Having seen that man was created for union with God (part 1) and that he was to grow in this union with his Maker (part 2), we can now think about how God plans to restore and advance this union in Christ. Geerhardus Vos’ writing helps set the trajectory for this section of the project.
Eschatology aims at consummation rather than restoration. Therefore redemptive eschatology must be restorative and consummative. It does not aim at the original state, but at a transcendental state of man. It must be curative and tonic. Every act of salvation must be medical and supernaturalizing whereby man is not made merely normal, but is prepared for the supernormal (Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament 74)
Each aspect of Christ’s work moves creation and more specifically mankind towards its original goal of consummation, not merely back to Adam’s original state of innocence. My goal in this section is to consider how the incarnation, Christ’s active as well as his passive obedience, and his resurrection and ascension all contribute to God’s goal of moving those who are “in him” to the goal of history.
John’s Gospel certainly has an incredibly high Christology, but this high Christology in no way diminishes the humanity of Jesus. John begins his account of the good news of Jesus asserting both the deity and humanity of Christ,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-4, 14).
Since union plays such a critical role for Calvin’s understanding of salvation and also creation, it is not surprising that the incarnation is viewed in terms compatible with this focus. On John 1:14 he notes,
On this article there are two things chiefly to be observed. The first is, that two natures were so united in one Person in Christ, that one and the same Christ is true God and true man. The second is, that the unity of person does not hinder the two natures from remaining distinct, so that his Divinity retains all that is peculiar to itself, and his humanity holds separately whatever belongs to it (Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John).
For Calvin, if the true humanity of Jesus is lost, then all is lost. Canlis comments, “[Calvin] is profoundly convinced that it is only if Jesus is thoroughly human that we (as human) can participate in him” (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 99). Were Jesus not fully human we could not participate in him (be united to him), and if we are not united to him, we can receive no benefit from him, for so long as we are without Christ and separated from him “nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us…all which he possesses being, as I have said, nothing to us until we become one with him” (Calvin, Institutes 3.1.1). Earlier in the Institutes he writes,
We trust that we are the sons of God, because the natural Son of God assumed to himself a body of our body, flesh of our flesh, bones of our bones, that he might be one with us; he declined not to take what was peculiar to us, that he might in his turn extend to us what was peculiarly his own, and thus might be in common with us both Son of God and Son of man (Calvin, Institutes 2.12.2).
Canlis explains that for Calvin, “This is the supreme significance of the earthly life, or ‘flesh,’ of Christ: Christ’s participation in our condition (his relating to God in creaturely appropriate ways) allows us to participate in God in creaturely appropriate ways as well” (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 101). For Calvin, this meant a fairly radical departure from earlier theologians in his understanding of Jesus’ relationship with the Father. Calvin moves away from more speculative discussions regarding the shared essence of the Father and incarnate Son and chooses instead to speak in terms of relationship. In this move, “he has shifted the primary bond between the human Jesus and the Father from divine substance to the divine person of the Holy Spirit” (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 97). Canlis explains the significance of this move, arguing that the Spirit unites “two unlikes in a relationship of particularity and yet union” (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 98). Thus Jesus reveals the mode through which mankind can enjoy union with God – it is through the Spirit that two unlikes, Creator and creation, can be bound together in union. Without overshadowing the importance of Christ’s life and work, Calvin does not neglect the miracle of the incarnation or treat it merely as a necessary hoop to jump through on the way to the cross. Hart reflects on Calvin’s theology of the incarnation, writing, “The humanity of the Saviour is the place where God has worked out our salvation, and all that he wills to do for humankind he does, in the first instance, in this once man” (Trevor A. Hart, “Humankind in Christ and Christ in Humankind: Salvation as Participation in Our Substitute in the Theology of John Calvin,” Scottish Journal of Theology 42.1, January 1998: 72). More pointedly, “There is a very real sense in which Christ’s humanity, taken up into this personal union is salvation for of the human race” (Trevor A. Hart, “Humankind in Christ and Christ in Humankind,” 72). Hart’s comments point towards a sort of “generic” humanity which Christ assumed; in other words, Jesus didn’t just take on particular flesh but humanity in general to save humanity in total. Men are united to each other by a common participation in humanity, and it is this humanity with which Christ has clothed himself; thus, as Calvin comments on Hebrews 5:2, “the Apostle before taught us that mankind is united to God in the person of one man, as all men partake of the same flesh and nature” (Calvin, The Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews). Nineteenth century theologian John Williamson Nevin upheld and expanded upon Calvin’s theology of the incarnation [i]. Nevin writes, “The incarnation is the key that unlocks the sense of all God’s revelations. It is the key that unlocks the sense of all God’s works, and brings to light the true meaning of the universe…The incarnation forms thus the great central FACT of the world” (John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence, Philadelphia: S.R. Fisher & Co., 1867, 199. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010). Nevin, while owing much to Calvin and the Reformed orthodox tradition, was also greatly influenced by the ideas of Schleiermacher and the ‘mediating theologians’ that came after him. Schleiermacher argued that Jesus “embodies the culmination of creation,” and “the elevation of human nature” (William B. Evans, Imputation and Impartation, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008, 151). This notion is clearly present in Nevin’s Mystical Presence where he contends that all nature looks up to mankind as lower existences look up to and strive towards superior ones. Likewise, mankind looks to Christ,
Humanity itself is never complete, till it reaches his person. It includes in its very constitution a struggle towards the form in which it is here exhibited, which can never rest till this end is attained. Our nature reaches after a true and real union with the nature of God, as the necessary complement and consummation of its own life…The incarnation then is the proper completion of humanity. Christ is the true ideal Man (Nevin, Mystical Presence, 200-201).
Clearly in Nevin the incarnation is the preeminent redemptive work of God; however, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ can in no way be neglected. We will make that turn in part 4.
NOTES [i] Nevin is far more open to the notion that the Son would have taken on flesh even if Adam had not fallen, a view Calvin explicitly rejects (Institutes 2.12.5). Moreover, Nevin innovates on the notion of a generic humanity, writing, “The Word became flesh; not a single man only, as one among many; but flesh, or humanity in its universal conception” (Mystical Presence, 210). Flowing from that Nevin asserts, “Humanity, as a single universal fact, is redeemed in Christ, truly and really, without regard for other men, any further than as they are made to partake of his redemption by being brought into living union with his person” (Nevin, “Wilberforce on the Incarnation,” Mercersburg Review 2.2, March 1850: 169). These seems to lead Nevin inevitably to some sort of universalism, a conclusion he desperately seeks to avoid, though one could question how successfully he does so.