Fear of the Incarnation and its Discontents

Evangelicals, like all orthodox Christians, vigorously affirm the Doctrine of the Incarnation—the faith of all Christians that God the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary and became Man.  Evangelicals, like Catholics, believe this doctrine with every fiber of their being.  But there's more to it than this.  In Evangelical culture "incarnation" has tended to get prefaced with the definite article—"The Incarnation."  It's been primarily thought and spoken of as a single, albeit glorious, historical event that took place in the past, and its application in everyday Evangelical life usually has the character of a doctrine which is believed very firmly.  But the Catholic way, while affirming the uniqueness of the Incarnation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, also tends to see "incarnation" as an eternal reality to be lived and breathed by the follower of Jesus.  Catholics believe God, in becoming human, was not simply performing an isolated miracle: He was establishing an eternal principle.  In the Incarnation, Catholics believe, God was committing Himself to revealing His power and grace in and through human things.  And the unfamiliar ways Catholics express this belief tend to make Evangelicals very nervous.

The emphasis on seeing the Incarnation as a single event two thousand years ago on the other side of the earth often makes Evangelicals tend to vaguely see the Incarnation as an episode which ended with the Ascension of Christ into Heaven.  Many tend to speak as though the grace of God now only reaches us in "spiritual" (read: "disembodied") ways.  Enfleshing that grace in people today is too much, too close.

This "That Was Then, This Is Now" pattern can be observed on many occasions as Evangelicalism and Catholic faith meet.  For example, it's not hard for Evangelicals to grant that God could unite Himself with matter in the physical body of Jesus Christ, but the notion that He continues to do so through the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist is rejected out of hand as "unbiblical" and even "magical" or "idolatrous" despite the fact that Jesus declared "This is my body, this is my blood" as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul all record.  Evangelicals find private confession of sins to God acceptable and even approve (generally) of "accountability and discipleship".  But they typically declare "unbiblical" the notion that a flesh-and-blood human being could have authority and power from Jesus to forgive sins in His name—even though Jesus conferred exactly this power on the Apostles with the words, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23).  In the same way, Evangelicals delight in the biblical picture of Jesus healing at the Pool of Siloam (John 9) by means of water, but fret at the Catholic idea of holy water or blessed salts, which likewise seems somehow vaguely magical or fleshly.  So do various other Catholic physical acts such as lighting candles to pray, or the gestures and prayers of the liturgy which can strike some Evangelicals as mere rote.

Because Evangelicalism tends to see the Incarnation solely as an historic event, but not as the establishment of an eternal principle, the Evangelical tends to reply to the Catholic confidence that God will use matter and people to communicate His grace by saying "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and in truth" (John 4:24).  The assumption is that spirit is spirit and matter is matter and never the twain shall meet (after the Ascension).  So there can be a strong tendency to insist that all outward forms of what is generally termed "religion" are just distractions from "truly spiritual worship". 

This fear of Incarnation (and the growing Evangelical reaction to it) is on full display in the strange case of Truly Reformed[TM] author Bob DeWaay who berates fellow Protestants at Christianity Today and Wheaton College for daring to suggest we could learn something from the early Church.  He complains:

The cover of the CT article reads, “Lost Secrets of the Ancient Church.” It shows a person with a shovel digging up a Catholic icon. What are these secrets? Besides icons, lectio divina and monasticism are mentioned. Dallas Willard, who is mentioned as a reliable guide for this process, has long directed Christians to monastic practices that he himself admits are not taught in the Bible.

DeWaay makes clear that directing modern Christians to these ancient Romish practices is apostasy from the True Faith because such practices are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture (unlike, say, terms like “sola scriptura”, “evidentialist and presuppositional apologetics”, “total depravity”, “limited atonement”, “unconditional election”, “salvation by faith alone” and “Bible”, which were constantly on the lips of our Lord and his apostles).  He is especially at pains to make clear that if you want a living encounter with Christ, there is one and only one way to have it: through the Bible and a firm grasp of the various abstractions that constitute Truly Reformed[TM] doctrine.  DeWaay’s horror mounts as Willard dares to suggest that a sola scriptura schema doesn’t work and is inhuman:

Willard pioneered the rejection of sola scriptura in practice on the grounds that churches following it are failures… The “failure,” according to Willard is that, “. . . the gospel preached and the instruction and example given these faithful ones simply do not do justice to the nature of human personality, as embodied, incarnate.”

Mark that: Willard actually believes the Scripture means it when it says that the Word is made flesh.  This appeal to the Incarnation as an eternal principle and not merely a disembodied concept sets DeWaay’s warning bells clanging:

The remedy for “failure” says Willard is to find practices in church history that are proven to work. But are these practices taught in the Bible? Willard admits that they are not by using an argument from silence, based on the phrase “exercise unto godliness” in 1Timothy 4:7. Here is Willard’s interpretation:

“Or [the possibility the phrase was imprecise] does it indicate a precise course of action he [Paul] understood in definite terms, carefully followed himself, and called others to share? Of course it was the latter. So obviously so, for him and the readers of his own day, that he would feel no need to write a book on the disciplines of the spiritual life that explained systematically what he had in mind.”

But what does this do to sola scriptura? It negates it. In Willard’s theology, the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Biblical writers, forgot to inspire them to write about spiritual disciplines that all Christians need. If this is the case, then we need spiritual practices that were never prescribed in the Bible to obtain godliness.

What is curious here is the way in which the diagrammatic mind of the Truly Reformed polemicist suddenly requires the Bible to be the Big Book of Everything and enjoins us to believe and profess the creed “That which is not compulsory in Scripture is forbidden.”  Note the semi-permeable intellectual membrane here.  Even though Bible never says “sola scriptura” we are supposed to “connect the dots” and conclude the doctrine is implied there, because DeWaay embraces this particular human tradition as “biblical”. 

But when Willard takes something that actually is in Scripture (namely the command to meditate on God’s word (Ps 143:5)) as the basis for lectio divina, DeWaay insists this is out of bounds because the specific technique of lectio divina is not “prescribed in the Bible”.  One wonders what DeWaay makes of marriage since it, like scriptural meditation, is recommended in Scripture, but nowhere does Scripture prescribe specifics on how to do it.  Evidently, we are only allowed to marry in theory, not in practice.

Now, in fact, there is nothing wrong with the spiritual disciplines Willard is rediscovering.  As St. John Damascene is happy to point out, icons are simply an emulation of what God himself did in becoming an Icon in the person of Christ (Hebrews 1:3).  Likewise, monasticism is simply the extension of what Jesus and John the Baptist did in their desert sojourns.  In short, DeWaay’s entire complaint against Willard turns on the ambiguity of calling these traditions “unbiblical” when they are, in fact, extra-biblical but not anti-biblical. And the hypocrisy of DeWaay’s attack is only compounded by the fact that sola scriptura is a purely human tradition that even DeWaay does not believe, judging from his free use of Sacred Tradition when it suits him

But devotion to sola scriptura is not really the core issue for DeWaay.  Rather, it is terror of the Incarnation.  That’s why DeWaay’s prescription to his fellow Evangelicals is to get away from the Incarnation as fast as they possibly can and return, not to the Bible Alone, but to the Sacred Diagrams and Mathematical Concepts of the Truly Reformed[TM].  To back up this exhortation DeWaay performs an exegesis of Hebrews that is extraordinarily strange.

The letter to the Hebrews is, of course, written to exhort early Jewish Christians who were tempted to abandon the Eucharistic Sacrifice and return to the Levitical sacrifices of their ancestors.  It is chockablock with references to the priesthood, sacrificial bloodshed, and the insistence that Christ has inaugurated a priesthood and a sacrifice that is superior to the Levitical priesthood.  Its conclusion could not be clearer to a ancient Christian who has been hearing the words “This is my body.  This is my blood” for decades in the Liturgy:   “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat” (Hebrews 13:10).  In short, “The blood of Jesus can save you and the blood of goats and bulls cannot.  So stay at Mass,” says Hebrews.

But DeWaay, in his terror of the Incarnation, reads something entirely different:

The key problem for [Judaizing Christians] was the tangibility of the temple system, and the invisibility of the Christian faith. Just about everything that was offered to them by Christianity was invisible: the High Priest in heaven, the tabernacle in heaven, the once for all shed blood, and the throne of grace….

But the life of faith does not require tangible visibility: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The Roman Catholic Church has tangibility that is unmatched by the evangelical faith, just as temple Judaism had. Why have faith in the once-for-all shed blood of Christ that is unseen when you can have real blood (that of the animals for temple Judaism and the Eucharistic Christ of Catholicism)? Why have the scriptures of the Biblical apostles and prophets who are now in heaven when you can have a real, live apostle and his teaching Magisterium who can continue to speak for God? The similarities to the situation described in Hebrews are striking. Why have only the Scriptures and the other means of grace when the Roman Church has everything from icons to relics to cathedrals to holy water and so many other tangible religious articles and experiences?

Note the curiously telling confusion.  DeWaay cannot tell the difference between the Eucharistic blood of Christ and the blood of goats and bulls.  Why?  Because they are both physical and therefore (curiously) “unreal”.  For DeWaay, the “real” blood of Christ and the “real” altar is an invisible abstraction, a concept. 

Similarly, the horror of the physical—in a word, of the Incarnation—suffuses all that DeWaay has to say.  The entire Old Testament drama which God crowded with the physical and crowned with the Incarnation itself goes for nothing.  All these things were prelude to the Real Thing: the Truly Reformed[TM] diagrams of Justification by Faith Alone, Substitutionary Atonement, Sola Scriptura, Predestination, and the various other computer models that constitute Truly Reformed[TM] Christian doctrine.  Any helps such as icons, sacraments and so forth that might address us as physical incarnate beings are marks of “apostasy”.  For DeWaay, the Word was made word. Period.

The problem is, once the 16th Century Reformer’s mood for abstraction, systematizing and disincarnation is past, normal people cannot live in the sort of universe the Truly Reformed mind demands we live in.  That’s why folks like the people at Wheaton College, Christianity Today and Dallas Willard are exploring the things they are exploring.  They recognize the gospel preached and the instruction and example they have been given “simply do not do justice to the nature of human personality, as embodied, incarnate.” And that’s why I have such great hope for the future of the Catholic faith among Evangelicals open to reality.  The 16th Century is over.  The 21st holds great promise for wonderful new growth in discipleship to our Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ!

Copyright 2008 - Mark P. Shea