Advent with Athanasius: The Divine Dilemma and Its Solution in the Incarnation

Athanasius was a Christian theologian, a Church Father, the chief defender of Trinitarianism against Arianism, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century. He was born in the year 298 and died May 2, 373. His writing, On the Incarnation impacted C.S. Lewis, among many others, and specifically informed Lewis’s writing throughout his life. This excerpt from On the Incarnation begins to answer the question, “Why was the Incarnation needed?”

Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was he to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself. 

(On the Incarnation, §6, pgs. 31-32)

Advent with Barth: The Miracle of Christmas

Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24, 2018

The assertion conceptus de Spiritu sancto must now be protected from an imminent misunderstanding.

It does not state that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Holy Spirit according to His human existence.

On the contrary, it states as emphatically as possible–and this is the miracle it asserts–that Jesus Christ had no father according to His human existence.

Because in this miracle the Holy Spirit takes the place of the male, this by no means implies that He does what the male does.

Because Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, it does not, therefore, mean–or can mean only in an improper sense–that He is begotten by the Holy Spirit.

The idea is completely excluded that anything like a marriage took place between the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.

The Holy Spirit by whom the Virgin becomes pregnant is really not a kind of divine spirit, and therefore not in any sense an apotheosized husband, but He is God Himself and therefore His miraculous act is to be understood as a spiritual and not a psycho-physical act, not in any way analogous to the effects of creaturely eros.

The positive fact which fills the space marked off by the natus ex virgine is God Himself, i.e., in the inconceivable act of creative omnipotence in which He imparts to human nature a capacity, a power for Himself, which it does not possess of itself and which it could not devise for itself; in the inconceivable act of reconciling love by which He justifies and sanctifies human nature in spite of its unrighteousness and unholiness to be a temple for His Word and so for His glory; in the inconceivable act of redeeming wisdom in which He completely assumes His creature in such a way that He imparts and bestows on it no less than His own existence.

Here, as so often, it is not true that such statements by early dogmaticians are the products of an idle and irrelevant scholastic cleverness.

Rather is it the case that in the statements an attempt is made as a spiritual understanding of the spiritual; and no one who at this particular point takes the trouble seriously to think himself into the task set him will deny that in the decisive issue this was the right line to take.

In conclusion, let us remember that it is particularly this positive factor in the miracle, expressed in the conceptus de Spiritu sancto, that belongs to the sign of the miracle of Christmas which the dogma aims at stressing.

Noetically, i.e., for us to whom this sign is given, who have to recognize it in and by this sign, the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God come in the flesh stands or falls with the with the truth of the conception de Spiritu sancto.

But it could not be said that ontically, in itself, the mystery of Christmas stands or falls with this dogma.

The man Jesus of Nazareth is not the true Son of God because He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

On the contrary, because He is the true Son of God and because this is an inconceivable mystery intended to be acknowledged as such, therefore He is conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

And because He is thus conceived and born, He has to be recognized and acknowledged as the One He is and the mystery in which He is the One He is.

The mystery does not rest upon the miracle.

The miracle rests upon the mystery.

The miracle bears witness to the mystery, and the mystery is attested by the miracle.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 200-202

Advent with Barth: Conceived by the Holy Spirit (A Brief Reflection on the Conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit)

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018

By Dr. Jim Truesdell

The miracle of Christmas includes a “yes” and a “no”.  Just as the empty tomb is the sign of the resurrection, the womb is the sign of the mystery of the Son of God fully human – incarnate. The “no” according to Barth’s reflection on the mystery is contained in the phrase “born of the virgin Mary.” Mary’s virgin birth indicates, as Barth says, that “human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ”. The ordinary stuff of human life in its brokenness cannot manufacture the extraordinary stuff of divine life in its fullness.

The miracle of Christmas has a resounding “yes” contained in the phrase “conceived by the Holy Spirit.” The loving freedom of God determines to be present with man but also determines that man be present with God. This is totally God’s doing. The event of God with us in the Christ child is impossibility overwhelmed by eternal possibility. No amount of social engineering, self-improvement, improved knowledge or ingenuity; no amount of earthly power wielded could make such a mystery possible.

At a time and in a culture where we have the luxury of pursuing self-fulfillment, self-improvement and self-actualization, it seems strange that we are helpless to manufacture the mystery. It’s God’s initiative and loving determination alone. Jesus is conceived by the

Holy Spirit and no other. We are conceived into new life in Christ by the Holy Spirit and no other.

The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer is really the presence of God being born in us. In a sense every believer is an immaculate conception. This life of faith in Jesus and our love and obedience are only possible because of God’s imitative and not our own. It’s beautiful. Jesus takes on flesh to be near us but also takes on flesh that we might be near him. The Holy Spirit is not just present in our joys and sorrows but because he desires that we also be with him the Spirit draws us beyond our present joys and sorrows.

The more followers of Jesus ponder this mystery and the sign that points to the mystery the more overwhelmed we become by the impossibility of it all. God with us! Us with God! We do not deserve or earn such a tender kindness. It is a gift that plunges us into a mystery. It’s life changing to start to dwell deeply on God’s tenderness toward us. When we see ourselves as objects of this love life is different. It’s a new life.

Another miracle happens when by the power of the Holy Spirit we see others as objects of divine love. At first we imagine this love for those like us and our close family and friends. But the more we ponder the mystery, the more its radical nature moves us to imagine this love for those different from us. Not only that we begin to imagine the Holy Spirit conceiving something new and life giving in the lives of our worst enemies and the people we consider most repulsive. It makes sense. While we were enemies of God, he drew close to us and drew us to himself. As Barth described the union we enjoy, “Though the Spirit it become really possible for the creature, for man, to be there and to be free for God.” – free to love the loveless as God does.

Advent with Barth: The Prototype

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018

But why is it precisely God the Holy Spirit who is named here?

The answer to this question follows from what we have to learn from Holy Scripture of the significance of this the third person or mode of God’s being for the act of divine revelation or reconciliation, understanding it in terms of what the Church has expressed and laid down as right knowledge of Scripture in its dogma of the three-in-oneness of God and particularly in its dogma of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is God Himself in His freedom exercised in revelation to be present to His creature, even to dwell in him personally, and thereby to achieve his meeting with Himself in His Word and by this achievement to make it possible.

Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit can man be there for God, be free for God’s work on him, believe, be a recipient of His revelation, the object of divine reconciliation.

In the Holy Spirit and only in the Holy Spirit has man the evidence and guarantee that he really participates in God’s revealing and reconciling action.

Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit does God make His claim on us effective, to be our one Lord, our one Teacher, our one Leader.

In virtue of the Holy Spirit and only in virtue of the Holy Spirit is there a Church in which God’s Word can be ministered, because it has the language for it, because what it says of revelation is testimony to it and to that extent the renewal of revelation.

The freedom which the Holy Spirit gives us in this understanding and in this sphere–gives, so far as it is His own freedom and so far as He gives us nothing else and no less than Himself–is the freedom of the Church, of the children of God.

It is the freedom of the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Spirit that is already involved in the incarnation of the Word of God, in the assumption of human nature by the Son of God, in which we have to recognize the real ground of the freedom of the children of God, the real ground of all conception of revelation, all lordship of grace over man, the real ground of the Church.

The very possibility of human nature’s being adopted into unity with the Son of God is the Holy Ghost.

Here, then, at this frontal point in revelation, the Word of God is not without the Spirit of God.

And here already there is the togetherness of Spirit and Word.

Through the Spirit it becomes really possible for the creature, for man, to be there and to be free for God.

Through the Spirit flesh, human nature, is assumed into unity with the Son of God.

Through the Spirit this Man can be God’s Son and at the same time the Second Adam and as such “the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29), the prototype of all who are set free for His sake and through faith in Him.

As in Him human nature is made the bearer of revelation, so in us it is made the recipient of it, not by its own power, but by the power conferred on it by the Spirit, who according to 2 Corinthians 3:17 is Himself the Lord.

The specific mention of the Holy Spirit as a more precise determination of the sign of the Virgin birth is obviously significant in a twofold sense.

In the first place, it refers back the mystery of the human existence of Jesus Christ to the mystery of God Himself, as it is disclosed in revelation–the mystery that God Himself as the Spirit acts among His creatures as His own Mediator, that God Himself creates a possibility, a power, a capacity, and assigns it to man, where otherwise there would be sheer impossibility.

And the mention of the Holy Ghost is significant here in the second place, because it points back to the connection which exists between our reconciliation and the existence of the Reconciler, to the primary realization of the work of the Holy Spirit.

For it is on this ground that the same work, the same preparation of man for God by God Himself, can happen to us also, in the form of pure grace, the grace manifested in Jesus Christ, which meets us and is bestowed upon us in Him.


from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 198-200

Advent with Barth: A Pure Divine Beginning

Saturday, December 22, 2018

To the full elucidation of the conceptus de Spiritu sancto belongs the recollection that where in the sphere of Christian revelation and the Christian Church legitimate and significant language is used about the Holy Spirit, what is meant is invariably God, God Himself, God in the fullest and strictest sense of the term–namely, the Lord of all lords, He who is Lord because of Himself and not because of another, the Lord to whom man belongs before ever, and to an infinitely greater extent than, he belongs to himself, to who he owes himself entirely, and to whom he remains in utter obligation, the Lord upon whose grace he is utterly thrown, and in whose promise alone his future consists.

He and no other and nothing else is the Holy Spirit by whom Jesus Christ was conceived according to His human nature, in order to be born of the Virgin Mary.

It is important to make this quite clear, first, because in so doing we reject in anticipation the attempt to parallel the saying about the Virgin birth of Christ by assertions from the realm of heathen mythology which sound very similar.

In the case of these alleged parallels the similarity can never be more than verbal, because the divine agents in the miraculous births spoken of in this connection are definitely not God in the full and strict sense of the word, but at best gods, that is, hypostatizations of the feeling of man for nature or his reflection on history, hypostatizations behind which man is everywhere only too visible as the proper lord of the world and as the creator of deities.

Accordingly, these mythical miracles are not real miracles, i.e., signs of God, the Lord of the world, signs which positively limit this world of ours as a created world.

They are prodigies, i.e., extraordinary occurrences within this world of ours, and therefore objects of our human worldview.

It follows from this, secondly, that when we regard the Holy Spirit by whom Jesus Christ is conceived as in the strictest sense God Himself, God the Lord, we forestall and eliminate any attempt to come to the assistance of the saying about the Virgin birth of Christ with any speculation from physics or with any more or less genuine scientific information of a biological sort.

In other words, if we are clear that with the Holy Spirit God Himself is declared to be the author of the sign of the Virgin birth, then we know that in acknowledging the reality of this sign we have a priori renounced all understanding of it as a natural possibility, even when we are tempted to do so by a consideration so inviting as that of natural parthenogenesis, for example.

We are already committed, then, to an acknowledgement of a pure divine beginning, of a limiting of all natural possibilities, and this forbids us at the very outset to indulge in any reflection as to whether and how this reality can be anything else but a pure divine beginning.

It is this strict acceptance of the divinity of the Holy Spirit by whom Jesus Christ is conceived, and along with that the strict acceptance of the miraculous character of the Virgin birth, that makes the latter the sign of the mystery of Christmas.

It is of significance for the thing signified, of which it is the sign, because here, too, in the incarnation of the Word in the strict sense, we are concerned with the action of God Himself, with a pure divine beginning.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 197-198

Advent with Barth: Conceived by the Holy Spirit

Friday, December 21, 2018

We now turn to the previous clause in the confession, conceptus de Spiritu sancto (conceived by the Holy Spirit).

The natus ex virgine (born of the virgin) described the negative side of the miracle of the miracle of Christmas.

The birth of the Lord was a birth without a previous sexual event, without a male to beget.

It is thus the sign of the inconceivable, of the incarnation of the Word, the Holy One, the Lord of all things.

As just shown, an independent meaning cannot attach either (in the sign) to the person or the sex of Mary, or (in the thing signified) to human nature.

Actually no one is left to be God’s fellow-worker.

All that “Mary the virgo” actually signifies is that man is really the other upon whom and with whom God acts in His revelation.

We have had to say all this already in elucidation of the negative formula.

Its necessity, i.e., that it is spoken with exegetical correctness, is established by the first and positive formula, conceptus de Spiritu sancto.

It states that the conception of Jesus Christ prior to His birth of the Virgin Mary was the work of God the Holy Spirit.

To that extent it was a miraculous birth and as such the sign of the incarnation of the eternal Word.

The formula conceptus de Spiritu sancto thus fills the blank, as it were, indicated by the formula natus ex Maria virgine.

It indicates the ground and content, where the latter indicates the form and shape, of the miracle and sign.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 196

Advent with Barth: The Sign of Divine Agape

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Human virginity, far from being able to construct for itself a point of connection for divine grace, lies under its judgment.

Yet it becomes, not by its nature, not of itself, but by divine grace, the sign of this judgment passed upon man, and to the extent the sign of divine grace.

For if it is only the virgo who can be the mother of the Lord, if God’s grace considers her alone and is prepared to use her for His work upon man, that means that as such willing, achieving, creative, sovereign man is not considered, and is not to be used for this work.

Of course, man is involved, but not as God’s fellow-worker, not in his independence, not with control over what is to happen, but only–and even that because God has presented him with Himself–in his readiness for God.

So thoroughly does God judge sin in the flesh by being gracious to man.

So much does God insist that He alone is Lord by espousing the cause of man.

This is the mystery of grace to which the natus ex virgine points.

The sinful life of sex is excluded as the source of the human existence of Jesus Christ, not because of the nature of sexual life nor because of its sinfulness, but because every natural generation is the work of willing, achieving, creative, sovereign man.

No event of natural generation will be a sign of the mystery indicated here.

Such an event will point to the mighty and really cosmic power of human creaturely eros.

If our aim is to discover and set up the sign of this power, the event of sex still forces itself upon us as the sign which is unmatched by any other in importance and persuasiveness.

The event of sex cannot be considered at all as the sign of divine agape which seeks not its own and never fails.

It is the work of willing, achieving, creative, sovereign man, and as such points elsewhere than to the majesty of the divine pity.

Therefore the virginity of Mary, and not the wedlock of Joseph and Mary, is the sign of revelation and of the knowledge of the mystery of Christmas.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 192.

Advent with Barth: The Freedom of God

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

In the form of the natus ex virgine (born of the virgin) sinful sexual life is excluded as the origin of the human existence of Jesus Christ.

But this is understandable and significant only if we keep in mind the fact that the limitation of man achieved in the ex virgine, the meaning of the judgment on man therein expressed, cannot be discerned at all from the side of that which is limited or judged, that is, of the sin of man, but only from that of Him who limits or judges, that is, of what God is, wills, and does here in excluding the sinful life of sex.

The mystery of revelation and reconciliation consists in the fact that in His freedom, mercy, and omnipotence, God became man, and as such acts upon man.

By this action of God sin is excluded and nullified.

And to this particular action of God the natus ex virgine points.

It is the sign that the sinful life of sex is excluded as the origin of the human existence of Jesus Christ.

In that God in His revelation and reconciliation is the Lord and makes room for Himself among us, man and his sin are limited and judged.

God is also Lord over His sinful creature.

God is also free over its original sin, the sin that is altogether bound up with its existence and antecedent to every evil thought, word, and deed.

And God–but God only–is free to restore this freedom to His creature.

This freedom will always be the freedom of His own action upon his creature, and so the negation of a freedom of this creature’s own.

Since it lives by His grace, it is judged in its own will and accomplishment.

If the natus ex virgine with its exclusion of the sinful life of sex points to this gracious judgment of God, it really signifies the exclusion of sin in the sense of peccatum originale (original sin).

That it does actually point to this gracious judgment of God, we realize when we consider that in the birth without previous sexual union of man and woman (of which Scripture speaks), man is involved in the form of Mary, but involved only in the form of the virgo Maria, i.e., only in the form of non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign man, only in the form of man who can merely receive, merely be ready, merely let something be done to and with himself.

This human being, the virgo, becomes the possibility, becomes the mother of God’s Son in the flesh.

It is not, of course, that she is this; but she becomes it.

And she does not become it of her own capacity; she acquires capacity by the act of the Son of God assuming flesh.

It is not as though this non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign, merely ready, merely receptive, virgin human being as such can have brought anything to the active God as her own, in which her adaptability for God consists.

It is not as if virginity as a human possibility constitutes the point of connection for divine grace.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 191-192.

Advent with Barth: The New Beginning

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

But how far is it the ex virgine (of the virgin) that points to this penetration and new beginning?

Virgin birth means birth without previous sexual union between man and woman.

Speaking generally, it is what it lacks that distinguishes the birth of Christ, that marks it as the mystery of God, the penetration and new beginning within humanity.

But what is it in this lack that acts as a sign?

Here we cannot consider the quite un-biblical view that sexual life is to be regarded as an evil to be removed, so that the active sign is to be sought in the fact that this removal is here presumed to have taken place.

But if, to be precise, we add that it is not to be excluded here as the origin of the human existence of Jesus Christ, we still do not give a valid account of the ex virgine.

It is not because of the sin actually involved in all sexual life that man is altogether a sinner who continually lives in disobedience by living it out.

He is altogether a sinner from birth, who all through his life lives out the disobedience in which his life is already involved.

And so all sexual life is involved in sin as well, and is itself sin.

Thus the exclusion of this sinful sexual life does not mean the exclusion of sin in the sense of peccatum originale (original sin), and so this exclusion is still as unsuitable as ever to be the sign of the penetration and new beginning in the existence of Jesus Christ, to be the sign of His sinlessness.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 189-190.

Advent with Barth: The Gracious Judgment of the Nativity (A Brief Reflection on The Gracious Judgment of the Nativity)

Third Sunday in Advent, December 16, 2018

Most of us recoil at the notion of God’s judgment, not because we fear being judged by God, but because we love being the judge.

Though not always maliciously or even consciously, we fall prey to the temptation to be judge, to relentlessly compare ourselves to others, to make judgements about “us” and “them,” to mutter hostile things under our breath about that person in traffic, to be “right” rather than kind, and to justify ourselves in the sight of ourselves, whatever it takes. And we do this because to be judge is to be God. And since Eden, that’s all we’ve ever wanted. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” the serpent said to Eve.  We fear God’s judgment only insofar as we fear not being able to be the judge ourselves. It is the cry of Babel, to make a name for ourselves, to be in control.

In Christ, God has broken into this death cycle and said “No!” But this “no” bears with it an even greater “Yes!” The sign of this is the Virgin Mary. As Barth comments: Human virginity, far from being able to construct for itself a point of connection for divine grace, lies under its judgement. Yet it becomes, not by its nature, not of itself, but by divine grace, the sign of the judgement passed upon man, and to that extent the sign of divine grace. For if it is only the virgo who can be the mother of the Lord, if God’s grace considers her alone and is prepared to use her for His work upon man, that means that as such willing, achieving, creative sovereign man is not considered, and is not to be used for this work. Of course, man is involved, but not as God’s fellow-worker, not in his independence, not with control over what is to happen, but only – and even that because God has presented him with Himself – in his readiness for God. So thoroughly does God judge sin in the flesh by being gracious to man. (p. 192)

By the birth of Christ to a virgin, God declares to all humanity that there is no effort, willfulness, or exertion by which we can secure a relationship with God or procure our salvation. We do not find God; we are found by God. And through our union to the one born of the Virgin, God finds us to be in the right.  God’s gracious judgment is this: you don’t have to be in control! You don’t have to make a name for yourself! You don’t have to be the judge! I already love you.

Luther once said, “To be convinced in our hearts that we have forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone is the hardest thing.”  This is so hard for me to grasp, and the evidence of this is how much time I continue to spend justifying myself before others, attempting to create my own peace, trying to forgive myself without accepting that God has already forgiven me. The birth of our Lord to the Virgin Mary reminds me that all God asks of me is readiness, availability, and openness to possibility. 

Or as Andrew Peterson sings:

“You don’t have to work so hard / You can rest easy / You don’t have to prove yourself / You’re already mine / You don’t have to hide your heart / I already love you / I hold it in mine / So you can rest easy Do not be afraid / Nothing, nothing in the world / Can come between us now.”