Authentic Christianity has always been marked with the sign of the Incarnation. Its worship and preaching has centered on the fact: “God was in Christ,” and the meaning: “reconciling the world unto himself.” Where the fact (with its tremendous corollary that “in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily”) has been ignored or denied, the meaning has ebbed from the life of the Church: in other words, there has been no true message of reconciliation. This is easily understandable to those of us who have received the witness of the Bible and have experienced the power of the Risen Christ; for we know that it is only a divine Lord made man for us who can rescue and restore mankind. Yet it must remain a mystery for those who make a simple religious-historical judgment. For it would seem that a less miraculous message—such as that in Jesus mankind reached its highest illumination, or that his life offers the best example and his teaching the deepest truth—must inevitably have a stronger appeal. Instead the verdict of Christian history has been that wherever the sheer miracle of the Incarnation has been evaded or denied the Christian community has tended to wither and die. Nothing but the message of a divine Christ, the Word made flesh for us, has proved sufficient to nourish the life of the Church or bring a truly reconciling message to the world.
The Miracle Of Incarnation
This fact, astonishing as it must be to the detached observer, is probably more clearly recognized within the Church today than it was some fifty years ago. The advance of New Testament criticism beyond the point where it was considered possible to dig behind the documents to discover a Jesus “unencumbered with the dogma of the Pauline Church” has contributed to this recognition; for, whatever may be the extravagances of some modern schools, the trend of recent scholarship has been toward the recognition of the unity and authenticity of the apostolic witness to the Incarnation. The growing ecumenical contacts of differing traditions has also revealed the centrality of the doctrine of the Incarnation and led to a deeper understanding of its significance. In the general membership of the Church we could similarly say that there is now a greater disposition to ponder the real meaning of the Angel’s Song, instead of using it as a sentimental background for a virtually Unitarian theology, or, in other circles, as an unexplored slogan for a docetic Christology. Today there is a manifest yearning for the Word of Christ who “was made man for … our salvation,” and a readiness to ponder afresh the Incarnation miracle.
Man Hides Among The Trees
Yet we must recognize that the drift of men’s thoughts, and the climate of contemporary judgment, do not make such apprehension easy. Every generation has its peculiar difficulties in receiving the Christian message, and ours is no exception. While we recognize that the Gospel is received by faith, and that it is neither possible nor desirable to argue anyone into an acceptance of the truth of the Incarnation, those of us who are concerned with evangelism have a duty to understand the problems raised by the popular philosophies of our day and the obstacles they may raise in the minds of the unbeliever or semi-believer with whom we live. Surely when St. Paul says “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some,” he is speaking of a Christian quality of compassion whereby we enter into the mind as well as the heart of those we seek to win to Christ.
What, then, is the chief factor in today’s popular thinking that causes resistance to the claim that “God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9)? It is, of course, true that in all ages there is a natural resistance on the part of sinful man to any divine approach. He is still hiding “amongst the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8). But there is also a resistance, both conscious and unconscious, which is generated by the mental climate of the day, and this we should be in a position to understand. For to ignore genuine difficulties on the plea that they are merely intellectual smoke-screens covering moral resistance does no service to the Gospel.
The Glory Of Science
It is not hard to locate the chief source of perplexity for modern man. Without any doubt the dominant feature of our age is the spectacular triumph of applied science. In no other field of human endeavor have such astounding advances been made, and everyone of us lives in the glow of technological achievement. It is natural that the man of science who dives into the mysteries of the physical world and comes back to us with automobiles, radios, television and nuclear devices, seems to speak with much more authority than those who speak of the mysteries of God. To say this is not to revive the Science-and-Religion debate of the nineteenth century, for both scientist and theologian have learned a lot since then about their respective spheres. It is to recognize a fact. Men and women of today are bound to be enormously affected in their thinking about the universe and in their readiness to hear a supernatural message by the dazzling and imagination-baffling advances of science.
When Addison wrote of the celestial bodies circling the earth and taught us to hear them “singing as they shine, the hand that made us is divine,” he was speaking to an age that was sublimely confident that the starry heavens were God’s preserve and a singular proof of his power. We have now reached the point where around the world men hear the “beep” of a satellite which, being translated, is “the hand that made us is human.” And so Sputnik arrives to symbolize this vague sense of living in a world where God is somehow less real, less near, less in control.
Lord Of Stars And Atoms
Before, then, the message of the angels can be truly heard in our modern world it may be that we need to re-establish some biblical insights and help our fellows to see just what has and has not been changed in our human situation.
(1) We must make it very clear that our belief in God is grounded on his sovereignty over all creation, and that therefore each new discovery of men is literally an “uncovering” of that which is already there. Too often Christian apologetic has sought to advance arguments for belief in God based on supposed gaps in scientific knowledge. We must not suggest that God’s control is only to be seen exerted in those areas not yet under control of man. In other words, we must not now relegate the satellites to man’s control and push our claims for God outward to the stars. He is Lord not only of the stars, but of the atoms—and also of the telescope and microscope and the heart of enquiring man.
(2) We must be careful in our use of the language concerning the Incarnation. We must be factual and historical in our proclamation of the events in which God was savingly revealed to men, but avoid suggesting that the divine world can itself be located in space and time. The Ascension, for instance, we believe is an historical as well as a spiritual fact, but the use of spacial imagery can be confusing to the theologically illiterate. We should guard ourselves against such questions as “in what direction did he go and in what part of the stratosphere is he to be found?” Similarly, the angelic world from which the Annunciation broke upon our earth must not be confused with some portion of discoverable space. We need to emphasize the validity of faith’s own instruments of discovery, and the reality of what is by them disclosed.
(3) We must boldly proclaim the truth of the Incarnation as totally unaffected by the discoveries of the vastness of the universe, and the increasing control of matter by man. We are concerned with man’s own predicament, which remains the same however far he ranges into the mysteries of creation. And that predicament is one of estrangement, man from man, and man from God. No satellite flung into space, no power released from the elements, can bring about the needed reconciliation. The “beep” of Sputnik may bring valuable scientific data. Only the grace and truth that came with the angels’ song can redeem mankind.
With such an emphasis we may meet the situation of today. As we look forward to Christmas 1957 let the Church boldly proclaim no lesser Gospel than this: that God Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible, was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. Against this message the gates of hell cannot prevail—how much less the new mysteries, hopes and threats of outer space.
David H. C. Read is minister of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City. He is a graduate of Daniel Stuart’s College, Edinburgh, and holds the M.A. degree from Edinburgh University (which also conferred the honorary D.D.), and the B.D. degree from New College, Edinburgh.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.