Paul makes a remarkable statement in writing to his son in the faith Timothy. This is one of those pithy theological statements, which are scattered through Paul’s letters, that remind me of a hymn of praise; these are either written by Paul or quoted by him in order to make his point more forcefully. In this statement he speaks of “the mystery of our religion” being great. What he was primarily referring to is the reality of the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God as the Person of the Lord Jesus, the promised Messiah of Israel.
“And beyond controversy, great is the mystery of our religion—He who appeared in the flesh, was proved righteous by the Spirit, was seen by angels and proclaimed among Gentile nations, was believed on in the world, and received up into glory.” (1 Timothy 3:16, The New Testament in Modern Speech, Weymouth)
This remarkable statement captures uniquely the sequence of the Deity’s entrance into human life as Jesus of Nazareth and the subsequent testimony that was given to him. That the New Testament authors made theologically pregnant statements like this has been recognized by Christian theologians from the first centuries of the Church. It is only in the modern period that scholars have attempted to make hard and fast distinctions between the supposedly “primitive” theological teaching of the apostles and the later, more sophisticated, development of Christology reflected (supposedly) in other sections of the New Testament documents. We mainly have to thank a few notable German scholars for this heretical division of the content of the New Testament documents.
It is obvious that the apostles did not fully develop all aspects of the Person of Christ in their writings—indeed they did not even develop some of their most remarkable statements about him. But it must be remembered that they did not set out to write formal theological statements, such as the Westminster Confession. They were missionary pastors who were teaching the Word of the Lord in ways that were intended to directly guide people to adopt a manner of life which conformed with the Gospel. Their statements affirming and describing the Person of the Lord spurred theological questions and thought.
The leaders of the Churches in the formative centuries following the life and ministry of the apostles, wrestled with how to understand and teach the meaning of the Apostles’ affirmations of Christ’s Person. For example, one finds them in Paul’s letter(s) to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 8:4-6; 2 Corinthians 4:5-6; 8:8-9), to the Philippians (2:6-11), to the Colossians (1:15-20, 2:9-10), to Timothy (1 Timothy 2:1-6); in the epistle to the Hebrews (1:1-4); in one of the letters of Peter (1 Peter 4:1-2). This is a short list of some of the most well know Christological statements in the New Testament. These affirmations, along with the Old Testament, became a seedbed for developing doctrinal orthodoxy in the Patristic period.
I think the most wonderfully surprising truth about these biblical affirmations of the Person of Christ is that they defy simple explanations. They are an attempt by the inspired author to describe some aspect of the mystery of life of the Incarnate Son. They profoundly challenged the basic conceptions people had in the first century about God and what God would or would not do to restore his creatures back to vibrant relationship with him. (And people have been confounded by them in every generation and cultural background ever since!) When analyzed from a philosophical perspective (ancient or modern) they cannot be adequately explained with the rational tools anyone possesses. Thus Paul’s words are proved true that the mystery of our religion is great.
That the core of Christian faith is a mystery has never been enough for some people. They have sought to fit Jesus Christ into their inherited philosophical or religious system. This has never worked because the Lord Christ defies all precise human definition. Paul explicitly acknowledges this even as he describes the truth about him. Regardless of this obvious emphasis in the Apostles’ teaching, some Church leaders in the Patristic era began to try to explain the precise meaning of the mystery of the Incarnation of God the Son. This provoked heated disagreements and developed sharply contrasting means and methods to explain the meaning of Scripture’s affirmations about the Lord Jesus.
Arguably the most important attempt to articulate a coherent description and explanation of how the Incarnation was possible was given by Pope Leo the Great. In his famous letter, which became known simply as the “Tome,” he stated the following:
“Without detriment therefore to the properties of ether nature and substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt belonging to our condition inviolable nature was united with passible nature, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one [human nature] and not die with the other [Deity]. Thus in the whole and perfect nature of true man was true God born, complete in what was His own, complete in what was ours. And by ‘ours’ we mean what the Creator formed in us from the beginning and what He undertook to repair. For what the Deceiver brought in and man deceived committed, had no trace in the Saviour. Nor, because He partook of man’s weaknesses, did He therefore share our faults. He took the form of a slave without stain of sin, increasing the human and not diminishing the divine: because that emptying of Himself whereby the Invisible made Himself visible and, Creator and Lord of all things though He be, wished to be a mortal, was the bending down of pity, not the failing of power.” (Leo the Great, the “Tome”; Letter to Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople (June 13, 449); cited from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 12 [Hendrickson Publishers:1994], p.40.
This paragraph is washed, so to speak, in the letter and the spirit of Scripture’s testimony. Leo understood that when tackling this question of the Incarnation one was standing on holy ground. The whole of this letter exudes sober-mindedness and a tamed rational use of language to attempt a reasoned description of the Person of Jesus the Christ. He was not indulging in speculation nor trying to fit God the Son into a category. I am most impressed by Leo’s ability to let the actual testimony of Scripture lead his own reasoning and conclusions. In this he emphatically affirmed, for the benefit of the Church of all subsequent generations after him, the mystery of our religion.
Again, Leo continues,
“Accordingly He who while remaining in the form of God made man, was also made man in the form of a slave. For both natures retain their own proper character without loss: and as the form of God did not do away with the form of a slave, so the form of a slave did not impair the form of God. For inasmuch as the Devil used to boast that man had been cheated by his [the Devil’s] guile into losing the divine gifts, and bereft of the boon of immortality had undergone sentence of death, and that he had found some solace in his troubles from having a partner in delinquency, and that God also at the demand of the principle of justice had changed His own purpose towards man whom He had created in such honour: there was need for the issue of a secret counsel, that the unchangeable God whose will cannot be robbed of its own kindness, might carry out the first design of His Fatherly care towards us by a more hidden mystery; and that man who had been driven into his fault by the treacherous cunning of the devil might not perish contrary to the purpose of God.” (“Tome”; cited from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 12, p.40.)
These are remarkable words and I think worth carefully reading, re-reading and meditating on. And what is perhaps the most helpful aspect of Leo’s teaching here is that he explicitly affirms the mystery of God’s work in Jesus, the Son and Lord of all. He seems to be pointing to the great wisdom of the Father in sending the Son in a form which concealed his glory—as a mere man and more as a slave instead of person of nobility. God did not throw away his rebellious human creatures but turned to a means and method of redeeming them that confounded the strategy of the devil to deceive and the capacity of humans to rebel through sin.
The Lord Jesus taught by deed and word that people were to exercise faith in God through him. He spoke in many different ways of his Person and what he came to do as the Savior of the world. He cannot be comprehended by even the most brilliant humans because he is utterly unlike anything we have ever encountered in the material world and in our psychological experience. He is to be known experientially by faith—that is the biblical pattern. All human powers of memory and reasoning, at best, can only approach the eternal Son of God from a distance and say, “he seems to be like…”
The mystery of the faith is rooted in Christ Jesus himself. This is what Pope Leo emphatically asserted, in response to the erroneous teachings that were then moving among the Church at the time. He viewed those errors as heresy precisely because they were efforts to downplay the mystery of the Incarnation by explaining that in light of what would be assumed to be reasonable to people. The heresy of Arianism fits into this same critique—for Arius could not accept that the eternal God either would or could become a human being in order to deliver us from sin; God could only work through a creature.
This should be a welcome reminder to us modern Christians who are being constantly pushed to deny the utter uniqueness of the Lord Jesus; to make him and his teaching fit into the spirit of the modern age. Praise be to God that he has revealed himself in and through the “Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14, NRSV). In Christ is the mystery of God’s character and his purpose for human beings revealed. Yet in this revelation of God, the Lord Jesus (the Holy One) remains veiled to us. For the eternal God is beyond our ability to comprehend even as we can know and love him through the Lord Jesus. Thus we can gladly celebrate the mystery of our religion.