I am doing a seasonal reflection on G. C. Berkouwer’s The Work of Christ. Leading up to Christmas, I am reading the chapters about the Incarnation.
The least important thing about Jesus was his teaching. That was the position Walter Russell Mead took in his Christmas meditations last year. Some of the historical Jesus people and the Red Letter Christians on the evangelical left have stressed the teachings of Jesus, especially those that you can interpret as supporting pacifism and socialism.
In the current theological and cultural environment the stress on the teaching runs up against a couple of other realities. First, the historical Jesus studies tend to say that we cannot really know that Jesus actually taught most of what the gospels report as his teaching. Second, the gospels do report, for instance, that Jesus warned of an impending Last Judgment and that he forbid divorce and remarriage–two items that go against the popular culture wars use of Jesus.
But Mead’s main point about the teaching being less important goes back behind our current cultural discussion to the Church in the past having held that the teaching of Jesus gets its importance from our theological beliefs about who he is. In other words, the teaching gets its importance and authority not just from its contents but from the special nature of the one who taught these things.
This is where G. C. Berkouwer’s discussion of the Incarnation meets up with contemporary concerns. Berkouwer raises the issue of the pre-existent glory, humiliation and exaltation of Jesus. The one who had been with the Father before the foundation of the world stooped to take on flesh (John 1:1-14, 17:5, 24). The one who had been rich became poor for our sake (2 Corinthians 8:9). The one who was in the form of God emptied himself and took on human form and mortality (Philippians 2:5 ff.).
Classic Christian thought has understood this idea to mean that the second person of the Trinity–God the Son–was incarnate in Jesus. But this has been a hard thing for moderns to believe. Berkouwer takes the criticism of Friedrich Schleiermacher as a statement of the modern problem
I am familiar with some modern exegetical work that questions whether Philippians 2 is really about the Incarnation. But Berkouwer says that Schleiermacher’s problem was not exegetical at all. His problem with the idea of humiliation was that it implied a higher former state. This, Schleiermacher thought, broke down the unity of the person of Jesus. It implied that there were really two different persons of Jesus, an exalted divine person and an emptied out shell which could not contain the higher state of Jesus’ former, divine person.
Berkouwer admits that this is a mystery. But he claims that the testimony of scripture to the idea of humiliation is too strong to be set aside by this objection.
“The progress of Christ’s life through humiliation to exaltation is certainly not to be found only in the well-known pericope of Paul [Philippians 2:5:ff], but in the continuous and ever-returning theme of the entire apostolic message, when this points out and preaches the way through suffering to glory as the way of salvation” (p. 38).
What strikes me about this is that the “entire apostolic witness” includes the gospel reports about the teaching of Jesus. Much of the teaching of Jesus there does present the “way through suffering to glory”. Jesus says in several different ways that the first shall be last and the last first. Think of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, for instance. Are these the actual transcribed or memorized words of the historical Jesus? Or are they filtered through the message the apostles preached about humiliation and exaltation? Does it matter?
The point about Jesus would be not what we have in red letters in certain Bibles, but the reality of one who, both in his condescending to enter this world (Incarnation) and in his way of death and resurrection, opened up a new way for humanity.