Christmas Is about the Incarnation
In a recent Conciliar Post article entitled, Christmas is about the Cross, George Aldhizer presented the Reformed understanding of the Incarnation as a means to an end. The end being the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and the salvation of the elect; a salvation that needed to be “purchased” in order to “fully satisfy the justice of [the] Father”.1 George explained the purpose of the article in footnote 1 as,
a response to some comments within the Round Table against the Reformed understanding of the Incarnation. Ben Cabe argues that the Orthodox view, in contrast to the Protestant view, of the Incarnation is “not viewed as a reaction to man’s fall but rather a plan in accordance with the eternal will of the Father.” This article sees this comment as presenting a false dichotomy. The eternal will of the Father has always been to redeem broken humanity out of sheer grace through the person and work of Jesus Christ, applied through the drawing of the Holy Spirit.
George mentions in his first paragraph the article’s main points: 1. The Incarnation was not an end in itself but was rather meant to restore broken humanity to God. 2. The cross of Christ and the Incarnation are intricately connected to accomplish the salvation of the world. At first blush, these may sound reasonable when applied to postlapsarian (fallen) mankind. Human beings today are certainly plagued with a fractured human nature. The Incarnation and the death of Christ on the cross do, together, accomplish the salvation of the world. However, the purpose behind George’s article, while propounding the Reformed understanding of the Incarnation, also seeks to refute the claim that Christ would have become Incarnate even if man had not fallen into sin. As a result of this de-emphasis on the unique accomplishment of the Incarnation, it is marred beyond recognition; it is reduced to having little or no significance for mankind in its own right. George implicitly states that the Incarnation is meaningless without the death of Christ on the cross. With this, I could not disagree more.
A brief critique of George’s Article
First, George argues his points solely with regard to postlapsarian human nature, and thus fails to address prelapsarian (pre-fallen) mankind. Second, he does not speak of the man’s creation in the image and likeness of God, that is, of the Incarnate Logos. Third, he does not present the telos of prelapsarian man and creation.
Concerning the second, I can only assume that George does not connect man’s creation in the image and likeness of God with the Incarnate Christ—who, as the Archetype, came to fulfill the human person.
Finally, George’s understanding of salvation does not have a positive aspect. Hear me out here. Surely being “saved from damnation” is positive, but the reality is that we were not just saved from damnation but to salvation in Christ. To participate fully in the life of Christ. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The questions lingering behind George’s article must be addressed. Did pre-fallen man have something to aspire to? What was the state of his communion with God? What did the Incarnation uniquely accomplish for man’s relationship with God? And, ultimately, what is salvation?
In response to George’s article, I will offer a few thoughts:
Within the Orthodox Tradition there is a rich emphasis on the fulfillment of all things in Christ. In contrast to the Reformed idea that “the eternal will of the Father has always been to redeem broken humanity,” Orthodox Christians understand creation, in accordance with the eternal will of the Father, as an act of love. “For God so loved . . .” could be rightly added as a prefix to every movement of the Holy Trinity. This is the Orthodox starting point: God is love2. Christos Yannaras, in Relational Ontology, explains that,
[the word] Love here does not mean a form or quality of behavior that is usually in evidence in expressions such as to be “full of love,” or to “show love,” and so forth. In spite of its semiologically given referential (relational) character, the word love functions in this particular proposition as a definition: it defines the is, the reality of being, before any manifestation of activity or determination of behavior.3
The question of the eternal will of the Father must address the question behind God’s creation. From my limited understanding, the Reformed tradition claims that God created human beings to glorify Himself through the salvation and damnation of select individuals. In stark contrast to the idea of glory by damnation, the Orthodox maintain that the Holy Trinity created out of their “unceasing movement of mutual love”4. The glory of God is not the damnation of man, but rather the fulfilment of man in himself; the human being made fully alive.5 God did not create in order to redeem, he created in order to deify—to give all of himself to man in ecstatic love; to grant the life of the uncreated Holy Trinity to man.
This Divine Love would not be satisfied with anything less than full communion; the pre-eternal will spoken of in scripture is referring to the fulfilment of all things in Christ.6 But here, several other questions must be asked: what constitutes, and what do we mean by ‘full communion’? Why was full communion necessary? What was the status of prelapsarian mankind with relation to this communion?
These questions are tied to the creation of mankind which is, in turn, tied to the telos of man. We are told in Genesis one that human beings were made according to the image and likeness of God; and in Colossians 1:15-18 we see that the image of God is Jesus Christ, who is the firstborn of all creation and the firstborn from the dead.7
The fact that Adam was created in the image of Christ implies that it was his vocation to be raised up to the Archetype or, more precisely, to be purified and to love God so much that God would come to dwell within him, that the Logos would enter into a hypostatic union with man, and thus appear in history as the Christ, be manifested as the God-man. The ‘entry of the firstborn into the world’ (Heb 1:6) fulfils the eternal will of God, the highest mystery ‘hidden from ages and from generations’ (Col 1:26).8
The very creation of man in the image and likeness of God presupposed the Incarnate Christ, the Archetype. For the telos of man is his perfection—or completion—in Christ.
The fact that Christ did not exist historically at the time of Adam’s creation is of no significance. It is a fundamental biblical teaching that on the level of supra-temporal reality of God, Christ is ‘the firstborn of all creation’ (Col 1:15-17). If man, for whom all the material creation was brought into being, rose last of all creatures from the earth, it is surely logical that Christ, who is the goal of the whole of the material and spiritual creation, should be later than Adam, since all things are led from imperfection to perfection. Christ, as the highest realization of man, naturally constitutes the goal of mankind’s upward journey, the beginning but also the end of history.9
The very image according to which man was created is “not simply the Logos but the incarnate Logos.”10 Man’s creation in the image and likeness of God is not a small matter; it enables mankind to receive the Incarnate Logos who, in turn, is the telos of man.
‘in the image’ implies a gift within man but at the same time a goal set before him, a possession but also a destiny, since it really does constitute man’s being, but only in potentiality. The ‘in the image’ is a real power, a pledge, which should lead to marriage, that is, the hypostatic union, the unconfused but real fulfilling mixture and commingling of the divine and human natures. Only then does the iconic or potential being of man become real, authentic being. Man finds in the Archetype his true ontological meaning.11
Man’s perfection in Christ is something that Adam was called to achieve, not a static reality imposed on him. Once again, man’s creation in the image and likeness makes this quite clear.
The word translated ‘likeness’, homoiosis, suggests something more precise in Greek: the ending, -oisis, implies a process, not a state (the Greek for Likeness as a state would be homoioma). The word homoiosis would moreover have very definite resonances for anyone who had read Plato, who envisages the goal of the human life as homoiosis — likening, assimilation — to the divine.12
What George is uncomfortable with is the idea that the Incarnation is a reality that accomplishes something in its own right—and thus for prelapsarian man. In one of our conversations, he mentioned that he does not see this idea anywhere in scripture. The scriptures, however, make it quite clear that man’s goal is perfection in Christ—one that is accomplished in man’s assimilation and recapitulation in him, through the union of the divine and human natures in the hypostasis of Jesus Christ. Scripture also clearly states that Christ is the firstborn of all creation.
The reality is, that human nature does not have to be broken in order to need fulfillment. Certainly man’s sin in the garden mentally complicates the issue. But God did not miss a beat. Out of love he exiled man from the garden so that he would not eat from the tree of life, and live eternally in his state of spiritual sickness. Salvation from damnation is the negative aspect of salvation that entered the scene after man’s sin. The positive aspect of salvation, that of full communion with God, constituted the eternal will of the Father and the telos of man—a reality fully accomplished through the Incarnate Christ.
George uses 1 Timothy 1:15 and Matthew 1:21 in the beginning of his article to prove that the reason for the Incarnation is only to save men from sin. But this argument does not work. Orthodox Christians have never denied the fact that Christ came to save sinners (postlapsarian man). Every Sunday we confess that, “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” But this aspect of Christ’s Incarnation does not automatically exclude all other aspects. The facts that we are saved to something, and as a result, from something, are not mutually exclusive. The telos of man has always been union with God.
The final end of the spiritual Way is that we humans should also become part of this Trinitarian coinherence, or perichoresis, being wholly taken up into the circle of love that exists within God. So Christ prayed to his Father on the night before his Crucifixion: ‘May they all be one: as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, so may they also be one in us’ (John 17:21).13
Concerning this fact, George fails to see that creation ex nihilo requires the God-man, the Incarnation, in order to make this union possible. The creature has, “no ontological foundation either in itself (for it is created from nothing), nor in the divine essence, for in the act of creation God was under no necessity of any kind whatever.”14 This is what the creation of man in the image and likeness and the proclamation of Christ as the firstborn of creation means for the telos of man. That we might have “life more abundantly.” 15 The Incarnation enables us to be “partakers of the Divine nature.”16 Created man is dependent on his creator, and without “the hypostasis of the Logos, [human nature] was in some way without real hypostasis—it lacked real ‘subsistence’.17
I have had conversations with George centered around this topic he has refused to accept the given fact that, because the uncreated God created out of nothing, the “fundamental division within reality [is] not between the spiritual and the material, but between the created and the uncreated.”18 Perhaps it is not this fact that he refuses to accept but rather the thought that this division must be overcome in prelapsarian man, if at all.
This is the great hidden mystery [viz., the mystery of the Divine Incarnation]. This is the blessed end for which all things were created. This is the preordained divine goal of the origin of beings, which we define as the preordained end for the sake of which all things exist, although this end itself depends on nothing. It was with a view to this end [Christ, the hypostatic union of divine and human nature] that God brought forth the essence of all beings.19
The Incarnation is deeply related to the creation of man in the image which is also related to the telos of man: perfection in Christ. These two realities were givens before the fall; it stands to reason, then, that the Incarnation was also a part God’s original plan for creation.
Christ is the first perfect man—perfect, that is to say, not just in a potential sense, as Adam was in his innocence before the fall, but in the sense of completely realized “likeness”. The Incarnation, then is not simply a way of undoing the effects of original sin, but is an essential stage upon man’s journey from the divine image to the divine likeness. The true image and likeness of God is Christ himself; and so, from the very first moment of man’s creation in the image, the Incarnation of Christ was in some way already implied. The true reason for the Incarnation, then, lies not in man’s sinfulness but in his unfallen nature as being made in the divine image and capable of union with God.20
Scripture attests that the telos of man is to be made perfect in Christ; this is a perfection in actuality, not merely through some sort of imputation. To be “made perfect in Christ” was the calling of Adam in the garden, not merely a reactionary clause referencing the “reversal of the fall.” God created man for communion—and communion with an infinite God is infinitely realized.
“Ineffably the infinite limits itself, while the finite is expanded to the measure of the infinite”21
Created human beings are called to participate in the uncreated life of the Holy Trinity. And by participation, man is made by grace everything that God is by nature22 thereby superseding natural necessity and createdness. This allows for real and total communion in ecstatic love and has always been the telos of man—this can be seen by the gift, in man, of the divine image.
Instead of addressing the question of man’s goal in life, the Christocentric nature of creation, and the indelible event of the Incarnation as fulfillment, George presents a view of the man, creation, and the incarnation that falls radically short of what we read in scripture and in the teachings of the early Christians. One that, does not exhaust the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ but rather does the complete opposite.
What does it really mean for the creature, for the creation, that the second person of the Trinity became man? What does it mean that the immaterial God indwelled creation? The implications of the Incarnate Logos are staggering; He sanctified and fulfilled creation and united for the first time the divine and human natures in His hypostasis.
To claim that the Incarnation was a means to the end of the cross, and thus has no significance in its own right, is unreasonable. Such thinking leads to an impoverished Christianity—because the Incarnation touches all of Christianity. It informs how we worship and makes possible literal transformation by participation in the life of Christ, the realization of man’s calling. How does man achieve the goal for which he was created? How is he perfected in Christ? How do all things find their true end and fulfillment? It is all made possible through the Incarnation.
In conclusion, man’s creation in the image and likeness of God points directly to, and is fulfilled by, the Incarnate Christ—who is the firstborn of all creation. The Incarnate Christ makes possible the telos of man—union with God through participation in the life of the Holy Trinity—by overcoming in the person of Christ the division between the uncreated God and created man: a fundamental division that cannot be denied without denying creation ex nihilo. When man sinned in the garden, human nature was fractured and death entered the world. The death of Christ, the immortal God, on the cross destroyed death and opened the way for the resurrection of mankind. For us today, these two realities make possible the reality of salvation—not one without the other. When we journey toward fulfillment in Christ (salvation) we are at the same time journeying away from damnation. The second, negative aspect of salvation—salvation from damnation—entered the scene only after man’s sin. However, the positive aspect of salvation—salvation as fulfillment, communion with the infinite God in Trinity—existed before the fall. This is why we say that prelapsarian man needed salvation, because prelapsarian man needed the Incarnation. The Incarnation, then, is certainly of great significance in its own right. And today, December 25, we celebrate the birth of Incarnate Logos; Christmas is about the Incarnation.
Merry Christmas, Christ is born! I would like to leave you with this quote by Kallistos Ware.
St. Isaac urges [that] God’s taking of humanity is to be understood not only as an act of restoration, not only as a response to man’s sin, but also and more fundamentally as an act of love. An expression of God’s own nature. Even had there been no fall, God in his own limitless, outgoing love would still have chosen to identify himself with his creation by becoming man.
The Incarnation of Christ, looked at in this way, effects [sic] more than a reversal of the fall, more than restoration of man to his original state in Paradise. When God becomes man, this marks the beginning of an essentially new stage in the history of man, and not just a return to the past. The Incarnation raised man to a new level; the last state is higher than the first. Only in Jesus Christ do we reveal the full possibilities of our human nature; until he is born, the true implications of our personhood are still hidden from us.23
*I would like to mention that, while I am an Orthodox Christian, I do not officially speak for the Orthodox Church. For this reason, I subject all of my thoughts and reasonings to the Orthodox Church for any needed clarification and/or corrections.
**This article was not meant to assume that I know everything about George’s beliefs (or Reformed Christians in general). Neither it is an attack on George. It is my attempt to explain why I believe the Incarnation is, indeed, of great importance in its own right.Show Sources
- George Aldhizer, Christmas is About the Cross. Conciliar Post. Web. 22 Dec. 2014. https://conciliarpost.com/theology-spirituality/christmas-is-about-the-cross/
- 1 John 4:8
- Christos Yannaras, Relational Ontology. Brookline: Orthodox Press, 2011. Page 11.
- Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999. Page 27.
- St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies
- Ephesians 1:10: “that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.”
- Colossians 1:15-18 is striking: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.”
- Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987. Page 35.
- Ibid, 37.
- Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Page 84.
- Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999. Page 28.
- Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991. Page 98.
- John 10:10: The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.
- 2 Peter 1:2-4: “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption, that is in the world through lust.”
- Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987. Page 38.
- Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Page 37.
- St Maximus the Confessor, To Thalassios: On Various Questions.
- Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999. Page 71.
- St. Maximus the Confessor, Letter 21.
- St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation.
- Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999. Pages 70-71.
Comment string on George’s article:
Of course, in addition to quoting scripture, I am quoting the Church Fathers—”name dropping” is something I have been accused of, though not by George per se. George’s recurring critique of Orthodox and Catholic theology has been their reliance on the Church Fathers for scriptural interpretation. However, I would like to point out that George does just this with his use of the Heidelberg Catechism, which is an articulation and specific interpretation of scripture that does not come into existence until 1563. The point here is not to criticize the nuances in the Protestant’s use of a ‘protestant tradition’ in order to interpret scripture but rather to show that the Incarnation, creation, and the telos of man are all connected as a part of God’s original plan for creation, with or without the fall.
It is not my purpose to rehash in this article everything I have written about this subject (See Round Table on the Incarnation and Roundtable on the Image of God)—as George’s response is just another contribution to an on-going dialogue. But I certainly wanted to write concerning George’s recent article.
More from Nellas:
Consequently, the fact that God formed man ‘in the image’ means, in the last analysis, that he formed him in this way that he might tend of his own nature, by the very fact that he is man, towards the Image (Nellas, 36).