I have chosen to read and react to G. C. Berkouwer’s The Work of Christ as a pre-Christmas project.
Readers will grasp, I hope, that Berkouwer presents a unique and challenging perspective.
For one thing, he treats the incarnation as part of the work of Christ. I think most are used to thinking in terms of the divine identity of Christ–is he God or not. But when John says that the Word became flesh, he refers to an action as well as an identity.
This leads to a second challenging perspective. For Berkouwer you cannot separate the coming of Christ in the flesh from his other work. Particularly, the incarnation links to the passion of Christ in that both are part of the humiliation of Christ that leads to his exaltation in the resurrection and ascension.
Now we come to where Berkouwer deals with the Christmas event itself, the incarnational birth of Christ. But again, we may find his starting place surprising. Rather than lift up the prophesies from the Hebrew Bible, or the gospel nativity stories, Berkouwer starts with a concept he draws from the Pauline letters (this includes the Pastorals and Ephesians, all of which Berkouwer just calls writings of Paul).
The concept he begins with is that of the great mystery:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh. . . (1 Timothy 3:16).
And he cites Romans 16:25 where Paul speaks of
my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages.
The revealing of Christ is a mystery in the sense of something that was hidden or kept secret for ages and then came to light. This correlates with Paul’s only direct mention of the birth of Christ:
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law. . .(Galatians 4:4).
According to Berkouwer it is this mystery that was present in cloaked form in the prophets and is proclaimed openly in the nativity stories. It was a mystery that had to wait for the appropriate time.
Berkouwer thinks it is a mistake to try to resolve this mystery in an abstract way. Some theologians, for instance, have spoken of the uniting of the divine Logos with the human being, Jesus. Some have spoken of the incomplete human nature of Jesus, part of which got replaced by the Logos. These speculations do an injustice the scriptures which make no attempt to explain the “how” of the incarnation. They simply point to the “great mystery”.
Berkouwer’s point is that the event that was willed by God happened on a historical time line. It happened “when the time had fully come.” It was a mystery in the sense that only God knew what he intended. The carol,It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, has these lines:
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
But the event itself was cloaked even to the prophets whose words have other meanings until the event itself happens. Then, with the disclosure of the mystery, you can see the prophets imperfectly pointing to it. I think his notion helps with the fact that the New Testament takes the prophecies out of context. It takes them out of the context of their own time and puts them in a new context that conforms to the reality of what God has now revealed. What the nativity of Christ did for Matthew, for instance, was to justify a new look at the Hebrew Bible to see what he could find there that might point to God’s work in Jesus.
This was attractive because the history of Israel seemed to lead to a dead-end so far as the line of David was concerned. And yet there were promises about David’s descendants.
I don’t think Berkouwer uses the concept of mystery in an obscuring way. You could say that the birth of Christ is a mystery that cannot be explored because it is extrahistorical. But Berkouwer’s idea of mystery points precisely to the historical event, or as he calls it the “local event.” In some ways I guess local event is better. Unlike the crucifixion, the birth does not play out on the large stage of history in a capitol city. It involves humble people and a humble place. Yet it relates to time and history. The time had to “fully come”. This had to do with aftermath of the Maccabees revolt, the Roman expansion, and the spread of the Jewish diaspora.