11 Dec

Word becomes flesh, Reality becomes fact

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 12/11/15

Henri de Lubac on the Incarnational principle of history

“God acts in history and reveals himself through history. Or rather, God inserts himself in history and so bestows on it a ‘religious consecration’ which compels us to treat it with due respect. As a consequence historical realities possess a profound sense and are to be understood in a spiritual manner. . . . The Bible, which contains the revelation of salvation, contains too, in its own way, the history of the world. In order to understand it, it is not enough to take note of the factual details it recounts, but there must also be an awareness of its concern for universality, in spite of its partial, schematic and sometimes paradoxical mode of expression. It was in this way that the Bible was read by the Fathers of the Church. From Irenaeus to Augustine, by the way of Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, they all found in it a treatise on the history of the world. Had they known all the facts now in our possession doubtless the treatise would have been of far greater complexity, but the essential form would have been the same. For they would have been faithful, as we ought to be, to that fundamental principle they learned from Scripture: that if salvation is social in its essence it follows that history is the necessary interpreter between God and man.

“This principle governs the whole of their exegesis; it divides off their method of interpretation very sharply from that of the allegorical philosophers, whose works they may have known, or even from Philo. There are two features in the allegorism of the philosophers that appear constantly whatever the text on which their work is based or the system that they deduce from it; whatever purpose guides them or the precise nature of the method they use. For on the one hand they reject as myth what appears as a historical account, and deny to its literal sense what they claim to reveal in its meaning as a mystery. . . . ‘It does not mean that these things ever happened,’ they all exclaim with Sallust, Julian the Apostate’s friend. On the other hand, if they ‘spiritualize’ in this way whatever purports to be historical, it is not for the purpose of a deeper understanding of history. They do not see mythical events as symbols of spiritual happenings; but perceive beneath the historical veil scientific, moral or metaphysical ideas: ’It is not that these things ever happened — for they are thus from all eternity.’ The idea of a spiritual Reality becoming incarnate in the realm of sense, needing time for its accomplishment, that without prejudice to its spiritual significance should be prepared, come to pass, and mature socially in history — such a notion is entirely alien to these philosophers. Confronted with it, they find it a stumbling block and foolishness. . . .

“It is quite otherwise with the Fathers. Far from diminishing the historical and social character of Jewish religion, their mysticism strengthens it by discovering its depths. . . .  They all mean [in the words of Gregory of Nyssa] ‘to understand the spirit of history without impairing historical reality.’ For ‘there is a spiritual force in history’ [Maximus the Confessor]; by reason of their finality the very facts have an inner significance; although in time, they are yet pregnant with an eternal value. The reality which is typified in the Old — and even in the New — Testament is not merely spiritual, it is incarnate; it is not merely spiritual but historical as well. For the Word was made flesh and set up his tabernacle among us. The spiritual meaning, then, is to be found on all sides, not only or more especially in a book but first and foremost in reality itself: In ipso facto, non solum in dicto, mysterium, requirere debemus [Augustine: ‘In the very fact itself and not only in what is said about the fact we ought to seek the mystery’]. Indeed what we call nowadays the Old and New Testaments is not primarily a book. It is a twofold event, a twofold ‘covenant,’ a twofold dispensation which unfolds its development through the ages, and which is fixed, one might suppose, by no written account. When the Fathers said that God was its author — the one and only author of the Old and New Testaments — they did not like aiming him merely, nor indeed primarily, to a writer, but saw in him the founder, the lawgiver, the institutor of these two instruments of salvation, these two economies, two dispensations which are described in the Scriptures and which divide between them the history of the world. . . . Convinced that all therein was full of deep and mysterious meaning, the Fathers bent over the inspired pages in which they could trace through its successive stages the covenant of God with the human race; they felt that, rather than giving a commentary on a text or solving a verbal puzzle, they were interpreting a history. History, just like nature, or to an even greater degree, was a language to them. It was the word of God. Now throughout this history they encountered a mystery which was to be fulfilled, to be accomplished historically and socially, though always in a spiritual manner: the mystery of Christ and his Church.”

— from Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (Ignatius Press, 1938, 1988)

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