Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Some bad Christmas theology

There seems to be some misunderstanding in evangelical circles as to what happened when the Son of God became man at the birth of Jesus Christ. Often these misconceptions can be blamed on poor theology in some of our most cherished Christmas carols.
1) "He laid his glory by"
This line appears in carol after carol. But really? Certainly, Jesus came in appearance as a man. His glory was veiled as he came in the likeness of sinful flesh. But his glory as the Son shone as brightly as ever. What could it conceivably mean that Jesus as the Son of God "laid his glory by"? His glory is the full expression of his godhead. He could not abandon one iota of his glory without ceasing to be God. If he stopped being God at the incarnation, how could be be Immanuel, God with us? Besides, even as the incarnate Word, his glory was not exactly "laid by". Doesn't Scripture say that "the Word became flesh and we beheld his glory" (John 1:14)? If we sing carols that say, "He laid his glory by" let us think in terms of glory veiled, not abandoned.
2) "He left his throne and his kingly crown"
No he didn't. As the Son of God he continued to rule over creation and direct providence. He did not abdicate his role in the Lordship of the Trinity. On the other hand, Scripture tells us that he was born, "the king of the Jews" (Matthew 2:2). Jesus came to take a new, additional crown, rather than abandon one. Because of his enfleshment, holy life and sacrificial death, Jesus has been crowned King of kings and Lord of lords, "And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name" [emphasis added] (Phil 2:8-9). Jesus now exercises the crown rights of the Redeemer as well as Creator. As the world's true Lord and King, he will rescue the creation from the disastrous effects of sin and bring the created order back into subjection to God.
3) "Jesus became a human person"
You won't find that in any carols (thankfully!), but I have sometimes heard it said by well-meaning Christians. But Jesus didn't become a human person. What happened at the incarnation was that the person of the Son took human nature. If we say that the Son (as second person of the Trinity) became a human person, then Jesus is a combination of two persons. In that case, he has two identities and two centres of self-consciousness. But the Jesus revealed in the Gospels is one person; the Son, with a human nature. He may have two levels of consciousness - as the divine Son he knows all things, in his humanity he only knows some things. But in both his divine and human natures, he was conscious of only one personal identity - that of God's well beloved Son.
That's enough bad Christmas theology for now. Here is some good Christmas theology,
Behold the great Creator makes
himself a house of clay,
a robe of virgin flesh he takes
which he will wear for ay.

Hark, hark, the wise eternal Word,
like a weak infant cries!
In form of servant is the Lord,
and God in cradle lies.

This wonder struck the world amazed,
it shook the starry frame;
squadrons of spirits stood and gazed,
then down in troops they came.

Glad shepherds ran to view this sight;
a choir of angels sings,
and eastern sages with delight
adore this King of kings.

Join then all hearts that are not stone,
and all our voices prove,
to celebrate this holy One,
the God of peace and love.
Thomas Pestel (ca. 1586-1660)


DjR said...

I sense some "Bah humbug!" going on here.... :)

I take your points -- all three of them -- but I wonder if you're simply a bit grumpy today. Short days of December got you down? Radiohead depressing you??

All three of your "bad Christmas theology" points could be seen, with only a pinch of seasonal generosity, as arising from poetic restatements of Phil 2:6-8, of course.

As for "glory laid by", that is simply a way of saying "set aside" -- not so very far from the Philippians verses.

And if "his glory as the Son shone as brightly as ever", I wonder that anyone came near him! When John caught a glimpse of the the Son of God in Rev 1:12-17, he "fell at his feet as though dead"!

The differentiation Peter makes in 2 Pet 1:16-18 surely provides some warrant for the wonder that these carols express that "the one in whom the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily" "was made man" (to to a bit of jumping around!).

In fact, I wonder if "pastorally" there are different things going on in NT times and today. For the first Christians, the question was "how could this man whom so many of us knew (cf. 1 Cor 15:3-8) be God incarnate?

Our question is more likely to be, how is it that the eternal Son should actually be a ... man?

Time for a bit of Donne:

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov'd imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod's jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith's eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

(FWIW, IMO, YMMV, etc. :)

David Reimer

Exiled Preacher said...

Actually David, I was thinking of signing off the post with "Bah, humbug to bad Christmas theology", but I thought that might sound a little Scroogeish! Too much Radiohead in the darkest month may be getting to me. But soon we will put up our fake plastic Christmas tree with lots of brightly coloured lights and all will be well.

When I said that as the Son his glory shone as brightly as ever, I was thinking of Hebrews 1:3, "who being the brightness of his glory". I didn't mean that baby Jesus has some kind of radioactive glow like in the Christmas cards.

Thanks for the Donne. Now that's what I call good Christmas theology.

DjR said...

I didn't mean that baby Jesus has some kind of radioactive glow...

You mean like this one? :)


Exiled Preacher said...

That looks more like sunlight. But I think you get my meaning.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Solid critiques. Thanks!

Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...

Some very good points.

Anonymous said...

Hey. Just dropped in and caught this post. Might the "glory laid by" bit come from Matthew, where (if one didn't already know Jesus as the "second person" of the Trinity) Jesus' identity as the Son of God isn't explicitly stated until the Centurian (as I recall) confesses it following the crucifixion?

Just a thought.


Exiled Preacher said...


It is true that Jesus' glory was usually undisclosed, but that was because it was hidden from sight rather than laid by. "Laid by" suggests put off or abandoned. It gives the totally wrong idea. Jesus did not lay aside his divine nature when he became man. Isn't Jesus disclosed as the Son of God at his baptism 3:17, also in 11:27,
16:16, at the transfiguration
(17:5), as well as at the cross as perceived by the centurion?

chuck said...

Dear Mr. Davies,
I just now read from your blog for the first time. I really appreciate the things you write. I wanted to especially thank you for your article on "Some Bad Christmas Theology." It really helped me to think through the truths of the Incarnation more accurately... and caused me to grow in my love for Christ. Thank you.
By the way, I am from West Virginia, in the United States. I have been told that my home state is much like your wonderful home of Wales- with it's mountains, scenery, etc. I can understand why you may feel homesick not living there right now.
God bless you.

Chuck Fry