Incarnation and the History of Revelation
Third, the centrality of the incarnation is clearly affirmed in the history of revelation. From the first pronouncement of the promise of the covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15, the so-called first gospel or protoevangelium, and throughout the revelation that God gave his people Israel, the history of revelation focuses upon the coming of the promised Savior.
Within the wisdom and purpose of God, the history of revelation culminates in the coming of Christ in the “fullness of time” (Eph. 1:10; Gal. 4:4). Even the language, “fullness of times,” reminds us that God the Father was preparing to send his Son throughout the entire course of the history of redemption after the fall into sin. “By all sorts of means and ways, the ground-work for the incarnation first had to be laid in the preceding history. Just as the incarnation presupposes the generation [of the Son] and the creation [of humans in the image of God], so now there is added still another presupposition and preparation: revelation” (RD 3:280). In the prologue to the Gospel of John, we are told that the eternal Word of God, who was with God in the beginning and through whom all things were created, is the light who enlightens all peoples. After the fall into sin, God revealed himself in various ways and times through the prophets of the Old Testament economy.
Though this manifold revelation was especially given to his covenant people, Israel, to whom God came in the form of theophany, prophecy, and miracle, it was intended to prepare the way for his coming to all peoples, Jews and Gentiles alike. As Bavinck describes it, “[i]n that manner the Son prepared the whole world, including Jews as well as Gentiles, for his coming in the flesh. The world and humanity, land and people, cradle and stable, Bethlehem and Nazareth, parents and relatives, nature and environment, society and civilization these are all components in the fullness of the times in which God sent his Son into the flesh” (RD 3:280). The entire history of revelation, indeed the history of the world under God’s superintendence, was a history of God’s communication of himself as the sovereign Redeemer. And thus, when Christ entered the world through his incarnation in the fullness of time, all the promises and preparations for his coming were brought to their appointed end. From the beginning, God purposed to make his dwelling with his people, and this purpose was realized when he “tabernacled” with us when the Word became flesh (John 1:14). The coming of Christ in his incarnation was no afterthought in the history of revelation, but rather ties together in the form of fulfillment all that God had spoken throughout this history.
The history of revelation is, therefore, a history of preparation for the coming of Christ who was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4). The “election and favoring of Mary as mother of Jesus” represents the culmination of God’s purpose to dwell with us in the person of the incarnate Son. Even though in the history of the church, Mary’s role as the instrument through whom the incarnation was achieved has been exaggerated, the Protestant church also acknowledges her blessedness as the chosen vehicle for the incarnation. In this role, Mary serves God’s purposes of grace, and her place within redemptive history is properly recognized. And yet, the role of Mary in the incarnation is not that of one who was “immaculately conceived” or “immediately assumed” into heaven, as though she were a kind of “co-mediatrix” who contributes something of her own to the person and work of the incarnate Son of God. The Roman Catholic Church’s dogmas of Mary’s immaculate conception and bodily assumption into heaven represent the logical development of its theological emphasis upon the “idolization of the human” (RD 3:282).
In Roman Catholic dogma, Mary, together with the church’s hierarchy and the “merits” of the saints, co-operates with and merits God’s favor and grace. But this strikes at the heart of the gospel as a story of God’s sheer grace and unmerited favor. Mary’s role in the incarnation does not consist in her good works or merit before God, but in her trust in the favor and promise of God to her. Nonetheless, Bavinck recognizes that the Protestant churches may properly hold her in “high esteem” without ascribing any independent value to her co-operation with God’s grace. After all, “Christ himself desired her to be his mother, who conceived him by the Holy Spirit, who carried him beneath her heart, who nursed him at her breast, who instructed him in the Scriptures, in whom, in a word, the preparation of the incarnation was completed” (RD 3:282).
Incarnation and the Testimony of Scripture
And fourth, the centrality of the incarnation is confirmed by the compelling testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ in Scripture. Though it is important to recognize that the entirety of the history of revelation prepares the way for the incarnation of the Son of God in the fullness of time, the great event of the incarnation is absolutely unique and unparalleled. There are no parallels to the incarnation, which involved nothing less than the condescension of the eternal Son of God, who assumed the fullness of our human nature through his birth of the virgin Mary.
In his treatment of the testimony of Scripture to the deity of Jesus Christ, Bavinck observes that there have been many attempts in the past and the present to deny the compelling truth of Christ’s deity. Over against these attempts, he notes that the church in its confessions has always held to the certainty and truth of the incarnation: “The faith with which the church appeared in the world was a simple one, but of one thing it was sure: in Christ, God himself had come to it and taken it into his fellowship. That was certain; that was something it would not let itself be deprived of and that it defended against a wide range of attacks and formulated plainly and clearly in its confession. In the doctrine of the deity of Christ, it maintained the character of the Christian religion, the reality of its fellowship with God” (RD 3:284).
Unlike the founders and teachers of other world religions, the Christian doctrine of Christ’s person does not simply view him as a great teacher or a formative influence. Christ is nothing less than the “content” of the Christian faith. The confession of Christ’s deity is not restricted to his “office,” as though he is the one who performs the task that God assigned to him. Christ fulfills his task as the true Son of God, as the apostle Paul makes clear when he speaks of “God reconciling the world to himself” in the person of his Son. Nor is the confession of Christ’s deity merely a matter of expressing his religious “significance” or “value” to Christian believers. Christ has value and unsurpassed significance to believers because he is God become man in order to accomplish the redemption of his people. When it comes to the deity of Jesus Christ, it is all or nothing. Either he is the eternal Son of God, the only Redeemer and Mediator who answers to our need as sinners, or he is merely a human being who cannot reveal God to us or perform the work needed to procure our redemption.
The testimony of the Scriptures to Christ’s deity is so pervasive that it can scarcely be denied. And yet, because we are so familiar with the rich scriptural proofs for the deity of Jesus Christ, these proofs no longer impress us with their clarity and force. If Christ’s own self-testimony, as it is represented to us in the New Testament Gospels, is untrue, then the only conclusion we could read is that he was guilty of “insane fanaticism or horrendous blasphemy” (RD 3:283). To illustrate the pervasiveness and clarity of the Bible’s testimony to Christ’s deity, Bavinck offers the following compelling summary:
Scripture attributes to Christ not in a few instances but repeatedly personal preexistence (John 1:1; 8:58; 17:5; Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 8:9; Gal. 4:4; Phil. 2:6), divine sonship in a supernatural sense (Matt. 3:17; 11:27; 28:19; John 1:14; 5:18; Rom. 8:32), the creation and sustaining of all things (John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:16–17; Heb. 1:3; Rev. 3:14), the acquisition for all and everyone of all weal and salvation (Matt. 1:21; 18:11; John 1:4, 16; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Cor. 1:30), kingship in the church (Matt. 3:2; 5:11; 10:32, 37; John 18:37; 1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:18), dominion over all things (Matt. 11:27; 28:18; John 3:35; 17:2; Acts 2:33; 1 Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:20–22; Phil. 2:9; Col. 2:10; Heb. 2:8), and judgment upon the living and dead (John 5:27; Acts 10:42; 17:31; Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10); it calls him directly and unambiguously by the name “God” (John 1:1; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; 2 Thess. 1:12; Titus 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1; Heb. 1:8–9). (RD 3:283)
Even a cursory reading of all these passages will be enough to show that all the threads of scriptural revelation, when woven together to form a rich tapestry of God’s redemptive work, serve to point everywhere and always to the great and central truth of God’s being “with us” by means of the incarnation of the Son of God.
Failure to acknowledge the clear testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, does not merely imperil the gospel. It represents the loss of the gospel entirely. Such a denial of the deity of Christ and the centrality of the incarnation strikes at the heart of the good news of God’s coming to us in the fullness of time in order to restore us to life-communion with himself.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN. He is a contributing editor to The Outlook.