Incarnation and Salvation - an ecclesiological approach
I. The Church confesses in the Creed the common Faith, that "we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, Light from Light, true God from true God, consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, through whom all things were made. For us all and for our salvation He came down from heaven; by the Holy Spirit He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man." Thus, in the baptismal creeds of the early Church, faith in the only-begotten Son was confessed after faith in his Father. The Christian Faith is directed toward the Father, and extends to the divinity and the pre-existence of the Son, the eternal Word of God, who was made man for us all and for our salvation. In this Faith of the early Church, the Father does not exist and is not understood apart from the Son, because God without the Logos (λόγος) is not God. The Logos of God is the eternal Logos of the Father, who has his being eternally from the Father, and exists in him and with him as one God. In this sense the Son, like the Father, is always the same, before all ages and in all ages; he is uncreated, immutable, unlimited, unconfused; he has neither beginning nor end. The mystery of the Son is the mystery of the uncircumscribed Light, through whom all created beings come into the light of existence and through his incarnation participate in the mystery of salvation.
Nevertheless, these patristic and conciIiar affirmations are exposed to many neo-Arian or neo-Nestorian challenges of modern systematic theology, especially in Western Christianity. Through these challenges, the mystery of the incarnation of the Logos of God loses its salvific character for all of us. It has been already declared that the idea of a pre-existent being, who becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ, and that this can result in a genuine human life seems strange to the modern mind. It is considered to be mythological. Furthermore, the assertions about the relationship of the pre-existent Son to the Father are suspected of owing more to ancient Greek metaphysics than to the Biblical witness concerning Jesus Christ. Accordingly, the confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God incarnate is often replaced by modem views of Jesus as a hero, a mystic, a religious teacher and genius, a revolutionary or a moral example, etc.
Here are some selected representative tendencies, by no means exhaustive, of modem theological reactions to the patristic and conciliar Christology: J.A.T . Robinson for instance, like Bonhoeffer , stresses that Jesus Christ is far more "the man for others" than a mythic "divine prince from a world out there visiting our earth." The book of the Jesuit Piet Schoonenberg (The Christ, 1970) proposed new interpretations of the Christological dogmas of the Church. He is not alone. These views were qualified under the rubric "secular" Christology, in the sense that "secular" is understood as focusing not the ontic -metaphysical elements of the being of Christ, but the ethical, social, and cosmic significance of his message. In Bultmann's Christology, the Christian message is drained of its traditional ontological and historical density, and reduced to the function of proclaiming a new style of life. According to P. Tillich , Jesus alone was not subject to hubris and libido, and on account of this, he became the Christ, who was not a God who became man, but a man who became God, or, better, a man in whom God becomes visible. Reacting to this "existential" view of Christology, K. Rahner retained the dogma of Chalcedon as the only legitimate starting-point, and calls the Incarnation a "uniquely pure" receiving of human essence from God, as occurs also, but to less "pure" degree, in all men. K. Rahner proposed as a new interpretation of the dogma of Chalcedon that we ought not to say that Christ is God and man and that the Incarnation requires a pre-existent Son, because those are metaphysical and essentialist terms we need to get away from. Jesus' being-God is rather his special way of being-man, and thereby of expressing God, a way that is qualitatively new, different and eschatological. O. Cullman proposed a new interpretation of John's statement "the Word became flesh:" Christ is equal to God not in being, but in salvational operation. But this distinction is a functional and not ontological qualification of the divinity of the Logos. Many other Western theologians claim that modern Christology must focus exclusively on Jesus as man, and in the light of the Resurrection can be understood as an experience of the end-time, inadequately linked to pseudo-historic terms. Christ is simply a human person and no other; yet the total and perfect presence in him of the divine reality is to be retained. His transcendence (divinity, presence of the divine in him) consists in the eschatological uniqueness of his humanity.
These new tendencies are not only some typical approaches of the Christological question. They try to propose a new theological formula differing from the Chalcedonian formula (one person in two natures) and from the patristic tradition, through a radical reconstruction of the whole Christological teaching of the Church. Even A. Grillmeier , who has shown that the Council of Chalcedon used rather swallowed Hellenising formulas, did not claim to have given a full elucidation of the Christ-mystery, because he left soteriological approaches out of view. It is quite clear that nothing in these new Christological trends is really new; they elaborate more or less the modernistic or adoptionist methodology in the contemporary theological approaches, which exert great influence in systematic theology and become dangerous for the purity of the dogmatic teaching of the Church. If God is simply in a man, who is only a man, then the Nicene Creed is a mistaken or misleading expression of the traditional Faith of the Church. In the same way, if Christ is not true God by nature, then the Church has deceived us on the main point and doubtless, on many others as well. In this sense, the question of inner or ontological relationship between Christ and His Church is at the heart of any soteriological evaluation of the Incarnation of the Logos of God.
II. The divinity and the pre-existence of the Son, who became incarnate for us all and for our salvation, are clearly affirmed in the early patristic tradition. St. Gregory of Nyssa gives his own interpretation of the specificity of the divine Sonship of the Logos of God: "In my opinion," he says, "He is called Son, because he is identical with the Father in essence; and not for this reason, but also because he is of him. And he is called only begotten, not because he is the only Son, and of the Father alone, and only a Son, but also because the manner of his Sonship is peculiar to himself and not shared by anyone else. And he is called the Word, because he is related to the Father as word to mind; not only on account of his passionless generation, but also because of the union and his declaratory function." In the same spirit, St. Cyril of Alexandria , commenting on the Nicene Creed, says that the Fathers of the Council
"In mentioning the Son, in order to avoid the suspicion of allotting him an ordinary designation, which could also be applied equally to ourselves (for we too are 'sons of God'), they most carefully add the means of perceiving the dignity of his inherent natural splendour, a dignity transcending creation. For they affirm that he has been begotten not made, recognizing that, because of his not being made, he does not belong at the level of substance to the same class as the creation; instead they maintain that he sprang in some incomprehensible and non-temporal way from God the Father's substance since the Word was in the beginning. Next they finely indicated the genuineness of the birth (the fact must be stated in the available human terms) by declaring the Son to have been begotten, God from God. For where birth is completely real, it necessarily follows that we must think and speak of what is born as proper to, not alien from, its parents' substance, because it derives from it in accordance with the substance's suitably appropriate condition. The incorporeal will not give birth corporeally, but like light from light, so that the light emitted is perceived in the light, which radiated it, both from it by way of inexpressibly mysterious processes and in it by way of union and natural identity. This is what it means to talk of the Son being in the Father, and the Father in the Son. The Son is His own nature and glory delineates his size..."
In the light of this comment of St. Cyril of Alexandria, the father of the whole conciliar and patristic Christology, the Son is genuine and of the same nature and substance with the Father (ομοφυής), and the Father is by nature Father of the Son. The Son comes forth from the Father before all eternity, incorporeally (ασωμάτως), without flux (αρρεύστως) and without passion (απαθώς). He is born from the Father undivided (αδιαιρέτως) and without separation. His eternal birth in no way means the division of deity into two parts, the higher and the lower, but he is born from the essence of the Father according to the hypostasis of the Father, but not also the specific hypostatic properties of the Father. Thus, the Incarnation of the Logos is the supreme revelation of God to men, for in Jesus of Nazareth we see manhood being born by God. In taking our nature upon himself, the divine Logos did not divest himself of his divine attributes. He still remained, as he must forever remain, the subject of those eternal relations, which constitute his life in the Holy Trinity, as the everlastingly begotten Son of the Father, and of those eternal creative relations to the universe, by which he, by whom all things were made, sustains all things in being; and he added to these all the relations within the created order, which constitute the humanity of a historic human individual. Through the Incarnation he lived under all the limitations that humanity imposes (sorrow, privation, temptation, suffering and death). These limitations were the perfect experience of manhood at its highest. Thus, the life of Christ is not a mere display of divine omnipotence cast upon the screen of manhood; it is the life of God dwelling in human flesh. The perfection of his life consists not in complete knowledge or power attained at any specified stage, but in the complete subordination (υπακοή) to the purposes of His father of every element of His manhood. In the Incarnation, then, God the Son took upon himself in concrete form all those relations that constitute a human life, so that the two natures, the divine and the human, exist forever united in his divine person "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation" (ασυγχύτως , ατρέπτως , αδιαιρέτως , αχωρίστως), as the Chalcedonian definition expresses it.
However, when we accept the Chalcedonian definition that we must hold the divine Logos to be the subject at once of two modes of existence, the human and the divine, without either of them entrenching on the other except through their union in the one hypostasis of the Logos, we cannot help asking ourselves the further question as to how it is possible for the human nature to inhere in the person of him, who is infinite God? We touch here on the heart of the modern Christological problem, but it would be presumptuous to expect to find a complete and logical interpretation of the mystery of the Incarnation. A theological answer could be given through the patristic affirmations on the relationship between Creation and Incarnation. The divine Logos eternally exercises in the life of the Holy Trinity his relation or Sonship to the rather, and in the Creation, he has give to us, within the created, order a participation in that Sonship towards the Father, which, outside and above the created order, he himself ever fulfils in the eternal sphere. Manhood, then, in its nature, is not contradictory to the divine nature of the Logos, but is an integral element of the divine perfection. In this sense, the Incarnation of the Logos of God is not the taking by God of something fundamentally alien to him, but is rather the manifestation in concrete historical fact of something that is present from all eternity in the depths of the primordial being of the Logos of God. In this connection, one may recall the teaching of St. Maximos the Confessor on the eternal relationship of the " logoi "' of beings with the Logos of God which is of special relevance.
St. John of Damascus, summarizing the Biblical as well as the patristic tradition, gives a plain statement with specific reference to the Incarnation of the Word of God:
"By the good pleasure of our God and Father the only-begotten Son and Word of God, and God, who is in the bosom of God and Father, the homoousios with the Father and the Holy Spirit, who was before the ages, who is without beginning and was in the beginning, who is in the presence of the God and Father, and is God and, being in the form of God, bent the heavens and descended to earth: that is to say, he humbled without humiliation, his lofty station which yet could not be humbled, and condescends to his servants with a condescension ineffable and incomprehensible (for that is what the descent signifies). And God, being perfect, becomes perfect man, and thus is realized the newest of all new things, the only new thing under the sun, through which the boundless might of God is manifested. For what greater thing is there than God should become man? And the Word became his without being changed, of the Holy Spirit and Mary the Holy and Ever- Virgin One, the Mother of God."
III. The Incarnation of the Son of God is at the centre of the whole mystery of Salvation. The Son of God became man that we men might become sons of God, but this divine Sonship can be given to us through the spiritual experience of the new life in the Church, which is the extension of the Incarnation and of the life of Christ in the history of the salvation. According to St. John Chrysostom , the Son of God took in the Incarnation the flesh of the Church (Ο Λόγος σαρκωθείς εκκλησίας σάρκα έλαβε) which is the Body of Christ (I Cor . 12:12 sqq .; Eph.5:23 sqq ., etc.). However, it is through the "giving"' of the Spirit at Pentecost that the Risen Lord abides with and in his Church, who becomes the manifestation of Christ and through whom he acts in the history of salvation. Just as the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit first formed in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary the body in which the divine humanity was manifested in the historic life of Christ on earth, so the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost brought into action the new body, the Church, which was to be, according to the patristic tradition, the new ark of that humanity and was to make it with its redemptive power accessible to all the peoples of the earth. Thus, the glorified Christ is immanent in His Church, and He is manifested to us on earth through the sacramental experience, especially through the participation in the Eucharistic body.
The relations of the divine Logos to the creation on the one hand " and to the Body of the Church on the other, constitute the basic aspect of the whole salvific significance of the Incarnation. Thus, the Incarnation is to be understood as a renewal and recapitulation of all things in the divine humanity of Jesus Christ on the one hand and as continuous experience in the sacramental life of the Church on the other. Through the sacraments of the Church all mankind, and through mankind all creation, is to be incorporated into the divine humanity of Christ, so that all things shall find their end in him. This traditional Christology of the early Church is closely related to the patristic ecclesiology, i.e. the patristic teaching concerning the Church as the historical Body of Christ, which is extended and is realized in the history of salvation. Thus, the apostolic tradition on the Church's nature, essence and mission through the image of the Body of Christ describes the Christocentric ontology of the Church, which was expressed in the teaching of the great Fathers and was a real and continuous common experience of the early Church both in the East and in the West.
Nevertheless, after the great schism (1054) and the Reformation of the I 6th century, Christological differentiations came about, which shaped new presuppositions for approaching the delicate ecclesiological question. Any differentiation in Christology is reflected 0 in the different understanding of the nature and the mission of the Church in the history of salvation. Thus, a positive or negative evaluation of any Christological speculation is possible on the basis of the authentic relationship of Christology to ecclesiology. Any differentiation, whatsoever, in the common patristic understanding of the relationship between Christology and ecclesiology leads also to a different understanding of the mystery of the Church as the historical Body of Christ. The variety of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant ecclesiologies has to be interpreted through the specific Christological criteria of patristic, scholastic and protestant theology, especially with regard to the variety of ways in which the saving grace of God is related to the Paschal mystery and to the mystery of Pentecost.
The common patristic tradition of the early Church teaches that Christ, through his overall redeeming work, is the source (πηγή) of the divine grace, and the Holy Spirit is the bestower (χορηγός) and the operator (το ενεργούν) of divine grace in the faithful. Scholastic theology developed a different view concerning the relationship between the Paschal and Pentecostal mysteries, and put forth Christ as both source (πηγή) and bestower (χορηγός) of the divine grace, while ascribed to the Holy Spirit the mere role of the operator (το ενεργούν) of the divine grace in the faithful. Then, it is quite clear that if Jesus Christ through his overall redeeming work is not only the source, but also the bestower of the divine grace, it stands to reason that, because of the universality of his salvific work, the divine grace is automatically granted to all, irrespectively of their relationship to the Church, the Body of Christ. Nevertheless, such an understanding of the redeeming work of Christ reduces considerably the Christocentric ontology of the Church as the historical Body of Christ, who is an extension of Christ himself in the history of salvation. If the Church is, according to the words of St. Augustine ,Christ himself, extended through the ages (Christus prolongatus), then the Church cannot be distinguished from Christ as regards the bestowing of the divine grace, since no separation between Christ and his Body, i.e. the Church, is possible. If, however, the Church, in which the historical Body of Christ is realized, grants the divine grace how could it be possible for the divine grace to be bestowed by Christ outside his Body, i.e. the Church.
These soteriological approaches are not common to the Orthodox and the Reformed Churches, because of their different ecclesiological presuppositions. Protestant ecclesiology, by rejecting the entire ecclesiological system of scholastic theology, stressed the absolute authority of the Word of God, the eschatological perspective of the saving act of God, the individual character of the experience of the Faith, etc., but, simultaneously, it also rejected the patristic tradition of the Church's Christocentric ontology. This differentiation can be more clearly understood through the following schema: According to the Orthodox ecclesiology the Church pre-exists and precedes the believers; thus, we have the following schema.
CHRIST —> CHURCH —> BELIEVERS
According to the Protestant ecclesiology, the believers pre-exist and precede the Church, which they also constitute; thus, we have the following schema.
CHRIST —> BELIEVERS —> CHURCH
In this perspective, it is quite clear that only converging tendencies in Christology could promote a converging movement in ecclesiology on the basis of a common understanding of the Biblical and patristic tradition on the Church as the Body of Christ. This is the only way to a common understanding of the significance of the Incarnation in the history of the salvation of the world in the Church and through the Church.