Christ, the Christian, and the Church: A Study of the Incarnation and Its Consequences by E.L. Mascall
By Kyle Edward Williams
The most consequential event in human history happened about two thousand years ago with the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh. The old human nature was corrupted and stuck in the transgressions of the old Adam, but Our Lord’s Incarnation produced a new human nature made afresh. As W.H. Auden writes in For the Time Being, “Nothing can save us that is possible / We who must die demand a miracle” (353). Auden’s Christmas oratorio takes as its subject the miracle of the Incarnation and how the seemingly impossible act of God taking on human nature changes everything. Before the first Advent of Christ, human nature had literally reached the end of its history. There was no hope either for improvement of our corrupted condition or escape from its consequences. But Christ’s coming filled human history with meaning again and gave it an end goal—a telos—of the resurrection of the dead and the recreation of the whole cosmos.
“There is thus in Christ a new creation of manhood out of the material of the fallen human race,” E.L. Mascall writes in a book that resists easy categorization, Christ, the Christian and the Church (3). This book is many things and possesses many riches of insight. (And for that reason, by the way, it deserves many re-readings; I read it twice and still feel like I need to spend more time with it.) The book is an account of the development of orthodox Christology and the competing heresies of the first Ecumenical Councils. It is a study of the relationship of the individual Christian to Christ and how we are incorporated into his nature by Baptism. It is an outline of ecclesiology and the union of the Church that makes all Christians members of Christ and members of one another—the Mystical Body. And finally it is a theological reflection on the ministry and spiritual life of the Church. One of the threads that Fr. Mascall weaves through each of these subjects is the question of history. The relationship between the Incarnation, the quotidian experience of the Church Militant, and the eschatological promise of new creation is a historical question taken in its most fundamental sense. It is a question about the shape of history. What is the relationship between the spiritual work accomplished by Jesus Christ and the reality of human life as it continues to unfold? As Fr. Mascall shows, this question is nothing less than an inquiry into the relationship between God and man.
Fr. Mascall explores the linkages that make up this relationship in terms of what he calls, following a classic formulation of Francis Bacon, the “three heavenly unities.” These unities are 1), the intra-trinitarian relations within the Godhead of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; 2), the hypostatic union between God and human nature in the incarnation of Christ; and, 3), the incorporation of human beings into the manhood of Christ which constitutes the Mystical Body of the Church. Although these unities are fundamentally different types of relations and are by no means equivalent, nevertheless taken together they “bridge the gulf between the Father and us,” Fr. Mascall writes (93). He shows quite convincingly the soteriological significance of the Christological controversies that afflicted the early Church and the heresies and misunderstandings that continue to challenge catholic orthodoxy in the modern world. Just as any small miscalculation when aiming at a distant target will lead to a wide miss, so the many technical and seemingly arcane problems that trip up Christology can lead to disastrous consequences in the way we understand salvation—and, potentially, everything from moral theology to pastoral counseling. Contrary to critics who claim that the doctrine of God is an attempt to explain the unexplainable, the precise language and formulations that the Church has developed to define the relations of the Trinity are actually modest in aim. Far from encroaching on the mystery of God, as the Roman Catholic theologian Romano Guardini has put it, Church dogma protects it from the human penchant for reductionism like “an iron band surrounding the mystery to hold it intact” (120).
When it comes to Christology, then, Fr. Mascall offers a highly traditional account. As he shows repeatedly in his defense of the classical formulations, if we abandon the orthodoxy of the Ecumenical Councils, we put ourselves in danger of misunderstanding or even denying the gospel. If the Second Person of the Trinity is not consubstantial with the Father, as some early heresies claimed, but is a derivative or created god, or if God did not actually become man but only appeared to or if in some non-incarnational manner divinized a certain man named Jesus of Nazareth, then our faith in Jesus Christ would be in vain. In order for Christian salvation to be efficacious, Jesus Christ must be both fully God and fully man; every dogmatic formulation from the First Nicene Council’s declaration of Christ’s consubstantiality to the Second Nicene Council’s vindication of iconography was an elaboration and defense of that fact. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus put it, “What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved (Gregory of Nazianzus, Ep. 101, 32).” Or, as Fr. Mascall writes, “The Incarnation is not to be thought of as the compression of the divine Word within the limits of human nature but as the exaltation of human nature to the level of Godhead by its union with the Person of the divine Word” (48).
The Pauline epistles repeatedly describe the status of believers as being “in Christ.” As in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.” This is the message of the gospel: you must be born again so that you might be in Christ. Sometimes in the polemical exchanges between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Christian West, particularly in the twentieth century, the salvific character of the Incarnation and the Atonement have been pitted against one another. Fr. Mascall demonstrates that this need not be the case. Without denying the propitiatory and sacrificial aspects of Christ’s death and passion, he shows how the Atonement is intimately bound together with every aspect of the Incarnation in an ontological way. That is, the union that regeneratively binds fallen human beings to Christ is an ontological union that occurs at the level of nature. “Because the human nature of Christ was both assumed by him and sacrificed for us,” he writes, “the fruits of the sacrifice can be ours through incorporation into him” (76). By emphasizing the Incarnation, Fr. Mascall does not swing wildly in the opposite direction and claim that atonement and sacrifice are unnecessary. He shows that, like the links of an unbroken chain, the atoning acts of the Incarnation include every aspect of Christ’s life. The Prayer Book’s Litany itself testifies to this:
By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord, deliver us. By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the Coming of the Holy Ghost, Good Lord, deliver us.
The most rewarding aspect of Christ, the Christian, and the Church is that it provides a robust account of the sacramental life of the Church, beginning with Holy Baptism. In the Ministration of Holy Baptism, the Prayer Book addresses the child as being “regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church.” It is Baptism that effectually incorporates us into the human nature of Christ and into the Mystical Body, which brings together individuals from every nation, race, and tongue to form a new humanity. How do we remain in this body? The Church is the “sole channel of grace to the world,” Fr. Mascall writes (149). Although God’s grace and purposes are not limited by the visible Church, the sacramental ministry of the Church is the ordinary means by which Christians abide in Christ. The chief of these is the sacrament of Holy Communion, which is not only the means by which Christ is made present to us through Bread and Wine but also by which Christ offers us to God in worship. “The Eucharist is the one perfect act of worship that we can offer to God,” Fr. Mascall writes (162). The Eucharist, furthermore, is the means by which both the sacrificial death and resurrected humanity of Christ are re-presented on the altar: “There is a transcendence of time in which past and future events are made mysteriously, but none the less really, present” (180). Just as the Dominical Sacraments are the chief means of adoption and abiding, so the whole life of the Church, whether in sacraments like Penance and Holy Unction or in disciplines of prayer or fasting, is the means by which we participate in Christ (211).
Which brings me back to the question of history. The Christian life is always lived in medias res. We are caught between the finished Atonement and Incarnation of Christ, which happened in the middle of history, and the Second Coming, which will bring the resurrection of the dead and a new heavens and new earth. Our Christian lives unfold with reference to these historical markers. In the meantime, insofar as we struggle for holiness and strive to become what we were created to be, we are slowly becoming morally—in real time—what we have already become mystically by God’s grace. On this point, I cannot improve upon what Fr. Mascall has written in one of the most stunning passages of the book: “The Christian is, in one sense, successively becoming what, in another sense, he already is. He increasingly makes his own the supernatural and eternal life which is the life of God. Hence on the supernatural plane he transcends the separation of past-present-and-future.”
Kyle Williams lives in Charlottesville, VA where he attends All Saints Anglican Church.