Chapter 8: The Incarnation

The Spirit and the Forms of Love
by Daniel Day Williams

Chapter 8: The Incarnation

The meaning of love in the biblical faith is revealed in God’s actions in history through his relationship to Israel and the giving of his Son to the world that all things might be reconciled to him. Yet in the Church’s doctrine of the incarnation: the Person of Christ, and of the atonement: the Work of Christ, the love of God seems rarely to be given central importance. The meaning of Jesus’ relation to God becomes debated as the relation of divine and human natures, and the traditional doctrines of atonement, except Abelard’s, are shot through with metaphors from law court, battlefield, and penitential office which express the theme of love only indirectly, if at all. What would happen to traditional doctrines if the love of God were made the criterion for our understanding who Jesus is and what he has done?

In this chapter we ask what it means to understand the relation of God and Jesus as an expression of love, and in the next chapter we try to give an account of atonement which takes love as its centre and substance.

Certainly to understand love in the Christian way is to grasp what God has done in Christ, and to see what God has done in Christ is to understand love. We work within this circle not outside it, and do not claim a ready-made conception of love which unlocks all the mysteries of Christ. We are, however, insisting that however we interpret that mystery, our central clue is that God’s being is love and our human situation bears the need for the restoration and fulfilment of life in love.

Consider, then, this approach to the meaning of the incarnation. The Christian faith is that a decisive action of God in a human life has brought redemption, and has begun a new history of reconciled and fulfilled life. In Jesus Christ God has given what is needed to heal the disorders in the human spirit, and to inaugurate a new possibility for every life. Human history, and indeed the history of the whole creation, can now be understood from the perspective created by this action of God in Jesus.

The Church has never considered this assertion as self-interpreting. There is always more to be said in exploring its meaning and mystery. The New Testament itself grew out of continuing reflection on the meaning of Christ. Faith has sought understanding, not to dispel the mystery, but to keep it from false interpretation, and to find its coherence with a critical rational understanding of existence. Is the Christian assertion about Jesus Christ the imperialism of one more parochial faith, or does it really fulfil man’s search for understanding? Is the meaning of God’s presence in Jesus removed from all human understanding, or does it display a connection with the structure of every man’s search for himself and for God?

We must first state our presuppositions about our knowledge of Jesus and the redemption accomplished in him.


We are speaking first of all about an historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and died in Palestine about the years 4 B.C. to A.D. 30. We date our Christian era from him. It is in this life, lived out on the soil of a small country in the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, that the central act of God’s dealing with human history took place. Such is the Christian assertion. Our knowledge of this action of God is bound to concrete historical data. The New Testament speaks about one who was born, grew, lived and taught, encountered religious and political opposition, and was crucified in the punishment often meted out in his time to criminals and to those charged with political subversion.

What can we know about Jesus of Nazareth? The records about him are the result of decades of remembrance, the preaching of a new faith, the growth of a tradition and its interpretation, in which categories are used which come from several Judaic traditions and from Greek and Hellenistic religion and philosophy.

The position I accept is that the Gospels are a synthesis of faith and fact and the two elements cannot be completely separated by any human research or reflection.1 This can also be expressed in John Knox’s terms, that Jesus was remembered, he was interpreted, and he was known still.2 The Gospel record of Jesus is the witness to the meaning of life as held in the living memory of the community, and communicated in a process of tradition, reflection and interpretation.

When we speak of Jesus Christ, therefore, we are speaking of Jesus as the Church has re-examined, criticized, and reflected upon its remembrance of who he was. The fact that it is an historical memory of an actual person is as much a part of the remembering as are the great Christological reflections, such as the identification of Jesus with the Logos, the Eternal Word of God in the Creation. The words reported in the Gospels as spoken by him are there because Jesus spoke these or similar words, or words which gave rise to other words — yet we never have indisputable proof that he said this and not that. Certainly the New Testament record shows that Jesus’ words have been added to, qualified and reinterpreted.

Every interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth grows out of the meaning of his life as it is rooted in history, but it is a history which has the memory and growth of a tradition as an ineradicable part of that history. It is impossible therefore to separate all the original empirical facts from later interpretation. We must try to read the New Testament as an account of what the man Jesus of Nazareth was heard, understood, and recognized to be by those who had their faith reborn through his impact upon them, either directly or through the hearing of the Gospel message preached.

It is a fair question why we need to bother with historical criticism at all if in the end we cannot separate faith and fact. The answer is that it is necessary in order to keep faith from taking flight from history and creating a picture of the Christian revelation which distorts historical fact. For example, New Testament criticism has enabled us to keep the picture of Jesus of history from becoming historically unintelligible when Jesus’ self-interpretation as given in the Fourth Gospel cannot be integrated with the self-interpretation we find in the Synoptic Gospels. In Mark’s Gospel, to take one instance, Jesus keeps the Messianic secret to himself until almost the end; in John it is proclaimed publicly from the beginning.

Again, there is always the danger of treating the suffering and death of Jesus as a purely ‘spiritual’ action, resulting from ‘sin’ but without concrete historical causes. Historical research points to the facts of the resistance of the authorities to his message of judgment, Jesus’ concern for the poor, and his strictures against the exploiters. Historical research expresses the fidelity of the Church to history. When the question is raised about the ‘historicity of Jesus’ the meaning of the question requires discussion with the secular historian and a recognition of his methods.

We recognize and hold to the historical sources of the Gospel, but we are dealing with the meaning of Jesus as person and that is never something wholly objective. Practically all historical writing contains interpretation of motives which go beyond direct evidence. We have no picture of the inner life of Jesus save a few hints, and we should not try to reconstruct it. We cannot know Jesus’ precise conception of the messianic mission, but only that he did not set the question of messiahship aside in preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom.

The nature of our knowledge of the historical Jesus, and the meaning of the phrase ‘the historical Jesus’, is indeed a critical issue for theology in our century. The interpretation given here of love as the meaning of the incarnation does not depend on any one solution of the problem of historical knowledge, but is, I believe, compatible with every view which accepts the main outlines of modem historical criticism and its methods. We shall now try to see if by focusing attention on love as the centre of the Gospel, we can gain a viable interpretation of the meaning of the Incarnation.


It is well known that the traditional doctrine of the person of Christ was developed as an answer to the question, ‘How are the human and the divine nature together in one Person?’ In the context of the word ‘nature’ there was partly the Hebraic contrast of God the Lord with man his creature, subject to the passage of time and death. There was also the Greek metaphysical contrast between the eternal, divine, unchanging being of God and the temporal, finite mode of being of the world.

The Church Fathers saw clearly what was at stake. God must be fully present in Jesus else there is no real redemption. That is why Arianism was rejected. Christ was of one substance with the Father. But also Jesus has to be fully man, else there is no redemption, for our human condition must be penetrated to be redeemed.

The struggle to find a proper Christological language was not, therefore, a meaningless debate; but an attempt to guard the truth of the Gospel by finding terms which would not compromise either the divine or human side of the incarnation. The formula achieved at Chalcedon succeeded at least in setting the boundaries within which Christological thought must move. The two natures, divine and human, are together, unmixed, unconfused, inseparable, and undivided in one Person. The one Person is Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity who has taken human nature upon himself.

I have said this marks the boundaries within which Christological thought must move, but let us add a qualification, so long as the terms of the problem are set in the relationship of two metaphysically contrasted ‘natures’ defined as the Greeks conceived them. We can now see that the entire discussion in the first centuries was dominated by assumptions about divine and human nature which are open to question. It is a fact, for example, that on both sides of the dispute between the Alexandrines and the Antiochenes there was a constant fear of introducing any element of suffering or temporality into God. The Antiochenes, Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius, had perhaps the stronger sense for the humanity of Jesus. They wanted to assure his moral personality, and the reality of his humanity which grew in wisdom and stature. They looked for formulas for joining divine and human which would protect full humanity. The relation of God and Jesus was a union of grace, Theodore said, which is analogous, though only analogous, to the union of love in marriage.3

From their point of view one of the Antiochenes strong arguments was that they were protecting theology from any suggestion of God’s involvement in temporality or suffering. He is joined in a moral union, in fellowship with Jesus, but he is not, so to speak, metaphysically touched by the suffering of the man. The Alexandrines by contrast were accused of having to accept in their formulation the view that God has assumed the suffering of man for the one Person is a union of the two natures.

Cyril of Alexandria saw the problem acutely, and it is most instructive to see him struggle with it. If Jesus Christ, the God-man dying upon the Cross, is ‘the One Person (hypostasis) incarnate of the Word’, then is not God there suffering and dying? Cyril’s answer which we have already quoted shows how desperately the Fathers sensed this dilemma.4 God allows himself the signs of grief though he remains really impassible. It may strike us of a later time as curious that so much effort was expended to make certain that Jesus’ death on the cross could not really mean suffering for God. The reason lies in the Greek conviction that only a God who is beyond all movement, impervious to all influence from beyond himself, and therefore free from the possibility of suffering can really be God.

We need not deny that something important is being protected here; but is it being wisely protected? Suppose we reverse the Greek assumption and hold that God’s capacity to involve himself in the suffering of his creatures and of his incarnate Son is the supreme manifestation of his divinity. His suffering is the exhibition of his perfection, which is not that of impassible being but of love which cannot be impassible.

With all respect to the Chalcedonian achievement it strangely sets the theme of divine love to one side in arriving at the agreed upon formula. It is true that the Chalcedonian statement begins with a rehearsal of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed with its affirmation of God’s becoming man for our sakes, and this is recognized as the action of divine love. Yet curiously little is said about the mode of redemption in the discussion, and nothing is said about the love of Father and Son in the formula of the incarnation.

What is wrong here is not that metaphysics has replaced confessional theology. It is that a metaphysics in which love between God and man cannot be intelligible is presupposed in the very attempt to say that God has shown his love in taking the form of a servant, and sharing our human lot even to death.

If love constitutes God’s being, and if man is created in the image of God, then the key to man’s being and to God’s being is the capacity for free, self-giving mutuality and concern for the other. This leads us to fundamental convictions about the meaning of the incarnation.


In the New Testament faith Jesus is God’s Elect Man. He is the beloved Son made flesh. The life and death of Jesus are set within a specific action of God. Here we have the New Testament parallel to the Old Testament faith in which election love appears in the creation of the covenant relationship. God elects his Servant, his Beloved.

The conception of the incarnation as an act of grace appears early and persists throughout Christian history even though it seems close to adoptionism, the condemned heresy which held that God selected the man Jesus at a particular time in his career to become the Christ. St. Augustine, for example, boldly says:

The Saviour, the Man Christ Jesus, is Himself the brightest illustration of predestination and grace. Every man, from the commencement of his faith, becomes a Christian by the same grace by which that Man from his formation became Christ.5

Augustine is not, to be sure, committed to adoptionism by this accent on the electing grace of God giving his Messiah to the world. The New Testament thinks of election as hidden in the mystery of God’s purpose. ‘He chose us in him before the world was founded’ (Ephesians 1: 4). The whole of Jesus’ life is the expression of the divine action. He has a vocation, a summons from God, to respond to the divine will as the one who incarnates God’s love.

We noted the distinction in the Old Testament between God’s election love by which he establishes his covenant with his people and his chesed, the love which becomes compassion, forgiveness and redemptive concern for his people in dealing with their faithlessness. In the New Testament account of the incarnation both aspects of the divine love are present. God’s election love is his love of the Son, and through him his call to abundant life for all his people. There is an ancient discussion in theology as to whether God would have become incarnate had there been no sin. St. Thomas Aquinas obviously finds the view attractive although he concludes, on biblical grounds, that it was because of sin that the Word was made man. He immediately adds, however, ‘And yet the power of God is not limited to this ; — even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate’.6 The incarnation fulfils the purpose of the good creation. It is the expression of God’s creative will to raise up his people and establish his Kingdom.

But the history of man is the history of the good creation invaded by sin. The love which becomes incarnate as Jesus takes upon himself the suffering of the world is the merciful, compassionate love of God. The meaning of incarnation incorporates the taking on of the burden of sin. Paul boldly says Christ was made to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5: 21). The love which God expresses in Jesus is love taking the form required by the situation it meets. The creative divine love becomes suffering, redemptive love for the sake of the world. The spirit of love required a new form to meet man’s need.

So far we are speaking of the incarnation as the action of God’s prevenient grace. God who has created man now enters human life in a new way to transform it, but it remains human life. Jesus, the incarnate Lord, is real man. How the union of God and man can be understood so that the humanity is not merely a form or appearance has been the most difficult issue in Christian theology.

Let us see what happens to our conception of the incarnation if we say that the relation between God and Jesus is determined by love.

Love means to will the freedom of the other, the acceptance of the consequences of relationship to another, and the vulnerability which goes with that acceptance. If there is real humanity in the incarnation, then there is a real human will with human freedom. It may be remarked that the Church had to face very early the issue of whether there was one will or two in the incarnate Lord, and the Sixth Ecumenical Council finally affirmed in 680 that the two natures involve two wills.

This doctrine that love is the meaning of the divine-human relationship in the incarnation leads to a way of interpreting the incarnation. The union of God and man in Jesus Christ is the communion of God with the man Jesus. It is a communion in which the deity of God and the humanity of Jesus are joined in the freedom of love. God in his grace created a humanity which becomes responsive to him and committed utterly to him. This communion enacted in concrete history discloses the mystery of love in God’s being. It is the mystery symbolized in the Trinitarian language of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus of Nazareth as known in the experience of the Church is the human exemplifier of the spirit of God.

We must remember our limitations in speaking about the incarnation. The New Testament does not reveal the ‘inner life’ of Jesus. In his great book, The Communion of the Christian with God, Wilhelm Hermann fails to be convincing when he tries to say that the Christian knows in his experience the communion which Jesus had with God.7 We cannot delimit another’s experience by ours. Least of all can we fit Jesus’ experience to our limited understanding. What we can do is to see that the essential elements of humanity are preserved in our understanding of the incarnation, and that means that whatever is necessary to love is present there.

Using this test we see the incarnation as an action of the freedom of God accepting and releasing the freedom of man. Without freedom Jesus would not be man. His freedom is not a contradiction to the power of God but the condition of that humanity which God seeks in love. To love is to accept the freedom of the other with all its consequences, even for God.

It follows that as Jesus witnessed to God’s love he experienced the risks, dilemmas and decisions of a real human being, living and growing in a particular culture with its political and religious situation. His mind was shaped by the tradition he inherited, and his language communicated in the forms which were appropriate and available in that time and place. He lived as a man, in dependence upon God, his mind open to the question of God’s purpose for him, wrestling with the temptations of human flesh and knowing all of them. His interpretation of his vocation to serve God could grow and could be altered by new experience. He could believe God would do certain things which did not happen as he expected. Whatever special powers he had, he found limits set to them. However clearly he preached his message, and however powerful his spirit of love to persuade and to win men, he encountered opposition, misunderstanding and hatred. He experienced human love in his family and for his companions. He wept and grieved with them and rejoiced with them. He knew that his life ran toward death, and that he could be killed. It also follows that Jesus’ life was remembered in the human way. The record of his life exhibits the accidents and vagaries of human tradition-making. He has been understood and misunderstood in innumerable ways. Men have debated whether he existed or not. Such is the human condition and the risk of love’s work in it.

If the things just bluntly said sound strange, it is because in spite of the Church’s clear assertion of Jesus’ humanity, and in spite of the New Testament record, we may find it harder to think clearly of his humanity than of his deity. The reason for this lies deep in a misunderstanding about the impassibility of the love of God which has shaped our tradition for centuries.

There is nothing just said about Jesus’ humanity which is not explicitly asserted in the Gospel record. He grows in wisdom and stature (Luke 2: 52). He is tempted in all points as we are. He marveled at the unbelief he found, and discovered his powers were limited (Mark 6: 5). He apparently expected the end of history and the beginning of the Kingdom of God before the preaching of his disciples was finished (Matthew 10: 23). There are many indications as to Jesus’ thought of his relationship to the messianic expectations of his time, to be sure in texts which leave room for much interpretation. And there is the cry from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ which surely may arise from the spirit in its freedom giving voice to agony over the silence of God (Matthew 27: 46).

The Gospels picture Jesus as living a life of dependence upon God expressed in continuing acts of prayer and devotion. Perhaps in prayer freedom reaches its deepest point, the freedom to open life to God, to protest to God (as in the prayer in the Garden), to seek the will of God, and to acknowledge absolute dependence upon him. Jesus of Nazareth prayed. The incarnation fulfilled and did not negate human freedom.

It may be objected that this is only one side of the New Testament picture of Jesus. The mystery of the incarnation is precisely that while he was man, he was God incarnate; and the New Testament is filled with the signs of Jesus’ uniqueness. There is the Virgin Birth. In the temptations Christ meets Satan face to face, which seems to put his experience into a dimension different from that of other men. There are the miracles of healing, subduing the storm, raising the dead, and the decisive importance of the Resurrection in the rebirth of faith.

It is not to our purpose here to explore all the complex questions associated with the miracles. If we hold the conviction that it is God’s love which is at work in Jesus, then whatever the miracles are as events they point to the love of God, not to a power which by-passes the involvements of love. It is a mistake to rely upon the miracles as the decisive key to who Jesus was. While the miracles are manifestations of the divine power, they did not conquer the human resistance to Jesus. They did not convince everyone of his divine mission. No miracle occurred that he might escape loneliness, agony, and death. We shall come shortly to the special significance of the Resurrection, but the point we are insisting upon is that the New Testament account of Jesus does not allow miraculous power to overshadow the real man, suffering, teaching, rejoicing and dying. To put the point categorically: if God is love, then the means he uses to communicate with man will leave man free, as he seeks to persuade, not to coerce the human spirit. Miracles are signs of divine power, but they do not coerce belief.

Just what powers were released in God’s action in Jesus does indeed exceed our understanding. The creative God may work in new ways. It is not for us to say what God could or could not do, or precisely what powers Jesus possessed. It is essential however to see that faith rests upon more than miracles.8

We must now ask about the perfection of Jesus Christ, and the assertion that he was sinless. This is indeed an extraordinary claim to make. Does it not set Jesus apart from all other men? And does our redemption depend upon its truth?

The tradition is clear. Jesus is God’s beloved Son. He is tempted to reject his vocation both at the beginning of his ministry and the end, but at no point is Jesus represented as asking for forgiveness. The New Testament picture is that of an unbroken communion between Father and Son. This surely is what the assertion of Jesus’ sinlessness must mean. There was given to those who knew him and to those who heard the message about him, the meaning of life in unbroken communion with God. It is the life of complete dedication, of acceptance of vocation, of taking the consequences of doing the will of God and the suffering which that involves. Sin, we must emphasize, is not primarily particular acts of transgression or moments of human weakness and failure. It is the rupture of the communion between God and man. Through Jesus we see the meaning of a life in which this communion remains unbroken.

But does the image correspond to the reality? We can reasonably argue that it must correspond in a fundamental way, else we would never have been given the image. This is the answer to all suggestions that the picture of Jesus is an historical accident or a creation of the human mind. He so loved that men remembered him this way. Unless he so loved, it is unbelievable that he would be so remembered.

At the same time we need not make assertions about every moment and action in the life of Jesus, or give an account of his temptations and his variable psychological states. How could this possibly be done, and on what kind of evidence would it rest? The claim about sinlessness should never be made as an assertion about the experience of Jesus, as if we had to prove that he never knew humility or the need for confession. It means that in him there is an enactment of what life is when communion with God is unbroken. That is the only meaning of the sinlessness of Jesus which is essential to the message of salvation through him. The sinlessness of Jesus cannot be made a matter of empirical historical description.

In the incarnation God has won man’s response without destroying his freedom. Man’s freedom is finite and dependent, and is fulfilled only in obedience to the will of God. God’s freedom is the power of his being as creator, judge, and lord of history. But the freedom is real in both God and man, and the incarnation does not set it aside.


Love involves suffering, the freedom to be acted upon by the other. Suffering does not mean only anguish of body or spirit. It means being acted upon, and responding to the other in his freedom. In this perspective we take a position about the incarnation which the orthodox tradition has denied, at least formally, and that is that the incarnation involves not only the suffering of the man Jesus, but also the suffering of God the Father. How can we speak of love between Father and Son if the Father is unmoved by the Son’s suffering? Process theology holds that love is disclosed in the incarnation precisely because the freedom of God and man are there so united that the man conforms to God’s will, and God responds to the concrete decisions and suffering of the man. This does not mean that God’s love for man is contingent upon what man does but the form which love takes is contingent upon man’s need. God enters into and takes into himself the situation created by the sin of man. As Jesus suffers in his love with and for sinners, he discloses the suffering love of God.

The Christian Gospel asserts that history is changed by what Jesus has done. The new humanity includes Jesus’ dedication. Where the tradition has gotten into trouble is in suggesting that God withholds his love until Jesus has suffered to pay the penalty of sin. In our view God never withholds his love, but the release of love’s creative power was made possible in a decisive way through Jesus’ acceptance of suffering in his identification with man’s condition. Thus through his suffering Jesus is the centre of the history in which love has taken a new form.

We have, then, a perspective in which to consider what it is that Jesus’ suffering means and how it enters into reconciliation between man and God. Our next chapter will deal exclusively with that question. Already we have declared for one important qualification of the way in which the suffering of Jesus has usually been represented. The tendency of traditional theology has been to say that it is in the miraculous displays of extraordinary power that Jesus’ divinity is manifest, and that in suffering, hunger and thirst and dying his humanity is manifest. This is explicitly said in Pope Leo’s Tome, which was the substantial basis for the Chalcedonian formula. Leo wrote:

To hunger, to thirst, to be weary, and to sleep is evidently human. But to feed five thousand men with five loaves — to walk on the surface of the sea with feet that sink not, and by rebuking the storm to bring down the ‘uplifted waves’ is unquestionably divine. . . . It does not belong to the same nature to weep with feelings of pity over a dead friend and, after the mass of stone had been removed from the grave where he had lain four days, by a voice of command to raise him to life again.9

Thus power is divine but pity is human. It seemed to the fathers that any suggestion of God’s suffering would compromise his deity. How could we speak of God as dying? The doctrine of the Incarnation we are defending does not assert that God dies. Nor does he experience hunger, doubts and trials as we do. There is a sense in which man’s sufferings belong only to man. But we still say that in man’s suffering God also suffers. The disclosure of who God is has come through Jesus not primarily in miraculous powers, but in his self-identification with the suffering of the world for the sake of love. But if Jesus, for the sake of love, accepts suffering, surely God the Father, united with him in the fullness of love, accepts this suffering for himself. God does not surrender his deity, his everlastingness, the perfection of his power and love. God remains God. But if God is love he does his creative and redemptive work by involving himself in the history of human freedom with its tragedy. God’s deity is manifest supremely at the very point where Leo sees only humanity, that is in the weakness, suffering, and dying of Jesus. We acknowledge certainly the mystery of revelation. God is hidden in his self-manifestation. But God is hidden in the whole being of Jesus Christ, not just in part. God is both revealed and hidden in the extraordinary events, the miraculous signs. So also God is both hidden and revealed in the suffering of Jesus. He is hidden in the mystery of love’s burden, its vulnerability to misunderstanding, its initial powerlessness which becomes powerfully redemptive. God is revealed in Jesus’ suffering because in him suffering is the authentic expression and communication of love. ‘We know the love of God in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5: 8). There could be no more concise statement than the Apostle Paul’s of the love that is disclosed in Jesus in his involvement with human suffering and need.

God works in the new situation created by his freedom and the freedom of Jesus. God now has a new history to deal with because it is history with Jesus’ action in it, with all the consequences of that action and of God’s response to it. The New Testament uses several metaphors and images in declaring that God the Creator has created again in Christ. There is the assertion that ‘if any man be in Christ he is a new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul thus speaks of the new creation through Christ, although he does not speak here of Christ himself as a new creation. Paul thinks of Christ the eternal Son of God as existing before all worlds. But it is remarkable that along with the belief in Christ as the eternally-begotten Son, Paul and the whole New Testament can speak in a daring way of a ‘New Being’ in the incarnation. Since this assertion is connected with the resurrection, we must give especial attention to this part of the Gospel record.


The resurrection of Jesus is God’s act, not man’s. The theme of the divine prevenience underlies the whole account. It is Jesus who is raised from the dead, and all that he was and did is involved in what God does in the resurrection. It is the act of God, completing the history of his beloved Son, and inaugurating a new situation in human existence. There is even the radical suggestion in one strand of the New Testament that it is in the act of resurrection that God has made Jesus Lord and Christ. Peter says in the sermon recorded in Acts:

Let the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified (Acts 2:36). Paul speaks of the resurrection as the decisive action through which God has brought new life into the world, and hope for overcoming death and sin. ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being, the last Adam became a life-giving spirit’ (I Corinthians 15: 45). Christ is the ‘first fruits’ in the redemptive act of God. ‘For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ, shall all be made alive. But each in its own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ’ (I Corinthians 15: 20-3). Paul declares the same theme in Romans 5 where the accent is upon the justification brought by Christ to set aside the condemnation which has fallen upon all Adam’s sin. ‘So one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men’ (Romans 5:18). Paul characteristically unites the bestowing of forgiveness with the overcoming of death. Romans 6 makes this plain:

Do you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead, by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.

The incarnation is a new act of creation receiving its final sign in the experience of the Risen Christ. Here the themes of election love and covenant are fused. The redemptive action which expresses God’s forgiveness and his will to reconcile sinful man to himself is at the same time the expression of God’s election of his Son and all those joined to him through the power of incarnate love. Thus election not only underlies the eternal purpose of love, but it appears in the will to create a new covenant when the old has been broken. The mystery of love embraces both creation and redemption, and the redemption is a new creation.

Resurrection here means the action of God completed in the disciples’ experience of the risen Jesus as the sign of the new life inaugurated in him. Many different interpretations of the Gospel record are possible. However we understand these particular events, they meant for the disciples the confirmation of God’s power and presence in Jesus, and of the new existence which he bestows. There are innumerable resurrections in the history of religions, and we may well believe that conventional forms of miraculous expectation have entered into the present Gospel tradition. But it is the resurrection of Jesus which Christian faith affirms. To have faith in his resurrection is to have faith that the spirit of love incarnate in him has created a new body for its life in the world. The new life is a life of trust in God, and hope for eternal communion with him. It is a new form of human experience which is the beginning of putting on the form of Christ. The resurrection is a mystery of faith, but it is not a collection of esoteric happenings. It has its analogues in the human experiences of forgiveness, the renewal of love, and the rebirth of hope. It means release from fear for the self, and its entrustment to God in life and in death. Whether we live or die we are the Lord’s (Romans 14: 8).10


The doctrine of the image of God receives a new meaning in the New Testament assertion that we are being transformed into the image of Christ. The humanity which God intends for us has been given a new form in the love of Christ as he has dealt with sin. In one sense this is a restoration of the original image, but it is more. It is love taking new form in history. We know our humanity not in looking back to a lost perfection, but in looking forward towards the consummation of the new creation.

There are at least four implications of this doctrine that the imago dei is fulfilled in the imago Christi.

First, the restoration and renewal of the imago del in the image of Christ means that our humanness belongs to the goodness of the creation. Theologies which have stressed incarnation have usually had a strong humanist accent. The Incarnation reveals a new humanity which fulfils the intention of creation. Here all the positive affirmation in the Christian view of Jesus’ life is based: Jesus, the incarnate Lord, affirms the essential goodness of man as he experiences all the needs of body and mind, and enters into human comradeship and rejoicing.

The discovery of the ethos of the Qumran community, which had many elements prototypical of the Gospel, serves to underline one decisive difference between the spirit of Jesus and the ideals of the desert sect. There is no asceticism in Jesus or his message, no renouncing of the world for the sake of a cloistered purity, no rejection of eating, drinking, marriage, beauty, or laughter. ‘Consider the lilies of the field how they grow, they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’ (Matthew 6: 28). ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10). When the young man asked about the way to inherit the Kingdom, Jesus looked upon him and loved him (Mark 10: 21).

There is to be sure a powerful counterpoint in the Gospel. While Jesus discovers faith in some, he denounces a faithless generation. He acknowledges those who are not far off from the Kingdom, but he excoriates the hypocritical exploiters of man’s bodies and spirits. He calls disciples and commits his cause to them, yet they fail him at the decisive moment. The incarnation is the history of the contention of the love of God with the ambiguity of man who both sees and does not see where his true good lies. In spite of the ambiguity, the image of God which has now become the image of Christ implies the essential goodness of man’s existence, the dignity and spiritual significance of the human, the possibility in human flesh for fulfilled life.

A second implication of the Imago Christi theme is that the joining of the believer with Christ involves his sharing the suffering of Christ. The disciple must appropriate, internalize, and bear the cross for himself. The imago Christi is authentic only as ‘carrying in the body the death of Jesus’ (2 Corinthians 4:10).

Central to this perspective on love is the conviction that the imago Christi is not the form of an otherworldly perfection to be suddenly realized in history. It is the perfection of love which grapples with this existence and is freely given in the unloveliness of the world’s guilt and travail. The imitation of Christ embraces many patterns of life. Authentic love in the Christ image will never be able to prove itself overwhelmingly attractive, powerful, and adequate. it is a sign of love to accept the disfiguring, the misunderstanding, and even the ridiculousness in human eyes of what it undertakes (2 Corinthians 6:ff.). Final judgment as to what is really love belongs to God alone. ‘There was no form or comeliness by which we might desire him’ (Isaiah 53: 2). The Christ image lies in the shadows as well as the light of human experience.

The third aspect of the life which is conformed to Christ is that it is not simply a having but a becoming. The New Testament speaks of Jesus as the new Adam who restores man to fullness of life; but this restoration comes in a history. We are to be conformed to his image, Paul says (Romans 8: 29). ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face’ (I Corinthians 13:12). The new reality is in conflict with the old. Paul counts himself not to have attained (Philippians 3:12). ‘The whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now, and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved’ (Romans 8: 22-4).

These powerful paradoxes of the Christian life are essential to its description. To have the light of the knowledge of God’s glory is to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 4: 6; 5: 7). Paul exhorts the Galatians to stand in the freedom wherein they have been set free, yet he addresses them as ‘my little children with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you’ (Galatians 4:19). He ‘toils mightily to present every man mature in Christ’ (Colossians 1: 28-9).

Where then is the peace and assurance of the Christian life if it is born in such tension? The Protestant Reformers found their answer to this question again in Paul. ‘Bearing about in the body the dying of Christ’ is not a matter of turning attention to the self at all. Faith is not assurance about our private state of holiness, but confidence in the saving power of God. We have faith, not in faith, but in the God who offers life and compassion.

There is a sense then in which the imago dei is expected, not possessed. Humanity, in the Christian view, is prospective, not retrospective. This is why Christianity shares our openness to the future with the existentialists. Man has yet to become what God is preparing him to be. ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now: it does not yet appear what we shall be’ (I John 3: 2).

Finally, in the new relationship to the incarnate Lord we have new knowledge of what love is. The imago Christi is the form love takes when the spirit becomes the servant. The image of God includes the structures of human existence, but it points toward new forms which God’s creative purpose brings forth. Created in God’s image we may confess the sin which defaces that image, and hear the invitation to walk through the valley of death in a new way.

Such a view of the Incarnation holds that the Holy God achieves his will in the world, not by overriding the conditions of human existence, but by communicating his love in a personal life lived out in actual history. No account of the incarnation can penetrate the mystery of that life. It can only recognize the way in which Jesus gave witness to the love of God, and confess him as the one through whom we know who we really are: creatures who can love one another and God and share our being with all his wondrous creation.

Jesus revealed the love of God in a bloody first-hand encounter with the sin and evil in the world. The traditional name for what he did in that encounter is atonement. We turn now to the atonement as the victory of love.



1. Cf. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 101-18.

2. John Knox, Jesus Lord and Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1958). Knox’s analysis of the historical problem seems to me the clearest in contemporary biblical scholarship. I have discussed his position in ‘John Knox’s View of History’ in Christian History and Interpretation, ed. by W. R. Former, (Cambridge University Press, 1967), and the general problem in What Present Day Theologians are Thinking, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), chap. IV.

3. An important recent study is Rowan Greer, Theodore of Mopsuestia (London: The Faith Press, 1961).

4. Supra, p. 93.

5. Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, I, xv.

6. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part III, Qu. I, art. 3.

7. Wilhelm Hermann, The Communion of the Christian with God (London: Williams & Norgate, 1895).

8. The history of religions is filled with miracles, including many ‘saviours’ who have more extraordinary things recorded about them than does Jesus.

9. ‘The Tome of Leo ‘in Christology of the Later Fathers, E. R. Hardy and C. C. Richardson, eds., The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), p. 365.

10. I have discussed the question of Jesus’ ‘identity’ in relation to the resurrection faith in a comment on a paper by Professor Hans Frei, ‘Theological Reflections on the Accounts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection’ in The Christian Scholar, Vol. XLIX, No. 4, Winter, 1966.