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The Incarnation and the Moderator of the United Church of Canada

 

John 1:1-14   

 

I: — Seeing film clips of sneering guards who are herding children into railway cars destined for the death camps does it for me. Looking at the convicted child-molester or the serial rapist does it for others. Seeing the brutal murderer does it for others still. What does it for you? What fills you with revulsion, with repugnance, with pure loathing? For the Jew of yesteryear it was the spectacle of idolatry. Nothing repulsed the Jew so much as having to behold idolatry. When Paul visited Athens and saw the idols thronging the city, his stomach turned over.

The essence of idolatry is mistaking something creaturely for the Creator himself, and thereafter worshipping the creature instead of the Creator. Since the earliest Christians were Jews, we know that they had a heightened sensitivity to idolatry, never confusing creaturely with Creator, never mistaking the work of God’s hand for God himself. And yet the earliest Christians fell on their knees before Jesus Christ, a fellow-creature like them, and worshipped him. John exclaims, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” The Word is God’s outermost expression of his innermost heart. John recognized that God had identified the outermost expression of his innermost heart with one human creature (and one only), Jesus of Nazareth. Paul exclaims, “He is the image of the invisible God….In him the fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Peter, possessed of a conviction that neither turbulence without nor treachery within would ever take from him, said to the Master himself, “You are the Christ [God’s uniquely anointed], the Son of the living God.” Peter, possessed of a Jewish mind, knew that “son of” meant “of the same nature as.” Thomas cries before the risen one, “My Lord and my God!” The four apostles I have just quoted were all Jews. They dreaded idolatry as they dreaded nothing else. Yet when they beheld their fellow-human, Jesus, they worshipped.

There are only two possibilities here. Either Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, “God-with-us” and the apostles were devout in worshipping him, or Jesus isn’t Emmanuel and the apostles were idolaters, even if unwitting idolaters. Either generations of Christians have been devout in adoring Jesus as Saviour and Lord, or they have been supremely superstitious, even if sincere. Christians of every era have hailed Jesus of Nazareth as the world’s sole, sufficient judge and saviour and sovereign. He can be this only if he is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Otherwise he is no more than a charlatan and we are no more than suckers. In confessing him to be Emmanuel, the church catholic has always known that any diminution of Jesus, however slight, in fact is a total denial of him.

 

II: — Just as the church catholic has always confessed Jesus Christ to be the Word made flesh, it has also always been afflicted with those who want to diminish him and thereby deny him. While perfidious attempts at diminishing him and resolute resistance to such denial have occurred in every era, there was one period in the church’s life when all of this was brought to sharpest focus. The year was 325. The place was Nicaea, a city in present-day Turkey. The contenders were Athanasius and Arius. At different times both had been bishop of Alexandria, Egypt. Athanasius insisted that Jesus Christ is precisely he whom the apostles acknowledged and confessed. Arius, on the other hand, felt he could “improve” on the apostles. Since the wording of the apostolic confessions couldn’t be altered (that is, since the vocabulary of scripture couldn’t be changed), Arius “weaseled” different meanings into familiar words. For instance, “son of” is a Hebrew expression meaning “of the same nature as.” Arius, however, “weaseled” a different meaning into “Son of God.” Now he told everyone that “Son of God” meant “similar to God.” Now the Son was said to be similar to the Father; the Son was like the Father.

The obvious question was, “How like? A lot like or a little bit like?” Athanasius replied that the real issue wasn’t how much like whether a little or a lot. The real issue, rather, was this: if Father and Son aren’t of the same nature, it makes no difference how much similar or how little similar they are, since a miss is as good as a mile. The apostles had acknowledged that the nature of the Father and the nature of the Son are identical: Father and Son have identical essence or substance or being.

Arius continued to disagree. He insisted that Jesus is a prophet, as Hosea and Amos and Jeremiah had been prophets before him. Jesus differed from the prophets, however, in that he was somewhat more than a prophet. Jesus is “prophet-plus.” Plus what? Plus a little more of the Holy Spirit, plus a little more righteousness, plus a little more obedience; it all added up to the “plus” of greater God-likeness. “Weaseling” yet again, Arius agreed that the Word had become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth but insisted that “Word” didn’t mean God’s outermost expression of his innermost heart. It was similar to that, said Arius, very much like that, almost that, but not exactly that. Then what became flesh at Christmas? What became flesh, continued Arius, was a message from God, an idea from God, a truth from God, but not God himself.

“This won’t do!”, replied Athanasius, “it isn’t what the apostles knew and confessed; it isn’t the faith by which the church has always lived.”

Athanasius then asked Arius what he meant when he said spoke of the incarnation. Arius replied that “incarnation” meant that Jesus is God’s agent on earth. “God’s agent on earth”, fumed Athanasius, “the Son isn’t God’s agent at all; the Son possesses the same substance or essence or being as the Father, and therefore the Son is the exact expression of the Father. As for God’s agent on earth, the Son is the Father’s exact expression eternally, irrespective of any earthly incarnation.”

Arius wouldn’t give up. (He also wouldn’t be corrected.) And therefore Arius came back, “Since the Son is only a prophet, albeit a prophet raised to the nth degree, the Son doesn’t know the Father fully; in fact the Son doesn’t really know the Father at all; God the Father infinitely transcends his creation and is ultimately unknowable. The Son knows something of God, is acquainted with truths of God, possesses notions of God, but in the final analysis the Son doesn’t know the Father fully. God remains unknowable ultimately.” Now Athanasius was almost beside himself. “If God isn’t knowable ultimately, on what grounds can we know him now at all? Yet the apostles were unshakably certain that they knew God himself; they didn’t merely know something about him”, said Athanasius.

Arius came back one more time. “Since the Son teaches us about the Father, therefore the Son points us beyond himself to the Father. The Son directs our worship beyond himself to the Father. The Son isn’t the focus of faith; the Father is.” Athanasius, by no means defeated, replied that the newness of the New Testament consists in its recognition of the unprecedented newness of God’s act: he has rendered himself, his nature, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Everywhere in the New Testament faith is faith in Jesus Christ. Everywhere in the New Testament faith in Jesus Christ and faith in God are synonymous. To worship him is to worship God; to obey him is to obey God; to love him is to love God. Why? Because Father and Son are possessed of the same nature, substance, essence, being.

Finally Athanasius formulated the theological expression for which he remains deservedly famous to this day, homoousios. Homo is Greek for “same”; ousios Greek for “substance, being, essence, nature.” Athanasius contrasted his expression, homoousios, with homoiousios, homoi being Greek for “similar.” The difference is the Greek letter iota, the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet, as the letter “i” is the smallest of the English alphabet. Is the letter iota so very small as to be insignificant? Is the letter “i” so very small as to be insignificant? Surely there’s a difference between asking someone to run your business for you and asking him to ruin it. Homoousios means that Father and Son possess the same nature, not similar natures.

And there the debate ended, for the church catholic agreed that Athanasius had faithfully reflected the conviction of the apostles, even as the church catholic agreed that Arius was an anti-gospel heretic.

 

III: — What does it all add up to for you and me today? Does it add up to anything crucial? As a matter of fact the difference between “same” and “similar”, homoousios and homoiousios, is the difference between gospel and no gospel, therefore between faith and superstition, therefore between our salvation and our ultimate loss. Let’s look at what would be the case if Athanasius hadn’t carried the day.

(i) The gospel wouldn’t be the self-bestowal of God. The New Testament declares that in Jesus of Nazareth God gives us himself, nothing less than himself, all of himself. God doesn’t give us something; he doesn’t give us a message or a notion or an ideal or a truth. In the gospel God communicates himself, bestows himself.

(ii) The love of God would be a niggardly love, a stingy love, a miserly love, a tight-fisted love. It wouldn’t be the love that gives all, costs all, holds back nothing. Instead it would be but a truncated love. According to the gospel, in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, God has condescended to us; not merely condescended to us as creatures, but condescended all the way down to us as sinners. God has condescended to us and numbered himself among us transgressors. God has condescended to us and become one with us. God has identified himself with us sinners fully in the person of his Son.

But if the Son were only similar to the Father, only like the Father (however close the resemblance), then the Son’s love for us sinners would be profounder than the Father’s; the Son of God would have identified himself with us in our sin but God himself wouldn’t have. Then we could only conclude that God’s love for us stopped short of ultimate condescension to us and ultimate identification with us.

(iii) The acts of Jesus would not be the acts of God. Think of Christ’s acts of forgiveness. We know that everywhere in life only the offended party can forgive. Since our sin offends God, only God can forgive sinners. When Jesus pronounces sinners forgiven, what’s going on? Are they forgiven? What right does Jesus have to pronounce people forgiven when God alone is offended? What power does Jesus have to render sinners forgiven when God alone is offended? His only right, his only power, is that he and the Father are one (as he tells us himself.) His only right, his only power, is that he and the Father are identical, not similar, in nature, substance, being.

(iv) What Jesus did on the cross would have nothing to do with atonement, that act of God whereby God makes God himself and an alienated world “at one.” What Jesus did on the cross would be nothing more than the pointless torture of a third party, all of such pointless torture of a third party having nothing to do with either God or world. The apostles insist that in the cross of Jesus, which cross is God’s judgement on and penalty for sin, God himself takes on his own judgement and penalty concerning the sin of humankind. It’s correct to say that as Jesus absorbs in himself the penalty for sin the Father absorbs the same penalty at the same moment if and only if Father and Son are one in substance. If Father and Son are merely similar, however, then the death of Jesus has no more salvific significance than the death of Abraham Lincoln or the death of D’Arcy McGee.

 

IV: — All of which brings me to the moderator of our denomination, Mr. William Phipps. Phipps persists in saying that Jesus isn’t who the apostles recognized him to be and what the church has always confessed him to be. Phipps persists in saying that Jesus Christ, in his very humanity, isn’t the presence and power of God. Phipps persists in saying that Jesus is a window through which it’s possible to see God. While there are many such windows, continues Phipps, Jesus is that window which happens to be the most relatively smudge-free. (Phipps never tells us why Jesus happens to be the relatively smudge-free window.) The apostles, however, suffered and died in allegiance to that Lord whom they found to be not a window through which one looks to God, but that incarnation upon whom one looks as God. Jesus Christ isn’t a window to a deity beyond him; Jesus Christ is the presence and power of the deity identified with him. No wonder the apostle Paul exulted, “In him the fullness of deity dwells bodily.” No wonder Charles Wesley wrote, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity.” Phipps persists in denying the foundation of the church; he persists in denouncing what the apostle Jude calls “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” When Phipps is reminded of this he retreats, saying, “I’m no theologian, I’m no theologian.” True enough. But since he manifestly isn’t, then where theological matters are concerned why doesn’t he simply shut up?

Phipps insists that he hasn’t said anything that United Church moderators haven’t said for 35 years, all the way back to Ernest Marshall Howse. Phipps is correct. His perfidy isn’t new and is no greater than theirs. Well do I remember Ernest Marshall Howse’s public denials of the incarnation when Howse was moderator. Well do I remember Howse’s Easter sermon of 1968. I as flat on my back, encased from neck to groin in a body cast as a result of a three-fatality car accident in which my spine had been fractured. Since I was encased in plaster, I didn’t go to church in Easter ’68; instead I turned on the T.V. set and watched the Howse’s broadcast from Bloor Street United Church. Howse managed to get through the entire sermon, on Easter Sunday, without once mentioning the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This, of course, was no accident, since Howse had already said many times over that such matters as incarnation and atonement and resurrection he disdained. Phipps is right: he’s no different from his predecessors in the office of moderator.

Then what are we going to do? People are always asking me what I’m going to do; many are forever telling me what I should do. One man phones me over and over and tells me every time that if I were possessed of any integrity at all I would leave a denomination whose official representative is plainly heretical.

I have no intention of leaving. Instead I encourage myself by recalling my old friends, the Wesley brothers. On 21st January, 1739, Charles Wesley preached a sermon in which he deplored Anglican clergy who, like him, had promised at ordination to uphold the gospel but who were now, unlike Charles, glibly spouting the Arian heresy. These clergy, theologically degenerate, were perforce unitarians as well. Since these men were denying the faith of the church catholic, Charles correctly pronounced them “schismatics.” And since they were now denying the faith they had sworn in their ordination vows to uphold, Charles’s unhesitatingly pronounced them “perjured schismatics.” Charles, however, would never leave the Anglican church, for he didn’t disagree with the doctrinal standards he had sworn in his ordination vows to uphold and that his denomination had never changed.

The Arian heresy was to predominate in Anglicanism for decades. Forty-seven years after Charles Wesley had spoken against it, John Wesley did as much in his tract, “On Schism.” On 30th March, 1786, at age 83, John explained to his fellow-Methodists why he wasn’t going to leave the Anglican church despite its theological degeneration, even though many of his people wanted him to leave and take them with him. Wesley’s reasoning was twofold. In the first place, regardless of the current theological miasma, the Anglican church’s official doctrinal standards had never been changed and Wesley continued to honour them. In the second place, the denomination neither requested him to do what scripture forbids nor prevented him from doing what scripture commands. As long as this was the case, said John, he had no valid reason to leave.

Three days before Wesley penned his tract, “On Schism”, he had taken a boat from Holyhead (Wales) to Dunleary, a coastal village in Ireland. Once ashore at Dunleary he had been unable to find a horse and carriage to take him to Dublin, and so he had walked to Dublin. How far? Twenty-five miles! At age 83! Why? He wanted only to visit and minister to the small group of Methodists in Dublin. They were few in number and they were harassed. The Methodists in Dublin were so very dear to him that he would have walked 25 miles on broken glass to get to them. As for the denominational defection in 18th century Anglicanism, as for the perjured clergy who ruled it; all of this was nothing compared to his love for his people and their love for him. At age 83 he gladly walked 25 miles to be with the people he loved. Nothing else mattered.

Nothing else matters still.

 

                                                                    Victor Shepherd
December 1997