Sep 1, 2022
How is it that God can perform the miracle of Incarnation? Or to put it more accurately, how is it that God is the miracle of Incarnation.
In the Bible’s New Testament, 14 letters (‘epistles’) have traditionally been attributed to Paul of Tarsus, St. Paul. The authenticity of some of these letters is in dispute, but scholars agree that 7 of them were almost certainly written by Paul himself.
One of the most important is Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, often referred to simply as Corinthians (even though there is a second letter from Paul to the congregation).
Corinthians is one of the oldest books of the New Testament (probably written before 60 AD). It reflects Christian Christology, ecclesiology and eschatology during a relatively early period in Christianity’s development.
It is important to note that Paul wrote this letter while he was in Ephesus, a city in Asia Minor that has an outsized role in the history of Western philosophy and theology. Heraclitus, for example, was a member of the Ephesian royal family and John the Evangelist is thought to have been the Bishop of Ephesus at one time.
Just before visiting Ephesus, Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans from Corinth. While the doctrines advanced in the two letters are certainly compatible, Corinthians marks a profound change in emphasis.
While Romans is focused on sin and the salvific power of Christ’s crucifixion, Corinthians focuses more on Christ’s resurrection, the role of the Spirit and the nature of eternal life. Did Paul’s visit to Ephesus enrich his theology?
Like any ordinary letter, Corinthians is a mixed bag. It contains personal greetings, biographical updates, advice, exhortations, and even a bit of old-fashioned gossip. But woven into the fabric of this letter, in between the dominant lacunae, lies a complete systematic theology. Nowhere except in the Gospel of John is early Christian theology so thoroughly spelled out.
We proclaim Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God… Christ Jesus who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption…
Paul begins by juxtaposing ‘Christ crucified’ with ‘the power and wisdom of God.’ Superficially, the two seem to be in conflict, but Paul and his followers knew differently. Christ crucified is precisely ‘the power and the wisdom of God.’ How so?
Creation is a neat trick if you can pull it off, but God’s defining ‘power’ lies in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. God, the ‘creator of heaven and earth’ quite literally turns himself inside out to become a single quantum of being (Jesus) in the vast spatio-temporal universe. It is as true to say that the God is embedded in Universe as it is to say that Universe is embedded in God.
Christianity threads with the needle between pantheism, on the one hand, and Deism, on the other. In Paul’s theology, God is ultimately “all in all.”
You might say that God manifests himself in three stages:
Creation & Providence
Incarnation & Resurrection
Salvation & Redemption
And wisdom? Wisdom is you being aware of the world, and of yourself, and of yourself in the world, and of yourself being aware of yourself in the world, all at the same time.
Wisdom is very different from knowledge. All the knowledge in the world does not make a person wise. Knowledge tends to be linear; not wisdom! Knowledge can masquerade as static information; wisdom is always dynamic. Knowledge is something you can park on a shelf; wisdom is a way of living, a state of being.
If you are wise, you understand ‘the ecology of the moment.’ You are neither subject nor object, noun nor verb. You are the perceiver-perceived and the perceived-perceiving.
God’s wisdom is his perception of himself through, with, and in Christ. Old Testament Wisdom (Sophia) is related to New Testament Logos. The Father is perceiver-perceived while Christ is perceived-perceiving. That is wisdom.
God is wise by nature, you are wise through grace and through worship, study, prayer and good works. With wisdom comes righteousness, sanctification, and ultimately redemption.
Through wisdom, one comes to know what is right (‘righteousness’), one comes to live what is right (‘sanctification’), one comes to be what is right (‘redemption’). This is why Solomon, the wisest of men, asked God for one gift only, Wisdom, trusting that all else would follow. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all other things will be given to you.” (Mt. 6:33)
How is it that God can perform the miracle of Incarnation? Or to put it more accurately, how is it that God is the miracle of Incarnation. The Nicene Creed tells us it is “by the power of the Holy Spirit,” and Paul agrees. (Or perhaps we should say that the Council of Nicaea agrees with Paul.) It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Father knows the Son and the Son knows the Father.
The Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Nicene Creed) and Paul tells us that the Spirit dwells in each of us. Because we have received the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in us, we have the mind of Christ.
Everything belongs to you be it… the world or life or death, or the present or the future, all belong to you and you to Christ and Christ to God.
Each of us has a unique role to play in the cosmic dance.
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ…whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him… Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own.
We belong to Christ, but not as material possessions. We belong to Christ as members of his body. Because we are members of Christ, the Spirit that dwells in Christ dwells in us.
Paul’s theology is just as materialist as anything Karl Marx ever wrote. There is no wimpy bourgeois idealism here!
In fact, Paul’s philosophy might best be described as Christian Materialism, an effort, in my view successful, to explain how the cosmos works at the most fundamental, and therefore most general, level.
Because we are members of Christ, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. We are an integral part of the cosmos (in Christ we inherit the cosmos), and we are part of something even greater than that. Everything belongs to us, but we in turn belong to the Lord of ‘everything’ (i.e., Christ). We are not alone, we are not our own!
For us, there is one God, the father, from whom all things are and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things are and through whom we exist.
Note the variation in voice here. We receive all things from the Father (active voice), we exist for the Father (passive voice), but it is through Christ (middle voice) that all things, including ourselves, come to be.
From him, for him, through him – one reality perceived from 3 perspectives.
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
Christianity is a materialist theology, and nothing makes that point more clearly than the Eucharist. Eucharist is not Christ symbolically, or metaphorically, or even just spiritually; it is Christ materially, body as well as spirit.
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.
To each, the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit… But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person...
As a body is one, though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also is Christ. For in the Spirit, we were all baptized into (his) one body.
We belong to Christ; but we do not just belong to him (I-It), we are members of his body (I-Thou), and not members in the way that elements of a set are members of that set or in the way that friends become members of a club. We are members of Christ as parts of his glorified body!
A body is unlike a mathematical set and unlike a social club. In a body, each member’s health reflects the health of the whole; and in turn, the health of the whole (body) reflects the health of each of its members.
This is the language of mutuality and reciprocity, not dualism: subject/object, active/passive.
A body has many parts, and each of those parts makes a unique contribution to the overall functioning of the body. So, too, each of us has a unique set of gifts and a unique role to play in the community that is Christ’s body.
Now the body is not a single part but many… God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one (the same) part, where would the body be?
Christianity is not only materialist; it is also pluralist. The many constitute one, and that one adds to the many. Buckminster Fuller was fond of saying, “Universe is plural and at minimum two.” Was he paraphrasing Paul?
There are many parts, yet one body… But God has so constructed the body…that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.
The body is one organism with many organs. These organs (parts) do not just relate to the body (whole); they also relate to (i.e., have the same concern for) each another.
In this topology, each part relates, not just to the whole, but to every part of that whole. In fact, it is that network of relatedness, that mutual concern, agape (love), that constitutes the body as a body. The earliest Western philosopher, Anaximander, held a similar view. He believed that it was as a result of mutual concern (“reck”) among parts that the whole came to be.
20th century British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, shared this view as well. In his ‘Philosophy of Organism’ every part (‘actual entity’) is related to every other part and to the whole as ‘whole.’
A relates to B. A relates to C. B relates to C. A relates to B in C and B relates to A in C. Confused? Try this:
If one part suffers, all parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all parts share its joy. Now you are Christ’s body and individually parts of it.
To use Whitehead’s language, God does not just ‘prehend’ us, we prehend each other, and we prehend God. This tight network of relatedness is, I think, what John meant by Logos. (According to Martin Heidegger, originally, logos originally meant ‘net’ or ‘weir.’)
According to Anaximander (above), the whole exists because of the parts, but the parts in turn subsist in the whole.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised.
This is a remarkable verse. It rules out the possibility that Christ was raised, but we will not be. Paul argues that either there is resurrection or there is not. If there is, then Jesus was raised and will we be too; if there is not, then Jesus was not raised, nor will we be. Paul is an ontological democrat; he rejects the gnostic concept of an ontological hierarchy.
Whitehead (above) agrees: God is not an exception to natural law, but its highest exemplar. Our fate is inextricably linked to Christ’s.
And if Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching and empty too your faith…if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain… Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
If one rises, all rise, otherwise none rise. But since we are members of Christ’s body, if Christ rises, we must inevitably rise with him.
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep… For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ all shall be brought to life, but each one in proper order; Christ the first fruits; then at this coming, those who belong to Christ…
Christ has been resurrected and so as members of his body we can be assured that we too will be resurrected.
Then comes the end when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father… When everything is subjected to him, then the Son will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.
Alfred North Whitehead (above) thought that this was the pivotal verse in all scripture. But in another sense, it is merely a restatement of a much earlier idea: “Everything belongs to you and you to Christ and Christ to God.”
But in this later version, Paul goes one step further and points out explicitly that God is ‘all in all.’ This is certainly the climax of Corinthians. But Paul goes on to give us a deeper understanding of resurrection:
What you sow is not brought to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel…So, also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible… It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one.
Only by living (and dying) in the spatio-temporal world can we be resurrected in the eternal world: a seed must fall to the ground and ‘die.’ Mortality is the gateway to eternity.
We understandably dread death, the suffering, the uncertainty, the utter loss of control. We pray to be delivered from danger and ill health so that me may live as long as possible.
Fortunately, God does not grant all petitions! If he did, we might ask him for immortality, and he might grant it, and there is no greater punishment than immortality (think of the poor souls in Dante’s Inferno). There is no greater punishment than immortality (think of the poor souls in Dante’s Inferno).
Unknowingly, we are praying for a fate far, far worse than death, but God will overlook our folly.
Resurrection is physical and material, but it is not ‘natural.’ The resurrected body is different from the natural body. The natural body, for example, is ‘corruptible’ while the resurrected body is ‘incorruptible.’ The resurrected body is ‘spiritual’ but nonetheless physical.
From here on, I will ‘shut up’ and let Paul speak for himself:
Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not fall asleep, but we will all be changed, instantly, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality (sic).
And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” … But thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Image: Rembrandt van Rijn (and Workshop?) (Dutch, 1606 - 1669 ), The Apostle Paul, c. 1657, oil on canvas, Widener Collection.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.