How to speak of Christ
John Bradbury consults ancient church philosophers to help sharpen his insights on the incarnation for today
The mince pies have been in the shops for weeks. The Christmas decorations began emerging months ago, and Christmas is nearly upon us again. In the midst of all the hype and sentimentality will be the usual cries of the need to “get back to the true meaning of Christmas”. I’m always rather taken with the fact that these cries often come from folk who have nothing to do with the church or the Christian faith at all. Normally it seems to mean something about spending time with family and being nice to one another (which invariably, we’re not)…
Even within the life of the church I sometimes wonder if we’ve lost the plot. We’re quite good at the nativity plays, and the carol services and the shepherds and sheep. And yet, how many sermons will we hear this Christmas? In fact, will we get upset if those leading us in worship have the temerity to take up time preaching which could be more valuably used letting the children show us what was in their stockings? I fear sometimes we actually run away from “the true meaning of Christmas”, precisely because it is actually quite difficult stuff.
There are different ways in which Christmas is quite complicated. Firstly, some of the reality of the story may offend. Do we really want to think about an underage girl having a baby out of wedlock? The fact that smelly shepherds came to visit, that the family had to flee and become scrounging asylum seekers in a foreign land, and that a generation of small babies were slaughtered?
There is all of that, and then there is also the fact that whenever the church starts talking about “the incarnation”, there is always the possibility of confusing, dusty, dry and boring things being said. There is the danger that words such as “substance” and “nature”, and “person” might start getting bandied around, or old-fashioned creedal statements repeated like some kind of mantra inviting us to believe six different impossible things before breakfast. There is the even more frightening prospect that people might suddenly start speaking Greek!
I find it sad that people get scared of the incarnation. It is supposed to be joy and delight. That is precisely why we have a feast to celebrate it. It is, though, one of those tenets of Christian belief that did fill the early church with great controversy. In the third and fourth centuries there were debates, and accusations, and counter accusations seemingly endlessly as the church worked out how best we might speak about Christ.
At the heart of all these heated debates was something very important, however. I frequently hear people within the church suggesting that for a lot of people outside the church, they can’t believe in God because that’s nearly impossible these days, but that they think Jesus was an amazing human being. Strangely, I never seem to hear people who have nothing to do with the church actually say this in reality! I wonder whether, sometimes, we are projecting our own feelings about the matter onto other people? Is God just a bit too difficult as a concept, but Jesus is that bit more down to earth and therefore easier to grasp?
In some sense, this is exactly what was at stake in some of those early debates that the church had about Jesus. From the earliest days the church had worshipped Christ. Some of the very earliest bits of the Bible we have are hymns of praise to Christ (like the wonderful hymn in Philippians: 2). Indeed, that wondrous opening of John’s gospel that moves us so much at Christmas puts it very well: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God.”
In the early centuries of the life of the church, the surrounding society began to think of there being a big difference between earthly material things and God, who was Spirit. The stuff of the earth, matter itself, was fundamentally bad, God fundamentally good. This divide between the good and the material became so great, that it became impossible to think of God having anything to do with the stuff of the earth at all. God needed to keep a safe distance, and keep God’s hands clean. God was utterly unchangeable so by definition could not have any immediate contact with creation, which was always changing. People began to suppose that God had an intermediary who handled the stuff of creation as God’s kind of helper. This came to be understood as the son of God, the first-born of all creation. This helped God remain truly God, truly distant from the world and protected him from all that bad stuff.
This way of looking at the world was, in simple terms, the way the world looked to the Greek philosophers of the third and fourth centuries. And of course, all of this made sense to many Christians. The bishop who primarily is remembered for thinking in this way was called Arius. He wanted to preserve the dignity and goodness of God. Keep God away from anything that might get God’s hands dirty with the real stuff of life in the world. And of course, the language was quite biblical, wasn’t it? The language of the first-born, and the son of God, and so on …
So why was it, then, that another bishop, Athanasius, fought so strongly against all of this? Why did the church ultimately come to say that Arius had got it so wrong? And does any of this matter anymore at all?
Well, I tend to think it might actually still say something deeply powerful. For human beings are really good at deciding what God must be like. Strangely, we always seem to invent a God that rather suits us, thinks rather like we do, supports our particular prejudices and opinions. What Athanasius did was spot that very danger. Arius presumed God was just like everyone at the time was saying. What Athanasius saw was that this got everything round the wrong way. It is precisely in Jesus that we find out what God is like. God is precisely not distant and far removed, keeping his hands clean. Rather God comes right into the midst of life in the world in the person of Jesus. We do not understand who Jesus is by enquiring after God; we understand who God is by enquiring after Jesus. If we think quite well of that Jesus bloke, we think quite well of God! Athanasius saw that this is a deeply radical notion, that it fundamentally unites God and humanity in ways that change the world forever, and makes our response of worship absolutely right.
Athanasius saw that as the church kept repeating the old sayings, “son of God”, “firstborn” and all that – those words and phrases began to take on new meanings to meet the shifting ideas of the world around it. Bizarrely, in repeating those things for long enough, they had come to mean something totally different! To keep saying the same thing, the church actually had to find a new language to say it in. Hence, the new language of Christ being “of one substance” with the Father came into being.
Of course, the world around us has shifted massively since then, and we too are called not simply to repeat the mantras of the past, which, if simply repeated often enough, end up meaning something entirely different. We too are called to find the language of today to speak of these amazing realities of God and God’s ways with the world. But let us never lose sight of what the dusty old bishops of a Greek-speaking church were trying to get at: in Jesus, God was showing us what God was really like, and united humanity with himself in Christ, transforming things forever. That is something of the real meaning of Christmas, and it is well worth throwing a feast to celebrate!
John Bradbury teaches theology and church history at Westminster College, Cambridge – one of the United Reformed Church resource centres for learning
This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of Reform.