Recently I asked a question on Facebook that was based on a portion of a lecture I watched from Fr John Behr of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary.
Fr Behr said, and I’m paraphrasing, that the idea of a Pre-Incarnate Word become flesh is mythology. I know that Fr Behr is Orthodox in every sense of the word and far more intelligent than I, so I knew there must be something to do this, yet it seemed to challenge orthodox thought as I understood it.
The Prologue of John’s Gospel says it plainly: the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. The Word as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the creative agency of God that brought all things into being. “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible, and invisible…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together…For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1.15-20).
A mystery, no doubt. Yet we profess that the eternal God entered our existence and was made man. All of that suggests or seems to suggest, there was a time when the Son of God was not incarnate. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
To try to understand Fr Behr’s assertion that the Pre-Incarnate Word later becoming Christ as mythology, I wondered if the answer was found in the mystery of the Ascension. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, a relational term and not a spatial one. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, ascended into the Godhead, a Godhead which is beyond space and time, eternal.
If Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, is eternal, this means there was never a time when Jesus was not. Not the just the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, but Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man. That was my question. In my mind, this did not alter the Annunciation, the Incarnation, or any catholic dogma. I even wondered if this was a way (and I haven’t read Scotus enough to bring him into this) to explain the Immaculate Conception. The merits of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection were able to stretch back to the conception of Mary (or any time) because the Glorified Christ was now timeless by the Ascension, an event that happened in time.
The debate on Facebook was fun and fascinating with many different opinions, so I emailed Fr Behr. To my delight, he responded swiftly and with substance.
Here is the gist of Fr Behr’s argument, and he draws heavily on the late Dominican Herbert McCabe. God does not have a life-story. To quote McCabe, “There can be no succession in the eternal God, no change. Eternity is not, of course, a very long time; it is not time at all. Eternity is not timeless in the sense that an instant is timeless – for an instant is timeless simply in being the limit of a stretch of time, just as a point has no length not because it is very very short but because it is the limit of a length. No: eternity is timeless because it totally transcends time. To be eternal is just to be God. God’s life is neither past nor present, nor even simultaneous with any event, any clock, any history. The picture of the Son of God ‘becoming’ at a certain point in the divine duration the incarnate Son of God, ‘coming down from heaven’, makes a perfectly good metaphor but could not be literally true. There was, from the point of view of God’s life, no such thing as a moment at which the eternal Son of God was not Jesus of Nazareth. There could not be any moments in God’s life" (from God Matters).
Fr Behr’s point, following McCabe, is not that the Jesus Christ always existed because the Ascension brought him into eternity, but because there is no chronology in God. My error, as others pointed out, is that I was using temporal words to speak about eternity.
Here’s another important sentence from McCabe: “I want to argue that the doctrine of the incarnation is such that the story of Jesus is not just the story of God’s involvement with this creatures but that it is actually the ‘story’ of God…(which is) the only sense, in which God has or is a life-story, and this is the story revealed in the incarnation and it is the story we also call the trinity. The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history, or enacted sacramentally in our history, so that it becomes our story.”
In his email, Fr Behr left one final “head-spinning consequence.” He rightly acknowledged that our concept of eternity with God often looks like a moment in time and then never-ending. The problem with this is that it still is confined to time. He referenced Origen who said eternity with God is like an iron knife in the fire. An iron knife is known by certain properties yet when it is in the fire, it takes on the properties of the fire. It does not cease to be an iron knife, but it is now known by the properties of fire. The same will be for us in eternity with God. We will still be human beings but we will take on the properties of God and will be known by them. Fr Behr writes, “And so, we actually have to say that although we are not there yet, we already are and always have been! This is our true existence, into which we are called from before the foundation of the world, and compared with which our life on earth is but a shadow, for our citizenship is in the heavens; we approximate most closely to our true identity when in liturgy, sharing in the eternal liturgy in the heavens.”