Why did God become man? Was this simply a reaction to Adam and Eve’s fall into sin? Is the Incarnation merely contingent upon this event? Or is there more to this story?
When I was a Protestant I often focused exclusively on one aspect of the Incarnation–namely its leading to the death of Christ and the atonement for sins. While this is obviously of central importance (Christ most certainly did come to lay down his life for the world) it can lead to some misconceived and even detrimental notions. One of them being that the Incarnation was simply an “accident”; namely, that it was not absolutely essential for the redemption of creation. For many Protestants (not all) the Incarnation is viewed as merely a reaction to a particular event – the Fall of man into sin – rather than part of the cosmic destiny of creation itself.
I had this conversation in a course in philosophical theology I took last Fall. Having read multiple essay’s written in defense of Calvin’s notion of penal substitutionary atonement we engaged in a rather lively class discussion. Several of my classmates seemed to view the Incarnation itself as superfluous to our salvation and destiny. Everything, for them, hinged upon Christ taking our sins upon himself, dying on the cross, and satiating the wrath of God. Some didn’t even seem to find the mode of Christ’s death necessary–it was merely the “best possible way” to both satiate God’s wrath and offer an example for us to live by. To be fair, this view was not held by everyone in class, but did seem to be the predominate view of the author’s we were discussing.
This stands in marked contrast to the Catholic (and I include here Eastern Orthodox as well) tradition which understand’s the Incarnation to be more than a contingent event; a mere accidental happening in the history of the world. Consider this statement made by Peter Kreeft:
“Jesus is not merely the universe’s savior; He is the universe’s purpose. The Incarnation was not a last-minute fix-it operation. And it was not undone in the Ascension. He is still incarnate, still with us. He is with us in different ways. He is with us through the material things, for He created them and He sanctified all matter by incarnating Himself in matter.”
From the perspective of Catholic theology it has always been God’s intention to unite creation to Himself in an intimate way. In this sense the Incarnation was inevitable. Consider this, often neglected passage, from St. Paul:
“For he [Christ] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).
While the Incarnation clearly has soteriological implications, leading to forgiveness of sins and personal salvation, it is also a cosmic event. It is God’s plan to unite all things, in heaven and on earth, to perfect creation, and to offer creation a share in His eternal reality.
In the words of St. Maximus the Confessor:
“Because of Christ–or rather, the whole mystery of Christ [i.e., the Incarnation]–all the ages of time and the beings within those ages have received their beginning and end in Christ. For the union between a limit of the ages and limitlessness, between measure and immeasurability, between finitude and infinity, between Creator and creation, between rest and motion, was conceived before the ages. This union has been manifested in Christ at the end of time, and in itself brings God’s foreknowledge to fulfillment . . .”
Christ is not only the creator of the universe but its telos, its end and purpose. From this standpoint the Incarnation has much broader implications than the forgiveness of sins (although this is surely a central part of it). The Incarnation is not simply a reaction to the Fall of mankind but is mankind’s destiny. It is only from this perspective that we can arrive at the necessity of the Incarnation and appreciate the full scope of God’s redemptive work.