Jeannine Graham, The Connection Between Jesus' Incarnation and His Saving Work
Dr. Jeannine Graham is the Associate Professor of Religious Studies, George Fox
University, in Newburg, OR.
She received her Ph.D. at the University of Aberdeen, under the direction of
Professor James B. Torrance.
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Gary Deddo: Welcome. I'm glad you could be here. You have been teaching theology for quite a number of years, at more than one school. Not a lot of people teach theology. And in churches I'd been in or other situations, sometimes people wonder, what's theology? Do we need it? What's it important for? It seems abstract to people. But you did your doctoral work in theology with James Torrance in Aberdeen and you've been teaching for many years. Could you tell us a little about why you pursued that trajectory and what you found of value of in Christian theology?
Jeannine Graham: Being a teacher was never on my radar screen. Even in elementary school, I thought I could never be a teacher because what if I'd stand before the class and say everything I knew in the first five minutes— what would I do with rest of the hour? That's never been my problem. It's been the opposite. Too much to jam into an hour. So it's been a bit of a surprise that God has led me there.
I went to Scotland not to earn a PhD, not to teach – just I heard [James Torrance] speak at an extension course (Fuller extension course) and I was so enthralled, I was mesmerized by what he was saying. After the second class, I was walking to my car and I just couldn't get to my car, because I had the strong compulsion to go back and ask him something. I said no, no, no. Time to go. He needs to go.
I was stopped dead in my tracks and I finally went back and said: Professor Torrance, where would you recommend somebody like me go to study the line of thinking that you're talking about? Because you have brought together the philosophy that I studied in college and the theology in college and seminary. You've opened up the concept of grace in a way that is so life-giving to me. I can't NOT study it. So, where would you recommend?
I had no idea that he would say: Come to Aberdeen. And I thought, well, I happened to be in between jobs, I happened to have a little money that would enable me to do it. I happened to have an adventurous spirit. So, why not? So, I went there, again, not for the degree. Not for the end goal — that probably would have scared me, the very thought of teaching or being a professor – but I just had to learn and glean from him when I could before he retired the next year.
GD: What's teaching been like for you?
JG: Exciting, although not every aspect of teaching is riveting, but it's exciting when you see light bulbs go on for any students. And especially when I get to share things that are on my heart. They're my passion. A lot of it I learned from Professor Torrance. And a lot of it is not what many of my students have heard from the pulpit or growing up. It's easy for them to fall by default back into thinking of Jesus in a certain way and the Christian life in certain way. And it's kind of ho-hum, yeah, we believe that sort of stuff. But it's not gripping our heart. So, I want to share with them the kind of heart-gripping experience that I got from Professor Torrance. Not everybody gets it, because you have to shift paradigms a little and get out of the default mode of the way they've always heard it packaged. But it's really exciting.
GD: Right. The light bulb coming on and I can identify…
JG: Theology itself is important. Jesus told us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Our mind matters, and when our mind and our thinking is shaped by distorted thoughts of God that owe more to Greek philosophy than the Bible, for instance, or we import things from our culture onto the Scriptures, then it has a deadening effect and that affects how we live, whether we are living a Christian life that's liberating, that's exciting, or just ho-hum, dutiful… It matters how we think about God and how we understand what God has done for us in Christ.
GD: I’ve heard pastors say, well, we don't want to get theological about it… or others would say, theory has its place, and they're thinking theology is theory and after so much theory, you’ve got to get on to practice. There's kind of a divide there, but I think that divide is artificial. What would you say?
JG: I cringe every time I hear a pastor say that (and I've heard a lot of pastors say this) because they don't want to "turn off the audience." They assume that if you get theological, people are going to get a glazed look over their eyes.
I had an experience once. I had graduated with a PhD and I was looking for a place to land, so I was doing some teaching for my church at the time. It was an adult education class. I was teaching on some aspect of the Bible and I happened to let the word theology leave my lips. I thought they would get all excited, like I do, because theology is an exciting thing. As soon as that word left my lips, I saw that predictable glaze come over their eyes. One person said, “We don't want to hear about theology. We just want to know what the Bible says.”
I thought to myself, “Do you realize every time you're asking questions from the Bible – what does he mean here, how does what Paul says here compare to that, what does it mean in terms of how we understand God – you're doing theology?” The question is not “no theology” or “theology is boring.” It's bad theology versus good theology — and good theology has a very eminently practical impact.
GD: Yes. I could see them thinking that, why you'd be interested and invested in it, and spend so many years teaching students. In your years of teaching students, have there been pointed questions they really wanted to wrestle with, have there been themes that have come up in the classroom that caught the students' attention?
JG: There is the predictable one: we all agree if we're Christians that Jesus died for our sins and “Okay. Next issue, we've nailed that one. Nothing more to be said.” And I say, oh there's a lot to be said – that's what sent me to Scotland…. I realized that Jesus died for our sins. But how does what happened 2000 years ago actually alter my human nature so that I'm transformed? Is it just a theoretical thing I say, that I agree theoretically to some proposition? Or is there something more dynamic going on?
When I was in high school, I was a new believer and I went to my first Bible study. They handed out 3x5 cards and they asked us to write down what is a Christian. And so I wrote (probably 10 seconds flat) I nailed it – believing that Jesus died for your sin. Okay. I saw other people take a little more time. My friend that came to the Bible study with me was writing copiously on this side and kept writing and then flipped it over and wrote and filled the other side. She told me what she wrote: “It's a moment-by-moment life relationship…” and she went on and on. My thought was, “Well, that's complicating things. Jesus died for your sins. You're in.”
I hope my understanding has been matured since then. But here are people who were raised in the church and basically, that's not too far off from what they understand Jesus did. And why did he became human? It’s because you have to have a body to die, so he had to take upon himself a human body so that he would die on the cross, and it had to be a sinless, spotless lamb, so he had to live a sinless life in order to be the spotless lamb that was acceptable. But it's all aimed at Jesus’ death on the cross. And what I want to open their eyes up to is: Is that the sole significance of Jesus' life? Is having a body that can die, and it's the death that we want to emphasize?
GD: Your doctoral thesis (which turned into a book) focused on the cross of Christ, an account of the doctrine of atonement (JG: cross and resurrection and ascension.) Tell about that, because there is a focus on the cross and the death of Christ, but there's more to it. So, what kind of things did you explore in your doctoral thesis and in the book that fills that out more?
JG: Any time you study with Professor Torrance you're plunged into reading the early church fathers, so I was introduced to the theology of Athanasius. Athanasius says what the human dilemma is: sin is not just breaking the law. In our century we're so steeped in the legal metaphors so we think of it as breaking the law, so God pays the penalty, or we owe a debt and so Christ pays the debt – that kind of terminology. But for Athanasius, sin was more like a corrosion of our deep nature, a corrosion of our humanness. We become less human as we dabble in sin, as we traffic in sin.
So, what's the remedy? He rejects the idea of God simply forgiving us. That doesn't get to the root – the ontological root of our dilemma. We need a new heart. We need a new nature. We need a renovation, we need a re-creation of our nature. Hmm… I hadn’t thought of atonement as involving God reaching into the depths of our being to change us there and to transform us. How does the incarnation flesh that out?
And then reading Barth, you realize atonement doesn't just start with Calvary. It starts with Bethlehem. Jesus takes upon himself our flesh… not just pristine flesh, but the very flesh we live in, the flesh that's fallen. He takes it. In taking it to himself, he's sanctifying it at the same time. But he takes the very thing that needed fixing so that he can fix our human nature at the ontological depths of our being – from within humanity himself. Nobody had ever explained that to me – in college (maybe in seminary, but I didn't hear it), in church. That started me looking at more of the significance of the incarnation for atonement.
GD: That's very important. A similar thing happened to me, in realizing that Jesus didn't just come down to say hello and say, “do you see me? Here I am. I'm going to do this thing on the cross.”
JG: And do a few ethical teachings and heal a few people, too.
GD: Yeah. We have to throw that in, although I didn't know exactly where that fit. But you’re connecting the incarnation with the crucifixion. You mentioned the resurrection as well. How does Christ’s dying on the cross connect with resurrection?
JG: Well, Jesus takes our fallen, broken humanity (I want to steer clear of the idea of a penal substitution, of pummeling Jesus, punishing Jesus, to let us off the hook. Those ideas are out there. But that seems more foreign to me as I read the Scriptures… ) and you could say that Jesus absorbs the judgment of God. God wants to judge that which is dehumanizing us. Sin dehumanizes us – depersonalizes us. Jesus embraces that in order to get rid of it, to divest us of that. That gets taken to the grave, judged, put away.
And then, this new creation, this new nature that Jesus is forging through living in our flesh, taking our flesh through every stage of human existence – that is raised though his resurrection. That is enlivened for us and we get to experience that. The Holy Spirit gets to unite us with him so that we participate. We participate in this new life through the Holy Spirit.
If it just ended with death, a lot of things would happen. Take what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: We're still in our sins, we're still enslaved. Our preaching that's mentioning that Jesus rose and is victorious over sin – that's gone. We're liars, because we said we saw the risen Christ, so there's whole sorts of reasons why the resurrection is essential. But also the transformation of our very being is realized through this new humanity, through the resurrection, that becomes accessible to us through the union with Christ that the Holy Spirit enables.
GD: The Christ who dies is the Christ who's raised. I was taught early on that (at least what I recall is) the resurrection was just to prove that he was the Son of God. I didn't really see the connection, that what he accomplished on the cross was completed in the resurrection. And that's not the end of the story, either, because the ascension has to come in here, too, right?
JG: Yes. He's sitting at the right hand of the Father. He ever lives to intercede for us, Hebrews [7:25] says something like that. We have a representative before the Father pleading our case, representing us, on our side – along with the Holy Spirit, who prays for us when we're weak. So we've got the ally of the Holy Spirit and the ally of the risen Christ with us and present with us through the Spirit, to guide the church and to empower the church.
GD: So, Jesus isn't on vacation or retired. That's what I used to…. (I don't think they taught me that, but that is what I had been assuming.) I didn't really appreciate the significance of the ascended Christ and his continuing ministry. So, that left a gap in my thinking.
JG: Even in the Christian life, I think somewhere in my teaching, I used a football analogy… There are a lot of atonement metaphors and theories. One of the more popular ones in the 20th century and 21st century is Jesus as moral exemplar. Why did Jesus come? To show us how to do it. To show us who God is. To show us what the problem is. And if we just imitate Jesus, we too can have that same quality of life. We just imitate, we just try hard to sail over this high bar that we see Jesus [sailed over]. And so the football analogy is: Jesus runs down the field and then he comes back and he hands us the football and he sits on the sidelines… “Okay, your turn. I did my part. Now, I'll watch you.”
That doesn't work with atonement, that doesn't work with the resurrection, that doesn't even work with the basic Christian life. Jesus is never on the sidelines. We're never done with our need for the mediator. The whole Christian life is Christ in us, the hope of glory. “I live, yet not I, but Christ in me. The life I now live, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” [Gal. 2:20]. Jesus has never taken a snooze, retiring.
GD: That's a good thing. The longer I live in the Christian life, the more important that becomes, not less important. And it's not theory, it's a daily thing. Even in our prayers, in our worship and all that… to call on Jesus. He’s not off the scene, off somewhere else. It's a great joy and privilege.
Is there anything else you'd like to say about what you learned about the atonement that sometimes gets missed?
JG: Embedded in my book title is “representation and substitution.” That became the focal point of my doctoral dissertation, suggested to me by Professor Torrance (although my readings in the theology of Barth and all had been leading me in those directions). Substitution and representation would come up, so I was trying to figure out how those work together to make me right with God – for God to reconcile the world to himself. So that became my focus. Jesus is our substitute.
Today, as I might have mentioned, substitution often gets construed as penal substitution: God punishing Jesus, who stands in our stead. God is angry with us. God would normally punish us because we're the sinners, we're the perpetrators. But Jesus says, will you let them off if I stand in their place? And so the vengeful God takes it out on Jesus and we are the beneficiaries. That's one way of understanding substitution. That's not the only way.
Jesus does something for us that we can't do for ourselves. Jesus says the summary of the law is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. I don't know about you, but I never do that perfectly everyday. Love God with everything you've got. I'm always loving myself in bad ways and not loving my neighbors as I should and falling short of that.
This is the concept that I learned from Torrance, I had never heard it before, but he talks about the double movement of grace. Double movement of grace? Why did no seminary professor introduced that? He said it all goes back to the all-important "who" question. Professor Torrance says, you can't understand the "what" of what Jesus did on the cross before you've answered the "who" question. If you think, well, Jesus died on the cross to take our sins away, you've already presupposed your answer to the “who” question: He was just a man. But then how does that do the job? He was just a man who inspired me to be self-sacrificial and benevolent towards people – that doesn't change my heart. If he's just God, that thing that he did on the cross doesn't really reach me. He's not in solidarity with me. It's sort of coming somewhere above, and how do I relate to that? How does that fix me?
The answer I hear from classic creeds and the Scripture is Jesus is fully God – “in him all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 1:19, 2:9). And at the same time, mysteriously, this wondrous reality, he is also fully human. Not partially, not half and half, not 80/20, 70/30. One hundred and 100% both, in the same person. Torrance says when we look at what Jesus did in his life, we have to realize that he is acting as God and he is also acting as a human being.
The covenant says that when God established the covenant with Israel – “I will be your God, you'll be my people.” That shorthand gets laced throughout Scripture. God is faithful to be their faithful provider, covenant partner. And Israel is not all that good at being faithful back as a faithful covenant partner. So, eventually God says, in Jeremiah, I'm going to make a new covenant, not because the previous iterations of the covenant are bad, but because people's hearts are broken and they can't do it. So, I'm going to change their hearts, I'm going to change their minds [Jer. 31:33].
That promise is set out there, and Jesus comes along as the true Israelite, the one who is going to do the job on both sides of that relationship. He is fully God, so he could represent the things of God to us. We know who God is. We don't have to guess, we don't have to fill in the blanks for ourselves. “Well, I like to think of God as this way.” No. When you see Jesus, you see the heart of the Father. He shows us the Father. He forgives sins. He does the progress (?) of the Father. At the same time, he is in our position, in solidarity with us, as the faithful covenant human partner, being faithful, living a life of utter faithfulness, of loving and trusting and unbroken communion with the Father. He's doing both things at the same time. He's fulfilling the covenant from both sides.
I had never heard that before. It made so much sense and it's almost like the picture I get is looking at Jesus through binoculars and sometimes when I look through the binoculars, I close one eye or the other. And Torrance’s teaching is saying, no, look through both lenses. Look at him as truly human and truly God at the same time he's doing this. That is at the heart of his representation. He represents God to us; he represents us to God. He is rendering our faithful response to the Father on our hand, on our behalf, and in our place.
That's the difficult part for my students. They get the fact that he is God with us. This is moving into Christmas. “You shall call his name Immanuel, God with us” [Matt. 1:23]. They get that, and they get that Jesus was a man. But they think of him that he showed us how to live ethically and all. They don't get Jesus as the faithful human covenant partner of God who offers, on our behalf, the perfect response to the Father that we failed to offer.
GD: Thanks for sharing with us. That gives us a picture as to why you invested so much of your life in studying Scripture and the theological synthesis of all that, and why you want others to know and appreciate and enter in and do that through your teaching. Thanks so much.
JG: You're welcome.
Thanks to Johnny Logroño for the transcription.