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Book Review

The Reality of the Incanation, by Oskar Skarsuane, trans. Trygve Skarsten

Concordia, 1991, 176 pages, $14.95, paperback
Reviewed by Norlan DeGroot

One product of twentieth-century thought is an abundance of questions concerning our idea of God. Pivotal to most of them is the concept of the incarnation. While the reality of the incarnation has been accepted for centuries, the debate is raging whether the incarnation actually took place or if it was simply the product of Jewish Messianic or Hellenistic thought.

This is the problem which Skarsaune addresses in his book, Incarnation: Myth or Fact? Specifically, he examines two related question: 1) What was the Jewish understanding of the Messiah and to what extent did Jesus meet this expectation? and 2) Could the idea that Jesus was God incarnate have emerged from the Greek setting?

Skarsaune's answer to these two questions is the same. Neither the Hebrew nor the Greek mindset would have come up with such a radical concept as a God incarnate. It was a stumbling block to the Jews because they could not conceive of a human who was God. The Jewish Messianic confession depicts the Messiah as "nothing more than a human being like all of us, nevertheless chosen for his Messianic role" (p.15).

Likewise, the incarnation was a stumbling block to the Greeks because they could not conceive of a God who was human. "That which the philosophers found especially scandalous and impossible about the mythological gods was their pronounced human, yes, excessive human character....In contrast to this concept of deity, especially Platonic and Stoic philosophy developed an alternative, anti-mythological theology. God, or rather the divine, is far removed from human suffering and passion. God is `beyond suffering'; He cannot suffer. He cannot be subject to another's power. God is pure reason and absolutely sovereign. He is apathês (not suffering). Any human curtailment of God was unthinkable" (p.16).

An understanding of the fully God, fully man, person of Jesus Christ was incomprehensible to both the Jew and the Greek, for reasons peculiar to them both. For this understanding of Jesus Christ to arise, it had to come from another source. Skarsaune finds this in the Old Testament understanding of wisdom of God.

The usual Jewish portrayal of the Messiah did not automatically lead to an understanding of a personal, preexistent, incarnate Messiah. For that, we must go back to the Old Testament itself and its concept of the Wisdom of God. The Wisdom of God, says Skarsaune, was active not only when God created the world but "was also active in the salvation history of Israel and is itself that history's creative power....Wisdom becomes the entity which holds creation and salvation history together. The God of creation, who with His Wisdom created the world, also broke into history with the same Wisdom" (p.31).

Skarsaune points out that Christ understood Himself as incarnate Wisdom. "He who said of Himself what was usually reserved only for Wisdom or Law could not be understood as anything less than the incarnation of Wisdom" (p.37). "He acted with an authority and power that can only be understood if He is the incarnated Wisdom of God" (p.43).

It is this understanding of the radical reality of an incarnate Christ, who came as the Wisdom of God, that was a stumbling block to both the Jews and the Greeks. For Skarsaune the scandal of the cross is matched only by the scandal of the incarnation. Neither the Hebrew nor the Greek mind would have made this up. "Both would have had the tendency to eliminate incarnation theology, but in different ways" (p.48). The Jews would have endorsed an adoptionist Christology; the Greeks, a docetic one.

Skarsaune dedicates a large portion of his book to discussion of how this scandal worked itself out in the early Christological controversies and their culmination at Nicea and Chalcedon. But he does not stop with Chalcedon. Of special interest is the postscript where Skarsaune gives his understanding of the present, existential significance of the incarnation. This section is quite helpful and should not be skipped by even the most casual reader.

Skarsaune deals a heavy blow against a Bultmanian understanding of the development of Christian dogma. It was not developed from the mindset of the day, be it Hebrew or Greek. Rather, it came from Old Testament revelation itself and, particularly, from its revelation of the Wisdom of God. It is much too radical to have come from any source other than God's own revelation. Skarsaune's point is well taken.

However, one should add a word of caution. The incarnation is a fact, plain and simply because God reveals it as such. Skarsaune's development of the connection between the Old Testament Wisdom of God and the incarnation is a welcome addition to the debate, but should never be understood as the foundation for belief in the fact of the incarnation. The foundation is--and always will be--God and His own revelation of His dealings with man. We can understand the incarnation as a fact not because of any human argument, but because we have a God who tells us it is so.

The fact of the incarnation, for many, remains incomprehensible. But that it is a fact is certain. Skarsaune's book is helpful inasmuch as it refutes many of the opposing arguments. It deals with a subject that is basic to Christianity, but in a day and age when even the basics are being questioned, Skarsaune's book is a welcome addition to anyone's library.

Norlan DeGroot is currently an adjunct faculty member of Covenant College and Assistant Editor of CONTACT magazine.

Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991
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