"Unseemly to the Last Degree" -- the Importance of the Incarnation

J. Warner Wallace (the popular "Cold-Case Christianity" apologist, who converted from atheism pretty late in his life), put out a Christmas post a few days ago: "Christmas is Christmas Because Jesus is God", which among other things serves as a quick link gathering to prior articles of his on how the Gospels report Jesus talking about himself (or about Himself, to put it in divine caps in English).

Those are fine, although from a sceptical standpoint (as JWW is well aware, but not everything can be covered in a short internet post, or even in multi-volume tomes!) the more salient way to put it would be: "Even if the Gospel authors weren't, in various ways, just making up what Jesus said and did concerning himself, and those reports are accurate to that extent," which of course most sceptics are going to be highly sceptical about, JWW included once upon a time, "Christmas is Christmas because Jesus did a good enough job convincing enough people that he was divine in some way, maybe even the Jewish version of the greatest of gods somehow, for his movement to keep growing against various difficulties and against various competitors until it could latch solidly enough onto Imperial authority (after two or three starts) and continue on from there."

This summary wouldn't be accounting for the prevalence and survival of Christianity (even high-Christology Christianity) outside of Imperial support at various times and for long periods after Constantine (or after Theodosius at the end of that century, since the Imperial court and military preferred a low-Christology Christ for most of the 300s after Constantine and even during much of his reign); but that could be factored in somehow. The point would be that even if Jesus said and did some things, which have been accurately enough reported, doesn't mean we should necessarily believe those things are true.

But 'Jesus said it, therefore...' isn't really the point of JWW's article. His point, although he doesn't go into detail about it, is that the idea is important -- and what Jesus said and did is how we got that idea.

"But why is that idea important? What would it matter really, if some kind of god visited Earth and walked around on it and taught and then left again? That would be interesting, but why important beyond interesting?"

This is partly answered by how much of a god or what kind that Jesus is supposed to be. Is he a human or what we might today call an alien given power and authority by a higher god (and how much of a higher god)? -- or a manifestation of the totality of divine reality which any and all of us also are? -- or what today we might call a super-powered alien sent by a race of other such creaturely gods which we ourselves might someday turn into? -- or a broadcast signal of sorts from the ground of all reality? Those could all be pretty important in their own ways (somewhat differing, somewhat overlapping in importance.)

And, those ideas were all being debated in the centuries since Jesus up to the time of Constantine -- and afterward! But there was another idea, too, that claimed originality back to Jesus' ministry, through his chosen successors. It was rather a more complicated idea than its competitors, at least in how its theology worked out, but as the British convert and journalist Chesterton once wrote, its complexity (for those who accepted it) was that of a key that fit a lock.

The idea's complexity amounted to this: that the one and only ultimate ground of all reality isn't an impersonal force, or even an only impersonal Reason, or even only a personal Authority, but a mutually supporting interpersonal relationship: love and justice essentially, not as an emotional reaction on one hand and a legal status on the other, but as rational action fulfilling cooperative togetherness between persons --

-- and this basic reality of self-sacrificial love acted, and still acts, to self-sacrificially create realities other than itself (or Himself, or Themselves) --

-- and since to create a not-God field of reality where creaturely souls can be grown, inconveniences and rebellions and injustices may also happen, this most foundational of Reason self-sacrificially and voluntarily shares the suffering of our troubles. Not only sharing some of our suffering, but all of it, together in solidarity with all conscious creatures across all time and space of this created reality.

And this ultimate authoritative Reason shows us this by doing small, and close up, once and for all, what the Reason is always doing, by voluntarily suffering our life with us, from messy birth to messy death -- and beyond.

Now, one big complaint against this idea, was that it would be unseemly, dishonorable, unfit, for the greatest authority, the greatest power, the foundational reality itself, to do this. For Jews (who agreed that the Reality was personal and active) it would be blasphemy; for Gentiles (who tended to deny the foundation was either logical, being chaos instead, or acted in any way if rational) it was foolishness. Beyond even that blasphemy and foolishness, was the attractive claim that the moral authority of all reality would sacrifice itself in unseemly dishonor, in birth from a woman and by death from crucifixion, not merely as a demonstration of solidarity (a solidarity itself blasphemous and foolish), and not merely to save this Authority's loyal supporters (which would make some sense although not by such a method), but to actually save this Authority's enemies! That idea was completely insane to its opponents -- insane, and attractive, and worse for being attractive.

But also important, if true, and uniquely important. No one else was making the claim; not before (except somewhat vaguely in Jewish religious history perhaps), and not afterward. Various distant parallels could be fadged up, or turned out, but not this total claim, this total idea.

The idea of the ultimate Good of interpersonal love sacrificing Himself to save His enemies, wasn't unseemly to the trinitarian Christians, nor to the proto-trinitarians hashing out ideas and implications in the years before the Council of Nicaea. For them, as exemplified by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, what would be unseemly to the last degree, would be for God to finally lose any creature to evil.

Athanasius wrote about this often, but focused on it in his short book, On the Incarnation of the Word. By modern standards it's a curious apology for the Incarnation of someone and something no less than the foundational ground of all existence: while he has scriptural references (from sources that his Arian Christian opponents also accepted), and some metaphysical arguments (based on Platonistic philosophy, also accepted and strongly appealed to by his Arian opponents, which the intellectual non-Christians of his day would have also respected); Athanasius also launches a protracted argument throughout the text's short chapters, about the ideas at stake in accepting or rejecting the fully human birth and fully human death of the foundational ground of all reality -- a concept that Plato and Platonists (other than trinitarians) would necessarily regard as unseemly nonsense, as did the Arian Christians for example. (From the perspective of the Arian party, they were not only being more faithful to the New Testament and Jewish scriptures, but also being more consistent Platonists; their trinitarian opponents critiqued and opposed Platonism too much, despite respecting Plato and his successors.)

Athanasius appeals to principles foreign to modern thought, which makes it hard to translate his gist for modern readers. But I'll take a stab at it (working from the classic English translation of Schaff, among a few others). His claims are just as relevant to the meaning and importance of Christmas, as to Easter: for Athanasius, the bodily birth and the bodily death and the bodily resurrection of the Messiah, were all historical expressions of one historical action, in human history a few centuries prior not merely in human myth, by God Most High, the ultimate Reason, the ultimate Morality, the ultimate Authority, the ultimate ground of all existence -- a ground of interpersonal love among the Persons of God self-begetting and God self-begotten.

This Incarnation happens, not only for the Persons of God to honor each other, but (OIW 1) so that the same ultimate Reason-Foundation, the Logos, Who created the world would save the world He created. (I'm citing chapters from Ath's OIW as I go.)

Save the world from what? From certain results of rebellious choices inflicted on the world by the creatures created by God. And not only human creatures; for (OIW 3) all rational beings (including angels or minor gods) bear the stamp of the image of Word, and share in the rationality of Word -- an important statement connected to the supreme deity and grounding of both Jesus and of what kind of God Jesus is being identified with. Rebel angels aren't the product of some other ground of reality, nor of some subcreator, but like all creatures they have been created and still are sustained in existence by God Most High. Any rational creature, whether angel or human, may become "logikoi" and so continue forever in the blessed life, the only true life, of the blessed in paradise.

However, when a rational creature chooses to act in rebellion against the one and only ground of its existence, this sin naturally tends the sinner toward non-existence, annihilation. (OIW 4)

Why don't rational creatures thus poof out of existence once they rebel? That can only be because God actively chooses to keep them in existence anyway.

Why would God do this? After two thousand years of Christianity, we might think obviously this would be due to the gracious charity of God; but in the day of Athanasius, that was not an obvious answer. The natural expectation was that either the ultimate Reason (if there was one, instead of ultimate Chaos) wouldn't act at all, including to keep rebels against it in existence; or else that the Reason would choose to let rebels go out of existence as unfit to live in Reason's perfect reality -- or God might actually agree, perhaps after giving rebels a chance to repatriate, to wipe them out of existence. At best, God could be expected to sequester away the worthless rebels who dared, in their ungratitude, to stand against His authority.

But Athanasius argues differently. "It were unseemly," he argues instead in OIW 6, "that creatures once made rational, and having partaken of the Word [by being created in the image of God], should go to ruin, and turn again toward non-existence by the way of corruption. For it were not worthy of God's goodness that the things He had made should waste away, because of the deceit practiced on men by the devil [the first and greatest rebel against God].

"Especially it was unseemly to the last degree," he emphatically continues, "that God's handicraft among men should be done away, either because of their own carelessness, or because of the deceitfulness of evil spirits."

So what was God supposed to do? -- if He allowed the corruption of their own rebellions to prevail against them, what profit would there have been to make them to begin with? "For better were they not made, then once made, left to neglect and ruin! For if He allows His own work to be ruined once He has made it, this would reveal weakness, and not goodness, on God's part -- moreso than if He had never made mankind at all. For if He had not made them, He could not be accounted weak; but once He had made them, and created them out of nothing, it would be most monstrous for His work to be ruined before the Maker's eyes. It was, then, out of the question to leave men to the current of corruption; because this would be unseemly, and unworthy of God's goodness."

In other words, for Athanasius and similar trinitarian Fathers, it would be an ultimate dishonor to God for any rational creature of God to be finally ruined, even by the creature's own rebellion.

This leads to the importance of the Incarnation of God, His birth as much as His death as Jesus Christ (OIW 8-9, with pickups from the end of chapter 7). The Logos, the living action of God, undergoes corruption with us as the Messiah, delivering His body to corruption on behalf of all sinners, all those subject to corruption, so that none of the rationalities would finally perish that the Logos, the foundational uncreated Reason, had called into existence, and God's work should not be in vain. All those for whom the Son dies, therefore, shall have death disappear from them eventually as chaff is devoured by fire, this fire being the eternal life of God. The goal of this fire, when expressed as punishment, is to drive back to incorruptibility the persons who have turned to corruptibility. As Christ returns to bodily life, transforming the body of His death by His own fully divine life, so shall He bring back all for whom He dies, having shared their deaths with His absolute and total humanity, so that all may have life.

When Athanasius (and similar patristic authors) is stressing the full humanity and full deity of Christ, distinguishing between the two natures, this is why he stresses the distinction between them as well as their cooperative unity. If Christ is only a projection of God from God, then God Most High is not sharing our life in solidarity with us. If Christ is not God Most High, then God Most High is not sharing our life in solidarity with us (only some lesser lord or god). But if God Most High acts to share our life and death with us, then that has a radically important meaning about God's intentions toward even His own enemies.

And Athanasius repeatedly emphasizes (continuing on into OIW 10 for example) that Christ's total humanity must include living and dying and rising again to bring the whole human nature -- the total nature of each human person, and the totality of all human persons -- to restoration; and this result is guaranteed by Christ's own power (not merely the power of the Father but the Son's own inherent power as the one and only God Most High) in raising Himself from the dead along with, sooner or later, all humanity. In this sense, Athanasius quotes St. Paul's 1 Corinthians 15:21-22: just as all persons die in Christ, so all will have life in Christ, which Athanasius says means the general resurrection of the evil persons as well as the good. Athanasius also connects this idea to Paul's statement at 15:33 on the final eviction of death from all those raised by Christ.

This must be the aim and effect of Christ's sacrifice (the whole Incarnation being such a sacrifice), according to Athanasius (OIW 13): so that death might be destroyed once and for all, thus persons might be renewed according to the image of God.

Even in the abyss and hades (Athanasius stresses in OIW 16 and 45), Christ brings the knowledge of God, which Athanasius always connects with salvation. God does not stop short with even dying, but (OIW 19) Christ submitted Himself to corruption as the {Sôtêr Pantôn}, Savior of All, so that corruption may disappear from all persons forever, thanks to the resurrection. This payment through God's own death as Christ, for everything that everyone owed, was a glorious deed truly worth of God's goodness to the highest degree, having {katorthôsas} rectified {panta ta tôn anthrôpôn} all things of humanity by means of His power, having died for the sake of all {huper pantôn} (using Paul's phraseology there). This also involves Christ setting right the neglectfulness of all people by His teaching.

In the body of Christ (OIW 20), the death of all persons took place -- Christ voluntarily shares in that death by being born with us and dying with us. Athanasius acknowledges that all men, as doers of injustice, were already paying by their (by our) sin, by dying from sin into annihilation; so a farther price has to be paid by the Son, as Christ, out of God's love for all men. But because the Logos Himself, and no lesser lord or god, was there in this act, death and corruptibility have been and shall be completely abolished.

So it was that in Christ's body, born to live and die with us, two miracles were accomplished at once: that the death of all persons was fulfilled in the fully human body of the fully divine Lord, and that death and corruption were (and shall be) wholly done away by reason of the Logos Himself Who was united with all rational creatures by living and dying with us; dying and then rising as the first-fruit promise of the resurrection of all.

For there was need of death (Athanasius continues), and so death must necessarily be suffered on behalf of all that the debt owed by all might be paid. Thus Christ took on a mortal (dying) body that He might offer it as His own, and suffering on behalf of all in the stead of all, through His union with the body, bring to nothing the one who has the power of death, namely the devil, who subjects other rebels all their lifetimes through their fear of death. (In Athanasius' logic, the devil must be restored at last, too, but the salvation of all human beings must come first; for as long as another creature remains slave to the first rebel, he can delude himself that he has become like God. The salvation of all humans from sin, abolishes the power of the devil thereby.)

Athanasius talks so often about the importance of Christ's full humanity, in suffering and dying for all sinners, that in chapter 20 he dryly quips an apology that he's going to talk about it again (after having just talked about it, again, in chapter 19) lest his audience gets bored with the repetition! But he knows from experience that he has to hammer this point, because people insist on expecting Christ to have died for less than all humanity, and in the logic of the proto-trinitarians (also of many of them after Athanasius) that restriction would at best open Christ to the possibility of being less than God Most High. The same would be true for the charge that Christ eventually fails in saving any sinner He intends to save from sin.

Both those assurances, though often one or the other have been denied by trinitarians, are for Athanasius the true practical importance of the doctrine of the Incarnation: those assurances are what the cross is all about, and what being born as a baby from a woman is all about. Otherwise, it's at best a technical religious doctrine, be it right or wrong, like any other religious doctrine.

And this gets back to the unseemliness of orthodox claims in the eyes of their opponents, in the early Christian centuries. After reiterating in OIW 21 that apart from the grace of God, rebellion against God (sin) leads eventually to non-existence and annihilation; and after reiterating that Christ suffered and died in the place of all persons (as he has done so often already that he apologized in the previous chapter in case his audience was getting annoyed at the repetition!); Athanasius addresses again the expected objection that a public crucifixion, of all things, is shameful and so unworthy of God -- being born of a woman would be no less shameful in their ideas of God. "One might say, why then, if it were necessary for Him to yield up His body to death in the place of all, did He not lay it aside as a man privately, instead of going as far as even to be crucified?!"

But the public dishonor and injustice of Christ's death, and life, though Himself full of honor, and indeed the source of all honor, was the point. In order to come to trust God, we must come to realize how far He's willing to go to share our sufferings with us, whether we are suffering because of other people's injustices, or are suffering because we ourselves have been unjust. Justice Himself suffers with the unjust to save the unjust; and not to save them from immediate physical death, for He dies that, too, so far as to die on a cross. Physical death is present before, during, and after Christ's sacrifice; the destruction of spiritual death must take priority. (OIW 27) Athanasius acknowledges (in his finale) that those who do good will have the Kingdom of the Heavens at the second manifestation of Christ when He comes in triumphant glory, while those who do injustice will have the outer darkness and the eonian fire; but He comes in glory to bestow upon all persons the fruit of His cross, resurrection and incorruptibility, which is part of His judgment of all people according to the good or evil deeds they performed while in the body. Christ thus comes, and shall come, in His goodness and love (Festal Letter 3.4.8-9) to bring fire onto the earth in order to burn away all evilness from all persons: because He wants the repentance and conversion of the person rather than the death of the person.

The ungrateful suffer this as punishment in the fire prepared for the devil and his angels -- but they don't suffer that alone either. The ultimate Judge of justice dies on the cross along with them, too. Even the bonds that cannot be broken (referring apparently to the {aidios} chains binding rebel angels, in Athanasius' Rescrip. ad. Lib), can and will be broken by God to set them free; for not only all humanity but the rebel angels need the grace of the Logos to be saved (Ep ad Afr 7).

Athanasius stresses this in his argument against Arius, too (in column 1081 of the Adv. Ar.): the reason the Logos Himself takes up human flesh, is to liberate all persons {pantas anthrôpous} and resurrect {pantas} all of them from the dead and ransom all of them from sin; to set free {ta panta} the totality of all in Himself, to lead the cosmos to the Father and to pacify {ta panta} the totality of all in Himself, in heaven and on earth. Even the rich man in hades (of Jesus' parable in GosLuke 16) shall repent in the final judgment by the aid of Christ; for Christ has died for all to abolish death with his blood and has thereby gained all humanity; the totality of people has entered into Christ's humanity so that every person shall be saved (Festal Letter 27.19-24). In the full humanity of the Incarnation, the love of God does not only address those already morally perfect (if there were any), but descends among those who are in a middle and even a third position, in such a way as to redeem all human beings to salvation (Festal Letter 10.4.8-9).

Now, I don't personally agree with Athanasius' Platonic rationale (involving perfect forms and ideals) for all rational creatures being taken up by the Logos in the Incarnation; but I recognize the points of it, and I respect that he was deploying it for purposes of emphasizing the total humanity of Christ -- over against non-trinitarian and non-Christian Platonists! Athanasius is saying that there is a total humanity beyond the mere humanity, so to speak, of any human creature; a total humanity that only God Most High Who created all humanity could achieve, and not any creature whether human or super-angel. A mere demiurge might assume all characteristics of humanity, thus all human nature in that limited extent; but only God Most High, from Whom all spirits must come, can and does connect all humans and indeed all rational creatures, and so bring that connection into the full humanity of His Incarnation.

You could put it this way, that Athanasius wasn't only saying, "Our Christ is more of a God than yours," he was also saying, "Our Christ is more fully human than yours, in a way that only God Most High could make Himself be."

The Arians regarded that as unseemly; the Gnostics regarded that as unseemly; the non-Christian Platonists regarded that as unseemly; the non-Christian Jews regarded that as unseemly.

But Athanasius regarded the loss of even one soul from God's salvation of sinners from sin, as unseemly to the highest degree: so much so, that the dishonor of the birth and the dishonor of the death of Christ was worth nothing compared to the honor of that salvation, of bringing all who dishonor God to finally honor God instead.

That honor, is why Christmas is worthy of honor even today. That honor, is why we honor the birth of Christ -- even when we don't know exactly what day to honor it on.

That honor, is why the birth of Christ will always, even in mythical meaning, matter vastly much more than the birth of any lesser lord or god; and why the birth of Christ will always matter vastly much more, even in historical meaning, than the birth of any other man.

That honor is why no Christian who understands the meaning of Christmas (even when we dispute about whether both gospel assurances are true or whether one or the other is false) will ever be impressed with any number of vaguely distant parallels -- much less with any number of vaguely handwaved non-parallels!

Nor should any non-Christian really. Believe it or don't believe it, but be clear about what you're rejecting: it isn't something just like a bunch of many other things. It is what it is, in all its complex glory.

And there is an end, a consummation and a fulfillment, to it.

In honor of Christmas week

once again, 2016

Jason Pratt


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking

Jason Pratt said…
For a more poetic, um, poem on the same topic: Reason's Greetings from a Christian humanist, a few years ago! {g}

Jason Pratt said…
Whoops, forgot to add up there somewhere: not all scholars (trinitarian Christian or otherwise) agree with each other about what Ath meant and didn't mean, concerning the assurances of the full deity and the full humanity of Christ, from birth to death and beyond.

Some of us think Ath was saying the full deity and full humanity demonstrate and guarantee that God will definitely succeed in saving you from sin if He intends to do so (and citing scriptural witness for that).

Some of us think Ath was saying the full deity and full humanity demonstrate and guarantee that God definitely intends to save you, not maybe you, from your sins, whoever you may be (and citing scriptural witness for that).

A few of us think Ath was saying both things (and citing scriptural witness for them). I'm one of those few obviously; other Cadrists (and JWW for that matter) go with one way instead of both.

But whether one way or both ways, we still agree in principle that the Incarnation is important as more than just a distinctive religious doctrine, and that people deserve to know the hope of one or the other or both assurances -- if the Incarnation, as we believe, is true.

Off on Christmas vacation now!


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