Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What is This Word?

Here are some thoughts from N. T. Wright on the incomprehensible, intimate Christmas story as viewed through the lens of the Gospel according to John.



John is saying two things simultaneously in his prologue (two hundred things, actually, but I'll concentrate on two): First, that the Incarnation of the eternal Word was the event for which the whole of creation had been waiting all along; second, that creation and even the people God were quite unready for this event. ...

John's prologue is designed to stay in the mind and heart throughout the subsequent story. Never again in the Gospel of John is Jesus referred to as "the Word," but we are meant to look at each scene—the call of the first disciples, the changing of water into wine, the confrontation with Pilate, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection—and think to ourselves: This is what it looks like when the Word becomes flesh. Or, if you like: Look at this man of flesh and learn to see the living God. ...

... John's view of the Incarnation, of the Word becoming flesh, strikes at the very root of the liberal denial which characterized mainstream theology thirty years ago and whose long-term effects are still with us. I grew up hearing lectures and sermons declaring that the idea of God becoming human was a categorical error. No human being could be divine; Jesus must therefore have been simply a human being, albeit (here the headmaster pats the little boy on the head) a very brilliant one. Jesus points to God, but he isn't actually God. A generation later, growing straight out of that school of thought, a clergyman wrote to me saying that the church doesn't know anything for certain. Remove the enfleshed and speaking Word from the center of your theology, and gradually the whole thing unravels, until all you're left with is the theological equivalent of the grin on the Cheshire Cat: a relativism whose only moral principle is that there are no moral principles, no words of judgment (because nothing is really wrong, except saying that things are wrong), no words of mercy (because you're all right as you are, so all you need is affirmation).

That's where our society stands right now, and John's Christmas message issues a sharp and timely reminder to relearn the difference between mercy and affirmation, between a Jesus who both embodies and speaks God's word of judgment and grace and a homemade Jesus who gives us good advice about discovering who we really are. No wonder John's Gospel has been so unfashionable in many circles.

There is a fad in some quarters about a "theology of incarnation," meaning that our task is to discern what God is doing in the world and to do it with him. But that is only half the truth, and the wrong half to start with. John's theology of the Incarnation is about God's Word coming as light into darkness, as a hammer that breaks the rock into pieces, as a fresh word of judgment and mercy. You might as well say that an incarnational missiology is about discovering what God is saying no to today and finding out how to say it with him. That was the lesson Barth and Bonhoeffer had to teach in Germany in the 1930s, and it's all too relevant as today's world becomes simultaneously more liberal and more totalitarian. This Christmas, get real, get Johannine, and listen again to the strange words spoken by the Word made flesh.

Read it all.

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