I recently finished an interesting read: Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology by Edwin Chr. van Driel (Oxford University Press, 2008). The book deals with the question of God’s motivation for the incarnation. Was it contingent upon sin, or did the triune God have a deeper motive in becoming human? As the title of the book suggests, van Driel argues for the latter. He proposes that God’s desire for intimate friendship and love with his creation has the most explanatory power for understanding the incarnation. Understanding the incarnation, in other words, as merely a divine response to sin does not do justice to the full beauty and majesty of Immanuel, God with us.
It may be important to compare and contrast this book with another of a similar strand. Van Driel comes to very similar conclusions on this topic as the traditional Greek Orthodox view has it. For example, Kalistos Ware, in his book The Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979), says the incarnation “is God’s supreme act of deliverance, restoring us to communion with himself. But what would have happened if there had never been a fall? Would God have chosen to become man, even if man had never sinned?” (pg. 70). Following the lead of St. Isaac the Syrian (Bishop of Nineveh, late 7th century) Ware suggests that “Even had there been no fall, God in his own limitless, outgoing love would still have chosen to identify himself with his creation by becoming man” (pg. 70).
However, an important difference here is van Driel’s refusal to postulate a hypothetical scenario of unfallen humanity. Speculating about an unreal situation does not help us understand the motivation for the incarnation. Rather than engage in speculation van Driel insists that we deal directly with the situation that has in fact obtained: “I do not ask what would have happened if we had not sinned; I ask about the incarnation as it happened, about the Christ as we have him; and my point is that the incarnation gives us so much, is so rich in gifts of divine friendship and intimacy, that it cannot be explained as only a divine countermeasure against sin…the category of redemption is not rich enough to explain the wonder of his presence” (pg. 164-65).
Van Driel is not trying to minimize the importance of redemption from sin. Rather, he is trying to highlight the magnificence and majesty that is displayed in the incarnation, and suggesting that if we think of the incarnation as only a divine response to sin then we are flattening out God’s purpose in becoming human. The practical implications of this are important for 1) our spiritual walk with God, and 2) our evangelism.
If the incarnation is merely a divine countermeasure against sin, that assumes that our relationship to him is based on a problem-solution model; the fall of humanity into sin is the problem, God’s solution is redemption (via the incarnation). The problem with this model, according to van Driel, is that once the solution is obtained there is no further need for a continued relationship with the incarnate Christ. In other words, what further need is there for Christ to remain incarnate once the redemption has been accomplished? The problem (sin) has been dealt with, atonement has been made. Van Driel’s proposal is that God’s motive goes beyond a mere countermeasure for sin. God desires to be as close as possible with his creatures in love and friendship. And because this desire came before sin there is abundant reason for us to continue to engage with him daily in intimate friendship, and further, the deeper motive for Christ to remain human, even now, still stands.
The other practical implication relates to our evangelism. Van Driel suggests that to suppose the incarnation is contingent upon our need for redemption leads to the improper conclusion that before we can introduce someone to Christ we must first convince them that they are sinners, and therefore need redemption. Although, van Driel doesn’t use this analogy, I think he would say this is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. He is not saying that we are not sinners who need redemption. Rather, he is laying out a vision of the incarnation in which the love of God precedes the need of redemption, and therefore serves as a more acceptable starting point for inviting people into a living relationship with this God.
This was a fascinating read. I find myself sympathetic with the main thrust of the book. However, I can’t help but wonder if van Driel has really understood the biblical-theological significance of sin. We live in a society where moral relativism rules the day. I think it is important for us to grapple with the biblical teaching on sin and its contemporary significance. Additionally, as for the motive behind the incarnation, it is a false dichotomy to suggest that it must be either a countermeasure against sin or a step toward loving fellowship with humanity; I think the two are intricately bound up with one another. To separate them as mutually exclusive motives for the incarnation creates an unnecessary disjunction in the purpose of God. Even human beings can have complex motives for action. Is it wrong to suppose God had complex motives?
In sum, I think Incarnation Anyway is worth thoughtful study, but it would be helpful to supplement with another book on the topic of sin. So read it alongside Fallen: A Theology of Sin (Crossway, 2013), an excellent compilation of essays written by evangelical scholars (D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo, Paul House, Gerald Bray, Bryan Chapell, Sydney Page, Robert W. Yarbrough, etc.).