Why did the birth of Jesus matter to the early church? What did they think was the salvific power of the incarnation? And how might mimetic theory help us understand the relationship between incarnation and salvation?
Those are a few questions subscribers to the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement live video chat will discuss this Thursday at 11:00 central with early church historian the Rev. Dr. Stephanie VanSlyke. Stephanie will introduce us to some of the thinkers of the early church, their writings and sermons about Christ’s incarnation, and why the incarnation was central to their interpretations of God’s saving work with humankind.
Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke, M.Div., Ph.D.
Reflecting on Christmas & the Incarnation
Teaching Nonviolent Atonement Video Chat with the Raven Foundation
December 12, 2013
When Protestant or Roman Catholic Christians from the contemporary West delve into the writings of the early church, we often conclude that something is missing from the theologies we encounter. We expect to find more discussion of the cross, or more explication of atonement. Yet what we find is a discussion of the whole salvific narrative from incarnation to resurrection, of which the cross is a part, but not the whole, an event which makes no sense unless interpreted through the lens of both incarnation and resurrection.
Below are texts from the early church that will help guide our discussion. This is an abbreviated article for the Faith Forward blog. To read the full article and learn how to join the live chat, please visit the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement website.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…”
Irenaeus (c. 125-200 C.E.)
Irenaeus, born in Smyrna and a student of Polycarp, eventually became Bishop of Lyons. He is known for his treatise Against Heresies, an engagement with forms of Docetism and Gnosticism which claimed that Christ was not really human, but only seemed so. For these groups, Christ’s fully humanity would jeopardize the power and impassability of his full divinity.
But for Irenaeus, Christ’s full human incarnation was no threat to divine power. Rather, it was a gracious, generous expression of God’s power, necessary for the work of our full salvation. Irenaeus beautifully articulates a cosmic theology of ‘recapitulation’ in which Jesus takes on full humanity in order that we may become fully alive. Read a bit more here:
Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 297-373 C.E.)
Athanasius is known for his role as a deacon and theologian leading up to, the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., which was convened to resolve the “Trinitarian Controversy” surrounding whether God the Father and God the Son (Jesus) could be spoken of as sharing one divine substance (homoousios). Athanasius continued his advocacy for this way of thinking after the Council, when he became Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt.
He is thought to have written his treatise On the Incarnation prior to the Council, perhaps c. 319 C.E. In these excerpts Athanasius explains why God became incarnate, even unto the cross: because Father and Son worked as one to overcome our death:
From Chapter III:
What, then, was God to do? What else could he possibly do, being God, but renew his image in humankind, so that through it they might once more come to know him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very image himself, our Savior Jesus Christ?…The Word of God came in his own person, because it was he alone, the image of the Father, who could recreate humankind after the image. In order to effect this re-creation, however, he had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore he assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once and for all be destroyed, and that humans might be renewed according to the image. The image of the Father only was sufficient for this need.”Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389 C.E.)
Gregory, along with his friends the brothers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, are known as the ‘Cappadocian Fathers,’ (from Cappadocia in Turkey). All three played pivotal roles in Christian thinking about the Trinity and about Christ’s humanity and divinity.
From Epistle 101, (c. 382 or 383 C.E.), addressing the ‘Christological controversy’ in which some argued that Jesus’ incarnation was not full but partial. In response, Gregory argues that only Christ’s full incarnation (full divinity and full humanity) can heal and restore us fully from a fallen state to one fully redeemed:
“If anyone has put his trust in him as a man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which he has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Savior only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity…”
John Chrysostom, c. 349-371 C.E.
John, nicknamed the Chrysostom, the “Golden-tongued” was a reluctant preacher who would have preferred to have been a monk. Yet he consented to be ordained lector, deacon, priest, and finally a bishop. As Bishop of Constantinople, his preaching against the excesses of imperial wealth and power in a newly Christian Empire led to his subsequent removal from his preaching post and his exile.
The excerpt below is from a Sermon on the Nativity, preached in Antioch, December 25, 386 C.E, in which Chrysostom illustrates the concept of the “great exchange”: that Christ takes on our humanity and in exchange offers us divine salvation. At this point, Christmas is a new holiday, beginning perhaps a few decades earlier as a Roman observance and just making its way East. Prior to this—and continuing to this day in many Eastern Christian traditions—the birth of Jesus was celebrated along with the commemoration of the arrival of the Magi on the ‘Theophany’ or ‘Epiphany’ on January 6.
What shall I say, and how shall I describe this birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He who sits upon the sublime and heavenly throne now lies in a manger. And He who cannot be touched, who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He who has broken the bond of sinners is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation be the measure of His goodness. For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares me for the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.
Theodotus of Ancyra (died 446 C.E.)
Theodotus, Bishop of Ancyra, was a supporter of Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, who engaged in a debate with Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, about Christ’s full humanity and divinity or “two natures.” The initial dispute was the question of the liturgical use of the term Theotokos (God-bearer) for Mary. Nestorius had preached against it shortly after ascending the bishop’s seat in Constantinople (c. 429). The fundamental question Nestorius raised in his First Sermon against the Theotokos was whether Mary gave birth to the divine Logos or to a man who later assumed the divine nature. For Cyril and Theodotus, Christ’s divinity had to be eternal—he did not assume divinity at some later point—and thus for them, it was also appropriate to call Mary the Theotokos.
In this Sermon Preached at the Council of Ephesus, 431 C.E., Theodotus shows no nervousness about Christ coming to us in the form of a servant and a poor child.
“The Lord of all comes in the form of a servant, and he comes as a poor man, so that he will not frighten away those souls he seeks to capture like a huntsman. He is born in an obscure town, deliberately choosing a humble dwelling-place. His mother is a simple maiden, not a great lady. And the reason for all this lowly state is so that he may gently ensnare humankind and bring us to salvation. If he had been born amid the splendor of a rich family, unbelievers would surely have said that the face of the world had been changed by the power of wealth. If he had chosen to be born in Rome, the greatest of cities, they would have ascribed the same change to the power of her citizens…No, he came among ordinary people as one of themselves, offering himself freely for the salvation of all.”
Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke, M.Div., Ph.D. serves as senior pastor of the First Congregational Church, UCC in Wilmette, Illinois, and is an adjunct faculty member at McCormick Theological and Garrett-Evangelical Theological seminaries, where she teaches in the areas of Christian liturgy and early Christian history.