The Incarnation: God's Cure for the Rational Theologian

If you are searching for ways to lower your intellectual self-esteem, I suggest that you investigate what I call “Theo-Twitter Land”. The citizenry is mostly comprised of (post-)graduate students and early-career theologians whose seemingly bottomless wells of theological knowledge always leave me feeling like I am dancing around like a toddler holding a leaky tin cup, pretending to be one of the “big kids”.

So what is the solution to such a perceived problem? Why, read more! Of course! Expand and deepen your knowledge! Get on their intellectual level to truly enjoy the richness of the dialogue! Yet sooner or later, the desire to simply keep up with the theological Joneses becomes a competitive task. A desire to engage in deeper, richer theological dialogue morphs into the ugly jealous beast of attempting to be the wisest person in the (chat) room. And along the way, what starts out as an earnest quest to encounter the Living God through intellect becomes a way to pin up like a moth the dead god of our own intellectual making. That desire to encounter becomes a desire to conquer – not just our dialogue partners, but God Godself.

The realization that we cannot approach the task of theology as anything other than rational beings is both a blessing and a profound warning; blessing insofar as we are able to bring the totality of our beings – including our intellect – to the Source of Life in our desire for greater intimacy with and service of God; warning insofar as the realization that we are incurably rationalistic underscores the eternal limitations we will always have when we encounter the radically transcendent God under whose waterfall of grace we all hold leaky tin cups. Put more simply: we will always have the temptation to attempt to pin the Living God up on cardstock like a dead bug for examination and, in doing so, miss the divine metamorphosis going on before our eyes.

But it has never been the Christian conviction that the Word came as Aquinas’ Summa or that Christ pitched his feminist hermeneutic of suspicion among us. No, the One who was with and was God from the very beginning came among us in flesh.

Fine. Great. We have all heard that sermon. May we be excused?

I certainly have heard that sermon… and then I go home and try to figure God out through my own cleverness (which is depressingly hilarious, considering that I claim to be influenced by Karl Barth). That God became human in Jesus Christ is a hill I am willing to die on in theological debate, and apparently a hill on which I am willing to shoot myself in the foot when it comes to my own theological approach. If I could just read one more book… If I could just make sense of this… If… then I would have God figured out!

Yet, as Barth sagely wrote in his Church Dogmatics: “The fact that we know God is His work and not ours. And the clarity and certainty in which we know Him are His and not ours. The possibility on the basis of which this occurrence is realised is His divine power.”[1]

Barth is emphatic that revelation is God’s self-disclosure and never the product of human piety or ingenuity. Which, I am sure, is a fact to which any old Reformed Christian would likely assent… and, once more, a fact we almost all inwardly (and sometimes outwardly) ignore.

To Barth, the agent in faith is always God, and faith is thus always a gift of grace.[2] A humbling, if not abstract, notion for any theologically-inclined individual to integrate into their living. But is it enough? Were this simply the case, would it not be sufficient for the Most High to send us an email (or perhaps a post-carried letter – this is God, after all) to inform us that faith is indeed a divine initiative? Perhaps, but I have a suspicion that we doubly blessed-and-cursed rationalistic theological beings would analyze that to death, too, in the pursuit of a better view of God.

Thank God for the Incarnation.

As I read myself to death in search of a theological system that would finally give me the perfect understanding of God and pressure my prayer life into my dictating God what God is and is not, the Incarnation is a colossal slap in the face. Not a slap of punishment, to be sure. A slap telling me to snap out of it! For this is the Living God. The Deliverer of Israel. The Holy One and the Holy Three. Not at all an aloof God, but certainly never one Whom I can nail down to my dorm-room desk and hand in to my professor for a passing grade. And I only have Jesus to thank and curse for that.

For, as Barth writes, “when we pronounce the name of Jesus Christ, we are not speaking of an idea. The name Jesus Christ is not the transparent shell through which we glimpse something higher – no room for Platonism here!”[3] Rather, in Jesus Christ – in this person – we encounter the fullness of the Living God; perhaps more accurately, the Living God encounters us. This is self-revelation: God’s definitive disclosure. A central and basic Christian message, for certain, but one that yet gives the theologian – amateur or professional – a holy stomach ulcer when it is so often forgotten as she theologizes.

It is often proclaimed in the liberal mainline that because “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not! Because Jesus is Lord, nothing else is!” A true enough statement. But perhaps as we look toward the Feast of the Nativity, we might well say in the same spirit that because the Word became flesh, our own cleverness is not the Word! The writings of our most revered and celebrated theologians are not the Word! Nothing is the fuller self-revelation of the Most High than this back-wood baby on the run from a genocidal king.

That the Word became flesh must be among the core convictions we espouse when we approach the theological task. I was reminded of this while bemoaning my inability to figure God out to a friend who is a Barth scholar. He reminded me that Barth himself never forgot this fact of Christian reality: God is always the Subject, never the object. Not a specimen, not a natural phenomenon, not a distant historical figure vulnerable to the malleability of facts. A holy, living Subject. The Self-Discloser, if you will.

While it is quite precious to speak of gifts at this time of year, I can think of no other description that this Incarnate Self-Revealer than “gift”. Not because this makes for wonderful Hollywood or great Christmas cards – sorry, dear reader, but giving birth in a cattle trough would have been downright disgusting. No, the Incarnation is a wondrous gift because it liberates us from the need of having to figure out God on our own. It liberates us from ourselves and our thinking that if we could just read one more book, if we could just translate this word in Hebrew better, if we could just pray in this way, we might just figure God out. To all this, and in true Barthian fashion, God gives a resounding “nein!”

While we try to figure God out, God is sorting our lives out. While we try to nail God down, God is at work setting us free. While we crown 20th-century Germans as Christs-cum-theologians, God continues to speak the Word which we ignore. This is God’s gift to those of us who contemplate the things of God: that God is always the Gracious Agent who moves towards us. That also means that the Divine Action which we study requires more a camcorder than a Polaroid.

Because as we turn and return to our never-finished pile of books and our position papers and our congregations and our lives, the Incarnate God whirls around us in a flurry of action generated by the Holy Spirit in a world that is already and not-yet redeemed. This is the reality in which (in whom) we are called to pursue the study of God: one of dynamism, of adventure, of danger, of grace. To rework Barth’s image of theology, we are to be as the heavenly host – heralding the Good News of great joy for all people, ushering all who hear toward the Almighty lying defenseless in a barn, and resounding an everlasting song of praise to the Incarnate Self-Discloser.

Morgan Bell

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishing, 2010.) II/1, 40.

[2] Ibid. II/1, 70.

[3] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1957.) 67.