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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Christ the New Adam

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One of the earliest models of atonement was Irenaeus’ recapitulation model. In this model, Christ replaces Adam as the head of the human race by obeying and overcoming where Adam sinned and was thus overcome. Irenaeus famously gets his “recapitulation” idea from Ephesians 1:10, which says that God planned to, as the ESV says, “unite all things in [Christ]”. The Greek word for unite, anakephalaiosasthai, is better translated as “sum up”, or “to bring things together”. Paul uses the root cepha in this word, which is “head”. Irenaeus thus translated it as “re-heading all things in Christ”. The idea here is that Christ is the new “head of all things”. Through his life and death, Christ “re-starts” that which was lost in Adam. Christ is the beginning of a new humanity.

Irenaeus got this theme primarily from Paul, who in several letters drew a strong parallel between Christ and Adam. In Romans 5, Paul tells us that death was transmitted to all mankind through Adam, even to those who were not guilty of Adam’s primordial sin; but through Christ’s “one act of righteousness”, death has been defeated and righteousness is thus returned to the human race in him. Paul brings the same parallel to bear in 1 Corinthians 15, saying that Christ is the last adam, the last man who replaces Adam. The point here is that Christ came to undo or overcome or reverse the effects of Adam’s sin. As Irenaeus says, “God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore His works are true”. (Patrick Henry Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement, Kindle 2209-2210)

The Christ/Adam theme is not unique to Paul, though. Patrick Henry Reardon, in his book Reclaiming the Atonement, argues that Paul’s Christ/Adam theology was actually drawing from a much older tradition evident in other NT writings. 

As proof for this, Reardon turns to the gospel narratives. In each of the gospels, the authors are careful (almost unnoticeably) to connect certain narratives with the Genesis creation accounts. For instance, after Christ’s temptation in the wilderness and subsequent victory over Satan, Mark tells us that Christ was with the “wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (1:13). Reardon comments on this verse:

[A]n early story transmitted in Mark, precisely in the context of Jesus’ temptations, preserved the tradition of our Lord’s companionship with the animals (1: 13). This story, of course, puts the reader in mind of Adam in the midst of the animals in Genesis. Jesus’ victory over His temptations by Satan thus inaugurates a new state of Paradise, as it were, in which the friendly relations of men and beasts, disrupted since the Fall, are restored. (Kindle Locations 2155-2158)

The verse is so small one could easily miss the significance: Christ was tempted by the “snake”, and yet has overcome! Thus he began to restore the paradise which Adam lost through his sin. The wild animals are no longer “beasts”, but are becoming tamed and under his headship as Lord.

Reardon also brings in Luke’s gospel:

In Luke the Adam/ Christ analogy is subtler, and we discern it in the way the Lord’s genealogy is arranged. To detect this, we may observe two differences between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke.

First, unlike Matthew, Luke traces the Lord’s lineage all the way back to Adam, not just to Abraham. This format emphasizes Jesus’ relationship to the whole human race and not just the Jews. For this reason, in citing the famous Isaian text that begins the ministry of John the Baptist in all the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 3: 3; Mark 1: 2– 3; Luke 3: 4– 6), Luke alone quotes the words, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Second, whereas Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus comes at the beginning of his Gospel, Luke places it after the Lord’s Baptism and right before the account of His temptation. This arrangement prompts the reader to make the comparison that Luke has in mind to imply, the temptations of Jesus and the temptation of Adam. (Kindle Locations 2158-2165)

So, Luke carefully situates Christ’s baptism before his temptation, thus alerting us that he is facing the same temptation as Adam. Thus the temptation narratives become a way of retelling the creation story, but under the headship of Christ. Christ is called to reenact, as it were, the temptation of Adam in the garden and to overcome the effects of sin.

From this Reardon argues that Irenaeus’ doctrine is very ancient, and very biblically rooted: Christ has come to reverse the effects of death, to renew the human race in himself as its new head:

He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us with salvation in a succinct, inclusive manner, so that what we had lost in Adam— namely, to exist according to the image and likeness of God— that we might recover in Christ Jesus. (Kindle Locations 2199-2201)

 

 

The Role of Tradition in the Early Church

Above, St. Irenaeus of Lyons

If the scriptures are the Word of God, how does tradition play a role in the church without undermining the uniqueness of the scriptures? How does it benefit the church without undermining biblical study? Many Protestants today take the approach of rejecting altogether any extra-biblical tradition. But is this healthy or safe?

Tradition has always been around ever since the conception of the church. And in fact, it was very important during the first five centuries of the early church. To understand the importance and role of tradition, it’s important to get a glimpse of how the early church fathers understood tradition.

Alister McGrath, in his Historical Theology, says this about the early church:

A movement known as Gnosticism emerged as a major threat to the Christian church during the [first century], partly on account of the fact that its teachings were similar to those of Christianity itself.Many Gnostic writers argued that salvation was achieved through access to a secret teaching, which alone ensure that believers would be saved. The “secret knowledge” in question, for same Gnostic writers, was almost like a form of “cosmic password”. When someone died, their spirit was liberated from its physical prison, and it was free to begin its long and complex journey to its final and glorious destination. To get there, it needed to get past series of potential obstacles, for which the “secret knowledge” was required.

Some Gnostic writers argued that this secret oral teaching had been passed down from the apostles, and that it was to be found in a “veiled” form in the Bible. Only those who knew about the Bible in a certain way would gain access to this knowledge, which was not publicly available…. (pg 37)

So within the first few decades of the church, Gnosticism had emerged which threatened orthodox teaching. And the problem was that they claimed to have a secret interpretation of the scriptures which they had received from the apostles. Something which was novel and different from the teaching of the other churches. How was the early church to combat this?

McGrath explains:

In response to the threat from Gnosticism, a “traditional” method of understanding certain passages of the Scripture began to develop. Second-century patristic theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons began to develop the idea of an authorized way of interpreting certain texts of Scripture, which he argued went back to the time of the apostles themselves. Scripture could not be allowed to be interpreted in any arbitrary or random way: it had to be interpreted within the context of the historical continuity of the Christian church. The parameters of its interpretation were historically fixed and given. “Tradition” here means simply “a traditional way of interpreting Scripture within the community of faith”…

[Specifically], Irenaeus…argues that the living Christian community possessed a tradition of interpreting Scripture which was denied by heretics. By their historical succession from the apostles, the bishops ensure that their congregations remain faithful to their teachings and interpretations (pg. 38)

Irenaeus’ argument was that there was an historical, orthodox interpretation of the scriptures that went back to the apostles, and was passed down to the bishops of that time. One cannot simply have their “own interpretation” of scripture. Novelty is no friend of the church. It must go back to the traditional interpretation of the apostles and bishops. In this way, “tradition” is seen as a historically “verified” interpretation of scripture, passed on to the bishops and so on from the apostles. An interpretation which could be trusted.

And Irenaeus wasn’t the only which argued this. McGrath also cites Tertullian, saying:

A similar point is made by the Roman theologian Tertullian, in an early third-century analysis of the sources of theology dedicated to demonstrating the weaknesses of the heretical position. Tertullian here lays considerable emphasis upon the role of tradition and apostolic succession in defining of Christian theology. Orthodoxy depends upon remaining historically continuous with and theologically dependent upon the apostles. The heretics, in contrast, cannot demonstrate any such continuity (pg 39)

McGrath quotes Tertullian who says,

If the Lord Jesus Christ sent out apostles to preach, no preachers other than those which are appointed by Christ are to be received, since “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has revealed him”, and the Son appears to have revealed him to no on except the apostles who he sent to preach what he had revealed to them. What they preached…ought, by this ruling, to be established only by those churches which those apostles founded by their preaching and, as they say, by the living voice, and subsequently through their letter (pg. 39)

Tertullian says that only teaching which proceeds from the Father, to the Son, to the apostles, and to those sent by the apostles, is to be accepted as orthodox. That is, only biblical interpretation which follows this historical line is to be considered orthodox. Again, tradition is this historically verified interpretation passed on by the apostles.

As time went by, into the fifth century, another theologian Vincent of Lerins developed this thought on “apostolic tradition”. McGrath says:

Writing in the aftermath of the Pelagian controversy, Vincent of Lerins expressed his belief that the controversies of that time had given rise to theological innovations, such as new ways of interpreting certain biblical passages…But how could such doctrinal innovations be identified? In response to this question, he argues for a triple criterion by which authentic Christian teaching may be established: ecumenicity (being believed everywhere), antiquity (being believed always), and consent (being believed by all people). This triple criterion is often described as the “Vincentian canon”, the word “canon” here having the sense of “rule” or “norm”…

The problem that Vincent hopes to resolve is: how are authentic Christian teachings to be distinguished from those of heretics? (pg. 40)

So Vincent had this triple criterion: believed everywhere, always, and by everyone. One cannot simply just come up with a novel interpretation. It must find itself in line that rule of faith.

So then, tradition was the historical interpretation of the scriptures passed from the apostles down throughout the centuries. And when verifying a correct interpretation of scripture, all one need do is ask: is this believed everywhere, always, and by everyone?

In this light, tradition is not in competition with the scriptures, but actually protects them! But even more important, no Christian should approach the scriptures a-historically. Meaning, Christians today find themselves in this big saga called the Christian church, with smarter and godlier men and women before us. We must approach the scriptures, standing on their shoulders, depending on the apostles and the churches after them.