The Son of God in Adam's Shadow

James Duguid
Wednesday, July 1st 2015
Jul/Aug 2015

My parents sent me off to college with, among other things, a copy of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. Despite the majesty of Calvin's theology, reading through the Institutes can be a difficult endeavor. Most difficult are the parts where Calvin engages in extended refutations of his contemporary opponents. As a college freshman, I had the hardest time with the Osiander bits. Andreas Osiander (1498-1552) was a Lutheran theologian in Germany with some original, strange, and just plain wrong theological ideas. Calvin discusses and refutes several of these ideas in the Institutes. Since that time, Osiander hasn't inspired a lot of followers, and as a result I found the refutation of this long-dead theologian a little tedious and irrelevant. The issues under discussion were not ones I really cared about.

As I have matured, though, I have come to have a greater appreciation for the Osiander bits. The issues may be strange, but they often connect to key doctrines of the faith in ways that make them more relevant than they might at first seem. I want to look at one of these issues in this essay and show how it can help us understand an important doctrine better: the doctrine of the incarnation.

One particular claim Osiander made concerns the question, "Would the incarnation still have occurred, if the Fall had never happened?" (1) In other words, if Adam had never sinned, but remained perfect, would the Son of God still have taken upon himself a human nature and become flesh? Osiander says, "Yes." Osiander keys in on passages in the New Testament such as Colossians 1:15, where Christ is described as the image of God, and uses them to understand Adam's creation in the image of God. He thinks that the image in which Adam was created is the incarnate Christ. In other words, when God creates Adam, he looks down the corridors of time to the future incarnation and fashions man after the pattern of the Messiah. But, he argues, if this is so, God could not create man without determining to send his Son in the flesh, whether or not man should sin.

Now, if you are thinking, "This seems like a vain and futile speculation," you are not alone. This is largely the substance of Calvin's objection. "Those who propose to inquire or seek to know more about Christ than God ordained by his secret decree are breaking out in impious boldness to fashion some new sort of Christ." (2) Calvin shows by many examples that Scripture everywhere identifies redemption from sin as the sole purpose of the incarnation. To pick just one: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

This is Calvin's general argument, and it is a good one. But I would beg the reader's patience in spending a little more time with this speculation. I want to zoom in on one particular piece of Osiander's argument, because I believe it may help us to a deeper understanding of the mystery of the incarnation.

Osiander argues as follows: if the Son would not have become incarnate without sin, then his incarnation would have depended upon Adam's choice, and it would have been something contingent, an accident of history. In this case, Adam would be primary and Christ secondary. In Osiander's opinion, this would imply that Adam was the pattern and image after which all men were created. Thus Christ would be in the image of Adam, rather than Adam in the image of Christ. (3) The appeal of this argument is clear. After all, is it not honoring to Christ to say that he is first in all things? Surely the incarnation is of such grave importance that we shouldn't say that it is an accident or something that happened by chance.

At this point, we might expect Calvin to respond with something about predestination. After all, though the things of this world and the choices of men are contingent and in some sense accidental (unlike God, who is eternal), nevertheless, since God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass, there is some sense in which even these things are necessary parts of his plan. If God decreed both Adam's fall and the incarnation, it is not obvious that the incarnation can ultimately be called accidental.

Though this response would be entirely consistent with his theology, this is not where Calvin goes. Instead, he focuses on what Scripture actually teaches about the incarnation. Scripture says that Christ was made like us (Heb. 4:15), that Christ was a descendant of Adam (Luke 3:38), and most strikingly, that Paul actually calls Jesus the second Adam, not the first Adam (1 Cor. 15:47). Calvin writes: "Paul, calling Christ the 'Second Adam,' sets the Fall, from which arose the necessity of restoring nature to its former condition, between man's first origin and the restoration that we obtain through Christ." (4) If this is how Scripture speaks about Jesus, then something must have gone wrong with Osiander's argument somewhere.

So what exactly is wrong with Osiander's argument? It arises from a confusion about the nature of the incarnation. Insofar as Jesus is God, he is eternally above and before all things, and one can indeed say that Adam was created in his image, since Adam was created in the image of God and Jesus is God. But in the incarnation he becomes human, and insofar as he is human, his preeminence is not a given. In fact, Philippians 2:5-7 makes it quite clear that to become incarnate, the Son of God had to empty and humble himself, take the form of a servant, be born in the likeness of men (or, we might say, in the image of Adam), and obey to the point of death.

For Christ, then, to become incarnate is already humiliation. It is to enter into the contingencies of creation, to be acted upon and to react in the world of finite creatures. As Galatians 4:4 says, he was "born of a woman, born under the law." Born into a genealogy, he had parents to whom he had to submit and duties and obligations imposed upon him from outside. As God, he never had to obey the law as something required of him by an external authority; rather the law was identical with his own character, the expression of his will. But as man, he had to submit his will to the Father. And what did the Father call him to do? The calling given to him by God, which he inherited as the true Son of David, was to be the second Adam. And though he did not receive the sin of Adam, he had to live in Adam's world’a world cursed by the choice of another, a curse that in the end he must bear in all its terrible fullness.

The shape of Christ's life led to glory only through suffering. As he reiterated to his disciples throughout the Gospels, the Christ must suffer and die before he entered his glory. Colossians 1:18 teaches us that we should connect Christ's preeminence with his resurrection: he is the firstborn from the dead. Paul's statement about the death and resurrection of believer's bodies may also be applied to Christ: "It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15:43-44). Christ is indeed exalted above all things, but not before he had borne the old perishable body of the first Adam down into the grave.

When we grasp this, we realize that there is a sort of false Christ-centeredness operating with Osiander. This bad Christ-centeredness short-circuits suffering and the task of dealing with sin for the offer of immediate gratification. Satan in the wilderness presented Jesus with this option: "You are too good for this degradation; only bow down and worship me, and I will give you the power and glory of the nations, without the need for this cross business." But Jesus knew that exaltation was not something intrinsic to his humanity, but rather something that awaited him on the other side of the cross.

In our Christ-centeredness, we must be careful which Christ we put at the center. The Christ of the Scriptures had no time for the sort of Christ-centeredness that thought him too good to be the second Adam. Unlike the first Adam, he would not grab glory and preeminence for himself, but would rather suffer patiently while he waited for his exaltation from the hand of his Father. It is precisely for this reason, because he is the Lamb that was slain to deal with our sin, that he is worthy to open the scroll and receive all the power and glory of the nations (Rev. 5:9-12).

1 [ Back ] This subject is treated in Andreas Osiander, An filius Dei fuerit incarnandus, si peccatum non introiuisset in mundum (Montergio [Königsberg], Prussia: Ioannis Lufft, 1550).
2 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 2.12.5.
3 [ Back ] This argument is found in Osiander, An Filius, folio Hi.
4 [ Back ] Calvin, 2.12.7.
Wednesday, July 1st 2015

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