All orthodox Christians share the claim of creedal Christianity that in Christ God is man: the creator is the creature. The baby in the manger is God from eternity, the Father’s only-begotten Son. The Father has donated his Son in time for us and our salvation. While much Christian theology has sought to patrol the boundaries of this claim by protecting God’s distance from creation, Lutherans have embraced the strange implications of this teaching even when it presents human reason with problems and paradoxes.
Despite our discomfort with the God of glory taking flesh in our humanity, this is good news for anxious Christians. Luther puts it well in his Lectures on Galatians (1531/5): “Therefore begin where Christ began – in the Virgin’s womb, in the manger, at His mother’s breasts. For this purpose he came down, was born, lived among men, suffered, was crucified, and died, so that in every possible way He might present Himself to our sight” (LW 26:29).
In Christ, God gives himself completely. And even at the ascension, Christ doesn’t depart from his church, but continues his ministry through the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. These aren’t signs pointing to a hidden spiritual reality, but are the presence of Christ giving himself for salvation. He speaks to us in graspable, tangible things that we can hang onto, trust in, and in which we find assurance.
But Luther is often criticized for one particular aspect of his teaching on the person of Christ. It has to do with his contention that the humanity of Christ – his body and blood – are not limited by time and space in the way most people are. I can only be in one place at a time, but Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper because he is both divine and human. He is capable of giving himself however and wherever he pleases.
Luther is often charged with inventing a theory to shore up his confession of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Supper. To defend it, he concocts a philosophical explanation to do the heavy lifting. In reality, Luther’s understanding of the real presence arises from his conviction that God’s word does what it says. It also means just what it says. Stable definitions of human nature or observable patterns of what human bodies normally do must yield to the authority of God’s word. By speaking, God created the world; and likewise, by speaking, Christ gives his body and blood in the Supper.
God’s holy absence isn’t what we fear most. His nearness is the true source of our anxiety.
In the process of trying to defend Luther’s conviction that God’s word does things (even miraculous things human reason finds implausible), Luther’s students formulated a series of categories for explaining the relationship between Christ’s humanity and divinity in his one person. This was a well-intentioned exercise, and has some practical value for distilling the distinctive ways Lutherans confess Christ as true God and true man. The best place to find these is in the Formula of Concord’s eighth article.
The first of these categories (the genus idiomaticum) clarifies that the properties of both natures are rightly applied to the whole person of Christ. Whatever is true about Christ’s two natures is true about his person. Speaking this way ensures that we don’t end up with two Christs, one human and one divine. The second category (the genus apotelesmaticum) is similar: it confesses that all of Christ’s works belong to his person. Humanity and divinity in Christ don’t act independently of each other.
Most Christians who confess the creeds have no objection to these first two categories. The third (the genus maiestaticum) is the controversial one. According to the authors of the Formula, Christ’s humanity receives and manifests properties that belong to God. Christ’s humanity isn’t transformed into divinity so that he ceases to be human. But in the events of Christ’s ministry, he does divine things in and through his humanity. With Luther’s concerns in mind, the Formula points out that Christ can be present in more than one place at the same time – like in the bread and wine of the Supper.
There are other examples, like the risen Christ’s miraculous appearance to the disciples in the locked room after Easter (Jn. 20:19). Despite fears about mixing the two natures of Christ, all this has a point. Sinners naturally hold God at a distance. God’s holy absence isn’t what we fear most. His nearness is the true source of our anxiety. Only the God who enters our flesh can threaten our security and sovereignty. The God who draws near in Christ confronts the dream that we could save ourselves by ascending upwards to God enthroned high above.
God takes up this confrontation first at Christmas where the Father’s Son becomes human in Mary’s womb. But the infant Christ is just the beginning of God’s grand reversal of our expectations. Christ proceeds into our humanity even further by forgiving sins. He shares fellowship with sinners and identifies with them. He casts out demons and heals people, leading many to assume his power is not divine but demonic. This great reversal reaches its apex at the cross where human dreams of holiness meet God’s true righteousness which is forgiveness for those who kill Christ.
That great truth of creedal Christianity – that God is man in Christ – is not set forth for our speculative enjoyment. Nowhere else is the dramatic nature of God’s coming in the flesh so clear as at the Lord’s Supper. Christ draws near to undeserving people. Though sinners would rather keep Christ at arm’s length to protect his majesty, Christ gives himself anyway. Here in the bread and wine are forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation – as Luther liked to say. What all this means is that Christ is not enthroned in majesty high above, but is enthroned here and now in the bread and wine on the altar. To worship this God who takes flesh, take and eat; take and drink – and believe Christ’s word that his body and blood are given and shed for you.