Cur Deus Homo: The Motive of the Incarnation

More Fr. Georges Florovsky. Fr. Georges, in his essay, Cur Deus Homo: The Motive of the Incarnation (also here in pdf), points out something extremely important that the primarily juridical emphasis in Protestant soteriology misses: The Incarnation is not a stopgap. Whether or not man would have sinned, the Incarnation would still have taken place. [Note: This page has a collection of links to essays by Fr. Georges.]–cdh

The Christian message was from the very beginning the message of Salvation, and accordingly our Lord was depicted primarily as the Savior, Who has redeemed His people from bondage of sin and corruption. The very fact of the Incarnation was usually interpreted in early Christian theology in the perspective of Redemption. Erroneous conceptions of the Person of Christ with which the early Church had to wrestle were criticized and refuted precisely when they tended to undermine the reality of human Redemption. It was generally assumed that the very meaning of Salvation was that the intimate union between God and man had been restored, and it was inferred that the Redeemed had to belong Himself to both sides, i.e. to be at once both Divine and human, for otherwise the broken communion between God and man would not have been re-established. This was the main line of reasoning of St. Athanasius in his struggle with the Arians, of St. Gregory of Nazianzus in his refutation of Apollinarianism, and of other writers of the IVth and Vth centuries. “That is saved which is united with God,” says St. Gregory of Nazianzus.1 The redeeming aspect and impact of the Incarnation were emphatically stressed by the Fathers. The purpose and the effect of the Incarnation were defined precisely as the Redemption of man and his restoration to those original conditions which were destroyed by the fall and sin. The sin of the world was abrogated and taken away by the Incarnate One, and He only, being both Divine and human, could have done it. On the other hand, it would be unfair to claim that the Fathers regarded this redeeming purpose as the only reason for the Incarnation, so that the Incarnation would not have taken place at all, had not man sinned. In this form the question was never asked by the Fathers. The question about the ultimate motive of the Incarnation was never formally discussed in the Patristic Age. The problem of the relation between the mystery of the Incarnation and the original purpose of Creation was not touched upon by the Fathers; they never elaborated this point systematically. “It may perhaps be truly said that the thought of an Incarnation independent of the Fall harmonizes with the general tenor of Greek theology. Some patristic phrases seem to imply that the thought was distinctly realized here and there, and perhaps discussed.”2 These ‘patristic phrases’ were not collected and examined. In fact, the same Fathers could be quoted in favor of opposite opinions. It is not enough to accumulate quotations, taking them out of their context and ignoring the purpose, very often polemical, for which particular writings were composed. Many of these ‘patristic phrases’ were just ‘occasional’ statements, and they can be used only with utter care and caution. Their proper meaning can be ascertained only when they are read in the context, i.e. in the perspective of the thought of each particular writer. . . .

In the course of this age-long discussion a constant appeal has been made to the testimony of the Fathers. Strangely enough, the most important item has been overlooked in this anthology of quotations. Since the question of the motive of the Incarnation was never formally raised in the Patristic age, most of the texts used in the later discussions could not provide any direct guidance.15 St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) seems to be the only Father who was directly concerned with the problem, although not in the same setting as the later theologians in the West. He stated plainly that the Incarnation should be regarded as an absolute and primary purpose of God in the act of Creation. The nature of the Incarnation, of this union of the Divine majesty with human frailty, is indeed an unfathomable mystery, but we can at least grasp the reason and the purpose of this supreme mystery, its logos and skopos. And this original reason, or the ultimate purpose, was, in the opinion of St. Maximus, precisely the Incarnation itself and then our own incorporation into the Body of the Incarnate One. The phrasing of St. Maximus is straight and clear. The 60th questio ad Thalassium, is a commentary on I Peter, 1:19-20: “[Christ was] like a blameless and spotless lamb, who was foreordained from the foundation of the world.” Now the question is: St. Maximus first briefly summarizes the true teaching about the Person of Christ, and then proceeds: “This is the blessed end, on account of which everything was created. This is the Divine purpose, which was thought of before the beginning of Creation, and which we call an intended fulfillment. All creation exists on account of this fulfillment and yet the fulfillment itself exists because of nothing that was created. Since God had this end in full view, he produced the natures of things. This is truly the fulfillment of Providence and of planning. Through this there is a recapitulation to God of those created by Him. This is the mystery circumscribing all ages, the awesome plan of God, super-infinite and infinitely pre-existing the ages. The Messenger, who is in essence Himself the Word of God, became man on account of this fulfillment. And it may be said that it was He Himself Who restored the manifest innermost depths of the goodness handed down by the Father; and He revealed the fulfillment in Himself, by which creation has won the beginning of true existence. For on account of Christ, that is to say the mystery concerning Christ, all time and that which is in time have found the beginning and the end of their existence in Christ. For before time there was secretly purposed a union of the ages, of the determined and the Indeterminate, of the measurable and the Immeasurable, of the finite and Infinity, of the creation and the Creator, of motion and rest — a union which was made manifest in Christ during these last times.” (M., P.G., XC, 621, A-B.) One has to distinguish most carefully between the eternal being of the Logos, in the bosom of the Holy Trinity, and the ‘economy’ of His Incarnation. ‘Prevision’ is related precisely to the Incarnation: “Therefore Christ was foreknown, not as He was according to His own nature, but as he later appeared incarnate for our sake in accordance with the final economy.” (M., P.G., XC, 624D). The ‘absolute predestination’ of Christ is alluded to with full clarity.16 This conviction was in full agreement with the general tenor of the theological system of St. Maximus, and he returns to the problem on many occasions, both in his answers to Thalassius and in his Ambigua. For instance, in connection with Ephesians 1:9, St. Maximus says: “[By this Incarnation and by our age] he has shown us for what purpose we were made and the greatest good will be of God towards us before the ages.” (M., P.G., 1097C). By his very constitution man anticipates in himself “the great mystery of the Divine purpose,” the ultimate consummation of all things in God. The whole history of Divine Providence is for St. Maximus divided into two great periods: the first culminates in the Incarnation of the Logos and is the story of Divine condescension (“through the Incarnation”); the second is the story of human ascension into the glory of deification, an extension, as it were, of the Incarnation to the whole creation. “Therefore we may divide time into two parts according to its design, and we may distinguish both the ages pertaining to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine, and the ages concerning the deification of the human by grace… and to say it concisely: both those ages which concern the descent of God to men, and those which have begun the ascent of men to God… Or, to say it even better, the beginning, the middle, and the end of all the ages, those which have gone by, those of the present time, and those which are yet to come, is our Lord Jesus Christ.” (M., P.G., XC, 320, B-C). The ultimate consummation is linked in the vision of St. Maximus with the primordial creative will and purpose of God, and therefore his whole conception is strictly ‘theocentric’, and at the same time ‘Christocentric’. In no sense, however, does this obscure the sad reality of sin, of the utter misery of sinful existence. The great stress is always laid by St. Maximus on the conversion and cleansing of the human will, on the struggle with passions and with evil. But he views the tragedy of the Fall and the apostasy of the created in the wider perspective of the original plan of Creation.17

Notes and References

l. Epist. 101, ad Cledoniutn (M., P.G., 37, col. 118).

2. Bishop B. F. Westcott, “The Gospel of Creation,” in The Epistles of St. John, The Greek Text with notes and essays, Third Edition. (Macmillan, 1892), p. 288. . . .

15. Dr. Spindler was the only student of the problem using the proper historical method in handling the texts.

16. Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Liturgie Cosmique: Maxime le Confesseur (Paris, Aubier, 1947), pp. 204-205; Father Balthasar quotes Qu. ad Talass. 60 and adds that St. Maximus would have taken the Scotist side in the scholastic controversy, yet with an important qualification: “Maxime de reste est totalement etranger au postulat de ce debat scholastique qui imagine la possibilite d’un autre ordre du monde sans pecho et totalement irreel. Pour lui la ‘volonte preexistante’ de Dieu est identique au monde des ‘idees’ et des ‘possibles’: l’ordre des essences et l’ordre des faits coincident en ce point supreme” (in the German edition, Kosmische Liturgie, s. 267-268). See also Dom Polycarp Sherwood, O.S.B., “The Earlier Ambigua of Saint Maximus the Confessor” in Studia Anselmiana (Romae, 1955), fasc. 36, ch. 4, pp. 155ff.

17. The best exposition of the theology of St. Maximus is by S. L. Epifanovich, St. Maximus the Confessor and Byzantine Theology (Kiev, 1915; in Russian); cf. also the chapter on St. Maximus in my book, The Byzantine Fathers (Paris, 1933), pp. 200-227 (in Russian). In addition to the book of Father von Balthasar, quoted above, one may consult with profit the “Introduction” of Dom Polycarp Sherwood to his translation of The Four Centuries on Charity of St. Maximus, Ancient Christian Writers, No. 21 (London and Westminster, Md., 1955). See also Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (Lund, 1965).

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