Posted by: rogermitchell | April 10, 2010

How seriously do we take the incarnation?

Pete Moore comments on my last post back on Easter Day that he loves the thoughts I’ve been bringing surrounding kenarchy and its implications, but that one area he struggles with is eschatology. Specifically the representation of a returning warrior Christ that just seems so at odds with the Christ of the sermon on the mount and Phil 2. He asks for some of my thoughts surrounding kenarchy, empire and its implications for eschatology and judgment. This raises one of the most important theological questions, namely how seriously do we take the incarnation. And surely the answer has to be VERY! For me this is the heart of everything. I am not a Christian because I believe the Bible but because I was challenged to believe that God is just like the Jesus of the synoptic and Johannine testimony. When I talked to him as if he was there I experienced a full on eschatological encounter. It remains my faith position, and one which reason and history affirms. But it is the encounter that invaded my time and space with eternity that makes me a Christian, not reason or history. For me, God is like him. As John 14: 9 puts it  “Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? So true eschatology reveals a God who is forever just like Jesus. And as John 16:13-14 puts it “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth … he will glorify me, for he will take of mine and will disclose it to you.” So our challenge and privilege is to bring the apocalyptic language and imagery of the conquering returning king of revelation to the Spirit of the incarnate God of the gospels. That means that his triumph and exaltation are the triumph and exaltation of the God of the sermon on the mount and Philippians 2, not a lesser one. The same challenge is presented to us by many passages of the Old Testament of course, about which the gospel narrative is so clear. Jesus fulfills it by taking its partial revelations to a consummation that abolishes old ways of thinking by transfiguring them. As Matthew 5:38-45 cites him “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”



  1. Oh Roger, at the risk of getting overly political here let me tell you of a recent experience. It has to do with that radical reinterpretation of the gospels with which Jesus confronts us.

    I was watching a video of former American VP candidate Sarah Palin at a rally in Minnesota recently and she was asked to comment on the just announced treaty agreement between the US and Russia re: nuclear arms. She began to rant about how Obama was like a kid in a school yard who when threatened by a bully would explain that he refused to retaliate. I sat there mildly stunned as this woman claims to be a Christian. In fact she makes that claim emphatically.

    And at that moment I heard the braying of a donkey.

    I realized that was what so much of politics is. It is the braying of fools, of donkeys. It mainly is because they absolutely cannot, or will not, get their heads around this truth. Our returning King is not a souped up version of a soldier with the latest high tech military gear. That confusion has led to an eschatology, especially present amongst conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, that equates eschatology and the return of Christ with a brutal bloody celebration of ‘we were right’ and ‘you are wrong’. In the name of Christ the eschatological hope is that we all become bullies on the playground in support of the toughest boy. Certainly that is not the Christ I have met and follow so maybe I am missing something big. But those actions leading to the cross and the words about loving your enemies, and laying down one’s life still resonate more loudly than the braying of all those donkeys.

  2. Thanks Cheryl. Your comment underlines how crucially important these issues are for contemporary politics. The deconstruction of the eschatology of the expected return of a bully boy king is urgent. If such a God existed it would be necessary to oppose him whatever the consequences! By the way the braying of a donkey suggests clicking on William Stopha on the blogroll. The donkey is his chosen motif!

  3. Hi Guys,
    Appreciate your thoughts but would like to press a bit further on this if you are willing to accommodate me :). Roger, I liked your phrase ‘So our challenge and privilege is to bring the apocalyptic language and imagery of the conquering returning king of revelation to the Spirit of the incarnate God of the gospels’ but am left with a couple of questions which I hope will make sense.
    I agree that the incarnation of Christ is the fullest revelation of the Father but it is also the fullest revelation of humanity and it is the role and relationship of God and humanity that for me provokes questions surrounding wrath and judgement. For it appears that part of our ethic of nonviolence is not only based upon Christ’s example but also upon our eschatology. That we do not respond like with like but ‘leave room for wrath’ (Rom 12:9-21). Knowing that one day God will sort it all out I am left wondering how exactly God will do that without using a level of violence. Is it because God is uniquely able to justly judge that we leave it up to Him? How will God deal with the violent oppressor who refuses to repent without at some point using some degree of violence towards them? And also how do we understand wrath and hell in light of kenarchy? Just some beginning thoughts…..

  4. Hello again Pete.
    You continue to raise what are surely the central issues. I can only reiterate that the incarnation has to be complete to work. This certainly seems to be how Paul sees it when he says to the Colossians: “For in him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col 2:9). So I don’t see how we can make a distinction between the character of God in the first and second comings, they are really the beginning and the completion of one coming. It seems that the cross is the sign for all time of the cost to God of human sin. He sucks it up, takes it in, drains it. I think this has to mean that this is the ultimate way he deals with sin and sinners. Hell and judgment are in the cross. The wounds remain in Jesus body after the resurrection. Seemingly the apocalyptic image of the lamb in the midst of the throne means that the life-laying-down loving whereby God draws sin and its consequences into himself is the very nature of divine sovereignty. This is the opposite of what sovereignty has been taken to mean. This is life laid down, power not used to hold on to position and self-justification but emptied out on behalf of enemies and sinners. This is what I mean by kenosis. In which case those that manage to remain unmoved and unchanged by such love have only themselves to blame. The hell that such hardness of heart leads to must still be in the cross in the heart of the Godhead. Where else can it be? Hell is in God and he lives with the everlasting cost of people choosing it. I’m tempted to say that I’m glad we’re not God, but he has included us in the circle of his being and I guess we need to let this cost be ours too. there is more to be said about this in terms of the nature of power and its implications for the cross and contemporary theopolitics which I will take up in later posts.

  5. “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” Daniel 7:14
    Many thoughts provoked by this entry and comments. Much of our understanding of how the eschatology and judgement are incarnated or fulfilled, are of necessity coloured by our nature, experience and being an image reflected dimly.
    In our world we learn that, ultimately, human will can be imposed on others by force. Indeed it is often implied or inferred when there is no apparent force, in order to bring about the desired end. This is fundamental to our fallen nature understanding and exercise of authority. It requires an opposite of kenarchy as Roger sets it out, in that it puffs up and denies others not self.
    So when we read the apocalypse passages we see them through the lens of violent imposition of one’s will over another, and all other imposing authority models. We cannot see Christ’s enemies submitting to him voluntarily, so they must be forced, mustn’t they?
    And yet it seems so counter to all that Father reveals to us through his Son, by the Spirit. The danger is we theologise from what is acceptable to us, not a good standard.
    I was troubled by this and pondered, but could not seem to connect with Roger’s approach to answering the problem posed. So rather than squeeze myself through I saw a different approach.
    I may have touched on this before, but to me seeing Jesus’ exousia is key. ‘All authority (exousia) in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” Matthew 28:18.
    I know there is inherent danger in philologising, but the root meaning of exousia is to me so instructive as to be essential – ‘out of (my) being/substance’. It seems to resound with echos of Exodus 3 and the I AM tetragrammaton. Jesus’ authority ‘over’ us will never need to be imposed by force it simply is. Whenever he is revealed his exousia is seen and knees bow, tongues confess.
    Proof text required? Look at John 18, on being betrayed he openly declares his nature and his arresting party fall to the ground, at which point he gives himself over to the hands of sinful men.
    Another? Colossians 2:15, at the point of Jesus’ greatest frailty and meekness he triumphs. His power is perfected in weakness (Interesting text 2Cor 12:9, could read here that power is designed [teleitai] for weakness, look it up).
    Jesus’ victory has already been won, it won’t even be a case of convincing a few recalcitrant sinners, it will simply be revealed. Isn’t that what apocalypse means anyway.
    So why quote Daniel at the beginning? Simply because the LXX has exousia where we read dominion

  6. Thanks Hywel,
    I like this and find the work on exousia very helpful. With love Roger

  7. Great discussion.

    I wade in with due diffidence, unwilling to throw too many cats among pigeons but characteristically unable to resist an opportunity to be provocative. I’m not sure we can satisfactorily refer to ideas like ‘divine sovereignty’ without being more than explicit about the fact that they are oxymorons. I think these ideas can trip us up! To be divine (and therefore completely kenotic like Jesus) and to be equally sovereign (and therefore the holder of supreme power) is like talking about beautiful awfulness. Oxymorons enable either a tension to be revealed or a way of reaching for an idea beyond our ideas.

    The Son of Man/divinity of the incarnation is without sovereignty. But his kenosis (life laying down unto death) precipitates resurrection showing that this is more powerful than the great powers of death.

    Could it be possible then for God to be a ‘force without force’, a ‘power of powerlessness’ because what makes him divine is his propensity to be kenotic? He is not then, in any sense that human philosophy has devised, ‘sovereign’… and that is what makes him God. He does not resort to an ability to take away life (or punish eternally) in order to be powerful. His potency is the potency of gift: of refusing power and loving unconditionally. Power is not power and sovereignty is not sovereignty.

    Perhaps others will take different views but this question of sovereignty needs further cracking/unpacking. Without cracking it properly, God can sovereignly withhold his kenosis and punish whom he damn [sic] well pleases (unless, in doing so this negates his ‘sovereignty’). That’s unsatisfactory and it’s not Jesus. Without cracking it properly, I suspect the king complex will live on – shrouded in the sovereignty of the god who must in the end be pleased. Personally, for a host of reasons, I’d be more than happy to dispense with sovereign as a word to describe God (though my objection is more than semantic).

    Anyway, isn’t this the task necessitated by Pete’s questions? I’m not sure there is much disparity between the apocalyptic and the incarnate, but there is certainly a tension between the popular God and the one who is coming.

    [But this might take us to our erstwhile impasse Roger?]

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