The Scandal of the Incarnation


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!

Prayer in the Spirit


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!


Man’s Final End


Icon of the Transfiguration. Most theologians understand this to be a retroactive-revelation of Christ’s resurrection glory, and a vision of man’s final end: participation in God’s glory

In this post, I want to consider what the early church fathers called theosis or divinization. They were convinced that this was man’s original calling, and it is principally man’s final end through salvation in Christ. But what does it mean? And how do we partake in it? This is what I want to answer through this post.

The outline of this post will take three steps. First, I need to define, primarily from the fathers and biblical metaphors, what divinization/theosis actually means. Second, I will look at the nature of sin as deprivation from the help of Augustine. Finally, I will look at what salvation in Christ means through the lens of the first two steps.

First, what does divinization mean? I realize that the word divinization or theosis sounds very foreign and strange. But these were words that the Fathers often used, and they are ultimately a biblical idea; so we must explore what they mean. Frederica Mathewes-Greens defines theosis by breaking down the word:

The goal of [mankind] is union with God. This is called theosis, which is usually translated “deification” or “divinization”. Those terms are misleading, if not alarming, since it could sound like we expect to become junior gods, each an independent owner-operator of a personal divinity franchise. Fortunately for everyone, that is not the case. We can dismantle the Greek word and see it is composed of theos, which means “God”, and the suffix -osis, which indicates a process. As red dye saturates a white clothe by the process of osmosis, so humans can be saturated with God’s presence by the process of theosis.

This was God’s plan from the beginning; we were created… to be increasingly filled with his glory (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, p 68-69)

Theosis, then, means that human beings were created to be increasingly filled with God’s glory. Or, put another way, mankind was made to participate and find its life within God’s divine life.

Aiden Nichols, in his book Chalice of God, tells us that the world was created to be a “beautiful receptacle”; that the “being of the world is so constituted as to receive” (p 12-13) and not to exist on its own. Rather it was created to receive the breath of God and to live in his own life. God, out of love then, created the world to participate or to be permeated with the divine indwelling.

But why is this so? Why was man created for this end? It is because only God has the infinite and unlimited resources that permit him to live independently. Aidan Nichols explains “anything whose nature does not demand its existence must have its being from another — meaning, ultimately, from the First Cause” (Chalice of God, p 14). God’s being, or his essence, is infinite, endless, and demands its own cause and existence. Created things on the other hand demand the cause of the other.

Frank Sheed explains:

[T]he infinite Being, having all perfections is utterly changeless. Nothing else is. Every created being, however glorious, contains a certain negative element, lacks something, from the fact that it is made of nothing.

So St. Augustine writes (De Natura Boni): All the things that God has made are mutable because made of nothing. And the Council of Florence tells us that creatures are good, of course, because they are made by the Supreme Good, but mutable because they are made of nothing. (Theology and Sanity, p 124-125)

All the created order is necessarily good (because God created it!), but is also necessarily changeable or even possibly corruptible because it is created and not eternal. Thus all of creation is made dependent, open, in need of receiving a life outside of itself. Left to its own resources, creation would change, degenerate, morph; because something created doesn’t have the capacity for eternal life in and of itself. For this reason, when God created the cosmos, he intended to dwell in it, to energize it with his life and to sustain it as his eternal temple. Nichols tells us the cosmos was made to “mediate the infinite” (p 21).

This is especially true of man: mankind was created commune with the triune community and life of God. Or, if I may put it biblically: man was created to be sanctified and finally glorified by participation in the triune God by the Spirit (Rom 8:28-30). When God created Adam, it is said that He “breathed” into him, and Adam “became a living being”. The fathers understood this breath to be the Holy Spirit, energizing Adam’s human nature with the divine life such that he was rendered immortal. Adam did not contain or own this life, rather it was a divine gift of grace.

The fathers illustrated this divine participation in several ways. Frederica Mathewes Green explains one way:

How can poor human clay take on the overwhelming presence of God? St. Cyril of Alexandria gives an analogy to the way fire acts upon metal. He wrote, “when the iron is brought into contact with the fire, it becomes full of its activity — that is, it takes on the properties, the heat and the light, of fire. “While it is by nature iron, it exerts the power of fire” (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, p 70)

Another good example, which I’ve mentioned before, is the temple. Many of the fathers understood Adam to be the priest within the temple of Eden. God thus made the world to be his dwelling place, his earth-temple. And Adam was tasked as the primordial priest to consecrate and offer the cosmos to God in thanksgiving, and for God to receive and fill the world with his life. Alexander Schmemman explains it this way:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (For the Life of the World, Kindle Locations 152-155)

Schmemman calls the entire cosmos the “matter”, and the man the “priest”. Man was created so that he could offer the “matter” of the world as a eucharist (thanksgiving sacrifice) to the Father in order that He may accept and transpose it with his glory.

I want to secondly move on to the nature of sin. Saint Augustine dealt with the heresy of Manichaeism, which held to a type of dualism akin to the gnostic heretics of the early church. The Manichaeans understood evil to be a substance, a thing that is part of the world that is in opposition to the good. Augustine’s insight against this impulse was to reason that if evil is a thing, a substance, then it means it was created. If it was created, it must have come from God, making God the originator of evil, or worse, evil in and of himself. This is obviously unbearable. God did not create or ordain evil.

From whence comes evil then? Augustine’s solution was to explain evil in negative terms. Evil is not a thing, something to be seen or grasped. Rather, evil is deprivation of the good. It is a corruption of the good. Evil is the very absence of what should be there. Evil is like rot in a tree, or darkness as the absence of light, or cold as the absence of heat. It is not a thing per se, but rather a reality of privation and incompleteness. Thomas Aquinas built on concept by furthering explaining that because evil is not a thing, or a substance, we may also affirm that evil is meaningless. Evil has no logical end or purpose. And actually, evil is the derailing of the purpose of a thing. Nichols says that “sin falls outside the divine understanding since it is objectively unintelligible, a falling away from being” (Chalice of God, 22). Sin is a falling away from being; meaning, it is a deprivation of that which should be. It is not properly something, rather it is a state of nothingness (this is the paradox of hell: it is simultaneously and eternally existence and non-existence. It is utter turmoil because man lives forever in this state of nothingness). Kallistos Ware expounds on this:

Against all forms of dualism, Christianity affirms that there is a summum bonum, a “supreme good” — namely God himself — but there is and can be no summun malum. Evil is not coeternal with God…

What then are we to say about evil? Since all created things are intrinsically good, sin or evil as such is not a “thing”, not existent being or substance… “Sin is naught”, says Augustine… And St. Gregory of Nyssa states, “Sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right”… Evil is always parasitic. It is the twisting and misappropriation of what is in itself good. (The Orthodox Way, 46-47)

Now, what does this have to do with theosis? The logical connection becomes evident when we ask: if evil is a privation, what is missing from the world that creates the evil of death and suffering? What is missing within man that makes him corrupt and die?

The answer is simply: God’s own life. If we tease out the metaphor of Adam as priest and the earth as God’s temple, when Adam sinned — when he seized the divine prerogative for himself — God’s presence was removed from his earth-temple. Adam’s sin was a turning-away from God’s very sustaining presence. And in turning away from the glory of God’s energizing presence, Adam turned into corruption, death, sickness, disease; or put another way, when Adam sinned, he forfeited the Spirit and was left to live autonomously and by his own resources; and having no eternal resources in himself, Adam become mortal, corrupt; he returned to the dust from which he was created.

Many people understand the punishment of Adam’s original sin to be an imposition of God’s hand on the nature of man: God struck the man dead. But death is not part of God’s nature. Instead, we must understand Adam’s sin as a punishment in and of itself. By this I mean that when Adam sinned, he turned away from God’s very life and forfeited the eternal, energizing presence of God. In other words, Adam dislodged mankind, even the entire cosmos, from the life of the triune God by his own sin. The communion he was meant to share in with the triune community was  broken through his disobedience. As Karl Adams says, mankind, “called to share by grace in the divine life… [became] detached from its original supernatural goal,…like some planet detached from its sun, [and] revolved only in crazy gyration round itself”. Aidan Nichols explains original sin in terms of a “failure to attain a telos” (Chalice of God, 22). This impulse, I believe is correct.

Original sin is therefore a reversal of man’s final end from eternal life in God to finitude and death in the self; and this death is not just physical, but spiritual as well. The body is not only bound toward corruption, but the soul with its moral and reasoning capacity is corrupted and in a state of death. Man’s moral compass and ability is thus askew, and his calling to be an image bearer is thwarted: instead of imaging God, he becomes animalistic and brutish. Man is stuck in this state of death — his will is bound as Augustine would say; he cannot rescue himself — and thus he needs deliverance.

This takes us to our last point: salvation. The question of salvation becomes: if man’s final end is union with God, theosis, divinization etc, and if sin is a derailment of that final end such that all mankind is constituted in death and corruption, how then does the human project realize it’s final purpose once more?

The answer is that mankind is saved through union with Christ who was obedient where Adam was not, and who was filled with new life through his resurrection from the dead. And by this I mean that salvation entails a rejoining with the divine life of God in the Spirit through mystical union with the resurrected Christ.

But what does this mean? And how does it happen? I will give two answers:

First, the patristic view. The patristic church was fond of saying that God became man that man might become God. And by this they meant that God did something through Christ such that man can be reconstituted in union with God’s life once more.

But what did God do in Christ? Very simply, God came down to where we are — into our sinful, dead situation — to raise mankind back to him in the fellowship of the Triune life.

Kallistos Ware explains:

The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification… Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is.

St Paul expresses this metaphorically in terms of wealth and poverty: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition. In the words of an Orthodox Christmas hymn, “Sharing wholly in our poverty, thou hast made divine our earthly nature through thy union with it and participation in it”. Christ shares in our death, and we share in his life; he “empties himself” and we are “exalted” (Phil 2:5-9). God’s descent makes possible man’s ascent. St Maximus the Confessor writes: “Ineffably the infinity limits itself, while the finite is expanded to the measure of the infinite”…

Christ who is the Son of God by nature has made us sons of God by grace. In him we are “adopted” by God the Father, becoming sons-in-the-Son. (The Orthodox Way, p 73-74)

In the incarnation, Christ took a share in our situation in order to reunite humanity with the life of God. This share in our situation was completed when Christ willingly partook in our death to reverse it with his life. Christ willingly experienced the enemy of death, so that through dying, he might touch it with the divine life and defeat it once and for all.
Second, I want to look at the reunion of God and man in Christ through the lens of his death as a sacrifice. I said above that God created mankind in order that mankind might give himself and the world back in love to God. Adam was created as a primordial priest tasked to give or sacrifice the entire cosmos to God in love and consequently be filled with his glory. Instead, Adam grasped the divine prerogative for himself and fell into sin and death.
What Christ did by coming into our situation was precisely to take up Adam’s failed vocation and offer himself and the entire world to God in a sacrifice of love. All of Christ’s life was a holy offering of himself, indeed of the entire world, to God. Christ was the true righteous priest who offered to God his entire life in obedience and love. This sacrifice was supremely fulfilled in the cross: the cross, we are told by Paul, was a “fragrant offering” (Eph 5:2) of the entire self to God. It was perfect obedience, an obedience which Adam failed to give up to God, and for which he experienced the fall. Christ came to reverse that disobedience by obediently offering himself in love to the Father. Here is what Thomas Aquinas says of Christ’s sacrifice:
[B]y suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured… And therefore Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2: “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (ST, 3.48.2)
Aquinas explains that what Christ offered to the Father was a superabundant sacrifice which, in its offering, reversed and replaced the failure on Adam’s part. Christ, as Irenaeus says, replaced Adam and re-headed the world through his sacrificial love for the Father.
The resurrection means principally that God saw this sacrificial obedience, received it, took joy in it, and received Him in glory. This means that the glory forfeited in Adam is thus returned in Christ! What joy!