“The Divine Incarnation” – Sermon by Jabez T. Sunderland

Rev. Jabez T. Sunderland (1842-1936) was an American minister and missionary who opposed the drift of the Unitarian Church from its Christian roots into secular humanism. This essay appeared as a pamphlet in 1901 as the first in the “Twentieth Century Sermon” Series, put out by the Unitarian Club in Toronto. More recently, it was published online at AmericanUnitarian.org, which no longer exists. I am republishing it here because it contains some ideas that are relevant to Restorationist or Restored Christian theology. Note: I do not endorse all the ideas expressed in this sermon. — Eric Stetson, Universal Restoration Ministries

“God was in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19).
“If we love one another, God dwelleth in us” (1 John 4:12).

Jabez T. Sunderland
Rev. Jabez T. Sunderland

The doctrine of the Divine Incarnation is of great importance in religious thought, whatever form of faith we may hold.

There are in the Christian world today two widely and in some respects radically different forms of this doctrine. Let us inquire what they are, study them as candidly and carefully as we can, compare them with each other, and try earnestly to find out where lies the truth.

In inquiring what the two forms are, we quickly get an answer from the two texts which I have cited.

The Apostle Paul says: “God was in Christ.” One view of the incarnation bases itself upon this text and stops here, saying, This is the doctrine, the whole doctrine — “God was in Christ” — only in Christ — the incarnation of God is confined to one person, supernaturally born, who lived and died in Palestine, some nineteen hundred years ago.

The other view does not deny this one, except as to its limitation. It says with Paul, ”Yes, God was in Christ.” But it goes on from this and adds, with John, the very important declaration, “If we love one another, God dwelleth also in us.” In other words, it affirms the divine incarnation not only in Christ but also in all humanity.

Nor does this latter and larger view of the Incarnation really array John against Paul. For, when we look further, we find that the larger thought is just what Paul also teaches, if we take his teaching as a whole. Turning over to Ephesians 4:6, we read the following declaration, as strong and unequivocal as words can make it: “There is one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” Paul’s real teaching, then, as well as that of John, is, that God was not in Christ alone, but that he is also “in you all.

In thus teaching, both Paul and John agree with Jesus, who taught, it is true, his own unity with God, but also just as strongly the unity of all men with God. If he said, “I and my Father are one” [John 10:30], he did not stop there, as so many teachers of Christianity today so strangely do, but, going on, he added the other half of the truth: “That they may be one, even as we are one” [John 17:21].[1]

One of our poet preachers has well expressed, in the form of a prayer, this union of all with God which Jesus taught.

O Thou Infinite One!
Let me Know myself as one with Thee;
Let me feel in my soul the vibrations of Thy Life.
Fill me, O God, with Thyself;
Let the Law that is in Thee
Come as truth into my soul.
Let the order that shapes Universes
Become the conscious Law within me.
Let my deeds and words
Take form from Thee as the stars do.
Let my actions be of Thy Law
As are the motions of the planets.
O God, fill, permeate, inform me,
That I may be one with Thee
Even as was Christ of old.

We have now the two views of the Divine Incarnation before us.

One view limits the incarnation; the other does not.

One view sees God incarnate in Christ alone. This is the teaching of the so-called “orthodox” creeds, and of all the churches founded on those creeds.

The other sees God incarnate not only in Christ, but also in all Christ’s brethren — in all the rest of the children of the common Father. This is the view, not only of the Liberal Christian churches, but of a steadily growing number of the broader and freer minds in all the creedal churches, in spite of their creeds.

Nor is it strange that this larger view finds increasing favor, for biblical scholarship is making it more and more clear that this was the teaching of Jesus and his immediate disciples, and historic study that this was the doctrine of the early Christian churches. I believe also that philosophic and scientific study is making it increasingly clear that this view has its foundation in fact and reason as the narrower view does not.

One view sees God incarnate in Christ alone. This is the teaching of the so-called “orthodox” creeds … The other sees God incarnate not only in Christ, but also in all Christ’s brethren — in all the rest of the children of the common Father. … [T]his was the doctrine of the early Christian churches.

Let us examine the commonly received doctrine of a limited incarnation in Christ alone, and see to what extent it stands the text of investigation.

The first thing to be observed concerning it is that it was born late — long after Christ — and in a very dark age, when a majority of men believed that God was to be seen only in the unusual, the limited, the exceptional, the irregular, the supposed miraculous — before it was understood that all things are governed according to law.

Since we have learned that we live in a law-ordered universe, we are fast attaining to a larger view of God and of his ways of manifesting himself. We are learning to see him in the steady on-going of nature. We are discovering that the regular displays him far better than the irregular, the normal far more clearly than the abnormal, the orderly far more surely than the erratic, the universal better than the limited. Indeed we are learning that order and law are themselves the clearest of all possible illustrations, the most irrefutable of all possible proofs of him. For what are law and order in the universe except the Universe-Power working intelligently, and therefore beneficently? And that is just what we must mean by God — the Infinite Power at the heart of the universe, operating in all, and through all, and forever intelligently and to worthy ends. Order therefore is simply his symbol; law is simply his sign his path of light as he pursues his majestic way. This is the manner in which men are learning to think of God in our age of growing knowledge and reason.

What then is to be presumed as antecedently probable regarding an incarnation? If God is to incarnate himself, will it be likely to take place in manner different from anything else in nature — in a corner, in some one special age, in some single special land, in a little special town in that land, in some one human being born in an unusual and exceptional way? Is that according to the manner of God’s great works and ways? I think we must say that at least the presumption is against an incarnation in such a special, limited, and unnatural manner.

The case may be illustrated, I think, in some such way as this: Suppose some person should go away to some great mountain valley in Asia or Africa or Australia, and there find a single tree — perhaps the largest tree in the world — but one single tree among millions, hidden away in that one remote valley — and should say to you, “There, in that tree, and in that tree alone, God manifests himself, so far as trees are concerned.” Would you believe him? He might urge that the tree was the largest and finest known. That would make no difference to you. He might even bring you reports, believed by multitudes, that the tree had been planted by an angel from heaven, or by inhabitants of another planet, or by God himself in a manner different from that of any other tree that ever grew; but all the same you would say, “No, I cannot accept your claim. Not any one tree can monopolize the manifestation of God. Do you say God planted this tree? The God that I believe in and worship planted all trees — and not by the poor expedient of special miracle either, but by his great, wise, perpetually operative and unfailing nature-methods. So far from this tree being the only manifestation of God, I believe that God is the creator and the very life of all the trees in all the lands of earth, and that every one of all their millions is busy day and night, in every leaf and bud and blossom and rootlet and fiber, in showing his handiwork, and manifesting his power and wisdom.” I think this is essentially the reply you would make to one who should attempt to convince you that God’s sole manifestation in the trees of earth is in some one single, special miracle-tree.

Turn now to the Divine Incarnation — God’s manifestation of himself in humanity — and must we not say essentially the same thing? When men come to us attempting to confine God’s incarnation to a single generation of humanity’s long history, and to a single land and province and village in the midst of earth’s vast continents, and to a single life in that little village do we not see at once that they are thinking not according to twentieth century methods, but methods of a darker past, and that the conception of God involved is the conception of the centuries before law in nature was known, and when the whole universe was limited in men’s thought not only to this earth but to a few countries around the Mediterranean Sea?

How are we to account for this strange idea that God’s incarnation or manifestation of himself in humanity is confined to one man?

I suppose we may say that this astonishing limitation is based upon the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus. We are told that Jesus was born of a virgin. He had no human father. God was his Father. This is cited as proof that he was a special incarnation of God — different from anybody else.

Well, let us briefly examine this story of the miraculous birth and see whether it really belongs in the Bible — whether it is any part of the real gospel, or is only a later addition — a legendary after-growth — and therefore whether it affords any basis for the belief that God’s incarnation was different in kind in Jesus from what it is in humanity as a whole.

It should be noted that two of the four gospels, or biographical accounts which we have of Jesus, say nothing about any miraculous birth. These two are Mark and John; and Mark is pretty generally conceded now by the best critics to be the earliest of all the Gospels. But now here is something very strange. If Jesus was really born differently from anybody else, and if this was the primary proof that he was God, it seems unaccountable that two of his biographers, and one of them the earliest of all, and therefore the one nearest to Jesus in time, should have omitted this crucial fact, this fact upon which everything else depended. Yet neither one gives any hint of a supernatural birth.

Nor is this all. Turn to the Acts of the Apostles — the book giving an account of the things which the “early disciples preached, as they went forth to lay the foundations of Christianity. What do we find here? Any account of the great teacher, whose word they proclaimed, having been miraculously born? — born differently from others, and therefore not really a man? Not a word. Peter begins his great sermon on the day of Pentecost: “Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you.” No hint is given here or elsewhere in the whole book that Jesus was born otherwise than as all men are.

Turn over still further, to the Epistles of Paul. If Paul knows of Jesus being born miraculously, with God as his father, and himself God, we shall of course find his epistles all aglow and ablaze with the great the unparalleled fact. What do we find? In all of Paul’s writings not one word of anything of the kind. It is plain that Paul does not know any such fact concerning Jesus.

Turn back now to the Gospels, and let us examine a little more carefully what we can find there. Matthew and Luke give the story of the miraculous birth. But there is reason to believe that it is a late legendary accretion — something which formed no part of the earlier and more reliable biography. That it is a late addition is indicated by the fact that it is contrary to so many things in the Gospel narratives. For example, we read in Matthew that the friends and acquaintances of Jesus said of him, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” Evidently they had never heard but that he was the son of Joseph. Luke represents them as saying, “Is not this the son of Joseph?” John makes their question still more explicit, “Is not this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose father and mother we know?” Several times we read, in different places, of Jesus’ “father” and “parents.” His disciple Philip calls him “the son of Joseph.”

Mary, his own mother, declares that Joseph is his father, saying to him, of Joseph and herself, when he was a boy, “thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.” Surely this should settle the matter.

But even these things are not all. We have two separate genealogical tables given us in the Gospels both tracing the ancestry of Jesus through Joseph — something not only in the highest degree absurd, but positively misleading and dishonest, if Joseph was not his father.

True, the different New Testament writers greatly exalt Jesus in many ways, but never, with the exception of the two passages already referred to in Matthew and Luke, in a way to teach or to imply that he was miraculously born — much less that he was God. The Gospels represent him as working miracles, but the working of miracles was believed to be common; not only men, but even bad men, are represented as workers of miracles. The Gospels call Jesus lord, but that was an appellation given to many besides him, as in England today men are called lords. The Gospels speak of him as the Jewish messiah. But to the Jews the messiah was not to be God, but simply a man having exalted power given him of God. The Gospels represent Jesus as dying and then rising from the dead. But others too are declared to have risen from the dead. If Jesus ascended into heaven, so had Elijah; and if his disciples expected him to return again, so had Elijah long been expected to return again. And Elijah was not God, but a man like other men. If Jesus is called “son of God” and “begotten of God,” so are others spoken of as “sons of God,” “children of God,” “begotten of God,” as we have already seen.

None of these declarations or representations imply an unnatural or supernatural birth, or that he was God. Nowhere save in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke does the New Testament anywhere hint at such a birth. And even this is contradicted and corrected again and again, by the genealogies and by the utterances of those who knew him best.

Everything indicates that Jesus himself claimed no supernatural birth, and that nobody claimed it for him while he lived, or for more than a generation after his death. Even forty years or so after his decease, when Mark, the earliest of the Gospels was written, the story of such a birth seems not yet to have been in existence, or else was not credited. For if it had been known and generally believed, surely it would have found a place in Mark.

How then did it arise? Let us see.

A full generation of time had gone since the crucifixion. Those who knew Jesus personally were fast passing away. He had left nothing behind him in writing. The recollections of those who remained were growing a little dimmed with the lapse of years. It was natural and inevitable that legends about him should begin to spring up. In a little while there was a multitude of such. Indeed a whole volume of them, called the “Apocryphal Gospels,” has come down to us. What could be more natural than that some of these numerous legends which time and distance wove about him, and especially about his birth and childhood, should make their way into the Gospels which we have in our New Testament? What was there to keep them out? We do not know certainly the writer of a single one of these Gospels, or its editor in the form in which it comes to us. It is well nigh certain that each Gospel passed through several re-adaptations before it reached the form in which we now have it. By the time Matthew and Luke received their final revisions, twenty years or more after the writing of Mark, the legend of the miraculous birth had come into existence; and as such a story seemed to add to the luster of Jesus’s fame and name, it became in some way incorporated into these two Gospels. Once in, there was not in that age the careful scholarly criticism to cast it out. And so we have it today as a part of the New Testament.

This seems to be the explanation of the fact that we find at the beginning of Matthew and Luke the story of the birth of Jesus without a human father, — a story similar you know to what we have in connection with the birth of Buddha, and a number of other oriental characters.

Thus do all lines of testimony seem to unite to make it clear that the story of the supernatural birth of Jesus was a late and legendary accretion, and no part of the original and real history of the life of the great Teacher of Nazareth.

What, then, follows from all this? Does it follow that God was not in Christ? By no means. Does it follow that Christ was not divine? Far from that. What follows is that Christ’s divineness of nature was not different in kind, but only in degree, from yours and mine. God was in him, but also God is in all humanity. Jesus was simply the tallest soul among his brethren, one in whom the divine spirit rose to an unwonted fullness and power of manifestation, a man of rare genius, nobleness and strength, but whose crowning spiritual quality lay in his seemingly perfect union in mind and will with the mind and will of God, so that he was able to say with a deeper and loftier meaning than had ever been given to the words before, “I and my Father are one.”

Christ’s divineness of nature was not different in kind, but only in degree, from yours and mine. … Jesus was simply the tallest soul among his brethren, one in whom the divine spirit rose to an unwonted fullness and power of manifestation.

If Jesus was “Son of God,” in this he was not exceptional. His sonship lay not in any such questionable claim as that of being born of a virgin, and therefore differently from his brethren, but in the deep and essential divineness of the nature of man. It lay not in his being less a man than others, but more a man than others. He called himself “Son of God” and “Son of Man” — shall we not say he was preeminent as Son of God because he was preeminent as Son of Man?

What is incarnation? As the word signifies, it is God manifesting himself in the flesh, that is, in the highest form of his creation. But is there any part of his creation in which he does not manifest himself? Surely not; for creation is just God — the Infinite Power and Life and Goodness that is behind all nature — objectifying himself, coming forth into manifestation. Thus the sun shines by his light, Saturn and Uranus pull by his strength, the flower smiles by his beauty. If we “live and move and have our being in him” [Acts 17:28], so do the birds, so do the planets, so do the constellations.

Emerson puts it well in his Wood Notes:

Ever fresh the broad creation,
A divine improvisation,
From the heart of God proceeds,
A single will, a million deeds.
Once slept the world an egg of stone,
And pulse, and sound, and light was none;
And God said “Throb,” and there was motion,
And the vast mass became vast ocean.
Maker and original,
The world is the ring of his spells,
And the play of his miracles.
As he giveth to all to drink,
Thus or thus they are and think.
With one drop sheds form and feature;
With the next a special nature;
The third adds heat’s indulgent spark;
The fourth gives light which eats the dark;
Into the fifth himself he flings,
And conscious Law is King of kings.
Thou seek’st in globe and galaxy,
He hides in pure transparency;
Thou askest in fountains and in fires —
He is the essence that inquires.
He is the axis of the star,
He is the sparkle of the spar,
He is the heart of every creature,
He is the meaning of each feature;
And his mind is the sky,
Than all it holds more deep, more high.

Do you ask, How is God in all things? I think we must answer: In the lowest objects, that is, in the whole inorganic world, he is present as simply Force or Energy. In objects higher, that is, in the organic world, he is present as Force or Energy and Life. In man his manifestation is still more complete and on still higher planes. That is to say, in man God is present as Energy, as Life, and also as Self-Consciousness, Will, Moral Nature, and highest of all, Love. Thus while God is no more truly in a human being than in a stone, his manifestation in the human being is far more full and in far higher ways than it can be in a stone. A man does not manifest God any more really than does a flower. But a man manifests God on a higher plane than the most beautiful and perfect flower can do. A flower is only a thing. It cannot think, it cannot know, it cannot will, it cannot love. But man can do all these things. Hence man partakes of the moral and spiritual nature of God, as the flower does not. As we rise from the lower to the higher objects of nature we rise from lower to higher manifestations of God — the highest of all being man.

But in man himself there is also gradation. In the man who is groveling and selfish, and who lives in material things, God’s manifestation is down on a plane only a few steps higher than that in which he manifests himself in the brute animal; whereas in the moral and spiritual man it is up almost on the plane of the angel. In other words, as we rise in intelligence, in virtue, in love and moral attainment, the incarnation of God in us becomes more full and complete.

It follows that God’s incarnation in the world is perpetual and growing. This is what Evolution means. God did not come into the world once and then retire. He did not create the world in six days and then retreat back into some far away heaven to rest. His creation is eternal. It was going on further back than our thought can reach. It is going on still. Not only are new worlds being created in the skies, but this world on which we live is being all the while created anew — recreated to higher and higher ends. Especially is God’s creation on the earth going on in the realm of the intellectual, the moral, and the spiritual. Here its progress is more rapid than ever before, as seen in the constant rise of man.

There never was a time when God was not in his world, the very life of all its life. But his manifestation grows in splendor — especially it grows in splendor with the progress of the human race. So that God’s incarnation was never so glorious as now. And as the ages go on, and the race advances, and man rises to still greater heights of moral and spiritual attainment, what will that be except the fuller and more perfect manifestation or incarnation of God in humanity?

How much higher and more full of meaning does this view of the incarnation make everything! In the light of it, all nature and all human nature become manifestations of the divine, each in its degree. The sunshine which wraps the world in its warm embrace, is a manifestation of God’s loving and gracious presence. All exhibitions of power are his power. All life is his life. All beauty is his beauty. All right and goodness on earth are finite manifestations of Eternal realities, whose fountain and whose fullness are in God.

Especially what glory does this view of the Divine Incarnation shed upon human nature, and how does it fill all man’s future with hope! Christ was not a strange, solitary, abnormal manifestation of God in human form, once in all the ages, with nothing in any way like it before or after. He was a type of our humanity. He was a foretaste of what waits for the race. The sleeping possibilities which are in your soul and mine came to full blossom in him. He is a prophecy of what God holds in store for all humanity, sometime, somewhere.

This, friends, is the new, the larger, doctrine of the Divine Incarnation which is coming to our modern age.

Christ was not a strange, solitary, abnormal manifestation of God in human form, once in all the ages … He was a foretaste of what waits for the [human] race. … This, friends, is the new, the larger, doctrine of the Divine Incarnation which is coming to our modern age.

Am I not right in claiming that this doctrine is in harmony with science, in harmony with philosophy, in harmony with the thought of evolution and a law-governed universe, in harmony with the real teaching of Jesus and his disciples? May we not justly claim that it is the teaching of the New Testament restored to the world?

And does it not meet the needs of the human soul as the old doctrine does not? It removes the distance between us and God. It lifts the human up to the divine. It makes our very life the life of God in us. And thus it teaches us to say with Jesus, “I and my Father are one.”

And how much nearer it brings Jesus to us! Now, with this view, he is no longer the strange, the far off being that we have been taught — incomprehensible, foreign to all our experience, half man, half God! Now he is our brother — true, real, human, with nature like ours, with joys and sorrows like ours, with battles to fight like ours — our strong brother, clear-headed, great hearted, noble, brave, gentle, waiting to take our weak hands in his strong hand, and lead us up to hope, to trust, to peace, to the loving heart of his Father and our Father, his God and our God.

Yes, “God was in Christ.” That is a great and precious truth. We cannot prize it too highly. But there is another even better that crowns it, that completes it, that gives it full significance and glory, and especially that brings it into practical touch with our lives. That other truth is, “Every one that loveth is begotten of God” [1 John 4:7]; “If we love, God dwelleth in us” [1 John 4:12]. Thus our limitations, finiteness and poverty become reinforced from the Infinite and Eternal Fountain of all Power, Wisdom and Love.

It is much to recognize God in nature; it is more to recognize him in human nature. It is much to see him in Christ; but it is most to see him in ourselves.

Said Channing: “All minds are of one family.”

Wrote Emerson: “If a man is at heart just, then in so far he is God: the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God, do enter into that man with justice.”

William Blake, England’s mystical and strangely gifted artist-poet of the eighteenth century, wrote a poem entitled “The Divine Image,” which contains these profoundly suggestive lines:

Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is God our Father dear;
And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart;
Pity the human face;
And Love, the human form divine;
And Peace the human dress.

Two great illuminating and inspiring thoughts are rising like morning stars in the sky of Christianity in our time. One is the Humanness of God, the other the Divineness of Humanity.

Said the dying Baron Bunsen as he looked up in the face of his wife bending in love over him: “In thy face have I seen the Eternal.”

In the First Epistle of John [3:2] we read: “Beloved, now are we children of God, and it hath not yet been manifested what we shall be. But we know that when it shall be manifested, we shall be like Him.”

Thus we see the barriers fall away which have seemed to separate the human from the divine; more and more clearly the vision draws that all is divine.

In the book of Revelation [3:20] it is written: “Behold I stand at the door and knock; and if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with me.”

Oh friends, let us know, that whenever truth or duty, or pity or tenderness, or justice or aspiration, or any high thought or pure desire, knocks at the door of our hearts — but especially when love stands knocking there — it is God asking to be let in. And if we open the door he will enter, and become more and more fully incarnate in us. Thus our darkness will pass away; a rainbow of hope will illuminate every storm, our tears will be dried, our weakness will turn to strength, the peace of the Eternal will be ours, and we shall know what it means to dwell in heaven while yet we are pilgrims of earth, even as Jesus did, because God, whose Presence is Heaven, has taken up his abode within us, the Life of all our life.

[1] [Footnote in original:] Jesus draws no line separating himself from humanity. Instead, he most unequivocally classes himself with humanity, making his relation to God the same as that of other men. He calls his disciples his “brethren” (Matt. 28:10, John 20:17). Paul calls him “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). In 2 Peter (1:4) we, as well as Christ, are declared to be “partakers of the divine nature.” If he is called the “son of God,” so again and again, both in the Old Testament and the New, are we also called “sons of God” and “children of God;” and God is declared to be “our Father” as well as the Father of Jesus. On this point Jesus himself uses the strongest possible language, speaking of God to his followers as “my Father and your Father, my God and your God” (John 20:17). Thus we are taught most explicitly that in whatever sense God was in him, in the same sense God is in us. “Beloved now are we the sons of God” (1 John 3:2). “Every one that loveth is begotten of God” (1 John 4:7); “He that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God dwelleth in him” (1 John 4:16); “Even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21).