Analogia Incarnatio: How the Christian Reality is Focused on an Embodied Existence: Incarnation Contradicts Gnosticism

The Christian reality isn’t “some angels in the heavens floating on white puffy clouds playing harps before God” faith; instead it is a richly and concretely embodied reality that places great emphasis upon bodily and physical reality. Note the Apostle Paul in his argument to the Corinthians (at length):

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another.41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. 42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

There is a one-to-one continuity between the pre-resurrection body, and the resurrected body; the perishable and the imperishable; the mortal and immortal body. The argument could be pressed further from the scriptural text (think of John 11 and 12 wherein we have more resurrection themes in the Dominical teaching; a correspondence between the ‘seed that falls into the ground and sprouts as a new blade of grass from what appears to be its deathly seeded life’). But for our purposes, the reference to the Apostle Paul will suffice. Christians believe, intensively, in the ‘good’ and ‘very good’ nature of embodied and physical reality; it’s at the very touchstone of ‘the faith’: for if Jesus did not raise from the dead we are of most people all to be pitied.

I preface this post in this way because I want to delve into the wonderful world of Gnosticism (maybe not so wonderful, actually). Gnosticism antedates Christianity, at least according to JND Kelly, in incipient or proto ways in what he identifies as a Jewish Gnosticism. But at the advent of Christianity, post-Pentecost, just as we have this kind of [super]natural organic movement from the ‘shadow’ of Judaism (i.e. the promises cf. Rom. 11.29), to the ‘substance’ in Christ (i.e. the fulfillments cf. Col. 2.18); this movement also takes place from the Jewish forms of Gnosticism[s] into Christian adaptations. Gnosticism, in the main, is a dualistic cult that generally teaches that ‘matter’ or the material world is evil, and the ‘spiritual’ or eternal world is pure and sacrosanct. The word Gnostic is ascribed to this belief framework because ‘gnosis’ (or ‘knowledge’), for the Gnostic, is the key for escaping the evil material world, and finding salvation in the eternal and abstract world of pure spirit. JND Kelly, at length, details all of this this way:

First, most of the Gnostic schools were thoroughly dualistic, setting an infinite chasm between the spiritual world and the world of matter, which they regarded as intrinsically evil. Secondly, when they tried to explain how the material order came into existence, they agree in refusing to attribute its origin to the ultimate God, the God of light and goodness. It must be the result of some primeval disorder, some conflict or fall, in the higher realm, and its fabricator must have been some inferior deity or Demiurge. Where the Old Testament was accepted as authoritative, it was easy and natural to identify him with the Creator-God of the Jews. Thirdly, the Gnostics all believed that there is a spiritual element in man, or at any rate in the élite of mankind, which is a stranger in this world and which yearns to be freed from matter and to ascend to its true home. Fourthly, they pictured a mediator or mediators descending down the successive aeons or heavens to help it achieve this. These ideas were expounded in a setting of elaborate pseudo-cosmological speculation, and extensive use was made of pagan myths, the Old Testament concepts borrowed from Far Eastern religions.

In this way, then, the Gnostics sought to explain the riddle of man’s plight in a universe he feels to be alien to himself. But what of the redemption they offered? Here we come to the distinctive feature which gives Gnosticism its name. In all the Gnostics systems redemption is brought about by knowledge, and it is the function of the divine mediators to open the eyes of ‘pneumatic’ men to the truth. ‘The spiritual man’, the disciples of the Valentinian Marcus declared. [sic] ‘is redeemed by knowledge’; while according to Basilides, ‘the Gospel is knowledge of supramundane things’. In other words, when a man has really grasped the Gnostic myths in all their inwardness, and thus realizes who he is, how he has come to his present condition, and what is that ‘indescribable Greatness’ which is the supreme God, the spiritual element in him begins to free itself from the entanglements of matter. In the vivid imagery of Valentinus’s Gospel of Truth, before he acquires that knowledge, he plunges about like a drunken man in a dazed state, but having acquired it he awakens, as it were, from his intoxicated slumbers. Irenaeus has a colorful passage describing how the possession of esoteric knowledge—of the abysmal Fall, of Achamoth, of the Demiurge and so forth—was supposed to enable the Gnostic to overcome the powers confronting him after death, and so traverse the successive stages of his upward journey.

It is easy to understand the fascination which the Gnostic complex of ideas exercised on many Christians. The Church, too, professed to offer men saving knowledge, and set Christ before them as the revelation of the Father. There was a powerful strain in early Christianity which was in sympathy with Gnostic tendencies. We can see it at work in the Fourth Gospel, with its axiom that eternal life consists in knowledge of God and of Christ, and even more clearly in such second-century works as 2 Clement and Theophilus’s Ad Autolycum. As we noticed above, Clement of Alexandria freely applied the title ‘gnostics’ to Christians who seemed to have a philosophic grasp of their faith. It is the existence of a genuinely Christian, orthodox ‘gnosis’ side by side with half-Christian, heretical or even non-Christian versions which in part accounts for the difficulty in defining Gnosticism precisely. As has been shown, many of the Gnostic teachers mentioned above sincerely regarded themselves as Christians, and there is an element of truth in the thesis that their systems were attempts to restate the simple Gospel in terms which contemporaries would find philosophically, even scientifically, more satisfying. The root incompatibility between Christianity and Gnosticism really lay, as second-century fathers like Irenaeus quickly perceived, in their different attitudes to the material order and the historical process. Because in general they disparaged matter and were disinterested in history, the Gnostics (in the narrower, more convenient sense of the term) were prevented from giving full value to the fundamental Christian doctrine of the incarnation of the Word.[1]

Much to digest. But I wanted to give a fuller context because I don’t think many Christians really grasp what the early Christian thinkers were up against. And this is ironic since what we count as ‘orthodox’ Christian doctrine today was constructed in precise ways to counter the teachings of folks like the Gnostics.

Another reason I wanted to highlight Gnosticism comes back to how I opened this article. Christianity is embodied reality; it entails body and soul realities, and sees such realities as an integrated whole. In other words, I fear that the early Gnosticism we just sketched still lives on in many expressions of 21st century Christian modes of thought. For example, the Dispensationalists, where my rootage comes from in my Christian heritage, emphasizes an ‘escape’ from this world through a secret coming of Jesus Christ for the church: commonly known as the rapture. At that point, this approach believes, the world will plummet into all out hell on earth finally and only overcome at the second coming of Jesus Christ. It will be at that time, according to Dispensational thought, that a thousand year reign of Christ will ensue only to terminate in one more battle between evil and good (i.e. the Demonic hoard of Satan), and then God will destroy this earth by fire. In other words, the “elite” or Christians will be cloistered away under the wings of the Divine Host somewhere aloof in the heavenlies, at which point a new heavens and earth will be created. The problem is, and the link between Gnosticism here is, is that there is no one-to-one correspondence between this earth we currently inhabit and the new heavens and earth to come. This is Gnostic teaching, it is not Christianity.

Let me not digress too much. The biblical teaching, and the early Christian teaching counter to the Gnostic teaching (of whatever varying expression that might take, ‘back then’ or now) is that these bodies we currently inhabit will themselves be metamorphized (cf. Phil. 3.20-21), and recreated just like Jesus’s was in the resurrection/recreation of his body (cf. I Jn. 3.1-3). What this implies is that there is continuity between the very goodness of this earth and these bodies with the elevated goodness of this earth and these bodies to come, in the age to come (in the consummation).

The analogia incarnatio (‘analogy of the incarnation’) puts to death all expressions of Gnosticism. Even though Gnosticism proper was something the early Fathers dealt with, as Christian thinkers in the 21st century we are no less confronted with a neo-Gnosticism of today. As TF Torrance has noted though, and with this we will close, what orthodox Christians think from is the reality and particularity of the mystery of the incarnation: i.e. God become [hu]man. If this bedrock reality does not flood our minds and hearts as Christians in such a way that all of our thinking is not colored by it, then we are thinking probably much more in line with the Gnostics than from within the Christian reality.

‘The Word was made flesh’ – but what is meant by flesh? John means that the Word fully participates in human nature and existence, for he became man in becoming flesh, true man and real man. He was so truly man in the midst of mankind that it was not easy to recognise him as other than man or distinguish him from other men. He came to his own and his own received him not. He became a particular man, Jesus, who stands among other men unsurpassed but unrecognised. That is the way he became flesh, by becoming one particular man. And yet this is the creator of all mankind, now himself become a man.[2]

[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 26-8.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downer Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 61.