Update: I just learned from Steve Boyer that their book The Mystery of God has a dedicated website with an excerpt to read. Please visit Mystery of God Book.
“Since what may be known about God is plain…because God has made it plain…For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1)
The central tenet of Christianity is that God has revealed himself in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Although not fully comprehensible, it is conceivable that God would descend upon his creation in the form of a human. History affirms it and Scripture shows us that Jesus was God Incarnate. As John Hick once wrote, “If he [Jesus] was indeed God incarnate, Christianity is the only religion founded by God in person, and must as such be uniquely superior to all other religions.” Although Hick spent the last part of his life refuting this central claim and instead reduced Christianity to the lowest common denominator to make his religious pluralism work, he is right that Christianity would be superior to all other religious traditions if it can be shown that Jesus is God Incarnate. I wrote my thesis (1995) to refute John Hick’s Christology, titling it, “The Mystery of God Incarnate: An Analysis and Critique of John Hick’s Christology” (read a chapter here). I tried to show that it is not counterintuitive to believe both that “God” and “man” can unite in one person who has two distinct natures.
When I picked up The Mystery of God by Steven D. Boyer and Christopher A. Hall, I was delighted to find their chapter “The Mystery of the Incarnation.” It is creatively written, theologically sound, and historically informed. To unpack the “mystery” of the incarnation and to help us understand and affirm this claim, Boyer and Hall draw from C. S. Lewis’s chapter “The Grand Miracle” (from his Miracles) offering four unique aspects that help us view the notion of God in Christ. Helpfully, each of these aspects parallel everyday life and, ironically, are not so mysterious to us. They are: 1) the composite character of life, 2) descent and reascent, 3) selectiveness, and 4) vicariousness. I will summarize each below in an effort to illustrate that we often overlook obvious lessons in nature that teach us about the works and wonders of God.
- The Composite Character of Life
They begin by asking “How can eternal rational Spirit be linked with a concrete body? How can necessary Existence be coupled with the shifting contingencies of ordinary, natural life?” (p 127). Yet, on further investigation about this strange kind of relationship, we observe that humanity is composed of two kinds of substances, one material and the other immaterial. Humans are a “faint image of the Divine Incarnation itself—the same theme in a very minor key” (Lewis). If we start with ourselves, we find that it’s not so far reaching to see how two very different kinds of things can unite into one integrated being. Of course, this assumes that humans are not merely material things, which is a whole other (very important) discussion, but beyond the purview of this post (see here for an intriguing exchange).
- Descent and Reascent
Imagine a king’s condescension to become a peasant in an effort to live as and understand his subjects, then suddenly revealing his glory by shedding his rags to display the power and riches that he in turn employs to come to the aid of his people. Though a romantic idea, this too is not so unimaginable. In fact, all of life seems to follow this arrangement. “It is there in vegetable life, as the full-grown plant casts itself down in the form of a single seed in order to grow again into a new plant; it is there in animal life, as the fully formed organism produces the sperm or egg that, if conditions are right, will grow once again into a mature adult…At all of these points, though we had not thought about it before, it seems that the universe follows this pattern of death and rebirth, of descent and reascent” (p 128).
Although the idea of “selectivity” or choosing some rather than all is counter-cultural given our pluralistic mindset, on second glance it is not so out of the ordinary. Consider “of the millions of sperm cells released from the male of a species, only a shocking few will fertilize an egg; of the many fertizlied eggs in most species (including humans), only a shocking few will survive to birth; of the many offspring born, only a shocking few will survive to reproduce themselves. The whole of history of biological advance in the world seems to be built upon a ‘chosen’ few” (p 128).
Finally, “God becomes not just a man, not just a chosen man, but a man chosen for a specific vocation in which he in some sense ‘stands in’ for other people” (p 128). Lewis’s idea here is that “no one lives or dies as a truly independent or autonomous agent. Every one of us is linked by an extraordinary complex web to all other creatures, not just in our choices (which affect people and things besides ourselves), but even in our living itself, where each biological organism lives by consuming other things. In this sense, we are all inevitably involved in a vicarious mutuality in which one thing ‘dies’ in order that another might ‘live’—just as the doctrine of the incarnation summmons us to recall.
Like a mirror that reflects different aspects of its subject, the incarnation reflects many aspects of our natural world. Believers can confidently affirm the orthodox position of the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth—that he was literally God in the flesh. This tenet withstands not only the tests of reason, Scripture, and historical testimony, but that of the experience of nature, as Boyer and Hall have outlined. Though not fully comprehensible, the Christian Church can continue to proclaim the biblical testimony, summarized by the Chalcedon Confession, that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the Mystery of God Incarnate.