Christmas or Good Friday? Which of these days on the historic Christian calendar holds greater importance for Christians? Should the central focus of Christianity be on the incarnation (Jesus Christ as God coming in the flesh) or on the atonement (Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for human sin)?

I had a theological exchange recently on Facebook with a pastor over this question of incarnation or atonement. The pastor took a quote from the conclusion of my book God among Sages and critiqued it based on his contention that the atonement takes priority over the incarnation. Here’s my quote followed by our exchange:

When we compare Jesus Christ to all the other world religion leaders, he seems to be exactly what a reasonable person would expect God to be like if he were to make an appearance among us. In a biblical context, Jesus seems to be exactly what the gracious, loving, and just God of Israel would be like if he were to walk among us.1

Pastor’s Comment (I’ll paraphrase for the sake of brevity):

When you say that he [Jesus Christ] is “what a reasonable person would expect God to be like,” someone else might see a failed leader of a movement who was nailed to a cross and died. Martin Luther would have referred to someone holding this view as a “theologian of glory” as distinguished from a “theologian of the cross.” The latter sees God “in suffering and the cross.” Luther concluded that true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ and he refers to Isaiah 45:15 to support the notion of God’s hiddenness: “Truly you are a God who has been hiding yourself, the God and Savior of Israel.”

My Response:

I have a chapter on Luther in my book Classic Christian Thinkers where I discuss his idea of “a theology of the cross.” I think it is powerful truth and a type of theodicy to the challenge of pain, suffering, and evil. But other equally great Christian theologians like Athanasius and Anselm have affirmed that we should see God through the broader vehicle of the incarnation (John 1:1, 14). So in Jesus’s life and ministry we also encounter him as the great healer, the wise teacher, the fulfiller of prophecy, and the divine Son of God/Son of Man, and ultimately the risen Lord of glory. So I think Luther had a unique and helpful theological perspective but it can be overstated. We should also factor in the emphasis of Athanasius and Anselm.

Pastor’s Response:

I see Jesus’s life and work as God incarnate from the standpoint of the cross, which includes the resurrection of the crucified one. During his ministry, Jesus was acclaimed by some as a prophet, a teacher, and the Messiah of Israel. But I don’t think anyone, including his disciples, on seeing Jesus during that time thought, “There’s YHWH.” In some respect, he remained hidden. It’s the event of the cross that brought about such recognition. John Chrysostom said that he knew Christ as king because he saw him crucified.

My Response:

Jesus is prophet, priest, and king. The transfiguration and his prerogatives of deity (forgiving sin, raising the dead, judging humanity, hearing and answering prayer, accepting worship) show his deity. Thomas calls him Lord and God and the Jewish religious leaders accuse him of blasphemy. I don’t think we can ignore the Eastern fathers’ broader view of the incarnation. We’re saved by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Additionally, Athanasius said: “Jesus, whom I know as my redeemer, cannot be less than God.”

Pastor’s Response:

I certainly have no disagreement with that statement of Athanasius. What prompted my initial comment was not any objection to the idea that Jesus is God incarnate, but to your statement that a “reasonable person” would have no difficulty in believing that a person dying a humiliating death on a cross is God. Is the word of the cross not a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks? My point is not that Christianity is “unreasonable.” Different people can all think rationally and yet reach different conclusions about something if they started with different initial presuppositions.

My Response:

Jesus’s life and ministry give all the reasonable indications that he is indeed the Son of God. However, there is sometimes a difference between what is reasonable and what a person decides to believe. (I provide the full context of the quoted statement in my book.) Also, to refute the heresy of Arianism requires a robust view of God in the flesh so Athanasius emphasized the incarnation generally rather than focusing on the crucifixion or atonement.

A Final Thought

Let’s return to our initial question, Christmas or Good Friday? Should the central focus of Christianity be on the incarnation (Jesus Christ as God coming in the flesh) or on the atonement (Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for human sin)?

Well, the obvious answer is that both are critically important. We don’t want to engage in a theological false dichotomy. My view is that because Jesus Christ is God and man he can represent and reconcile God and man. So Christmas lays the foundation for Good Friday because the incarnation lays the foundation for the atonement.

I hope you enjoyed the spirited but respectful theological interaction. These kinds of discussions are not merely academic exercises. The question of who Jesus is and what he has done is of utmost importance and it carries implications for all of us.

Reflections: Your Turn

Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Resources

For a discussion of the incarnation and the atonement, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), chapters 9 and 11.

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes
  1. Kenneth Richard Samples, God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017), 230.

 

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



Email Sign-up

Sign up for the TWR360 Newsletter

Access updates, news, Biblical teaching and inspirational messages from powerful Christian voices.

Thank you for signing up to receive updates from TWR360.

Required information missing