This is part 2 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.
It is often supposed by our paedobaptist friends that Baptists outrightly reject the notion of covenant-holiness with regard to children of believing parents. And while this is typically the case in modern Baptist circles, the 17th century Particular Baptists seemed to have no problem admitting infant covenant membership in some sense.
In the appendix on baptism, following the Second London Confession, 1689, they write:
As for those our Christian brethren who do ground their arguments for Infants baptism, upon a presumed federal Holiness, or Church-Membership, we conceive they are deficient in this, that albeit this Covenant-Holiness and Membership should be as is supposed, in reference unto the Infants of Believers; yet no command for Infant baptism does immediately and directly result from such a quality, or relation.
The phrasing is a bit confusing, but I will attempt to clarify: For the framers of our Confession, the deficiency in paedobaptist theology does not seem to be located in the admittance of federal holiness, and not even in some notion of church membership (although this must be understood in light of Baptist principles), per se, but in the presumption upon those things which leads to infant baptism. While infants may be sanctified in view of belonging to a believing household (1 Cor. 7:14), and while they are in constant attendance and participate somewhat at and in Christ’s church (yet, not being formal members thereof), there is nothing in either of those realities necessitating infant baptism.
To cap off their point, they appeal to a somewhat mutually understood definition of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), which was then agreed upon by both Particular Baptists and many paedobaptists in England. They say:
All instituted Worship receives its sanction from the precept, and is to be thereby governed in all the necessary circumstances thereof.
Something about humanity has drastically changed over the last few centuries. Consider the contrast between the 17th century man and the 21st century man. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the 17th century man accomplished more in forty years than the 21st century man might accomplish in a lifetime. Often, twelve-year olds were more educated than today’s average adult, having a rather large vocabulary and even a multilingual education. Prior to the 18th century, it was not altogether uncommon to find men of the educated class who were experts in multiple fields of study. Today, everyone seems to be relatively educated, but almost no one could consider themselves as an expert in multiple career fields. Today, even individual sciences have further specifications the average schoolman might master.
Little to none of this massive shift should be attributed to genetics. Nor should we venture to blame it solely on the rise of technology (although it is not altogether unrelated). The cause seems instead to rest within the rise of modern psychology as a primary interpretive or observational science of man. Though observational in nature, psychology has, relatively recently, taken a formative role in terms of how man thinks about himself. What’s worse is the extent to which man’s psychologically-driven understanding of himself is anachronistically imposed upon figures from the past. In other words, history has been affected by man’s contemporary understanding of his current self.
Modern psychology tends to see man as an amalgamation of traits, properties, or attributes. It doesn’t begin, per se, with personhood defined as imago Dei (image of God). Instead, it approaches man as a conglomerate of personality traits and passions (especially sexual, a la., Freud). More than this, it inadvertently casts individual persons into personality molds. Once psychology assesses a person’s personality at any given life-stage, it issues a decree: “This person is X, Y, or Z.” The (perhaps unintended) effect? The assessed person goes on casting themselves as an X, Y, or Z personality. Much like a placebo, modern psychology, in its mere exercise of observation, inevitably begins to shape a person’s beliefs about him or herself.
Imagine, for example, a young boy who, throughout grade-school, is constantly berated for his love of the arts. “You’re gay!” his classmates might jest. Or, “You’re weak!” the jocks might shout in the hallway. It is no wonder a boy who hears such descriptions of himself for years on end might begin to actually believe them. Something similar happens within modern educational and psychological structures (which permeate almost every institution). In education, for example, there is now the concept of specialty. Gone are the days when medical doctors address multiple aspects of the human body. Increasingly, they concern themselves only with neurology, to name one example. And then, even within neurology, there are sub-specialties. This doesn’t only occur within the medical field, where complexity may demand more refined areas of study and thus more laborers. It also occurs in the liberal arts. Now, we could speculate as to why this is. It certainly doesn’t hurt the profit margin of colleges and universities, does it? But I’m more interested in what this has done to the modern man—
A white-collar man is now assumed to be aloof from all blue-collar work. Blue-collar men are too “simple” to converse with the white-collar class. And often times this is truly the case. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was a day when this was not the case. Those who had access to the tools of education were often not distant nor ignorant of various, practical trades. For example, William Kiffen, a Baptist minister in 17th century England, was an astute and pastoral theologian. Yet, he was one of the more wealthy men in England, granted his skillful business arrangements as a merchant. Benjamin Keach was a brewmaster (of all things), and made part of his living from such. John Owen, the good doctor himself, was chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, and was with him in the Scotch-Irish conquests. Moving backward in time, Albert the Great was a medieval physician, theologian, and philosopher. Of course, the most popular example of a man who concerned himself with multiple sciences is Leonardo DaVinci, but he wasn’t an island unto himself. There were others before and after the Renaissance who understood themselves as capable images of the divine.
We now have all sorts of personality assessment tools used in the corporate and academic world. These may be helpful in terms of communication and work-relationship improvement. But they’ve almost become definitive of how people think of themselves. If the test says the person is a strong personality, prone to less relatability having a more task-driven bent, that person may think, “This is my personality, and none else.” They implicitly trick themselves, thenceforth, into thinking they are unable to adapt to circumstances which may not conduce to their “personality type.”
As alluded to above, this thought process has been anachronistically superimposed upon Christ. In his recent, somewhat helpful, book, Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund struggles to centralize the Person of Christ around a single quality, i.e. His lowliness. But this struggle is a self-inflicted wound made by the knife of modern psychology. If modern psychology sees man as an amalgamation of qualities, properties, or emotions, then it follows one such property must win out. This is a struggle arising from the faulty starting-point of modern psychology, where the nature is almost entirely absent from the conversation, while behavioral traits are the sole definitional factors in determining the nature of a person. Instead of nature giving way to various accidents and behavioral characteristics, behavioral characteristics and emotional dispositions define and even determine the nature. This is backwards, and it explains the constant teetertotter in Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly, where he wants to affirm the centrality of Christ’s gentleness, but also wants to avoid detracting from other crucial properties of His Person (cf. ch. 3).
Modern psychology apparently sees man much like a playdough figurine. He’s compose of all different colors of playdough, some colors being more prevalent than others. The modern psychologist, upon observing what he thinks to be more prevalent colors, makes a diagnosis, and this diagnosis declares the man to be a static instantiation of his most habitual color. He cannot escape that diagnosis, no matter how hard he might want to. He is simply stuck that way. Such is the way of the contemporary opposition toward “deconversion therapy” of homosexuals, and the oft-parroted licentious statement, “I was born this way! I cannot change!” The psychologist has defined his patient, and now his patient must always think of himself according to the psychologist’s definition.
In closing, what if we stopped thinking of mankind this way? What if we understood each an every person to be, first and foremostly, a creation of God which bears God’s image. And then, what if we defined God’s image according to what God actually says it is? If we did that, I think we would have another Renaissance. And given the unprecedented availability of resources today (contra to the 17th century), we wouldn’t only have a few Leonardo DaVincis or Albertus Magnuses, we’d have countries full of them. The change agent in all of this, of course, is the gospel. It is the gospel which teaches us who man was, what man’s problem is, and where man’s restoration and glorification is found, i.e. in Christ Jesus alone (who, by the way, was a carpenter, a fisherman, a peripatetic philosopher-teacher, and orator—a nice blend of blue and white collars).
Disputes are not preferable.
Be that as it may, the prophets were involved in disputes. Jesus and His apostles were involved in disputes. And the church has been embroiled in dispute ever since. The early church fathers were involved in dispute. The medieval theologians were involved in dispute. The Reformers were involved in dispute. The post-Reformed were involved in dispute. Our forerunners, the particular Baptists, were involved in dispute. While not preferable, and while unfortunate, dispute is nevertheless biblical, and it is a perspicuous article found in play throughout church history. Like self-defense and giving to the poor, dispute is something the church must engage as a result of the fallen nature of man.
From this, however, we need to distinguish between holy dispute, or dispute for a noble cause performed in a noble manner, and unholy dispute, or dispute for an ignoble (not noble or honorable) cause. There is a biblical kind of dispute, a dispute which Jesus Himself and His apostles engaged in. This is incontrovertible (Matt 12:34; Lk. 13:32; Jn. 2:15; Acts 17). Yet, there is a wicked kind of dispute, characterized by Scripture as quarrelsomeness or controversy for the sake of controversy (1 Tim. 3:3; Prov. 20:1).
Because there is a holy kind of dispute, this being beyond controversy, we need now concern ourselves with the nature of it. We will begin negatively.
What Holy Disputation Is Not
In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul writes:
If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.
When Martin Luther penned the Ninety Five Theses, he was engaging in a methodology referred to in the Latin as disputatio or, in English, disputation. Unfortunately, men who now claim to follow in the Protestant tradition have almost entirely done away with the practice or art of disputation. Failing to recognize the distinction between holy and unholy disputation, many men, many pastors, have come to think of all disputation as wicked—and the church is worse for it.
We need to be careful, however, lest we ruin ourselves upon the jagged rock of what holy disputation is not. In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul begins with the character of a person who “does not consent to wholesome words.” Here, we find that Paul is talking about those who do not submit to, nor do they embrace the gospel—the epitome of wholesome words. He goes on to add, “even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness…” Paul is not talking about a person who is a professing believer, much less a person who’s life is marked by gospel obedience.
He goes on to remark on this person’s pride. This person is puffed up and conceited. They know nothing. They are obsessed with dispute. In other words, they live for the argument. A more wooden reading might say, “[he] is sick with disputes…” He vomits up disagreement. That’s all he can do. This person is a contrarian. More interestingly is the kind of disputation Paul identifies in v. 4. Paul is not outlawing all disputation. But he does indicate a repudiation of diputes about words, signified by the word arguments (λογομαχία). These are useless, semantic disputes. In this passage, Paul by no means makes all disputes unlawful.
Therefore, holy dispute cannot be characterized by dispute for dispute’s sake. Holy dispute is not engaged by unholy people. Moreover, holy dispute cannot be about trivial things, like semantics, word battles, competition of sheer rhetoric, etc. Those are all insufficient explanations for disputation.
What Holy Disputation Is
Paul expressly helps us with a definition when he writes:
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled. ~ 2 Corinthians 10:4-6
And also an example of disputation among believers, “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed (Gal. 2:11).”
There are about three characteristics of dispute gleaned from these two passages. First, holy disputation casts down unholy arguments raised against God. Second, holy disputes are useful for bringing minds into compliance to Christ. Third, holy disputation can, and often does, take place among brethren. Therefore, I offer a concise and positive definition of holy dispute as follows:
Holy dispute is that Christian practice of bringing thoughts into captivity to Christ through honest disagreement and argumentation conducive to resolving such disagreement.
Holy disputation, on the Christian’s part, can be either intermural or intramural. Intermural dispute would entail a Christian disputing with a non-Christian interlocutor. Intramural dispute would be when two or more Christians dispute with one another over doctrine and/or practice.
When to Dispute & When Not to Dispute
Now that we’ve at least started a discussion concerning the nature of disputation, it would now be prudent to identify some criteria which might help us decide when and when not to dispute.
There are three questions we all must ask prior to entering into dispute:
1) Is the dispute concerning what is true? The goal of all holy disputation must be an arrival at the truth. Any other intention or purpose of dispute is insufficient and self-refuting. For disputation presupposes the categories of truth and falsehood, and disagreements arise precisely because one party believes the truth is being misrepresented by the other, and visa versa.
2) Is the dispute about God’s revealed doctrine? This could be doctrine revealed through nature or doctrine revealed through Scripture. Either way, God’s teaching is always worth discussion, and when a correct understanding thereof is at stake, it is always worth disputation. This is the very reason Paul confronted Peter to his face, in public I might add.
3) Is your intention to love your neighbor through dispute? If you are not disputing in an effort to love your neighbor to the glory of God, you might as well call it quits. Our intention, as Christians, must be in the right place prior to entering into disputation. Therefore, if your intention is any place other than obeying the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39), you ought to reassess yourself and, perhaps, change course.
These criteria are not exhaustive, but they might be helpful in deciding when to enter into dispute, whether that be dispute over social media or in-person. Disputes can be powerful things. They can rip apart churches, but they can also mature and secure churches, strengthening them for future challenges. Disputation, even holy disputation, ought to be the last resort. But if a disagreement arises, it is holy dispute alone that will serve as the acceptable means of conflict resolution.
I know, this is an odd situation to patent a novel term for a really old style of homiletics or method of preaching. When asked, I’ve been telling people I use an “adapted form of Peter van Mastricht’s preaching outline,” for nearly a year now.
For those of you who do not know, Van Mastricht was a Dutch, post-Reformed scholastic Puritan. I do not utilize a variation of his method simply because it comes from him. In fact, it is implicitly found in many, if not most, of the Puritans. Van Mastricht just happened to be most express about it, actually systematizing it as a methodology (Cf. vol. 1 of his Theoretical-Practical Theology). This is part of the reason Richard Muller, the church historian, refers to Van Mastricht as the height of Reformed orthodoxy in vol. 1 of his Post-Reformed Reformed Orthodoxy.
I am not a creature of innovation and tend to think the old ways are better (sometimes to a fault). But if updating nomenclature helps people understand where I’m at without changing the substance of the thing its designed to represent, I’m all for it. Instead of saying, “I use Van Mastricht’s preaching method,” I will just refer to my method as “4-D homiletics,” or “4-D theology.”
What Is 4-D Homiletics?
First, homiletics refers to the art and science of preaching. Second, 4-D refers to the four dimensions or aspects of theology which should be present in a sermon, but should also determine the form of doctrinal treatises and systematic expositions of the various loci in Christian theology. These four “dimensions” are the exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical.
In the exegetical part, the text is exposed or made plain as to its meaning or sense. In the doctrinal part, doctrine is concluded from the text of Scripture. In the elenctic part, objections to the doctrine are answered, usually through way of affirmations, distinctions, and denials. And in the practical part, application from all the above is made.
In my case, I usually have about three topics or points in each sermon, and then those points (which are derived from the text) have their own exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical parts.
However, the Puritans would often proceed through a sermon without three topics or points, and the entirety of the sermon or doctrinal treatise would simply be a survey of the text through each of those four principle parts of theology.
Tim Challies & Government
Throughout the coronavirus “crisis” many have sought to establish a near-absolute obedience of the Christian to the government based on texts like Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13. In a recent article, Tim Challies says:
If we wish to submit to God, we must submit to the authorities he has established. Said otherwise, obedience to God manifests itself in obedience to government.
Christians may dispute the exact parameters of governmental authority, but surely we can at least agree that matters of public health fall under the jurisdiction of the state.
He also says in a later part of the article:
Of course there are times when obedience to a higher authority means we must disobey a lower authority. “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). But we may do this only when that lesser authority is overstepping its bounds or when obeying government would be disobeying God. For every other occasion, God gives us a sober warning: “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” When government acts within its mandate, we must obey. When we fail to obey, we risk judgment—God’s own judgment as it is carried out by the state. But, conversely, when we obey, we gain joy—the joy that always comes with obedience.
Challies makes a few points here. First, we must obey government because God says so (I affirm). Second, matters of public health fall within the purview of government authority (I distinguish). Third, Christians can disobey government but only when the government commands Christians to do that which is sinful (I affirm).
In his first point, he’s not saying anything Christians actually disagree with. Every Christian believes we ought to obey government because God has commanded us to do so. The question has nothing to do with whether or not we should obey government, the question, at least for Americans, is what is our government? How is it defined?
In his second point, he suggests public health falls within the realm of governmental authority. This is a sweeping claim in need of further definition. If by public health Challies means the protection of the people’s life, liberty, and their right to pursue happiness (the language of our founding document), then sure. The government, according to Romans 13, wields a sword precisely to this end, the the image of God would be free or at liberty to live lives, especially lives unto God. But if by public health he means protection from every viral threat under the sun, then absolutely not. The American arrangement is not designed for such a nanny-like state authority. Otherwise, the government could legislate literally anything in the name of public health and safety.
In his third point, he states another obvious truth, that Christians are not to disobey government unless government enacts laws contrary to the law of God. Again, no Christian, that I’m aware of, disagrees with this in theory. The question is, How is it put into practice? And, more specifically, How is it put into practice in the U. S.?
Why 4-D Homilies & Theology Matter
You might be wondering, “What’s the relationship between preaching and what Challies has written?”
I thought you’d never ask!
Challies, at a fundamental level, is failing to not only divide the Word of God rightly, but he’s also failing to apply the Word of God, through the practical use of the Scripture he tries to interact with, to the lives of Western Christians. He has failed to exegete the text, he has failed to draw proper doctrinal conclusions from the text, he has failed to answer any kind of objections in any meaningful sense, and he’s most certainly and utterly failed to apply Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 to our present situation, instead assuming without argument a particular, anachronistic application which may have applied to 17th century England, but does not apply to us in the here and now.
4-D preaching and 4-D theologizing presses the theologian to argue from the Scriptures, defend their claims, and then apply it all to life that the Christian may live more abundantly unto God in Christ. Unfortunately, Challies, I believe, does just the opposite.
He quotes some Scripture, assumes his exegesis instead of showing his work, and then makes a faulty application.
If he were careful, he would have noted that current elected officials (in the U. S. & Canada) are commanding Christians to disobey what God has commanded, that is, we are no longer “allowed” to assemble together. This is a clear contradiction to Hebrews 10:24, 25; 4:9, and Exodus 20; Deut. 5 with regard to the Sabbath commandments. But he doesn’t even address this. He goes on apparently assuming the government hasn’t commanded Christians to do anything sinful in this particular instance.
Moreover, if, in the case of the U. S., the Constitution is the principle of power for all elected officials, then obedience of U. S. citizens is ultimately determined by that document. In that document, we have the 1st amendment and also the 10th amendment, both of which guarantee the free exercise of religion and the terminus of the powers not given to the Congress in the states or the people. This means obedience to Romans 13, within the American context, could actually look like public dissent as a result of infringements upon the Constitution.
Challies considers none of these factors in his article. Why? Because the four-fold way or the four dimensions of theology are not carefully thought out. He’s not exegeting the text—he’s just quoting the text and assuming a meaning without argument. He’s also not drawing out a clear doctrine of government from the text (because he never exegeted the text in the first place). He’s not interacting with objections, but merely assuming the truth of his article. And he’s not applying the exegeted text to the reader where the reader is at (which is what the art of application is all about).
We need to bring back this comprehensive way of both doing theology and preaching theology, otherwise, several stones will be left un-turned, doctrinal knowledge will degrade even further than it has, the church will suffer, and people will actually end up disobeying God rather than obeying God, which is the whole business of the Christian in the first place.
“Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” — Daniel 3:25
In less than two weeks, pandemic numbers continue to rise at an unprecedented rate, and Americans in various places have been confined to quarters by fiat government orders. The liberties we once thought we had have become a thing of the past in a most obvious fashion. Understandably, many are scared, wondering what the future months hold. The light, if any, seems dim at the end of the tunnel, especially since Trump has announced that these preventative quarantine measures could last into the Summer.
Christians, however, ought to understand this situation according to a whole different set of considerations. While the world will do its best to elicit maximal amounts of fear, the church ought to maintain a cool and collective head.
Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-Nego, & Some Context
Just prior to the events recorded in the passage you read above, King Nebuchadnezzar gave orders to the people that they should worship the golden image he had erected at the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltry in symphony (Dan. 3:1-6). But there were certain, faithful Jews—a remnant, if you will—the three of which were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. They refused to worship the statue (v. 12). As a result, the king grew in fury and brought the three rebellious Jews to stand trial before him. He issued a threat, saying, “…if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?“ Having been warned by the king, the three men responded as follows:
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.
I would be interested to know just how many of today’s professing Christians would have told Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego that they “need to submit to the authorities” because “Romans 13 commands them to do so.” Would they cloak such demands in “love” and “charity”? Who knows. But there are certainly some parallels between what these three men underwent thousands of years ago and what the Western church now faces. How far will we allow the government to define our worship? How long will we allow them to possess the keys which rightly belong to the church?
Similar questions must’ve been circling through the minds of many Jews during Daniel’s day while under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar. And rightfully so. They are important questions with which we must wrestle, even in the land of so-called liberty.
The point here, however, is that the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain. The situation within which the three men in Daniel 3 found themselves is the status quo. We shouldn’t expect it to be any other way. God Himself has declared this to be the way in which worldly governments and peoples behave (Ps. 2:1). All politics aside, this is the context in which Christ’s bride finds herself. So, the question is not so much, “What do we let them get away with?” It’s more, “How do we love Christ through all of this?” And, “How do we love our neighbors?” I believe the answer to either question precludes reflexive fear, doubt, etc. And the reason reflexivity would be an inappropriate response in this case is because of the God we profess to worship.
We do not worship statues. We worship the God who goes before us. The God who stands with us in the flames of uncertainty and eminent shipwreck.
God In the Fire
The author of Hebrews 13:5 says, “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” The bride of Christ, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, is in the flames. She’s in the furnace of the world, and the world would love nothing more than to burn her up and watch her ashes blow away with the wind. But just as God has already declared the norm for the post-lapse (fallen) world, so too has He declared the norm for the church militant, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” with, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:10),” and with, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you (Jn. 15:20).”
Persecution is the norm for the church militant, and with it, suffering, and even bodily death. However, held along with this reality are two other parallel truths. First, the kingdom of God belongs to us. Second, God is with us and will never forsake us.
When the king had finally thrown the three men into the furnace, by utilizing his government assets (Dan. 3:20), the flames were hotter than they ever had been (v. 22). Yet, upon a second glance, the king and his men realized that there weren’t three men standing in the furnace. There were four. And not only this, but neither of the four were being consumed by the white-hot flames. Looking closer, the king noticed that the appearance of the fourth man was like “the Son of God.”
Immanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23), is that fourth man. Just as He was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego in the fire of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, so too He is with us to this day. He will never allow us to be consumed. He will never allow us to be crushed. He will bring us through COVID-19 and state oppression just as He brought the Jews through long seasons of exile. Just as He delivered Daniel’s friends through the furnace, so too He will escort His bride to rivers of peace.
This promise is as sure as God’s presence in the Person and work of Christ nearly two-thousand years ago. There, in a dusty little sand-box just off the shore of the western Mediterranean Sea, the God-Man saved His bride. The flames no longer burn, and death ceases to sting. He’s come to stand with us.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. — Romans 8:18-19
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.