Warning: Not to be read by the doctrinally certain. These thoughts reflect where I am right now in my thinking on the incarnation of the divine in the person of Jesus. This could change next week.
An incarnational theology probes into the nature of God’s presence in the world and in particular the degree to which God’s presence became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.
The Apostle Paul and the Gospel of Mark, the earliest witnesses to Jesus’ life, say nothing that would suggest that there was anything miraculous about Jesus’ birth. Mark’s Gospel was the first Gospel to be written (probably around the time of the destruction of
in 70 C.E.) and he begins with John the Baptist. Either he wasn’t familiar with
the tradition of a virgin birth (probably because it had not yet appeared) or
he deemed it irrelevant. Jerusalem
The seven authentic letters of Paul (1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans) were written even earlier (likely in the 50’s) and he says nothing about a virgin birth. One could argue that his letters are not essays or treatises on theological themes, but occasional documents, penned in the midst of a very industrious ministry, aimed at particular problems, issues, and concerns in local congregations, so we shouldn’t expect him to speak to this theme. While that is true, in Galatians 4:4–5 Paul says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Paul uses the common word for “woman.” If he knew or believed in a tradition of virgin birth he could easily have used the Greek word that meant “virgin,” but he didn’t.
In Paul’s opening introduction in his letter to the Romans, he summarizes “the gospel of God” as “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:3–4). In Paul’s view, it was Jesus’ resurrection that gave him his divine status as Son of God and Messianic Lord. Paul was apparently unfamiliar with any tradition about a miraculous birth.
Paul’s view of Jesus’ divinely appointed lordship is similar to the view reflected in the early Christian preaching as expressed by Luke in the book of Acts. According to Acts, God raised up from the dead the man Jesus whom the religious establishment crucified, exalting him and appointing him Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:32–36).
Ironically, this writer also has a story of Jesus’ miraculous birth in his Gospel. According to Luke, Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and is therefore called Son of God (Luke 1:35). Luke’s Son of God theology is different than Paul’s. In Luke, Jesus assumes the title Son of God at his birth, whereas Paul says that Jesus is declared Son of God at his resurrection. But both Paul and Luke equate his exalted status as universal Lord and his saving role as the Jewish Messiah with his resurrection.
Paul used terms like Spirit of God and Spirit of Christ interchangeably (
clearly believed that the resurrected/living Christ functions in a divine role
as mediator and redeemer. But it is also evident that he believed that Jesus
had a very human origin and acquired divine status by virtue of his
resurrection/vindication by God. Paul considered Christ in his divine role to
be clearly subordinate to God. In his discussion of resurrection and the eschaton in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul
envisions Christ handing over the kingdom to God the Father. He concludes by
saying, “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also
be subjected to the one (God) who put all things in subjection under him, so
that God may be all in all” (see 1 Cor. 15:24–28). Rom.
The Gospel of John, written at or after the turn of the first century represents a more advanced stage of Christological development. But even in John, the Son occupies a subordinate role to God the Father (John 14:28).
The notion of a virgin birth was apparently unknown to the earliest Messianic communities and was not deemed a necessary component of Jesus’ elevation to divine status. I suspect that it developed in a manner similar to the way extraordinary births were imagined and attributed to pagan deities and important historical figures in the ancient world. It was their way of acknowledging and proclaiming Jesus’ unique incarnation of the divine that was experienced through his life, death, and resurrection.
I do not, therefore, believe that the teaching of a virgin birth is in anyway necessary to an incarnational theology. An incarnational theology could also be developed without regard to Jesus’ resurrection, but it would not be an incarnational theology connected to New Testament tradition. For the first disciples, God’s resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was central to their understanding of God’s involvement in and engagement with the world.
Though I do not believe in a historical virgin birth, I do believe in a historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. By historical, though, I do not mean that his actual physical body was resuscitated and somehow shaped into a new form. But I do believe that the historical Jesus who was crucified appeared alive to the disciples in some spiritual and, perhaps, physical or tangible form. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was an extraordinary human being whose communion with God expressed his deep understanding and experience of his union in God, that he uniquely and definitively incarnated the divine presence. I believe that on account of Jesus’ incredible spiritual awareness, faith, and compassion, because of his unique mystical and spiritual life, God was able to act through Jesus in unprecedented ways.
I’m not a true pluralist even though I believe God acts through many different mediators to reveal and communicate God’s will and redemptive presence. The reason I am not a true pluralist is because I see in Jesus of Nazareth the quintessential mediator and the archetypal image of what it means to be fully human incarnating the divine presence.
I do not believe that Jesus is God, but I do believe that he is a mediator unlike any other. So while I believe in the saving efficacy of other mediators and other religious traditions, I see Jesus as the prototypical, ultimate embodiment of the divine, the exemplar reflection of the image of God.
At the very least, this is how the early disciples perceived Jesus. It is understandable then that these early disciples would begin to equate the image of the living Christ with the Divine Spirit/Presence/Word. It’s not possible to know what they were thinking, but I suspect the connections they made were more spiritual than literal. I’m not sure they even thought through the implications of attributing divine status to Jesus. Later, that line of thought evolved even to the point of calling Jesus God, which becomes the basis for the metaphysical, Trinitarian formulations in the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds.
While I do not literally regard Jesus as divine or make Jesus equal to God, Jesus of Nazareth functions in my faith as the great quintessential image of the divine and as the definitive, unique expression of authentic humanity. I see Jesus as the embodiment of the kingdom he proclaimed in both its present and future aspects. I view Jesus as the supreme revelation of the grace and truth of God (key elements in John’s incarnational theology). I see the image of the living Christ as the goal for humanity—what we are destined to become. I interpret the New Testament image of the indwelling Christ/Spirit of Christ as a metaphorical way of speaking about the divine which resides within each of us and the potential that human beings possess to actually become what we are, the daughters and sons of God.
Therefore, to know Christ is to know God, though I do not equate Christ with God in any metaphysical, ontological, or literal sense. To live as Christ involves a relationship to the divine presence/Spirit whereby the character of Christ/God is formed in us. This is what it means for Christ to live in us (Gal. 2:20), for Christ to be formed in us (Gal 4:19), and for us to walk/live in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16–26). The living Christ is actually the Spirit of God/the divine presence at work in us. Christians know the divine presence as Christ; other religious traditions will know the divine presence by different names.