. Anglos and African Americans think differently because they’re different ethnicities. They’re strapped to their ethnicity and cannot transcend it, not one iota. Everything they do, say, feel, all of it is according to their ethnicity. It’s not just experiences that shape who we are. Rather, we are, it must be thought, born with ontologically different souls, different minds, different, as it were, ways of knowing.
The Massive Christological Problem for Standpoint Epistemology
What happens when human knowing is not so much human knowing but ethnic knowing? What would happen to Christian theology if we were to suggest that my understanding is different than a black Christian’s understanding, and that that difference exists because of ethnicity or—dare I say—race? Does man know according to his humanity, or does he know according to his ethnicity? Is the nature of man’s knowing defined by his humanity or by his ethnicity?
This particular brand of standpoint epistemology would seem to suggest people know according to their respective ethnicities, making knowing a property of ethnicity, not of human nature. A person can be human, but they don’t have a human mind or understanding. They have either a Jewish mind, a black mind, a white mind, etc.
What’s startling about this prospect is that on this model of standpoint epistemology Jesus would have had a particularly first century Jewish mind. But if Christ had a first century Jewish mind, not a mind essential to all humanity but only essential to Jewishness, would it not follow that only believing Jews can be redeemed? Let me restate it in a more pointed way: Christ’s mind was not part of His human nature, it was part of His Jewish ethnicity—His Jewish nature we might say. Therefore, the human mind is not redeemed. Only the Jewish mind is redeemed. Therefore, we’re all in our sins. We can all just pack up our Bibles and go home, Christianity as we know it is false. This is the logical conclusion here. If there is not one humanity, then Christ cannot redeem one humanity. A human isn’t really a human, they’re Anglo, African American, or something else. But not human. We’re all a bunch of foreigners to one another, aliens—Star Wars style.
But I refuse to believe this is the case. It’s not the case that Jesus came only to redeem the Jewish mind (Rom. 1:16; 3:29). He came to redeem the human mind. Because of this, human minds—those essential to a single, universal human nature—are being redeemed.
Christ had to have a human mind to redeem human minds. Christ’s human mind, His way of knowing, may have existed within a Jewish context, but that didn’t make Christ’s mind an essentially Jewish mind. Jesus’ mind was essentially human. The mind, therefore, must be natural to humanity and not to ethnicity, race, etc. The human mind is transcendent of those things. It exists regardless of ethnicity. It’s not bound to ethnicity or race nor is it necessarily defined by ethnicity or race (although ethnicity may certainly act upon it). Which is just to say everyone must have the same kind of mind. Everyone must know in basically the same human way. So when standpoint epistemology tries to define the mind, or human knowing and how it operates in terms of ethnicity rather than in terms of human nature, it begins to have massive implications upon the doctrine of the incarnation and the atoning work of Christ.
Christ had a human mind. His redemptive jurisdiction was not limited to Jews, but to Gentiles also. Yet, that would only be possible if Jesus had a human mind, a human way of knowing. The question is, “Did Christ redeem our knowing?” The answer is, “Yes.” And the answer is “yes” precisely because Christ redeemed the human mind, not just the mind as it’s defined by a particular culture, ethnicity, or race. Identity politics and things like standpoint epistemology are a cancerous infiltration into the Christian system which undermine the totality of the Christian faith.
As Christians, we do not have a black mind or a white mind, a black way of knowing or a white way of knowing, “we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).”
Celebrating the incarnation is an every-Sunday-thing for our church. We don’t believe Christians ought to celebrate Christ’s incarnate work more during some parts of the year than others. This is largely because we believe the Bible directs our worship rather than a liturgical calendar. However, since the surrounding society does celebrate the incarnation more this time of year than anytime else (albeit in a nominal fashion), I’m happy to use it as an occasion to talk explicitly about God with us (Emmanuel).
How Did God Become Man?
The Baptist [Keach’s] Catechism reads:
Q. 25: How did Christ, being the Son of God become man?
A. Christ the Son of God became man by taking to himself a true body (Heb. 2:14, 17; 10:5), and a reasonable soul (Mt. 26:38); being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her (Luke 1:27, 31, 34, 35, 42; Gal. 4:4), yet without sin (Heb. 4:15; 7:26).
The question itself is paradoxical. God? Becoming man? This seems to run against every grain of our thought concerning who or what God is. God, after all, doesn’t change. He doesn’t move along with His creation. He’s not in a process of any kind. God is not a man. He is God. Right? The question above brazenly stares us in the face. It assumes this as fact: God has already become a man. More than this, Christ confronts us all as we read His own claims in the New Testament along with the testimony of the Old (Mic. 5:2; Jn. 8:58).
How should we understand this? Can we understand this? I am a firm believer that if God reveals something to us, we can understand it insofar as it’s revealed to us. In Scripture, God is presented to us and so is the incarnation of the Son of God. Scripture assumes these two doctrines “fit.” They’re not illogical or contradictory, but complementary—two pieces of the redemptive puzzle which make for a consistent and coherent whole. Yet, paradox will always remain.
Nothing about the above question is distinctly baptist. It’s mere orthodoxy—Nicene Christology at its core. The Son of God became man by taking to Himself a true body. This wasn’t a phantom body. It wasn’t only an apparent body. Everything about it was real—true flesh and blood. Hebrews 2:14a says, “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same…” The Son of God was human in every way you and I are human, yet without sin. Matthew 26:38 says, “Then He said to them, ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.’” The Son, therefore, took upon Himself a human body and a human soul. Everything about Him was man.
He became like us in every way, even being born of a woman, the virgin Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit, yet without sin. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
That is the way in which God the Son became man.
The Paradox Understood
True, everything about Him was man. But, everything about Him was also God. Hebrews 1:10 identifies Jesus with God by quoting Psalm 102:25—a Psalm addressed to Jehovah. So, what do we do with this? Do we have the luxury of just punting the question to mystery? Are we to believe a real contradiction exists, throw up our arms and say, “Well, God can do all things”? Absolutely not. Logical contradictions have no place in Christian theology, though paradoxes abound.
We need to review what an actual logical contradiction is. An example of a logical contradiction would be to say something like: “My red car is also blue at the same time and in the same sense.” This, of course, is ridiculous. A car is either red or blue, but it can’t be both. When Christians read of the incarnation, they may be tempted to think that God is God and man at the same time and in the same sense thereby producing a logical contradiction.
The orthodox doctrine of the incarnation, however, fails to produce a logical contradiction of any kind. This is because the doctrine stated is as follows: God the Son took into union with Himself the fullness of a human nature. There’s nothing contradictory about this statement. Difficult to understand? Sure. Contradictory? No. The Person of Christ is God in nature, and man in nature. The Son is God and man—the divine nature being eternal, the human nature being assumed in time.
So, the apparent contradiction may be put to sleep if we rightly understand the doctrine. It is God taking to Himself a human nature. Yes, God is God and man, but God is not God in the same sense He is man. Therefore, there’s nothing formally contradictory about the doctrine of the incarnation.
Of course there will always be questions and objections. Some may say we haven’t successfully escaped the paradox. And that’s okay, since it was never our mission to eliminate the paradox, but to point out how no contradiction actually exists. Part of the problem with the Western mindset is that it’s unable to appropriate paradox. Paradox, not formal contradiction, ought to be embraced by Christians. Paradox merely tells our minds, “You’ve reached the edge of your capacity!”
The glorious truth upon which our faith may rest is this: the Son of the Father took to Himself manhood and dwelt among us. Therefore, we ought to worship this Lord, the Savior, in season and out of season. The God-man ought to be so precious to us that we race to church on Sunday’s fully intending to fall down and worship Him.
— J. S.