“The birth of Jesus never saved anyone”?

I just happened to notice a piece of this on the back of a piece of recycled photocopy paper that my wife was using to scribble some notes this morning, and looked it up on the internet: “The Birth of Jesus Never Saved Anyone” by Marc Kolden of Luther Northwestern Seminary. It is from 1991, so hardly current, but the question is an interesting one: what was the significance of the birth of Jesus in the plan of salvation?

Kolden writes:

The New Testament does not think salvation or the new birth occurs through Jesus’ actual historical birth or through any sort of birth of Christ in us. The birth of Jesus as such is not redemptive. Redemption for the New Testament writers as well as for the early church involved principally Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our rebirth is not a participation in Christ’s birth but in his death and resurrection.1 The writings of the apostle Paul and of John have been most influential here: insisting that the church is born on the cross, that the Spirit through the word and sacraments make the cross effective in us, and that our witness is to be to Christ crucified and risen….

The birth of Christ in itself never saved anyone, but in the whole career of Jesus—his birth, teachings, deeds, crucifixion, and resurrection—the God of heaven and earth has drawn near to redeem us, and this work is being carried to completion even

His point is fair enough, and I take his point, but I do find it interesting that this is a Lutheran theologian saying this. What would an Orthodox theologian say? It is characteristic of Lutheranism to emphasis the Cross over the Birth of Jesus… Perhaps the question would be clearer if we were to ask whether the INCARNATION “saved anyone”? Although John 1:14 is only one verse in the entire scripture, it does seem to point to a saving significance of the incarnation which must be emphasised in a full doctrine of salvation. The Incarnation was certainly a turning point in the history of God’s dealing with mankind…

Perhaps it is simply the rather bold way that Kolden phrases his statement in order to make his point that niggles. Anyway, over to you.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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8 Responses to “The birth of Jesus never saved anyone”?

  1. Hannah says:

    David it would be very hard to have the Cross and Ressurrection without first the birth of Christ. Unless biology was different then. And Ressurrection? what was there to ressurrect if there was no body born.
    I think I also understand what the author was trying to say and maybe he didnt frame it well.
    Indeed the church is born from the body of Christ on the Cross but there was a body on the cross from which the Chruch is to be born from.
    And birth must be something of enormous value is God the Son second Person of the Holy Trinity chose to be “born” in the shape and way of humanity.
    So maybe he (author)was trying to say something else.

    • Schütz says:

      I think he was just trying to say that Easter is the central feast of the Church’s calendar rather than Christmas, and Christians should remember this. But I thought it was a clumsy expression showing a lack of appreciation of the mystery of the incarnation. And, dare I say it, Mary doesn’t figure as highly in the Paschal Mystery as she does in the Incarnation either!

      • Hannah says:

        You cannot separate the mother from her child or was the Blessed virgin Mary another “gestational carrier” (words of Nicole Kidman). A child and its mother are a package and one without the other doesnt mix well.
        If the Cross is the central Pascal Mystery, before the Cross there had to be something of equal importance which could lead to Cross and this Pascal Mystery. This author is dumbing down the mystery of life itself and diminishing it. I dont like it.

  2. An Liaig says:

    This seems to me to be a silly and artificial split. Just as you can’t have the resurrection without the cross, you can’t have the cross without the stable – or the annunciation for that matter.

  3. Stephen K says:

    Many years ago a colleague of mine (now an episcopus vagus) said to me something to the effect that “people have it wrong. Christmas is THE feast of the faith because the Incarnation is far more mind-blowing a mystery than the Resurrection. It’s like, WOW!” I apologise for making him sound like Maynard G. Crebbs: I’m just trying to paraphrase.)

    I remember thinking at the time it was a different angle to the way things are emphasised and I suppose to some degree I took what he said on board. Certainly I think the Incarnation is the ginger point or pivotal question behind many divisions and dissents from orthodox or traditional understanding: the Christian faith is more riven or compromised by modifications or rejection of the Godship of Jesus than by modifications or rejection of bodily resurrection at Easter.

    Here is my understanding on the matter. I think that the two hang together, not because a resurrection needs a body, but because the death and resurrection make sense of the incarnation. But they don’t necessarily make sense of the birth. I think we are talking about two different things, for there is a subtle difference between talking about the “incarnation” and the “Birth” of Jesus. At Christmas the popular religious emphasis is all about the latter, even if the liturgical text theology is mostly about the former. I think this emphasis is a weakness, and I think Christianity is better served by John than Luke or Matthew.

    • Stephen K says:

      oops! I meant “I think Christmas is better served by John than…..etc.” But not as an absolute, mind you. Anyway, on further reflection, it seems to me also true to say the opposite, namely, the Incarnation makes sense of the death and resurrection.

    • Schütz says:

      I think that the two hang together, not because a resurrection needs a body, but because the death and resurrection make sense of the incarnation.

      Now, I think there really is something in what you say here. Consider: Could there have been any other ending to the story of the “God become Man” than that very God Incarnate was killed by Man? There is something completely inevitable about that, it seems to me. Thus, the Paschal Mystery is already completely encapsulated in the Incarnation – there was something of the “divine necessity” (the Greek word “dei” is used often in the Gospels) of the death – and of the Resurrection of course – of the Incarnate Lord.

  4. Chris Jones says:

    The birth of Jesus as such is not redemptive.

    I’m not an Orthodox theologian, but I know what an Orthodox theologian would say. He would say that this reflects a very narrow view of exactly what “redemption” is. If “redemption” is no more and no less than the forgiveness of our sins, then one might be able to say that the birth of Jesus is not redemptive. But if redemption involves a true union between God and man, if we are to become partakers of the divine nature, then the Incarnation of the Word of God is a central event in the economy of salvation. Our participation in the divine nature in the eschaton is grounded in the Word’s participation in our nature in his enfleshment.

    It is a too-often forgotten and too-little appreciated fact that the critical importance of the Christological controversies of the early Church was not the abstract correctness of the orthodox dogmas, but the soteriological implications of accepting heresy. The Fathers of the Church insisted on orthodox Christology because if God did not truly become human, then we cannot truly be united to God, and thus cannot be saved. As St Athanasius boldly and succinctly put it, God became what we are in order that we might become what He is.

    If opening to us the possibility of becoming partakers of the divine nature is not “redemptive” then I don’t know what is.

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