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Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Is Sin Necessary to Know Jesus? Why It Matters

“Jesus has a body but the Father and Spirit do not. Discuss.”

One of my acquaintances posted this on social networking recently, provoking a number of responses. One person wondered if Christ had always had physical form. The discussion spun and doubled back, spiraled and swung.

And, as it happens, it matters.

Frequently theology – especially Trinitarian theology – is perceived in a way that frustrated NASA employees would recognize. It’s great that you made it to the moon, we say, but what have you done since? Wouldn’t all that money allotted in the federal budget better be spent helping people here on earth?

So classic theological considerations get shoved aside, weighty, meaningful questions reduced to the familiar old level of, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Those esoteric questions are very nice, but we face pragmatic, utilitarian urgency. Our times are too desperate to waste time discussing things no one can really know anyway, so we should stop discussing and just show up at the food pantry instead. That’s something that we know matters.

The problems, of course, are quickly uncovered. Many valuable discoveries that help human flourishing have been made by astronauts performing experiments on the space station. And theology matters: it shapes how we do what we do, and more particularly, why.

Jesus has a body but the Father and Spirit do not. Discuss.

So consider my friend’s question: it’s a great example. We affirm belief in the Triune nature of God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, who create, redeem, sustain.

And as first-year theology students can tell you, contra Arius, there was never a time when He (the second person of the Trinity) was not. (Arius suggested that the Son was a created being.)

But to suggest pre-Incarnation physicality ultimately guts the Incarnation of any meaningful…meaning. Especially if we abandon the problematic “o felix culpa” thinking (“o fortunate crime,” a sentiment suggesting the blessed state of sin, because it allows us to know Christ as redeemer), we have to assume that the Incarnation was not necessary to the identity of God.

Think of that: without fallen, broken humanity, how would we have known the second person of the Trinity? As the Word. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. By him all things were made. Truly Wesleyan thinking that allows for abundant free will ought to consider the possibility that the second person of the Trinity could have been known in a way other than the cross. Brokenness led to our understanding of the second person of the Trinity as sacrificial lamb.

The distinction between economic and imminent Trinity may be helpful here – that is, the internal Trinitarian life and the life of the Trinity as engaged and known in creation. The Word Made Flesh in John 1 is subsequent to the Word-through-whom-all things-were-made. Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of the Word-Through-Whom-All-Things-Were-Made.

Jesus Christ, Word Made Flesh, still did exactly what In-the-Beginning-Was-the-Word-did – creating new reality, bringing new life. Which makes sense when you recall the Bible verse, “See, I am making all things new.”

It’s dangerous to ground our whole understanding of the second person of the Trinity in a scenario in which the only way we know him truly depends on human sin, as if fallenness is necessary in order to know the Word. Because of fallenness, we know the Word as Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh. But to suggest the only possible universe in which we could truly know God is one that has the crucifixion means that God in some way ordained human sinfulness so that we could know him.

There is a train of thought that would diverge here with my musing: as pointed out in the excellent article, “Seven Reasons for the Incarnation Besides the Fall,” the medieval theologian John Duns Scotus posited,

“I say, therefore, that the fall was not the cause of the predestination of Christ, and that—even if no one had fallen, not angels or man—in this hypothesis Christ would still have been predestined in the same way.” As Pope Benedict has explained, this belief arises from Duns Scotus’ conviction that the Incarnation was “the greatest and most beautiful” of God’s works and is not “conditioned by any contingent facts.” Instead, for Duns Scotus, God had always planned to “unite the whole of creation with himself in the person and flesh of the Son.”

And indeed there is beauty in the consideration that the Word might always have become flesh, whatever choices humanity made – though the Word Made Flesh in a whole, unfractured world would look astonishingly different than the Word Made Flesh in a cracked and broken universe.

Whether or not you affirm the notion that the Incarnation would happen in every possible universe, the rubber meets the road here: “to suggest the only possible universe in which we could truly know God is one that has the crucifixion means that God in some way ordained human sinfulness so that we could know him.”

And this is why NASA funding matters and why theology matters.

What do you believe about God? Do you believe that in God’s universe, sin has been allowed, or do you believe that God ordained sin as an essential part of the universe God created?

This matters, because it is the difference between tragedy and tyranny. It is the difference between Jesus sobbing with Lazarus’ sisters at stark human suffering, and God ordaining the Holocaust, rape, and child abuse so that we could know the Word as the Word Made Flesh.

For Arminian Wesleyan Methodists, there must be a possible universe in which human fallenness does not occur, in which we know the Triune God truly and authentically, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, who speak, are spoken, and bring to life. To truly celebrate the nature of God – love – and the power of God – sovereignty – we can affirm that God would make God’s self known in every possible universe.

And that’s good news.

One could even say – Gospel.