Patrick Henry Reardon, in his new work, Reclaiming the Atonement, argues that the incarnation was an integral and necessary part of mankind’s redemption. In other words, the incarnation was not a step along the way to the “real saving work” of the cross. Rather, the incarnation was of primary importance in the schema of redemption.
His initial starting point is the assumption that the end goal of humanity is not simply moral uprightness, obedience etc; rather, the end goal of humanity at-one-ness with the Triune God. Man was created to be in a vital, living union with his Creator; to be initiated into the love-community of Father, Son and Spirit. Having this union broken through man’s apostasy, God’s redemptive goal is once again to be at one with his creatures. This at-one-ness is accomplished first through the union the Son with human nature in the incarnation and completed in his death and resurrection.
In the scholastic theology known to me, the Incarnation was essential to our redemption, not so much as an act [but] as a condition. That is to say, the Incarnation was not, in itself, redemptive; it made redemption possible.
In the Church Fathers, however, I began to discover another perspective. I learned that, if the goal of redemption is the union of man with God, then the Incarnation was far more than a condition for our salvation. It served, rather, as the effective model and exemplar of salvation. The Church Fathers insisted that the “full humanity” of Jesus Christ was essential to man’s redemption, because “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.”
“Whatever was assumed was not healed” is a quote from Gregory of Nazianzus, who in response to the Apolloniarian controversy, argued that Christ’s incarnation of full humanity was pertinent to mankind’s redemption and renewal. If the entire human nature is fallen and corrupted through the fall, then God must redeem and sanctify all of human nature in the incarnation. Therefore, the incarnation is a necessary element of salvation.
Reardon goes on to explain:
“Whatever was not assumed was not healed.” This assertion, which came to be accepted as a principle, meant that the Son’s full assumption of our human nature was required for the work of redemption. A qualified or limited Incarnation would not satisfy. If God’s Son had not become a full human being, he could not have been a Mediator between God and the human race. In other words, only the Word’s full assumption of human experience could satisfy what was needed for human beings to be saved…
If the fact of the Incarnation means that the Word adopted the fullness of human experience— sin excepted, says the Epistle to the Hebrews— then nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. The Word, embracing our humanity, took possession of all of it in order to redeem all of it…
Reardon’s last point is paramount in my estimation: nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. If the incarnation means that Christ assumes a human nature, then the incarnation must fall under the category of redemption. Put another way, it is not right to parse out “soteriology” from “Christology” or “anthropology”. They are all intimately connected to one another. And they all fall under “soteriology”. Reardon spells this out by highlighting that the early fathers of the church originally headed soteriology under the “part of Christology; its foundational thesis declared that what Jesus accomplished on our behalf, and for our benefit, depended entirely on who He was”.
Reardon goes on to cite several early fathers who understood the incarnation of Christ to be the initiatory process through which humanity was being healed of sin and corruption. One central part of Christ’s life is his baptism at the Jordan river. During the baptism, the Spirit is said to “remained” on Christ. Reardon explains the significance of this:
Among the gospel references to this event (Jesus’ baptism), only John explicitly stresses the permanence of the Holy Spirit’s descent on Jesus: “He remained (emeinen) upon Him”—“ remaining (menon) on Him.” This Johannine detail of the Spirit’s descent has long been the object of Christian observation and comment. In the second century, for example, St. Irenaeus of Lyons regarded it as indicating the spiritual renewal of the human race. He wrote on this point by way of commentary on Isaiah 11: 2, “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest (anapavsetai) upon him.”
Irenaeus also commented that the Holy Spirit
“descended on the Son of God— who was made the Son of Man— becoming accustomed with Him to reside (skenoun) in the human race and to abide (anapavesthai) among men and to reside in the workmanship of God, accomplishing in them the will of the Father and renewing them from what is old to the newness of Christ.”
The Holy Spirit’s “abiding” on Jesus, for Irenaeus, referred to a renewed state of humanity by reason of the Incarnation.
Almost three centuries later, St. Cyril of Alexandria pursued Irenaeus’s interpretation of the text, but he placed it within the Pauline theology of the New Adam. Into the body and soul of the first Adam, wrote Cyril, God had “impressed, like a seal, the Holy Spirit, that is, the breath of life.” Because of this creative activity, man’s nature was “established for every kind of excellence, by virtue of the Spirit given to dwell in it.” The old Adam, however, had failed to safeguard this state of grace. He and his seed had lost the presence of the Holy Spirit conferred at Creation. What was needed, Cyril believed, was a Second Adam, who would not forfeit the gift of the Holy Spirit. From the old Adam the Holy Spirit “flew away” (apepte), but on the Second Adam He came down and remained. The Spirit descended on Jesus, wrote Cyril, “that He might become accustomed to remain (menein) in us.” Thus, the Holy Spirit, descending on Jesus at His Baptism, found a permanent and completely suitable dwelling in the human race.
The point here is that the incarnation began the initiatory process of human redemption. We may call the cross the climax, but not the beginning. It starts with the incarnation.