The theological deficit within evangelicalism as seen in views of the incarnation.

How long can evangelical churches remain evangelical, given the widespread increase in biblical illiteracy and the theological ignorance which accompanies it and which is probably even more severe?

Evangelical leaders are aware of the problem, but I see little sign of its being effectively addressed in western churches, and the problem is compounded in the majority world where church growth seriously outpaces the training of ministers and lay leaders. In a blog post published on Christmas day, Roger Olson described his experience as a veteran theology teacher in evangelical schools and, quite frankly, it is a scary story. His example in this post is the serious misunderstanding of the doctrine of the incarnation, among evangelicals who should know better.

Roger Olson

Early in my career of teaching Christian theology to undergraduates (seventeen years at two Christian institutions of higher learning) I discovered that most of my students assumed that, to put it crassly, Jesus “dropped” his humanity at his ascension (if not before). Now, they believed, he is back in his purely spiritual existence with the Father and the Holy Spirit as he was before he was born in Bethlehem. Now, they believed, he is no longer a man, the man who died on the cross, but a super-spiritual, omnipresent, being who is not limited in any ways. After all, they argued, he lives in all Christians’ hearts, doesn’t he? 

When I probed students about this belief they gave many answers. First was the one mentioned above. How can a human being live in all our hearts? Second, “humanity” is sinful, so how can God be human? Third, after his resurrection he walked through walls, so he couldn’t have been human anymore. Fourth, if he’s still a man, how can he identify with women and how can women have fellowship with him? (This last question was usually raised by women students, of course.)

This is just a sampling of the reasons students gave for believing that the incarnation was temporary and that the Son of God is no longer a particular man, a human being. And these reasons were expressed in many different ways, but most came down to a version of one of these.

At the same time, the same students tended to “eternalize” Jesus into the immanent Trinity. That is, they often referred to the pre-incarnate Son of God, if not God himself in general, as “Jesus.” The word “God” and the name “Jesus” were simply interchangeable in their talk about God. Somehow they managed to separate the name “Jesus” from the humanity of the Son of God and of Mary and apply it to divinity in general.

Well, we expect these confusions to appear among fifth graders in Sunday School. It’s common, garden variety Sunday School theology. But somewhere along the way, during my catechesis as a young evangelical, I shed these ideas and came to believe in the incarnation as an event in time (and in the life of God!) and as permanent.

So, how did we get to this point? When did this theological ignorance begin to grow? Here’s Olson’s suggestion:

I suspect, however, that somewhere along the way, during the 1960s through the 1990s and until now, most churches have abdicated their responsibility to teach Christian young people doctrine and theology. Over the years of teaching theology to Christian undergraduates I noticed a decline in their knowledge of basic Christian belief  . . . I had students who grew up in pastors’ and missionaries’ homes declaring they had never heard of the bodily resurrection before and accusing me of introducing novel ideas when all I was doing was introducing them to basic Christian orthodoxy!

This is what I call the dominance of folk religion or folk theology in American Christianity. . . .

One item of folk religion is the belief among Christians that the incarnation was temporary—a mere interim and perhaps even a charade in the life of the Son of God, God’s Word, the Logos. For many evangelicals (and others, I suspect), the incarnation was simply the Son of God “putting on human skin” for thirty-some years in order to teach us how to please God and then to die for our sins. Either at the moment of his death or at his resurrection or at his ascension he shed that human skin and returned to his glorious pre-incarnation existence as God’s purely spiritual Son in heaven who also, somehow, dwells in every Christian’s heart.

This is, of course, an informal form of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. It is a docetic Christology. Most of the time I find that people who believe the incarnation was temporary don’t really believe in the incarnation at all! That is, they tend to think of Jesus’ humanity as an act, an outward performance, not a real human nature and existence like ours. To many Christians “Jesus” was Clark Kent to the Son of God’s super-human glory.

Olson goes on to explain why this mistaken view of the incarnation is wrong.

 First, it flies in the face of Scripture. 1 Timothy 2:5—”one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” The tense is present. The Gospels clearly present the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ as human. He ate food. He had scars. And yet the angel told the disciples at his ascension that this same Jesus Christ would come back just as they saw him go. A glorified human, yes, but still human. And according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 we will be like him in that glorious state of resurrected humanity.

With Christmas just behind us, this is a good time to pause and reflect? How well did we do this year at making it clear in our churches that what happened in the manger in Bethlehem was not something temporary for the Word, but that his taking upon himself human nature was forever. He is the one in whose image we were created, and into whose image we who believe in him are now being transformed.

 May 2014 be a good year for God’s people all over the world, a year in which the church grows in the knowledge of biblical truth and in the obedience of faith.

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3 Responses to The theological deficit within evangelicalism as seen in views of the incarnation.

  1. Stan Fowler says:

    Well said, Terry and Roger. I think it might be more accurate, though, to say that the common evangelical concept is Apollinarian, thinking of Jesus as simply God in a body with no human rational soul. Related to this is the tendency toward modalism. I can’t count the times when I have heard someone praying at a communion service who addressed the Father and then thanked him for dying for our sins. Much work to be done.

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Good observations, Stan. I agree that Apollinarianism and modalism are both common in the minds and language of evangelicals, particularly those in churches where the ecumenical creeds or the Chalcedonian definition are never recited and rarely referenced, perhaps.

  2. Jacob C. says:

    Thanks for the eye opening article. As a missionary in my own church, we work every day to teach people about the true nature of God. I’ve found the greatest way to get others to understand the eternal role that Jesus Christ plays in our salvation, and the real physical sense by which He took upon himself our sins, is to get them them read in the scriptures every day.

    My friend wrote an article on our blog stressing to others the importance of daily scripture study, http://www.reallifeanswers.org/everyday-faith/what%E2%80%99s-the-point-of-reading-the-scriptures/

    I’d love to get your opinion on it and hear other ways you’ve helped your parishioners to understand the nature of Jesus Christ and God the Father.

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