The Scandal of the Incarnation

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Icon of the Crucifixion (source)

Tertullian once said that “the flesh is the hinge, the decisive criterion, of salvation”. What did he mean by this? What he meant was that the full assumption and renewal of the “flesh” by God the Son in the incarnation is of utmost importance for mankind’s redemption. If God the Son did not assume a fully human nature, if he did not renew it completely, then mankind is not fully saved.

Irenaeus, echoing Tertullian, says this about the incarnation:

There was no other way for us to receive incorruptibility and immortality than to be united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be united to incorruptibility and immortality without incorruptibility and immortality first becoming what we are, the perishable putting on imperishability, the mortal putting on immortality (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54), ‘so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (Gal 4:5)? Advurses Haereses, III 19, 1

In other words, salvation is not possible unless God takes on human flesh. This is where the early church come up with the formula of the great exchange: God becomes what man is, so that man might become what God is. Irenaeus says it this way: “The Son of God became the Son of Man, so that through him we might receive adoption. This takes place when man receives and bears and embraces the Son of God” (Ibid, III 18, 7). God the Son takes what is ours — the fallen flesh — and bestows upon it a participation in his divine sonship. Irenaeus continues by saying:

The Word of God became man, assimilating Himself to man and man to Himself, so that, by His resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father… When the Word of God was made flesh… He restored and made fast the likeness, making man like the invisible Father through the visible Word” (ibid, V 16, 2)

Crucial to the gospel is the flesh, the worldly. God has descended to earth not to get us out of the world, but to recreate and refashion the flesh according to the divine pattern of life. This is what the early fathers call theosis or divinization: it is to participate in God through the descension of God the Son into our fallen situation. The gospel is principally the glorification of the flesh through the humiliation of the Son. It is the ontological raising up of mortal humanity that lies in death, endowing man with God’s own eternal glory.

This of course sounds scandalous, and it is! The shock of the gospel is, as Balthasar says, that “God becomes nothing, so that nothings might become God” (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 53). How can the ineffable God raise us up in this manner? Surely this is too good to be true! But it isn’t: God has united himself to man and has risen him up to such great heights in Christ.

One reason the doctrines of incarnation, theosis, divinization, are so scandalous, is because Gnosticism, though not explicit, is a common presumption within western Christianity. Gnosticism was the earliest of the church heresies. Gnosticism in its most elemental form was “the belief that the lower, material sphere, the ‘flesh’, the world of the ‘psychic’, was contemptible, something to be vanquished, while the higher, spiritual world was all that was excellent, the only thing worth cultivating” (ibid, 1). Therefore the goal of redemption was not for God to glorify the flesh, but for man to escape from the material world into the spiritual life of God.

There were numerous myths about how the material world came to be. In any case, the world was understood within Gnosticism to be a lower or fallen state of being. The fall within Gnostic myth was the imprisonment of the spiritual in the material. Even more, to think that God, the highest of all beings, would not only embrace the flesh, but become flesh, was unthinkable. Irenaeus explains:

[The gnostics] reject the commixture of the heavenly wine. They only want to be the water of this world and will not admit god into commixture with them. And so they remain in the Adam conquered and cast out of Paradise. They fail to see that, as at the beginning of our formation in Adam the breath of life which comes from God was united to what had been formed, animating man, and showed him to be a rational animal, so, at the end, the Word of the Father and the Spirit of God, united to the ancient substance of Adam’s formation, made man living and perfect, capable of knowing the perfect Father (Advurses Haereses, V 1, 3)

What results from this Gnostic mindset is a radical anti-materialism. The end goal of the spiritual life is not for the world to be fitted with God’s life, divinized, but rather for man to find the spiritual god outside of the world. For this reason, the Gnostics were anti-sacramental, anti-worldly, rather, in favor of a higher spiritual “knowing” which lifted them out of the world. Balthasar explains:

The Gnostic impulse secretly or openly animates all those modern world-views which see body and spirit, bios and ethos, nature and God, in antagonism or opposition… One of ancient Gnosticism’s favourite doctrines, vigorously satirized by Irenaeus, is the glorification of the ‘eternal quest’, the idea being that the supreme principle, the ‘Groundless One’, is unknowable. It is not difficult to see why this emotional attachment to seeking, which despises as bourgeois, should have revived in our own times. But the clearest proof of the continuing relevance of the second-century struggle against Gnosticism is the fashionable interest, within the Christian church, in Zen meditation. This is essentially anti-incarnational. All sensible images, all words and concepts must be removed, so that there is nothing left but the unfathomable void in which a supposedly superobjective insight (gnosis) can flourish. However mutually contradictory these currents of thought may at first sight appear to be, they are united in their ‘spiritualizing’ flight from matter and the ‘flesh’. Modern materialism seems to be an exception, and yet it too is opposed to the Christian principle of Incarnation. (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 5-6)

Balthasar explains here the modern influence of Gnosticism: the quest to find God by emptying oneself, by ridding oneself of the objects and materials that “get in the way”. God is that unknowable spiritual principle to which we must escape. This, to Irenaeus, is anti-Christian, precisely because it is ant-Incarnational.

Balthasar concludes his thought:

In practice, [modern Gnostics] regard matter as something to be dominated, and in man himself as the way to power. Myth and Christianity are opposed on every point. Myth seeks the ascent of man to spirit; the Word of God seeks descent into flesh and blood. Myth wants power; revelation reveals the true power of God int he most extreme powerlessness (ibid, 6)

Gnosticism is ignorantly rampant in western Christianity. What we must return to is the scandalous gospel of God’s own descent into man’s fallen situation; his very gift of life to raise us up; his very desire to unite heaven and earth!

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Prayer in the Spirit

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Coptic Icon of the Ascension

I am examining Balthasar’s insights from his book Prayer. In this post I want to walk through the paradox of flesh and spirit. Balthasar introduces the two opposing realities of flesh and spirit, saying,

the tension between flesh and spirit which characterizes man in particular brings out the starkest contrasts in the way contemplation is viewed. If God is pure spirit, and if contemplation is a matter of encountering God, it seems to follow that the contemplative’s task is to purify himself and lift himself into the purely spiritual sphere by slowly detaching himself from the external world of sense (p 259)

The logic is there: God is spirit, and man is called to contemplate God; but of course, this quote wreaks of Gnosticism. Christianity is a wholly this worldly. It is a physical religion; incarnational. How then can this be the call for the contemplative? Balthasar, aware of the possible objections, qualifies his call to purely spiritual prayer:

[We cannot not presume that] man’s soul belongs with God and thus seeks to return to him (whereas the body comes from below and must return thither to death), and that man’s bodily existence is alienated from God through sin and bondage to death, the conclusions of natural religion seem to be almost inevitable: man, at the core of his being, is a soul which comes from God; the body is involved in some kind of “displacement” or “fall”; and soul’s return and redemption must take place through a movement away from the body and toward the spirit (p 260)

On the contrary, says Balthasar, “God, who is pure spirit, condescends to become man in order thus to lead us up to him. For Christ is both God and man: in the flesh he not only manifests the reality and power of the soul, the spirit: he even manifests the divine in the medium of the flesh” (p 262).

In other words, it is not that God wants to break the chains of the flesh and free us from bodily existence. On the contrary, the reality of the God-man means that God has come into and through the medium of the flesh. This means that divine and fleshly existence are not in competition with one another. In Christ, God and man have entered into a cooperative relationship.

So then, how is the Christian to contemplate God in pure spirit if he is not called to escape the flesh? How can he be purely spiritual and yet in the flesh? Balthasar explains:

God did not descend to the level of flesh simply so that we should “ascend” from flesh to spirit; the revelation of agape, of his self-sacrificing and self-emptying love is not solely or primarily intended to assist our natural religious eros to reach its goal… In other words, God’s entering into flesh must not be seen as a mere means to our redemption, nor as a preliminary stage on the way to our “divinization”; it is not something that passes away, as it were, is extinguished, is canceled by the Risen Lord’s return to the Father. The Risen One returns to the Father with his whole humanity, including his body. This is what makes him the firstborn of many brethren. But what kind of body is his? Is it not a glorified body, adopted into the Spirit’s mode of existence? (p 263)

OK then, we come to the answer: Christ returned to the Father with his entire humanity. What this means is that mankind is not destined to break free of the flesh, but rather to entire into a new mode of spiritual-physical existence. Paul calls this existence glorification; a world, a body, enriched and animated by the power of the Spirit. This is what it means to be spiritual: to participate fully in God’s eternal life through the Son and the Spirit.

Let us dig a bit deeper. Balthasar expounds:

There is truth in the Platonic view (that body is bondage), and it is this: through sin we forfeited our native home and have taken lodging in a lower region; we have fallen from a world governed by the Spirit to a world governed by subspiritual laws (p 268)

Flesh is fallen not in the sense that it is bad and we must escape it, but in the sense that it has lost a life enlivened by the Spirit. Our bodies are given over to temporality; to non-eternity; to life outside of God’s own life, to be overtaken by corruption and death. Redemption therefore includes a participation in Christ’s full resurrected life in the Spirit. The Son became one of us to breathe the Spirit back into our flesh; to give us a participation in his own triune life. If this was not needed, then why the incarnation? Death had come as a result of the fall, and God entered into that situation to destroy death in the flesh, and to make our very flesh participants in his life.

Christ came, in other words, to give us a physical-pneumatic life, a fully embodied life governed, empowered, enhanced, transfigured by the life of the Spirit. Balthasar explains,

As believers privileged to share in the Lord’s resurrection, our senses acquire something of the pneumatic quality of the Lord’s glorified sense even prior to our own resurrection, so that, in him and together with him, we can grasp the Father and the Spirit and the entire world beyond (p 270)

What all of this means is that to pray in the Spirit, to be spiritual, is not to leave the flesh. It is not to be otherworldly. Rather, it is to be illumined and to participate in the life of Christ through the Spirit. This world was destined to participate in God, to be elevated, to be raised to a new and higher pitch through God’s own power. This is the logic of the incarnation: the Son took the fallen finite flesh of humanity and breathed life into it. And he gives us this very life in the Spirit!