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Living in the Light: New Creatures, Part 2

Derek Caldwell

This is part 2 of the Living in the New Creatures Series. You can read part 1 here.

This is the one who comes from heaven
onto the earth for the suffering one,
and wraps himself in the suffering one
through a virgin womb,
and comes as a man.
He accepted the suffering of the suffering one,
through suffering in a body which could suffer,
and set free the flesh from suffering.
Through the spirit which cannot die
he slew the manslayer death.

Melito of Sardis[1]

Fond memories find me whenever I reunite with that old fireplace. Every Christmas, visiting my parents back home in Indiana, it is adorned with memories of yesterday, lit snow globes, and pictures of loved ones dearly missed. This is the same fireplace that, as a young boy, I knew Santa came down to deliver my presents. I like to feel the coolness of the bricks where I once sat and played, awash in a world of pure imagination. I recall the sweet, roasted scent and pop of the crackling wood. This place will forever feel like home. However, my relationship with the fireplace did not get off to a good start.

“Stay away from the concrete, son,” my father warned me. He had just mixed and poured concrete for its foundation. As my father tells the story, I assured him that I would stay away from the fireplace. And then, as my father turned for what may have been less than one second, he heard splat! For those who know me, they understand that much of my life has consisted of falling into and onto a wide variety of things that should not be fallen upon. Wet concrete is one of the worst, though. Unable to lift myself out, I might have stayed there for a long time, slowly but surely being less and less able to move, time creeping by as if it didn’t see a thing.

The fall was humanity’s plunge into a world of wet concrete. Humanity became immobilized and imprisoned by sin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, relating his time in prison to the Advent of Christ, remarked that “a prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.”[2] My father, lifting me out of the wet concrete and cleansing my ensnared body, is reminiscent of Lewis’s poem, “Evensong,”

But amidst that prison
Still Thy voice can find us,
And, as Thou hast risen,
Raise us in Thy dawn.[3]

The Son Gives His Life

Christ became man, so says Maximus the Confessor, “with a view to redeeming human nature from this helplessness in evil,”[4] but also our helplessness in death, for the two are intrinsically linked. This is a natural outcome of our separation from God, the source of both goodness and life. Indeed, what we lost in the fall was the type of relationship enjoyed between Jesus in His human nature and the Father.[5] How could we expect to live when we are separated from the source of life itself?[6] Through faith we sacrifice ourselves and die the death of Christ, thus being raised in baptismal resurrection and entering the everlasting life of Christ. Jesus imparts to humanity His very own life for our very own deaths. Michael Gorman speaks of justification as co-crucifixion with Christ. To be justified is to first participate in the death of Christ.[7] “For it was for this end,” writes early Christian theologian Irenaeus, “that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.”[8] Through this, a real change takes place in our status and our essential selves: the old is gone, finished, has left the building; and the new here, has come, and is continuously—even if not consistently—moving forward (2 Corinthians 5:17).[9] 

It is common to speak of Jesus’s death defeating death, but of course, His life experienced on earth also did just that: “Incarnation was seen as a new creation, as God’s restoration of his image and likeness in human beings, as the God-Man’s victory over the powers of sin, corruption, death, and the sphere of the demonic,” writes Paul Gavrilyuk.[10] God has made us fully human once again through the incorruptible life of Christ, a life offered for us and to us by the Holy Spirit, the giver of life (John 6:63; 2 Corinthians 3:6). Irenaeus thought of the overall mission of Jesus as one of recapitulation, which means a holistic salvation, of all things (Ephesians 1:10).[11] Everything Jesus touched, everything Jesus did, worked to redeem every aspect of creation.

Becoming Like the Son

The life and death of Christ allows us to, in Peter’s words, “become partakers in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) through abiding in Christ and being filled with his life. When we look at the language of John, and especially in John chapters 14 and 15, we see Christ persistently exhorting us to abide in him through a mutual giving and taking of life: taking Christ’s life given “for the life of the world” in us (John 6:33, 51) and placing ours in His. That is why, in agreement with Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation, abide in me is better understood as live in me. John tells us that if we remain in Jesus, He will remain in us (15:4); that we will know the Spirit of truth who “lives in you and will be in you” (14:17); Jesus prepares a place for us in His Father’s house (14:2), and also He and the Father come to make their home with us (14:23). It is through this mysteriously perichoretic gift of relationship that, according to Edith Humphrey, “our life and glory as children of God spring.”[12] Bonhoeffer taps into this ancient notion of becoming and salvation, writing in Discipleship,

It is indeed the holy Trinity who dwells within Christians, who permeates them and changes them into the very image of the triune God. The incarnate, the crucified, and transfigured Christ takes on form in individuals because they are members of his body, the church. The church bears the incarnate, crucified, and risen form of Christ. Within the body of Christ, we have become “like Christ.”[13]

This new creation is both in the image of Christ—the humility of one who does not consider His divine status as something to take advantage of as a human being (Philippians 2:6)—and in the imago Dei, or better yet, the imago Trinitatis.[14]

It is, according to Bonhoeffer, “in the becoming human of Christ” where “the entire humanity regains the dignity of being made in the image of God.”[15] When we understand “new creation” in these ways, in the re-creation of images and all of creation itself, we begin to see even more how our Christian life cannot be one of separatism or escapism. Philosopher Jens Zimmerman, invoking Bonhoeffer, puts it well:

This ontological participation in Christ does not separate the church from the rest of humanity but rather establishes an intrinsic connection with it. At the very heart of the church, in the encounter with the incarnate Word of God through preaching and the Eucharist, we participate in Christ’s humanity, which is ontologically structured as being for others.[16]

Christ’s humanity, which Paul states in Philippians 2:5-11 is our model and goal, is for others. As stated above, Christ does not exploit his divine status for gain, nor should we exploit our relationship with the divine. For, as Martin Luther stated, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[17] Luther here is merely pointing out the strangeness of what Paul wrote: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Corinthians 9:19) and “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another” (Romans 13:8). The Trinity, on the other hand, is an eternal relationship of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who are “with” each other from the beginning (Gen. 1:2 John 1:1, 17:5, Heb. 9:14) and who are ontologically love (1 John 4:8-16). Theologian Tom McCall defines this as “a necessary relationship of mutual holy love” and a “perichoretic communion of holy love.”[18]

Becoming Free

In the image of Christ, we are here for others, and in the image of the triune God, we are here with others, in sacrificial and communal love.[19] In this profoundly Good, True, and Beautiful image then, we are also re-created truly free, since we are in the image of the Truly Free. Not free to do everything; that is the “horrible freedom” of the “self-enslaved,”[20] the “caged wild beast” of freedom that is never satisfied.[21] No, we receive God’s freedom: the freedom to love fully. We can, in other words, strive against the wet concrete of the fall, rejecting its petrification, and help others along with us.

With these new eyes and new heart, we should begin to see and feel anew about our fellow sufferers. Since Christ’s incarnation is not only a statement about God’s love for humanity but also solidarity and identification with human beings, then to cause harm to another human being is to inflict damage upon His enthroned-in-thorns body. Let us plead with the words which Canadian poet Emily Pauline Johnson pled,

Because so often you have hearkened to
My selfish prayers, I ask but one thing now,
That these harsh hands of mine add not unto
The crown of thorns upon your bleeding brow.[22]

Understood correctly, then, the criticisms against Christianity as a system of belief and ethics—that it is an escapism, or a thoughts and prayers without works sort of faith—are simply wrong, though the misapprehension is understandable given that the spirit is still at war with the flesh (Galatians 5:17). Nonetheless, according to Zimmerman,

Modern critics of Christianity have argued that this religion devalues the human (Nietzsche), fails to change human conditions (Marx) and weakens human responsibility by detracting attention from the world (new atheists). The [early church] fathers’ incarnational humanism contradicts all these claims: the more we emphasize the transcendent origin and ground of humanity in the incarnation and Trinity, the more we value human beings. … Irenaeus’s claim that the incarnation’s purpose was the assimilation of humanity to the ‘invisible Father through the means of the visible Word’ takes us to the heart of patristic[23] theology: the idea of healing the divine image in human beings and of drawing them up to the noble height for which they were created.[24]

Becoming Human

This view of humanity as a new creation was truly revolutionary in the history of ideas. While Christians have sometimes lost their way on this difficult road, the new creation continues to live and grow in us when we properly care for it and participate in its health rather than its weaponization. By becoming new creations, we fulfill God’s desire for Israel not just in ourselves but also in a communal body: our lives are changed, often slowly and inconsistently but nonetheless forwardly, from weapons into plowshares. By turning the very things we use to wound to that which we use to heal, we are restored to full life and full dignity, thus fully glorifying God. And in this giving of our lives to God in order to receive God’s restoration in return, humans are made truly human for the first time.

Humankind in its fallen state is decaying, enslaved, and suffering earth. But humankind created anew is something quite the opposite; it is the “living soul” of body and spirit alive once again (Genesis 2:7). Irenaeus wrote that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the life of a human being consists in beholding God.”[25] In beholding God, we behold Life itself, or rather, Himself, and we are made new and free—truly free—for the first time, as it was always meant to be. God has, and is, and will reverse the fallen state and redeem us fully. As Dietrich von Hildebrand writes

Redemption is also a restoration of the original paradisaical beauty, as the liturgy maintains: “Who has wonderfully created human dignity and more wonderfully restored it”; and as a mystic says: “We would die of love if we could see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace.”[26]

The new creature is the one who lives eternally, blissfully, and beautifully in the state of grace that God created for humanity. We were all meant for far more and far better, and in our quiet moments we can’t help but to lament our loss of innocence and the failures that we seem incapable of avoiding. But Jesus lifts us out of the world of wet concrete that turns us to stone. He grants us the gift of walking again on solid, hallowed ground.

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[1] Melito of Sardis, On Pascha, trans. Alistair Stewart-Sykes (Crestwood, NT: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 54.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8 (Minnesota, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 188.

[3] CS Lewis, “Evensong,” in Poems (New York: HarperOne, 2017), 196.

[4] St. Maximus the Confessor, “Ad Thalassium 21” in On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor, Popular Patristics Series, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 111.

[5] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 85ff.

[6] Khaled Anatolios, in interpreting Athanasius, has helpful here. “Humanity has the power either to confirm its own being by willfully participating in the power of the divine image, or it can decline this participation and thus freely forfeit its being, sliding into nothingness and preferring the self-grasping power of sheer autonomy to the giftedness of participated being. … Humanity’s most fundamental moral choice is to either accept or reflect the gift of participation in divine being, and this moral choice is thus simultaneously an ontological self-determination. Sin, therefore, not only has ontological consequences, but is itself, constitutively, an ontological event; it not only leads to but simply consists in the forfeiture of the only being that a creature can have, which is nothing else than its participation in the divine life.” And later, “Therefore, our inclusion into Christ’s death of self-offering also brings about the renewal of our participation in divine life, which is resurrection.” Khaled Anatolios, “Creation and Salvation in St Athanasius of Alexandria,” in Matthew Baker, Seraphim Danckaert, and Nicholas Marinides (eds.), On the Tree of the Cross: Georges Florovsky and the Patristic Doctrine of Atonement (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Seminary Press, 2016), 71-72, 74.

[7] Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 45. He continues, “That is, they have been initiated into the process of conformity to the crucified Christ (cruciformity, Christification), who is the image of God—and thus the process of theoformity, or theosis.” Later he writes that “Justification for Paul may be defined as follows: the establishment or restoration of right covenantal relations—fidelity to God and love for neighbor—with the certain hope of acquittal/vindication on the day of judgment” (53). Emphasis original.

[8] He continues, “For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?” Irenaeus, Against Heresies,3.19.1 in Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (eds.), The Ance-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1885).

[9] Colin Kruse points out that the word “creation” links us with the renewal of all creation. Furthermore, he points out that the Greek phrase translated as “the old is gone” uses an aorist verb, meaning it is a completed action, while “the new is here” uses a perfect verb, signaling a completed action with ongoing results. Colin G. Kruse, 2 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 124.

[10] Paul L. Gavrilyuk, “An Overview of Patristic Theodicies,” in Nonna Verna Harrison and David G. Hunter (eds.), Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 5.

[11] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.18.7, in James R. Payton, Jr., Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 74. This is meant as a statement on the scope of redemption, not an endorsement of universalism. On recapitulation, Irenaeus writes, “God recapitulated in himself the ancient formation of man, so that he might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and give life again to humankind.” Irenaeus, 3.18.7; Payton, 18. He says of recapitulation and the devil, “In his work of recapitulation, Christ has summed up all things, waging war against our enemy and crushing him who at the beginning led us away captive in Adam, and trampling on his head.” Irenaeus, 5.21.1; Payton, 172. Payton writes, “According to Irenaeus, this recapitulation in Jesus christ embraced everything that had previously transpired in the history of God’s merciful dealing with humanity: the shedding of the savior’s blood served as the recapitulation of the blood of the righteous shed in previous ages, and the temptation of the last Adam was a recapitulation of the original temptation of the first Adam.” Payton, 19.

[12] Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 92.

[13] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4 (Minnesota, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 286.

[14] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “God Speaks as Man,” in The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 81. Cited in Jens Zimmerman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christian Humanism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 70.

[15] Jens Zimmerman, Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 318.

[16] Ibid., 316.

[17] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian, 1520,” in John Dillenberger (ed.), Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 53. It might be helpful to expand on this quote a bit here in order to make more sense of what Luther is saying. Since we are in Christ, we are lord of all and subject to none, for Christ is the Lord, through whom all things were made. We have gained His freedom; He has given it freely to us. However, because of the love of God in Christ, we are bound to all and servant to all. Christ is a servant to all out of love and not because anyone is lord over Christ. In this, Luther is highlighting that in Christ there is a combination or lord and servant that was foreign to the ancient world and his contemporary world, and is still today, though the impact of this notion is seen in modern views of leadership as “servant leadership.” We see this also in the proper function of a “pope” as defined by Gregory the Great, known also as Pope Gregory I, who said that the pope is servus servorum Dei, “servant of the servants of God.”

[18] Thomas H. McCall, “Relational Trinity: Creedal Perspective,” in Jason S. Sexton and Stanley N. Gundry (eds.), Two Views on the Doctrine of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 113, 116, 126.

[19] Of course, this is an oversimplification, for there is both a sacrificial for otherness in the Trinity and a communal love in the incarnation of Christ. However, as far as the main ways in which these are being described in John, other parts of the New Testament, and throughout the church’s history, these have been highlighted as the distinctions to be maintained between each without pushing them beyond their bounds. In this, the hope is to not violate the unity of the Godhead or the diversity of the Persons of the Trinity.

[20] CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 130.

[21] GK Chesterton, The Soul of Wit: G. K. Chesterton on William Shakespeare, ed. Dale Ahlquist (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2012), 76. In Pearce, introduction, xxx.

[22] E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), “Brier,” in Flint and Feather (Toronto: Musson Book Company, 1931), 68.Found on Matt Erickson, “E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), ‘Brier (Good Friday)’ [Poetry for Lent],” Renovate, March 25, 2021, https://mwerickson.com/2021/03/25/e-pauline-johnson-tekahionwake-brier-good-friday-poetry-for-lent/.

[23] The term “patristic” is a term used for the early church “fathers” (coming from the Greek word for father, patér). These are early and trusted theologians such as Irenaeus, Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Leo the Great, Augustine of Hippo, Maximus the Confessor, and many more. These individuals are typically celebrated for their defense of orthodox beliefs in the face of new and popular heresies that sprung up over time. John of Damascus, who died in AD 749, is considered the last of the Greek patristic theologians. There are various contenders for the “last father” of the Latin West, the latest being Bernard of Clairvaux in the 1100s.

[24] Zimmerman, Incarnational Humanism,79.

[25] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.7, fromPayton’s condensed AH, 116. While there is much debate, and pushback, to the translation of “human being fully alive,” in favor of the much simpler and straightforward “a living man,” I think there is good theological reason and contextual reason within Against Heresies to allow for the more dynamic translation, so long as it is not separated from the rest of the sentence (or chapter, better yet) as is so often the case. Just prior to this portion of Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes, “For God is powerful in all things, having been seen at that time indeed, prophetically through the Spirit, and seen, too, adoptively through the Son; and He shall also be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven, the Spirit truly preparing man in the Son of God, and the Son leading him to the Father, while the Father, too, confers [upon him] incorruption for eternal life, which comes to every one from the fact of his seeing God. For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendor. But [His] splendor vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life.” AH, 4.20.5; Payton 114-115.

[26] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Beauty in the Light of Redemption (Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press, 2019), 6.