“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” – John 1:14.
In many ways, the stories of the Bible are stories of humanity’s encounters with God. Divine condescension is the phenomenon of God “lowering” Himself to interact with creation. It is this remarkable act that I wish to discuss.
I will begin by defining what theology means by divine condescension and review examples of it in the Bible. I will also address divine condescension in relation to the incarnation. Lastly, I will explore some reasons why God interacts with His creation.
Descending from the heavenly realm
The word condescension often has a negative connotation. Frequently, it is used in a derogatory way to indicate that the individual considers the person or persons he is interacting with to be inferior.
Within the realm of theology and religion, condescension takes on a very different meaning. Specifically, divine condescension refers to God’s interactions with human beings.
The prophet Isaiah informs us that God’s ways differ from ours and that God’s thoughts are “higher” than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). God is so radically other that man cannot comprehend him through reasoning power alone. If then God is to commune and to communicate with humanity, He must “lower” Himself. When God has “descended” into the realm of human beings, we may speak of divine revelation.
The Bible and God
This concept of divine condescension of God is seen throughout the Bible. Indeed, accepting that the Bible is divinely inspired, we may even say that the Bible itself is a form of divine condescension.
Within the biblical text, we see examples of what is meant by divine condescension. The psalmist tells us that “He [God] made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel.” The most famous depiction of God making Himself known to Moses comes in the third chapter of Exodus, where God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush.
In Deuteronomy 8:3-4, God feeds the Israelites with manna and makes provisions for their clothes so they would not wear out. These are just two of many examples where God condescends to interact with human beings.
Yet the most significant act of divine condescension is the incarnation. The doctrine of the Incarnation refers to the belief that God became a human being. While the reason for the Incarnation is worthy of separate treatment, it suffices to say that it refers to God taking a human form.
In the Book of Phillippians, Saint Paul writes of how God made Himself into the likeness of man. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
It is God’s willingness to lower Himself to the level of man that allows for divine revelation, which has allowed man to come to a knowledge of God he could not otherwise possess.
Yet, we must ask what purpose is served by God making Himself known to man. Perhaps Saint Luke provides the most compelling answer, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Within the broader framework of theology, soteriology refers to the study of salvation. To be sure, it is a subject beyond the scope of this work. Still, salvation is the most crucial reason underlying divine condescension.
To properly treat the topic, we must first understand why Catholicism believes it was necessary for God to become a man. To do so, we must accept the reality of original sin.
While it is true that original sin was an act against the will of God, it is also true that original sin disordered man’s nature. Nevertheless, man must atone for original sin, and atonement requires a sacrifice (see Leviticus 1:4, Book of Numbers, Romans 3:25, et al.). Yet atonement is not entirely sufficient. For human beings to again be reconciled with God, the disorder done to human nature must be repaired. As God is the author of that human nature, only God can repair the damage.
Synthesizing the need for human beings to make an acceptable sacrifice for original sin with the fact that only God can repair the damage done to human nature, we begin to see the need for God to take to Himself a human nature.
God of relations
Lastly, the Bible tells us that God “is love.” (1 John 4:8). And love is relational.
Accepting that God is non-contingent, that is, He does not need anything, then the act of creation is an act of love. The God of the Bible is a personal God that seeks to have a relationship with His creation.
Ultimately, the Bible should be understood not so much as man’s search for God, but God’s search for man.