by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon
Understanding Salvation to consist in the union of human beings with God, the Church, rather early in the history of Sacred Theology, perceived (and went on, in her conciliar determinations, to define) an intimate connection between the truth of Salvation and the truth of the Incarnation. Briefly stated, this means that man’s Salvation required the Savior, God’s divine and eternal Son, to become an integral human being.
The res, the reality, of man’s Salvation, demanded the res of the Incarnation. Each of the seven Ecumenical Councils declared and defended some aspect of that principle.
This thesis regarding the integrity of the Incarnation, however, is not adequately expressed by saying that God’s Son assumed human nature. It must say, rather, that the Son assumed the full human condition; he entered into and experienced history, not in a general and abstract way, but by the organic insertion of his being into a determined time and specific circumstances. Otherwise it was not the case that
“in all things he had to be made like his brethren” (Hebrews 2:17).
As this quotation suggests, some of our earliest formulations of this truth come from the Epistle to the Hebrews, a work of incalculable importance in the thinking of the Ecumenical Councils.
The author of Hebrews, by way of interpreting Psalm 8
(“You have made him a little lower than the angels”)
comments that God’s Son
“does not assume (epilambanetai) [the nature of] angels, but he assumes the seed of Abraham” (2:16).
This statement is a striking illustration of my point. The author of Hebrews does not say that God’s Son “assumes human nature.” He is said, rather, to assume the conditions of a specific history—Abraham’s seed. He did not simply become a man; he became covenanted descendent of Abraham.
By the Incarnation, God’s Word embraced humanity within a biological and historical framework, at a certain point in a particular, documented stream of Revelation within human history. The Son’s appearance in this world is set in the context of God’s continuing Revelation to a particular people, the children of Abraham:
“God, who at various times and in various ways formerly spoke to the fathers by the prophets, has in these final days spoken to us by a Son” (1:1).
I contend that this fact is of major importance in the theology of Salvation. If—as I believe it essential to insist—the correct theology of Salvation is based on Christ’s own understanding of his mission on earth, the doctrine of the Incarnation obliges us to believe, likewise, that Christ’s understanding of his mission received its living fabric and shape from those “various ways” in which the Israelite prophets, “at various times,” foretold, expressed, and adumbrated that mission. Christ spoke most clearly on this point when he declared to his enemies,
“if you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:46)
What he declared here of Moses he certainly believed to be true of the other biblical witnesses to his coming. Indeed, just before sending out his disciples to evangelize the world, he outlined the content of their preaching by reference to those witnesses:
“These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms concerning me.”
And then, Luke tells us,
“he opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45).
That is to say, the proclamation of the Gospel is inseparable from Christ’s understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures.
As this principle pertains to the theology of Salvation, a special importance attaches to the Old Testament theology of sacrifice, inasmuch as Jesus interpreted his death as a sacrifice offered for man’s deliverance from sin and death. Consequently, a concentrated study of Israel’s ritual worship, particularly the significance of sacrifice, is of primary importance for a proper theological understanding of what was accomplished—and how it was accomplished—on the Cross.
This aspect of Soteriology points to a more general principle that pertains to all Christian theology: It is impossible to grasp “the mind of Christ”—which is, after all, the work of Sacred Theology—apart from the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures.
No Old Testament, no Christian theology.