Chapter 4, Evangelical Calvinism Vol 2: John Williamson Nevin, Why the Person and Work of Jesus Christ Must Be Thought Together for orthodoxy’s Sake

In this time of seasonal reflection on the reality of Christmas, the Incarnation of God become flesh in the man from Nazareth, I thought it apropos to share something from our most recent Evangelical Calvinism book (Evangelical Calvinism Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church); it is from Marcus Johnson’s chapter (4) The Word Became Flesh: John Williamson Nevin, Charles Hodge, and The Antichrist. He is distilling John Williamson Nevin’s theology of Incarnation, and noting the centrality that an orthodox understanding of the hypostatic union—of the fully divine and human in the singular person, Jesus—necessarily has on the way people think of salvation. You will see Johnson pressing the necessity of maintaining a high view of the incarnation—meaning seeing the homoousion (that Jesus is fully God and fully human)—as integral towards living a Christian life that is fully contingent upon who God is for us in Christ, and what that means in regard to thinking the person and work/work and person of Christ together rather than apart (as is so common in classical Western Christian thinking). Here is what Johnson writes at some length; we will follow this by teasing out a few more implications and applications when thinking about how classical Calvinism, in many ways, falls foul of Nevin’s critique (as distilled by Johnson’s commentary):

The Person and Work of Christ

Nevin offers the following overarching definition of the spirit plaguing many of the churches of his time: “The ultimate, universal criterion of the Antichristian spirit is before us already, in the rule of St. John. It will not yield, in full, that Christ is come in the flesh.” Here is a criterion so biblically clear as to invite universal acceptance. After all, what Christian would not yield that Christ is come in the flesh? Finney would have yielded, so too Hodge. What, then, is Nevin after? Two words: “In full.” It is one thing to acknowledge the truth of Christ’s embodiment, it is quite another to affirm the massive mediatorial and redemptive implications of that embodiment. This is Nevin’s fundamental concern, and it undergirds all the “Marks of the Antichrist.” The spirit of the Antichrist can be identified, first and foremost, by an undervaluation of the person of Christ in relation to the atonement.

Antichrist owns no real mediation between God and man to be necessary, in order to Christian salvation . . . The relation in which Christ stands to the whole object [redemption] may be considered highly important and necessary, but it is altogether outward and mechanical, and no good reason appears why he should be a human Christ at all.

What is the danger of not yielding in full that Christ is come in the flesh? The danger lies in a tendency to reduce Christ to an Intermediary, rather than the Mediator, of salvation between God and humanity. As the incarnation so gloriously demonstrates, Christ is far more than an intermediator, a third party who brokers an “outward and mechanical” contract or covenant between two others. On the contrary, what makes Christ the Mediator, rather than an intermediator, between God and men is the reality of his living person. He mediates God to humanity as truly and fully God, and he mediates humanity to God as fully and truly human—he is as fully the one side of the mediation as he is the other. No third party needed. The at-one-ing mediation that Christ secures between God and men is an ontological reality defined by his person—he is the saving union between God and humanity—and so all depends on who Christ is. To yield fully that Christ is come in the flesh, in other words, is to yield that Christ constitutes, rather than merely performs, the atonement. It is to yield that the embodied Christ himself is, rather than merely secures, the covenant of grace.[1]

This is a classic patrological presentation and understanding of Christology qua Soteriology; something that we find funding St. Athanasius’s theology, and even what we find present in the Chalcedonian settlement. Arius comes to mind when thinking about a mitigated Christ, a Christ who is simply an instrument in the hands of God; a demiurge who serves as a step-stool to the heavenlies. For an orthodox understanding of salvation to be maintained we, according to Nevin’s theology et al., will want to affirm along with the rest of the church catholic that Jesus is both fully God and man; anything less than this affirmation results in living under the spirit of anti-Christ.

Another danger associated with this, as Johnson develops further, is that we allow the work of Christ to become detached from the person of Christ; elevating the work over against the person. But Nevin, as Johnson underscores, would have none of this; it is either the person and the work together, in Christ, or a heretical version of Jesus Christ and an aberrant non-saving salvation (one that becomes contingent upon ‘me working out my own salvation’ rather than on Christ doing what only he could do for me). Johnson writes:

An undervaluation of the saving mystery of the person of Christ, Nevin goes on, will inevitably lead to a dichotomy between his person and his work, in which his work will come to overshadow his person, “sinking [his person] into comparative insignificance in the work of redemption.”

All sectarian, schismatic Christianity has a tendency to make Christ’s actual person of small account, as compared with his doctrine and work. It affects to magnify, it may be, the mediatorial functions of the redeemer; but sees not the proper and necessary root of all these in the mediatorial life . . . Its Christology is, after all, the outward apparatus of its theory of redemption, the divine machinery of salvation, rather than the very substance and process of this salvation itself.

It is characteristic of the Antichrist to introduce a chasm between the person and work of Christ, to so accentuate the work of Christ that his person becomes merely perfunctory. In just such an objectified soteriology, Jesus and salvation become separable—gift and Giver torn apart, redeemer and redemption rent asunder, Christ valued chiefly for his benefits. Three hundred years previous, John Calvin, whom Nevin admired greatly, referred to the peril of seeking “in Christ something else than Christ himself.”As Nevin seemed to know all too well, this is an ever-present peril for the Church. Under the ostensibly salutary design of magnifying the mediatorial work of Christ, the One whose work it is recedes into the background. In a dangerous theological reversal, whereby soteriology is made to precede and determine Christology, the all-encompassing mystery of God uniting himself forever to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ becomes obscured by abstract theories of the atonement which require the incarnation only as a “necessary prerequisite” to the cross. The incarnation becomes simply a means to the end of Christ’s work. The necessity of the Son taking on flesh all will readily admit, but for too many the incarnation comes to serve as little more than an indispensable precondition for the forgiveness of our sins. This is to value the incarnation but to devalue the Incarnate One.[2]

Here you will notice an emphasis on the Incarnation itself as the nexus of a fully thickened account of atonement and salvation in general. The emphasis is on the whole Christ, and his whole lived life; the focus is not simply on the work but on the very being of Christ, as if the work and the person of Christ are self-same (think of John 14 when Jesus claims to be the ‘way, truth, and life’).

Assertion: When you consider this way of thinking salvation, and compare it to what you find on offer through the decretal theology of Westminster Calvinism, which way do you think Westminster Calvinism tends? Does it tend to focus simply on the cross-work of Christ as payment for the penalty of sin (i.e. a juridical/forensic account), or does it tend toward thinking the person of Christ and his work together as a whole? I will contend, precisely because of their mal-suited hardware (i.e. Aristotelianism etc.), that they think salvation in terms that emphasize the work of Christ without tying them to the person of Christ in a necessary way. This is because they have the mechanism of decree, and tie the condition of salvation to decree rather than Christ; i.e. Christ simply meeting the conditions set out by an abstract media of decrees wherein other ad hoc covenantal (federal) requirements must be met in order for the elect of God to be redeemed. The emphasis is on the cross-work rather than the whole person who accomplishes salvation in his whole life, starting in the manger, and penultimizing in the cross work and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

These are heady things to consider, but nevertheless, highly important things to consider; things that press on your own Christian spirituality, as you, indeed live out the implications of the salvation you’ve said yes to in Christ (from his Yes for you to the Father).

 

[1] Marcus P. Johnson, “The Word Became Flesh: John Williamson Nevin, Charles Hodge, and The Antichrist,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 62-3.

[2] Ibid., 63-4.

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