Christian truth is distinguished from secular thought in many ways, but perhaps the biggest difference between the two is the pervasive presence of mystery in the study of God. In contrast to other fields of study that can be systematically explored, theology is full of seemingly simple truths in which you can lose yourself for many lifetimes. Prominent among these these is the Incarnation. It can be stated simply and completely: "God took on flesh and became a man in the person of Jesus Christ." Yet the implications of this doctrine are unimaginably profound, and they have occupied the Church every since, most visibly in the early Christological controversies. This paper will attempt to demonstrate in brief this supreme mystery by profiling the life and thought of three major figures in church history who were significant in the study and application of the Incarnation: Athanasius, Thomas Aquinas, and Gregory Palamas.
St. Athanasius (c. 297-373) was most likely a lowborn Copt, growing up along the shores of the Nile; his African ethnicity and stature earned him the nickname "black dwarf".1 Little is known of his early years except for his contact with the nearby desert monks, particularly St. Anthony. He wrote the Life of Saint Anthony, our main source of knowledge about the reclusive anchorite, and is said to have visited the monks of the desert several times, a relationship which gave him a degree of monastic discipline and may have later saved his life. He was secretary to Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, at the Council of Nicea (325), and at his death in 328, the mantle of bishop passed on to Athanasius (against his wishes) as did the task of fighting Arianism, which was then resurgent thanks to Eusebeius of Nicomedia's political dealings.
Even before Nicea, the young Athanasius had written defenses of what would become Nicene theology. He did not care for the speculation of Clement or Origen; like that of Irenaeus, his conviction for orthodoxy was pastoral: safeguarding our direct approach to God through the God-man Jesus Christ.2 He placed great importance on the Incarnation,3 resenting the abstraction of Arianism for how it both distracted and detracted from it as the ground for our salvation. To be able to save humans from sin and death, Jesus had to be human, but such was the extent of our need that the author of our re-creation could only be the One who created us initially.4 5 So Jesus had to be both fully God and fully human. In the name of protecting God's singularity and transcendence, the imaginings of the Arians simply did not leave room for any meaningful salvation in Jesus Christ.
Against Arius' use of Justin Martyr's conception of Jesus as the divine Logos (word), Athanasius showed how Jesus-as-Logos was not at all incompatible with Jesus-as-God, but in fact indispensable to it. Jesus was not created, but creator of all things along with God: "only he who had created the universe could save man, and that to do either or both of these he himself had to be divine and not a creature. The Logos was present in all of creation as the one through whom it had come into being."6 The Logos' role as creator fit perfectly with Jesus' role as re-creator, and both roles could only belong to one who was truly God.
As Athanasius became the principle opponent of Arianism in the mid-fourth century, he made powerful enemies. Eusebius and other Arian leaders tried to discredit him, claiming that he ruled Alexandria's church like a tyrant or that he practiced magic, (Gonzalez 201) though these attempts did not succeed. However, his influence in Constantine's court exceeded Athanasius' and he was eventually able to win the emperor over to his side, even baptizing him on his deathbed.7 Athanasius was exiled from Alexandria, only to be restored after Constantine died.
After he returned, Athanasius found that the Arian party in Alexandria had gained such influence that it had appointed a rival bishop, Gregory, and ran him out of the city again. He went to Rome, where he gained the support of the Roman clergy for the Nicene cause; eventually, Constans, the emperor of the west, managed to convince his brother Constantius to allow Athanasius to return. He was welcomed back as a hero, and enjoyed ten years of relative peace during which he was able to write a number of treatises against Arianism. But Constantius, who was a committed Arian, eventually gained control of the empire and tried to expel Athanasius again. He was saved by the clergy and went into hiding with the desert monks for five years. Only once Julian "the apostate" took the throne could he return.
Though unwavering in his opposition to the heresy, Athanasius took a more conciliatory tone with the Arians. He tried to allay their fears that the statement in the Nicene Creed that Jesus and the Spirit were homoousios (of the same substance) with the Father obliterated the distinction between the three, and said that it was even permissible to speak of them as homoiousios (of similar substance) as long as this was not taken to mean tritheism.8 Until the end, Athanasius believed that the Nicene cause would prevail, and he was posthumously proven correct at Constantinople. He has since been remembered as one of the greatest proponents of Nicene Christology and trinitarian theology, as well as one of the foremost of the church fathers.
But while the west still affirms Athanasius' teaching of orthodoxy Christology for the sake of salvation, the east applies his theology in a different and more interesting way. Athanasius' doctrine of the Incarnation receives considerably more stress in Orthodoxy Christianity, and more practically. He is one of the founding fathers of the idea of theosis, or "divinization". Jesus' incarnation, the union of God and human flesh, allows us to share in God's glory and become more like Him. He boldly summarized the purpose of the incarnation thus: "God became human that we might be made god."9 Or, put differently, "The Word took flesh that we might receive the Spirit."10
Soon after Athanasius (and presaged by their different perspectives on him), east and west began to diverge in their thinking about God and our knowledge of Him, though still influenced by his stress on the Incarnation and Trinity. Two later thinkers from after the Great Schism will illustrate this difference. Possibly the most influential thinker in Catholic history, save perhaps Augustine, is St. Thomas Aquinas.11 (1225-1274) He was born to aristocratic parents near Naples, who hoped that he would pursue a prestigious ecclesiastical career. They placed him in the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino to begin his education; he began studying at the University of Naples at fourteen.12
His life took a major turning point when he decided to become a Dominican monk at the age of nineteen. His parents opposed this decision and went as far as locking him in the family castle before he escaped, became a Dominican, and went to study under Albert the Great in Cologne. Albert was at the forefront of the efforts to reconcile the philosophy of Aristotle, recently reintroduced to the west, with western theology, though Aquinas would soon overtake him. He was also the first medieval scholar to articulate the concepts of philosophy and theology as separate disciplines.13 Though limited in the scope and certainty of the truths it could uncover, philosophy guided by reason could operate independently of revelation, and maybe even prove some of the truths previously accepted by faith alone.
Having first encountered Aristotle at the University of Naples, Aquinas helped to bring his philosophy into the very heart of Catholic thought and end the Platonic bias that had prevailed in western theology since Augustine. Rather than discouraging the study of the natural world in favor of the purely spiritual contemplation of God (which risked ignoring God's acts of creation and Incarnation), Aquinas held that all knowledge must begin with the senses, echoing Aristotle's axiom that "nothing is in the mind unless it was first in the senses."14 He believed that the mind was primarily oriented outward, toward the world, and that since God was the ultimate cause of all things, His perfections could be glimpsed through His creation.15 In other words, we can (imperfectly) know God by reason through His created order, not apart from it.
Aquinas also articulated the relation between faith and reason which would henceforth be adopted by the Catholic Church. He saw faith and reason, theology and philosophy as running parallel to each other, though faith is ultimately greater.16 Though reason can prove some of the truths necessary for salvation, God does not limit salvation to those who are intellectually gifted, so all such necessary truth has been revealed and is an acceptable field of inquiry for both philosophy and theology.17 What faith simply accepts, reason can sometimes prove. The two can never contradict each other, but the truths of God far transcend what finite reason can discern.18
Aquinas’ relation of reason and theology can be seen in his “five ways” of proving God’s existence: motion, causation, necessity of existence, the gradation of goodness, and the rational governance of the natural world.19 Zooming in on the first way, he argued from the manifest existence of motion, which must be initiated by some other motion. But this chain of movers cannot go on forever—there must be an Unmoved Mover who set the universe in motion. Aristotle thought that this was an impersonal supreme Being, but Aquinas revealed it to be none other than the personal, loving God of Christianity. In such a way, Aquinas showed how our minds and senses could be redeemed to know their Creator, and at the center of this realization was Jesus' role as that Creator as well as the One who became incarnate within creation.
Aquinas' impact on the church, and indeed on western civilization, cannot be overstated. His thought has so pervaded the Catholic church that as late as the 20th century pope Pius X "proclaimed Thomism to be the preeminent Catholic system of thought, directing that it serve as the basis of all theology."20 His ideas dominated the church afterward, though his denial of Augustine's doctrine of the divine illumination of the soul (as opposed to finding knowledge of God through the senses) is controversial. His outward turn from abstract contemplation of spiritual truths to a greater reliance on sense knowledge, as well as his separation of philosophy and theology as disciplines, also helped to prepare the way for modern science.
Aquinas' system of thought contrasts interestingly with a roughly contemporary eastern thinker who would similarly set the tone for the Orthodox view of God ever since: St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). Both realized the importance of the Incarnation as Athanasius tirelessly stressed it and sought to apply it to our knowledge of God, but the differences end there. Unlike Aquinas, Palamas scorned scholarly learning and instead pursued mysticism. Early in his life, he became a monk of Mount Athos, and the life of asceticism he cultivated there would prepare him for what would become his greatest legacy: the Hesychast controversy.
Hesychasm (from the Greek word for "silence" or "stillness") was not new in Palamas' day. The Hesychasts sought to glimpse the Uncreated Light of God which the Apostles saw at the Transfiguration (Mat 17:1-8, Mar 9:2-8, Luk 9:28-36); they held a "mystical idea of light as the vehicle of knowing God, or as a metaphor for the knowledge of God."21 But this was not a purely spiritual contemplation of God in the Platonic sense; Hesychast prayer incorporated specific physical elements like the contemplation of an icon, structured prayer, physical posture, breathing patterns, and the repetition of a short devotional prayer, especially the 'Jesus Prayer': "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me."22
In the Hesychast controversy, this growing devotional trend collided with a theological one, namely apophatic (negative) theology. Apophatic theology stresses the essential difference between us as creatures and God as Creator. It thus takes as a foundation for speaking of God that we cannot speak definitively about what God is like, but only of what He is not: mortal, finite, visible, etc. Gregory of Nyssa, one of Athanasius' contemporaries, stated that "The true knowledge and vision of God consist in this–in seeing that He is invisible, because what we seek lies beyond all knowledge, being wholly separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility."23
But if God was truly invisible and essentially unknowable as apophatic theology claimed, how could Hesychasts claim to glimpse His Uncreated Light—with their physical eyes, no less! Barlaam, a convert from Catholicism, pointed out this contradiction, holding that expecting to see God's essence in prayer was to confuse creator and creation.24 He warned of the danger he saw in Hesychast prayer of abandoning the bounds of reason and letting mystical experientialism carry one away into deception and fanaticism.
Palamas stepped in to reconcile Hesychasm with Orthodox theology, much as Aquinas did for Aristotelian philosophy. He criticized what he saw as Barlaam's western-style rationalism that reduced everything to apophatic theology.25 To show how it really didn't invalidate the practices of Hesychasm, Palamas draw a crucial distinction between God's essence and His energies. He was not forging innovative theology here, but echoing another Cappadocian Father, Basil the Great, who said, "We know our God from His energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to His essence. For His energies come down to us, but His essence remains unapproachable."26 Palamas taught that these energies are none other than a manifestation of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised to His disciples (Acts 1:8).27 So though "no single thing that is created has or ever will have even the slightest communion with the supreme nature",28 God graciously reveals Himself to us in His energies
Palamas further defended the use of physical practices in prayer, even the expectation of seeing the Uncreated Light, by the fact that through the Incarnation, God had shown His intention to redeem whole people, just as He created us as whole people: not just souls, but bodies as well, and so we were to love and seek Him with our bodies as well as our souls. In a way very different than Aquinas, Palamas also tore down the Platonic distinction between mind and body as it pertains to knowing God. His concern was ultimately that of Athanasius: "to safeguard our direct approach to God, to uphold our full deification and entire redemption."29
Palamas has been just as influential in eastern thought as Aquinas was in the west. He was vindicated at two local councils held in 1341 and 1351, and later became the Archbishop of Thessalonica; for good measure, he was swiftly canonized in 1368. Barlaam was condemned as a heretic at the 1341 council and later rejoined the Roman church. And thanks to Palamas' efforts, Hesychasm, and especially his distinction between God's incomprehensible essence and graciously knowable energies, was integrated into Orthodox Christianity.
As I stated above, the major theological thread that ties these three disparate individuals together is the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus. Athanasius saw this Incarnation as crucial for our salvation, which he understood as theosis, the restoration of the likeness of God in ourselves as we draw closer to Him in mind, soul, and even body. Aquinas and Palamas, then, can be seen as fleshing out this truth in different, characteristically western and eastern ways. Aquinas focused on the redemption of the mind and the senses, applying the Incarnation to our knowledge of God; Palamas focused on the redemption of the body and soul, applying it to the Hesychasts’ mystical experience of God.
What modern application can the Church make from their life and teachings? One obvious one is that doctrine (especially, at present, the Incarnation) cannot simply be "held" or "believed" as “timeless spiritual truth”, it must be lived. If we simply make belief in the Incarnation a litmus test for orthodoxy or the basis for expounding further truth about Jesus, we miss out on its mystery and power. The Incarnation has far-reaching implications for our modern Christian lives, if we are willing to see them.
One of the biggest challenges for the modern church from Aquinas and Palamas' teaching is the importance they place on the body and senses. Aquinas toppled Neo-Platonism from its place atop Catholic theology, but some strands of Protestantism, rejecting Catholic traditions (Luther from the beginning strongly disagreed with Aquinas' esteem of reason for knowing God, calling it a "theology of glory" as opposed to a "theology of the cross"30), ironically ran back to older Catholic traditions that were more Platonic in their study of spiritual truths apart from human experience. One modern result is the aforementioned tendency to merely hold or believe doctrine rather than living it. The Incarnation should shake this habit of ours to the core.
One other application of the Incarnation is to our worship. Like me, many evangelicals come from a "low church" background which deemphasizes the formal, sacramental, and liturgical elements of worship in favor of a less-formal atmosphere, more preaching, a looser routine, less "ritual", or (as my church puts it) just "doing life together". The rationale behind low church, founded on the Reformation's rejection of "popish" traditions, is that the formalities of liturgical worship are not necessary for "true" worship, which is assumed to be spiritual, or for the preaching of the Word. Yet Athanasius', Aquinas', and Palamas' applications of the Incarnation should get us to think twice about our dismissal of more formal, liturgical, worship. Could it be that the external form of Christian worship is not supposed to be simply a passive vehicle for the preaching of the Word and the acting of the Spirit? If Christ came in the flesh, and if the redemption He offers involves our bodies as well as our souls (which we have good reason to think it does; see 1 Corinthians 15), then perhaps we ought to adopt what James K.A. Smith calls a "sacramental" understanding of the world, one in which "the physical, material stuff of creation and embodiment is the means by which God's grace meets us and gets hold of us."31 Indeed, this understanding seems to sum up those of both Aquinas and Palamas.
It is to God's glory that this discourse on the Incarnation is only a drop in the ocean of its meaning—it is a divine Mystery, after all. So, as we come to appreciate Athanasius' insistence on the centrality of the Incarnation for our salvation in Christ, Aquinas' connection with the rational knowability of the created world and the Creator God through it, and Palamas' call for the redemption of even our physical bodies so as to know God's energies (as the manifestation of the Spirit) as whole people, we must also keep in mind that even their wisdom is only the beginning. It is the responsibility of each generation of Christians to carry the truths of God forward, unchanged but reapplied to a changing world—and thanks in part to the Incarnation, we know that we are not left on our own in this task.
- Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Volume I: From the Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 199.
- Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 69.
- González, The Story of Christianity, 200.
- González, The Story of Christianity, 205.
- Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 204.
- Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), 203.
- González, The Story of Christianity, 191.
- González, The Story of Christianity, 206.
- Ware, The Orthodox Church, 21.
- Ware, The Orthodox Church, 230.
- James Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 183.
- González, The Story of Christianity, 375.
- Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 181,
- Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 182.
- Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 183.
- David K. Clark, To Know and Love God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 38.
- González, The Story of Christianity, 377-378.
- Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 181-182.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1.2.3, New Advent, < http://newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm#article3> (8 May 2014).
- Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 371.
- Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 487.
- MacCulloch, Christianity, 488.
- Ware, The Orthodox Church, 63.
- MacCulloch, Christianity, 487.
- MacCulloch, Christianity, 489.
- Ware, The Orthodox Church, 68.
- MacCulloch, Christianity, 487.
- Ware, The Orthodox Church, 68.
- Ware, The Orthodox Church, 69.
- Clark, To Know and Love God, 39-40.
- James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 141.