Dennis Johnson: Two-ism and the Incarnation #ThinkTank

Dennis E. Johnson (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California and associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church. He is also the author of numerous books, including Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation.


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,3,14)

Three simple sentences, verses 1,3 and 14 from the opening of John’s Gospel. Together they make some of the most extraordinary truth claims in all of history. Peter Jones wrote that the incarnation is a profound mystery and a stupendous miracle—this is the only place where the Creator and creation are joined in a way without confusion…

On page after page, God’s word demands that we must never confuse God with his creation. The bible is unmistakably Two-ist—always distinguishing God from his finite creation. So the incarnation should slap us awake. But it doesn’t cause much reaction for the One-ist; it’s merely the way that all things work at all times.

Strauss: “Incarnation, good idea, but not scandalous… after all, aren’t we all God incarnate?”

To grasp the claim that John 1:14 makes in all of its full force about one specific human being, about Jesus of Nazareth, we have to hear those claims against the backdrop of Scripture that the God who speaks and acts in creation is distinct from his creation. That’s what makes the incarnation so transcendentally beautiful.

The Infinite Divide of the Creator from His Creation

We want to think about five aspects of that divide:

1. He is infinitely immutable and unchangeable where all that he has created is subject to time and change. Psalm 102—“…they will perish, but you will remain.” Earth and the heavens seem pretty permanent in comparison to roses and trees and humans and even civilizations. But the psalmist says

2. Infinite in his energy where creatures are finite in theirs. “To whom will you liken God—or what likeness will you compare?” The Lord is the everlasting God; he does not grow faint or weary. Young men get tired and stumble but not the Lord.

3. His irresistible power over the powers of nature. Psalm 107:23-30;

4. The only source of salvation for his vulnerable creatures. “I, I am the Lord… and besides me, there is no other.” Isa. 45, God summons the pagan nations and orders them to testify that their idols have ever done anything for them. The Lord then offers an open infinite invitation for salvation—“Turn to me . . . To me, every knee will bow…” Only the Lord can save. And just as foolish as turning to idols is turning to finite human beings. (Psalm 136) Only the Creator can save—“Salvation belongs to the Lord,” said Jonah.

5. Only the Creator is worthy of worship. Worship is our response to whatever or whomever we ascribe the most value and honor. This is the point that Moses made in preparing the people as they prepared to enter the land. And in the New Testament, in Rev. 4:4-5, we see an expanding choir extolling God because He is holy and almighty and sovereign and the Savior of all things. Full of Worship of the true and living God. By contrast we see the dragon and the serpent demanding that people worship them. Then there’s that them toward the end of Revelation where you see the appropriate humility of God’s messengers. John falls down at the feet of God’s messengers—and both times the angels sharply rebuke him, telling him you must not do that.

So that’s the backdrop, do not confuse the Creator with his Creation.

The Scandal of the Incarnation

We confess Jesus’ incarnation so much that we fail to empathize with those who struggled with Jesus’ claims about himself as seen in the New Testament. The incarnation was scandalous because Jesus was so obviously human—he had a birthday. He grew physically but also mentally. He grew in wisdom and stature. He did not know everything; he got so exhausted that he fell asleep during a storm at sea. Jesus was so elegantly human that he wept and was angered by sin and death. He needed strength. Finally, he bled and he died.

Obviously human, plainly human—and yet he plainly claimed to be God. Calling God his Father, his hearers drew the right conclusions, and this is why they sought to kill him all the more. In John 8, they wanted to stone Jesus not because he claimed to have seen Abraham, but because he did it in a way that called to mind the language of God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush. Jesus’ listeners were troubled by his claim to be impossibly old, but moreso because of his use of the term “I AM.”

In John 10, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” And the Jews picked up stones to kill him for blasphemy. And what we see in all of these accounts is that Jesus doesn’t correct people, he doesn’t back peddle and say, “Oh, no no, no, you misunderstand…” He knew they grasped his daring claim, even if they couldn’t accept it.

Jesus took the authority of God in forgiving sins, something that only God can do. But Jesus also took authority in other actions as well, such as stilling the storm. Jesus acted as God in commissioning his own witnesses as well (Acts 1), calling back to Isaiah’s proclaiming that God would send his Spirit and he would send out his witnesses. Witnesses to what? If we fill in the blanks from Isaiah, to the identity of Jesus. By the fourth chapter of Acts, we find Peter standing in front of the leaders who condemned Jesus to death, proclaiming that there is salvation in no one else. And so it’s no wonder that other NT books draw the conclusion that Jesus who was so eminently human is also God.

The book of Hebrews connects Jesus to the Lord in Psalm 102 and Revelation, which boldly proclaims that the Lord alone is to be worshipped, openly, joyfully gives that worship to Jesus. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain…”

The NT presents to us the man who was Jesus, who was born and ate and slept and wept and grew up and died—who claimed to be God.

The Mystery of the Incarnation

How can we wrap our minds around this mystery? We want explanations, we want to understand how this can be. One of the great challenges of the early church was answering the question, “who is this man?” Finally, in 451 at Chalcedon, the Church affirmed the following definition which has stood the test of time:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable (rational) soul and body; consubstantial (coessential) with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather of the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God, the Word the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning (have declared) concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

This complicated sentence shows Jesus to be human, as the NT shows him to be. And it shows him to be God, which the NT shows him to be. It doesn’t dispel the mystery.

It’s actually a good thing that we cannot dispel the mystery of how because they NT is far more concerned with declaring the why of the incarnation.

The Beautiful Purposes of the Incarnation

Anselm wrote one of the classic benchmarks of theology, “Why the God-man?” And I see two answers in the Bible—revelation and redemption. Remember John 1—“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we saw…” “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Through Jesus, we see the Father—he is the exclusive gateway to knowledge of the Father. It makes perfect sense for the author to the Hebrews to focus our attention on God’s speech:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb 1-3)

In his little book, J.B. Phillips, dismantles the stereotypes that we have surrounding God and then begins to construct the idea that perhaps God is far more bigger than we can imagine, who wills to be known by his creation.

But Anselm’s answer to the question that knowing our Creator intimately and personally would not be a good thing without redemption—without the cleansing and purifying from sins.

Hebrews, even in the prologue, brings that purpose. In verse three, we’re plunged into the messiness of the human problem and the rest of the epistle explains what Christ had to do to accomplish redemption. On the issue of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth rests nothing less than the fate of the human race, the redemption of human beings from all nations in all times.