Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Truly God, truly man

It took the Christian church more than four hundred years of constant discussion to agree to a formula explaining just how Jesus could be both God and man, without leaning too far in one direction or the other. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 issued a definition that has been accepted by most Christians ever since: Jesus is “truly God and truly man,” “consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity.”

The men who framed the Chalcedonian confession had to get past two stumbling blocks that, according to their way of thinking, made the union of God and man almost unthinkable.

First, good Hellenistic philosophers that they were, they were convinced that God is completely unchangeable. If God cannot change, he cannot suffer and he certainly cannot die. How, then, could Jesus be fully God and yet suffer and die on the cross?

Second, for reasons that I have yet to figure out, the church fathers apparently believed that all sexual pleasure is seriously sinful. A woman could conceive a child without sin, but a man could not beget a child sinlessly, and the sin of sexual pleasure transmitted original sin to the descendants of Adam and Eve. How, then, could Jesus be truly man and yet remain untainted by original sin?

Pope Leo I (the Great) came up with a way to get past both barriers. Several years before the Council of Chalcedon was convened, he had written a letter to the Bishop of Constantinople explaining how Jesus could be simultaneously God and man. His letter became known as the Tome of Leo, and the whole thing is worth reading.

Leo allowed that God might not be quite as unchangeable as the god of pagan philosophy: “The Lord of the universe veiled his measureless majesty and took on a servant's form. The God who knew no suffering did not despise becoming a suffering man, and, deathless as he is, to be subject to the laws of death.”

But Leo did not give up his belief in sexually transmitted damnation. Jesus’ birth, he wrote, was unprecedented, “because it was inviolable virginity which supplied the material flesh without experiencing sexual desire. What was taken from the mother of the Lord was the nature without the guilt.”

This is a far cry from the word of Wisdom in Proverbs 5:18–19:

Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
May her breasts satisfy you at all times;
may you be intoxicated always by her love.

Oddly, the church has often identified Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible with the Word in the New Testament. Even the dour old bishops did that, but they seem to have missed some of the connections. I'm still looking for early Christian writers with a wholesome, hearty, Hebrew view of sexual love.

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