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The Incarnation Points to Both/And Living in an Either/Or World

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A few weeks ago I bought myself an early Christmas present – a recently released book about the thoughts and ideas of John Stott, an influential British pastor and author who went home to glory in 2011. I read through it quickly, and I really enjoyed this opportunity to dig deeper into Stott’s thoughts on various topics. One thing that the author pointed out was that Stott sought to avoid polarizing extremes when it came to theological thoughts. Rather than choosing one side or the other or finding a compromise between the two positions (that did injustice to both positions!), he sought to hold the seemingly contradictory positions at the same time. For example, he was one who sought to highlight God’s sovereignty in electing to save people while at the same time, pointing out our responsibility to turn to God in faith. It was not just theology, however, but also methodology, as he sought to highlight that missions should have evangelism (sharing the truth of the gospel) as a priority but should also involve blessing and helping people in tangible ways. Too often, people and churches end up going towards one extreme or the other on these and many other issues. I think this legacy of avoiding choosing between extremes is a good one to remember as we move towards Christmas – as it is a reminder of the incarnation – and also one for us to remember in a world that is highly polarized.

The Mystery of the Incarnation – Fully God and Fully Human

Over the years, Christians have tried to explain the incarnation, and to be honest, they have struggled with it. In fact, the early church spent a lot of time trying to figure it out, with a number of groups having some ideas that were deemed out of accord with what we see in the Bible. Rather than label them by the groups that held them in the early church, I like to compare them to various superheroes. Some have overemphasized Jesus’s humanity at the expense of his divinity, as if he is just a really faithful person (think of Batman who has no superpowers) or a human who was given divine powers (like Spiderman, except they said it was a dove and not a spider that “bit” him). Others so emphasize his divinity and identity as God that he no longer really seems to be fully human (I compare this error to thinking of him as Superman, who is not really a human but an alien who lives on earth). Some have tried to find some sort of middle ground in which there is a weird meddling of God and human, as if he is part God and part human (like Robocop) or has a divine soul but a human body. Those positions mean that he is neither fully God nor fully human. Another group in the early church stated that Jesus actually had two souls, a human one and a divine one (as if he was the Incredible Hulk — sometimes God and sometimes human!). None of these explanations does justice to what we see in the Scripture, as we see that Jesus is fully God and fully human — one person who has these two natures that are not confused, changed, mixed, divided, or separated. When we gravitate too far on one side or seek to combine the two in an odd way, we run into trouble. We must stay in the mystery and affirm particular truths together.

I must admit that there is some mystery here; we hold these truths that Jesus is fully God and fully man, but we don’t fully understand how this works. We know that both are essential for our faith, as Jesus must be human to stand in our place to save us, but he also must be divine and fully God to offer the true sacrifice and have the power to save us. A similar synthesis of truths that work together in mystery is at the heart of many key teachings of the Christian faith. The Trinity is another teaching that has some mystery, as it is not three gods (that would be Tritheism, not monotheism) but also not one God in three modes or in three parts. All three persons of God are fully God and they are united but yet also distinct, as we see the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit, and all exist at the same time. We believe that God is sovereign and in control, but we also believe that we are responsible for our choices. We believe that we are saints and sinners, that we are made right with God through faith, but we continue to struggle and stumble and fall. The list could go on and on with more of these examples.

Christmas is a reminder that mystery is at the heart of the Christian faith, that we can hold positions that seem to be in tension at the same time, and that when we fall into extremes, we go into error. I think the mysterious truth of the incarnation of Jesus is a wonderful gift for us in the present time that we live.

Living as Both/And People in an Either/Or World

We seem to be living in an increasingly polarized culture, one in which it seems that we often are made to choose between two positions; it is assumed that if you are for a certain position, then you are against another position (even if it is not necessarily its exact opposite). Some people feel that if you are in a favor of a certain position, it must mean that you can not like, respect, or care about a person who disagrees with you. I believe the Christian faith gives us tools to make sure we don’t fall into the extremes and also do not seek to compromise or water down the particular truths to the point that they lose its meaning. I do want to make clear that I am not saying everything is free game — there are certain ideas and truths that are contradictory to the Christian faith (for example, a belief in reincarnation or a belief that truth is relative or that all will be rewarded with paradise after this life). However, we can be advocates for multiple things and should be careful of having to make a choice between things that are either not contradictory to each other or are both affirmed to be important in what we see in the Bible. May we as God’s people be a model for “both/and” living in an “either/or” world, as we do not worship one who was either God or human but one who was fully God and fully human.

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