The doctrine of the Incarnation

In a bit of stoop sale serendipity, a few years back when I was doing research on Gnosticism I came across a volume of essays on Gnosticism and the New Testament by the late Jesuit bible scholar George W. MacRae. Id never heard of MacRae, no surprise, and I was interested in his observations on Gnosticism, which I found very insightful.But it was a characteristically balanced and informative essay in the collection (from the Good News Studies series) on Alfred Loisy that has remained with me not so much for what MacRae said about Loisy as for what MacRae wrote, at the end of the piece, about the Incarnation.It is a passage I recall at Christmastime, because it lifts up both the centrality of the fact of the birth of Christ as well as the ongoing struggle of believers to make sense of that fact, and of the continuing ramifications of that fact. Perhaps it is a commonplace for many readers here, but I found it edifying.MacRae wrote:

The central doctrine of Catholic Christianity is not the doctrine of the church. It is not the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. The central doctrine of Catholic Christianity is the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is the belief that in Jesus Christ, the divine Son became truly and fully human.When one reflects on the reaction to [Alfred] Loisy and on some of the anxieties of modern people in the church, one has to agree that quite naturally and quite understandably the church had for a long time allowed itself to yearn for a situation in which God would provide biblical and dogmatic access to the truth about himself and his Son, would provide revelation, that is, which is exempt from the laws and the limitations of human discourse.The church had allowed itself, and many Christians still do, to yearn for that point at which God will speak directly, not through the muddled confusion of human utterance: there must be somewhere some words of God that are immune to the interpretive processes that we of necessity have to exercise when we try to understand one another.But in that yearning the church sought a privilege that was not granted even to the Son of God. In the incarnation, God entrusted his Son to humanity in its fullest sense. One might say that it is a consequence of the doctrine of the incarnation that God can be portrayed as taking the risk of revealing himself in the human. If all the utterances by which revelation is communicated to us are utterances in human language, that is, as is often said, if God speaks to us in the language of humanity, then we must interpret Gods speech as we interpret the language of humanity.The church should not shy away from accepting that same risk which God may be said to have taken in the greatest mystery of our faith. The church can do so, and with confidence, if it does not forget the promise that God is with us.

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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