In a continuation of his response to my essay, "Demystifying the Incarnation" Apolonio Latar III takes up three issues: the motive of the Incarnation, Rahner's theory of the "anonymous Christian," and the status of metaphysics and of dogma using metaphysical language. The first two of these themes were exhaustively discussed back in the 1960s. The endless protraction of theses discussions without any fundamental renewal of perspective is a sign of the stagnancy of Catholic theology today. I suggest that a renewed understanding of what is meant by "the Incarnation" can dislodge these old debates and put the issues in a new light. Here I look at the first of the issues A. L. raises.
WHY THE INCARNATION?
A.L. thinks that I am "a Scotist when it comes to the discussion of the Incarnation, that even without sin the Incarnation would have happened as the divine consummation of human destiny." My understanding is that the divine Logos or Wisdom is always present in creation, filling all minds with its light. This presence takes a specific twist in the Christ-event, the divine presence becomes more intimately associated with the fleshly texture of human history. How? The prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, speaking out of the heritage of Israel's wisdom, lights up God's presence in creation and preaches the eschatological fulfillment of God's purposes in the coming Kingdom of God, already breaking into the world in this preaching and the signs attending it. Jesus seals his message by his death. The early Christians recognize that God has spoken in Jesus; they do so not in mere reflection or speculation but under the impact of an undeniable revelational event, attesting the ongoing presence of Christ in their midst, an event called the exaltation or resurrection of Christ, and associated with an unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Looking back they see that the ultimate meaning or identity of Jesus is most adequately designated as Incarnation, as the speaking of God's eternal Word into human history.
A particular trait of this revelation is Jesus' obedience unto death. It brings human death into concord with divine glory (as in the Hebrew scriptures the glory of God fills the temple at the hour of sacrifice). Jesus, through his graced obedience to divine purpose, provides the key to a more intimate conjunction between human life (human history with its struggle for justice and freedom) and the creative working of God. Hence he is acclaimed in the language available at the time as "Son of Man," "Messiah," "Son of God," and eventually, in John, as "Logos incarnate."
Human beings are distinguished among the products of evolution by rationality of a high order and also by moral freedom. The latter entails the freedom to do evil things, and one must suppose that this freedom was exercised by the human species from early in its career (as the book of Genesis indicates in mythical language). To say, "if man had not sinned" is to invoke an impossible hypothesis. While sin is a free act, the idea that beings born into the context of primeval violence that was the cradle of human evolution would heed unfailingly the murmurings of their elementary moral conscience, rather than falling into "knowledge of good and evil" and learning from their mistakes, is unrealistic.
Despite sin, the divine presence presses on humanity, and the development of the higher religions is a fruit of this. Israel in particular deepens the consciousness of sin and of the need of divine salvation, confiding its historical struggle to God as no other nation did, and imaging the divine in the specific style of ethical monotheism. The figure of Jesus meets the long-felt need for reconciliation between divine holiness and human sinfulness. God is seen as accepting the death of Jesus, as he accepts the deaths of the righteous in the Old Testament, and as accepting all humans who identify themselves with Jesus in his death. A new platform of reconciliation is provided (Romans 5.1-2).
The richer, fuller presence of the divine all this entails is not an ad hoc solution to the contingent problem of sin. It is a realization of divine presence in accord with the specific conditions of human evolution. If humanity had evolved in some other style or if some other species had involved instead, this presence would no doubt have taken a corresponding different form. The movement of evolution is toward union with the divine, as the constant pressure of the ideals of truth, goodness, justice, love, as well as the deliveries of mystical consciousness indicate. The divine draws the world into existence from nothing and draws it to ever higher realizations of spiritual life. In concrete, the Christ-event is a threshold in that evolution, as Teilhard and Rahner indicated. There is no clear opposition between the Incarnation as an event of salvation and the Incarnation as an event of "divinization"; the two aspects are intimately conjoined, in the picture I have sketched; both Scripture and the Fathers provide ample hints for developing this picture.
A. L. points out that "the infancy narratives tell us that mercy is the reason for the Incarnation. It is because God wanted to save man from his sins that He became man". In fact the Matthean and Lukan infancy narratives do not speak of God becoming man. The Messiah is indeed "Emmanuel, which is translated 'God is with us'" (Mt 1.23) but that is not at all the same thing as "God becoming man". The infancy narratives specify the reasons of the birth of the Messiah in a very Jewish perspective. The Kingdom as announced in the preaching of Jesus is not much in evidence; instead we hear of the Davidic kingdom. Jesus is to be "King of the Jews" (Mt 2.2), "to shepherd thy people Israel" (Mt 2.6). The phrase, "he will save his people from their sins" (Mt 1.21) refers to the people of Israel.
In Luke, Gabriel tells Mary that Jesus "will be called Son of the Most High and that God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his rule will have no end (Lk 1.32-33). The Magnificat celebrates God's fidelity and mercy to Israel. The Benedictus of Zachariah similarly refers to the people of Israel, the house of David, salvation from our enemies, the oath God swore to Abraham, the Baptist giving God's people (Israel) knowledge of salvation in forgiveness of their sins. The angel brings the shepherds "good news to all the people" of Israel (2.10): "a savior is born to you in the city of David" (2.11); their song of "peace on earth to men of good will" (2.14) may not refer to the whole human race. Simeon awaits "the consolation of Israel" (2.25) and greets in the infant the salvation of God which He has "prepared in the sight of all the nations, a light unto revelation of peoples and glory of Thy people Israel" (2.31-2), and one "set for the rise and fall of many in Israel and as a sign contradicted" (2.34). In all of this the Messiah is primarily for Israel but is also a light for the nations as in Isaiah 2, etc.
(Mark has, "the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10.45). This may not go back to the historical Jesus, who may not have called himself the Son of Man, but it could suggest that he did indeed see himself as offering his life in expiation for the sins of his people, as his very name "Yahweh saves" suggests.)
There is nothing in the infancy gospels about Incarnation, God becoming man etc. John 1.1-18 introduces the concept of incarnation. Here the motive for the Word entering history in the flesh is in continuity with the Word's illumination of human minds since the beginning of history. Salvation seems to play second fiddle to this. The Word become flesh to make us children of God (1.12-13), to dwell among us and reveal his glory, bringing the fullness of grace and truth (1.14, 16-17) and to reveal the Father whom no one has ever seen (1.18). In John's Gospel as a whole the atoning character of the death of Jesus, chiefly noted in recalls of older material, as in the Baptist's "behold the lamb of God" in Jn 1, is secondary to its status as a revelation of the glory of God. This suits a "Scotist" or Teilhardian vision of the Incarnation quite well.
The theme of salvation thus seems linked with the humanity of Jesus as Messiah; the broader vision of the incarnation as the ultimate significance of all this seems to focus less on salvation than on the fuller manifestation of divine glory in the realm of flesh.
AN OPEN QUESTION
The Fathers do not confine the Incarnation to a mission of mercy. They also speak of it as divinizing man. This gives ample material to modern reflection along "Scotist" lines. As Jeremy Moiser admits, "The Fathers, particularly the Greeks, had often put as a motive of the incarnation the deification or adoption of man, almost, it would seem, apart from the fact of sin" ( http://www.thomist.org/journal/1973,%20vol.%2037/April/1973%20April%20A%20Moiser%20web.htm).
A. L adduces Irenaeus: "If the flesh were not in a position to be saved, the Word of God would in no wise have become flesh" (Against Heresies, bk. 5 ch. 14). But elsewhere Irenaeus speaks as if the Incarnation were planned from the beginning: "Hence also was Adam himself termed by Paul 'the figure of Him that was to come,' (Romans 3:14) because the Word, the Maker of all things, had formed beforehand for Himself the future dispensation of the human race, connected with the Son of God; God having predestined that the first man should be of an animal nature, with this view, that he might be saved by the spiritual One. For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain" (Bk. III, ch. 22.3). Note the very subordinationist Christology here. Again, "And so fair and good was this Paradise, that the Word of God continually resorted thither, and walked and talked with the man, figuring beforehand the things that should be in the future, (namely) that He should dwell with him and talk with him, and should be with men, teaching them righteousness" (The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 12).
Origen writes: "If there had never been sin, there would have been no need for the Son of God to be made the Lamb (of sacrifice), and he would not have needed to be slaughtered in the flesh; he would have remained what he was in the beginning, God the Word" (HomNum 24.1). But Origen is notoriously shy of stressing Christ's flesh and sees the central saving event as the coming of the Word into our minds; his enfleshment is sometimes presented as just as prop for the weak.
Athanasius says: "For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality" (De Inc. 54). Here saving humanity from death and corruption (conferring aphtharsia and athanasia, incorruption and immortality) is only one side of the incarnational economy; the other is to give us knowledge of God; both privileges combined amount to "divinization." In commenting on Prov. 8.22, "The Lord created me," Athanasius argues that it does not mean that the Son was created but that his humanity was created for the sake or our salvation: "His becoming man would not have taken place, had not the need of men become a cause" (Contra Arianos II 56); this is only an obiter dictum.
A.L. quotes Chrysostom: "He took on Him our flesh, only for Love to man, that He might have mercy upon us. For neither is there any other cause of the economy, but this alone." The Son then is not a creature. Chrysostom's remark occurs in a homily on Hebrews, focusing on Christ's role as High Priest; it need not be taken a strict doctrine of exclusion of all other aspects of the Incarnation.
A. L. quotes Leo the Great, who in a Christmas sermon says that the Incarnation was due to "the condescension of Pity not the failing of Power"; Christ came "not to succumb to our faults but to heal them" (Hom. 22). Again, there is no stress that this was the exclusive reason of the Incarnation.
The truth of this question is known only to God. We can know what depends solely on the divine will only insofar as we can glean some knowledge from the writings of the saints to whom God has revealed his purpose. The canon of Scripture and the quotations from the Fathers mentioned above (Augustine, Gregory) assign one cause to the incarnation: man's redemption from the slavery of sin. Certain theologians say, with great probability, that if man had not sinned, the Son of God would not have become man. This is stated explicitly by St. Leo and St. Augustine . . . Other theologians, however, hold that the purpose of the incarnation of the Son of God was not only freedom from sin, but also the exaltation of human nature, and the consummation of the whole universe. It follows that even had there been no sin, the incarnation would have taken place for these other reasons. This opinion is equally probable. (III Sent., d. 1, q. 1, a. 3)
In a late text, Aquinas says:
But the whole question is not of any great importance, because if a thing happens it is because God ordered it, and we do not know what he would have ordered if there had been no sin. Nevertheless, the authorities are pretty clear that if man had not sinned there would have been no incarnation, and I inkling more to this view. (In I Tim, lect. 4).
For Suarez, reports Moisel, "the incarnation has a double complete and adequate motive: manifestation of the perfection of the divine work and redemption of the human race. The former reason would have been sufficient on its own even if man had not sinned, but since sin it is so no longer. There is one divine decree from all eternity, foreseeing sin and embracing inseparably the remedy for sin and the completion of creation. This theory introduces a hypothetical element into God's knowledge which is difficult (impossible?) to justify."
Moisel writes: "Redemption and incarnation are not intrinsically connected. But in the historical order, only one incarnation is known and only one Christ. Christ crucified realizes the conflux of all creation.
"Consider the following argument. Col. 1:26 states that Christ is the cause and end of everything. His task is to restore everything and bring it to perfection. The conflux of the universe is realized according to an ordered scheme which means subordination. Christ, head of the Church, recapitulates in himself all things because they are ordained to Christ the Church: 'He is the head of the body the Church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent' (Col. 1:18). Domination over creation exceeds, spatially speaking, domination over the Church, and Christ's first definition is thus Head of Creation. In other words, one cannot argue: Christ is head of the Church, and therefore head of the universe (as the Thomists do) but rather the other way round. On biblical principles, creation comes before redemption.
"The position just described is untenable, because spatial domination is not primacy. Christ exercises dominion over the universe as head of the Church. The Church is at once part of the universe and its influxive center. The Church is Christ's body and as such makes him present to the world in a visible fashion. Cf. Eph. 1:22-23: 'And God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church which is his Body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.'"
All of this strikes me as a heavy-handed reading of New Testament hymnody. The Jesus community are the cutting edge of God's incarnational presence and a "light to the nations" in that regard. But all people have access to God-consciousness and Christ-consciousness in some degree. The specific action of God in Jesus and the Church is a threshold towards the final consummation, so in an eschatological perspective one can say Christ is the head of creation because he is the head of the Church. But all this is rooted in the eternal divine wisdom, shown first in creation itself. Retrospective ecclesiasticization of this seems problematic. The religious wisdom of humanity may be oriented to the new stage brought in by Jesus and the Church, and in this sense make "anonymous Christians" of all who enjoy it. But it seems a short-circuit to say that this wisdom is invisibly mediated by the Christian church rather than simply accorded by God in his Word and Spirit to all. See my piece on "Buddhist Interpretation of Christian Truth" below.