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Archive for the ‘The Coherence of Christian Theology’ Category

[Note: This completes this series of posts. The entire series can be found here on this blog. I have also posted it here as a single html document.]

Conclusion

It may not be hyperbole, nor redundant, to say that for Christianity everything is in some way a reflection of Christology. Ecclesiology is founded on a proper Christology; what you say about the Church you effectively say about Christ. What you believe about the Mysteries (or Sacraments) is an outgrowth of what you believe Christ has come to do. The reverence or inattention you give to Mary comes from your vision of Jesus. Whether or not you believe the classical dogma of the Trinity will determine what you believe about Jesus. Christology is the dogma upon which hang all the unique beliefs and practices of the Christian Faith.

The divisions among Christians are not so monstrous simply in terms of a lack of institutional unity. Rather such divisions are so hideous because they divide not a Church, they sever Christians from one another not merely over whether baptism is necessary to salvation or not, no, such divisions are hideous because they attempt blasphemy: the division of Christ within himself. Whether or not the Church is to have bishops is not a matter of Church polity, it strikes at the heart of what we believe about Jesus. If we believe differently about the Church, we believe differently about Jesus. The implication is inescapable: to preach a different Church is to preach a different Christ. The Incarnation is that central to every particle of our faith.

These several doctrines of Christianity make sense only in light of the Incarnation. Philosophy does not comprehend Christian theology. Philosophy attempts to reduce talk of God to logical syllogism and rational category. But no person can be reduced to a logical formula or defined in a single concept, or even a group of concepts. And if this is true of human persons, how much more the Second Person of the Trinity. Philosophy must reduce God to a concept. But God is not a concept. God is a Person, indeed a Trinity of Persons. Philosophy cannot synthesize this. Confronted by the Incarnation, philosophy is burst asunder, unable to hold together the paradox. Theology shares this same ultimate failure when theology takes its cue from philosophy rather than from prayer, worship and poetry.

But one thing philosophy can witness to is that on Christianity’s own unique terms, which is to say, on the terms of the Incarnation, it is coherent. Philosophy may not accept the cornerstone of Christianity, the Incarnation of Christ. But philosophy can attest that having been built on and from that cornerstone, the lines are straight. The various patterns are woven expertly together into a whole so beautiful, so pure, so real that one is left speechless and penitent.

Christ himself has appeared to us. Glorify him.

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The Incarnation and Mary

We have already seen how the Incarnation is not just an isolated point of doctrine among a list of other points of doctrine which Christians are called to believe. Rather, the Incarnation is the foundation and limit of all our doctrines, from the Holy Trinity, to salvation, to the Church and Sacraments. But most especially is this so in terms of Mary, our Lord’s mother.
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[Note: It's been over a month since my last entry in this series. The entire series can be found here. Once complete, I will format the entire series into a single html document and will post the URL for those interested.]

The Incarnation and the Sacraments

When one turns to the Sacraments, or the Mysteries, one has not ceased to have to do with the Church. There are two extremes one may fall prey to here, both of them a separation of the Sacraments from the Church, and both of them denials of the fullness of the Incarnation.
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The Incarnation and the Church

The Incarnation is not only the dogmatic center from which the spokes of the Trinity, union with God, and the Resurrection extend, but it is the doctrinal foundation of the Church as well. In fact, I do not think it too hyperbolic to state that ecclesiology is Christology. What we believe about the Church is, and ought to be, a reflection of our belief about Christ. And because the Incarnation is the foundation of our soteriology, what we believe about the Church will also reflect what we believe it means to be saved. That is to say, the doctrines about salvation and the Church are essentially linked to one another, in and through the dogma of the Incarnation.
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The Incarnation and the Resurrection

The bodily Resurrection of Jesus from the dead follows necessarily from the Incarnation. If it was essential to God’s work of accomplishing our salvation that Jesus be fully human and fully divine, that is to say, if it was essential that Jesus have a human body, then the human body is essential to the afterlife. We are not, after all, going to be disembodied spirits in heaven. If our salvation is accomplished bodily, then our resurrection from the dead will be a bodily one. This is borne out in the several resurrection narratives in the New Testament. In Luke 24:39-43, Jesus asks his disciples to “handle him” to see that it is he. He asks them for a piece of broiled fish, which he eats in their presence. In John 20:17, Jesus exhorts Mary Magdalene not to “cling to him” which she could not have done if he were an immaterial spirit. Later in the chapter, at 20:27, he encourages Thomas to put his fingers into the nail marks in his hands, and to place his hand into side. Given Thomas’ reluctance to believe Jesus had risen from the dead without tangible proof, one would be hard pressed to understand Jesus’ words in any other way than to indicate he is, indeed, a bodily presence. We may well question how it was the nail marks and the spear wound remained as tangible signs of the crucifixion in his resurrected body, but this does not take away from the central point: Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Paul himself continues in this tradition, in 1 Corinthians 15, explaining that the resurrection from death is essential to the Christian gospel, and that such a resurrection involves a body, though such a body is a spiritual one, different, if continuous, with our flesh and blood body.

More to the point, without the Incarnation, the Resurrection is a useless and unnecessary addendum. If there were no Incarnation, then either through moral striving, or through noetic enlightenment, or both, we have our salvation. We need no Resurrection because we need no bodily salvation. It is the bodily aspect of the Incarnation that demands a bodily Resurrection, even if that body is of a kind Paul can only describe as spiritual and heavenly.
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The Incarnation and Union with God

The Incarnation is the lynch pin to the Christian understanding of union with God. In some religions, union with God is accomplished through the acceptance of esoteric doctrines regarding God. In other religions, union with God is accomplished by the divesting of the illusion of selfhood and personhood, the melting, as it were, of oneself into the divine and impersonal essence. But in Christianity, union with God is accomplished only through the God-man, Christ. As Christ, himself, declared: No one comes to the Father, except through him (John 14:6). Union with God is accomplished in and through a particular Person.
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The Incarnation and the Trinity

Without the Incarnation, we would have no certain knowledge of the Trinity. We would have hints and indications, for our Christ-centered reading can now see them in the holy texts of the Old Testament. But we would have no clear revelation from God. Only the revelation of God in Christ makes known to us the fact that God is a Trinity of Persons. In the Son, God is revealed as the Father; in the Son we are given the promise of the Pentecostal advent of the Holy Spirit. Christ, himself, testified that he and the Father are one (John 10:30), and took on himself the holy Name, “I AM” (John 8:58). In Christ’s birth, the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:35). In Christ’s baptism, the Holy Spirit manifested himself with the Father and the Son (Luke 3:21-22). Apart from Christ there is no revelation of the Trinity.
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The Reality of the Incarnation

Let’s be absolutely clear on this: if one does not understand the Incarnation correctly, one will not live correctly other Christian doctrines. If one tends to emphasize the divine attributes of Jesus (and thus in some way to deny the human aspects), in sort of a Gnosticism or adoptionism, then one will emphasize belief over action, inner spiritual-emotional states over the pragmatic struggle of living in the ways Jesus lived, and participating in his life. If one tends to emphasize the human attributes of Jesus (and thus in some way to deny the divine aspects), in a sort of docetism, then one will emphasize the more superficial behavioral states of Christianity, indeed, to steer towards chilianism (the heresy of utopia) over the proper adherence to the Faith once for all delivered to the saints. Only a correct understanding of the Incarnation can keep the human being whole and avoid the anthropic schism which dehumanizes. Of course, being correct on the Incarnation does not guarantee correctness on other doctrines; one may still go wrong in some way. But the centrality of the Incarnation necessitates proper fidelity to God’s revelation in Christ: it is the plumb line of the Christian Faith.

God’s supreme revelation to humankind was not given in a nation, nor in a written text. God’s last word to us is his Son (Hebrews 1.1-4). The fulfillment of his Covenant is the Person of Christ. There is nothing else left for God to do: his final will has been accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth, though it is clear that this accomplishment is even now being worked out in the final consummation of all things.

It is precisely this single ultimate revelation in Christ that is the focal point, the beginning and the end, of all Christian theology. If God did not take on human flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ, then all that Jesus said and did, however we may construe it as noble and exemplary, is empty of meaning and promise. But if Jesus is whom he claimed to be, if the Second Person of the Trinity did, indeed, receive our humanity from Mary, then everything he said and did changes everything we say and do, all our thoughts and inner passions. If Jesus is he who is from everlasting, then every particle of our physical being, all the invisible inner stuff that makes us uniquely who we are, soul and spirit, thought and energy, bone and sinew, every breath and surge of blood, is changed, transfigured in the glory that is his.

The Incarnation matters. On it depends everything that ever was, is, or ever shall be.

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[Note: This is the first post of a multi-part essay on the Incarnation.]

Introduction

It all starts with the Incarnation. Take away the Incarnation and all of Christian theology falls apart. Christianity is utterly unique—whatever similarities it shares with other faiths—on this one point alone: it teaches as non-negotiable dogma that Jesus is God-made-flesh. Take that away and the doctrine of the Trinity falls apart, as does the promise inherent in Jesus’ bodily Resurrection from the dead, and of union with God in Christ. So, too, does the doctrine of the Church and her Sacraments, as well as the proper understanding of Mary. All of these uniquely Christian doctrines, these ways of life, are emptied of any reality if the Incarnation is taken away.

This is why insistence on absolute fidelity to the Christian teaching and way of life on the Incarnation is crucial. Everything uniquely Christian about our faith depends on it. If you go wrong on the Incarnation, you cannot go right on any other doctrine. In terms of the standard on Christian teaching on the Incarnation, one must look to the definition given at the council of Chalcedon (here):

Following the holy Fathers we teach with one voice that the Son [of God] and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same [Person], that he is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, very God and very man, of a reasonable soul and [human] body consisting, consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead, and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood; made in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of his Father before the worlds according to his Godhead; but in these last days for us men and for our salvation born [into the world] of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God according to his manhood. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Prophets of old time have spoken concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ hath taught us, and as the Creed of the Fathers hath delivered to us.

Simply put: in Jesus’ one Person are two natures and two wills, human and divine, operating in perfect union and harmony, providing for us in his Person a bridge to the Father, and not a bridge only but the single means of union with God, of a partaking of the divine nature.

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