“The man upstairs was watching out for me…” You’ve likely heard people say this hundreds of times. Perhaps you have said it yourself. Last week when NFL quarterback Cam Newton was involved in a serious automobile accident, he said words to this effect: the man upstairs was watching out for me.
I don’t pretend to know exactly what he meant or his frame of reference. In an interview, he indicated that he is “a religious person” and that he was spared from greater injury by “the man upstairs.” Reflecting back, my first reaction was somewhat pompous and self-righteous. I felt like I had to defend God’s reputation. It is certainly both inaccurate and disrespectful to refer the Almighty as “the man upstairs.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes well what God has revealed about himself in Scripture: God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, goodness, holiness, justice and truth. We humans have physical bodies and are temporal, limited, changeable and dependent! Surely, it’s an insult to God to be referred to as “the man upstairs.”
But on only one moment’s reflection, I recalled that there is a man upstairs, in heaven, who watches out for me. He does have a real physical body and is 100% human. There is someone who watches out for his people. His name is Jesus. And especially at this time of year, we reflect upon the wonder of his coming. Theologians refer to this as the incarnation – God becoming flesh to give his grace to those who don’t deserve it.
The first five centuries following the advent (coming) of Christ were marked by a seemingly endless series of errors regarding the person of Christ. There had been many attempts by church leaders and councils to clarify and crystallize the Bible’s teaching about his identity. Near the end of that time, there was a church council which met in the city of Chalcedon, where over 600 Greek bishops met, deliberated and proposed a creed. The result was more like a statement of what the church believed than an explanation of its doctrine. Since then, the church has recognized three precise statements called axioms summarizing the fundamental principles taught by the NT regarding the person of Christ.
Chalcedon’s Axioms (AD 451): Christ is God. Christ is man. Christ is one person. These axioms are like boundaries within which the church must work, when considering the person of Christ. In other words, a lot more could and should be said, but these facts must always be regarded as true and authoritative. Christ is God. Christ is man. Christ has two natures, but he is one person. To guard against further errors of understanding with regard to the relationship of these two natures to one another, they issued 4 famous negatives: without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.
There is at least one more historical understanding that will assist us in our inquiry. It yell less of a Chalcedon all that comes from the great Reformer, John Calvin. It is called the extra Calvinisticum.
extra Calvinisticum: Calvin’s explained the wonderful truth that the Word became man in this way. Even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of a man in one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. Here is something marvelous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning. (Calvin: Institutes 2.13.4) This affirmation has been called the extra because it recognizes that Christ remained infinitely more than what was seen as flesh. Ever since the Incarnation, there is still infinite deity beyond Christ’s human nature. The beyond is “extra” or outside, infinite.
Some of my favorite biblical phrases and teachings build on this theme: He who knew no sin became sin for us in order that in him we might become the righteousness of God… He himself for our sins in his body on the tree… Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”
Appropriately and providentially Handle’s Halleluiah Chorus resounds in the background as I dictate. Enough said. I have given you much to ponder.