Christ’S Birth, Life, And Death

The Gospel of the Incarnation, by George S. Hendry (Westminster Press, 1958, 174 pp., $3.75), is reviewed by J. Marcellus Kik, Associate Editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

Because he feels that orthodox Protestantism has placed undue emphasis on the Christ of Calvary and the benefits that accrue from his atoning work, Dr. George S. Hendry has taken as his task the reintegration of incarnation and atonement. According to the Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, Protestantism has severed the incarnation from the atonement to the neglect of the link that connects them, viz., the historical life of the incarnate Christ which is attested in the evangelical records. He maintains that “the vicarious nature of the work of Christ is best understood if its ground is sought in the evangelical record of his incarnate life; in other words, that neither his death for us nor his birth for us can be separated from his whole being for us” (p. 115).

Before he enters into a positive exposition of his position, Professor Hendry attempts to clear the ground by criticizing the emphasis of Paul, Calvin, Barth and others. He finds a relationship between his position and what he describes as the classical Christology of the Greek Fathers.

The major emphasis on the Christ of Calvary has led many of Luther’s followers to believe that justification by faith in Christ means faith in justification, the writer claims. He continues, “The same tendency is apparent in the Reformed branch of Protestantism, where faith often came to mean faith in the Bible. In both, faith was a doctrinaire, propositional affair rather than a living personal relationship; and the piety, which was regulated by this faith, tended to become a cold, hard, formal thing” (p. 18). There is a small measure of truth in this accusation, but readers of seventeenth century religious literature know the warmth and devotion of the Puritans, and whatever criticism their writings may deserve, they certainly were Christocentric and concerned with experimental Christianity. Dr. Hendry asserts, “But the Western Church has always held that the Gospel avails primarily to remove the guilt of sin and it has been relatively unconcerned with its application to the consequence of sin” (p. 25). But has not the Western Church shown primary concern for the removal of the guilt of sin because it was the first step towards sanctification?

Issue is taken with both the Apostle Paul’s and Calvin’s evaluation of the incarnation. He points out, “The most striking fact is the absence from the Pauline kerygma of any explicit references to the ministry of Jesus in his incarnate life” (p. 39), and “The absence of reference to the life of Jesus in his epistles, especially those passages in which he rehearses the main elements of his gospel, points to the conclusion that it was not important. The evidence makes it impossible to agree with those who declare it is ‘reckless,’ or ‘idle’ to say that Paul has no interest in the historical Jesus” (p. 40). Hendry’s chief fault is that he does not behold the glorious unity of the Scriptures as inspired by the Holy Spirit and that there was no need for Paul to write a life of Christ such as that written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Article continues below

The formulas of Calvin, “obedience and suffering,” were not completely successful, the author maintains, in integrating the historical life of Jesus with the main theme of the Gospel, and these two concepts do not give an essential place to the historical life of Jesus. However, the active obedience of Christ as witnessed in his historical life is absolutely essential to the Gospel as Calvin interprets it and as Paul teaches it. Further, Professor Hendry quarrels with the fact that the perspective of Paul and Calvin is upon the Christ of Calvary and that the Christ of Galilee tends to be reduced to relative insignificance. But the biblical perspective is that the incarnation was the beginning of a life of obedience which could be imputed to the believer and the preparation for the reconciling and redeeming death of the Saviour. That is the position of Paul and Calvin.

In his third chapter, Dr. Hendry asserts that patristic thought gave prominence to an ontological relation of Christ with the whole race of men. He declares that the Council of Chalcedon defined Christ’s relation to man in the same term in which the Council of Nicaea had defined his relation to God: “homo-ousios with the father as to his godhead, and the same homo-ousios with us as to his manhood” (p. 44). This ontological relation with mankind forms the presupposition or precondition of his atoning work. It is here that students of the early Church fathers would strongly disagree with Dr. Hendry’s interpretation of the Chalcedon Creed. What the Chalcedon symbol indicated concerning homo-ousios was that the persons of the Godhead have one identical substance. Originally the term signified the relationship between beings compounded of kindred substance. This is understandable enough where creatures are concerned, for while finite beings can be of the same kind of substance, they cannot actually be the same identical substance. The human nature they share is necessarily apportioned among many individuals, so that they cannot possess one and the same identical substance. The divine nature is indivisible. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not three separate individuals in the same way as three human beings who belong to the one genus.

Article continues below

While a few Church fathers did link the redemption with the incarnation by which human nature was sanctified, transformed, and elevated by the very act of Christ becoming man, that cannot be described as a characteristically Greek doctrine. Even the Church fathers who taught it did not allow the emphasis on the incarnation to exclude the saving value of Christ’s death. In his recent book (Early Christian Doctrines, Harpers) J. N. D. Kelly, a leading patristic scholar, maintains “Neither the physical theory, however, nor the mythology of man’s deliverance from the devil represent the main stream of Greek soteriology in the fourth century. For this we have to look to the doctrines which interpreted Christ’s work in terms of a sacrifice offered to the Father” (p. 384).

Both Anselm and Calvin are scored for not providing a bridge, as the Greek fathers sought to do, between the work of Christ for us and its appropriation by us with the doctrine of Christ incarnate in us. Calvin maintained that all that Christ suffered and achieved for the salvation of the human race is of no avail until Christ becomes ours and dwells in us. This union between Christ and believers comes through the gift of the Holy Spirit and not a relationship with Christ established through his incarnation. Dr. Hendry takes issue with Calvin’s teaching that the beneficiaries of Christ’s saving work are determined not by community of nature but by the inscrutible divine decree and that what Christ accomplished for us becomes ours only by imputation rather than the transformation of our nature in consequence of its having been worn by Christ (p. 70). He does not accept the solution of the problem that was made by federal theology which sought to base the vicarious nature of the work of Christ in his relation to man as their federal head. This conception, he asserts, is now rejected because the minds of men are no more responsive to the legal concepts and categories with which it operated. These legal concepts and categories, however, were not the product of a particular legally minded age but rather the teaching of Scripture.

Article continues below

The author asks “Can the truth that classical Christology sought to express in terms of abstract essence be more adequately expressed in terms of a history of the incarnate life? Can we perhaps say that the ‘universal manhood’ is the real meaning of ‘the Jesus of history’?” (pp. 99, 100). Barth is criticized because he ascribes the substitution of Christ ultimately to his divinity: “It is because he was the Son of God and himself God that he had the competence and the power to suffer in our place.” This appeal of Barth to the divinity of Christ, Hendry claims, savors “of deus ex machina and accords the humanity a subordinate and instrumental role” (p. 106). He maintains “and if the mission of the Son of man is vicarious, it would seem that his vicarious relation to others is to be established humanly, through human action and interaction, rather than by some unaccountable exercise of divine power” (p. 109). However, Reformed theology has always maintained that the whole work of Christ is to be referred to his person and not to be attributed to one or the other nature exclusively. In all that Christ did, and suffered, in all that he continues to do for us, it is not to be considered as the act and work of this or that nature in him alone but it is the act and work of the whole person: God and man in one person.

A rather startling claim is made by Dr. Hendry that “There is no firm support in the recorded words of Jesus himself for the view that he took upon himself the responsibility for the sins of men.… There is no word of his to suggest … that he deliberately submitted himself to the judgment of God on sin” (p. 113). Is this a modern theologian asking for a proof text? Who can escape the import of the words of Christ at the passover supper? “For this is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28). But Professor Hendry will not allow the Lord’s declaration of the purpose of his death as procuring forgiveness: “Now this view of the sacrament presupposes that the original act of Christ, which it ‘repeats’ or ‘represents,’ was itself of the nature of a sacrifice that he offered to God. But if, as we have contended, the work of Christ is to be regarded, not as a work of man directed toward God in order to procure his forgiveness, but God’s free gift of forgiveness extended to men in the man in whom he enters into personal relation with them at the human level, then the sacrament too must be regarded as a renewal or extension of the gift” (p. 167). But Christ states emphatically that his shed blood procured forgiveness!

Article continues below

The great function of Christ, according to the author, comes as a bearer of forgiveness. “He comes to dispense it to men by relating himself to them, by being ‘the man for other men.’ And it is theirs as they receive it at his hand, by becoming related to him.” In other words, the function of Christ was not to bring about an atonement by his death but rather to herald the fact of God’s forgiveness. This would make Jesus a mere herald of salvation but not a Saviour in the full sense of the term. He did not come to give his life a ransom for many as he himself declared (Matt. 20:28).

The usual socinian arguments are brought forth that if God’s forgiveness is based upon satisfaction then it is not really forgiveness at all and that there is no genuine mercy if Christ died for guilty sinners. This socinian view overlooks the fact that it is the mercy of God that supplies the atonement. God himself satisfies the claims of justice for the sinner. Mercy and justice meet at the Cross of the incarnate Son of God. There is the very height of love and the demonstration of justice.

Salvation is to be found in the relationship of man to the incarnate life of Christ. “By his life among men and for men he wrought salvation for them; salvation was not a result of something he did in entering humanity or of something he did in dying a human death; it was the work of his life and his death to relate himself freely to man and them to himself: and this relation is the core and foundation of their salvation” (p. 134). The only problem for man was to find God and receive forgiveness from his hand through a personal relationship with him. But why could not the sovereign God announce this forgiveness through the medium of angels? Why was it necessary for the Son to suffer the humiliation of an earthly birth and a shameful death? Why do men have to enter into a personal relationship with the incarnate life of Christ before experiencing forgiveness that already exists in the heart of God? No satisfactory answers are advanced.

“The Gospel of the Incarnation” is not the Gospel of Paul who determined not to know anything within the Church save Jesus Christ and him crucified. And, if this book represents the present teaching of the Charles Hodge Chair of Systematic Theology it is a far cry from the teaching of that great stalwart of the faith who declared: “It is the language and spirit of the whole Bible, and of every believing heart in relation to Christ that his ‘blood alone has power sufficient to atone.’ ”

Article continues below


Understanding Romanism

The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, by Jaroslav Pelikan (Abingdon, 1959, 272 pp., $4), is reviewed by G. W. Bromiley, Visiting Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.

From many angles the problem of the interrelationship of the Protestant churches and Roman Catholicism is being posed afresh, and perhaps a little more hopefully, in this generation. The general ecumenical interest provides a starting point. Biblical and patristic studies afford obvious fields of encounter. Revived dogmatic concern in the evangelical churches gives new relevance to basic questions. External pressures, for example, communism and secularism, emphasize points of agreement and the perils of division. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there should be a fresh consideration at least of the most deep problems of disunity.

Dr. Pelikan, in his illuminating and informative book, gives a simple exposition of the development and constitution of Roman Catholicism with a view to better understanding. This leads to some suggestions which may make possible a more fruitful interchange of views.

In his lucid and balanced presentation, Dr. Pelikan performs a useful service. Roman Catholicism is often depicted in the strong colors either of total hostility or naive partisanship. Many Protestants cannot meet it properly because they do not really understand its growth, nor perceive the true nature of its teaching, nor appreciate the reality of its finer achievements. This is balanced, of course, by an equal lack of discernment on the part of Roman Catholics. But two wrongs do not make a right. We may thus be grateful that, without concessions, Dr. Pelikan has given us in such short compass so helpful and authoritative a survey which conceals neither the more engaging nor the more reprehensible aspects of Romanism.

Yet it is not enough to understand. Romanism does not dissolve on analysis. It is a solid reality which is here to stay. It has to be faced. The contention of Dr. Pelikan is that neither the old defensiveness nor the old aggressiveness is adequate in relation to it, but that there is demanded a constructive attitude characterized by realism and faithfulness. He sees little hope of any easy solution to the problem of interrelationship, but he believes that by acceptance of mutual responsibility, by firm and gentle testimony, by an assessment of debts and needs, and by the attainment of genuinely biblical teaching and practice instead of mere reactions to Romanist errors, something may be done towards possible future reconciliation.

Article continues below

Our first comment is that Dr. Pelikan is surely right in spirit. He shows no evidence of the shallow optimism or the naive subservience to Rome which unfortunately mark some of those who venture to speak and write on this issue. He realizes that there are almost insuperable doctrinal and practical obstacles to real progress. But he does not merely deplore this. He does not give away to anger or despair. Even though he recognizes that the way of reconciliation must be hard and costly, he commends it in a way which leaves us little option when so many million confessing Christians are divided from us, and the majority can never be reached either by our polemical or evangelistic ventures.

Yet it must be emphasized that concessions to Rome must be no part of the programme of reconciliation. At no point and in no sense can the principle of sola scriptura be abandoned or adulterated. Dr. Pelikan himself realizes this, yet there are obvious dangers at this point for a Protestantism which is itself weakened by liberalism. For instance, Dr. Pelikan feels that in a revision of the system of Schleiennacher, Protestantism might provide an alternative to, and a point of contact with, the Thomistic system of Roman Catholicism. This is true, of course, but only in virtue of the fact that the distinctive biblical and evangelical tenets are abandoned in this kind of liberal Protestantism. Again, the suggestion of a parallel between Mary on one side and Enoch and Elijah on the other, or of a possible acceptance of the assumption because it is not antiscriptural, is obviously impossible to those who realize what was at issue in the Reformation. A better understanding of justification and sanctification, or Scripture and tradition, is ruled out; but in no circumstances can there be acceptance of a dogma of the assumption as necessary to salvation. Dr. Pelikan himself does not advocate this doctrine, but even the suggestions in this field illustrate the dangers and difficulties involved. A final point is that relationship are two-sided, and a matching attitude is thus required from Romanists if progress is to be made. In some respects, this is the most hopeful aspect, for in the biblical, patristic and historical spheres many Roman Catholic scholars display a new openness and penetration which bode well for the future. Yet it must be recognized that thus far this theological movement has had little discernible influence on everyday Romanism. A work analogous to that of Dr. Pelikan is thus needed on the Romanist side, but even more urgently is there needed a general reassertation of the true catholic and apostolic norm in Holy Scripture. This kind of radical reorientation is not to be expected in a moment. But it is not to be ruled out a limine as impossible. For in spite of its apparent vulnerability, theology can often in the long run exercise the decisive and determinative influence.

Article continues below

Is there anything that Evangelicals can do in face of this possibility of reformation within Romanism and therefore of the reconciliation which otherwise is surely impossible? At root, the problem is one which Romanism itself must solve. But along the lines suggested by Dr. Pelikan three negative and three positive points may be made. Negatively, the evangelical should avoid a supercilious, theological self-righteousness. He should forswear bigoted hostility and suspicion. He should also refrain from attempts to create false peace by ill-judged concessions. Positively, he can help first and supremely by sympathetic prayer. He can then engage in frank but humble cooperation in biblical and historical study, with a willingness to be taught as well as to teach. Finally, he can seek to attain, in practice as well as theology, a deepened and strengthened Protestantism more conformable to the biblical pattern. Beyond this, there can be little but hopeful expectation that the work of the Word and Spirit will indeed open up a new, exciting age of interchange and genuine fellowship with those from whom we now seem to be irremediably separated. And who of us is to say that this is not possible with God?


Doctrine Of The Church

The Glorious Body of Christ, by R. B. Kuiper (Eerdmans, 1958, 383 pp., $4.95), is reviewed by Robert D. Knudsen, Instructor in Apologetics, Westminster Theological Seminary.

The doctrine of the Church is not treated enough in evangelical circles. This volume by the President-emeritus of Calvin Seminary should be warmly welcomed, therefore, by all evangelicals. The volume is largely a reproduction of monthly articles which were contributed to the Presbyterian Guardian. These studies were undertaken in the first place with the needs of a specific church in mind; nevertheless they are designed to serve the Church in general. They are intended to be pre-eminently scriptural, and abound with references to the Bible. The writing is simple, forcible, and in terms which are easy to grasp. Yet, the book is not narrow; it includes within its sweep the entire panorama of the doctrine of the Church.

Article continues below

Kuiper deals at considerable length with such important themes as the unity of the Church, the marks of the Church, the head of the Church, the offices in the Church, and a large number of its practical functions. The treatments are all in short form, especially suitable for the adult Sunday School class or the advanced doctrine class. Each chapter is carefully outlined, and for the convenience of the reader the complete outline is reproduced at the end of the book.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.