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God takes on the human family tree

21 December 2012

The creeds - particularly the one we rarely use any more - provide a challenging insight into the meaning of the incarnation, argues Andrew Davison


In the beginning: Annunciation by Pietro Perugino (1489)

In the beginning: Annunciation by Pietro Perugino (1489)

"LOVE came down at Christmas," we sing. To this, each of the three great creeds of the Church bears witness. This is the story of God born of God, and born of Mary, of the Son's journey from the Father to the dereliction of the cross, while still remaining in the Father's bosom. It also tells the story of cavemen, and the General Synod.

The earliest of the three, the Apostles' Creed, is the simplest. It covers the incarnation with the words "who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, [and] born of the Virgin Mary". In the next one, the "Nicene" Creed, we find a fuller discussion.

Most lavish of all is the longest and latest text, which we call the Athanasian Creed (although its attribution to St Athanasius is certainly wrong).

Each creed has the incarnation at its centre, set within the logic of a Trinitarian faith. This is clearest in the Athanasian Creed, where the section on the incarnation follows an extended and lyrical discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity. Even the short Apostles' Creed follows a Trinitarian structure: Father, Son, and Spirit.

If we wish to explore the creeds from a Christmas perspective, we might consider the Greek word ek, meaning "from". With this word, the Nicene Creed spells out the divinity of Christ: he is begotten eternally "of [literally 'from' - ek] the Father"; he is "God from [ek] God, light from light, true God from true God."

The word ek is taken up again in the section on the incarnation, pointing, subtly, to the link between Christ's birth in time and his eternal coming forth from the Father. Just as the Son is begotten "from" the Father, God from God, he comes "down from [ek] heaven", and is conceived "of [again, literally 'from' - ek] the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary".

THE "mission" or "sending" of the Son in the incarnation rests on his "mission" (or eternal sending forth) in the Trinity. The Son is sent into the world because God is always, and already, concerned with "sending" in the eternal sending of the Son from - ek - the Father.

With the word ek, the creeds establish the divinity of Christ. In the earliest days of the Church, it had also been necessary to emphasise his humanity. The early theologians took that position against the Docetists - those who held that Christ only seemed (the Greek is dokein) to be human.

By the time the Nicene Creed was written, and expanded at the Council of Constantinople, the divinity of Christ, not his humanity, was under attack. An emphasis on the humanity remains in the creed, all the same. We might not notice it at first, but we will find it once again in that small Greek word ek.

When the liturgies of Common Worship were in the last stages of preparation, the General Synod faced few disputes fiercer than the debate over this single word, at the centre of the Nicene Creed.

With Common Worship, the Church of England decided to translate into English the original Greek of the Nicene Creed rather than the Latin (itself a translation) familiar to many from musical settings of the mass: Credo in unum Deum, etc. This shift also gave us a creed that begins with the "We believe" of the Greek rather than the "I believe" of the Latin.

Previous English translations had followed the Latin, and recounted the incarnation with the words "was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, of the Virgin Mary" (the Latin words are de and ex). That, however, makes a distinction not present in the Greek, which has the Son incarnate both from the Holy Spirit and from the Virgin Mary: ek . . . kai - from . . . and from.

Christ is as fully human as he is fully divine. He is as much "from" Mary (as to his humanity) as he is from the Father (adding the caveat, however, that ultimately everything, including his human descent, comes by the gift of God).

IN THE contemporary Church, we pass over the Athanasian Creed. It is long and complicated, and its beginning and end are tough, even harsh, on heretics, who, we are told, "without doubt" will "perish everlastingly". All the same, it deserves our attention, since there are points of theology, especially concerning the incarnation, that find no more perfect expression than they do in this creed.

One of them makes the point just recounted, that Christ is from Mary, as well as being from God. He is "God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds, and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world."

When it comes to being divine, Christ takes his "substance" (or nature, or being) from his Father, in the eternal gift that we call his "begetting". When it comes to being human, Christ takes his "substance" from his mother, born in time.

Jesus really is one of us, as human as any human being ever born of a woman. This opposes the subtle heresy, still encountered today, that everything about Christ - his humanity as well as his divinity - was introduced directly into the world by God, Mary functioning (as this position sometimes puts it) as no more than a viaduct.

The Athanasian Creed may seem abstract, but the point it is making here could not be more earthier, physical and human. With the incarnation, God takes on a human family tree.

What we are is determined by where we come from, especially when it comes to being born or begotten. Our new favourite word - ek - explains where Christ "comes from" in this sense: that he has natures both human and divine.

As much as we use the word "from" to describe closeness and continuity we use the word to describe distance and departure. If I have travelled from London, then I am no longer in that city.

WE NATURALLY describe the incarnation as a journey, with this sense of "from". The tradition that Christ was born in the middle of Christmas night comes from a passage in the book of Wisdom, describing a journey. Or, rather, it describes a leap: "For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leapt from heaven."

There is a truth and a falsehood in treating the word "from" - "came down from [ek] heaven" - like this, as a journey. The Son comes to be one among us, and one of us.

This, we might say, is quite some departure. Yet, in another way, it is not: he comes to be human, without ceasing to be what he was before. He comes from heaven, while remaining in heaven.

"Heaven", here, does not primarily mean a place, but Christ's relationship with the Father and with his own perfect divinity. On this front, he departs without leaving: "The heavenly Word proceeding forth, yet leaving not the Father's side", wrote Thomas Aquinas in a hymn. "Remaining in the bosom of the Father," Augustine preached, "he made pregnant the womb of the Mother."

Our Christology is at its most compelling when we hold to both the humanity and the divinity in their fullness: to both departing and to remaining. Christ's divinity makes his humanity all the more extraordinary and significant. It is difficult to imagine why we should think that the suffering of a Palestinian peasant in AD 33 urges us to defend the poor at every turn, were this peasant not also Almighty God.

SIMILARLY, it is only in Christ's humanity that we encounter God with the directness of one who can be "seen with our eyes . . . looked at and touched with our hands". What is revealed there shows God to be more extraordinary than we could ever have imagined. The incarnation gives us a window on to God as three and one: we see not only "God made visible", but also this God living in the power of the Holy Spirit, and addressing God as his Father. It is from here that Trinitarian theology begins.

The Son of God was not changed by the incarnation. As Augustine, again, put it, the incarnation has him "remaining what He was in Himself, and receiving from us and for us what He was not".

This is another point where the Athanasian Creed gets to the heart of the matter, with pithy directness. In Christ, we see a union "not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God". The incarnation was no "conversion" of God, which is to say that it was no truncation of God.

On this, a great deal rests. If the incarnation was a truncation of God, then Jesus is not really Emmanuel, not really "God with us", but "God-reduced with us", or "a sliver-of-God with us".

Only because the fullness of God was incarnate in Christ ("in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily," (Colossians 2.9) can we say with Karl Barth and his followers (and, on this front, that means a great cloud of witnesses in the 20th century), that God is as he is in Christ.

IN The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton takes great delight in the particular destination of the Son's "journey": tradition has it that the stable in which Christ was born was a cave. The Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, was built in the early fourth century over the cave that was held to be the site of the stable.

Archaeology confirms that caves often served this purpose. "The human story began in a cave," Chesterton wrote, at least in as much as our imagination is captured by the figure of the "caveman" drawing animals on the walls. Caves with paintings, such as those in Lascaux in France, stand at the beginning of human history.

At Christmas, we remember that the "second half of human history", as Chesterton writes, "also begins in a cave. Animals were again present; for it was a cave used as a stable by the mountaineers of the uplands about Bethlehem". And, whatever Pope Benedict XVI might write in his new book, if there was a manger, there were probably also animals. At the nativity, God, too, became a "caveman".

The Son "came down from heaven", as the Nicene Creed puts it, not to be born on the surface of the earth, but under the earth, in a cave: a cave that Chesterton calls "a hole or corner into which the outcasts are swept like rubbish", such that Jesus was "born like an outcast or even an outlaw".

From the first moments of his nativity, we see where the Son's journey is to take him: to a cross between two bandits. After this birth in poverty, writes Chesterton, who is always a "political" theologian, our sense of our duties to the poor and outcast can never be the same again.

The word "from" presents us with a journey, and, at Christmas, that journey-while-remaining of the Son of God has only just begun. Ahead lie infancy and childhood, adolescence and adulthood, death and resurrection; ahead lie Egypt and Nazareth, Capernaum and Jerusalem, Hades and Heaven.

The Church will follow this story in the coming months, to Holy Week and beyond. Its missionary challenge at Christmas is to encourage others to follow the journey with us. Perhaps the very fact that we are concerned with the infancy of Christ can be a spur, because with every birth comes the fascination of a story begun. Again, Augustine makes this point: "We have the infant Christ, let us grow with him."

The Apostles' Creed is the creed of baptisms, and of the personal confession of the faith. The Nicene Creed is the creed of the eucharist, and being one body together. At Christmas - more than at any other time - the Church can expand its "I believe" to a "we believe", which others can say alongside us.

We do this in the hope that, in time, they will be able to take this "we believe" and make it an "I believe" of their own: an "I believe" that can grow into the theological maturity of the "Creed of St Athanasius", that poetic, profound and under-appreciated exploration of Christian faith.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge.


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