Why God Man: Reflections on the Incarnation

by frankbeswick

The Christian belief that God became man in Jesus Christ has prompted much theological reflection.

The Christian belief that the Word of God, the Second person of the Trinity, became man in Jesus of Nazareth was the inspiration for Saint Anselm's famous work, Cur Deus Homo? The Latin title of this eleventh to twelfth century work means Why God Man? However, there have been thinkers other than Anselm who have addressed the issue, such as Duns Scotus, the thirteenth century Franciscan. It would be a big mistake for Christians to think that any Christian theologian has solved the mystery of the incarnation of God into man. Christians have generally regarded it as a mystery, but have struggled to deal with the mystery as well as they can.

Picture by alswart

The roots of the issue

The apostles and the early Christians  were Jewish monotheists, believers in a faith that accepted one undivided God, but in Jesus they encountered a new religious situation that forced them to re-appraise their understanding of God. In meeting and walking with Jesus Christ they had a sense that they were in a special presence, one of extreme charisma and authority, a person who exhibited spiritual impact and whose words could speak to the depths of the human heart and mind. Furthermore, Jesus' claims made before Caiaphas, which would have been blasphemy from a mere human, had been approved by God, who at the resurrection reversed the death sentence passed on him. So problems solved? No the next lot of problems were just beginning. 

The ancient world had no difficulties with the concept of sons of God, divine beings in human form; and it had no difficulties with gods adopting human form, generally to seduce girls, who would then breed heroes. But this claim of an incarnation came within a religion, Judaism, which had set  its mind against all such possibilities. There was also the scandal of the cross to deal with. The humiliating death of Christ was not what you would expect from a son of God. The resurrection changed the situation, but even afterwards the risen Lord did not wreak revenge on his enemies, as a divine being might, but greeted his apostles with "Peace be with you." which was the equivalent of hi. So during the first century the church had not only to make sense of Jesus' nature, but had to ask the question, why was God incarnate in Jesus and why in this particular life?  

The gospels tell us that Jesus prophesied his own passion, saying that the Son of Man had to give his life as a ransom for many.Scholars disagree as to whether he said this or whether later views were being projected backwards into the gospel, which put words into Jesus' mouth. However, Jesus was bright enough to see where his life was heading, especially as his clash with the authorities was mounting, so I disagree with the view that the texts are words put into Jesus' mouth. 

Paul set us on the path early. Years of quiet reflection before he began his mission led him to see that the key to understanding was the cross, which rather than being an embarrassing scandal was integral to God's scheme of salvation. Throughout his letters he speaks of the saving death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus was the lutron, which was a term that denoted the ransom paid to free a slave. In his use of this term he seems to have been taking Jesus' use and reflecting on it. The human race had fallen into slavery to sin and all deserved punishment, but in Jesus God himself had paid the price and so human were now free. 

The letter to the Hebrews, probably not written by Paul, but by his friend Apollos, a scholarly Jew, presents the issue in different, but compatible terms. Jesus was the perfect high priest who offers himself as victim. The high priest in the temple had to sacrifice for his own sins, but then Christ, as the sinless one, could offer the perfect sacrifice and so his sins paid for all the sins of humanity. We often hear it said that Christ's death opened the gates of heaven, which were shut till then, but this is a caricature. Writing in Jesus of Nazareth Benedict the Sixteenth makes the point that the gates of heaven are metaphorically in the risen Christ, and so heaven exists only where the risen Christ is. Before the resurrection heaven as we know it did not exist. This does not mean that there was no afterlife, but it was not heaven. 

The Cross

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Cur Deus Homo? Why God Man. This was the question posed by St Anselm in the eleventh century.Anselm understood the role of Christ mainly in terms of paying for sin. When we sin, in Anselm's view, we commit an offence against an infinite being, so our guilt has a certain infinity about it. So why cannot we pay it back? Because we owe God everything anyway, so even if we try our best, we have paid less than we are bound to. So humans alone cannot pay for their sins. 

Anselm conceptualizes his thinking in feudal terms. A feudal lord could have his honour infringed,  and when this happened he must avenge this honour. Now, as God is higher than any feudal lord, he must avenge sin. Even if he wants to forgive, he must avenge. So as no vengeance is enough for man to pay, we all deserve death and eternal damnation. 

Here is the dilemma. Man must pay, but cannot, as he is unworthy to make the payment. Only God can pay. So Anselm's solution is that God became man in Jesus Christ. As a perfect man he was capable of paying, and as God he could pay for sin. so therefore in his sacrificial death on the cross the sins of  humanity are paid for. Man has paid; a perfect being has paid. Problem solved. Or was it? Thus the traditional view adopted by Anselm and followed by Aquinas and all Protestant thinkers was that if Adam had not sinned the incarnation would not have happened. Thus God's greatest work was contingent upon man's sin. 

What are the pros and cons of Anselm's theory of salvation? It is consistent with Scripture, of that there is no doubt. But many people are not impressed with Anselm's view of God.Is it right to compare God with a mediaeval feudal lord? We have a habit of using human models to speak of God, but all models must be qualified by recognizing that they are inadequate. Anselm does not do this, and he has left some people feeling unimpressed by the Christian God. Does God have the same kind of honour that a feudal lord has? Does he need to avenge it in the same way as lords did? Why not just forgive? 

Furthermore, Anselm's theory taken alone seems to explain the incarnation purely in terms of a single act, Jesus' act of dying. Is this sufficient, or does the mystery go wider and deeper than this? 

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Franciscan thought.

Christian thinkers have generally accepted that the death on the cross was  sacrificial, but they have had augmented this view with other insights.. One significant, but oft-overlooked thinker was John Duns Scotus, John the Scot from Duns, who operated at Paris in the early fourteenth century. Duns Scotus is a thinker much maligned, particularly by the Protestant reformers and their supporters. The Protestants at Oxford used his name as an insult, hence we acquired the offensive term dunce. Yet he was a brilliant man of deep theological insights.

Duns Scotus' act of theological genius was to challenge the view that without sin the incarnation would not have happened. For Scotus, trained in Francis of Assissi's emphasis on love, the incarnation was God's greatest act of love. He loved the world so much that he wanted to be part of it, and loved humanity so much that he longed to be one of them. Thus through his son he became incarnate as man in the world. Furthermore, the incarnation was not an afterthought in the mind of God. It was always God's plan to enter his world, and by becoming human draw us and by becoming human draw us all into union with him. 

This means that in Franciscan thought Christ is absolutely prime in creation. Rather than being an intrusion to sort out a  problem, he is God's masterpiece.He is the elder brother of all humans. This makes for an awareness that all humans have a relationship to Christ. He is not just the preserve of  Christians, for they are merely those who recognize him for who he is. This means that people of other faiths may approach Christ in prayer for inspiration and guidance, for he is their brother also. 

So where does the cross and  saving death come into this equation. The Scotist view is that Christ is in the position of a friend who comes to see you, only to find that you are in a mess, so he sorts out the problems. Jesus' death was foreseen by God, and it had a key part in God's scheme, but it was not the whole of the scheme or the main reason for it. Scotus' view that Jesus was God's masterpiece allows us to tie in another theme: Christ the illuminator. Jesus is the light who shows us how God wants us to live. This would have been in God's design whatever happened. 

Can I expect to be censured as expounding an uncatholic view? Far from it. The church has declared Duns Scotus to be Blessed Duns Scotus, one step from being made a saint. While not a doctor of the church [a major teacher/writer] he is honoured with the title Doctor Subtilis, the subtle doctor. Since the sixteenth century the church has formally accepted that Duns Scotus' theology is compatible with Catholicism, and in 2010 Benedict the Sixteenth, the most theologically skilled of modern popes, gave a positive account of Scotus' incarnational thought. 


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I am a dunce

When my theology tutor explained the teaching of Duns Scotus to us, I felt excited, as it chimed in with the positive attitude that I have always had to the created world. The world was not something to be suffered as a vale of tears while we wait for heaven, but it was the place where God wanted to be. The incarnational theology of Duns Scotus meant that the world was to be treasured and loved. My patron saint Francis of Assissi, whom Scotus followed,  gave us the canticle of the sun, in which he praised the works of God in nature, which reflect this positive view. In some ways Francis was harking back to the old Celtic tradition that saw the glories of God being positively displayed in the world.  

There is a line of incarnational thought that runs through the Celtic church, the Franciscans, right through to more modern thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin and others, which sees nature as positive and a place sacred to God,a fitting place for the Son of God to become incarnate. For this reason I do not regard heaven as another world to be achieved by those  who escape this one, but an as yet not understood part or aspect of this world, this universe. If Christ became incarnate in the world, here is where heaven is. 

So yes, folks, I am a dunce and glad of the fact. For me the path that leads from the Celtic church through Duns Scotus, the original dunce,  is the path that does justice to God and his Son. 

Updated: 10/16/2014, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 06/27/2015

Thanks. I made a choice in my thirties. Having finished my masters degree, I was offered a chance of a Ph.D, which would have opened doors in academia, but I knew in my heart that I wanted to be a genuine writer. So I turned it down to concentrate on my writing. Writing academic papers for journals might bring some credit, but who reads them other than a limited number of academics? I wanted to write serious stuff that would be read by serious minded people in the public. Wizzley allows me to do this. Long may it live.

CruiseReady on 06/26/2015

Thank you. I continue to be impressed by your explanations and views of things that aren't often discussed in depth on an ordinary day.

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