Christianity’s Central Focus: Incarnation or Atonement?

Christianity’s Central Focus: Incarnation or Atonement?

Christmas or Good Friday? Which of these days on the historic Christian calendar holds greater importance for Christians? Should the central focus of Christianity be on the incarnation (Jesus Christ as God coming in the flesh) or on the atonement (Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for human sin)?

I had a theological exchange recently on Facebook with a pastor over this question of incarnation or atonement. The pastor took a quote from the conclusion of my book God among Sages and critiqued it based on his contention that the atonement takes priority over the incarnation. Here’s my quote followed by our exchange:

When we compare Jesus Christ to all the other world religion leaders, he seems to be exactly what a reasonable person would expect God to be like if he were to make an appearance among us. In a biblical context, Jesus seems to be exactly what the gracious, loving, and just God of Israel would be like if he were to walk among us.1

Pastor’s Comment (I’ll paraphrase for the sake of brevity):

When you say that he [Jesus Christ] is “what a reasonable person would expect God to be like,” someone else might see a failed leader of a movement who was nailed to a cross and died. Martin Luther would have referred to someone holding this view as a “theologian of glory” as distinguished from a “theologian of the cross.” The latter sees God “in suffering and the cross.” Luther concluded that true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ and he refers to Isaiah 45:15 to support the notion of God’s hiddenness: “Truly you are a God who has been hiding yourself, the God and Savior of Israel.”

My Response:

I have a chapter on Luther in my book Classic Christian Thinkers where I discuss his idea of “a theology of the cross.” I think it is powerful truth and a type of theodicy to the challenge of pain, suffering, and evil. But other equally great Christian theologians like Athanasius and Anselm have affirmed that we should see God through the broader vehicle of the incarnation (John 1:1, 14). So in Jesus’s life and ministry we also encounter him as the great healer, the wise teacher, the fulfiller of prophecy, and the divine Son of God/Son of Man, and ultimately the risen Lord of glory. So I think Luther had a unique and helpful theological perspective but it can be overstated. We should also factor in the emphasis of Athanasius and Anselm.

Pastor’s Response:

I see Jesus’s life and work as God incarnate from the standpoint of the cross, which includes the resurrection of the crucified one. During his ministry, Jesus was acclaimed by some as a prophet, a teacher, and the Messiah of Israel. But I don’t think anyone, including his disciples, on seeing Jesus during that time thought, “There’s YHWH.” In some respect, he remained hidden. It’s the event of the cross that brought about such recognition. John Chrysostom said that he knew Christ as king because he saw him crucified.

My Response:

Jesus is prophet, priest, and king. The transfiguration and his prerogatives of deity (forgiving sin, raising the dead, judging humanity, hearing and answering prayer, accepting worship) show his deity. Thomas calls him Lord and God and the Jewish religious leaders accuse him of blasphemy. I don’t think we can ignore the Eastern fathers’ broader view of the incarnation. We’re saved by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Additionally, Athanasius said: “Jesus, whom I know as my redeemer, cannot be less than God.”

Pastor’s Response:

I certainly have no disagreement with that statement of Athanasius. What prompted my initial comment was not any objection to the idea that Jesus is God incarnate, but to your statement that a “reasonable person” would have no difficulty in believing that a person dying a humiliating death on a cross is God. Is the word of the cross not a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks? My point is not that Christianity is “unreasonable.” Different people can all think rationally and yet reach different conclusions about something if they started with different initial presuppositions.

My Response:

Jesus’s life and ministry give all the reasonable indications that he is indeed the Son of God. However, there is sometimes a difference between what is reasonable and what a person decides to believe. (I provide the full context of the quoted statement in my book.) Also, to refute the heresy of Arianism requires a robust view of God in the flesh so Athanasius emphasized the incarnation generally rather than focusing on the crucifixion or atonement.

A Final Thought

Let’s return to our initial question, Christmas or Good Friday? Should the central focus of Christianity be on the incarnation (Jesus Christ as God coming in the flesh) or on the atonement (Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for human sin)?

Well, the obvious answer is that both are critically important. We don’t want to engage in a theological false dichotomy. My view is that because Jesus Christ is God and man he can represent and reconcile God and man. So Christmas lays the foundation for Good Friday because the incarnation lays the foundation for the atonement.

I hope you enjoyed the spirited but respectful theological interaction. These kinds of discussions are not merely academic exercises. The question of who Jesus is and what he has done is of utmost importance and it carries implications for all of us.

Reflections: Your Turn

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For a discussion of the incarnation and the atonement, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), chapters 9 and 11.

  1. Kenneth Richard Samples, God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017), 230.