Incarnation and Non-Competitiveness

The nativity

Here is an excerpt from Robert Barron’s Catholicism that I have always loved! He says that the incarnation means that God is non-competitive with his creation. And actually, the closer the divine life gets to us, the more alive we are:

The incarnation tells us central truths concerning God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature the he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation. In many ancient myths and legends, divine figures such as Zeus or Dionysus enter into human affairs only through aggression, destroying or wounding that which they invade… But there is none of this in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. The Word does indeed become human, but nothing of the human is destroyed in the process; God does indeed enter into his creation, but the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God of the incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song. 

And the incarnation tells us the most important truth about ourselves: we are destined for divinization. The church fathers never tired of repeating this phrase as a sort of summary for the Christian belief: Dues fit homo ut homo fieret Deus (God became human so that humans might become God). God condescended to enter into flesh so that our flesh might partake of the divine life, that we might participate in the love that holds the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in communion. And this is why Christianity is the greatest humanism that has ever appeared (p 1-2)

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Christ in the Garden

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Mary Magdelene meets Christ “in the garden” after his resurrection

In the Gospel of John, there is an interesting “garden” theme that runs from the betrayal of Judas all the way through the resurrection. I cannot help but assume that John is attempting a connection between Adam and Christ.

The setting for the whole garden theme begins in John 13. After Christ washed the disciples feet, John says that Jesus signaled Judas as betrayer by dipping the bread and giving it to him to eat. John tells us that “after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him” (13:27) (almost an anti-Eucharist, no?). After this, it is said that Judas/Satan left to betray Jesus.

What is interesting, is that after Jesus finished his instruction of the disciples, it says in John 18:1 that Jesus “went out with his disciples across the brook of Kidron, where there was a garden”. This garden is where Judas, possessed by Satan, came to capture Jesus and his disciples with a Roman army. It is almost certain that Jesus’ disciples would have been captured and killed along with their leader. And yet John tells us that Jesus protected his disciples by telling the soldiers to take only him and to “let these men go” (18:8). This means that Jesus protected his disciples from Satan’s attack in the garden.

One can’t help but see how this scene almost mirrors Satan’s entrance into the garden in Genesis 2. Satan entered the garden to attack Adam and his bride. The only difference here is that Adam failed to protect his bride. He allowed Satan to seduce her into sin. Christ on the other hand stood up to the enemy. He protected his people by giving his own life for theirs. John then portrays Jesus here as the faithful Adam who stood up to the enemy in the garden, protecting his bride with his own life.

Fast forward to the crucifixion scene, John tells us that the “place where [Jesus] was crucified was a garden” (19:41). John wants us to know then that Jesus gave his life for his people in a garden. On the one hand, this could be a mere historical fact; and yet the detail is random. I believe the detail is theological: Jesus gave his life on a tree in a garden for his people, while Adam on the other hand saved his life in a garden at a tree, and gave his bride to the tempter. John is contrasting the selfishness of the one, and the selflessness of the other.

One last detail is during the resurrection scene. We are told that Mary Magdelene, having discovered Jesus’ body missing from the tomb, was weeping. John tells us that while she was weeping, Jesus came up to her and asked: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (20:13). Mary answered, “supposing Him to be the gardner, [and] she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him'” (20:14). Notice two important details: first, Jesus called Mary “woman”; second, John tells us that Mary supposed him to be the gardner. Adam named his wife “woman”, or Eve. And he was tasked as the gardner! John is clearly referencing the creation account. Christ’s resurrection restores Eden. Jesus in himself becomes a second Adam.

So then it becomes fairly clear that throughout the entire betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection narratives, John is making a connection between Jesus and Adam. Jesus steps in to protect and give his life for his bride in a garden. Adam allows Satan to tempt and seduce his bride, and dies in a garden. Jesus is, as Paul says, the Last Adam.

Atonement Theory and Sacrifice

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Peter Leithart, in his recently released theological magnum opus, Delivered from the Elements of the World, says at the beginning of his book that any theology of the cross must make sense or be connected to the Levitical cultic sacrifices (among other things of course. Leithart mentions 5 criteria for a proper theology of atonement: evangelical, Levitical, Pauline, inevitable or necessary, and fruitful).

Leithart says this about Levitical atonement theology: “a successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events” (p 20).

The connection of the cross to sacrifice is of course apparent in NT letters such as Hebrews and the gospel narratives. But how exactly does the death of Christ “work” as a sacrifice? Peter Leithart takes up much of this book to bring to clarity the sacrificial death of Christ. First, he explains the purpose of the Levitical sacrifices:

[The] sacrificial system was designed to bring Israel near so that divine Husband and human Bride could feast together at the house of Yahweh. Yahweh accommodated himself to the post-Edenic, fleshly situation of Israel. Israelites themselves did not approach Yahweh but drew near through animal mediators, animals whose flesh was destroyed so that they could be transfigured and ascend, as the worshipper could not, in Yahweh’s presence. Israelite priests ate in the holy place but only under controlled conditions; Israelites could eat and drink and rejoice before the Lord, but only at a distance from his fiery presence. Israelites could not go past the cherubic swords and live. Israelites could not become fire to join themselves to Yahweh’s fire. But they could send animals past the cherubic swords, and Yahweh accepted the animals in place of the worshipers and Yahweh’s fire “consumed” the flesh of animals so that their flesh was turned to smoke and fire, “divinized” into union with Yahweh (p 138)

To make this explanation simple: the sacrifices were a sacramental means to accomplishing union with God. Israel offered these sacrifices, because they themselves were unable to ascend to God; they killed and burned the offerings as an act of repentance and vicarious self-giving, hoping the smoke could ascend to God and be accepted in their stead. This sacramental union was finalized when the priests ate the sacrifice “in the presence of the Lord”, which symbolized table fellowship with Yahweh.

Peter Leithart’s explanation of OT sacrificial theology represents a Thomistic sentiment. Sacrifices were seen by Aquinas as vicarious offerings of the self through the animal offerings for the purpose of creating union of God and man. The point of the sacrifices were “giving up” part of yourself to God; something valuable, something representative. This is why Israel offered animals, because they were comparable to income during those times. Even more, they gave the first born without spot and blemish. This was the most valuable animal. To give an animal like that was to give up part of your own income and wealth, and thus it was seen as a vicarious act of self-giving.

Moving on the cross, Leithart points out that the cross is seen by NT writers as fulfilling and finalizing OT sacrifices because while the OT sacrifices were vicarious, Christ’s was personal and actual. He didn’t offer to God a goat or bull, hoping that God would accept those in their place; rather, Christ offered himself in totality to God. Leithart says this:

[Christ] fulfilled the sacrificial system because he did what all sacrifices signified…  Jesus did this in fact when he offered himself, passing through death into union with God like an animal sacrifice. (p 159)

So he fulfilled what all other sacrifices wished to fulfill: the offering of the total self to God. In fact, this is the point of the resurrection: it was simply smoke that rose to God; rather, God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and rose him up and seated him at his right hand. Sacramental union has been definitively accomplished in the person of Jesus.

But Leithar acknowledges: Jesus ” was not the first martyr to give his life to the God of Israel” (p 159). So what made his sacrifice different from all the other martyrs of the faith of Israel? Leithart answers:

The answer is, his identity and life. Jesus was the “son of God” in the Old Testament sense: he was Israel’s King, Israel embodied in a single person, and so his death, like the death of every king of Israel, was on behalf of his people. When he passed through death toward transfiguration, Israel went with him. More, Jesus was Israel’s king and Israel High King in one person, both David’s Son and David’s Lord. He poured out his blood, the life of his flesh, as Yahweh incarnate, and so his passage through death was Yahweh’s own passion, God’s own passage through human. Besides, Jesus’ entire life made his martyrdom unique. Heroic as they were, no other martyrs had lived a life of complete obedience to Torah. None had fully realized all that Torah required. Like every sacrificial animal, Jesus offered himself “without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14) (pp 159-160)

Jesus’ sacrifice was unique because Jesus was representative of Israel; and, borrowing from Saint Anselm, Jesus was man and God, which made his death utterly and infinitely more valuable than any other death of a human being. But even more than that, Jesus’ sacrifice was pure and without blemish. Because Jesus obeyed the Torah in full, he offered himself a pure oblation, innocent one, perfectly loving and just. God took delight in that and raised him up, and consequently, all Israel in him.

Aquinas said in his Summa Theologia that the value in Christ’s self-offering was not so much his suffering (although this doesn’t discount the need for vicarious suffering), but rather in the infinite perfect love with which he suffered. The entire point of the sacrifices was the give the self to God entirely: this is just what Christ did in the cross by dying in perfect love. And that infinite love was sufficient for the remission of all the world’s sin!

 

What it means to be godly

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Kelly Kopic, in his article on anthropology (theology of man) from Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Catholic Church, has a fascinating discussion on what it means to be a godly person. He begins by asking: what does it mean for a human being to image God as a person created in his likeness? What does it mean to be like God?

His thesis is this:

We never embody God’s image more clearly than when we love, delight in, and commune with his incarnate Son, who has reconciled all things in himself. Simply put, we are never more like God than when we love his Son through his Spirit (p 160).

To image God, to be like him, to be godly, is nothing less than to delight in and commune with Christ. Kopic fleshes this out by examining a fascinating little homily by John Owen. In it, Owen lists four reasons why a godly person is one who delights in Christ. Kopic explains:

First, Owen reflects classic orthodox conceptions of the immanent (ad intra) Trinity, arguing that from all eternity there was “an essential blessedness of the holy Trinity” that “consists in the mutual love of the Father and the Son, by the Holy Ghost; which is the love of them both.” Even before the incarnation, the Son is “the only full, resting, complete object of the love of God the Father.”

Second, “it is in the nature of rational creatures” to experience love in such a way that “it might shadow and represent the ineffable, eternal love that the Father had unto the Son, and the Son unto the Father, by the Spirit.” All love experienced and known outside this intratrinitarian love is a “free emanation from this eternal love between the Father and the Son”

Third, Owen believes that the “first act of the love of God the Father wherein there is any thing ad extra, or without the divine essence, is the person of Christ considered as invested with our nature… Now having taken on a human body and soul, the Son becomes the great delight of the Father who fills his incarnate Son with his Spirit. Here in Jesus is God’s great yes to creation in general, and humanity in particular.”…

[Fourth], Because Jesus is the fullness of God’s self-revelation, we reflect God to the degree that we love the incarnate Son (p 160-62)

What Owen is saying simply, is that to be like God is to love the Son as the Father loves the Son. To imitate him is to imitate the delight which the Father takes in the Son. What a valuable insight!

 

God’s Final Word

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While I was reading through 1 John this morning, I picked up on something that I hadn’t really ever noticed before. 1 John 1 begins by talking about a word (word of life, v. 1) which is seeable, touchable, hearable. John tells us that the purpose of the apostolic ministry is to proclaim that very word (v. 2). What does John mean by this?

It is no secret that the Apostle John is fond of calling Jesus the Word, or the Word of God. In the Gospel of John, for instance, in the first chapter, he calls Jesus the Word (Greek is logos) who was with God and was God.

While it is supposed by some commentators that John is meaning to connect this Word or Logos to the religious background of his Greek audience (the Greeks perceived of a divine logos that was the reason or logic behind everything), it seems more plausible that John was using this term “Word of God” in connection to the prophets of the Old Testament.

There are many places in the Old Testament where “the word of the Lord” comes to the prophets (Jeremiah 1:4, Ezek 18:1, Zech 4:8). This “word of the Lord” was of course God’s divine revelation to his people Israel. This was, after all, the purpose of the prophets: to give the people God’s word. But of course, this “word” came indirectly: from an angel or vision, to the prophet, then finally to the people. It was direct revelation, but it had to pass through several ears before it finally reached the ears of the people.

In John 1, however, the apostle says that Jesus is God’s Word who became flesh and “tabernacled among us” (v. 14), meaning, God’s Word became visible, physical, tangible, directly accessible not simply to the ears, but to the eyes and the hands.

This is precisely what John says in his first epistle. He says in 1 John 1:1, “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…”

What John means to say here is that the Word of God is no longer a word given through the prophets; the Word is now in-fleshed, touchable, hearable, seeable, living and breathing. The prophetic word comes to us and tabernacles among us. The Word is no longer a “what”, but a “Who”

Hebrews 1:1-2 says this of Christ:”Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son”. Jesus is God’s last, eschatological prophetic word incarnate and touchable. 

Or, put another way: Jesus is finally and fully what God has to say. He is the Word of God, capital “W”. All that Jesus said or did on this earth is what God himself said and did. He revealed himself totally and without condition in Christ. “If you’ve seen Me you’ve seen the Father”, Jesus says.

For John, Jesus is not simply God incarnate; he is! But he is also God’s final and full prophetic Word made visible, touchable, seeable. What joy!

The Incarnation as a Saving Reality

The nativity

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.

Reardon explains:

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.

Reardon contiues:

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.