“…the Savior did this in order that, as He fills all things on all sides by His presence, so also He might fill all things with the knowledge of Him, as the divine Scripture also says: ‘The whole earth was filled with the knowledge of the Lord’”(Athanasius, De Incarnatione 45.2).
(Defining terms: Incarnation – the event in which the Son of God assumed flesh; Epistemology – the study of how we know what we know; Hermeneutics – the methods of our knowledge).
A recurrent theme in Athanasius is this: The Incarnation of Jesus spread the knowledge of God to all men. Athanasius believed that the event of the Incarnation, especially the cross of Christ, was the event wherein God fulfilled Isaiah 11:9, the passage which promises that God would renew humanity’s knowledge even as the waters cover the sea.
But Athanasius never defines the causality of that relationship, specifically how the Incarnation might concretely change the way we think. This post constitutes an attempt to define that causality, using two key thinkers to help me: Calvin and Heidegger. Explicitly this will mean drawing from Calvin’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and Heidegger’s hermeneutics.
For Calvin, the knowledge of God, although coming through Christ, is tethered to the Holy Spirit, a view which he inherited from the Greek Fathers, specifically Gregory and Cyril, but has its primal roots in Athanasius’s treatise on the Holy Spirit (found in a series of letters to Serapion). That is, the knowledge of Christ is extended to humanity by means of the Holy Spirit, and not only knowledge, but all the benefits of Christ reach us through the Spirit’s embrace.
For Heidegger, hermeneutics is rooted in the unique way humans relate to the world, what he enigmatically calls “Being-in-the-World.” This knowledge is rooted in a process of engagement with equipment of various kinds, equipment like hammers, ideas, words, drum sticks, shoe strings, etc. The door knob which we turn, the hammer which we swing, the mouse which we click, the CD that we play: these equipment constitute our way of relating to the world. Rather than being brains in a vat, contemplating the world in a detached sense, human beings actually contemplate as part of the world, entangled in their equipment by all sorts of emotional contours. Thus, we relate not to our equipment as zombies, but we rather care about things, as our identity is wrapped up in that equipment.
So how do Calvin and Heidegger, taken together, help us strengthen the Athanasian argument, namely that the Incarnation forever changes human knowledge? The answer, to use Aristotle’s categories, comes materially through a Heideggerian relationship of the Incarnation to the world, and efficiently through the secret power of the Holy Spirit. More plainly, Jesus’s life amongst us has completely altered all human equipment. His life alters the equipment of our language; words like love, slave, faith, poor, Lord, forgiveness, mercy, promise, and others are no longer the same, as any use of them is forever touched by the light of his Incarnation. Also, because of the Incarnation, human society is never the same. His presence drew into existence a new community, one which forever lived to worship him. That community – the Church – exists perpetually as a monument to his Incarnation.
The Church, for Athanasius, is also the means by which the knowledge of the Incarnation continually spreads. This is most true under the sword of persecution, when persecutors “traduce the Cross of Christ,” not knowing “that its power has filled all the world, and that by it the effects of the knowledge of God are made manifest to all”(Contra Gentes 1.3). Think over history, pondering the epochs of Christian persecution, whether in ancient Rome, 19th century Korea, or present day China, and observe how the persecuted Church has permanently altered the hermeneutical circle.
When Pagans were persecuted, often by so-called Christian emperors, they scarcely flourished like persecuted Christians. The same is true of other religions like Islam or Hinduism, whose flourishing is rooted primarily in other causalities. The Church, in a scandalous mystery to the world, witnesses unto the Savior’s death and resurrection in all her suffering, creating a new Epistemology wherever it is persecuted. Yet the Holy Spirit is also at work in this new Epistemology, even as he imbues God’s children with boldness in suffering, and testifies secretly in the hearts of their persecutors, illuminating them to the reality of that Christ is with his dear ones.
Thus, even the philosophers, who continually think about love, justice, forgiveness, and knowledge, are forever coming into confrontation with the Incarnation, even if that confrontation lacks self-conscious awareness. And no matter what Pagan Poets preach, the persecuted Church, which is rooted in Christ’s Incarnational power, has the Spirit witnessing to love, justice, forgiveness, and Christ himself, through imprinting their wounds with his knowledge.
To restate the point: in the Incarnation, Jesus ignited the knowledge of God, which the Spirit secretly testifies in human hearts, and which now covers the earth as the waters cover the sea.