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!