Transfiguration and Atonement

TransfigurationIn the last few posts I’ve been outlining the themes of satisfaction and recapitulation in the atonement theologies of theologians like Anselm, Irenaeus, and Athanasius. We’ve seen that Anselm, in the midst of his argument in Cur Deus Homo for a satisfaction view of Christ’s death on the cross, can also claim that Christ’s incarnation restores human nature to its creational goal of incorruptibility and “blessed immortality.” These two ideas were not mutually exclusive for him. We’ve also seen that Athanasius, while not following Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation in all its details, and putting more focus on the role of Christ’s resurrection in restoring humanity, also affirms both satisfaction and recapitulation in his doctrine of atonement (though he does not cash out satisfaction as thoroughly or cogently as Anselm does).

I’m still working this through in my mind, but so far I find these theologians a helpful broadening influence in my thinking about the nature of the atonement. For me, it makes sense to see the meaning of the atonement as multifaceted, since the reconciliation of God and fallen human beings requires the overcoming of several related but distinct forces: sin, guilt, death (and the corruption it entails), and demonic powers. Since the problem that atonement addresses is multifaceted and complex, its not surprising that it as the solution is also multifaceted and complex. In addition, a more multifaceted understanding of atonement accords with the historical data that grounds it. If atonement was simple and punctiliar and one-dimensional, the vast majority of Christ’s earthly incarnate existence seems like an empty and unnecessary prelude to his death. I think a coherent account of the meaning of Christ’s atoning work should be able to provide some kind of explanation for all its (varied) data.

The challenge for atonement theology, it seems to me, is to trace out the inner logical relations of the various aspects of the atonement. Simply saying its multifaceted is rather blasé. The challenge is to see how the center and the periphery relate. And I do think there is a center, and at the center is Jesus dealing with the sin and guilt that estrange us from God on the cross via self-substitution. So how does the event of the incarnation stand in relation to this center? Everyone agrees that the incarnation serves our salvation; but it intrinsically saving, or merely instrumentally saving? Does it do something, or simply prepare for something? Does it effect salvation in any way, or is its significance merely that it enables Jesus to die on the cross (as John Stott states in The Cross of Christ)? And if the incarnation is merely preparatory, isn’t it a bit odd and unbalanced that have Christians put so much focus in their hymns and liturgy on Christmas? Shouldn’t Good Friday really be our central, defining holiday, in this view?

It seems to me that it is entirely good and appropriate – and not in any way competitive with a rigorous “cross-centeredness” – to affirm an intrinsically saving value to the incarnation, as well as the critical importance of the incarnation in the gospel story. You could call it a broad version of recapitulation or restoration, but I would define it specifically as the idea that Christ’s incarnation itself restored or reconstituted human nature to incorruptibility by uniting it to divinity, and that this transformation was specifically manifested and triggered at Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection was the pivotal moment, but it was not an entirely new development imposed on a normal human body, but rather the revelation and fuller outworking of what already was. It was, as some theologians have put it, the completion of the incarnation, because resurrection and immortality always belonged to Jesus. Hence his words, “I am resurrection and the life” (John 11:25); “I am … the life” (John 14:26). As T.F. Torrance has written, “what Jesus Christ is in his resurrection, he is in himself. The resurrection was not just an event that happened to Christ, for it corresponded to the kind of person he was in his own being” (Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, p. 221, italics his).

Why identify Christ’s recreation of human nature with the incarnation + resurrection, and not exclusively with his resurrection? One reason that seems compelling to me is Christ’s transfiguration, recorded in the synoptic gospels. In the past I’ve always been intrigued by this event in Chris’s life, but not been sure what exactly to do with it. Catholics teach that it is the culmination of Christ’s earthly life, and the church fathers wrote much about it. But what does it mean? On a plane ride last week, the significance of this story struck me in a new way. Here is Mark’s version:

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.

If we say that Christ’s transformation of human nature began at his resurrection, we have to provide some kind of explanation of his transfiguration. How does Christ have such radiant glory before he is resurrected? One common way is to see this event as a kind of proleptic anticipation of his resurrected glory. At the transfiguration, God supernaturally bestows the glory that Christ will one day have when he is risen from the dead. Or it could be taken as a bestowal of divine glory upon Jesus from the Father to indicate his favor and blessing and presence (hence the cloud). But here is the insight I had on a plane last week: the explanatory words “this is my Son” as a divine interpretative commentary at the climax of the narrative seems to indicate that what is happening is not fundamentally a prediction or alteration, but a revelation. The whole point of the story is to show us who Jesus really is: the cloud represents divine glory, yes, but Jesus is divine, and that is the point. The whiteness of his clothes is not imposed upon Jesus from an external source – it is the revelation of who Jesus truly is, it is the lifting of the veil to see His glory.

The tendency is to see the transfiguration as a unique, unusual moment in the life of Christ, with all the other moments of his life as the “normal” Christ. But as I reflected on this story on the plane last week, I came to think it may be quite the other way around: it is the transfiguration which reveals Christ most clearly. In the rest of his incarnate life He operates under, as Kierkegaard calls it, “divine incognito.” Nothing new is being added to Jesus at the transfiguration; rather, what He is already becomes manifest. Yes, Jesus is here partaking in the Father’s glory, so Peter can say, “when he received honor and glory from God the Father” (II Peter 1:17); the emphasis, from this angle, is “this is my Son.” But Jesus Himself is also fully divine, the Father’s glory is His glory as well, for “He is the radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrew 1:3). Thus, Peter can also say, “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (1:16, i.e., “the Lord Jesus Christ”). From this angle, the emphasis is revelatory: “this is my Son.”

It therefore seems to me that there was indeed something unique about Christ’s earthly body, even prior to his resurrection. Why should this not be, given that it was united to the eternal Son of God? How strange it would be if being united to divinity had no effect on a human body!

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