Incarnational and Non-competitive Christianity

I’ve written before about how I think the most distinct characteristic of Christianity is the doctrine of God’s incarnation in Christ, rather than the Reformation’s adage of salvation by grace alone and faith alone.  Some people might want to say, why not both? While I certainly agree that forgiveness and grace are always unearned gifts, I would push back on “both/and” just because I think the preoccupation with salvation in the first place is the oversight of the Reformers.  Of course they probably had this focus largely because of their late Medieval Catholic context.  But fortunately for us, we’ve moved beyond that – well beyond it, I hope.  As Tripp Fuller recently commented in a Homebrewed Christianity podcast, “Calvin’s Institutes were awesome like five hundred years ago, but [some people] are still repeating it today, and it just keeps getting worse.”

Last week Richard Rohr wrote the following in his daily meditations:

This is Christianity’s only completely unique message. Full incarnation is what distinguishes us from all other religions. This is our only real trump card, and for the most part, we have not yet played it. History, the planet—and other religions—have only suffered as a result. Incarnationalism does not put you in competition with any other religions but, in fact, allows you to see God in all things, including them! It mandates that you love and respect all others.

In other words, God bridges the divine-human gap – not primarily because of a theory of atonement, but because of Emmanuel itself, “God with us.”  Obviously this doesn’t mean atonement has no place, but the atonement can only be understood appropriately in light of the incarnation.  This is especially true for making any sense of suffering and the reason for which Jesus also suffered.  I’ve written about this before as well, but I think it’s worth repeating often.

The second lesson from incarnation according to Rohr has more to do with the truth of Christianity itself and its relationship to other faiths.  It should be very clear I think that Rohr is not insinuating that all religions are equally true, that they’re all saying pretty much the same thing, etc.  In fact I doubt Rohr would have any problem admitting that he finds the Christian faith to be most compelling in a universal way.  But the point is, he doesn’t really need to say that, because the gospel was never supposed to start a competition for truth to begin with.  All truth is God’s truth, and we shouldn’t be surprised when it shows up in unexpected places.  Hopefully it can be revealed anywhere and everywhere!  As Christians, however, we simply maintain that the Christ-form is the normative example of this – historically, cosmologically, anthropologically, and theologically.

The form of Christ in all its diversity and depth is always trying to get itself known and shown.  Who would ever want to limit that?  Certainly not God, right?  Only a narrow, un-universalized reading of the creeds and the great church tradition could warrant a restrictivist or exclusivist view of salvation.  This is the big mistake made by popular preachers and authors like David Platt and Francis Chan (see this video, for example), I believe, who, despite their welcomed challenge for American Christians to embrace the call of discipleship more seriously, have really thrown the baby out with the bath water when it comes to their understanding of the meaning of salvation and how non-Christians might receive it.  It would really help Christian leaders like Platt, Chan and others if they would recognize a distinction between the historical Jesus on the one hand and the cosmic Christ, or second person of the Trinity, on the other.  Instead though, theirs remains a black and white, individualist understanding of the good news reverting back to early stages of faith development, and I think that, despite the admirable and genuine zeal and fervor, they’re stuck in a form of therapeutic Christianity.  

For these guys, salvation still mostly means something like “heaven (instead of hell) when we die” because of a “payment” (see my post on this here), even if we’re also called to discipleship in the meantime as an expression of our gratitude.  This isn’t the “biblical” picture of salvation though.  Salvation is about “heaven coming to earth.” It’s about being healed and extending healing in this life, to everyone – not just Christians – even if it costs us the certainty and security of “heaven when we die” as a fall back.  We can still have faith and courage in the face of fear, faith that God will preserve and redeem everything of value that has ever existed – particularly that which seems to be perishing, including the planet.  I actually think this is essential.  But so far as we know, there’s no escape plan.  There’s just faith and hope in an “already/not yet” story.  The stage of the drama is right here and now, and it’s an unfinished one that we get to have a hand in writing.

This story by Carl Medearis makes a similar argument, and I like the way he gets there:

Medearis makes some other interesting remarks in this other video as well about how he doesn’t think belief in universalism (or not) should change the way we live.  It makes me think of the following quote from Calvin himself: “Even if there was no hell, because [a Christian] loves and revers God as [Creator and Caretaker] and honors and obeys [God as Lord], he [or she] would spurn the very idea of [God].”

I’m not one to downplay God’s judgement of sin — at all! — but I do think we’ve missed the point if we think salvation is primarily about avoiding that judgement.  I think the world is ready to hear a better gospel — one that is principally about repentance and forgiveness, yes — we need this — but equally about fidelity to the vision and mission of a making a more just, peaceful and grace-filled world.

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