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Part I of a Series
BY Mark Shea
Evangelical Protestants, like all
orthodox Christians, vigorously affirm the doctrine of the Incarnation — the
faith of all Christians that God the Son, the second person of the blessed
Trinity, was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary and
Evangelical Protestants, like
Catholics, believe this doctrine with every fiber of their being.
But there’s more to it than this. In
evangelical culture, “incarnation” tends to get prefaced with the singular word
“the” — as in “The Incarnation.”
It’s primarily seen as a single
(albeit glorious) historical event, and its application to everyday evangelical
life usually has the character of a doctrine that is firmly believed.
Catholics, while affirming the uniqueness of the Incarnation in the person of
Jesus, also see incarnation as an eternal reality to be lived and breathed by
the followers of Jesus.
They believe that God, in becoming
human, was not simply performing an isolated miracle; he was establishing an
eternal principle. In the Incarnation, Catholics believe, God was committing
himself to continually revealing his power and grace in and through human
And the unfamiliar ways that
Catholics express this belief tend to make evangelicals very nervous.
This nervousness only gets
compounded when popular evangelicalism meets popular Catholicism.
For the emphasis on seeing the Incarnation
as a single event 2,000 years ago on the other
side of the earth often makes evangelicals view it as an episode that ended
with the ascension of Christ into heaven. Many evangelicals speak as though the
grace of God now reaches us only in “spiritual” (read: “disembodied”) ways.
Enfleshing that grace in people today is too much, too close.
pattern of “that was then, this is now” can often be observed when
evangelicalism and Catholic faith meet.
example, it’s not hard for evangelical Protestants to grant that God could
unite himself with matter in the physical body of Jesus Christ, but the notion
that he continues to do so through the consecrated bread and wine of the
Eucharist is rejected as unbiblical and even magical or idolatrous — despite
the fact that Jesus declared, “This is my body; this is my blood” as Matthew,
Mark, Luke and Paul all record.
find private confession of sins to God acceptable and even approve (generally)
of accountability and discipleship. But the idea that a flesh-and-blood human
being could have authority and power from Jesus to forgive sins in his name is
typically declared unbiblical — even though Jesus conferred exactly this power
on the apostles with the words, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are
forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).
evangelical Protestants delight in the biblical picture of Jesus healing at the
pool of Siloam by means of water (John 9), but fret at the Catholic idea of
holy water or blessed salts, since these seem somehow magical or fleshly. So do
various other Catholic physical acts such as lighting candles to pray or the
gestures and prayers of the liturgy, which can strike some evangelicals as mere
evangelical Protestantism tends to see the Incarnation solely as an isolated
historic event, not as the establishment of an eternal principle, the
evangelical tends to reply to the Catholic’s confidence that God will use
matter and people to communicate his grace by saying, “God is spirit, and those
who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The assumption
is that spirit is spirit and matter is matter and never the two shall meet
(after the Ascension).
But for Catholics, the fact remains:
When the Word became flesh, he established the sacraments so that we might
continue to know him present among us on earth, even as he is in heaven.
Of course, we Catholics can also
have mistaken ideas about the sacraments, too.
One of the more common ones, especially popular among wooly-minded folk
infected with the so-called “spirit of Vatican II,” is the notion that since
God joined himself with creation in Jesus “everything is a sacrament.”
The reply to this misconception is
that, while creation is sacramental and shows forth the glory of God, it does
not follow that my grilled cheese sandwich is indistinguishable from the
Eucharist. That’s because, just as there are many different modes of God’s
union with creation, so there are many different degrees of sacramentality.
God is present everywhere, yes. But he is not present in creation as he is in
human beings, not present in all human beings as he is, for instance, in the
saints or in “the least of these,” not present in saints as he is in the
God-Man Christ Jesus — and not present in any created thing as he is in the
sacrament of the most holy Eucharist.
In addition to this
misunderstanding, there is an equal and opposite one, which we shall consider
Mark Shea is the content editor