June 2021 Credo
In the Nicene Creed (381), the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity is expressed in these terms: “he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man….” In recent years various attempts have been made to revise the doctrine of the Incarnation in accordance with one’s preferred ideology. Some want to make the Incarnation more inclusive by substituting “man” with “human”. This is ostensibly to ensure that women (and all other ‘genders’ including LGTBQs) are not excluded.
Others have taken a step further. The Incarnation is not only to save human beings but the whole creation, including animals; so, the Incarnation should be understood as Christ’s becoming a “creature”. There is no end to how the Creed should be revised once the ideology of inclusiveness is accepted as the unquestioned given.
The argument against the traditional language of the Creed is that it reflects the patriarchal culture of the ancient world—a culture which is no longer acceptable in our modern egalitarian and inclusive world. But the people making this claim are not representative of the church universal; in fact, quite the opposite. They are mostly “progressives” in mainline Protestant churches in the West who are simply parroting the voices of Western secularism. (But that is the subject for another article.)
The Creed makes it quite clear that when the Son of God became man, he partook of all the particularities of our humanity. Jesus did not come as a generic human being but a particular person at a particular time in a particular culture. He was a first century Jewish man, born of the Virgin Mary and died under Pontius Pilate—that is the concreteness of the Incarnation.
The Incarnation as a particular event is the culmination of a long history of God’s work of redeeming the world which began with the election of one man, Abraham, and later one nation, Israel. God’s way of working has always been from the particular to the universal.
Yet God did not insist that to become his children we have to become Jewish. Although the Christian faith began within the matrix of first century Jewish culture, the early Christian church did not insist on imposing Jewish culture on non-Jews. Gentile cultures were not abrogated. Rather, the concrete particularity of Jesus of Nazareth became the means by which God redeems all people in their personal distinctiveness and in their own concrete, particular cultures and ethnicities.
All humans share a common humanity, individually, culturally, socially, etc. No matter how different they are culturally, they find ways to communicate. But all humans also share an irreducible difference: as embodied beings, humans are made in God’s image as male and female. As truly man, Jesus embodies in his person what our shared common humanity ought to be; as truly a man, he embodies the irreducible distinction between a man and a woman.
The Incarnation as concrete particularity ensures that each person is not reduced to a nameless member of a herd, but each person is also uniquely male or female whose unique identity is realized precisely in relationship as male and female. The Incarnation undercuts both the herd mentality and the spirit of individualism. In our postmodern world, individualism finds its most invidious expression of the self as a social construct: “I am what I choose to be” or “I am what I feel.”
These sinful polarities—totalitarianism and individualism—are overcome in the church. It is not coincidental that the church is called the body of Christ. It images the incarnate Christ in both its particularity and relationality. Some would even say that the church is the extension of Christ’s body on earth. The church is a community but a community in which each person’s uniqueness and God-given identity is recognized and affirmed.
Thus, one aspect of the Christ’s redemptive work is the restoration of our common humanity. In Christ, the social distinctions between male and female, bond and free, black and white, are transcended. The other aspect is to restore our particularity. Individually, to be saved is to be restored as embodied male and female made in the image of God. There is no third alternative. The confusion over sexual identity must be recognized as part of the effect of the Fall. It is not in itself a sin, but to normalize an abnormality is a sin.
Ecclesially, the Christian fellowship is a fully embodied, down-to-earth fellowship. When Jesus was on earth he ate and drank with people, including men and women of ill-repute like tax-collectors and prostitutes. Even after his resurrection, he continued to eat and drink with his disciples.
After his ascension, when he was no longer bodily present, he sent the Holy Spirit to bind all of them together in a concrete, physical fellowship. This is why from its very beginning, the church felt the need to express their communion with one another in the most concrete way: the Agape meal and celebration of the Eucharist using bread and wine.
Culturally, when we become Christian, we are not lifted out of our culture. For Jesus in his concrete personhood is a man for all people in all their particularities. The coming of the particular Christ to each particular culture is what motivates Christian mission throughout the world to translate the Bible into the languages of the world. Christianity does not believe in sacralizing the original languages of the Bible the way Islam sacralizes Arabic. The gospel is translatable into any language without loss.
In short, true Christian communion is realized when each person in his or her particularity (sexually, culturally, ethnically etc.) is fully restored in the body of Christ. At the final “renewal of all things” (Mt 19:28), all the effects of the Fall will be overcome, including humanity’s sexual, social and political identity crises.
Even the alienation between humans and animals will end. Who knows what communion humans and animals will enjoy with each other when, to use a phrase from Julian of Norwich, “all things shall be well”.
Rev Dr Simon Chan (PhD, Cambridge) had taught theology and other related subjects such as liturgical, spiritual, and contextual theologies at Trinity Theological College for 29 years. His most recent publications are essays on “Pentecostal Worship” in Pentecostal Theology and Ecumenical Theology (Brill, 2019) and on “Tradition” in The Routledge Handbook of Pentecostal Theology (Routledge, 2020).