The Cross is the Incarnation

I usually do not read Andrew Sandlin’s blog (, but I was directed to it by a Reformed friend of mine some time ago who desired my comments. And so, here they are.

Sandlin argues that the Cross and not the Incarnation is the central tenant of the Christian faith. Sandlin gives a short list of reasons for thinking so with a scattering of Scriptural references.  He then proceeds to argue briefly that those traditions which mistakenly center on the Incarnation profess an “excessively sacramentarian faith.” Before giving an analysis and counter arguments to Sandlin’s post, I wish to take a trip through ecclesiastical history. This scenic excursion will high light themes and problems that move us to the conclusion that the Incarnation is the central tenant of Christianity.

A substantial portion of the Church’s history has been spent defending the doctrine of the Incarnation.  From day one Gnosticism, the root of all heresies denied the Incarnation, both in terms of Christ’s union with humanity and in terms of his full divinity. Gnosticism reified dialectical relations so that every relation was a new agent. The problem was that humanity couldn’t constitute genuine personhood and therefore could not be reified for reification requires simplicity and humanity is material.  It’s an all or nothing deal. 

Dialectic for the Gnostics, the opposing of reasons, is the means for progress, development and most importantly, distraction. (Soren Kierkegaard, Either Or) It is a way to remove oneself from the experiences of time, history and suffering (Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion).  Dialectic is a way to keep the distraction going. To stop at any one thesis implies that some account is complete and that our existence has significance which then requires engagement and commitment. The refusal to commit is manifested in the person willing contrary to their nature, namely sin. Either he must reduce every trace of nature to a matter of personal preference or he must wish his own destruction.

To stave off commitment, Gnostics employed a number of strategies. One was the production of a new canon of authoritative books. Another of which was to produce fraudulent works that inverted the moral order under the guise of genuine authorities. The goal was twofold. First, if enough texts were discovered to be forgeries, this would dissuade people from making a commitment to any narrative. If enough “fiction” gets passed around, people will stop believing that any of it is genuine. Second, the inversion of the moral order with Cain, Judas, and the Devil, becoming moral heroes, aimed to show that there was a moral equivalence and therefore no genuine good or evil and therefore no absolute commitment was justified or possible. The Gnostic is therefore indifferent to good or evil ; he doesn’t deny them. Every moral degenerate had to be made a suffering martyr (homosexuals) and every moral paragon had to be brought down to the moral depths (Mother Theresa).

Aiding the Gnostic in this process was the fact that every text could be subverted by constructing alternate readings.  Every text contained within itself its own undoing because there was no personal source for meaning (Derrida’s Deconstructionism).  Every thesis required yet another antithesis, a new reading. And new meanings could be given to old terms by “discovering” them through these new readings. Gnosticism is then necessarily opposed to the concept of tradition and therefore law (Hooker). Consequently the Gnostic development carries within itself its own infinite privation for it never is complete and its own infinite productivity because it is always producing new answers. There is never any answer that persists and the only authoritative answer is the one presently given. (Newman) This is why there were so many different types of Gnosticism and why modern scholars despair over producing a unified account of it. The dialectic produced every possible answer to a problem: “Don’t like this answer? Well no problem, we’ve got another!” This produced in turn new followers of a new sect. Either there would be an individual enlightened beyond the rest who could guide, manage and adjudicate these developments (the Pope, the Man of Wisdom, et al) or there would be a free for all. Avatars or divine messengers were the former, which is why they were so widely esteemed but never ultimately so. They were guides through the infinite circle of dialectic which is why the Gnostics denied the full divinity of Christ. Christ was just rung on the cosmic ladder, not its terminus.

Consequently, Gnosticism necessarily opposes tradition to reason, nature to person, unity to plurality, law to freedom, collective to private goods (Locke & Marx) , etc. This is why Gnosticism is the root heresy.  All of the time that the Church spent on the Incarnation was in direct opposition to one form of Gnosticism or another. For it was in the Incarnation, the union of deity and humanity, that the dialectical relationship is crushed for there is no dialectic of opposition between deity and humanity in Christ, which is why Christ reconciles the world to himself.

This is why Modalism and Arianism had similar problems with personhood and nature. The former excavated any trace of genuine existence from personhood for Christ and he was thus a “manifestation” and the latter thinking of personhood exclusively in terms of nature-different person and so a different nature than the Father. Person’s weren’t real or persons were instances of natures. Either persons were repeatable and not unique or persons were so unique that there wasn’t anything else to them, thereby precluding any kind of entitative union. Both are forms of the same Gnostic move. Persons are a species of attribute, an impersonal thing neatly atomized and infinitely repeatable. The dialectical structure should be clear-person and nature are opposed in these schemas.

The opposition between person and nature is apparent in Apollinarius’ Christology for he identifies personhood with intellect/soul so that Christ has only one intellect, which is divine. Therefore the humanity of Christ was without an intellect or soul of its own.

The same basic problem resulted in Nestorianism and Eutychianism since for both, a person just was the instance of a nature. Either Christ was two natures and hence two persons or one person and therefore one nature. For Nestorius, persons were individual natures, which produced personalities when united extrinsically with another nature. The one Jesus was the product of two natures brought together in an act of divine will. Humanity was thus the instrument or tool of deity.  For the Eutychians, nature was also opposed to person so that like Nestorius, personhood was absorbed or reduced to nature. Christ therefore being one person, being one divine nature transmuted humanity into something divine for two opposing persons/natures could not be united. Following the philosophers, contradictory properties cannot be admitted of the same object. Dialectic requires therefore subordination of person to nature or vice versa because they are opposed.

By extension, monothelitism or monoenergism also required the opposition of person and nature. If will was natural, then Christ would have two wills relative to each nature which would naturally be opposed to each other, making Christ a sinner. If on the other hand, they were not opposed and willed always the same things, then there was no way to distinguish them, resulting in a confusion of natures. Their solution was to make the will hypostatic or personal, opposing the Person of Christ to his humanity, which had to be subordinated to the absolute divine will. There was really only one energy or power of operation in Christ, the divine.

The Gnostic dialectic didn’t cease in applying itself to Christian theology, though always refuted by the Church’s insistence on the Incarnation, it produced other heresies such as Iconoclasm. The Iconoclasts argued that to make a depiction of Christ was to separate the two natures of Christ for one could only make a depiction of the human nature of Christ. This argument turned on the assumption natures were persons, for in depicting the Incarnate One, we were depicting his person in as he subsisted in human nature.  That is, the argument depended on identifying the person of Christ with either nature or both.

Moreover, the Iconoclasts, following the Hellenistic dialectic of the One to the Many opposed God to matter, which is why matter was not capablke of bearing the divine presence in icons. This is why almost four centuries before, during the Arian controversy there is a “mini” iconoclastic controversy. Can God be united to matter? Can matter be deified? Not if the One is opposed to the Many, which was necessary for their distinction, lest god be absorbed into matter or the world become an extension of God.

This is why the Church took the Incarnation to be the center of her faith because in it was the refutation of all heresy. The Incarnation supplied a consistent terminology and a resolution to dialectic that made possible the proper understanding of revelation. And this is why it is not possible to understand the mission of Christ at the Cross without understanding Christ first. Trying to make sense out of the Cross without understanding who it was hanging on it is futile. Christ is the center of the faith, and his activities derivatively so.

Sandlin seems to give no place to the incarnation in soteriology, except presumably as a stepping stone to the “real action” of the Cross. Jesus got a “bod” so he could get himself killed. This often enough leads to seeing the Incarnation in purely functional or instrumental terms, humanity becoming a tool of the divine will. Second he doesn’t seem able to see any connection between what God accomplishes at the incarnation and so he can’t see any significant relation between the incarnation and the death of Christ. This is probably because he implicitly denies that Christ is consubstantial with all men (2 Cor 5:14) thinking instead that Christ takes up but an instance of human nature rather than recapitulating it all in himself. (Eph 1:10-11) If Christ takes up just an instance of humanity, then his incarnation affects only his body and soul. In any case his argument fails to engage the motivation and argument for the view he is attacking and consequently his argument is essentially dismissive.

But what am I to say about all of those obvious passages where Paul, as Sandlin so conveniently references, focuses on the gospel and includes in it the death of Christ?  First, Paul also includes the Resurrection in the gospel going so far as to ground our vindication on it. (Rom 4:25) Paul also includes the birth of Christ and his personal identity (Rom 9:5) in the gospel.  And Paul seems to spend far more time in terms of exposition on the Resurrection than on the Cross, for there is nothing comparable to the discourse at 1 Cor 15 on the Cross of Christ. If we were to take Sandlin’s exegetical habits in hand, we’d now have to suppose the superiority of the resurrection to the death of Christ.

It is possible to reconcile the emphasis on the Cross with the idea that the Incarnation is the central doctrine of Christianity. God hid in creation a forerunner of his intention to dwell with humans and his will that they should exist eternally. God made humans in his own image and Christ is that image (Col 1:15, Heb 1:3) foreshadowing God’s will to become incarnate, for it is exactly to that image that we are conformed in salvation. (Rom 8:29,
Col 3:10) And it is exactly in that image in which all of creation is gathered together.

This is why the devil introduces sin into the world for the consequences of sin is death. (Rom 6:21-23)  By getting people to sin, the devil murders them and holds them captive by death. (Jn 8:44, 2 Tim 2:26, Heb 2:15) In sin is introduced an opposition between person and nature for the person wills contrary to the goodness of their nature. This act of opposition branches out to include the subordination and opposition of creation to humanity, woman to man, and Gentile to Jew.  Sin brings about the dissolution of what God united. By annihilating humanity, the devil can frustrate that image of God from ever becoming incarnate and thereby show his will to be greater than God’s. This is why the devil from day one seeks to kill Jesus. Herod seeks to kill Jesus as an infant. The devil continues his attempts either by frontal assaults such as the temptation or through various human instruments. (Jn 5:18, 7:1, 19, 10:31, 11:8)

The Incarnation is therefore the root of bringing back together what sin has separated.  It is the foundation of the predestination of all things for in Christ all of creation is gathered together.  (Eph 1:10-11, Rom 8:21-22) He sets creation aright from the inside out at each stage of his sojourn. This is why Jesus goes through every natural stage of human development. Even though He took on our corrupt nature, he knew no personal sin because he is a divine person. (2 Cor 5:21) Reordering our desires, he is in a position to be sympathetic with our struggles for he too struggled with our corrupt and disordered desires. (Heb 4:15)  And it is this reconciliation that the devil seeks to put an end to by killing Jesus.

The last power against which Christ had not been tested was death, the devil’s chief weapon. In death the devil seeks to dissolve the unity of humanity and the hypostatic union and thereby to secure the annihilation of humanity.  But Christ even recapitulates death and gathers it into himself re-ordering it so that all men now die because Christ died. Consequently Christ holds the keys of death and Hades and all men are answerable to him. Because he has redeemed all men (1 Tim 4:10, 2 Pet 2:1) and granted them life (Rom 5:18) by virtue of his hypostatic union with their nature, he can freely grant them forgiveness. Their sin no longer inevitably leads to their annihilation. The sting of death has been taken away. (1 Cor 15:56)

In his death Christ has maintained by his mighty power his personal union with human nature. Even though his human soul and body are sundered by death, neither of them are sundered from his divine person. Consequently, the Incarnation is at the root of Christ’s victory. That which we fear the most and which is opposed to us, death is taken away in the Incarnate God, along with every other opposition without eliminating distinction.

Without the centrality of the Incarnation the Biblical portrait of Christ’s battle with death and the devil becomes inexplicable.  What sense does it make to view Eph 4:8 in speaking of leading captivity captive in terms of a covenant between God the Father and the Son? What role could imputation play there? What sense does the imputing of guilt make in 1 Cor 1:18 in speaking of the cross as the power of God? Why the emphasis on power if what is needed is an exchange of moral credit? How does Gal 6:15, with its emphasis on being a new creature availing much before God fit in exactly with the theology of imputation which takes meeting legal requirements to avail much before God? And how are we to understand Col 1:20 which speaks of Christ making peace by his blood for all of nature in light of a theology that speaks of Christ only reconciling specific human persons to himself? And how could a theology which sees the principle salvific act as one of a created forensic relation make sense of 2 Pet 1:4 which speaks of becoming deity? What does a theology that focuses on guilt and that glosses grace as a created mental relation have to say about being captive to and redeemed from, the fear of death? (Heb 2:14ff) Does a theology that sunders vindication from immortality fit nicely with Paul’s lengthy discourse on the Resurrection in 1 Cor 15? And what does a theology that sees God as saving elect individuals have to say to John 6:39 which speaks of Christ redeeming and raising all that the Father has given him? If all are raised with Christ (1 Cor 15:20-22) how can the cross be about reconciling elect individual persons? Does the idea of the imputation of wrath and moral credit & freedom from law explain well why the early Christians were happy to die for Christ and didn’t fear death?

The Cross therefore is Biblically and best understood in terms of the Incarnation, as the reconciliation of all things with God, the abolition of death, and the triumph over dialectic. This is why Paul preached the Cross and even more so, the Resurrection because they addressed the central problem afflicting humanity, death. Sin and guilt, one can learn to manage, but death? From death there is no escape. But now, we have been delivered from the brokenness of death for God has broken it. (Rom 8:1-3) We have been delivered from this body of death. Now, from Life, there is no escape for Christ loses nothing that the Father has given him, but raises it up on the last day. (John 6:39)

The message of the Cross is distorted when placed in a theological grid of dialectic for it results either in the opposing of things (Law and Gospel) or in the subordination (Freedom to Grace) or absorption of one thing to another (Universalism). A theology which glosses nature as sin and then opposes it to grace, freedom as the ability to sin and then subordinates it to goodness, and postulates the opposition between God and man in terms of “natures” cannot make sense of a redemptive act that turns on the proper distinction between person and nature. This is why Protestant theology grounds its most fundamental doctrines on a confusion or opposition between person and nature. Original sin, the imputation of guilt requires that that which is personal, sin, be attributed to nature and therefore to all persons. Personal activity is explained in terms of natures determining actions, which if true would place Christianity firmly in the Hellenic tradition of an eternal world (Origen) or of a created Son (Arius). The Cross is defined in terms of dialectical relations of justice and mercy, opposing God to God. Predestination is glossed entirely in terms of persons, so much so that the divine person of Christ is predestined and made subject to necessity, opposing the Father to the Son since the latter is necessitated and the former is not.  Man has lost his divinely given freedom in predestination because Reformation theologies deprived Christ of it first. Grace is opposed to human effort, as if humanity were something alien to God and his activity.  An inner reality is opposed to an external “symbol” in the sacraments with union glossed in terms of volitional instrumentality and therefore either an absorption or a contiguity. Was the humanity of Christ a personal tool of the divine will as well? Sandlin’s charge of “excessive sacramentarianism” is just a Nestorian balk. Is the humanity of Christ truly deified or is that just a “symbol” at the Transfiguration and Resurrection? Dialectical models are therefore at odds with the idea of the Cross as reconciling all things to God because they are opposed principally to the Incarnation.  This is why their theological systems never resolve disputes, but simply generate more of them and consequently, more sects. The circle of dialectic simply continues. It is the serpent that consums itself.

Is it any wonder, that the Reformation theologies as intrinsically dialectical posited a revision in the canon? Was the liberal theology of Bultmann and Tillich unforeseeable? Is it so strange to see that they rejected the use of icons? Is it a surprise to see the redefinition of old terms and the justification of novel positions in terms of “development” just as Rome did? And that they posited new rules for understanding texts “properly” with Mr. J. E. D. & P? Is it for no reason that the Reformers either tried to enlist patristic sources through redefinition which now only grudgingly Protestant scholars admit offered no support whatsoever or that they tried to gloss contravening evidence as either forgeries or tried show ecclesiastical heroes were really dunces? Why if Protestant theology is so entirely biblical does it depend on Hellenistic concepts such as that of a relation, thinned out as it was by Nominalism?  Was Paul a philosopher? One might object that many of the same criticisms could equally be applied to
Rome, to which I reply, And? So? The fruit doesn’t fall very far from the tree.


  1. Well, yes, hmmm, ahh ….

    At least I got to better understand the nature of gnosticism through this post. But I have a question: Given the Incarnational emphasis you presented here – why (as I have read- maybe it was wrongfully understood) do the orthodox place more importance lithurgically on Pascha than on any other event in the Christain calendar? Shouldn’t Christmas be equally / more important then? I ask wanting to know, not in arrogance…


  2. Good question. Pascha is the culmination of the work CHrist begins at the Incarnation. It is the capstone. The assault of the devil in wielding the weapon of death against Christ is an attempt to undo the Incarnation.

    Moreover, Christmass and especially Epiphany as the baptism of Christ are very important in the life of the Church, epiphany even more so than Christmass.

    Peace on earth to men of good will.


  3. I think the annunciation is traditionally believed to have happened on Passover, which is why Christmas is celebrated exactly 9 months later. This belief is based on a number of conclusions: e.g., the parallel between the virginal womb and the virginal tomb, the belief that pasha reflected the first day of the cosmos. This is why Christmas is traditionally celebrated with a mini-lent, “Advent.” The focus is always Passover.

    We only know about the virginal incarnation of God through the lens of the virginal resurrection. Victory over death, resurrection, is the prism through which all other things are seen.


  4. Thanks. Given your empasis on ‘all’ again and again, how does orthodox theology appraise the works of NT Wright, with his empasis on the new polis, the new kingdom?


  5. Scylding,

    Most of my reading of Wright has been on the question of justification directly and only the first two volumes of his historical Jesus material. Would you do me the favor of sketching Wright’s material on the new polis?

    Whatever his answer is going to be, it is going to have to jive with t he NT material on the general resurrection and the consubstantiality of all men with Christ.


  6. Buting in…..


    Wright’s “vision,” or however you want to put it, seems to me to be Orthodox, but I just do not believe his ecclesiology can pull off his project. He was perhaps the biggest influence as far as helping me develop a Catholic mind. He states salvation in terms of being agents of new creation. To be “saved” means to be a part of the People of God who have been redeemed through Christ, who are now living out the eschatological life in history. He is certainly all about some Resurrection. His theology is thoroughly Incarnational, it’s just that most of the people he is preaching to aren’t.

    BTW, what are you up to academically these days?? You haven’t been around too much lately.



  7. Joseph,

    As far as Wright goes on that score, I am with him, of course given 2 pet 2:1, redemption is wider than personal loyalty to Christ. The same goes for 1 Tim 4:10. Otherwise I can’t see how we are to reasonably explain the general resurrection.

    I am busy with school and family. Twins are a lot of work.


  8. Of course with the Cross, the Incarnation, Ressurrection, Ascension, and Parousia would all be impossible or irrelvant. But, all are necessary (but not sufficient — we must do our part too!) for the salvation of mankind.


  9. The Incarnation however could have happened apart from the fall of man, thereby indicating its primacy. (At least Sts. Irenaeos and Maximos, among others, seem to think so.)


  10. “Gnosticism reified dialectical relations so that every relation was a new agent. The problem was that humanity couldn’t constitute genuine personhood and therefore could not be reified for reification requires simplicity and humanity is material. It’s an all or nothing deal.”

    Would you mind breaking this down for me? I recently purchased Hans Jonas’ “The Gnostic Religion” with my Christmas money; hopefully after I finish that this will make more sense to me.


  11. William,

    Yes, Jonas’ work will help. To reify means to treat something abstract as concrete, roughly speaking. Every concept was a “thing” or a “being” for the Gnostics. If humanity includes matter, which for the Gnostics and many of the ancients lacks all form, that is, it is entirely many and never one, it is metaphysically indeterminate, it is flux, THEN every human being would be an infinite number of beings or not material. The Gnostics chose the latter option obviously.


  12. Rev. Fouts,

    I don’t know that your question will be seen back here so I will try to give you some response. In short, Behr’s article (thank you for the link, by the way) states more concisely what he has written more extensively on in Mystery in Christ and also The Way to Niceae. Two Sundays ago I spoke with Behr about his Mystery in Christ of which he gave a copy to his brother on Mt. Athos. The book was passed around Athos with the verdict: the monks “could find in it nothing wrong.”

    For all of Behr’s work I have heard nothing but the highest praise, and the “paschal foundations” he teaches I find to be the approach of the Fathers up through today.

    There are some better qualified to answer you here, but in case they don’t peer back this far I hope that helps,


  13. Thanks Mick. I admire his work, as well. As a Lutheran, though, I found little in that particular essay that I would disagree with. If Behr saying it isn’t a problem, though, then why is it an issue to speak soteriologically from a paschal perspective rather than in incarnational one? From my perspective, and this may be because of some deficiency in my understanding of Orthodoxy, it seems like a false equivocation to suggest an “incarnational” soteriology excludes a paschal-oriented one.


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