The Incarnation and ‘the man in the sky’

It quickly becomes apparent in Catholic circles that biblical literalism is completely denounced due to its ties to Christian fundamentalism and its label as “unscientific.” Yet to reject the literal meaning of the Scriptures is inherently un-Catholic, as Pope Leo XIII himself stated in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus:

But he must not on that account consider that it is forbidden, when just cause exists, to push inquiry and exposition beyond what the Fathers have done; provided he carefully observes the rule so wisely laid down by St. Augustine-not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires.

-Article 15
Pope Leo XIII

Pope Leo XIII recognized that as Catholics, we cannot discard the literal meaning of the words of Holy Scripture, barring that they are not too unreasonable to be taken literally. It is the latter half of his statement which is distorted to be interpreted as to allow the subordination of Scripture to the natural sciences or human reason. This is a key element of modern scriptural exegesis, where anything that is not immediately reconcilable to science is dismissed as erroneous or ‘of an archaic sentimentality.’ Namely, the modern assertion that men in the time of Moses were too stupid to understand the deeper meaning of Scripture, therefore a nice fairy tale was fabricated to make it more tenable. This cannot be the case if Scripture is to remain the inerrant word of God. Now, what I would like to focus on is the anthropomorphic view of God, the “man in the sky” or “sky daddy” as so many non-believers invectively proclaim, and determine whether it is possible to hold such a view in light of Catholic Tradition.

I need to address the notion of biblical literalism, because I had a realization about the human qualities applied to God in many instances throughout Scripture, which of course, I know many are meant to be figurative given God’s simplicity. It is in the context of the Incarnation that I wanted to further explore this idea of God’s human traits as something beyond mere allegory or symbolism, as St Augustine would describe the language of Genesis as “for the little ones,” or those who have not come to a philosophical understanding of Scripture and God. But first I would like to define two terms: ‘eternity’ and ‘aeviternity.’

Eternity and Aeviternity

There are two aspects of “timelessness” which need to be defined before I delve into my speculation regarding the Incarnation of Christ and His role throughout Scripture. Drawing upon the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas, we must establish just what exactly is meant by “eternity” in the context of God. I will be primarily referencing Part I, Question 10, Articles 1 through 5 of the Summa Theologica. To quote St Thomas:

What is eternal is interminable-that is, has no beginning nor end (that is, no term either way); secondly, because eternity has no succession, being simultaneously whole.

Summa. I, 10, art. 1

To declare that God is eternal is to state that He does not change and is absolutely simple, where He is non-composite, not made up of parts. And both of these qualities pertain to a lack of beginning or end in the nature of God, in His very being. He has always, and will always, exist for all time and beyond eternity. This means that God in His eternity is not subject to time:

Words denoting different times are applied to God, because His eternity includes all times; not as if He Himself were altered through present, past and future

Ibid. art. 2

Further;

As eternity is the proper measure of permanent being, so time is the proper measure of movement.

Ibid. art. 4

God is supremely above time and perceives all time in the same act of knowing. For example, the human intellect acts in eternity, as when we come to know a thing we know it in its entirety to the limit of our perceptions in a single moment. So, to know grass is to know its appearance, its color, and its nature in one single act of knowing. God can do this with time, as well as all things, in one single act, not procedurally over instances of time. As I mentioned, man’s intellect, which is a part of the soul, acts within eternity and St Thomas further elucidates upon this concept of gifted immutability:

Eternity truly and properly so called is in God alone, because eternity follows on immutability; as appears from the first article. But God alone is altogether immutable, as was shown above. Accordingly, however, as some receive immutability from Him, they share in His eternity. Thus some receive immutability from God in the way of never ceasing to exist.

Ibid. art. 3

Therefore, creatures such as angels and the human soul are given a share in God’s immutability, or eternity, allowing them to exist forever as God exists. Yet as creatures, and not God, they are still subject to a definite beginning. This is where aeviternity comes into play, which I will once more draw upon the Angelic Doctor to explain:

Aeviternity differs from time, and from eternity, as the mean between them both. This difference is explained by some to consist in the fact that eternity has neither beginning nor end, aeviternity, a beginning but no end, and time both beginning and end.

Spiritual creatures as regards successive affections and intelligences are measured by time. Hence also Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. viii, 20,22,23) that to be moved through time, is to be moved by affections. But as regards their nature they are measured by aeviternity; whereas as regards the vision of glory, they have a share of eternity.

Ibid. art. 5

What the Angelic Doctor is describing is that aeviternity is for those creatures which have a definite beginning, but are given a share in eternity so that they will have no end. So while they are not truly eternal, as God is only eternal, they will still subsist eternally after being brought into existence through the act of the Creator. So, in short, the Godhead is, and only is, eternal; whereas spiritual creatures like the angels and souls of men are aeviternal, having a beginning but no end; while creatures subject to time have a definite beginning and an end. Now, what does this have to do with the Incarnation?

The Incarnation

The Incarnation is the term used to describe the Word taking human flesh, i.e.the Second Person of the Trinity becoming incarnate in man. It is the means by which Our Lord Jesus Christ walked among us to reconcile man to God and offer up Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of mankind. The Incarnation is expressed through the concept of the hypostatic union which was developed to counter the Nestorians who believed that Christ had two separate natures, separating His divinity from His humanity. This heresy was corrected through the hypostases, which basically means that Christ is one Person with two natures; one human and the other divine. Christ has a human soul, a human body, a human will; but also possesses the fullness of His divine essence as the Son. Therefore, the Incarnation of Christ is both fully man and fully God. As St Athanasius describes it so eloquently:

While God the Word, Who was united with [the body], was at the same time ordering the universe and revealing Himself through His bodily acts as not man only but God. Those acts are rightly said to be His acts, because the body which did them did indeed belong to Him and none other

Invisible in Himself, He is known from the works of creation; so also, when His Godhead is veiled in human nature, His bodily acts still declare Him to be not man only, but the Power and Word of God.

St Athanasius. On the Incarnation, Ch. 3. p.29.

Christ walked this earth with the fullness of the human nature, whilst possessing the full Power of the Godhead united to His human Person. St Athanasius justifies the acts of Christ as proof of the divine, stating, ” through His actions done in that body, as it were on their own level, He teaches those who would not learn by other means to know Himself, the Word of God, and through Him the Father.” (Ibid. p.25) It is through this meeting of man and the divine in one Person that God was able to bring man to understand His ways, as men are so much enveloped in the sensible means of understanding. St Athanasius remarks, “He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body. ” (Ibid. p.26) It is through the direct communion with men in the flesh that Christ was able to reconcile man to God and undo the disobedience of our first parents. Yet this clothing of the divine nature in human clay is not a limitation on the Person of the Son, as St Athanasius explains:

The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well. When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might. No. The marvelous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things in Himself.


With the Word of God in His human natureā€¦His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone.

Ibid. p.28.

Citing a few more examples from St John Damascene to further express the union attained between Christ’s human and divine natures:

We say that in the Incarnation of one of the Holy Trinity, the Word of God, the entire and complete nature of the divinity was united in one of its Persons to the entire human nature, and not a part of one to a part of the other.

We do say that the entire substance of the Divinity was united to the entire human nature, because God the Word lacked none of those things which He implanted in our nature when He formed us in the beginning.

We do say that the entire substance of the Divinity was united to the entire human nature, because God the Word lacked none of those things which He implanted in our nature when He formed us in the beginning.

Yet we do not worship the creature, because we do not adore it as a mere body, but as being one with the divinity, because His two natures belong to the one Person and the one subsistence of the Word of God.

St John Damascene, the Orthodox Faith. Book III, Chapters 6-8

Therefore, to see Christ is to see God full and entire. As Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, He “sanctified the body by being in it.” (St Athanasius, Ibid.) The return of the Son from time to eternity was to elevate the whole of human nature through the Incarnation to that of aeviternity, to share in the eternity that is God. And since Christ had a beginning in time, but was later elevated to His place in the eternal Godhead, I argue that He was able to act and appear in His human nature throughout the course of Revelation.

The God-man in Scripture

Obviously, the Incarnation of Christ appears in the Gospels. There is no denying this fact, and it is the concrete proof of the God-man in Scripture. What I would like to argue has much to do with a literal interpretation of some select passages of Scripture in light of the information provided above. The Word of God is the One Who spoke all things into creation, this is expressed in the first chapter of the Gospel of John and further proved through the divine acts of Christ throughout the Gospels. And since He is the Word, and the Word is the eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity Who has existed above time from beyond eternity, I believe that the Word made flesh was physically present at specific instances of anthropomorphic descriptions of God in Biblical history. I utilize the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible for my Scriptural references.

Beginning with Genesis, “Let us make man to our image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26) is commonly cited to describe the creation of man’s rational intellect and nature Imago Dei, in the image of God. And this is an exegetical truth. God in His essence does not have parts or a body, not at least until the Incarnation. But this is where the confusion of eternity comes into play, so bear with me. Since Christ is eternal and above time, meaning past, present and future, it is within His infinite power to also incorporate His human flesh as the prime exemplar of the likeness to be made in man. We see this commonly portrayed in iconography, where Christ in particular is depicted as speaking creation into being. Some icons even express Adam as accidentally identical to Jesus Christ. Citing Scripture once more, ” And when they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in paradise in the afternoon air, Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God” (Ibid. 3:8). How is it that God in His essence walks in Paradise if He does not possess a body or parts? Well, He could if one Person within the Godhead does possess a human body. And since the only body God has ever possessed is the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, then we can suspect that God walking through the garden is in fact Our Blessed Lord.

But this is not the only argued physical manifestation of God in Genesis, He later appears to Abraham and Sarah in the three angels, commonly depicted as the Trinity in Eastern iconography. “And the Lord appeared to him…And when he had lifted up his eyes, there appeared to him three men standing near him: and as soon as he saw them he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground.” (Gen. 18:1-2). Scripture clearly tells us that the Lord appeared visibly as three men, with a particular emphasis on one of the men as the Lord Himself. And it is this individual which I believe is Jesus Christ in the (spiritual) flesh conversing with Abraham. As later His two companions are sent forth to Sodom, “And when the men rose up from thence, they turned their eyes towards Sodom: and Abraham walked with them, bringing them on the way.” (Ibid. 18:16) and also, “but Abraham as yet stood before the Lord.” (Ibid. 18:22). Abraham stands with the Lord as the two men embark forth to Sodom. Later, we find that these men are none other than angels, therefore further proving that He Who stands before Abraham visibly is Christ Our Lord, as the Word is the only One Who has directly spoken with man throughout Scripture.

Moses is the last of the Patriarchs who was privy to a direct vision of God. It is stated that “the Lord spoke to Moses face to face” (Exodus. 33:11), which is commonly interpreted as regarding the intimate way of their conversation rather than Moses speaking directly to God’s face. As it is later stated in the same chapter that direct vision of God’s face will result in death. And it is not this passage which I interpret as a literal glimpse of the Incarnate Word, but rather the following passage, “And I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face thou canst not see.” (Ibid. 33:23). In this instance, Moses was allowed to see the glorified, visible form of God, and given that the Father does not possess a visible form nor the Holy Ghost, this leaves us with the Son Who appeared before Moses.

Visions of the God-man

Raphael, Vision of Ezekiel

Outside of the Pentateuch, the Prophets provide insights into the visible appearance of God as well. These are limited to mystical visions, but nonetheless they depict the same Imago Dei. The examples I cite are as follows:

I beheld till thrones were placed, and the Ancient of days sat: his garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like clean wool: his throne like flames of fire: the wheels of it like a burning fire.

Daniel, 7:9

and upon the likeness of the throne, was a likeness as of the appearance of a man above upon it.

Ezekiel, 1:26

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated

Isaiah, 6:3

In each of these visions, we are given an anthropomorphic image of God as a man. And each of them possess commonalities such as this man being seated upon a throne, with Daniel expressing one of my favorite depictions of God as a white-haired glorified king. We see this same image much later in the New Testament from St John the Apostle:

and behold there was a throne set in heaven, and upon the throne one sitting. And he that sat, was to the sight like jasper and the sardine stone;


And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne

And his head and hairs were white, white as wool, and as snow, and his eyes were as a flame of fire.

Apocalypse of St John, 1:8; 5:1; 1:14.

It is clear that these visions are of the Incarnate Word as He resides in eternity, His bodily form glorified beyond that which was present among men whilst on earth. And I argue this point because both the Father and the Holy Ghost are only “seen” intellectually, through the knowledge of God’s essence which men attain in the beatific vision. Whereas the bodily eyes of men, like those of St John and the Prophets, beheld a visible manifestation of God that can be none other than the Word made flesh, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Our Blessed Lord alludes to His glorified appearance when He transfigures Himself upon the mountain to the Apostles:

And he was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow

Matthew, 17:2

Conclusion

I am not a theologian, I have not studied Biblical exegesis, these are simply conclusions I have drawn from what I know of the anthropomorphic qualities of God in Scripture and the theological explanation of the Incarnation. That being said, I have come to believe that those few instances where God is made visible to men is the eternal Person of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. As stated above, both the Father and the Holy Ghost do not make visible appearances to men, and since Christ is the living Image of God who walked among us, I have to come to the conclusion that it is He Who appeared visibly before the Patriarchs, Prophets, and saints.

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