Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Incarnation is the Central Fact of the Christian Faith

One of the best books I've ever read about the faith of the Church is Episcopal bishop Frank E. Wilson's Faith and Practice. The blurb on the Church Publishing website sums it up well:

The Rt. Rev. Frank E. Wilson (1855-1944), late Bishop of Eau Claire, was perhaps the most prolific Episcopal writer of his era, authoring dozens of books geared to lay people. Over the years, his works have helped to renew the Church, encourage social and ecumenical progress, and provide guidance and insight to generations of Episcopalians.

Faith and Practice’s reaffirming message celebrates our unique Anglican way of thinking while calling us to act faithfully upon those beliefs. More than 50 years after its original publication, this timely book that explores core Christian beliefs, continues to inspire and instruct Anglicans throughout the world.

Here's some of what Bishop Wilson wrote about the Incarnation and its practical implications in Faith and Practice.

The Christian Gospel is not something which originates with man and reaches up to God. It is something which comes from God and descends upon men. If Christ were no more than a divinely inspired man, He would be only a beautiful example of what God can do with one responsive life. We would look and wonder and be helpless. But the Incarnation tells us that God became Man, that He injected a new spiritual power into human nature in which we may share by union with Christ. He is Representative Man. Through that One Man God does something for all men. ...

The Incarnation is the central fact of the Christian faith. Without it Christianity falls to the ground. That is why Christians have proclaimed it, defended it, fought and died for it since the very beginning of Christian history. In the days of the Roman empire the pagans had no particular objection to adding another god to their Pantheon, and the Christians might have escaped persecution and martyrdom if they had been willing to accept such a broad-minded invitation. But they steadfastly refused. To them Christ was God as no other could possibly be called divine. They rejected all compromises and took the consequences. After the pagan persecution was lifted , crowds of pagans flooded into the Christian fold, and it was not long before questionable teaching about the person of Christ began to appear. On this point the Church took an unequivocal position, realizing that a reduced Christ meant the eventual dissolution of the whole Christian Gospel. In four great Councils the Church declared itself on four denials of the truth of the Incarnation. The first was a denial that Christ was truly God. The second denied that He was truly human. The third attempted to divide His single personality. The fourth confused His human and divine natures. The Church's doctrine was summed up at the Council of Chalcedon in the year A.D. 451 by declaring that:

Christ is truly God;
He is perfectly Man;
He is one Person;
He has two natures.

In theological language Christ is one divine Person possessed of both divine and human natures, "truly, perfectly, indissolubly, and without confusion." Many deviations from this historic teaching have occurred since those early days, but they all fall under one or another of these heads. In other words, the Church covered the ground fifteen centuries ago and settled its convictions permanently. On that footing it has weathered the storms of the ages and still moves forward with undiluted faith in the Divine Saviour.

To some impatient souls all this may seem quite theoretical and highly speculative. What's the good of all these fine distinctions anyhow? So long as we live wholesome Christian lives, what does it matter whether or not we have any consistent doctrine of the Incarnation? The point is that faith and practice go together, and a wholesome Christian life is the fruit of a sound Christian faith. Oh, yes, I know you will occasionally find a person living a very good life who has never bothered his head about any kind of faith at all. But where did he get his standard of good living? How did he come by his Christian ideals? He has borrowed them from the Church which has preserved and proclaimed them through the loyalty of those who really did concern themselves with the underlying faith. Break down the support of sound doctrine and Christ becomes a patch-work figure meaning a thousand different things to a thousand different people, with the authenticity of His Gospel dissolved and the moral principles of the Christian life thinned into sentimental vaporings. Why should you exert yourself to live like a Christian? Is it because you like the flavor of it? Or because you consider it conventionally correct? Or because you think it the best working policy? Slippery reasons, all of them. Why should you try to live like a Christian? Because Christ said so with divine authority. There is a reason that will really stand up.

What you do not believe is a matter of no great moment. What you do believe is of supreme importance. It supplies a substantial background for your daily living. When a man says, "I don't believe in Christ but I try to live a good life," I reply, "That's worse for you than it is for Christ and puts a question mark against all of your good living." But if a man says, "I do indeed believe in Christ and try to live His way," I reply, "That's fine for both of you and gives some reality to your good living." The doctrine of the Incarnation is more than a speculative theory. What we think of Christ is truly important.

~ The Rt. Rev. Frank E. Wilson

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