2002.11.23 The Times:
November 23, 2002 Credo
From East to West, in Jesus we encounter God incarnate
BY Geoffrey Rowell
AT THE beginning of this month I was in Armenia for a meeting between
bishops and theologians of the Anglican Communion and of the Oriental
Orthodox churches, the ancient Christian churches of Egypt, Armenia, Syria,
Ethiopia and the Malabar coast of India. The Church of England has had long
and close relations with these Churches, which have now spread beyond their
ancient heartlands to a diaspora in the Western world, and our meeting was
the first of an official dialogue to work towards a deeper unity and even
These ancient Churches were the result of one of the earliest Christian
divisions, a division in the 5th century concerning the nature of Christ,
though political and cultural factors played a part, for these were all
Christian communities on the fringe of, or beyond, the Eastern Roman
Empire. The Council of Chalcedon in AD451, which spoke of two natures in
Christ, was not accepted by these Churches, whose understanding was shaped
by the teaching of St Cyril of Alexandria, who said that in Christ there
was "one nature of the incarnate Word of God". For these Churches, the
language of two natures, divinity and humanity, seemed to come dangerously
close to a schizoid Christ, keeping God at a distance.
In recent decades ecumenical conversations have gone a long way to
resolving this ancient difference of understanding, and we rejoiced that in
our own meeting Anglicans and Oriental Orthodox were able to agree a common
statement on our understanding of Christ, and reach out to heal what is one
of the most ancient Christian divisions.
Such theological divisions and arguments can easily seem remote and distant
from our contemporary world. They can be mocked, as Gibbon mocked the
controversy over the understanding of the divinity of Christ in the Arian
controversy, when, noting the different terms used, he said that
Christendom was split over an iota. But in that controversy it was an
What was at issue was whether Christ was a supernatural being but not fully
God, or, as the Nicene Creed was to confess, He was fully and completely
God. The ancient debates about the person of Christ have something of the
same character, the point at issue being the unity of the person of Christ,
the reality of His human nature and, centrally, the affirmation that God
gave Himself fully and completely into our human condition.
In a world in which Platonist philosophy spoke of a God remote from the
flux and change of history, the Christian affirmation of the incarnation,
of God taking human nature, was bound to be offensive. The struggles of the
early Church with the nature of Christ are, in the end, struggles to say
that the God with whom we have to do is a God who does not stand aside from
His creation, but, in the words of the Lady Julian of Norwich, "comes down
to the very lowest part of our need".
In Christ God freely chooses to know our humanity from the inside. In Jesus
we encounter no less than God incarnate. That is the radical, wonderful and
challenging reality that is at the heart of the Christian faith.
The remote, distant and uninvolved God, repudiated in the theological
battles of the early Church, is always in danger of creeping back. The
deists of the 18th century, who turned God into the abstraction of a first
cause, setting the Universe going and then remaining all but absent from
it, is but one instance of this. It is often such a God who is denied by
atheists and tilted at by critics. But that is not the Christian God, who
is uniquely revealed and known in Christ.
In a few weeks we shall celebrate at Christmas that self-giving of God, and
will sing the praise of that love which goes to the uttermost. Tomorrow,
when the Church celebrates the Feast of Christ the King, the king we honour
and praise is the one who embodies that same love, a king whose kingdom is
a kingdom of justice, love and peace.
To live the life of that kingdom is the Christian calling, a calling made
possible by the one who came down to where we are that we might be exalted
to share in His life.
The Right Rev Geoffrey Rowell is Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.