There is a regular idea, although I wouldn’t necessarily call it common, that you will hear bandied around in Christian circles. It can be summarized by this pithy phrase: “Jesus Christ teaches us how to be human.” What we see and understand in Jesus is what we are ourselves are called to be as humans made in the image of God, so the thinking goes. We can call this the prototype human model I want to put forward something a bit different, although related: Jesus Christ shows us how to realize God’s purposes for humanity. We can call this the prototype redemption model. There are a couple reasons I think this is a better way to understand the relationship of the Incarnation to our humanity and God’s creation and then I will unpack its significance.
Firstly, the Jesus Christ as the prototype human model does something very subtle. It flattens out the course of Jesus’ life to simply being an expression of ideal humanity, as if everything Jesus does from birth to ascension is representative of what is means to be fully living about God’s intentions for humanity. Jesus does not develop and grow, especially within the years of ministry recorded in the Gospel. This picture of Jesus is a static model of a person that simply progresses through the narrative based upon the way his disciples, onlookers, and his enemies response to him. Jesus and His humanity is a fixed point in the story.
There are a couple reasons against this fixed view of Jesus. Hebrews 5.8-10 strongly suggests that Jesus developed, grew, and learned through the course of his ministry, particularly through His suffering. It specifically says of Jesus that he had to “learn obedience” and was “made perfect/complete” (τελειωθεὶς) as a condition for our salvation. This suggests something quite significant: Jesus was not “complete” during his ministry. Some might go so far to interpret this suggestion to say that Jesus was a sinner, either to suggest the preacher of Hebrews endorsed this or to consider this interpretation of Hebrews 5.8-10 as absurd based upon its theological implications. That isn’t what is being suggested by the preacher, however. Christ’s perfection was in his sufferings, as if to state that Jesus Himself had to grow to fully realize the purpose and mission His Father had for Him as the Son to be the high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
The point being is that we can not look at any snapshot or series of snapshots of Jesus life prior to the cross and say “this is what it means to be human.” Without the suffering of the cross, there is no completion of God’s purposes for His Son.
If at this point we want to maintain holding onto the prototype human model of Jesus, then we are left with a real ethical problem: it is to suggest that the way ot be human is to suffer and to die on a cross. It is here where people pursue suffering and martyrdom for its own sake. May this never be the case!
This is where the prototype redemption model comes into place. Jesus’ life is a demonstration of how ourselves can make the journey of redemption from the curses that come with being human in this present age and begin to realize God’s purposes for humanity in our life through conforming our life to the pattern of Jesus. Jesus is the prototype of how we can ourselves come to learn and be completed ourselves. This idea doesn’t need to suggest that Jesus had sin, but only that Jesus took on human nature with the predilection and temptation towards sin. However, ultimately, the purpose of redemption is not to get rid of sin in our lives per se, but it it is to bring about God’s new creation, which by implication makes an end to sin. To that end, Jesus experience of learning obedience through suffering is something our own lives can share in common with His: we are following Him to experience and live out what is means to be in the image of God.
The point of this model is to suggest something different. The imitation of Jesus is not about being on the right side of the ethical register, as the well intended WWJD bracelets tried to get people to do. The imitation of Jesus is about the transformation of our own lives, which can only be accomplished in us by the same Spirit that came upon Jesus at His baptism. Everything we see in the person of Jesus in the Gospels is the transformation of humanity in process that has found its full culmination but we have yet to see Jesus in His full glory, because according to our faith, Jesus has ascended into heaven. So too is our transformation into the image of Jesus Christ in process that will not be fully culminated until we see Jesus in His glory.
There is a stark ethical implication of this view, however. We simply lack the capacity to be able to adequately describe and prescribe what it means to be fully living out God’s purposes as being in the image of God. Such knowledge can only be had be seeing Jesus as He is in his full glory, but being on this side of the second coming, we simply lack the necessary epistemic source to give us this understanding. Furthermore, as the entirety of the life of Christ in the Gospels never gives a comprehensive snapshot of the image of God, we can not create a all-encompassing set of ethical principles and rules that can fully gives a vision for what God’s purposes are. Rather, in Jesus Christ, we have the glimpse of what God’s redemption of us in our embodied nature looks like. We can certainly rule out certain types of behaviors and activities as evil and sin that are entirely far from the heart of God. We can even say that through the Spiritual transformation of our lives we can have an internal sense of good and evil that can be a reliable, but not necessarily perfect, guide to what God seeks for human life. At the end of the day, however, there are no ethical principles or rules that we can derived from Jesus and that we can then separate from Him that we can use as the basis for Christian worship, theology, ethics, etc. Only by our lives being brought into conformity to the life of Christ through the Holy Spirit can we even begin to have the beginnings of a practical comprehension of what it means to be made in the image of God.
The advantage of prototype redemption model over the prototype human model is that it can simultaneously account for Hebrews understanding that Jesus grew and learned Himself while also not making the suffering of the cross as central to the definition of what it means to be human. Rather, by being will to bear our cross in following Jesus (and if you are genuinely seeking to follow Jesus, suffering will come to you: you don’t need to seek it), we are instead embarking on a journey that brings us through the death of suffering into the life of hope and joy that reframes, revitalizes, and reintegrates a different sense of what it means to live life according to God’s will and purposes, both here and now and into the ongoing future.
This may seem abstract and esoteric, but it is so because it is trying to challenge a fundamental assumption that is a source of problems in modern theology: that we can simply look at Jesus and know what exactly it is that we as the Church need to be like and doing, that we can have transformation through abstraction of information apart from the imagination and emulation of the cross.
It was once said by Reinhold Niebuhr that the problem with liberal theology is that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross. It could also be said that another problem with theology today is closer to a “A God who calls without cost brought people without suffering into a Kingdom without pain through a ministration of a Christ of a cross that is only borne by one person.” What is intellectually challenging is that the Kingdom without judgment and the Kingdom without pain are both images of theology developed in response to some distortions of Christian teaching. Liberal theology is in some ways a reaction against the often hated-filled images of God cast in some quarters. In a similar manner, a Kingdom without pain may seem palatable because some might be tempted to make suffering a virtue, which it isn’t, and we have seen that occasionally throughout church history. Both the Kingdom without judgment and the Kingdom without pain are safer theological options that avoid the obviously wrong pathways of hate-filled religion and masochistic religion. However, despite what they rightly reject, neither are able to give an adequate account of the whole of Scriptures, the Gospels, and the testimony and significance that the New Testament authors had of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
In the end, I would suggest the prototype redemption model provides a better lens to understanding the relationship of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ to the image of God. In Jesus’ life as a human, He faces the challenges of being human and overcomes them as the Son through the Spirit. When we come to Jesus in faith and follow Him through the Spirit who enables and guides us, we are set on that same transformation journey towards the goal of completion that Jesus first trekked on our behalf and in a way that we don’t have to go through all of what He went through, but that the Holy Spirit takes our own our faithfulness amidst suffering to form us into Christ, even as we ourselves do not experience our own crosses to the same extent that Jesus did.