Henri Persoz suggests a reflection on dogma, the mystery of the incarnation, unveiling one of the possible “liberal” approaches to this wonder. An approach which not only leaves room for nuance but challenges each one of us.
Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
One day as we were leaving church a friend said to me: “Liberals are people who don’t believe in the incarnation.” That was how I learned that, as a liberal, I ought not to believe in this wonder. But what is it about? Because the word is not biblical. Irenaeus of Lyon seems to be the first theologian and Church Father to have developed the idea. Greek by birth, he wrote and preached in Greek and to talk about the incarnation he used the word sarkosis. A huge programme! He wanted above all to oppose the Gnosis which saw in Jesus only an appearance of humanity. And he was already relying on the famous sentence in the Prologue of John (verse 14): “And the word became flesh and lived among us” and on the first verse which states that the word was God.
The dogma of the incarnation was instituted in the mid-fifth century in the wake of the councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451) which particularly wanted to declare (not without terrible quarrels which dragged on and on) that Jesus Christ was at the same time true man and true God. It needed a lot of intellectual effort on the part of the “trinitarians” to make the intimate union of God with the man Jesus and the mystery of the incarnation helped them to some extent. They had to oppose the Gnostics but also the Apollinarians. Apollinarius of Laodicea (310-390) denied the human nature of Christ and for him the word became incarnate in a being already divine.
The dogma of the incarnation consists in affirming that God, in all his power, penetrated the human nature of Jesus, so that he also possessed the divine nature. It is therefore the act by which God became human. The council of Chalcedon proclaimed that the two natures, human and divine, met in the unique person of Jesus Christ. Christian thought then took this further, ending up in some fairly bold positions: God decided to become human in order to be able to die on the cross and, in this way, save humanity which was, without that, inevitably condemned by its sinful nature.
The incarnation relies fundamentally on the prologue of John but also on other biblical texts which are more or less ambiguous, for example the famous Hymn in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:6-11) which does not say that Jesus is God, but that he is in the image of God, literally “in the form of God”. It also relies on the accounts of miraculous birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Progressively, the incarnation became the centre of Christian doctrine: it is also because Jesus is God that he can come to our rescue. And the incarnation extends into the Eucharist since, in this mysterious event, Jesus is incarnated again in the two species of bread and wine. Finally it is the whole Church which is the incarnation of God on earth. Setting aside the extension into the Eucharist, the Reformers did not fundamentally question the mystery of the incarnation.
To return to my friend’s observation, is it relevant to say that liberals do not believe in the incarnation? Surely not, for they do not all believe in the same way. André Gounelle put together a remarkable synthesis on the question in his lecture at the protestant church of Maguelone in Montpellier in December 2017, which can be found on the internet. We want to make some comments about this question, otherwise contained in André Gounelle’s lecture, but we will present them in our own way.
The biblical justification for the dogma is weak
We have already said that the word incarnation does not exist in the New Testament. The sentence from John’s prologue (“and the word became flesh”) is fairly isolated in the Gospels. And we have stated in our article “Jesus man or God?” (Évangile & Liberté no. 317, March 2018) that the prologue was very late, written towards the end of the first century, right at the moment when some Christians were beginning to proclaim that Jesus is also God.
But let us pay attention: the “word” of the prologue is not exactly God. It is literally the logos which sends us back to the prophetic word marking the interventions of God in history. It sends us back, too, to the wisdom which was present with God in the creation and conduct of the world. One might translate as: “the wisdom which comes from God, or the word of God”. The logos, then, is carried especially by Jesus who proclaims this word with power and truth. But at the same time it is God’s own self, because God is word to the extent that it is possible to perceive of God only God’s word. There are, then, in this prologue many nuances and subtleties which disappear when we affirm brutally, as at Nicea, that Jesus is “true God of true God” and “was made man”.
The material and the spiritual
In any case, Lapalisse could say that humanity is at the crossroads of flesh and spirit, material and spiritual, concrete and abstract, visible and invisible. For Plato, the spiritual is true primary reality; thought pre-exists the material world; souls pre-exist bodies and are shut in them only by accident, before being able to escape them in order to rejoin the upper world, the world of God. For Aristotle, on the other hand, the soul is an inseparable part of the body and provides its utility, its function, its destiny. It is the “form” of the body, in the same way as the form of the chair provides its function, its utility, but disappears with the wood of the chair. Aristotle was forgotten by the great Church, because of his materialism, which effectively made the soul disappear with the body (with, however, a few nuances). But he was recalled to mind by certain mediaeval thinkers, such as the Muslim Averroes and Thomas Aquinas.
Whatever it may be, the spiritual needs the physical in order to exist. And the physical human being would be nothing if it did not aspire to spirituality. To that end it fashions for itself an image of God, which then becomes the object of its adoration. “God needs the world; the world needs God” as André Gounelle reminds us. And here is the paradox: the visible and the invisible are separate, but they are inseparable. The professor says again: “within the physical resides the spiritual; at the heart of the temporal we meet the eternal.” This paradox is expressed precisely through the incarnation.
The Incarnation generalised
Under this general constant, we see that the incarnation is not only about Jesus; it is the encounter of God with humanity, it is the aspiration of humankind to divinity. It is manifested in all the prophets and all the thinkers who have made possible the writing of the Bible, both the Hebrew part and the Christian part. It is manifested in everyone who has written about God and especially in those who have committed themselves for God. And the prologue is quite right to say: “In the beginning was the logos. And the logos came among us.” As the philosopher A.N. Whitehead wrote: “The world lives on the incarnation of God.”
Certainly, Jesus is the human being par excellence who understood and revealed to us God’s will in all its power. “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” And who was totally committed, even to the point of dying, to make that will understood. That is why we are Christians. To go on from there to confuse God and Jesus…
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