For many, the first image is a Christmas tree covered in lights or Santa Clause delivering presents or maybe a serene image of Mary and Joseph hovering over a just-born but very clean (and ridiculously white) baby Jesus with his full mop of blonde (?!) hair parted neatly on the side.
Those same images are burned into my head as well, but lately when I think of Christmas, I see this guy:
That’s Karl Barth. He was the greatest theologian of the Twentieth Century (and so far, the 21st is definitely not looking like it has a prayer of topping him). I’ve often held that St. Augustine (remember Saint AW-gus-teen is in Florida, while Saint aw-GUS-ten is in Heaven) was the greatest theologian of all time, John Calvin was the second greatest, and Karl Barth was the third. None of them was perfect, but they all had amazing gifts for understanding God’s revelation of Himself to an incredible depth.
Yeah, that’s right—I want to talk about complex theology in the midst of this Christmas season. Why? Because Christmas is the most brain-bendingly theological day of the church calendar! When we get beyond the picture of some porcelain British toddler in a beautifully hand-crafted designer food trough, the actual historical event of Christmas threatens to blow our minds! Easter we can understand. Yeah, it’s hard to fathom how God in the flesh could actually die, but obviously he’s not going to stay dead. The resurrection is a foregone conclusion. Likewise, Jesus’ sinless life is a no-brainer. He’s God. He wrote the Law (both the Law written on our hearts and the one on Mt. Sinai), so of course we would expect him to both keep it and fulfill it.
But Christmas? How do you make sense of that? That baby in the food trough just entered the world in the ordinary way. His gag reflex is not yet developed and so, after he eats from his mother’s breast, he spits up all over himself and his parents. Oh yeah, and he spoke the cosmos into existence without breaking a sweat. While learning to talk, he has to master each new sound one at a time (a phenomenon with which I am currently all too familiar). Some days, he’s working on a pleasant coo. Others are spent entirely on annoying grunts and squeals. But it was his voice that spoke from out of the burning bush and it was by his command that dry land appeared in the midst of the sea. His little muscles are almost useless lying there. He cannot yet roll over, sit up, or even hold his head straight. This makes him look pretty goofy, like a marionette with his strings cut. Yet, he is the God who rained fire and brimstone from Heaven to punish and destroy the cities of the valley. That seeming disconnect you’re sensing? That’s the theology I’m talking about. So brace yourself; we’re going in deep.
I studied a lot of Karl Barth’s writings in seminary. At the very heart of his understanding of God was the phrase “fully revealed and fully concealed.” God is both entirely transcendent—so far above us that he is entirely concealed from us—and entirely immanent—astoundingly close and accessible to us, perfectly revealed to us in Jesus Christ. That’s the mystery. That’s the tension. Of course, our natural human reaction to such tension is to try and solve it, remove it. Not a good idea.
Every orthodox doctrine of Christianity contains some of this tension and if the tension is removed, we wind up in heresy. Take for example, the doctrine of the Trinity. God is three and one. How is that possible? We want to alleviate the discomfort by over-emphasizing one or the other. If we lean too far toward “one God” that’s the heresy of “modalism,” which teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the same person wearing three different masks. This couldn’t be further from what Scripture teaches. If we lean too far toward “three,” we wind up with “tritheism,” a religion with three gods instead of one God. I suppose the natural solution would be to remove the tension by splitting the difference. God is “three and one,” therefore he’s two. I don’t even think that particular heresy has a name, but it’s obviously a very false teaching. God isn't big on compromises when it comes to who He Is.
Or how about the dual nature of Christ? Jesus is fully God and fully man. Over the centuries, many different groups have tried to eliminate this tension. A group called “docetists” (who were already around when John wrote his Gospel) went all the way to the “God” side and spread the false teaching that Jesus was not really man; he was God sort of “dressed up as” a man. I am so thankful that’s not true. After all, if he just seemed to be human, he couldn’t have paid for my sins! Others (particularly the liberal theologians of the early Twentieth Century) erred to the “man” side, teaching that Jesus was just a really good guy who had a lot of godly properties. This does eliminate the tension, but again, it leaves us still in our sins. In the Fifth Century, some Christians tried to compromise and split the difference, saying that God was sort of a hybrid—instead of having two wills, he had one: half man and half God. The church roundly condemned this teaching with the strongest possible language as it should have.
So where does Christmas fit into all this? Well, we have the same temptation with a God who is fully concealed and fully revealed. We can go to the one side and over-emphasize that God is so far beyond us that we could never know him in any real away—at least not during this life. So why bother? Just assume you’re probably wrong and so is everyone else. Or we can go to the other extreme and act as if we know everything there is to know about an infinite God (which would, in fact, make us omniscient and, therefore, God). Or we can try to split the difference and get our minds around a God who is partly concealed and partly revealed. I suggest that the last one is the most dangerous.
When, as Barth described it, Jesus slipped into this planet under the Devil’s radar as a “stealthy intruder here to take you out,” Jesus was God’s presence (and revelation) among men, the light shining in the darkness. To quote Barth,
This God is conceived where we all are conceived. He is born of Mary. She who conceived and bore Him plays our part in the wonder of Christmas, for it concerns us. God has come to us. Disguised in our flesh and blood is the eternal good
In the name of the Messianic King whom Israel expected, the Church has rediscovered the name of the eternal good in which she believes and which she confesses. The name is ‘Immanuel,’ God with us. 1
So here we are with human capacities (both our minds and our senses) that lack even the smallest capacity to comprehend God. Yet, by the grace of His revelation He invites us with these very capacities to “share in the truth of God and therefore in a marvelous way [be] made instruments of real knowledge of God (in His being for us and as he is in Himself.)” 2
Yeah, that’s deep. And maybe I’m just trying to get you to think some deep thoughts this Christmas. Maybe I’m trying to deepen the wonder and take it up a notch from the nostalgia that we often mislabel as awe.
I don’t want you to abandon the childish wonder of Christmas for a philosophical or theological discussion. Nor do I want you to compromise and split the difference. I want to challenge you to approach anew the wonder that is our infinite God having stepped into space and time to redeem the souls of men.
Yeah, there’s tension there. Don’t ease the tension; embrace it. Wrestle with it. It’s the tension that lets us know there’s something bigger than us going on.
Merry Christmas and happy wrestling!
Soli Deo Gloria,
1 Karl Barth, Christmas (sermon)
2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.IV §29