“Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God,
Who for our salvation willed to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,
Who without change became man and was crucified,
Who is one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
O Christ our God, trampling down death by death,
For more than two years, I have happily belonged to the Orthodox Church, commonly known as the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Greek Orthodox Church. I can recall a time 3 years before that when I pondered the incarnation of the Logos, who is God, the Son and was struck with a very Orthodox sense of the significance of the event. I would not become aware for some time that the theology beginning to grow in me that day was Orthodox. Somehow, I had seen something which the ancients understood, something which defined the great concerns of the united Church of the first millennium. This is an understanding which has been largely lost in Western Christianity, replaced with a legal, juridical model of atonement.
In the West, atonement and salvation came to be viewed primarily as a juridical transaction. Catholics may view their own works as entering into their salvation transaction, while Evangelical Protestants describe something which seems to be the signing of a contract in their hearts so that God, who had been bound by law to torment them forever, now is bound to give them perpetual bliss. That is the transaction through which individual salvation is thought to be appropriated. The crucifixion is seen as the great transaction in which an innocent one paid in the coin of suffering and death for the debts incurred, in a juridical sense, by sinners.
Having come from an Evangelical Protestant background, I don’t know Catholicism so well. Thus, what I say here will reflect specifically upon a Protestant way of viewing things rather than a Catholic way, though they are, in certain fundamental ways, similar.
Evangelical Protestants seem to struggle with finding any real necessity in the incarnation of Christ or in His resurrection, for that matter. To their credit, they are still very fond of both events, but neither seems to be entirely necessary in their atonement theory. Essentially, they will say that He was incarnated so that He would have a way of suffering and dying on the cross. Then why not make an adult body, give a few speeches along with the endorsement of divine miracles, and go to the cross? The resurrection seems like it ought to happen so that the good guy doesn’t seem to lose, but was it necessary? Did it do anything for us? Surely the Son of God was not incomplete before; why not just shed His humanity and be as He was before the incarnation? How could the “good guy lose” if He lost nothing He had from eternity? In recently reading the online “Statement of Faith” for a couple of mainstream evangelical churches, I saw that Christ “arose from the dead after three days to demonstrate His power over sin and death.” Was this no more than a demonstration, in order to make a point?
Such confusion did not exist until the second millennium of Christianity and has never existed in the Eastern Church. In the East, atonement is not viewed as a juridical transaction; it is viewed as healing. Like any good person, God forgives what is past. The problem is making the offense truly a thing of the past, not an ongoing thing. Even the word “offense” may be misleading here, for we cannot harm God. He is offended when we harm ourselves; He cannot be with us in such harmful action because He loves us. The etymology of the word “atonement” is not hard to detect. It indicates the reconciliation of two parties, making them “at one.” There could have been no more powerful way of making humanity at one with God than for God to enter into our race and become human. The exploitation of some strange legal loophole does not save us—He, Himself, in His own person saves us. He is our salvation. Saving faith is literally in Him, not in theories about Him or about what He did. Likewise, He, not any written guarantee, is our assurance of salvation. When you trust a person, you don’t need written guarantees. We can leave our salvation to Him and just try to cooperate with what He is doing by doing as He tells us. He will always do what is best for us.
Humanity is, invisibly, one being. You and I are like branches on the same tree—distinct, yet in union. Christ, entering in, injected all of us with the divine. He is the new Adam—the trunk of the tree. Our union with Him saves us and we all partake of this union and, to this extent, all are saved. However, that union can be lesser or greater as we “abide in the vine.” If lesser, we dry and wither; we become greater partakers of death and are sub-human. If greater, we have life and health flowing in us and become greater “partakers of the divine nature” as the apostle Peter put it. Partaking of divinity, we truly become children of God. The new birth powerfully opens this connection with the Vine, which was largely blocked by dead tissue.
So, the incarnation is central in atonement—in our salvation. When He took on fallen human nature, it was absolutely bound to be raised up. Suffering and death are part of our fallen human experience (they actually define ‘fallen’), so He entered into that. His resurrection saved us as He entered into death and destroyed it by filling it with life. His resurrection necessitates our own. As we are all connected as one humanity, humanity is also connected with all of creation. Thus our resurrection, in turn, necessitates the raising of fallen creation. As Paul said to the Romans (8:21), “creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
Have a very merry Christmas.