Archive for the ‘The Incarnation’ Category


He Came Down From Heaven — Bishop Christoph von Schönborn

September 7, 2012

Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter in Luke 9:20: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered: “The Christ of God.” Detail from stained glass in the church of St Mary and St Lambert in Stonham Aspal in Suffolk

We shall try to show that the power of symbolism of such images as “came down from heaven”, “born of the Virgin Mary”, “and was made man,” lies precisely in the fact that here symbol and reality, myth and life, coincide.”  Here is the “came down from heaven” segment.


“O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence … to make thy name known to thy adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at thy presence. When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains quaked at thy presence. From of old no one has heard …”
(Isaiah 64:1-4) .

The anonymous sixth-century prophet who produced this cry of hope and longing calls for the coming of God. In doing so he refers to an event that, for Israel, is unforgettable: the exodus from Egypt. In its deliverance from bondage in Egypt, Israel sees the prototype of all redemption. Did not God then come down in order to save his people? In the vision of the Burning Bush God speaks to Moses: “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8).

The “fundamental experience” of deliverance from Egypt gave Israel the certainty and an ever-new hope that God is not afraid to come down into the midst of his people in order to lead it up to the Promised Land. We find in the Prophets images of astounding intimacy: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (Zephaniah 3:17). Later Jewish theology never ceases to be amazed at this descent of God. So we read in the commentary on Exodus 13:21 (“And the Lord went before them … by night in a pillar )of fire to give them light”) : “R. Jose the Galilean said: If it were not written in Scripture it would be forbidden to say such things, that a father carries a torch before his children, a master before his slave” (Kuhn, p. 23) .

God, whose transcendence is such a marked feature of the faith of Israel, is also the One who is very near: he comes town, makes himself small, adopts human proportions. In Jewish theology this dwelling of God among his people is called the shekinah: his “indwelling”, his “glorious nearness”. The shekinah is both distinct from God and yet himself. And it is emphasized “that God’s dwelling (in his people) was the ultimate goal of the divine plan of creation, a goal envisaged right at the beginning of creation” (Kuhn, p. 64) . God is seen entirely in the context of his dwelling among men: He “is entirely his dwelling among men” (Kuhn, p. 69) .

The Christian faith in God’s Incarnation is in line with his Old Testament Jewish hope and expectation: “God has come down from heaven to his people out of love; he has chosen the humblest place on earth and limited his affinity to a small space in the world; poor and humble, he renounced the honor due to him, performed the work of a slave for mankind’s sake; and finally, in a concrete way, he shared in the deepest pain of his people. Not only can the Jewish faith affirm this: it is also the basis of the Christian profession of faith” (Kuhn, p. 105).

True, there remains one fundamental difference: in Judaism, necessarily, there is always a reluctance “to associate God, as the One Person that He is in Judaism, fully and finally with a human life, since this would seem to put God’s transcendence in jeopardy. God can adopt particular features of an earthly existence, but he can never really `become flesh’ in a final and irrevocable way and so `dwell among us’ (John 1:14) .

Accordingly he could not experience the ultimate gravity of such a human life, i.e., death” (Kuhn, p. 108) . So we find the rabbis explicitly rejecting the ultimate consequence of God’s “descent”; e.g., Rabbi Jose: “God never really came down upon the earth,” for, however small the distance between them, God and man can never quite come together (Kuhn, p. 72) . According to the same Rabbi Jose, God always stays ten hand’s breadths above the earth, i.e., “God has never come to earth completely, nor have men ascended to him completely” (Kuhn, pp. 45f.).

Thus we could rightly say that the Old Testament picture of God was characterized by an “inclination on God’s part toward Incarnation” (Mauser, p. 16). Yet this inclination “hovers” in a kind of indecision. There continue to be new experiences of God’s nearness, but also of his withdrawal and turning-away from man, and so the hope is always rekindled that, in the end, God will dwell among men permanently. A time will come when “my dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Ezekiel 3 7:27; cf. Revelations 21:3). This final and definitive dwelling of God among men remains the great promise of the Old Testament…

It is the faith of Christians that God has finally pitched his tent among men. Christians find this ultimate coming promised in countless passages of the Old Testament, and they see it fulfilled in the apparently insignificant birth of Jesus…


The Mystery of the Incarnation – Bishop Christoph von Schönborn

September 6, 2012

Christ Pantocrator, God incarnate in the Christian faith, shown in a mosaic from Daphni, Greece, ca. 1080-1100.

Myth Became Fact
Can a rational human being be expected to believe that a God, or a Son of God, “came down from heaven”, “took flesh”, was born of a virgin and, after the dramatic conclusion of his earthly career, “ascended into heaven” again? Are we not at the heart of myth here? Can we expect people today to regard such mythological assertions as truth?

In England in 1977 seven noted theologians wrote a book with the deliberately provocative title The Myth of God Incarnate. In the book’s preface the authors unmistakably and honestly set forth their conviction that Christian teaching today needs a clear change of direction:

The need arises from growing knowledge of Christian origins, and involves a recognition that Jesus was (as he is presented in Acts 2:21) “a man approved by God” for a special role within the divine purpose, and that the later conception of him as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us. This recognition is called for in the interests of truth …
(Hick, p. ix).

The change of course here called for is a radical one. Jesus is a man approved by God; incarnation is a mythical mode of speech designed to tell us that Jesus is important. This implies that the notion of the divine Trinity is on shaky ground, as is the question of Jesus’ divinity. Not that all such talk is simply false; it is true in the way a myth is true, i.e., as imagery, as a symbolic and poetic way of expressing that something has very special significance. Not surprisingly, the book by these seven authors unleashed a veritable storm of debate. We shall try to use this debate as the starting-point for our own observations, since it raises a number of essential preliminary questions connected with our topic.

Incarnation And Myth
Christian faith speaks about the Son of God who, in order to become incarnate, comes down from heaven and returns thither after having accomplished what he is sent to do. There are similarities between this and the myths of other religions which speak of gods who descend to earth, die, and are subsequently resurrected. There is nothing new about this. Even early Christian authors make reference to parallels of this kind; at the most they are regarded as a kind of premonition of the revelation that was to take place in Christ, but in the main they are treated as a mere plagiarization of the Christian teaching.

Since the nineteenth century the historico-critical method generally takes the opposite direction. It does not explain the myths as plagiarization of the biblical revelation: vice versa, it sees the language of the Bible and particularly the New Testament as the result of the influence of particular extra-biblical myths. The so-called “history of religions” school interpreted the ancient mystery-cults as the “matrix” of the Christian myth.

In the ceremonies of initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries, in the sharing in the death, burial and resurrection of Osiris, in the rebirth of the votaries of Cybele who, using bull’s blood, achieved union with the dead and resurrected god, scholars thought they had found the “spiritual climate” which could have given rise to the Christian myth of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the heavenly Son of God, and the associated Christian rite whereby the believer dies with Christ and rises with him (Rahner pp. 19-54) .

It was as a result of the work of R. Bultmann that the theory of myth proposed by the “history of religions” school attained wide currency, for he related it to his program of “demythologization”. Thus the theory became one element of an all-embracing revision of the Christian proclamation and of Christianity’s understanding of itself. As a result the problems associated with “myth” emerged from the confines of a purely historical discussion (the whole question of sources) and constituted a fundamental issue: What is the function of mythical speech?

A historical critique was applied at a very early date to the origins of the Christian belief in the Incarnation. Today it is appropriate to re-examine this critique, since it has become almost fashionable again to trace all manner of elements in Christianity back to possible (and frankly impossible) parallels in other religions. No less a scholar than Adolf von Harnack energetically opposed this confusing of sources, “that comparative mythology which tries to find a causal connection between everything, tearing down firm boundaries, lightheartedly ignoring the chasms which separate whole areas and often dreaming up links on the basis of the most superficial similarities.”

He goes on: “By this means people can in a trice make Christ into a sun-god and the twelve apostles into the twelve months; the story of the birth of Christ reminds them of all the other stories of divine births; the dove at Christ’s baptism prompts them to recall all the doves in mythology, and the donkey in Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem just has to be linked with all the other famous donkeys. Thus, using the wand of the `history of religions’ school, they succeed in eliminating every spontaneous trait” (Rahner).

Particularly as regards the doctrine of the Incarnation of the Son of God, careful historical examination of the sources has shown with increasing clarity that it cannot be put down to the influence of some (vague) Iranian redeemer-myth (R. Bultmann) or of Hellenistic mystery-cults. The images and concepts of the primitive Church’s faith in the Incarnation belong first and foremost to the world of Old Testament faith (Hengel 1974).

This, however, does not give us an answer to the question of myth itself. True, nowadays we see more clearly that the picture of Christ we find in Paul and in the primitive Church is, in general, largely shaped by Jewish ideas. But the stark question remains: are not these after all mythical ideas, whether of Hellenistic or of Jewish origin?

The genetic question leads to the question of fact; the question of historical origin leads to the question of truth. The issue is not simply whether notions of God’s Incarnation originated, historically speaking, in myth, but primarily whether mythical notions are true, and if so, how. This is the nub of the whole debate. The seven English authors are also concerned about the question of truth when they describe the Incarnation as myth. John Hick, one of the seven, defines myth as follows:

“That Jesus was God the Son incarnate is not literally true, since it has no literal meaning, but it is an application of Jesus of a mythical concept … ; it offers a way of declaring his significance to the world”
(Hick, p. 178).

At a first reading the question of truth is given a clear answer here: the Incarnation is a myth, i.e., it is not literally true. Rather it is pictorial, metaphorical, poetic, symbolic language. Is this opposition between “literally true” and “pictorial and metaphorical” tenable? Let us explore this question in connection with the article of the creed: “He came down from heaven.”

Myth And Reality
The period following the Second Vatican Council — not always a very inspiring time — saw many liturgical experiments. On one occasion an Old Testament scholar who had a keen interest in liturgy attempted to make a translation of the Psalms for liturgical use from which he had expunged all the images which, allegedly, were alien to “modern man”. There was no longer a deer yearning for the running streams; the Lord no longer had a rod and staff to give me comfort; and the longing “to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” was turned into the pale privilege of “being always near to God”. Why had the Psalms’ strong poetic images been replaced by pale, banal ones?

It is a mistake to think that we can speak without using images and metaphors. Does this mean that everything we say by means of metaphors is “not literally true”? If I say, “the audience hung spellbound on his lips”, no one imagines that they literally hung on his lips. On the other hand no one would conclude that the expression is purely subjective and does not refer to an objective reality: the audience is really fascinated and listens “as if spellbound”. The metaphor “hanging on someone’s lips” is meant to underline precisely the reality of the audience’s involvement.

However, the seven English authors think that “literally true” language refers to objective facts, whereas mythic and metaphorical language is the expression of subjective attitudes and feelings. This is untenable. Image and myth also refer to reality, and not merely to subjective attitudes and feelings. But they refer to reality in a different way from the “literal” language, i.e., through images.

Today we are continually being faced with this either–or: Is the statement, “Jesus is the incarnate Son of God” to be taken literally or in a symbolic, mythical sense? Was Jesus born of the Virgin Mary in a literal or metaphorical sense?

The answer of the seven Englishmen is clear:

“That Jesus was God the Son incarnate is not literally true, since it has no literal meaning, but it is an application to Jesus of a mythical concept …; it offers a way of declaring his significance to the world.”
(Hick, p. 178, italics added.)

To find a way out of this cul-de-sac I would like to refer to another English author who has thought about myth more than most of our contemporaries, himself a writer of wonderful myths, and whose path brought him — in a unique way — via myths to faith: C. S. Lewis (1898-1963).

When he was a young lecturer in Oxford, C. S. Lewis, like many of his (and our) educated contemporaries, subscribed to the view that Christianity was simply a re-casting of old myths. Like Sigmund Freud, Lewis had read J. G. Frazer’s monumental twelve-volume work, The Golden Bough (1890-1915), and was fascinated by the plethora of parallels, drawn from the history of religions, to the idea of the “dying god”. “The myths of Adonis and Osiris, who are killed only to rise again, so renewing the life of nature and of their votaries, are nothing other than myths of natural growth, symbolically applying a natural process to human life.

Every year the corn dies, is laid in the earth as seed, and subsequently rises up to a new and more abundant life; so man too has to go through death in order to attain life. The young Lewis was of the opinion that the stories of Jesus were simply another myth of natural growth.  Jesus says that the grain of wheat must die if it is to bear fruit; he takes bread, i.e., grain, in his hands, breaks it and says, `This is my body’; he dies the following day and rises from the dead three days later: is not this Jesus simply another harvest-god, a corn-king, giving his life for the life of the world? One evening, however, Lewis heard another committed atheist remark during a conversation that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was surprisingly good: `A strange thing: all that stuff of Frazer’s about the dying God — it almost looks as though it actually happened once.’” (Kranz, p.71; Brague) .

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis says that this conversation was a decisive step on his path to conversion. From childhood Lewis had been fascinated by myths. What was it in them that so strangely moved him? It is that they awaken in the reader a longing for something that is beyond his grasp. Myths have this fascination because they affect a catharsis, that is, they move us and purify us; thus they expand our consciousness, allowing us through them to transcend ourselves. So myths are not “poets’ deceptions” (as Plato said in his Republic) nor demonic delusions (as many of the Church Fathers thought), nor clerical lies (as many Enlightenment figures asserted), but “Myth in general is … at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination” (Lewis, Miracles, p. 134).

Surely, the reason why the great myths of the nations have something in common with the story of the Son of God who came down from heaven for our sake is that there is a trace, in the imagination of great pagan teachers and myth-makers, of that very Incarnation which, according to our faith, is the core of all cosmic history.

The distinction between myth and Christian history is not simply that between false and true; myths are not false simply because they are myths. C. S. Lewis sees the relationship between myth and Christian history as the difference “between a real event on the one hand and blurred dreams and intimations of this same event on the other hand”.

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle
(Lewis, God in the Dock).

C. S. Lewis encourages us not to be afraid if we find that Christianity has parallels to myth. Would it not be a pity if Christianity, in order to assert its truth, had to reject all prior intimations of this truth? If Christianity is to fulfill the “longings of the nations”, it does not need to reject the expression of this longing as it is found in the myths.

It sounds like a theological manifesto when Lewis says, “We do not need to be ashamed of the mythical luminosity which attaches to our theology.” All creative theology lives and draws sustenance from this “mythical luminosity” which our theology still bears. “Demythologization”, conceived as the task of a “theology for today”, misses the fact that the “secularization” of our world is only one side: on the other side there is a flourishing world of myths — although seen in different garb, e.g., the world of science fiction. Here, as in former times, we find the great themes of mythology: monsters and demons, gods and spirits.

Johann Georg Hamann once said, “Unless our theology is worth as much as mythology, it will be simply impossible for us to reach the level of pagan poetry, let alone surpass it.” It is not a question of setting myth against reality; because of a defective understanding of “reality” this leads inevitably to the repression of the symbolic dimension of the Christian message, what one might call its “mythical luminosity”. But it is equally mistaken to reduce the historical reality of the events of Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection to a “merely” symbolic significance, as gnosticism did. Rather we must say that the history of Christ is the “highest myth” because, in it, myth has become reality (Lewis, God in the Dock) .

What If It Were So?
This is the direction we shall take in what follows, as we ask what is the meaning of God’s Incarnation. We shall try to show that the power of symbolism of such images as “came down from heaven”, “born of the Virgin Mary”, “and was made man,” lies precisely in the fact that here symbol and reality, myth and life, coincide. However, before we set out on this path we must go into one final preliminary question.

In The Myth of God Incarnate we read the following sentence: “That Jesus was God the Son incarnate is not literally true, since it has no literal meaning” (Hick, p. 175, italics added) . This view is supported by further remarks by the various authors:

  1. “Humanity cannot, without ceasing to be humanity, ie the expression, embodiment, contingent form of God” Goulder, p. 63). Put more simply this means that it is irnpossible for God to become man, because a God who did so would not be a genuine man.
  2. “When we move over to speaking of God being part of his own creation or a part of that creation being God, Prima facie this does seem to me to involve logical self-contradiction” (Goulder, p. 6) . In other words, the Incarnation of God — God becoming a creature — contradicts God’s being as God.

No doubt it would be necessary to examine these two statements in more detail and set forth their implications in a more nuanced way. All the same it is quite clear from the context that, as far as these seven authors are concerned, the idea of real Incarnation of God is just as absurd as a “square circle”. Their idea of man and their idea of God are equally incompatible with the notion of a real Incarnation. Here we have come up against a limit that cannot be passed by adducing more arguments.

If the above principles are taken as fundamental, what Christians say about “the Son of God coming down” can only be understood as a myth in the sense of something that is “not literally true”.

In this situation we can only ask — not in a triumphalist manner, but by way of an invitation — ` `But what if, all the same, it were so … ?” What if the substance expressed in so many myths like the echo of a great yearning, a shadowy presentiment, has actually become reality?


Balthazar’s ‘Clerical Styles’: Irenaeus – Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P.

July 25, 2012

St. Irenaeus: Greek Father of the Church, and early ornament of the primatial see of the Gauls, at Lyons. Balthazar thought Irenaeus’ principal contribution to theological aesthetics was his ‘historical aesthetic’, his account of saving history as a wonderfully ordered whole.

Balthazar begins with ‘clerical styles’, and first of all with St. Irenaeus: Greek Father of the Church, and early ornament of the primatial see of the Gauls, at Lyons. As we shall see, Irenaeus’ principal contribution to theological aesthetics is, for Balthazar, his ‘historical aesthetic’, his account of saving history as a wonderfully ordered whole.

But there is more to say than this. While admitting that Irenaeus’ thinking may have been stimulated on various particular points by the challenge of gnosis, Balthazar considers that Maritain could well have taken him as his first ‘anti-modern’ — the first Christian thinker who consciously opted to present the faith not in terms of its congruence with contemporary religious and intellectual aspiration, or even with ‘perennial modernity’, but inasmuch as its ‘internal obviousness’ is irrefutable, irresistible. [J. Maritain, Anti-moderne (Paris 1922).] Irenaean thought circles freely in the space defined by the mysteries, exhibiting the beauty of their harmonious reciprocity as it does so.

Balthazar notes the predominance of visual metaphors in Irenaeus’ writings: revelation and its human appropriation is ostensio, manifestatio, visio. What Christ appeared to be, that he was [F. Sagnard, O.P. (ed.), Contre les heresies III (Paris 1952)]: the manifestation of the Father through the Word takes place in the self-showing of the incarnate One in his life, death and resurrection, as pointed to by the Scriptures. In seeing these saving mysteries we begin upon the eschatological vision of God. Here ‘seeing’ is nothing pejoratively theoretical, but is ‘identical with life-giving, nourishing, purifying and bliss-giving communication …’ in the Holy Spirit.[Glory of the Lord II, p. 47]

Moreover, such seeing is through our own eyes, though healed and transfigured: it is the ‘Father’s ancient creation’, as Irenaeus puts it, which through Son and Spirit gains access to the Father’s Glory. Here, in his affirmation of the fundamental goodness of the world, Irenaeus’ critique of the Gnostics agrees (though Balthazar does not say this) with that of such Neo-Platonists as Plotinus.

The beauty of Irenaean salvation lies in its wonderfully integrated quality. As the fulfiller — the ‘recapitulator’ — of what humanity was meant to be at its origin, and of all the chief determining aspects of its subsequent experience, the Word made flesh has the power to ‘give every emergent thing scope for perfection’;[Glory of the Lord II, p. 52] precisely by drawing it actively to himself, assimilating it to his own fullness.’

The ground of the advance of the inchoate is thus found in the fulfilling return of the definitive, by whose integrating power everything is decided.” .[Glory of the Lord II, p. 53]  And yet this is no mere miraculous incursion of divine power, essentially unconnected to the pre-existing pattern of the human creation. For the created pattern already knew in Adam an integrating focus — which is why the interrelation of the two heads of humanity, Adam and Christ, is so important to Irenaeus, and why he considers it a theological necessity that the first Adam should, thanks to the second, be redeemed.

But if the recapitulation concept lies at the heart of Irenaeus’ theological aesthetics, that heart itself possesses a center. The ‘still center‘ as Balthazar terms it, of all Irenaean thought is the notion of the humanity which, borne as it is by God, is capable of sustaining the weight of the divine — a concept, incidentally, which will be crucial to the second volume of his theological logic, his ‘Christo-logic’. Owing not only to the Creator’s gift to man of his image and likeness but also to the supernatural gift of the Spirit, it is possible to think of ‘man bearing and receiving and containing the Son of God’.”

From this midpoint of the incarnation — the God-enabled God-bearing which resumes and brings to perfection the origin, structure and history of humanity — Irenaeus’ camera-work pans out in three directions. On Balthazar’s analysis, three themes display the ‘organizing power and the blazing heat of the recapitulative movement [Glory of the Lord II, p. 58.]: the triune God, hidden and revealed; the Creator’s relation to the human creature; and the salvific; dispensation which binds together Israel, the gospel and the Church. Let us glance at each in turn.

Consider first the Holy Trinity. For Irenaeus, Father, Son and Spirit’ are joined in an eternal open trialogue: unlike the divine powers of Gnosticism, constantly seeking or finding, and hence enmeshed in ignorance, the Trinitarian persons conduct their exchange in the everlasting light and freedom. Without prejudice to his unknowability which is a function of his transcendence, the Father makes himself known — not in his greatness, which is immeasurable, but in his love — through the office of the Word by which we learn, if we are responsive, more and more how great God is and that it is he who through himself establishes and chooses everything and makes it beautiful and contains it’ [W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses (Cambridge 1857), II, pp. 212-213.] To be’ sure, the Word for Irenaeus does not exercise this office without the collaboration of the Father’s other ‘hand’, the Spirit.

Consider next the relation between Creator and creature. This same triune Lord is the creature’s absolute Source in whom inheres what Irenaeus terms: ‘the substance of creatures and the pattern of his artefacts and the beauty of the individual life-form’. [W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses (Cambridge 1857), II, p.213.] The humanity he has made to his and likeness he calls to communion with himself, as his perfect artwork, remade through the visible Image, Jesus Christ, in which the invisible Archetype is seen on earth. Since the ‘true man is soul in body and grace in both’, [Glory of the Lord, II, p.64] the eschatologically whole man is not the..!. disembodied post-mortem soul but the risen flesh, where the Holy Spirit` is victorious over man’s mortal wounds: sin and death.

The Creator’s work is only properly seen at its mid-point, the God-man, in his crucified and risen glory. That God can do all things is clear, writes Balthazar by way of interpretation of Irenaeus, but that ‘man together with God can also do all things had to be proved’ [Glory of the Lord, II, ibid] As, in Balthazar’s favorite metaphor, the ‘fruit’ both of the world and of the hither, Christ united the Spirit with man, in his affinity with both leading them back — and here the language is once more that of Irenaeus himself --in ‘mutual love and harmony’ [F. Sagnard, O.P. (ed.), Contre les heresies III] Anticipating his own theology of the atonement, both in Herrlichkeit, and in his extended meditation on the Easter triduum, Mysterium Paschale, Balthazar summarizes Irenaeus’ message of agony and glory:

The same person must be glorified and abased, must penetrate heights and depths, in order to make up by his humiliation for Adam’s arrogance, must live through all the ages of man in order to heal all. Salvation lies in the human life and fate of Jesus, and this includes his real death; really dying, however, means going down to the realm of the dead, to Hades, and not just leaving the cross to return to the Father. And if everything in the fate of Jesus is the revelation of his Father, so too is his Passion. It is the real suffering and dying man who, by what he completely and utterly is, glorifies the Father, and this man who suffers and is humiliated even to death is much more magnificant than all the bloodless patterns of the Gnostics…. Through the suffering flesh of Christ the Father’s light reaches us; that is the essence of the mysterion.
[Hans urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, pp. 68-69, 70]

And consider too the salvific dispensation that binds together Israel, the Gospel and the Church. In the first place, the order of salvation in the Old Testament is a praeadaptio, praeformatio, praemeditatio (in this context a preliminary training) for the coming of Christ. The child Adam is to learn wisdom through injury; his Fall, though not inevitable, had a kind of necessity about it. Had all goodness been man’s inalienable possession from the outset he would not have valued the society of God as a prize worth great effort: ‘Sight would not be so desirable to us if we had not learned how awful it is not to see.. .’.[W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses]

The mutual accustoming of God and man — an idea already important to Balthazar in the first volume of Herrlichkeit — explains to perfection why the Redeemer came so ‘late’, after multiple generations of Israel’s educative spiritual experience. And in any case, since for Irenaeus Son and Spirit are the manifestness of the Father, all the Old Testament theophanies (as Balthazar puts it) are the Son, just as all inspiration is the Spirit. Thus in the words of the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, the Son ‘was with our humanity from eternity, announcing beforehand the things that were to happen later and instructing men in the things of God’ [L. M. Froidevaux (ed.), Irenee de Lyons, Demonstration de la Predication apostolique]

Any attempt to prise apart the two covenants, especially, in the horrendous example offered by Marcion, to ascribe them to different deities, means to ‘undo all God’s art’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p82] Originating in Abraham’s free obedience, the ancient covenant helped men and women to find, through law, the way to love, and by the prophets, avoiding legalism, to seek the essence of the God-man relationship in the inwardness of hearts.

Irenaeus had to face, accordingly, the question of what, in such a context of ripe development, could constitute the ‘novelty value’ of the gospel. Though everything in the New Covenant might have been announced beforehand in the form of teaching, now, with the Gospel, it becomes a person – and therefore is fulfillment. Balthazar writes:

In addition to the correspondence and the intensification there is Christ’s divine quality and his efforts to transpose everything and symbolic into living existence and so to recapitulate it by it concrete form in such a way that its reality is enhanced.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p85-86]

The moment of the incarnation is the moment of unsurpassable:

With this creative event in view the Father gave this ‘hot character of the fullness of time. In this fullness not only the Old Covenant but also all human and physical nature is fulfilled, because now the Word is present within the flesh.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p86]

And so, lastly, the Church steps into view, with her ‘timeless newness’ which Balthazar connects with Irenaeus’ statement that, the incarnation is a ripening into fullness it is also a return to a now un-threatened childhood, since the Word became a child like us. Balthazar captures Irenaeus’ ecclesiology quite brilliantly in a few lines:

In Irenaeus the Church…stands historically at the end of the early Christian era, the splendor of which still surrounds it, and at the beginning of the Catholic form of the world, the features of which it has already assumed. It is the esoteric mystery of the world Christ and yet the most public and anti-sectarian body known to history. It is fully the pneumatic and charismatic Church as in Tertullian; but Irenaeus avoids the dangers and disasters which befell Tertullian, because at the same time in his view the Church remains resolutely in the spirit of the apostolic kerygma and paradosis. [vocab: paradosis: a handing down or over of a tradition or divine revelation]
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p86]

Nor could this be for Irenaeus a privileged originating moment whose plenary freshness may not always be with us. The Spirit perpetually rejuvenates the Church, giving her ‘eternally young beauty.’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p88] By the continual refreshment which comes from abiding in the person of the fulfiller the Church’s existence lies wide open to eternal life.

Balthazar emphasizes then the way in which the Christian aesthetic of Irenaeus excels its Gnostic rival by its capacity to display the ‘temporal art’ of God, his beautifully proportioned ordering of time. For Irenaeus, the beauty of the cosmos, of cosmic order, can never be sundered from the artistic intention of its Creator, which is disclosed only in the recapitulation in time, in the temporal order. God creates by his ‘artistic Logos’, for everything was created in accord with the divine Word who alone has the measure of the Father’s mind.

Creative power, wisdom and goodness were disclosed from the beginning, but it takes that expression of the ‘symphony of being and history’ which is Holy Scripture, interpreted by the rule of faith, for us to hear the chords and cadences aright [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p73] The supreme artwork of God is the human being – and here Balthazar locates the origin of that vital Irenaean concept, the mutual ‘glorification’ of God and man. ‘Man, who preserves God’s art in himself and obediently opens himself to its disposing, glorifies the artist and the artist glorifies himself in his work.’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p74] The natural world, as found in the first moment of Adam’s creation, is a promise of the supernatural order to come, yet each stage in the unfolding of God’s, plan must follow at its proper time, the aptum tempus – Irenaeus’ version of the New Testament’s kairos, or appointed hour.

The ‘times’ and their ‘fulfillment’ are ‘appointed’ according to the Father’s ‘pleasure’ so that ‘his art might not be in vain’, but this pleasure is always translated into the order of time by the Son and Spirit: ‘and so, through this disposition and by such rhythms and with such guides, man, who has been produced and shaped, is led towards the image and likeness of the ungenerate God. In all this the Father approves and prescribes, the Son executes and forms, the Spirit nourishes and increases, while man gently advances and moves towards perfection, in order, that is, to approach the Uncreated.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.77]

Although Balthazar criticizes Irenaeus for an excessively homogenizing view of the relation between the two Testaments (which in reality should be treated as highly dramatic, dialectical – Theodramatik will bring this out in full measure), he regards his weak sense of historical context, almost inevitable in his period, as a venial offence:

The elimination of this defect by modern historical exegesis is the removal of a defect which is accidental in Irenaeus; it is the true continuation and liberation of his basic purpose across the centuries
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.91]

Balthazar is also minded to look mercifully on Irenaeus’ millenarianism [vocab: millenarianism the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming major transformation of society, after which all things will be changed, based on a one-thousand-year cycle]. Though his insertion of a transfigured earth into an apocalyptic space between general resurrection and general judgment was unfortunate (and the result of too literal a tendency to see the Church as re-entry on the inheritance — the land — promised to Abraham, recapitulation with a vengeance!), much may be forgiven the ‘anti-spiritualizing tendency’ in his eschatology’. [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.93] Balthazar will return to the theme of the resurrection of the flesh, highly significant as this is for a theological aesthetics, in his account of Bonaventure, the last of his ‘clerical’ stylists in Herrlichkeit. It is, as he points out here, important for the dialogue with Judaism he attempted in his study of Buber — and for the debate with modern cosmology, as well as with the cosmic religiosity of a Teilhard de Chardin.

Irenaeus occurs first in the ‘symphony of sources’ of Herrlichkeit, not simply because of the accident that he is the first in historical time of Balthazar’s Christian witnesses. The appearance of the concept of salvation history, centered on Christ, as the ‘art of God’ in Irenaeus’ thought, and the general structure and temper of Irenaean theology Balthazar captures it in these pages brings these two ‘fathers of the Church’(Bonaventure and Irenaeus) together across the gap of centuries.


Sacraments And Signification – Abbot Vonier

January 13, 2012

The Baptism of Christ by Giovanni BELLINI, 1500-02, Oil on canvas, Santa Corona, Vicenza, Italy. He is considered to have revolutionized Venetian painting, moving it towards a more sensuous and coloristic style. Through the use of clear, slow-drying oil paints, Giovanni created deep, rich tints and detailed shadings. His sumptuous coloring and fluent, atmospheric landscapes had a great effect on the Venetian painting school, especially on his pupils Giorgione and Titian.

There is an excellent definition of the nature of the sacraments in Article Four of the Sixty-First Question of the Third Part of the Summa Theologica: “Sacraments are certain signs protesting that faith through which man is justified.” Such a definition makes the transition from the role of faith to the role of the sacraments a very natural and easy one. The power of the sacraments could never be dissociated from the power of faith; the two supernatural agencies move forward hand in hand. A sacrament is always an external sign witnessing to that more recondite quality of the soul, the faith that justifies man by bringing him into contact with Christ.

Two very important questions arise here: First, why should there be this external protestation of the faith? Second, to what extent shall we give to those signs a literal efficacy of signification? In the answer to the second question there lies all the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism; in fact, it may even be said, between Judaism and Christianity. In its many aspects this will be the main object of our study; but for the moment let its dwell on the first point, the radical oneness of the Catholic theory concerning the means of justification.

Faith and sacraments are indissolubly united; though faith may be called the older and more universal factor. The sacramental system is grafted on faith; it is essentially the executive of our faith; it is, shall we say, the reward of faith. Because of her faith the Church is granted those further powers of reaching Christ which make Christ not only the object of devout contemplation, but of physical possession; the sacramental reality is granted to those who have faith; such is the burden of Christ’s teaching in the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel. He who does the work of God by believing in Him whom the Father has sent is the one to whom Christ will give His Flesh to eat and His Blood to drink. We may apply here that important principle of spiritual growth which Christ enunciates more than once: “To everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall abound, but from him that hath not, that also which he seemeth to have shall be taken away.”

Because of her generous faith the Church is given the abundant riches of the sacraments. What might appear at first sight to be the exception to the rule — that faith and the sacraments are indissolubly united — is only a more profound application of it; I refer to the practice of infant Baptism. Saint Thomas, following Saint Augustine, relies on the faith of the Church herself in order to keep intact the essential union of faith and the sacrament of faith.

“In the Church of the Savior the little ones believe through others, as through others they contract those sins which are washed out in Baptism”; these are the words of the earlier Father which the medieval Doctor expands into the following theological explanation: “The faith of one, nay of the whole Church, is of profit to the little one through the operation of the Holy Spirit, who makes the Church into one, and makes the one share the goods of the other.” There could hardly be a more unfair accusation brought against the Catholic Church than to say that by her uncompromising insistence on the sacramental life she diminishes the power of faith.

It is really the Puritan, rather than the Protestant in general, who is the enemy of the sacramental system taken in the wider aspect of that Thomistic definition in the previous post. For the Puritan, faith is not in need of any help or any adjuncts. Yet the reasons given by Catholic theologians for the presence in the Christian dispensation of these external signs of internal faith are chiefly psychological; man’s nature being what it is, sacraments are indispensable to a full life of faith.

Saint Thomas gives a threefold reason for the institution of the sacraments; but this threefold reason is really one —  man’s psychology. However, the three factors are

    1. firstly, the condition of man’s nature, being a composite of spirit and sense;
    2. secondly, man’s estate, which is slavedom to material things and only to be remedied by the spiritual power inside the material thing;
    3. thirdly, man’s activities, so prone to go astray in external interests, finding in the sacraments a true bodily exercise which works out for salvation.

Nothing would be easier than to develop this subject with all the fascinating means that psychological studies put at our disposal.

The sacramental life of the Church is based on a perfect understanding of man’s needs. Sacraments are through their very nature an extension of the Incarnation, a continuation of that mystery expressed in the words: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Is not the Son of God made Man, the Sacrament par excellence, the magnum sacramentum, the invisible made visible? “And evidently great is the mystery of godliness, which was manifested in the flesh, was justified in the spirit, appeared unto angels, hath been preached unto the Gentiles, is believed in the world, is taken up in glory”

To say that a Sacrament is a protestation of the faith which is in us, is not a complete definition of the Christian sacrament; though it may be considered as adequate enough for a sacrament in its widest meaning. Even Saint Thomas never hesitates to give to some of the major rites of the Old Law the name of sacrament; always making it quite clear, however, that the power of those ancient observances never went beyond signifying the patriarchal faith, while the Christian sacrament has a much higher degree of signification, one indeed that has effectiveness associated with it. It would be quite mistaken, and very ungenerous, not to grant to the ancient rites instituted by God sacramental dignity of at least an inferior degree; they all were external signs of the faith in the coming redemption. They were tremendous helps to that faith, although in themselves they were not direct causes of grace.

Saint Thomas divides the life of mankind into four seasons —  the state of innocence before the fall, the state of sin before Christ, the state of sin after Christ, and the state of bliss in heaven. No sacraments are necessary in the first and in the last state; sacraments are necessary to man in the two middle states. But it is in the “state of sin after Christ” that sacraments reach their perfection; the seven sacraments of the Christian dispensation are sacraments in the highest sense, because, besides signifying the grace which is the inheritance of faith, they also contain that grace and cause it.

An objector may find fault with the arrangement that God has given to man different sacraments before Christ and different sacraments after Christ. Does this not argue mutability in the divine will? The answer of Saint Thomas is a perfect synthesis of that broader view of the sacramental system which makes it as old as the world:

To the third objection let us reply that the father of the family is not said to be of changeable disposition because he gives different orders to his household according to the variety of seasons, and does not command the same work to be done in summer and in winter; so likewise there is not mutability in God’s ways because He institutes one set of sacraments after the coming of Christ and another in the time of the Old Law; for these latter were apt prefigurements of grace, while the former are manifest grace already present amongst us.

The Power of Sacramental Signification
It is the very essence of a sacrament to be a sign; it is its proper definition. “We now speak specifically of sacraments insofar as they imply the relationship of a sign.” Let us never deprive a sacrament, even the most excellent, of this constitutional property of signification. The orthodox realist in sacramental theology boldly proclaims his faith, I do not say in the symbolical nature of the sacrament, but in the demonstrative nature of the sacrament as a sign, or, if we like the word better, in its representative nature as a sign.

This power of signification inside the one and the same sacrament is not simple but complex, for the sacramental element performs its function in various ways, as well as signifying various realities; yet it has a certain definiteness, a clearly outlined circle of signification, which has been traced by the hand of God. It is the divine institution which is directly responsible for the choice of those signs which, in the words of Saint Thomas, are given us “for a more explicit signification of Christ’s grace, through which the human race is sanctified.” The angelic Doctor adds, with that true liberality of mind so characteristically his own, that this clear circumscribing of the sacramental signs does not in any way narrow the road of salvation, because the material things which are indispensable for the sacraments are commonly to be had, or may be procured with very little trouble.

Sacraments, then, are truly signs from heaven. In no other sphere of human transactions does the external sign become such an efficient messenger of the internal reality. There is in Article Three of the same Question a passage of Saint Thomas which may be called truly classical as stating the power of signification proper to the sacraments:

My answer is, that, as has been already said, the sacrament, properly so-called, is a thing ordained to signify our sanctification; in which three phases may be taken into consideration, namely: the cause of our sanctification, which is the passion of Christ; the essence of our sanctification, which consists in grace and virtue; and then the ultimate goal of our sanctification, which is eternal life. Now all these are signified by the sacraments. Therefore a sacrament is a commemorative sign of what has gone before, in this case the passion of Christ, a demonstrative sign of what is being effected in us through the passion of Christ, that is grace, and a prognostic sign, foretelling our future glory.

Every sacrament, then, has something to declare: it recalls the past, it is the voice of the present, it reveals the future. If the sacrament did not fulfill its function of sign proclaiming something which is not seen, it would not be a sacrament at all. It can embrace heaven and earth, time and eternity, because it is a sign; were it only a grace it would be no more than the gift of the present hour; but being a sign the whole history of the spiritual world is reflected in it: “For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until He come.” What Saint Paul says of the Eucharist about its showing forth a past event is true in other ways of every other sacrament. The passage we have transcribed from Saint Thomas refers to every one of the seven sacraments.

In order to elucidate this all-important role of signification in the sacraments we may make a comparison with the non-sacramental means of grace. If my heart be touched by God’s grace, such a divine action, excellent and wonderful though it be, is not a sign of anything else; it is essentially a spiritual fact of the present moment, and ends, as it were, in itself. It has no relationship of signification to anything else, whether past, present or future.

Such is not the case with the sacraments; through them it becomes possible to focus the distant past and future in the actual present; through them historic events of centuries ago are renewed, and we anticipate the future in a very real way. All this is possible only in virtue of the sacramental sign, which not only records the distant event, but, somewhat like the modern film, projects it upon the screen of the present.

O sacred Banquet, wherein Christ is received, the memory of His passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and there is given to us a pledge of future glory.

This antiphon from the Office of Corpus Christi, when compared with the above text from the Summa, at once betrays its Thomistic origin. But although the Eucharist performs that function of transcendent representation in the spiritual order in a more excellent degree, all the other sacraments do the same in their several ways. All the sacraments enable us to step out of the present.

Much confusion of thought in the doctrine of the sacraments in general, and of the Eucharist in particular, would be spared us if we never let go of that elemental definition of the sacrament, that it is a sign. Whatever reality there is in a sacrament is deeply modified by this role of signification. Baptism, for instance, is not just any kind of cleansing of the soul; its cleansing power is in the burial and resurrection of Christ which is signified in the sacramental rite.

Know you not that all we who are baptized in Christ Jesus are baptized in His death? For we are buried together with Him by baptism into death: that, as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection.

In this text of Saint Paul the elements of past, present and future in our baptismal conformation with Christ are strikingly verified.

The current definition of a sacrament as an external sign of internal grace would certainly be too narrow for Saint Thomas, if by “internal grace” we meant nothing but the actual transformation of the soul. This is, in fact, only one of the things signified. But if by “internal grace” we also mean the cause of grace —  Christ’s passion, and the goal of grace —  eternal life, then the definition is adequate. But to limit the sacramental power of signification to the present moment, to the transformation of soul which takes place when the sacrament is received, would be an unwarranted minimizing of the sacramental doctrine, and would leave much of our scriptural language unintelligible. How, for instance, could the Eucharist be a memorial of Christ if it were only a supernatural feeding of the soul?

When Our Lord said: “Do this for a commemoration of Me,” He gave the Eucharist an historic import which is not to be found in the spiritual raising up of the individual soul alone. A commemoration is essentially a sign, a monument, something related to a definite person or event of the past.

Saint Thomas lays it down as an axiom that a sacrament is always an object of the senses. A merely spiritual thing, an act of our intellect or will, could never fulfill that role of signification which is so essential to the sacrament. The sign, on the contrary, is an external manifestation of the process of thought and volition: Saint Thomas quotes from Saint Augustine a very succinct definition: “A sign is that which, besides the impression it makes on the senses, puts one in mind of something else.”

When I see the baptismal water poured on the head of the catechumen, and when I hear the words of the priest who does the christening, if I am a man of faith, my mind, roused by these external rites and signs, travels a long way. I go back to the Jordan, where Christ is being baptized; I go back to Calvary, where blood and water issue from the side of Christ; my mind leaps forward to that people who stand before the Throne of God in white robes which have been washed in the Blood of the Lamb; and, more audacious still, my mind gazes right into the innermost soul of the catechumen and distinguishes that soul from all non-baptized souls, through that spiritual seal which makes it a member of Christ. The sacramental sign is pregnant with all that spiritual vision of my faith. In the order of signs, of course, we include words as well as things; both are, in fact, objects of our senses, and the words are generally necessary to make more precise the signification of the thing. `A repetition of words, when words are added to the visible things in sacraments, is not superfluous, because one receives determination through the other.”

In a text already quoted Saint Thomas makes a clear-cut distinction between the two roads which lie before us, and which lead directly to the passion of Christ: the act of the soul, and the use of external things. The former is faith, the latter is the sacrament. Let us give this distinction its full value. The external things are as solid a road to Christ as the act of the soul. The sacramental signs, which are the external things alluded to by the Angelic Doctor, have become, in God’s Providence, a distinct supernatural world, as real as the supernatural world of graces given to the souls of men.

At the same time, those sacred signs differ radically from the acts of man’s soul performed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They are visible, palpable realities, not breathings of the Spirit in the hearts of men. They are not mere aids to man’s memory; they are not just opportune reminders of the invisible. “If anyone says that sacraments have been instituted solely for the purpose of fostering faith, let him be anathema.” External things have been taken hold of by God as directly as men’s souls. Like this visible planet of ours, the supernatural world of salvation is divided into land and water. The graces of the Holy Spirit are the water; the external things, the sacraments, are the land.


Redefining Where God Dwells — N.T.Wright

December 26, 2011

The Heller Altar was created 1507–09 by Albrecht Dürer for the patrician Jakob Heller of Frankfurt, the central panel copied ca. 1614–17 by Jobst Harrich, its original destroyed by the fire of the Munich Residenz in 1729

In his most recent book, Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright explores the ways in which people in Jesus’ world would have thought about space, time and matter.


For many centuries mapmakers put Jerusalem at the middle of the earth. That corresponds to what most Jews in the first century believed about the city, and particularly about the Temple. It was the heart of everything, the holiest spot on earth. It was the focal point of the holy land. Its decoration symbolized the larger creation, the world we read about in Genesis 1. It wasn’t, as sacred buildings have been in some other traditions, a retreat from the world. It was a bridgehead into the world. It was the sign that the creator God was claiming the whole world, claiming it back for himself, establishing his domain in the middle of it.

It was, in particular, the place where God himself had promised to come and live. This was where God’s glory, his tabernacling presence, his Shekinah, had come to rest. That’s what the Bible had said, and some fortunate, though frightened, individuals had glimpsed it and lived to tell the tale. But God lived, by definition, in heaven. Nobody, however, supposed that God lived most of the time in heaven, a long way away, and then, as though for an occasional holiday or royal visitation, went to live in the Temple in Jerusalem instead.

Somehow, in a way most modern people find extraordinary to the point of being almost unbelievable, the Temple was not only the center of the world. It was the place where heaven and earth met. This isn’t, then, just a way of saying, “Well, the Jews were very attached to their land and their capital city.” It was the vital expression of a worldview in which “heaven” and “earth” are not far apart, as most people today assume, but actually overlap and interlock.

And Jesus, had been going about saying that this God, Israel’s God, was right now becoming king, was taking charge, was establishing his long-awaited saving and healing rule on earth as in heaven. Heaven and earth were being joined up — but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on (remember the angels celebrating in heaven and people joining in on earth?), where forgiveness was happening. In other words, the joining place, the overlapping circle, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel’s-God-was-living.

As many people will see at once, this is the very heart of what later theologians would call the doctrine of the incarnation. But it looks quite different from how many people imagine that doctrine to work. Judaism already had a massive “incarnational” symbol, the Temple. Jesus was behaving as if he were the Temple, in person.

He was talking about Israel’s God taking charge. And he was doing things that put that God-in-chargeness into practice. It all starts to make sense. In particular, it answers the old criticism that “Jesus talked about God, but the church talked about Jesus” — as though Jesus would have been shocked to have his pure, God-centered message corrupted in that way. This sneer fails to take account of the fact that, yes, Jesus talked about God, but he talked about God precisely in order to explain the things that he himself was doing.

So we shouldn’t be surprised at Jesus’ action in the Temple. The Temple had, as it were, been a great signpost pointing forward to another reality that had lain unnoticed for generations, like the vital clue in a detective story that is only recognized as such in the final chapter. Remember the promise to David — that God would build him a “house,” a family, founded on the son of David who would be the son of God? David had wanted to build a house for God, and God had replied that he would build David a “house.” David’s coming son is the ultimate reality; the Temple in Jerusalem is the advance signpost to that reality. Now that the reality is here, the signpost isn’t needed anymore.

But it isn’t just that the signpost had become redundant with the arrival of the reality. The Temple, as many other first-century Jews recognized, was in the wrong hands and had come to symbolize the wrong things. It was, for a start, a place that for many Jews stank of commercial oppression. This is an additional rather obvious overtone of Jesus’ action in driving out the money changers and the traders. But it gets worse. The Temple was the center of the banking system. It was where the records of debts were kept; the first thing the rebels did when they took over the Temple in the great revolt was to burn those records. That tells you quite a lot about how people saw the Temple. I had a letter today from the tax man, politely asking me for my annual contribution to government finances. If I don’t answer it, the next one won’t be so polite.

Now imagine letters and records building up, detailing all the debts of ordinary people in Jerusalem, while the chief priests, who ran the system, lived in their fine mansions in the nice part of town and went about in their smart clothes. If you were an ordinary, hardworking resident of Jerusalem or the surrounding area, what would you think of the building that was supposed to be God’s house, but that stored the records of your debts, while the rich rulers who performed the religious rituals marched by with their noses in the air on their way to put on their splendid vestments and chant their elaborate prayers? Yes, that’s exactly how many people saw the Temple.

It gets worse again. The Temple had come to symbolize the nationalist movement that had led many Jews to revolt against pagan oppression in the past and would lead them to do so once more. As we see graphically throughout the history of Israel, and not least in the first century, the Temple was the sign that Israel’s God, the world’s creator, was with his people and would defend them against all confers. Battle and Temple had gone together for a thousand years, from David himself through to Judah the Hammer to Simon the Star.

And Jesus had come as the Prince of Peace. “If only you’d known,” he sobbed out through his tears, “on this day — even you! — what peace meant. But now it’s hidden, and you can’t see it.” Enemies will come, he said. “They won’t leave one single stone on another, because you didn’t know the moment when God was visiting you” (Luke 19:42-44).

Israel’s God was coming back at last, and they couldn’t see it. Why not? Because they were looking in entirely the wrong direction. The Temple, and the city of which the Temple was the focal point, had come to symbolize violent national revolution. Instead of being the light of the world, the city on the hill that should let its light shine out to the nations, it was determined to keep the light for itself. The Temple was not just redundant; not just a place of economic oppression. It had become a symbol of Israel’s violent ambition, a sign that Israel’s ancient vocation had been turned inside out. In Luke’s gospel, the scene of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem balances the scene near the start in which Jesus goes to Nazareth and risks his neck by declaring God’s blessing on the pagan nations. Then it was the synagogue; now it’s the Temple.

It also balances the scene even earlier, when the twelve-year-old Jesus stays back in Jerusalem, to his parents’ alarm, at the end of a Passover celebration — and is finally discovered sitting in the Temple with the teachers, listening to them, quizzing them in turn, and explaining that he had to be getting involved with his father’s work (Luke 2:49). Now here he is, back again, involved up to the neck in his father’s work, astonishing the Jerusalem authorities for a different reason. This is the climax of his father’s work, and that work is now focused on Jesus himself, not the Temple.

If Jesus is acting out a vision — astonishing, risky, and one might say crazy — in which he is behaving as if he is the Temple, redefining sacred space around himself, something equally strange and risky is taking place in the realm of time.


Thomas on The Incarnation and God’s Relation to Human Suffering – Fr. Robin Ryan

November 3, 2011

Original Sin
The metaphysical discussion of evil needs to be supplemented by what Aquinas says about original sin. Previously we noted that Augustine developed his teaching about original sin, in part, to account for the reality of evil and innocent suffering that he saw all around him. Aquinas inherited the church’s teaching about original sin and was aware of developments in the theological tradition that had taken place between the time of Augustine and his own day. The notion of human solidarity in the sin of Adam had been explained in various ways by theologians who wrote before Aquinas. There had also been discussion about the essence of original sin. For example, Anselm of Canterbury had proposed that the essence of original sin consists of the privation of original justice — the loss of the justice possessed by Adam in paradise, due to his disobedience.

Aquinas draws on this idea of original sin as a privation of original justice. For him the state in which Adam and Eve (whom he takes as historical individuals) were created was that of original justice. This condition was not simply a state of natural happiness; it was a way of being made possible by the gift of God’s grace. As Aquinas puts it, “That he [Adam] was actually set up in grace seems to be required by the very rightness (rectitudo) in which God made man for his first state…” (Summa Theologiae 95, 1).

Thus the gift of grace, which for Aquinas refers to the action of God leading us to union with God, was present before the “fall” of the human race.”‘ The state of “rightness” in which the first human beings were created included a harmony between the various powers of the human person. Aquinas describes it as a condition in which human reason was submissive to God, the lower powers of the human soul were submissive to reason, and the body was submissive to the soul (Summa Theologiae, 1, 95, 1). In this graced condition, the first humans possessed all of the virtues. Their entire being was completely oriented to God and to obedience to the divine will.

This state of original justice was for Aquinas a gift divinely bestowed upon human nature in the parents of the human race. It was not something owed to Adam and Eve by reason of nature. It did, however, entail the perfection of human nature, including freedom from suffering and death, the integration of human desires (appetites), and the gift of charity in the will. Aquinas argues that Adam was created immortal because “his soul was equipped by God with a supernatural force capable of preserving the body from all decay, as long as it remained submissive to God itself” (Summa Theologiae 1, 97, 2). Original justice also entailed immunity from suffering. Adam “was immune from it [suffering] both in body and in soul, just as he was immortal, for he could have kept suffering away just as much as death, if he had persisted without sin” (Summa Theologiae, 1, 97, 2).

Moreover, the condition of original justice, while not entailing the beatific vision, included a higher knowledge of God than that possessed by human beings after the fall. Aquinas argues that those who enjoy the vision of God (the knowledge of God possessed by the blessed in heaven) “are so solidly established in the love of God that never can they sin” (Summa Theologiae 1, 94, 1). Since Adam sinned, he could not have had this gift. Nevertheless, “he did know God with a loftier knowledge than we do now and thus his knowledge was somehow or other half way between knowledge in our present state and knowledge in the home-country, where God is seen in his essence” (Summa Theologiae, 1, 94, 1). If there had been no sin, human beings would not have died but would have been transferred into the state of beatitude — the condition of beholding the essence of God.

Given this account of the creation of the first human beings in a state of original justice, Aquinas then views the essence of original sin as the loss, or privation, of original justice. Through the sin of Adam, humanity lost the gift of original justice, and human nature was modified as a result of this privation. Employing Aristotelian terminology, Aquinas speaks of original sin as a “habit,” that is, a disposition according to which a subject is well disposed or ill disposed toward something.

Original sin is “a disordered disposition growing from the dissolution of that harmony in which original justice consisted” (Summa Theologiae I-Il, 82, 1). He likens this disordered disposition to a bodily illness. Human nature has become sick because of the effects of the sin that occurred at the very origins of human history. In this condition, the powers of the human soul have become disturbed. Drawing on the classic image of “wounds,” Aquinas speaks of the wounds of ignorance, malice, weakness, and concupiscence. Ignorance damages human reason, malice wounds the will, weakness affects the irascible appetite (the capacity to face situations that are difficult), and concupiscence wounds the concupiscible appetite (the attraction to things that are desirable). Death and other forms of human suffering are also the results of original sin (Summa Theologiae I-II, 85, 5). He writes:

In this way the sin of the first parents is the cause of death and of all like defects in human nature. For the sin of the first parents removed original justice; through this not only were the lower powers of the soul held harmoniously under the control of reason but the whole body was subordinated to the soul without any defect…. Once, therefore, original justice was lost through the sin of the first parents, just as human nature was injured in soul by the disordering of the powers, so also it became corruptible by reason of the disturbance of the body’s order. (Summa Theologiae I-I1, 85, 5)

A complete treatment of Aquinas’ approach to sin would include an account of his rich and textured theology of grace. In his discussion of grace Aquinas asserts that we need the gift of God’s action within us both as elevating and as healing. First, in order to experience communion with God, we need grace to move us beyond the capacities of human nature. He describes grace as “a certain participation in the divine nature.” By communicating a share in the divine nature God makes us “godlike” (Summa Theologiae 1, 112, 1). While this gift is something that exceeds the capacities of human nature, it is not foreign to our humanity because human nature has its finality in God.”‘ Second, because of the debilitating effects of original sin as well as personal sin, we need God’s grace to heal our sick nature. And Aquinas is convinced that when God graciously acts within us, this divine action makes a real difference. In Aristotelian terms, he speaks of grace as a “habitual gift” that modifies the human spirit, making a person exist differently (Summa Theologiae I-I1, 111, 3). As original sin leaves us with a disordered disposition, grace renews us with a disposition oriented to God. Aquinas conceives of grace “as something which makes a definite, historical difference in people.” It is not just that we are loved by God, we become lovable because of the healing, life-giving action of God within us. In a kind of summary statement, Aquinas offers a deep and expansive account of the effects of grace: “Now there are five effects of grace in us: firstly, the healing of the soul; secondly, willing the good; thirdly, the efficacious performance of the good willed; fourthly, perseverance in the good; fifthly, the attainment of glory” (Summa Theologiae I-Il, 1 1 1, 3). Aquinas, then, underlines the primacy of grace in the Christian life; like Augustine, he is convinced that grace is needed at every step along the path of salvation. And he depicts a God who is generous in offering this grace, bestowing his presence in our lives in a way that is transformative.

Aquinas’ treatment of the effects of original sin in the Summa Theologiae includes an intriguing objection — an argument with which he will not be in full agreement. In addressing the question of whether death and other bodily ills are the effects of sin, he cites an opposing position that claims that if this were the case then baptism and penance, by which sin is removed through sacramental grace, should also remove death and bodily ills. People living in the state of grace, then, should no longer experience suffering and death. In his response to this argument, Aquinas affirms that the grace of these sacraments does in fact remove both sin and the effects of sin.

He quotes the Letter to the Romans, in which Paul speaks of the indwelling Spirit that brings life to our mortal bodies (Romans 8:11). But, Aquinas explains, each of these benefits of the sacraments “takes place according to the order of divine wisdom at a fitting time.” He asserts:

For it is right that we pass to the freedom from death and suffering proper to the glory begun in Christ and acquired by Christ for us only after being made conformed to him in his suffering. Thus it must be that subjection to suffering remain for a time in our bodies that in conformity with Christ we may merit the freedom from suffering proper to the state of glory.
(Summa Theologiae I-II, 85, 5, ad 2)

Thus, for Aquinas, the Christian is meant to configure his or her life to the crucified and risen Lord and, through union with Christ, be delivered from suffering in eternal life. The postponement of this freedom from suffering is in some mysterious way in keeping with the wisdom of God. This reference to conformity to Christ leads us to consider Aquinas’ theology of the incarnation.

The Incarnation and God’s Relation to Human Suffering
How does Aquinas’ theology of Jesus touch upon suffering? We examine three relevant aspects of his thinking about the person and saving work of Jesus: his discussion of the unity of Christ and the communication of idioms; his reflection on the grace of Christ as head of the church; and his treatment of the saving work of Jesus.

  1.  First, in his Christological reflection, Aquinas presumes the teaching of the early councils of the church, especially Ephesus and Chalcedon. The very first question in his treatment of Christ in the Summa Theologiae concerns the fittingness of the incarnation. As such, Aquinas integrates the traditional principle of the communication of idioms into his description of the person of Jesus. Following the teaching of Ephesus, he argues that because Christ is one person in two natures, we may predicate of God that which is attributed to the human nature of Christ (Summa Theologiae III, 16, 4).

    Aquinas affirms that “the passion is to be attributed to the divine person, not by reason of Christ’s divine nature which is impassible, but by reason of his human nature” (Summa Theologiae III, 46, 12). He immediately quotes the Third Letter of Cyril to Nestorius, in which Cyril asserts that “the Word of God suffered in the flesh and  was crucified in the flesh.” In his exposition of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he numbers as one of the articles of faith “that the impassible God suffers and dies” (quod in,passibilis Deus patiatur et moriatur). Because of the unity of Christ, the suffering that he undergoes in his human nature can be attributed to the one divine person.

    In an essay on Aquinas and human suffering, Michael Dodds highlights the role that the communication of idioms plays in his Christology. For Aquinas, we can truly confess that Jesus’ suffering is the very suffering of God, that the human suffering of Jesus is itself the suffering of the Logos. “And what we say is not a mere matter of words but of fact and reality.” Appealing to this Thomistic teaching as an alternative to the idea that suffering touches the divine nature, Dodds maintains that if we “recognize that… Jesus of Nazareth is God, we will not be inclined to postulate some suffering of the divine nature as belonging more really to God, or being more really God’s own, than is the human suffering of Jesus.” No suffering is “more really God’s own than the suffering of the man, Jesus of Nazareth.” We are predicating of God not some sort of “divine suffering,” but “rather a human suffering like our own.” He who is like us “in all things but sin” “suffers as we do, as human; and yet that human suffering is the suffering of God.”

  2. Second, like Augustine, Aquinas pays particular attention to the Pauline theme of the Body of Christ and to Christ’s role as the head of the body. This is evident in the question in his Summa Theologiae in which he treats the grace of Christ as the head of the church (Summa Theologiae Ill, 8). Aquinas thinks that all grace derives from Christ as the Son of God — as one who is truly divine. But he also thinks that the humanity of Christ, which possesses the fullness of grace, has an instrumental role in the bestowal of grace upon humanity:

In his view it is not the case that the eternal God remains apart from his creation, handing out grace in the role of a distant divinity with a soft spot for human beings. He holds that God is also a man, and that grace derives from him on that basis and since Christ is the founder of the Church, he puts this by saying that there is such a thing as the grace of Christ as head of the Church.

Thus, appealing to Paul’s statements in Romans 12 and First Corinthians 12, Aquinas affirms that “the whole Church is called one mystical body by analogy with the physical body of man.” The risen Christ has the power to infuse grace into every member of the church (Summa Theologiae III, 8, 1). This influence of Christ in bestowing grace is realized principally through participation in the sacraments.

Aquinas’ reflection on the grace of Christ as head of the church has the effect of illuminating the organic connection between Christ and every member of his body. In his exposition of the Letter to the Ephesians, he says that Christ loves the church “as something of himself” because believers are members of his body. When he discusses the famous passage in Colossians about the suffering of the apostle making up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ (Colossians 1:24), he refers to the suffering of the whole church whose head is Christ. Aquinas comments, “For this was lacking, that as Christ suffered in his own body, so he would suffer in Paul, his member, and similarly in others.”

For Aquinas, “the sufferings of Paul were the sufferings of Christ, since Paul was a member of Christ. Our sufferings are also Christ’s own, since we are members of Christ.”  Aquinas profound reflections on the intimate connection between Christ and the members of the church remind readers of Augustine’s meditations on the “whole Christ.” They manifest his deep conviction about the closeness of Christ to every believer and Christ’s participation in the sufferings of all the members of his body.

3.  Third, Aquinas’ exploration of the saving work of Christ (soteriology) also provides insight into his approach to God and the mystery of suffering. In his soteriology, Aquinas draws upon the theory of satisfaction worked out by Anselm of Canterbury in the latter’s Cur Deus Homo. He thinks that one way to express the meaning of the saving work of Christ is to speak of Christ as making satisfaction for the debt owed to God by the human race because of sin.

For Aquinas, however, this was not the only way that God could have saved us. He argues that neither the incarnation nor the passion of Jesus was absolutely necessary for the salvation of the human race. God could have saved us in other ways. If God had wished to free people from sin without any satisfaction, God would not have been acting against justice because God is not answerable to any order outside of Godself. Thomas does think, though, that the incarnation and the passion of Christ represented the most fitting way for God to enact God’s saving power. The incarnation was the best way to evoke faith in us, to build up hope in us, and to enkindle charity in us (Summa Theologiae III, 1, 2). And the passion of Jesus was the most excellent way to liberate humankind from sin because it showed us how much God loves us, provided an example of humility and obedience, and restored human dignity (Summa Theologiae III, 46, 3).

Aquinas expands the range of metaphors used to describe Christ’s saving work beyond that of satisfaction to include merit, sacrifice, and redemption. He does not think that we should focus on just one image in our reflection on salvation. Throughout the discussion in his two Summas, he consistently highlights the obedience and charity of Christ as the true source of salvation. In the Summa Contra Gentiles, he says about the death of Christ “that it had its satisfying power from His charity in which He bore death voluntarily, and not from the iniquity of His killers who sinned in killing Him” (Summa Contra Gentiles IV, 55, 25). In his discussion in the Summa Tbeologiae, when he asks whether God the Father gave Christ over to his passion, he admits that the Father did not shield the Son from suffering. But what is most significant is that the Father filled Christ with charity, inspiring him to will to suffer for us. “It was from love that the Father delivered Christ, and that Christ gave himself up to death” (Summa Tbeologiae III, 47, 3).

Aquinas adds, “To show the abundance of the love which led him to suffer, Christ on the cross sought pardon for his persecutors,” and “Christ’s passion was the offering of a sacrifice inasmuch as Christ, by his own will, suffered death out of love” (Summa Theologiae III, 47, 4, ad 1 and ad 2). He asserts that “the love of the suffering Christ outweighed the wickedness of those who slew him” (Summa Theologiae III, 49, 4, ad 3). Thus, for Aquinas it is the divine and human charity in Christ expressed in and through his suffering that saves, not his suffering as such.

There is no glorification of human suffering in Aquinas’ reflections on Christ. Mary Ann Fatula highlights this salient theme in Aquinas, commenting, “Thomas saw that Jesus’ death saves us not because it was full of pain, but because it was full of love.” Fatula proceeds to observe, “In Christ’s passion, therefore, Thomas contemplates his most intimate act of friendship for us; the salvation that Jesus brings is not only our healing but also the deepest intimacy with him.” Jesus’ free act in taking up his cross is for Aquinas the ultimate act of friendship — love.

Commenting on Aquinas’s discussion of the passion, O’Meara remarks, “In the last analysis it is God’s countering moves of love which save humanity, for Calvary is an example and climax of divine activity struggling with evil in history.”


St. Thomas Aquinas on Sin and the Goodness of the Incarnation – Fr. Brian Davies O.P.

February 17, 2011

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, 1640

ACCORDING TO I TIMOTHY 1:15: `Christ Jesus came into the world in order to save sinners.’ And Aquinas, of course, accepts this. `The work of the Incarnation’, he says, `was directed chiefly to the restoration of the human race through the removal of sin.’ [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 5] According to him, God became incarnate so that sinners might be brought back to God. But how can the Incarnation lead to this effect? How can the fact that Christ was God do anything to bring us anything we might think of as salvation?

The General Picture
To begin with, we can start with what he says of the passage in Isaiah in which we read: `For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulder.’[Isaiah 9:16] Aquinas’s Latin Bible (the Vulgate) translates `to us. . . is given’ as datus est nobis, and `upon his shoulder’ as super humerum eius. Treating what `is given’ to us as Christ (the standard Christian reading, of course), he subsequently comments:

Noting the phrase datus est nobis, it can be said that Christ is given to us first as a brother [Song of Songs 8: 1];second as a teacher [Joel 2: 23] … third, as a watchman [Ezeiel. 3]; … fourth, as a defender [Isaiah 19: 20]; … fifth, as a shepherd [Ezekiel 34: 23]; … sixth, as an example for our activities [John 13:15]; … seventh, as food for wayfarers [John 6: 52]; … eighth, as a price of redemption [Matthew 20: 28]; … ninth, as a price of remuneration [Revelations 2:17]. Similarly it should be observed concerning the words super humerum eius that God placed upon the shoulders of Christ first sins, as upon one who satisfies [Isaiah:53:6]; … second a key, as upon a priest [Isaiah 22:2]; … third, principality, as upon a conqueror [Isaiah 9: 6]; … fourth, glory, as upon out who triumphs [Isaiah 22: 24]. [Super Isaiam, 9. I. I.]

The quotation here may seem to lack excitement, for there are no rhetorical flourishes, and the whole thing reads like a list. But the list is important, and its existence serves to tell one a lot about Aquinas’s approach to the life and work of Christ. In just a few lines, he is maintaining that Christ is our brother, watchman, teacher, defender, shepherd, example, food, and means of redemption. He is also telling us that Christ satisfies for sin, that he is our priest, and that he is our ruler and champion.

At the outset, then, we may note a significant fact about the way in which Aquinas conceives of Christ and the achievement of the Incarnation. This is that, unlike some Christian writers, he does not think that we rightly express the truth about Christ by focusing on only one concept or image. `Characteristically, he finds a place for all sorts of insights where others have been hypnotized by one model or another.’ [Herbert McCabe, OP, God Matters (London, 1987), p99] He has a whole range of ways for drawing out the purpose of the Incarnation. He thinks of the life and work of Christ as being significant for various reasons and as having a number of effects.

Just to say this, however, will do little to explain how Aquinas actually does view the life and work of Christ as being for us. To take matters further, therefore, we can turn to what he says about the fittingness of the Incarnation. His treatment of this topic leads him to make several points characteristic of him and is as good a point of entry into the details of his thinking on the life and work of Christ as any other which may be suggested.

Sin and the Incarnation
Presiding over the discussion is the quotation from I Timothy cited above: `Christ Jesus came into the world in order to save sinners.’ In the twelfth century, Rupert of Deutz (c.1075 — 1129/30) held that God would have become incarnate even if people had not sinned.[ He does so in his treatise De gloria et honore Fiji hominis. Rupert of Deutz was the first theologian clearly to articulate the question `Would the Incarnation have occurred if people had not sinned?']

The same view was taught by Grosseteste, and by later Franciscan thinkers including John Duns Scotus (c.1265— 1308).[ Grosseteste's position can be found in his treatise De cessatione legalium, in a sermon, Exiit edictum, and in parts of the Haexemeron. For Scotus's position see Reportata Parisiensia, book 3, d. 7, q. 4. For an account of other medieval authors considering the reasons for the Incarnation, see Peter Raedts, Richard Rufus of Cornwall and the Tradition of Oxford Theology (Oxford, 1987), ch. 9.]

But it is not Aquinas’s view. Or, at any rate, it is not his final view. In the Commentary on the Sentences he concedes that the Incarnation might have taken place even if people had never sinned.[Scriptum super libros Sententiarum 3. 1. 1] And, even in later works, he has no difficulty in entertaining the notion of an incarnation in a world without sin. `Even had sin not existed’, he writes, `God could have become incarnate. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 3]

He also declares that `the actual union of natures in the person of Christ falls under the eternal predestination of God’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 24. 5] So he does not take the Incarnation to be a kind of afterthought on God’s part. For him, God is one who eternally and changelessly wills to become incarnate. But, true to his theistic agnosticism, Aquinas’s mature verdict in the Summa theologiae is that we do not have sufficient knowledge of God’s will to be confident in holding that reason can assert that the Incarnation was inevitable. His view is that we must rely on revelation to tell us why God became incarnate. And he thinks that revelation tells us that the reason lies in sin. `Everywhere in sacred Scripture’, he observes, `the sin of the first man is given as the reason for the Incarnation. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 3]

Does this mean that our union with God cannot be brought about without the Incarnation? Before the time of Aquinas, the most important and influential treatment of this question was St Anselm’s Cur Deus homo?, where the conclusion reached was that the human race can only be united to God by virtue of one who is both divine and human. In Anselm’s view, human beings were created for happiness with God lying beyond this life, but there is an obstacle to them receiving this happiness. All people have sinned, and a state of cannot be rectified simply by God forgiving them.’ Anselm defines sin as `nothing else than not to render God his due’, and, on this basis, he argues that recompense or compensation must he paid in order for God’s purpose in creating people to be fulfilled.

He also argues that what is paid must be greater than everything other than God, and that the person to pay it must be greater than everything other than God, from which, he thinks, it follows that only God can pay it. At the same time, however, it is people who ought to make the payment, for it is they who have sinned. Thus, says Anselm, it is necessary for one who is both God and human (deus Homo) to pay what is owed, and, in this sense, the Incarnation was required for people to reach their final goal.[Cur Deus homo? I.11]

There is a great deal in common between this account and that of Aquinas. But Aquinas denies that the Incarnation was necessary for the restoration of humanity, if `necessary’ means that people could not have been restored without it. We can, he says, speak of something as necessary for an end to be achieved `when the goal is simply unattainable without it, e.g. food for sustaining human life’. With this sense of necessity in mind, he adds, `the Incarnation was not necessary for the restoration of human nature, since by his infinite power God had many other ways to accomplish this end’.  Here Aquinas invokes Augustine. `Let us point out that other ways were not wanting to God, whose power rules everything without exception.’ [Summa theologiae 3a, 46. 2]

Yet Augustine goes on to say that, assuming the Incarnation to be given, `there was no other course more fitting for healing our wretchedness’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 46. 2]  And Aquinas agrees with this too. We may also call a thing necessary, he says, `when it is required for a better and more expeditious attainment of the goal, e.g. a horse for a journey’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 2] In this sense, he argues, the Incarnation `was needed for the restoration of human nature’. It was, he thinks, a specially fitting way of restoring humanity.

Why? One answer he gives is that the Incarnation shows us God’s goodness. We have already seen that Aquinas denies that the goodness of God entails that God must go out of himself and create. But he does think that goodness in things is caused by God and that it reveals (or `communicates’) something of what God is. He therefore reasons that the Incarnation may be taken as revealing God’s goodness in a special way. It is, he observes, `appropriate for the highest good to communicate itself to the creature in the highest way possible’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 1] Given that Christ is God, he adds, we may look to him especially as an outpouring and reflection of God’s goodness. Nothing in creation can reveal God more than God incarnate.

Another point made by Aquinas is that the Incarnation gives us proper warrant for believing the content of faith. For faith is a matter of believing God, and, by virtue of the Incarnation, God has spoken to us in person. Here again Aquinas draws on Augustine. `In order that people might journey more trustfully toward the truth’, he writes, `the Truth itself, the son of God, having assumed human nature, established and founded faith. [The City of God, I 1. 2] He also suggests that, because of the Incarnation, we have the best possible guide for our behavior together with grounds for hope and charity. For, in the person of Christ, God himself serves as an example to us and shows us how much he loves us.

But Aquinas has more to say than this about how the Incarnation is a specially fitting way of restoring humanity. For he also holds that it was a proper, and indeed necessary, means for delivering people from sin and estrangement from God because it was a matter of `satisfaction’ (satisfaction). The goal of the Incarnation, he explains, is `our furtherance in good’. And it occurred `in order to free us from the thraldom of sin … by Christ satisfying for us’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 2]. More on this in another post…


The Philosophy Of Incarnation And Communio

January 12, 2010

Francis Cardinal George

Cardinal George covers the same ground that we encountered in yesterday’s post on the Chalcedonian Doctrine. Yesterday I commented on how I had used the Doctrine to dismiss a Jesus Denier’s claim that Christianity had simply drawn the Jesus fable from other pagan mythologies. Today Cardinal George will relate it to the fundamental Christian social concepts manifested in the ontology of communio and participation.

It also struck me that it is precisely the philosophy of the incarnation that we see expressed in multifarious ways in the lives of the Saints, which we are all beckoned to become. This is all taken from Cardinal George’s splendid new book “The Difference God Makes”  

Philosophy of Incarnation
At the heart of Christianity is a provocative claim: In Jesus Christ, God has become a creature, without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature he becomes. Many pre-Christian myths and legends spoke of God or the gods “becoming” creaturely, but such incarnations always resulted in uneasy mixtures of the divine and the non-divine. Thus Achilles and Hercules are quasi-godly and quasi-mortal, their divinity compromised by their humanity and vice versa. But as the Greek and Latin theologians of the patristic period struggled to express their incarnational faith, they consciously abandoned this mythological construal.

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 expressed the radicality of Christian belief when it said that in the divine person of Jesus Christ, two natures — divine and human — come together in a hypostatic union, without mixing, mingling, or confusion. This means that in Jesus the divine and the human unite without competition or compromise. Christ is not quasi-divine and quasi-human; in fact, just such a mythological reading was rejected in 325 at the Council of Nicea during the struggle against Arianism. Rather, Jesus is fully divine and fully human, the proximity of the divine enhancing and not weakening the integrity of the human.

But the condition for the possibility of such a claim is a new understanding of the nature of God. Finite things exist necessarily in a sort of mutual exclusivity: the being of one is predicated, at least in part, on its not being the other. Hence, when one finite thing “becomes” another, it does so through ontological aggression and surrender: the desk becomes a pile of ashes through being destroyed by fire, and the lion assimilates the antelope by devouring it. Competition characterizes the play between conditional realities.

Therefore, when the Church proclaims that in Jesus Christ the divine and the human have come together without competition and compromise, she is saying something of extraordinary novelty. She is claiming that God is not a worldly nature, not a being, not one thing alongside others. God is not in competition with nature because God does not belong to created nature; God does not overwhelm finite being, because God is not a finite being.

When Christian theologians, inspired by their faith in the Incarnation, attempted to name God, they accordingly reached for language that evoked this distinctiveness. Thus St. Anselm said that God is not so much the supreme being as “that than which no greater can be thought,” implying, paradoxically, that God plus the world is not greater than God alone. And when St. Thomas Aquinas named God, he avoided the term ens summum (highest being) and opted for ipsum essesubsistens (the subsistent act of to-be itself).

Both of these theologians thought of God as noncompetitively transcendent to the realm of finite things and therefore totally immanent to all things as the cause of their being. God is transcendent cause, and therefore Christianity is not a form of pantheism or Emersonian panentheism; but God is therefore closer to his creatures than they are to themselves. God is not related to the world, for that would create too great a division between God and the world, but neither is God identified with the world. The transcendent God is within his creation as the cause of its very being.

It is from this understanding of God, rooted in but developed from Jewish faith, that the peculiarly Christian sense of creation flows. Because God is not one being among others but rather the sheer energy of to-be itself. God does not make the world through manipulation, change, or violence, as the gods of philosophy and mythology do. Since there is literally nothing outside of God, he makes the entirety of the finite realm ex nihilo, through an act of purest and gentlest generosity.

God’s is a non-possessive love. And since God is the act of to-be, all creaturely things exist in and through God, “participating” in the power of his being and the graciousness of his love. And we can draw a final implication: because all of nature and the cosmos are, likewise, creatures participating in the divine generosity, they are all related to one another by bonds of ontological intimacy.

When St. Francis of Assisi spoke of “brother sun and sister moon,” he was making both a poetically evocative and metaphysically precise remark. All things in the cosmos exist in a communio with one another precisely because they are rooted in a more primordial communio with the creator God. This view of reality as a communion based on love is the worldview that proceeds from the Incarnation.

Augustine’s Two Cities
Whatever Christians say about the social, political, and economic realm must flow from this grounding metaphysical vision. Or better put, there is an unavoidably social dimension to the Christian ontology of communio and participation. This can be discerned clearly in one of the most remarkable and influential presentations of the Christian worldvjew ever written: the De Civitate Dei – On the City of God – of St. Augustine.

What strikes the modern reader perhaps most immediately is St. Augustine’s adamant refusal to dialogue with the representatives of the polity of Rome who had challenged the legitimacy of Christianity. He is interested in neither accommodating nor compromising with the Roman system, which he sees as fallen. Rather, he boldly proposes the Christian way as being, in all regards, preferable. He does not turn to Rome to find a social theory or political arrangement compatible with a privatized and interiorized Christian spirituality; on the contrary, he excoriates Rome as an unjust society and holds up Christianity itself as the only valid basis for a just form of social arrangement.

Augustine’s hermeneutical key is well known. He distinguishes sharply between the City of Man (a collectivity based upon self-love) and the City of God (a collectivity whose foundation is the shared love of God). The former is not so much an inadequate society; it is rather like a group of thieves or marauders masquerading as a body politic. Much of the first part of De Civitate Dei is a spirited demonstration that what looks like a paragon of justice — the Roman Empire — is in fact a manifestation of the City of Man.

Augustine’s argument has a “theological” and a “political” phase. First, he shows, over hundreds of pages, that the multiple gods of Rome are in fact demons because they engage in and encourage various forms of immorality including and especially rivalry, jealousy, and warfare. Then he paints a vivid picture of the political life that has followed from the worship of such gods. What has characterized Rome, from its founding in the fratricidal struggle between Romulus and Remus to the chaos of Augustine’s day, is unremitting violence.

The door of Janus, supposed to be closed during times of peace, has remained stubbornly open for almost the entirety of Roman history. The regnant spirit of Rome is what Augustine refers to as the libido dominandi, the lust for mastery, and it is this spirit that has sent conquering armies around the world. At the heart of Augustine’s analysis of Rome is the correlation between a faulty metaphysics (the worship of finite and self-assertive gods) and a faulty polity of violence and domination. A denial of a metaphysic of participation and communio leads to the false imitation of justice in the City of Man.

But Christians believe in the God who is Father of Jesus Christ, a God of nonviolent and creative love who brings the whole of the world into being from nothing. Such a God, unlike the false gods of Rome, enters into competitive relation with no one or no thing. The worship of such a God leads to a society based not on the libido dominandi but on the love, compassion, nonviolence, and forgiveness preached and embodied by Jesus. What Augustine proposes, therefore, is an altera civitas that has “no logical or causal connection to the city of violence,” requiring the repudiation of worldly dominium and worldly peace. It is a city based upon the consensus that mirrors the community of the saints and angels in heaven, an icon of the heavenly ordo. This communio conception of society corresponds to God’s original and deepest intention toward the world.

If one seeks to know the origins of the City of Man — the corruption of this original intention of God  –  one has to look to the rebellion of Adam and Eve. In the original sin, Augustine sees the first human decision to sever the relationship with God, to deny the implications of creation and corn munio and to establish a kind of “secular” realm apart from God. The violence and injustice of Rome is, for Augustine, simply the latest and most virulent consequence of this original rebellion.

Again, what is surprising for moderns is Augustine’s refusal to place this analysis in anything even vaguely resembling a “church/state” context. It is not the case that the secular state ought to order public life while the Church cares for the spiritual good of the people. There is no such easy distinction in Augustine. There is, rather, the dramatic difference between the false worship (and hence flawed social arrangement) of the City of Man and the proper worship (and hence life-giving social arrangement) of the City of God.

The problem is not how to reconcile the competing concerns of the spiritual and the secular; the problem is orthodoxy, that is to say, getting our metaphysics and our praise of God in order, so that we can live in a just, rightly ordered society.

It is impossible to trace in a brief chapter the complex development (and corruption) of this Augustinian notion through late antiquity and the Middle Ages. But one can see its perdurance in the remarkable relationship between medieval worship and social life. At the center of the medieval town — both physically and psychologically — was the church or cathedral, where the drama of the paschal mystery and its communal implications were played out in a sacramental rhythm. This visual display of the Christian faith shaped the consciousness of worshipers and in turn influenced economic, agricultural, and political life, as had the Temple in Jerusalem.

The activity of medieval guilds, the labors of farmers, the ordering of the economy — all were predicated upon and shaped by the sacramental life, especially baptism and the Eucharist. There was a keen sense that the heavenly liturgy (God’s ordo), iconically displayed in the earthly liturgy, worked its way into all of those social and political realities that today we would misleadingly refer to as entirely “secular.” In the medieval consciousness, a sacred/secular chasm would have seemed anomalous, since politics, economics, and social order existed as a sort of extension of the sacramental life of the Church.

As the civil society became more explicitly shaped by faith, it came to be treated as good in itself because it had the same ultimate goals as the Church: the incorporation of each citizen into communion with God. Thomas Aquinas, using Aristotle’s reflections on man as essentially political and social, admitted real distinctions between church and state according to their respective functions, but he saw them united in a single goal  –  the common good of all on earth and a common life in God for all eternity.


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