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 Divine Pedagogy

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One thing that may puzzle some people, is why, after the fall of Adam, God waited for literally thousands of years to provide the remedy to our sin problem. We know that Christ is the only remedy for our fallen state — and yet, God waited for so long to provide this solution. Why did God do this?

Why the long and arduous history of Israel? Why the law? Why the sacrifices? Why the priests and Moses and the tribes and all that stuff?

This is actually a really good question, and one that requires an answer from Paul himself! In Galatians 3-4, Paul is combatting a teaching that the Mosaic law, with all of it’s ceremonial and civil commands, gives life, or saves. Paul repudiates this pretty harshly, explaining that it is only Christ who saves, and to lean upon the law is to reject Christ himself.

Of course then, the question arises as to the reason or purpose of the law. “If the law can’t save, then why would God give it?”, an opponent of Paul might ask. This question is directly related to our question: why this whole history of Israel (which includes Moses and the law and sacrifices etc), if only Jesus saves?

Paul gives a profound answer. And in essence, what Paul says, is that law, and the history of Israel, was God’s means to preparing and tutoring mankind for the coming of Jesus. It was a sort of like a preparatory school, to get humanity ready, as it were, to receive Jesus. In Galatians 3:24, Paul calls the law a “pedagogue”, or a tutor, which taught basic principles to humanity. He also compares mankind to children in Galatians 4:3 (“in the same way, when we were children…”). And what Paul is attempting to explain here, is that post-fall humanity, was not only in a state of fallenness, but also in a state of infancy, or immaturity, and had to be “schooled”, as it were, in order to understand Christ.

Frank Sheed says of Paul’s explanation here, that “by [Adam’s] sin, mankind threw away the maturity God had conferred upon it, started it off with, so to speak. It had gone after a childish dream and must now go through all the pains of growing back to the maturity it had lost” (Theology and Sanity, pg 187).

So mankind was in a sort of childish, immature state, after the fall. And God could not send Christ at that time — why? — because they would not have received him, nor would they have understood him! With that in mind, Paul says that God gave the law to Israel, with all of it’s civil and ceremonial rules, to teach mankind divine principles, which would in time prepare them for the coming of Christ, with the end goal that mankind “might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5).

How did the law teach mankind? Paul says that the law was a sort of “ABC’s”, or basic building blocks, for relationship with God. The law taught the moral character of God. The sacrifices taught the penalty of disobedience. The priesthod taught the principle of mediation, and so on. In other words, the law was, in essence, elementary school. Philip Ryken explains further:

To follow [Paul’s] analogy through, the Old Testament law was like elementary school for the people of God. The Jews had specific rules to govern their conduct, what the writer of Hebrews called “regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (Heb 9:10). When it came to worship, the Jews had to go to a particular place and offer particular sacrifices in a particular way. Keeping all these requirements was like being in grammar school, tracing the ABCs that were first written by the hand of God.

Eventually, schoolchildren outgrow their elementary education. They master the alphabet and move on to composition. In the same way, God raised his people on the law to prepare them for the gospel. The Puritan William Perkins thus described Israel as “a little school set up in a corner of the world; the law of Moses was, as it were, an ABC, or primer, in which Christ was revealed to the world…

Those Judaizers had been telling the Galatians that the law was a graduate school for the gospel. But Paul insisted that being under the law was actually a sign of spiritual immaturity. For the Galatians to go back to the law would be like a Ph.D. repeating kindergarten to work on his alphabet. (Galatians, pg158)

The law, then, was a pedagogue, or a tutor, which gave context and prepared Israel (and the watching world) for Christ! And apparently this divine pedagogy took thousands of years. And, as Paul says, “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5). Paul says, that there was a fullness of time, a time when God’s tutelage was complete — and that was the right time to send his Son.

Frank Sheed explains this verse further:

Mankind did, in some way clear to the eye of God and half-clear to the eye of man, grow up. The fullness of time came… We seem to see, though it would be absurd to pretend in such a matter that we could be certain, that the Law had done for the Jews all that it had in it to do. Trained by the Law and hammered by their enemies, they had come to a splendid point of development…

But the preparation was not only of the Jews, nor the fullness of time only a matter of their coming to maturity. For the Gentiles, too, the time was at the full. The history of the human race is one story from end to end, not a collection of unrelated short stories. The history of the race, says St. Augustine, is the story of one man. It was the race that fell in Adam, it was the race that was to be redeemed: in between the race had to be made ready… For Jew and for Gentile [then], it was the fullness of time. Christ came that all things might be re-established in Him. (Theology and Sanity, pg 188, 205-06, 209-10)

So then, we might say the mankind had matured (if we keep the imagery Paul gives), or graduated, and was ready to understand Christ. God was, as St. Irenaeus says, a Divine Pedagogue, a Divine Tutor. He says in his Against Heresies,

[In the time of the OT, God] took His people in hand, teaching them, unteachable as they were, to follow Him. He gave them prophets, accustoming man to bear His Spirit and to have communion with God on earth. He Who stands in need of no one gave communion with Himself to those who need Him. Like an architect He outlined the plan of salvation to those who sought to please Him. By His own hand He gave food in Egypt to those who did not see Him. To those who were restless in the desert He gave a law perfectly suited to them. To those who entered the land of prosperity He gave a worthy inheritance. He killed the fatted calf for those who turned to Him as Father, and clothed them with the finest garment. In so many ways He was training the human race to take part in the harmonious song of salvation.

God, the great trainer, the great tutor, prepares mankind to receive Christ!