Scripture's Power, Scripture's Incarnation
I have had a tendency over the past years, since becoming Orthodox, to consider the Scriptures as being rather theologically thin, finding the really meaty substance to be found in the writings of the Fathers, and the best modern theologians. But more recently, I have realized how rich and deep the various books of the Bible actually are. St. Cyril and St. Severus, among many others, are immersed in the scriptures and their Christologies are entirely Biblical.
The first chapter of St John’s Gospel will be well known to us all, since we read it each day in the First Hour from the Agpeya. Yet, it is hardly possible for even the theological content of this one chapter to be fully understood, even after a lifetime of prayerful consideration.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
This particular verse comes from the Vespers Gospel of the Feast of the Nativity. Each of the verses is overflowing with a theology of the Incarnation. Let us consider them, in turn, and then add to them our own reflections, drawing on the Fathers.
The first phrase is more or less a definition of the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation. It is the Word of God himself, the Eternal Son of the Father, whom has been made flesh. He has not assumed an already existing human person; neither is he in a relationship of grace with a human as if with a prophet. But the Word himself has been made flesh. The word translated as ‘was made’ is the Greek 'ginomai' which has the meaning of becoming; so, other translations rightly use the words ‘became flesh’.
Cyril, in his Commentary on the Gospel of St John, teaches us that the word flesh should be inferred as meaning man. That is, the Word became fully and completely man - lacking nothing - which is what encompasses the humanity of man. He quotes the passage from the Book of Joel: ‘I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh', to show that the word flesh is not restricted to the body of a man apart from his soul. Cyril was accused of teaching that the humanity of Christ was incomplete in this way; thus, he was very careful to insist that the flesh (which the Word became) consisted of body and soul and was rational and intelligent.
Cyril sums up his own Christology in his commentary in just this brief phrase: For it was necessary that becoming His Flesh … it should partake of the immortality that is from Him.
He means that the only way in which our own broken humanity could be healed was by the One whom is Life Himself, sharing in our human condition. By becoming man, the incarnate Word has renewed our humanity. As St. Athanasius and others have said: He became man that we might become divine.
The Fathers are constant in their insistence that the Word became flesh for a purpose. He did not become man so as to cease being God. Nor did he enter into our human condition out of a sympathetic desire to ‘feel our pain’. But he became man, as Severus explains, to enter into the same conflict with Satan in which Adam, our forefather, had fallen so disastrously. But this time there would be found a man who did the will of God perfectly, and so was fit to receive the gift of the indwelling Spirit for all men.
Not only did the Word become flesh, but he ‘dwelt among us’. In English, that particular rendering has a certain resonance, much more so than simply saying that ‘he lived with us’. Indeed, there is a sense of intimacy in the Greek of the phrase ‘pitching his tent among us’. The Word did not become man and then go live on a deserted island far from other people; he was found among us, in the midst of us, dwelling with us and sharing our lives and our circumstances as one of us.
More than this, Cyril translates the phrase as ‘he dwelt in us’ and reminds us that just as in Adam all fell away from grace and found themselves liable to corruption, so in Christ, whom is the last Adam, we find the source of ‘all things that belong to joy and glory’, which he bestows on our human nature. We are united with the incarnate Word in this common humanity which we share and which he has renewed.
Cyril comments on this passage and says:
He Who is by Nature Son and God dwelt in us, wherefore in His Spirit do we cry Abba Father. And the Word dwells in One Temple taken for our sakes and of us, as in all, in order that having all in Himself, He might reconcile all in one body unto the Father.
What does it mean for us to live our own lives in the knowledge that the Word has not merely become man like us, but is united with us in our humanity, so that he is truly Emmanuel, God with us and in us? In Christ, we find the unity and union of all humanity, so that as we draw closer to Christ we draw closer to all others, finding in Christ our own union with all men. This is not simply an affectation but is a reality. In the life of St Francis of Assisi, he found that as he became more committed to Christ, he was able to embrace the poor and even the leprous as his brothers, finding Christ in each of them.
The final phrase of this verse reminds us that we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Even though the Word becomes flesh, he does not cease to be who he is, the eternal Word or God, and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Long before I knew anything much of Orthodoxy, and while I was still an evangelical [sic], I had a robust Christology and knew that Christ the man was filled with the glory of God because he was God. I had some sense that rather like the portrayal of the elves in the Lord of the Rings films, there was something glorious and transcendent in Christ even while he was truly man.
Indeed, the Scriptures teach us elsewhere that ‘in Him the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily.’ Christ is truly man, but he is not merely a man nor has the divinity of the Word been changed into humanity in the Incarnation. He remains what he is, the Word of God; yet, he has become man and his humanity is filled with the glory of his divinity. That divinity shines in him as a truly virtuous man, obedient to the will of the Father, speaking truth and even being revealed in light to his disciples, as on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Cyril draws a distinction between the saints, whom we recognize to have a measure of grace and truth in them, and Christ, in whom all grace and truth dwells - not as a full or partial gift from another - but as the natural property of the one who is God become man. For this man, Jesus Christ is the ‘only begotten of the Father’, not by adoption or in a relationship of favour - as some of the heretics suggested - but because he is truly God and man: the Word become flesh.
This single verse reminds us that all theology must be rooted in the Scriptures and in the case of our Fathers – Cyril, Athanasius, Severus - it plainly is. Theology is not simply a human speculation, but is a careful and prayerful contemplation on the scriptures. Beyond that, it is a reflection upon God revealed in the Scriptures.
With the Feast of the Nativity having approached and passed us in peace, we see that the Church unites scripture, liturgy, theology and prayer as we worship the Word become flesh, whom dwells among us and in us and whom is filled with all truth and grace, filling us in the measure so that we are united with him.
Good to see you back online again ...
Your coming to realize that Scripture is much more sophisticated as it had first appeared to you is not unlike the realization of St. Augustine of Hippo .. He - as a Manichean - despised the Scriptures because they were such a poorly written collection in comparison to the Latin prose of the poets and philosophers.
Then he - so the story goes - heard St. Ambrose expound the Scriptures and he realized the power and beauty of the Scriptures are a category in their won right to which the philosophers stand in shrill contrast. It also reminds me of Origen's apologia of the "style of Scripture" as found in the Philakolia of Origen composed by Sts. Gregory Nazianzen and Basil the Great - the 15th chapter (it is online somewhere ... ).
In short we cannot know the Word of God Incarnate, without knowing the word of God in writing.
Fr. Gregory +
Good to see you on here as well :) That last line is food for thought for me...