Since graduating from Westminster Seminary California and beginning a PhD program in historical theology, I have had a number of opportunities to read theological works and to talk to other people with a variety of theological perspectives. (I guess if you’re a seminary graduate and a theology student, you’re supposed to have some sort of answer to everyone’s theological questions.) Now as a student at a Roman Catholic institution, I have a number of opportunities to reflect upon a theological system very different from my own.
In my studies, it has seemed to me that Roman Catholic theology heavily emphasizes the incarnation of our Lord. What, you ask, could possibly be wrong with that? The fact that Christ came down from heaven and became man, uniting the divine and human natures in one person, is one of the central tenants of the Christian faith. True indeed; yet, an over-emphasis on the incarnation has surprising implications, for it may minimize the role of sin. If the incarnation is the central event of our salvation, then our chief problem is that we are separated from God and our salvation is that Christ came down from heaven to be with us, not to deliver us from our sins. This tendency is natural, because Christ’s humbling of himself is staggering to contemplate.
This focus, however, on God’s love and kindness does not deal adequately with the problem of sin. I know that there is no way I could ever do good works on my own. Even if I adopted the Catholic system, in which I would be required to do good works after baptism to preserve my salvation, there is no way my works would be good enough. (The gravity of sin IS acknowledged in Catholic liturgical practice, even if it doesn’t appear as strongly in modern Roman Catholic theology.)
In contrast to Roman Catholic theology, Reformed theology emphasizes the cross of the incarnate Christ. It’s more than Christ loving us; it’s Christ loving us in spite of our sin and misery. This brings the ugliness of our sins to the forefront and emphasizes our need for a Savior to deliver us from the bondage of sin and death, not one who would primarily build a bridge between frail humanity and an infinite God.
I am particularly thankful for a theological distinction that was impressed on me at seminary, and that is the active and passive obedience of Christ. When Adam fell, he not only failed to keep God’s law, but he also disobeyed God’s command. When Christ came, he kept God’s law perfectly through his perpetual active obedience, and he passively suffered the curse of sin through his death on the cross, accomplishing our salvation in a twofold manner. As the Westminster Confession states,
The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father: and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him. (WCF 8.5)
In my justification, Christ’s atoning penalty for sin and his perfect law-keeping are both imputed to me, so that I am freed from the penalty of sin and the judgment of God’s law. Now I follow God’s commands out of a deep gratitude for my salvation and a desire to please God, unlike my Roman Catholic friends, who believe they must work for their salvation from sin. But Christ has already accomplished our salvation.
We require both the incarnation and the cross in our theology. An over-emphasis on one or the other may lead us to ignore the penalty for sin or the justice of God’s law. And that, my friends, is what my Westminster education did for me: It made me more grateful for my salvation. The study of theology led me to praise of God and give thanksgiving to him—the chief end of my life here on earth and ultimately in heaven.
Amy Alexander graduated from Westminster Seminary California in 2012 with an M.A. in Historical Theology and wrote her thesis on medieval theologian Thomas Bradwardine. She is currently a Ph.D. student at Saint Louis University.
This post continues our Wednesday series on Women & Theology. You can read the introduction to the series here. Come back next week!