Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Incarnational Language

One must be cautious when critiqueing those who have gone before...

I just finished reading Athanasius' On the Incarnation of the Word of God. I could say a lot of things, good and bad, about this slim little read, but I'll keep my comments brief here. (On a side note, the introduction by CS Lewis is invaluable.)

In my earlier post, On Language, I spoke about how I thought it was "sloppy" to speak of the incarnation in terms of the "Son of God" or "Christ" becoming flesh or incarnate. This is true, if for no other reason than the only text which has any mention of "becoming flesh" is John 1:14--it speaks of the Word, not the "Son of God", not the "Christ", becoming flesh. I posited that this may be a slight difference, but it is a difference all the same (by the way, I don't think it is a slight difference, but it is beyond the scope of these remarks to argue for it here). Athanasius avoids that error, at least in the title of his book. However, there is one expansion on that original post that I need to make. Athanasius, and later (and possibly earlier) Christian tradition, speaks of the Word "taking on a body". He also speaks at length about how the Word could not die, but the body that the Word took could--in other words, the Word did not die in the crucifixion, just the body, but it was joined enough (see the later Chalcedon creed) to make the atonement effectual. The Athanasian creed even states: "One [nature], not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God." Here's my thoughts...

The text in John 1:14 reads: kai o logon sarx egeneto (that is, and the word became flesh). It does not say the word "took on a body." The key word is egeneto or "became". The word's root is ginomai, which means (according to "1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being 2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen 2a) of events 3) to arise, appear in history, come upon the stage 3a) of men appearing in public 4) to be made, finished 4a) of miracles, to be performed, wrought 5) to become, be made". (Obviously, some of these options in the semantic range cannot work, such as "come into existence", since John 1:1 says that the Word was before it was flesh.)

I must admit to being a bit puzzled by this. Why would Athanasius take such pains to say (repeatedly) that the Word of God (or his preferred phrase, God the Word) took on a body, but not the plain meaning of the word in both Greek and Latin (Latin is incarne, enfleshing, same meaning as sarx egeneto)? The larger question, I think, is what exactly does "egeneto" mean in this context? Does it mean "became" and if so, what exactly does that mean? Does it mean "to come upon the stage" as in "the Word came into the world as flesh"? Once again, what exactly would that mean? Is John 1 about the incarnation proper (the first Christmas, if you will) or about Jesus' baptism, since John the Baptist keeps popping his head up through the poem? (This is an ancient debate, I am learning.)

Whatever John meant by this pregnant phrase (pardon the incarnational pun), at the least I think that every Christian should be careful about the way we speak concerning our Lord. Having read deeply in christological studies of various levels of historical orthodoxy, one thing is very clear: language matters. People have been put to death over literal iotas and for arguing the the use of one word is preferable over another. Language matters.

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