JMC : The Catholic Religion / by Charles Coppens, S.J.

The Incarnation and Redemption

182. The losses which man sustained by Adam's sin have been so richly repaired by the Incarnation and Redemption, that the Church sings in triumph: "O happy fault, which has merited to have such a Redeemer!" Whether the Word would have become incarnate if Adam had not sinned, is an interesting question, on which theologians have written sublime speculations: some suppose that the assumption of human nature by the Son of God was the foremost purpose of the creation; so that, whatever Adam might have done, all events were ultimately to glorify the Word incarnate. But we have no certain knowledge of this matter. It is simply our task to explain what we do know by revelation concerning these central mysteries of the Catholic religion. For this purpose we shall consider, 1. The Incarnation of the Word; 2. The Atonement and Redemption.

The Incarnation.

183. The Incarnation may be defined as the union of the Divine and human nature in the one Person of the Son of God. The Athanasian Creed states the doctrine fully: "Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man. He is God, of the substance of the Father, born before all ages; and Man, of the substance of His Mother, born in time. Perfect God and perfect Man; consisting of a rational Soul and human Flesh. Equal to His Father, according to His Divinity; less than His Father, according to His humanity. Although He is God and Man, still there are not two, but one Christ; one, not by the conversion of the Divinity into Flesh, but hy the assumption of the humanity unto God. Perfectly one, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of Person."

To study this great mystery systematically, we shall consider, 1. The two natures of Christ; 2. Their union in one Person.


184. We are dealing here with the central doctrine of Christianity, with the fact that the great, unique, historical Personage who was born at Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary, who died upon the Cross and rose again from the dead, was truly both God and Man, being none other than the eternal Word made Flesh. We have shown that, while on earth, He proved Himself, by miracles and prophecies, and by His sublime teachings, to be a Messenger from God; not an ordinary messenger, but the One whose coming had for ages been predicted by the Prophets, and who was the Expected of the nations (Part I, Chapters 3d. and 4th.). The doctrine now to be proved is that this same Jesus was, not figuratively, but really and substantially, both God and Man; or, as the Athanasian Creed expresses it, "perfect God and perfect Man", etc. (n. 183).

185. We shall first consider His Divine Nature. The teaching of the Christian religion on this point is as clear and emphatic as human language can make it. For it is about this same Jesus Christ, who was horn of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, etc. that the Arian heresy arose, which was so clearly condemned in the First Council at Nice. In explaining this matter (n. 143). we quoted from the Nicene Creed the definition of the Catholic doctrine, and supported it with proofs from the Fathers and the Scriptures (n. 144), which it were superfluous here to repeat.

We shall however, out of the superabundant testimony on this subject, add some further texts Isaias calls the Child of the Virgin, "God with us" (VII, 14); and he writes: "A Child is born to us, and His name shall be called . . . . God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of peace" (IX, 6). That Jesus was the then expected Messias is explicitly declared by the Angel to the shepherds: "This day is born to you a Saviour, who is the Christ, the Lord" (Luke, II, 11). Christ Himself said: "I and the Father are One. . . . Believe My works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me and I in the Father" (Jo. X, 30, 38).

186. The objections brought against the Divinity of Christ are easily refuted. 1. It is urged that at some future time Christ will give up His Kingship and become a subject (1 Cor. XV. 28). Answer: "Of His Kingdom there will be no end" says St. Luke (I, 33). But as Head of the Church, He will present the fruit of His work to the Father, with whom and the Holy Spirit He will reign as God forever over the men whom He redeemed as Man, gaining for them admittance to His Kingdom.

2. Christ said: "The Father is greater than I" (Jo. XV, 28). Answer: He spoke thus as man; as God He said : "I and the Father are One." We must remember He subsists in two natures.

3. Most texts quoted to prove His Divinity are taken from St. John, whose writings are chiefly attacked by the objectors to our doctrine. Answer: St. John's Gospel is attacked chiefly because of his clear teaching on the subject of Christ's Divinity; but its authenticity is unquestionable. The recent discovery of the true nature of the Diatessaron -- a life of Christ compiled by Tatian from the Gospel records as early as the second century -- proves beyond doubt that all our four Gospels were then held in special honor. Besides, St. John is far from being our only authority (n. 144).

187. That Christ was truly Man, scarcely needs proof in our day. His historic existence was attacked in the eighteenth century, but it is now admitted. In early ages the Docetae taught that Christ had only an apparent body. They are refuted by the words of St. John, "The Word was made Flesh" (I, 14). St. Luke relates how the risen Saviour convinced the Apostles of the reality of the flesh and bones of His body, and ate before their eyes (XXIV, 39, 43). The Gospel tells of His human birth, His hunger and thirst, His weariness, etc. When St. Paul says that God sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. VIII, 3), he indicates that the true Flesh of Christ was not truly sinful.

The Apollinarists held that the place of the Soul of Christ was supplied by the Divine Word. But this would deny the reality of His sufferings: His Soul was sorrowful even unto death (Matt. XXVI, 38), and on the Cross He commended His Spirit to His Father. The ambiguous expressions found in early writers must be interpreted by their distinct utterances. Tertullian uses vague language in the matter; but he also reasons clearly that the Soul of Christ, which saved us, was of the same nature as the souls of other men.

No trustworthy portraits of Christ exist, and in all probability none ever existed. The likenesses of Him found in the Catacombs are symbolical figures. True, Eusebius tells us of a monument which the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark VII, 26) set up in front of her house, to show her gratitude for her miraculous cure by the Saviour; but this image was destroyed fifteen centuries ago. The features assigned to Christ in modern art seem to have originated with Leonardo da Vinci, who died in 1519.

188. The main facts regarding the origin of Christ's manhood are thus narrated by St. Luke: "Mary said to the Angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? And the Angel answering said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Luke I, 35). Later, "She brought forth her first-born Son" (ib. II, 7). It follows that Christ had no man for His Father. His Soul was created and infused into his Body as soon as this began to exist, and in the instant the Divine Word assumed this human nature, as St. Fulgentius emphatically declares (De Fide, c. 18, n. 59). At that same moment, as is the common teaching of theologians, He was as Man sanctified by grace, had the use of free-will, was capable of merit, and enjoyed the vision of God. His Soul was not hampered by the imperfections of His infant Body.

189. The passible nature of Christ was incapable of Sin, and without any affection which supposes sin or is akin to sin, as is concupiscence; He was also without ignorance. With these exceptions, Christ assumed all those defects and infirmities which are in us as a consequence of Adam's sin: these are reducible to liability to pain of body and soul and destination to death. Thus when He "wept" He was truly pained. Yet He could control these liabilities, and, in particular, "He was offered because it was His own will" (Is. LIII, 7). He was not liable to such diseases as arise from acts of imprudence or from a bad constitution for His sacred Humanity was, as is generally believed, perfect in its own kind.


190. It is natural for every individual human nature to exist totally by itself, that is to subsist in itself as a human person. But the human nature of Christ does not, and never did, exist totally by itself, so as to be a human person. From the first moment of its existence, it was at once assailed by the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity: "The Word was made Flesh" (Jo. I, 14); therefore there is no human person in Christ. The Son of God acts in each of the two natures by the power of each nature. All His Divine acts are common to Him with the Father and the Holy Glmost; for there is but one individual Divine Nature. But the acts which He does in His human nature are human acts; as when He wept and prayed, and ate and drank, or when He suffered and died. Still, since all His acts proceed from His Divine Person, they are all the acts of God, and therefore of infinite value, or merit. Those acts of Christ in which the powers of both natures were exerted together are called theandric (Theos, God, anêr, man), as when He healed the deaf man by putting His fingers into his ears and saying 'Ephpheta', etc. (Mark VII, 34); the touching and speaking were acts of Christ done in His human nature, the miraculous healing in the Divine Nature.

Since Christ was truly Man, He truly suffered in His Soul and Body. He was also really free; for, as St. Jerome remarks and reason dictates, there is no merit in doing what one cannot help doing, and it deserves no reward; yet He certainly merited our redemption as His reward. Therefore He must have suffered and died freely. "He was offered because it was His own will" says Isaias in prophetic vision (LIII, 7). He died in obedience to His Father's command, which He freely obeyed.

191. The various points of this doctrine were discussed and proved in the writings of the Fathers who commented on the Holy Scriptures, especially when they refuted false views held by various heretics. To understand the doctrine clearly, we shall consider the chief of these errors.

Nestorius taught that the Person of the Son of God is not the same as the Person of the Son of man; but that the Son of God dwelled in the Son of man as a Deity in His temple. It would follow hence that Mary, though Mother of the Man, is not "the Mother of God", and that God did not "suffer in the Flesh": on these two phrases the controversy turned. On June 22, 431, the celebrated session of the Third General Council was held in the church at Ephesus, which was already dedicated to the Blessed Virgin under the title of "Mother of God". The teaching of Nestorius was condemned, and he was deposed and excommunicated. That evening the people of Ephesus broke out into shouts of joy, and accompanied the Bishops with torches and fuming thuribles. At night the whole city was illuminated. St. Cyril of Alexandria had taken the chief part in exposing the heresy; he also presided at the Council, holding the place of Pope Celestine I. No new Creed was needed, since the Apostles' Creed declares that the only Son of God was born of Mary.

192. Eutyches, while opposing Nestorius, represented the Human Nature of Christ as being completely absorbed in the Divine Nature, so that it ceased to have a distinct existence. His heresy was condemned by the Fourth Ecumenical Council, held at Chalcedon in 451. But the sect maintained itself, under the name of Monophysites (monos, one only, nature), not by argument, but by political intrigue; and some of its adherents exist in Egypt to the present day.

193. Early in the seventh century a party arose in Constantinople who endeavored to conciliate the Monophysites by teaching that in Christ all will and action came from the Divine Nature, the human nature yielding a merely passive concurrence, so that the acts of Christ were in no sense the acts of a man. The compromise, which in fact abandoned the cause of truth, was a failure, as all such attempts must be. The only result was the new sect of the Monothelites (monos, one only, thelô, I will), who admitted only one will in Christ. Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, fell into the error and wrote a cunningly worded letter to Pope Honorius, explaining his position. The Pope's reply dealt with the matter as Sergius had represented it, thus unconsciously favoring the heresy. The Fifth General Council, assembled at Constantinople in 680, condemned Sergius, and even Pope Honorius, his unintentional abettor (nn. 109), and denied that there are in Jesus Christ two natural wills and two natural operations. This Catholic doctrine is easily proved. The Monothelites did not question that Christ willed and operated in virtue of His Divine Nature; but it is plain from Scripture that He also acted in virtue of His human nature; for it was as man that He prayed, preached, hungered, thirsted, suffered sorrow, and the like. In His prayer "Not My will but Thine he done", He speaks of His human will; for His Divine will was His Father's will. His obedience involves the submission of His human will to the Divine will; for obedience is the submission of one will to another.

The Adoptionists, in the eighth century, taught that Christ as God was the natural Son of God, but as man the adopted Son of God. The error was condemned by a Council at Frankfort, and the condemnation was approved by the Holy See.

Of Protestants, those who admit the Trinity of Persons are called "Orthodox". These, as far as words go, probably accept the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation. But Nestorian views appear to be largely prevalent among their clergy and laity alike. The error is prevented among Catholics by calling the Blessed Virgin "the Mother of God".

194. The "congruity", or "convenience", as theologians call it, of the works of God is seen when we can trace in them the manifestation of power, wisdom, and goodness. Now, (a) The Incarnation contains stronger proofs of power than even creation out of nothing. For it has exalted a created nature to the highest possible dignity, personal union with the Godhead. (b) The Incarnation manifests boundless charity and goodness towards us. (c) It also exhibits great wisdom, in devising due satisfaction for sin, rendered by a Person who was free from sin and yet had the nature which was sin-infected. Nor was it unworthy of God: if a child is drowning in a filthy pool, there is nothing degrading in the act of a nobleman who steps in to rescue the helpless victim. The more foul the abyss, the stronger is the evidence of love.

195. That Christ as man, from the first moment of His existence, enjoyed the Beatific Vision, by which He saw God as He is, follows from the substantial union between the two natures, and from the dignity of true Son of God enjoyed by the Man Christ. This privilege however did not prevent Him from suffering; for daily experience shows that it is possible for the same person at the same time to experience joy and sorrow.

As man, He had every perfection not incompatible with His state, and especially the fulness of infused knowledge (Col. II, 3). It is of His acquired knowledge, gathered by the use of His faculties, that St. Luke speaks when he tells us that Jesus "advanced in wisdom and age, and grace with God and men" (II, 52). Another interpretation is that He advanced daily in manifesting His wisdom before men.

196. Since in Christ the same Person is God and Man, we can correctly attribute to Him whatever belongs to either nature, and whatever actions He has done in either nature, though these attributes be contradictory to one another. Thus we can say: God became Man, a Man is God, God suffered and died for us, this Man is almighty. the Almighty was bound and dragged along, God was born of Mary, etc. In fact, St. Peter said to the Jews, "The Author of life you killed" (Acts III, 15); St. John wrote: "By this we have known the charity of God, that He bath given His life for us" (1 Jo. III, 16). But since the two natures remained distinct in Christ, we cannot affirm of one nature what belongs exclusively to the other. This we cannot say: the Godhead died, nor Christ's humanity is eternal, nor the hands that were nailed to the Cross had fashioned the world. All novel expressiomms should be guarded against in matters so full of mystery.

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