Theological speculation can be fun because it often leads to deep thinking about how the whole system of your theology fits together. Posing “what if” questions often helps us understand more clearly the significance of doctrines that we confess. For example, when teaching on the doctrine of the Person of Christ, I often pose the question, “What if Jesus were not fully God?” In other words, what if the Arians were right all along? What would follow? According to Athanasius and other church fathers, the whole gospel would become unraveled. That is because from a biblical perspective, only God can save us. If Jesus is not fully God, he cannot reveal the true God to us and bring us into his presence. The deity of Christ is an essential component of the gospel.
An interesting question that has been pondered throughout church history is the question of whether or not God the Son would have become incarnate had humanity never fallen into sin. Could God’s purpose for unfallen humanity have been fulfilled apart from the union of the divine nature with a human nature in the Person of God the Son? On the one hand, Scripture indicates clearly that God’s design before the fall into sin was to dwell with humanity, and thus the ultimate goal of redemption is the same. At the end of the story, the voice from the throne declares, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelation 21:3). In his free act of creating this world, God chose to become the covenant partner of humanity forever. Like a man who proposes to a woman, thereby choosing to stamp the rest of his life with a relational identity as her husband, God, in the act of creation (and subsequently redemption) chose to become God with man and for man forever. One could argue that the incarnation represents the supreme expression of that original creational intention and would have occurred whether or not Adam had sinned. That argument makes the idea of a supralapsarian (“above the fall”) incarnation attractive.
However, I think there are at least two reasons to be cautious before making that affirmation. One is the clear biblical connection between the incarnation and God’s purpose of redemption. It is beyond question in Scripture that God became man for a purpose that was specifically redemptive (John 3:16, etc.). I am open to being corrected here if I am wrong, but I am not aware of any indication in the New Testament that the incarnation can be placed in a broader context of God’s general purpose for creation apart from consideration of his purpose of redemption. Admittedly, that is an argument from silence, but still worth noting.
So my second reason for being hesitant to affirm a supralapsarian incarnation is the theological problem it creates with Adam’s covenantal headship. Scripture (especially Romans 5:12-21) teaches that Adam stands before God as the representative of all of his natural offspring in covenantal solidarity. Because his sin alienated all of us from God (making us all covenant breakers), it makes perfect sense that God would send his own Son to be the covenant head of a new humanity, those who are joined spiritually to him. Salvation is a matter of moving our covenantal identity from Adam to Christ. The covenantal headship of Christ will, in the end, bring to fulfillment the original purpose of Adam’s covenantal headship, namely, the filling of the earth with obedient priest-kings who bear God’s image, rule under God’s authority, and dwell in his presence forever. But there’s the rub: what if Adam’s fall had never happened? What if Adam had been an obedient son of God and faithful covenant head? What need would there have been for another covenant head to come along? And in that scenario, would Christ have divested Adam of his covenantal headship, even though Adam had been obedient to God in everything? The clear Adam-Christ connection in the New Testament suggests that, apart from the failure of Adam, the incarnation of Christ would not have been necessary.
All Christians agree that the incarnation is oriented toward redemption. Whether it would have occurred apart from a divine redemptive mission is difficult to say. But it is fascinating to ponder.