Lenten Reading: Aquinas on the good and necessary reasons for the Incarnation

If God is who as he is revealed in Scripture, was it really necessary for the Word of God to become incarnate to save humanity? This question is an honest one, seeing that Christians confess that God is all powerful and perfect, he could, conceivably, have restored human nature without becoming incarnate. However, Aquinas argues that according to Scripture, the mystery of the Incarnation was necessary to save humanity. To defend this Aquinas first qualifies what is meant by necessary, and then shows the benefits of Christ’s Incarnation for humanity in terms of how it helps those who believe in Christ grow in the good and withdraw from evil.

Aquinas distinguishes between two types of necessity: essential necessity and convenient necessity. The first, he argues is like the necessity of food for life. The second, is like the necessity of a horse for a long trip. “When the end is attained better and more conveniently” (III.Q1.A2). He argues that the incarnation was necessary in the second way, and not the first, because God who is all powerful could have done it differently. Yet, in light of humanity’s plight and God’s goodness, Aquinas, pointing to Augustine who says, “There was not a more fitting way of healing our misery” (III.Q1.A2).

To explain how the incarnation of the word is the most fitting way he divides his topic into two sections: How the incarnate Word draws us to the good and withdraws us from evil. Under the first section he shows how the Incarnate Word is the cause of Faith, Hope, Charity, good works and glory in the Christian. It is appropriate that Aquinas frames his understanding of Christ’s person and work in these terms, because he has just covered this path of life in Christ in the previous volume in terms of faith, hope, love, virtue, all of which leads to the end goal of “Full participation of the Divinity.” In presenting these five steps, he quotes Augustine. Let’s consider them one by one.

Christ’s incarnation furthers faith because Christ is the Truth revealed in human flesh. As Augustine says it: “In order that man might journey more trustfully toward the truth, the Truth itself, the Son of God, having assumed human nature, established and founded the faith.” Faith is established in the Truth by means of the Truth himself becoming human and revealing himself in the humility of human life. Hope is encouraged and strengthened by the revelation of God’s love for us which is most beautifully expressed in the Son of God becoming human. This same infinite divine love enkindles charity in us, according to Aquinas and Augustine, because what presents God’s love for us more than him becoming one of us and dying for us?

Having grounded Faith, Hope, and Love in the person and work of Christ, Aquinas focuses in on how Christ is our example for the perfect human life. Again, turning to Augustine, he argues that Christ makes visible the invisible God so that man could follow God’s will. For Aquinas, this is not mere imitation, but a life infused with Grace, through the Holy Spirit’s presence. (see further 1-2.Q109-114).

Faith, hope and love grounded in Christ, infused with the good works of Christ given through the Holy Spirit is the life of the Christian which leads the Christian on to end goal for which they were created: “Full participation of the Divinity, which is the true bliss of man and the end of human life; and this is bestowed upon us by Christ’s humanity; for Augustine says in a sermon: God was made man, that man might be made God.” In Christ is the whole means and ends of true human life given to all those who believe in him as John 3:16 says. It is worth nothing that Aquinas he uses the same framework of Faith, Hope and Love when he presents the reasons for Christ’s resurrection and ascension (III.Q53.a1, Q57.a2.ad3).

But the human condition is not one of neutrality, it is one of enslavement to evil. This Christ also had to free humanity form the enslavement and destitution of their fallen selves. Aquinas, explains this withdrawal from evil in five moves.

The first two moves relates to how humanity understand itself. First Christ incarnation shows us to not prefer evil and the devil over humanity itself. In other words, if God became human, then there is a certain goodness to humanity over and against the powers of evil. This is amplified by the his second point: “we are thereby taught how great is man’s dignity…” (III.Q1.A2). This has two effects in one’s Christian life, it reminds us of our God-given worth, and it exhorts us to pursue holiness.

In these first two the dignity of humanity is established, despite sin. In the third and four, Humanity is shown in Christ’s incarnation that they could not save themselves from the pride and presumption of sin. Here we see a kind of pendulum swing from one extreme to another: we either think of humanity as nothing, or as everything. Christ in his glorious humility both raises humanity up to its proper dignity, and gives humanity its properly creaturely humility. As Augustine says, quoted by Aquinas: “Because man’s pride, which is the greatest stumbling block to our clinging to God, can be convinced and cured by humility…” (III.Q1.A2).

The establishing of humanity’s proper dignity and relation to God occurs in Christ’s death, Resurrection, and Ascension, when he frees humanity from the “thraldom of sin.” Jesus, as God and man made satisfaction for humanity’s sin and death in his death and resurrection. Aquinas establishes this point by quoting Pope Leo at length:

“Weakness is assumed by strength, lowliness by majesty, mortality by eternity, in order that one and the same mediator of God and men might die in one and rise in the other – for this was our fitting remedy. Unless he was God, he would not have brought a remedy; and unless he was man, he would not have set an example.” (III.Q1.A2).

Aquinas, ends his answer by pointing his readers back to the fact that the Incarnation and ensuing saving work of the Trinity is beyond our apprehension, by positing that there are many more advantages of the incarnation given to humanity which are beyond our understanding. This is an essential reminder for Christians and Theologians, we may apprehend much about Christ and his gospel, but we will always be standing in the face of the infinite personal mystery of the Triune God and his infinite holy love.

This summary of Aquinas’s understanding of the good and necessary fittingness of the Incarnation is just a tiny taste of the deep theological and exegetical reasoning Aquinas offers in his Doctrine of Christ. I just finished reading through the 59 questions on Christ and cannot recommend them enough.

Quotes from The Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Gregory of Nazianzus On the Economy of Salvation

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When I started reading the church fathers, one of the most refreshing aspects of their writings was the way they talked about The scope and depth of Salvation. This quote is taken from an excellent resource, the Ancient Christian Doctrine series, and exemplifies the way Gregory summarize Scripture’s witness to the magnificent work of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.

“He who gives riches becomes poor, for he assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of his Godhead. He that is full empties himself for a short while, that I may have a share in his fullness. What is the riches of his goodness? What is this mystery that is around me? I had a share in the image; I did not keep it. He partakes of my flesh that he may both save the image and make the flesh immortal. He communicates a second communion far more marvelous than the first; in as much as then he imparted the better nature, whereas now he himself partakes of the worse. This is more Godlike than the former action, this is loftier in the eyes of all men of understanding.” Gregory of Nazianzus, ACD, 2.105.

This is a beautiful passage that exposes some of the most profound mysteries of our faith, in the context of Jesus Christ’s humility as the source of the salvation of the world. First, it is vital to see that Gregory reflection on Christ is an expansion of the magnificent Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This verse, for Gregory and many other church fathers, is a touchstone for reflecting on God’s work of salvation.  Christ who is equal to the Father, the same essence, became human to bring humanity into communion with God.
Significantly, Gregory does not speak of this salvation in abstract terms, he sees his own life wrapped up in this mystery: “What is the riches of his goodness? What is this mystery that is around me?” The life that Jesus lived is the life that he gives Gregory. He took Gregory’s sin and death and gave him his life and love.

To clarify the second half of the quote, let me explain what Gregory is saying. ‘The image’ which Gregory refers to is the image of God, that we read about in Genesis 1:26-28.  The salvation in Christ is much greater than when Adam and Eve were created (‘second communion far more marvelous than the first’) because in Jesus Christ humanity receives a more profound and greater union with God than Adam and Eve had. This is the mystery of the incarnation: Christ has taken our human body and life and made them his, forming what is sinful and dying into his body which is holy and immortal, through his infinite life.

The personal appropriation of Christ’s objective work on the cross for all of humanity is what continues to capture my attention in Gregory and other Church Fathers. They knew and experienced the reality of Christ’s wonderful exchange in their lives. As an Anglican priest, I am reminded that when I serve the meals of Grace of word and sacrament to the church, I am offering my congregation nourishment to continue to grow in this mystery: the mystery of our justification and sanctification and glorification in Jesus Christ through the Power of the Holy Spirit. Every week, we are invited into this great mystery of Salvation – union with God in Christ, so that we can have the same mind and be the one body of Christ in the world.

 

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Athanasius

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In this series, I will share significant quotes from pastors and theologians throughout church history in an attempt to present the riches of The Christian tradition for the Church today.

In his famous book, On The Incarnation, St. Athanasius – an important pastor and theologian from the fourth century who defended the full divinity of Jesus Christ –  presents a moving picture of the Triune God’s work of salvation. Specifically, Athanasius shows us the care and love of God the Father and Son for their wayward creation.  Athanasius argues that God created humanity for communion with him, but when he fell into sin, humankind lost their knowledge of God and their life with God. God in his goodness could not allow the corruption of his creatures. So in order to save humans and restore communion Jesus had to overcome death in humanity. This is how St. Athanasius describes this work of Salvation:

“For this purpose then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes into our realm, although he was not formerly distant. For no part of creation is left void of him; while abiding with his own Father, he had filled all things in every place. But now he comes condescending towards us in his love for human beings and his manifestation. For seeing the rational race perishing, and death reigning over them through corruption, and seeing also the threat of transgression giving firm hold to the corruption which was upon us, and that it was absurd for the law to be dissolved before being fulfilled, and seeing the impropriety in what had happened, that the very things of which he himself was the Creator were disappearing, and seeing the excessive wickedness of human beings, that they gradually increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves, and seeing the liability of all human beings to death – having mercy upon our race, and having pity upon our weakness, and condescending to our corruption, and not enduring the dominion of death, lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father himself for human beings should be in vain, he takes for himself a body and that not foreign to our own… He takes that which is ours… And thus taking from our that which is like, since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it over to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father, doing this in his love for human beings so that, on the one hand, with all dying in him the law concerning corruption in human beings might be undone (its power being fully expended in the lordly body and no longer have any ground against similar human beings), and, on the other hand that as human beings had turned toward corruption he might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death, by making the body his own and by the grace of the resurrection banishing death from them as straw from fire. (On the Incarnation, sec. 8). 

There is so much in this passage, and it is only the tip of the iceberg of Athanasius’s genius. Let us note a few things:

First, Athanasius is basically telling the story of the Gospel: God created and loved humanity, they fell into death and chaos through sin, and God in his great love sent God the Son to save humanity by becoming human and dying and rising for us so that we can have the life we were created to have.

Second, notice how Athanasius articulates God’s love for humanity. God pities and has mercy on humanity for their plight. He emphasizes that God wants to save humanity, it isn’t like he begrudges them. This reminds me of Psalm 103:13: “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” Athanasius sees the love of God most vividly expressed when the Son of God became human. Really, this passage is an extended meditation on John 1:1-18 and John 3:16.

Third, notice that in expressing the entirely free and holy love of God, he does not shy away from calling humanity what it is: “Excessively wicked.” The love of God reveals the depths of human depravity, not to condemn us to death, though we condemn ourselves in rejecting him, but to show us our need for the Savior.

Finally, notice the manner of salvation: God the Son becomes who we are, fully human, in order to die for us and destroy the death and alienation that our excessive wickedness brought into the world. At the same time, Jesus must be fully God, God the creator, through whom all things were made, in order to bring such a magnificent salvation to completion. If Jesus is not the Creator God, one with God the Father, then his death has no power to save and recreate humanity and the world. Jesus is God and human, and he unites humanity to God the Father through his death and resurrection. Note that the Father accepts the Son’s death because he loves humanity and wants to see them freed from death and slavery to sin.

In this passage, Athanasius presents a summary of the order and economy of salvation. But what is the end goal of Salvation, according to Athanasius? Towards the end of his book, he gives a short and famous summary of why the Son became incarnate, died, and was rose again for humanity.

“For he was incarnate that we might be made God; and he manifested himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father; and he endured the insults of human beings, that we might inherit incorruptibility” (On the Incarnation, sec 54).

God became human that we might be made God; not identical with God, but that we might be united to God in Christ Jesus. The end goal of salvation is Communion with God. The content of this communion is knowing God and receiving eternal life. Or as Jesus said in John 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Jesus saved humanity from death and ignorance give them what they were created for: Life with God.

When it comes to sharing and living the gospel in the 21st century, not many people feel the guilt of sin; but we all feel the weight of death and meaninglessness. Athanasius’s emphasis on the infinite love of the triune God, salvation from death in Christ, and the revelation of who God is, who we are, and what we were made for, answers this weight by showing us that we are saved from death for a loving relationship with our creator and savior. We were created for intimate friendship with the God of the universe, and this God made the way for us to have that friendship: Jesus Christ.