The Cosmic Importance of the Incarnation


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.

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The Nature of Physical Law: A Dialogue Between St. Athanasius, Jaegwon Kim, and Jeffery Poland


Let us suspend reality for just a moment and imagine that St. Athanasius has returned from the grave . . . and is desperately craving a cup of hot coffee.  After locating the nearest local coffee shop, he walks in with a huge smile on his face–having at last found a place to satisfy his craving.  To his great surprise, he discovers the imminent physicalists Jagewon Kim and Jeffery Poland sitting in the back of the shop enjoying their morning brew.  A dialog quickly ensues . . .

Athanasius: “Good morning gentlemen! Grace to you and peace from our heavenly Father who spoke all things into existence through His own eternal Logos, through which all things hold together harmoniously and in good order!”

Jeffery Poland: “Good god man, you can’t be serious! If you please, I’m attempting to enjoy a cup of coffee before my next lecture.

Athanasius: “My apologies my friend, but surely one can not help but extol the wonders of the Logos who holds all things together!”

Jaegwon Kim: “You’re somewhat of an odd fellow. Are you not aware that what holds all things together are the fundamental laws of physics? My dear friend, there is no God. For, all things that exist in this world are bits of matter and structures aggregated out of bits of matter, all behaving in accordance with laws of physics . . . any phenomenon of the world can be physically explained if it can be explained at all. (1) So, enough of this nonsense about a divine logos.”

Athanasius: “I see. But, if you will, please explain to me the nature of these laws. Are the laws of physics themselves physical?

Jaegwon Kim: “Do we not experience them in the physical world? For all the things we experience are physical. Is this not obvious?

Athanasius: “Obvious indeed. So what you are saying is that the fundamental laws of physics . . . are the fundamental laws of physics?

Jaegwon Kim: “No, that would be circular reasoning.”

Athanasius: “My dear friend, if your ontology is correct then the only possible answer to the question of the nature of the laws of physics is that they are ultimately bits of matter and structures aggregated out of bits of matter all behaving in accordance with the laws of physics. For, as you say, “any phenomenon of the world can be physically explained if it can be explained at all.”

Jaegwon Kim: “Yes, I did say that.  But  . . . “

Jeffery Poland: “I didn’t want to get involved in this discussion, but I can hardly sit quietly any longer!  The relevant point here is that physicalists are (or should be) concerned with what exists in nature: i.e. with what can be spatially and temporally related to us, with that with which we can interact and by which we can be influenced, and with that of which we and the things around us are made . . . sets, propositions, universals, and so on, when abstractly conceived, are not considered to be in nature at all. Nor are they within the scope of the physicalists domain of study. (2)  Hence, your argument is superfluous.”

Athanasius: “But Mr. Poland, do you not state in your writings that ‘everything that exists is either an element of the physical basis or is constituted by elements in that basis?” and do you not further assert that, ‘everything that exists is, in this sense, ‘ontologically grounded’ in the physical domain?” (3)

Jeffery Poland: “Well yes . . .”

Athanasius: “So, physicalism is committed to the belief that everything which exists is ultimately grounded in the physical domain?

Jeffery Poland: ” . . . yes.”

Athanasius: “Tell me, Mr. Poland, do the laws of physics exist?

Jeffery Poland: “Well, of course . . .”

Athanasius: “Clearly, then, the laws of physics fall within the explanatory scope of physicalism!”

Jeffery Poland: “But that would lead to a tautology.”

Athanasius:  “Exactly!  And you’ve only two ways in which to avoid this tautology:  (1) you can accept that the laws of physics are nonphysical universal truths, or (2) you can reformulate physicalism as being a methodological doctrine rather than an ontological one.  Perhaps the notion of a divine logos is not so foolish after-all?”

(1) Kim, Jaegwon. Physicalism or Something Near Enough. New York: Princeton University Press, 2001. 149-150.

(2) Poland, Jeffrey. Physicalism:  The Philosophical Foundations. New York: Oxford, 1994. 228.

(3) Ibid. 18.