G.C. Berkouwer was a 20th century Dutch Reformed theologian. He wrote a series of Studies in Dogmatics. This is not a full-fledged systematic theology. But it is a pretty comprehensive series of monographs about the main subjects of Christian theology. He wrote a major critique of Karl Barth, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth. Barth seems to have thought that of all his critics Berkouwer understood him best.
Berkouwer is a little more conservative than I am. But he speaks to me because he uses the Bible like an expert. This is in contrast to many theologians who are not so comfortable with the details of the text. Also, he has a grasp of the history of doctrine from the early church through the Reformation and its aftermath. So he often has a good understanding of how theological doctrines developed historically. Because of this, I find his writing uniquely informative.
So for the lead-in to Christmas this year I have decided to reflect on the first part of one of the Studies in Dogmatics. This one is called The Work of Christ. It is about Christ’s Incarnation, Atoning Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. For Christmas, I’ll reflect on the part about the Incarnation.
The Incarnation, of course, is the doctrine that in Jesus God entered into human existence as a human participant. It’s central text is John 1:14 about how “the Word became flesh.”
Berkouwer started off by talking about the relation between the Person of Christ (the title of one of his other monographs) and the Work of Christ. The question that some have asked is whether the Incarnation would have been necessary without human sin. The Pauline writings in the New Testament say that Christ is related to the creation of the world, not just to its redemption. So some theologians from Duns Scotus in the pre-Reformation times, through liberal Hegelians in the 19th century, to Karl Rahner in the 20th century have implied that even without a Fall, the Incarnation must have been part of the plan all along.
The doctrine of the Work of Christ, though, assumes that Jesus did things historically which benefited sinners and opened up the grace of God. He died for our sins. He was raised to conquer death. What about the Incarnation? Berkouwer is in the tradition that relates the coming of Christ to redemption. He points out that the Christmas stories in the gospels repeatedly refer to Jesus as one who will save from sin.
So what is the motive for the Incarnation? To say that it would have happened anyway is speculative. People do, in fact, sin. To ask about what would have happened if they had not does not seem to Berkouwer to be very productive. So he treats the Incarnation as part of the Work of Christ. It is part of what he does for sinners. We cannot know all the motives of God. But what we do know is that he sent Jesus for our salvation.
The person and work of Jesus cannot be separated. Berkouwer cites John 16:33: “These things have I spoken to you, that in me ye may have peace.” Jesus speaks not of an abstract peace or an idealized peace. It is a specific peace that is in him. So the person of Christ and the work of Christ hold together.
I have been impressed by Karl Rahner’s writing on the other side of this. I think Teilard de Chardin’s theology also would fit with an incarnation that is the fulfillment of creation rather than purely the redemption from sin.
Yet I see what Berkouwer is trying to protect. There is a tendency to take the Incarnation out of history. The Word cannot become flesh if it is already flesh. This is the problem in theologies that adopt the idea that God is in everything (panentheism). The Word is already flesh. The Incarnation only illustrates the unity of God and the universe that already exists. The person of Christ as the creative principal of the world does not need to do anything to overcome a separation of God and humanity. God and humanity are already united in Christ.
But this is not the way the Bible presents it. And this is not the way the churches have usually understood it. The coming of Christ corrected something that was out of whack. It was redemptive. There was room to talk about the acts of God and the work of Christ in history. So I am looking for some middle ground. How can we understand the Incarnation as something that happened in history and changed the moral structure of the universe, while also seeing the Incarnation as a fulfillment of a potential that existed from the beginning?