Quite often you hear people saying that Christianity has much in common with other ancient belief systems with living and dying gods. But what I don’t see in those other systems is what some people don’t see in Christianity – which is something unique; the claim that God became man and dwelt among us. In his Gospel, St John tells us:
And the Word became 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.
The Greek says eskhnwsen , for which some translators use the word ‘tabernacled’ – the Logos which was with God in the beginning has taken on the tabernacle of flesh. There is, here, a clear echo of Exodus 25-27; 40:34-38 and the tabernacle built by the Israelites where the glory of the Lord dwelt with them in the wilderness. St John sees the presence of God in the tabernacle as a type of the presence of God among us in Christ.
It is not surprising that some early Christians wanted to read this in a docetic way – that is that they thought God had entered into the body of a man; it also allowed them to say (as Muslims do) that God left the body of the man. These were ways of explaining what had happened which went along with the stories told by other belief systems, where gods imitating men were common. But this is not what St John tells us – he tells us something far more incredible – that God took on human flesh, dwelt among us and that men beheld ‘His glory’. This aligns with what St Paul tells us in Hebrews 4:15:
For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.
In taking on our flesh, in becoming one of us, Jesus becomes the perfect mediator between us and the Father. It was because Jesus was one of us, tempted yet remaining sinless, feeling our pain and yet remaining sinless, that He is able to intercede for us with the Father.
Some seem to think that the Christological conclusions reached in the fifth century have nothing to do with this earliest manifestation of the mystery of the incarnation when, in fact, they are the end stages of a long series of discussions. But there is nothing in what St Cyril says in his ‘Scolia on the Incarnation’ here which is not in line with what John says:
When therefore Holy Writ says that in Christ dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, we do not therefore say that the Word by Himself dwelt in another, the man Christ, nor plucking asunder one from another things united do we conceive of two sons, but this rather, that holy Writ calls by the name Christ sometimes separately the human nature of the Word of God which He having as His own, used as a Temple.
As Fr Aidan Kimmel says in a series of most stimulating and highly-informative pieces on topics which have been much to the fore here lately:
I do not want to commit myself to the theory, which was popular in my day, that low christologies dominated in the early days of the Church and only evolved decades later into the high christologies we hold dear. The works of Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, and others have powerfully challenged this thesis. But however the historians may finally land on this, we need to recognize that the move to the Nicene confession of the divinity of Christ required a dramatic reconstruction of divinity as understood by both Judaism and paganism. Neither provided the philosophical categories to accommodate what Christians believed and felt they needed to say about the One God and his Son Jesus Christ. Old categories needed to be broken and remade; new categories needed to be invented (see John Behr, The Way to Nicaea). Three centuries of theological trial and error passed. In the meantime Christians just kept worshipping the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit, acclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and baptizing converts in the triadic Name.
The whole of Fr Aidan’s pieces are worth reading and studying, for they help show how the insights provided by John, Paul and the Evangelists provided generations of Christians with a challenge in terms of how to put the jigsaw together. God made flesh? How can that be? Well, that was the challenge John sets for us. As St Cyril put it:
Therefore He has become partaker of blood and flesh. He has become man, being by nature Life, and begotten of the Life that is by nature, of God the Father.
He is the Father’s Only-begotten Word, Who became man in order that, uniting Himself with the flesh that by the law of its own nature was perishing, He might bring it back unto His own Life and make it through Himself partaker of God the Father.
For He is Mediator between God and men, according as it is written, knit unto God the Father naturally as God and of Him, and again unto men as man; and withal having in Himself the Father and being Himself in the Father.
For He is the impress and effulgence of His Person, and not distinct from the Essence, whereof He is impress and wherefrom He proceeds as effulgence.