The Incarnation of the Word and the deification of man according to St Isaac of Nineveh – Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

Posted by on Jan 20, 2014 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on The Incarnation of the Word and the deification of man according to St Isaac of Nineveh – Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

The Incarnation of the Word of God, which stands at the centre of the New Testament message, is one of the key themes of St Isaac of Nineveh, a Syrian mystical writer of the seventh century.

Isaac belonged to the Church of the East, commonly known as ‘Nestorian’, which, however, had little to do with Nestorius, a fifth-century heretical patriarch of Constantinople. The Church of the East used the Syriac language and considered Theodore of Mopsuestia (fourth century) as its main theological and spiritual authority. The translation of Theodore’s works into Syriac was made in the fifth century and was of crucial importance for Syriac Christianity: together with his biblical exegesis, his theological views were incorporated into East Syrian tradition, including his Christological opinions. The latter became a subject of heated discussions in the Greek-speaking East after the third Ecumenical Council (431), which condemned Nestorius. The Christology of Theodore, who made a sharp distinction between Jesus the man and the Word of God, speaking of the ‘inhabitation’ of the Word of God in Jesus as in the ‘temple’, came more and more often to be labelled as ‘Nestorian’. Finally Theodore was posthumously condemned by the fifth Ecumenical Council (533). But for the Christians of the Church of the East he remained forever as an unquestioned authority in the field of theology. This explains the fact that the Church of the East came to be called ‘Nestorian’, the name which was never used by this Church itself as there was no historical link between it and Nestorius.

The Christology of St Isaac of Nineveh bears clear traces of Theodore’s influence. However, there is nothing heretical or unorthodox in it. Unlike many writers that belonged to the Alexandrian school of Christology and that laid emphasis on the unity of the two natures in Jesus Christ, Isaac was close to the Antiochene school, which stressed the distinction between the two natures. The most extreme exponents of the Antiochene dyophysitism (from the Greek dyo physeis, ‘two natures’) were Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius, condemned as heretics in Byzantium. However, there were many moderate dyophysite writers in the fourth to seventh century, whose doctrine was considered purely orthodox. St Isaac belonged to this more moderate wing of Christological discourse, even though he used the Christological terminology deriving from Theodore for the simple reason that it was commonly used in the Church of the East to which he belonged. The following analysis of his teaching on the Incarnation of the Word and of the deification of man will demonstrate that his Christological perspective is perfectly in tune with the mainstream Christian tradition.

In Part I of St Isaac’s writings we find the idea that the Incarnation is the moment when the love of God towards human beings reveals itself to the highest degree and when human beings, in turn, are called to answer the love of God with their own love for God:

God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation… This was not, however, because He could not redeem us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His Only-begotten Son He made us near to Himself. Yea, if He had had anything more precious, He would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be His own. Because of His great love for us it was not His pleasure to do violence to our freedom, although He is able to do so, but He chose that we should draw near to Him by the love of our understanding. For the sake of His love for us and obedience to His Father, Christ joyfully took upon Himself insult and sorrow… In like manner, when the saints become perfect, they all attain to this perfection, and by the superabundant outpouring of their love and compassion upon all men they resemble God.

Therefore the Incarnation took place because of the love of both the Father and of the Son for human beings, and because of the Incarnation man is able to attain such a state of love when he becomes godlike.

The Incarnation of the Son of God is, according to Isaac, the new revelation about God. In the Old Testament times, before the Incarnation, people were unable to contemplate God and to hear His voice, but after the Incarnation this became possible:

Creation could not look upon Him unless He took part of it to Himself and thus conversed with it, and neither could it hear the words of His mouth face to face. The sons of Israel were not even able to hear His voice when He spoke with them from the cloud… The sons of Israel made ready and prepared themselves, keeping themselves chaste for three days according to the command of Moses, that they might be made worthy of hearing the voice of God, and of the vision of His revelation. And when the time was come, they could not receive the vision of His light and the fierceness of the voice of His thunder. But now, when He poured out His grace upon the world through His own coming, He has descended not in an earthquake, not in a fire, not in a terrible and mighty sound, but “as the rain upon a fleece, and rain-drops that fall upon the earth” softly, and He was seen conversing with us after another fashion. This came to pass when, as though in a treasury, He concealed His majesty with the veil of His flesh, and among us spoke with us in that body which His own bidding wrought for Him out of the womb of the Virgin.

Not only for human beings, but also for angels the door of contemplation and vision was opened in Jesus, when the Word became flesh, as before the Incarnation they could not penetrate into these mysteries, Isaac claims.

In Part I we also find a passage in which Isaac discusses how the two natures of Christ are shown in Holy Scripture. According to him, Scripture often uses words figuratively: for example, ‘things that pertain to the body are said of the soul’, and vice versa. ‘Likewise things pertaining to the Lord’s Divinity, which are not compatible with human nature, are said with respect to His all-holy body; and again, lowly things are said concerning His Divinity which pertain to His humanity. Many, not understanding the intent of the divine words, have stumbled here with a stumbling from which there is no recovery’. Under the ‘many’ Isaac most probably means the monophysites: as a true dyophysite, he insists upon the necessity to distinguish between the divine and human natures of Christ, in spite of the fact that Scripture does not make such a precise distinction.

These are the main Christological passages from Part I. Let us now turn to Part II. We should first direct our attention to one of the ‘Chapters on Konwledge’, where Isaac speaks of the Incarnation. He emphasizes that God’s love for creation was the main and only reason of the coming on earth of the Son of God and His death on the Cross:

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe Himself in the body in order to bring the world back to His Father using gentleness and humility? And why was He stretched out on the Cross for the sake of sinners, handing over His sacred body to suffering on behalf of the world? I myself say that God did all this for no other reason, except to make known to the world the love that He has, His aim being that we, as a result of our greater love arising from an awareness of this, might be captivated by His love when He provided the occasion of this manifestation of the kingdom of heaven’s mighty power – which consists in love – by means of the death of His Son.

The Incarnation and the death on the Cross of the Savior, Isaac claims, happened

not to redeem us from sins, or for any other reason, but solely in order that the world might become aware of the love which God has for His creation. Had all this astounding affair taken place solely for the purpose of forgiveness of sin, it would have been sufficient to redeem us by some other means. What objection would there have been if He had done what He did by means of an ordinary death? But He did not make His death at all an ordinary one – in order that you might realize the nature of this mystery. Rather, He tasted death in the cruel suffering of the Cross. What need was there for the outrage done to Him and the spitting? Just death would have been sufficient for our redemption – and in particular His death, without any of these other things which took place. What wisdom is God’s! And how filled with life! Now you can understand and realize why the coming of our Lord took place with all the events that followed it, even to the extent of His telling the purpose quite clearly out of His own holy mouth: “To such an extent did God love the world that He gave His only-begotten Son” – referring to the Incarnation and the renewal He brought about.

Therefore, it was the love of God, and not the necessity to redeem the humanity from sin, which was the sole reason of the Incarnation of the Word. God became man because He wanted that men turn to Him as their father. Isaac speaks of this in Chapter XL:

…When the entire extent of creation had abandoned and forgotten God and had perfected themselves in every kind of wickedness, of His own will and without any supplication or request from elsewhere He came down to their abode and lived among them in their body just as one of them, and with a love exalted beyond knowledge or description by any created being, He begged them to turn back to Himself, showing them concerning the glorious establishment of the world to come, having intended before all worlds to introduce felicity such as this for creation: He informed them of its existence and forgave them all the sins which they had previously committed, and confirmed this goodwill by means of authoritative signs and wonders, and the revelation to them of His Mysteries; and finally He has stopped down to such an extent that He is willing to be called “Father” of sinful human nature, dust from the earth, despicable human beings, flesh and blood: can these things be performed without great love?

Let us now look at Chapter XI, in which the Christology of Isaac is expounded with much precision. In this chapter, which is largely dedicated to the Cross, our attention is drawn by the abundance of typically East Syrian terms, through which Isaac presents his Christological ideas. The Cross, he says, is a symbol of ‘the Man who completely became a temple’ of God; the Cross is made in the name of ‘that Man in whom the Divinity dwells’; the humanity of Christ is the ‘garment of His Divinity’. The use of such terms is characteristic of the entire East Syrian tradition, which can be designated as strongly dyophysite. The humanity of Christ has already been described as a ‘garment’ by Ephrem the Syrian (fourth century), a kind of phraseology preserved by later East Syrian writers, whereas in the West Syrian tradition such terminology was subsequently expunged.

Following a tradition derived from Theodore of Mopsuestia, Isaac emphasizes that, though Christ has two natures, we venerate them together, that is, we worship one Christ in two natures. Thus we ascribe to the man Jesus the same names that are ascribed to God the Word:

…We do not hesitate to call the humanity of our Lord – He being truly Man – “God” and “Creator” and “Lord”; or to apply to Him in divine fashion the statement that “by His hand the worlds were established and everything was created”. For He to whom all these things apply willingly dwelt in Him, giving Him the honour of His divinity and authority over all, because of the benefits which creation was about to receive through Him, whose beginning occurred on the Cross for it. He even bade the angels worship Him, according to the words of the blessed Paul: “introducing the Firstborn into the world, He said: Him shall all the angels of God worship”. He granted to Him that He should be worshipped with Him indistinguishably, with a single act of worship for the Man who became Lord and for the Divinity equally, while the two natures are preserved with their properties, without there being any difference of honour.

Therefore God ‘willingly dwelt’ in the man Jesus, whereas the man Jesus ‘became’ God and received the power over the whole of creation due to His death on the Cross. Because of the Cross, the man Jesus was lifted up to God the Word:

For we believe that all that applies to the Man is raised up to the Word who accepts it for Himself, having willed to make Him share in this honour. All this is made known to us in the Cross, and through this affair which unbelievers consider so contemptible, we have acquired an accurate knowledge of the Creator.

This strongly dyophysite understanding of the person of Jesus Christ may seem to lead to a division of the image of the historical Jesus into two in the theological thought of Isaac. However, this is not the case. Isaac understands Christ as one person – God who came in human flesh. The humanity of Christ is as real as the humanity of each of us. At the same time the man Jesus is simultaneously God the Word and the Creator of the universe:

O wonder! The Creator clothed in a human being enters the house of tax collectors and prostitutes, and when they turn towards Him – through His own action – He was urging them, providing them, by means of His teaching, with assurance and reconciliation with Him. And He sealed the word of truth with true testimonies, consisting in miracles and signs. Thus the entire universe, through the beauty of the sight of Him, was drawn by His love to the single confession of God, the Lord of all, and so the knowledge of the one Creator was sown everywhere.

The universal significance of the coming of God on earth and dwelling in human flesh is thus clearly emphasized.

What are the soteriological consequences of Isaac’s Christology with its accent on the distinction between the two natures of Christ? Is there not a rejection of the idea, which is traditional in Eastern Christian theological thought, of the salvation of the humanity through deification of the human nature which takes place due to the union of this nature with the Divinity in the person of Christ? In the Alexandrian tradition, in particular, deification was understood as occurring through the essential unity of the two natures in Christ: like iron when united with fire turns into fire, so does humanity, united with the Divinity, become deified. If there is no essential unity and there is only a conditional unity ‘in veneration’, how can there be any question of the deification of the human nature?

However, it appears that Isaac, who did not use the Alexandrian terminology of deification (the Greek term theosis, ‘deification’, was never rendered into Syriac), did not reject the very idea of deification, but he expressed it in a different way. According to him, the man Jesus, upon ascending to God after His resurrection, raised human nature up to the level of the Divinity. Furthermore, the suffering, the death, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ opened up for human nature the possibility of ascending to God:

…Amid ineffable splendour the Father raised Him to Himself to heaven, to that place which no created being had trod, but whither He had, through His own action, invited all rational beings, angels and human beings, to that blessed Entry, in order to delight in the divine light in which was clothed that Man who is filled with all that is holy, who is now with God in ineffable honour and splendour.

The question is, therefore, about an approach to soteriology that differs from the Alexandrian; but the essence of the Christian message is not lost, which is the salvation of the human being by Christ through the unity of human nature with the Divinity. The way by which the man Jesus ascended – from earth to heaven, from humanity to the Divinity – is opened up for everyone after His resurrection. Deification is here perceived dynamically: as an ascent of the human being, together with the whole created world, to divine glory, holiness and light.

Apart from Chapter XI, there is another chapter that is very important in connection with Christology, namely Chapter V from Part II, which also contains several characteristic passages. In particular, we find there a prayer in which the terminology of a ‘temple’ and ‘the one who dwells in it’ is employed:

I give praise to Your holy Nature, Lord, for You have made my nature a sanctuary for Your hiddenness and a tabernacle for Your mysteries, a place where You can dwell, and a holy temple for Your divinity, namely for Him who holds the sceptre of Your Kingdom, who governs all You have brought into being, the glorious Tabernacle of Your eternal Being, the source of renewal for the ranks of fire which minister to You, the Way to knowledge of You, the Door to vision of You, the summation of Your power and great wisdom – Jesus Christ, the only-begotten from Your bosom, and remnant gathered in from Your creation, both visible and spiritual.

The idea of the ascent of the human being to God through the Incarnation of the Word is also present in this prayer: ‘O Mystery exalted beyond every word and beyond silence, who became human in order to renew us by means of voluntary union with the flesh, reveal to me the path by which I may be raised up to Your mysteries…’ The terminology of the ‘voluntary union’ is characteristic of the East Syrian tradition.

The Incarnation is understood as the sacrifice of God the Son, which was offered because of the love of God the Father for the world and which united the created world with God. It is interesting that Isaac speaks of the union of God with the world as ‘mingling’, an expression which would never be allowed by the East-Syrian tradition if the question were about the natures of Christ:

You have given Your entire treasure to the world: if You gave the only-begotten from Your bosom and from the throne of Your Being for the benefit of all, what further do You have which You have not given to Your creation? The world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one!

Is not this statement about the ‘mingling’ between the world and God a sort of overcoming, though unconscious, of the extremes of the dyophysitism? In other words, this statement breaks down the sharp boundaries between God and creation which are a characteristic of the strong dyophysite position of the Church of the East. If Theodore of Mopsuestia and his disciples could be accused of such a distinction between the divine and human nature which led to a division of the image of Christ into two, can we maintain that in Isaac the Syrian, who represented the same stream of theological thought, we find a certain break with the extremes of dyophysitism? Isaac does not speak of the essential unity, let alone a ‘confusion’ of the two natures of Christ, but he does speak of the ‘mingling’ of God with creation. This does imply that the sharp demarcation between divinity and humanity that was felt so strongly in the school of Theodore is not as strong in Isaac.

Isaac finds it possible to speak of the ‘mingling’ (hultana) of God with the creation through the Incarnation of God the Word precisely because the uncreated Word of God and the created man Jesus are one and the same person. Thus in his prayer Isaac appeals to Christ as to one person, who is simultaneously God and man:

xO Christ who are covered with light as though with garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which You caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May Your divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with You. O Christ, upon whom the many-eyed cherubim are unable to look because of the glory of Your countenance, yet out of Your love You received spit upon Your face: remove the shame from my face and grant an open face before You at the time of prayer.

The Incarnation of the Word and the deification of man according to St Isaac of Nineveh


– Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev