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Is salvation achieved merely by the incarnation?
Both Irenaeus and Athanasius are commonly accused of making the ‘bare fact’ of incarnation the sum total of Christ’s saving work. Yet this is unfair.
For Irenaeus, Christ’s filling out of Adam’s distorted image means necessarily a “filling up [of] the times of his disobedience” (Ad. Her. III.21.1) In taking on Adam’s substance, He took on Adam’s curse – this He satisfied at the cross, ‘propitiating indeed for us the Father, against Whom we had sinned’ (Ad. Her. V.17.1) and ‘redeeming us by His own blood’ (Ad. Her. V.14.3). Having put Adam to death, the resurrection then realizes Christ’s spiritual body bringing about the true glorified humanity to which the redeemed will belong and on which the renewed creation will be patterned.
Athanasius calls the cross "the very centre of our faith." For him, the curse of death is a key consideration. Within the creation narratives comes God's decree: "You will surely die." The word of Genesis 2:17 must be maintained lest God be proved false and, ironically, the serpent proved true. Christ’s incarnation is therefore that by which the Word can take a body capable of death “so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished." (De incarn. 8) Moreover this death is specifically a sacrifice (De. Incarn. 9; 10; 20) made under God’s curse (De incarn. 25) and offered without blemish (De. Incarn. 9) so as to be a ransom (De. Incarn. 9; 25) freeing us from Adam’s ‘primal transgression’. “In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection.”
Thus, while the Bishops both see the union of divine and human as the goal of God’s creation-redemption purposes; and while the ‘Word become flesh’ is their sole hope for this union; the ‘bare fact’ will not do on its own. The nature of Adam’s race requires much work to be done. Mankind must turn from idols to the Truth, we must receive and truly own an active righteousness before the Father, Satan has to be defeated, justice must be upheld, sin must be dealt with, incorruptibility must be won. Thus, Christ’s divine teaching, His demonstrations of authority over man, nature and the devil, His active obedience, His suffering, His death, His resurrection and His ascension are all crucial in order to accomplish redemption.
Yet, against those (especially the Arians), who would uphold the necessity of these works yet deny the Person who worked them, it must be maintained that the Agent of these works is God and the locus of their working is man. These works are, therefore, only effective because they are the works of the God-Man. Thus, the incarnation is the necessary cause of redemption, but sufficient only when articulated as the full work of the Incarnate, Creator-Word.
In the final post I'll draw out some implications for today...