Will you accept or reject it?
–Pascal, Pensées, #863.
“So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in men and to inhabiting God’s creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in men who had grown old in sin, and gave them new life in Christ.”
–Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 17.
Often it is said that Christianity is too complicated. It is too intellectual. Would it not be more effective if it only had five simple things to maintain, like Islam? Why cannot we just be “nice” and forget about all these complicated distinctions? In response to such a query, Chesterton once pointed out that Christianity is simple where reality is simple, but it is not simple where reality is not simple, or at least, not simple to us. If “being nice” is your principle of morality, you had better be sure that everyone agrees on what the phrase means. That “agreement” would have to rest on principles that everyone understood. The “obscurity” of truth, to which Pascal referred, may be due to our own limited capacities. To God, the truth is not obscure. The problem is that we are not gods, which is quite all right. We were never intended to be “like gods” with power to decide good and evil. It was the Devil who tried to convince Eve that we were like the gods.
Human beings usually have to learn things one step at a time, not in one blind flash. And some things, such as “What is the inner life of God like?” we can only know if we are assisted by God’s help. If we could figure it out by ourselves, we would already be gods. But it is pretty sure that we are not gods. As the Psalmist says, we are “a little lower than the angels." That is why Irenaeus said that it takes the Spirit to accomplish the Father’s will among us sinners. It is why Pascal said that some things we cannot properly “know” unless we love them.
If we take a careful look at the elements of the statement of Irenaeus, the great second-century bishop from Lyons in Gaul, we find the following words and phrases: “Son of God," “Son of Man," “Spirit," “Father," “sin," “new life," and “Christ." To understand these words, and that is why we have minds, we have to think, think carefully and clearly about them. Christian revelation was given to us also that we think about what is told to us in various ways through the deeds and words in Scripture. The assumption is that how we live is related to what we know. The most obvious question we have on reading such a passage from Irenaeus is: “How does it fit together?” “How are these concepts related to each other?”
To begin to understand what Irenaeus is telling us, something he himself has clearly already meditated on, we need to know that “the Son of God” is “the Son of Man." The same person, called by two different names, is both one and the other. How this dual designation is possible is what the Incarnation was about. In becoming man, the Son of God did not cease to be God. He also “became” man. The Church later expressed this position by saying that two “natures," one divine and one human, are found in in one Person who is divine, called the Son of God.
Why is the word “son” used in both phrases? Obviously, a son refers to a father. Thus, we say here that this “Son," who is both man and God, is the Son of the Father, who is God but in a way that does not exclude otherness within itself. But later on in the same passage, this same Son is identified as “Christ." This word means “the anointed one." He was the one awaited by the Jewish tradition. In the Gospel of John, we are told that this Son is called the “Word." This designation, more than any others, relates the Godhead to what we call philosophy. The same truth is thus expressed by saying that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us." This understanding meant that God was now within human history as Son of Man. Nothing could be quite the same after that presence among us.
We are told, recalling many different passages in Scripture that the “Spirit” descended upon this Son. If He is a man, however, He needed a grounding in humanity. Men do not “see” spirits easily. But this man, as John said in his Epistle, is touched with his own hands and seen with his own eyes. This Son’s mother, as His conception, was told that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her. She was to call her Son, Emmanuel, “God with us”. And later when He was baptized by John in the Jordan, this same Spirit descended on Him. The same Father calls Him “His Son, in whom He is well-pleased."
The Spirit is said to be sent by this Son after He departed this life, after He ascended. Indeed, He said that, unless He departed, the Spirit would not be come. Moreover, when the Spirit did appear at Pentecost, He accustomed Himself to this world. He now lived in this creation and among men. He was to be a spirit of truth so that all that was taught would be remembered. It was the Spirit who accomplished the Father’s will. This will had something to do with men who had “grown old” in sin. Evidently this manifestation of sin was what occasioned the Father’s new initiative, His sending the Son into the world so that the original purpose in creating them be not lost. So the whole narrative had something to do with sin, which had lasted a long time, long enough to see that men were not going to change much without some divine intervention.
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