NT Wright makes arguments as to why he believes Jesus was the incarnate Son of God. Interestingly they do not rest on the Gospels, but on a deeper understanding of how ﬁrst-century Jews understood God and his action in the world. He spells them out in Jesus and the Victory of God.
Judaism already had a strong incarnational principle, namely the Temple, and that the language used of Shekinah, Torah, Wisdom, Word, and Spirit in the Old Testament—the language, in other words, upon which the earliest Christians drew when they were exploring and expounding what we have called Christology—was a language designed, long before Jesus’ day, to explain how the one true God could be both transcendent over the world and living and active within it, particularly within Israel.
In the Jewish traditions of Jesus’ day, God was thought of as the one who made the world and was still active within Israel. According to Wright, the roots of the incarnation lie, not in subtle pre-Christian use of certain titles for certain figures, but in long-held Jewish beliefs about what God would one day do in person. There were five ways of speaking about God’s action in the world as seen in the Old Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other similar texts. In these five ways, Jesus speaks and behaves as if he was being called to embody or incarnate the return of Israel’s God to his people. They are the word of God, the wisdom of God, the law of God, the spirit of God, and the Glory of God dwelling in the Temple.
In speaking of the word, God spoke and it was done; Wisdom becomes almost a personification of God’s second self. The law, like wisdom, is not just a written law but a presence through which God makes himself known. Of course, through his spirit, God indwells humans so that they can do extraordinary things for God’s glory. Most importantly, the Jews believed the Temple was an incarnational symbol.
The Creator of the universe had promised to come and make his home here. Jesus behaves as if he is the Temple in person. When he says, “Your sins are forgiven,” he is in some respects changing the way the law was understood and interpreted. Jesus as a one-man Temple substitute offered forgiveness of sins and restoration with God. According to Wright, Jesus’ resurrection was the first in a series of realizations that led to the belief in his divinity.
In What Jesus Meant Wills cites Chesterton who said, “A great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it.” The thing we have to realize is that Christ, whoever or whatever he was, was certainly not a Christian.
Romano Guardini in The Humanity of Christ wrote that if Jesus is a mere man, then he must be measured by the message which he brought to men. He must himself do what he expects of others; he must himself think according to the way he demanded that men think. He must himself be a Christian.
Several stories, serving as parables, brought home the beauty and mystery of the incarnation. Chesterton’s play The Surprise, set in the Medieval England expresses the interplay between man’s free will and God’s sovereignty. When a Friar wondering in the woods happens to see a large caravan of life size puppets on an open stage. The puppeteer offers to give the friar a free performance. He shows a romantic story of two friends who drink to the success of their project to rescue a damsel in distress. The play ends dramatically after the puppeteer confesses to the friar his problem. He loves his characters deeply but they don’t reciprocate his love. The friar prays that the puppeteer will get his wishes before the second act opens.
This time the characters move and breathe on their own. They reenact the play but the only problem is that they have everyday problems like jealousy, violence and malfeasance. They are unable to rescue the damsel from her captor. At the point, as she is about to be raped, the puppeteers orders them to stop. In the ensuing plot, Chesterton illustrates how an idea can be best understood when it is wrapped up in a person.
Kierkegard wrote a story about a king who loved a humble maiden. Because of his power, everyone trembled in his presence and dared not oppose him. And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden who lived in a poor village in his king not resist. But would she love him?
She might profess love out of fear but secretly yearn for the life she had left behind. How could he know for sure? Any attempt to use his power to ascertain her true thoughts would fail. If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, she would be overwhelmed. He did not want a cringing subject but a lover and an equal. He wanted her to forget his power. Convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, the king resolved to descend clothed as a beggar. He approached her simple cottage in the disguise of a frayed, worn beggar and thereby won her heart.
In What Jesus Meant Wills quotes Chesterton: “A great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it.” The thing we have to realize is that Christ, whoever or whatever he was, was certainly not a Christian.
Again, I drew on CS Lewis’ logic. The incarnation cannot be explained or understood through logic. One question is how the eternal spirit can combine with a natural human organism. Because we ourselves have both of these elements we are a faint microcosm of this combination. In the case of the incarnation, however, Lewis points out that it is God himself who unites with the human figure of Jesus. Lewis expands on incarnational themes in his discussion of selectiveness and vicariousness.
Out of the multitudes, he chooses Abraham. As in nature, self-sufficiency is impossible. “Everything is indebted to everything else, sacrificed to everything else, dependent on everything else. The descent and re-ascent of God, a mythical
pattern seen in all vegetable and animal life, as well as the mystery religions, prepared the thought forms of the Jews.
These became realized in the choice of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Vicariousness not privilege became the lot of the chosen people. The entire nation suffered through the centuries so that others could be healed. The symbolic truths in the mystery religions became real in the life and resurrection of Jesus.
Michael Wyschogrod, a Jewish theologian, states that Judaism is not inherently non incarnational and believes that a transcendent God can make himself known by entering into space and time. Though God can be present in a holy space or with a holy community, it categorically rejects the notion that Jesus can be fully human and fully divine. In expressing the core differences between Judaism and Christianity, Eliot Wolfson has written that though God is not a body, he can be experienced or imagined in a concrete and tangible way. “The rabbinic notion of incarnation embraces the paradox that God’s body is real to the extent that it is imagined, but it is imagined only to the extent that it is real.” He contends that the textual roots for the incarnation of the divine in the angelic figure of Genesis are based on confusion between the angel of God and God himself.
Shaul Magid in a book called Hasidism Incarnate shows, the deep religious structures of the two religions may not always be as different as they might suggest. Maggid’s book takes on the thorny issue of incarnation, of the divine becoming human.
Historically, many Jewish writers have taken incarnation as the dividing line between Judaism and Christianity. Magid patiently shows, that dividing line on incarnation is a little more blurry than has previously been believed. Magid takes as his subject Hasidism, the movement that swept through eighteenth and nineteenth century Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, which grew away from the Christian gaze and the need for apologetics.
Charismatic holy men called zaddikim spread Hasidism. It is in the figure of the zaddik that Magid persuasively argues that Hasidism brings incarnational theology into Judaism. His research shows many Hasidic writings that talk about the semi-divinity of the zaddik. Though Magid is at pains to distinguish this incarnational theology from the high Christology of Christianity, he shows that incarnation is very much a strong current in Hasidism, right up until the present in the form of the messianic quality ascribed to the last Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn.