The Scandal of Particularity, the Person of Christ, and Christmas

KJ Drake
Friday, December 23rd 2022

Advent and Christmastide beckon Christians to reflect on the first coming of Christ as we long for his return. We are situated in the time between, with a new life and reality defined by the events of Bethlehem and Golgotha and in anticipation of Christ’s parousia. As we think of Christ’s Incarnation in this time between the times, this interadventum, we must avoid the errors of both sentimentalization and abstraction. The coming of the eternal Son at Bethlehem is no mere nice, Christmas story festooned with parts playable in a nativity scene. We see such sentimentalization in the pop cultural invocations of “Baby Jesus.” The tale of Christmas is not primarily or essentially about family, friends, niceness, or good cheer. It is a scandal that God revealed himself in human form. Theologians often note this as the “scandal of particularity.” As Donald Bloesch describes it, “the inexplicable fact that God became man at one point in history, that God revealed himself among one particular people in history, the Jews, and that his revelation in this people and in this person is definitive and final.”[1] In the manger and throughout his earthly life, Jesus Christ was the very revelation of God. It is for this reason that Christ can respond to Phillip in the upper room, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). In none other than the person of Jesus Christ, the true image of God is seen in human form. We ought not render this into sentiment, for this would be to trivialize God himself. The One who comes in humility is also the One “before all things, and by [whom] all things consist” (Col. 1:17) and the One who will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. Universal history hangs upon the particularity of the Babe of Bethlehem.

Christ’s statement to Phillip, and other announcements of his revelation of and relationship to the Father, also warns us against the danger of abstraction. By abstract I mean, conceiving of Christ as revealing an impersonal divinity or merely an attribute(s) of God, such as kindness, love, or forgiving. Yes, Christ reveals aspects of the divine character, but the Incarnation goes far beyond this. Jesus reveals God not abstractly but concretely, as the Eternal Son sent by his Eternal Father through the Eternal Holy Spirit. Jesus does not reveal to us merely God’s character but God’s very self, which is the mystery of the Trinity. As the Athanasius Creed so clearly expresses, “we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity.”[2] The God revealed by Jesus Christ is none other than the Triune God eternally one and three.

One way that the Christian tradition has sought to move us away from abstract notions of God in Christ is through reflection on the nature of “person.” Most of us are familiar with the standard articulations of the dogmas of the Trinity and Incarnation. We confess that the Triune God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one substance in three persons (Nicaea). And we confess that Jesus Christ comes as one person in two natures, true God and true man (Chalcedon). However, in our minds these two formulae are often disconnected. We must realize that one of the three persons is that same person who took to himself a human nature. Christ’s human nature only exists as it has been assumed by the eternal person of the Word (a theological concept that is often called the enhypostasia). And the divine nature of Christ is nothing less than the one substance he shares with the Father and Holy Spirit eternally. This is how Jesus Christ can reveal to us the Triune God. The Incarnation revealed not only the identity of the Son but also the Father who sent and the Spirit who empowers. This earthly mission is a temporal echo of the eternal relations of the Triune persons in one substance.[3]

One way that the tradition of the church has solidified this reality with reference to Christ is with the anhypostatic/enhypostatic distinction. Considered on its own, Christ’s human nature is a-personal (anhypostatic), and it is personal only as it is assumed by the eternal, preexistent person of the Son of God (enhypostasis). At its most basic articulation, the an-enhypostasic distinction expresses the Chalcedonian understanding of Christ’s one person. We confess Christ

In two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation—the difference of the natures being by no means taken away because of the union, but rather the distinctive character of each nature being preserved, and [each] combining in one Person and hypostasis—not divided or separated into two Persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ.[4]

Everything that Christ does he does as the eternal Son. While both natures have a distinct character, it is the person who acts by a nature and not the nature itself. G. C. Berkouwer states this clearly in expressing this distinction: “With ‘anhypostasy’ is meant that the human nature of Christ cannot exist for a moment outside the Logos, while ‘enhypostasy’ indicates that the reality of the human nature is concretely that of the acting Lord.”[5] This definition is not at all intended to detract from the reality of the perfection of the human nature of Christ. Rather the distinction seeks to affirm that in no sense does or could the human nature of Christ exist apart from the personal existence of the Logos to which it is united. It is not an abstract divine nature that assumes flesh but the eternal Son [John 1:14].

The scandal of the particularity of Jesus’s human nature, which was assumed by the second divine person, is the very particular site of divine revelation in this world. This human nature has been taken away from us by the Ascension. As the angels said to the apostles, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). And in so doing, he opens an era of mission and waiting in which the people, bought by the blood of the body now ascended, have the continued personal presence of the Incarnate one, Emmanuel. He is still present to us by his divinity and person, even while absent bodily. There is both joy and melancholy in this, which is a common sentiment during Advent. We rejoice that he came; we treasure the salvation and revelation he brought; and yet we long for him to return. However, between the Ascension and Second Coming our very humanity—that exulted particularity of our nature—has been taken into the presence of the Father’s throne where Christ continually intercedes for us. Upon his ascension, Jesus Christ never ceased to be that very human being who died and rose; just as he did not cease to be the eternal Son at his incarnation. And therefore, as the eternal person and by his eternal nature that he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit, Christ is ever with us even as he ascended on high. We long for the return of that concrete human nature, whose face is the face of God. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). That face will be the particular face of Jesus who reveals the Father Invisible through the Spirit.

The scandal of particularity, however, continues to this day not only in Christ’s ascension, but also in his church over which he rules. Jesus is personally present with us, and he commands the church to continue his mission until he comes. He reigns over this universal mission, but he administers it through particular concrete acts and persons in this world. By his infinite presence, he is equally present to all his elect and, through the Holy Spirit, empowers them particularly to fulfill the calling he has for them. As the Heidelberg Catechism Q. 49 reminds us, one of the benefits of the Ascension is that “he [Jesus Christ] sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.”[6] We are called this Christmastide to rest in the personal presence of our Savior and Lord, “who is with us always even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20), as we wait in expectation that he will come again, and we shall behold him in his particular glory.

Dr. K.J. Drake is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology and Academic Dean at Indianapolis Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Flesh of the Word: The extra Calvinisticum from Zwingli to Early Orthodoxy.

[1] Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord (InterVarsity Press, 2005), 236.

[2] J.N.D. Kelly, The Athanasian Creed (New York; Evanston: Harper & Row, 1964), 17.

[3] Adonis Vidu, The Divine Missions: An Introduction (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021).

[4] Edward R. Hardy, ed., “The Chalcedonian Decree,” in Christology of the Later Fathers (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), 373.

[5] G. C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1954), 308.

[6] James T. Dennison Jr., ed., “The Heidelberg Catechism,” in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Heritage Books, 2008), Q. 46.

Friday, December 23rd 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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