For a variety of reasons, I have chosen to dedicate this week to a 5-part series on the theology of the incarnation. I’ll warn you in advance, it’s going to be equal parts challenge and reward.
Rather than address the subject chronologically, I felt it best to address the subject thematically. And so we start in the medieval period with a gentleman by the name of Anselem of Canterbury.
CUR DEUS HOMO?
We first have to understand that, by Anselem’s day, the church had long established the fact that Christ possessed two natures: He was fully God and fully man (we’ll actually be returning to this weird discussion of “natures” in a later post).
But what Anselem sought was the reason God chose to become this “God-man.” He would become famous for authoring a book called Cur Deus Homo, from which this series gets its name. Cur Deus Homo is a Latin phrase that, when literally translated, means “Why [the] God man?” In other words, Anselem was set on figuring out why the incarnation actually happened.
IN THE BEGINNING…
Anselem’s argument makes its starting point the dawn of man’s history, a time when God walked alongside our ancestors in the cool of the Garden. But that all changed when man rebelled against his Creator, finding himself cast outside Eden’s fellowship.
Mind you, Anselem did not describe this “relationship” in the same way that modern writers do. While modern writers often speak of friendship and intimacy, Anselem situated this story in the vernacular of the feudal system of the medieval period. Man’s offense had damaged his relationship with God, described as the “lord of the manor.”
HOW GREAT THE COST
For Anselem, sin was less a spiritual orientation and more an offense against God. For simplicity’s sake, let’s summarize the argument as follows:
(1) Man and God originally shared a righteous relationship.
(2) Man sinned against God, thus offending God’s character.
(3) God’s character is infinite.
(4) Therefore, the offense against God’s character is infinite.
(5) To satisfy the offense, a sacrifice must be made equal to the offense.
(6) The offense is infinite.
(7) Therefore the sacrifice must be infinite.
(8) Man made the offense.
(9) Man must pay the price.
(10) Man is finite.
(11) Finite man is unable to pay the price.
Let’s say it this way: you’re driving through Detroit. On your left is the Henry Ford Museum, stocked with a wide variety of exhibits, including some of the original Model T Fords. On your right is a used car lot, stocked with a variety of used vehicles. As you’re driving between these two landmarks, you lose control of the car. You slide to the right, plowing into one of the used cars, totaling it.
How much is the damage?
Easy, right? Just look at the sticker price, or look it up in the Kelly Blue Book. Your insurance will certainly cover it.
But what if you swerved to the left? What if you had someone crashed through the museum’s walls, taking out the original Ford Model T?
How much is the damage?
There is no price that can be applied to this invaluable piece of Americana. No matter how many zeroes you write on that check, you can never truly restore this priceless treasure.
And that’s the same as with God’s character.
THE GOD MAN
Man is the guilty party, who must make amends for the damage done against God. Anselem writes of this difficulty:
“But this cannot be done unless there is someone to pay to God for human sin something greater than everything that exists…If he is to give something of his own to God, it is also necessary for him to be greater than everything that is not God…but there is nothing above everything that is not God, save God Himself…Then no one but God can make that satisfaction…But no one ought to make it except man; otherwise man does not make satisfaction.”
Since man is unable to make this provision on his own, God saw fit, while we were yet sinners, to take on human skin so that this sacrifice could be made on our behalf: “…while no one but God can make it and no one but man ought to make it, it is necessary for a God-man to make it.” (this and the preceding quote come from Cur Deus Homo, Book 2)
There are several implications of Anselem’s theory. First, Jesus must be fully God and fully man. Neither of these natures can be denied or ignored, lest this act of satisfaction be negated.
Second, religion gets us nowhere. This is why I so often call religious moralism “treadmill theology.” Our rules and standards might make us sweat, but at the end of the day we haven’t gotten anywhere. Only Christ can bring us back into connection with God.
In the coming posts, we’ll examine this subject in greater detail, also looking at the dramatic implications of the incarnation for our lives and ministry.