Keep your mind on earth — not in heaven!

I mentioned earlier that Luther and Melanchthon have this disconcerting tendency of flipping much of the ancient order on its head.

You can find another particularly stunning example at the very beginning of Melanchthon’s Loci Communes (1521; for more on this work, see here).

Melanchthon begins the Loci — which is meant to be a new systematic theology — by pretty much dismissing all the standard preliminary topics for this type a work: the nature of God, unity, trinity, the incarnation, and creation. He notes, famously, that “…this is to know Christ, to wit, to know his benefits, and not as they [the scholastics] teach, to perceive his nature and the mode of his incarnation.”1

In other words: forget contemplating the Trinity and pondering Christology and the like. Attend instead to sin, grace, redemption — broadly the whole story of what Christ has done, and not who he is.

This is itself quite significant, and we’ll return to it in later posts.

But what really caught my eye is this little nugget, slipped in as part of his explanation for why we shouldn’t spend time with these traditional subjects:

…the most High God clothed his son with flesh, in order to incite us from the contemplation of his majesty to the contemplation of the flesh and indeed our own frailty.”2 [Emphasis mine.]

Wow.

For those of us used to traditional (read: late antique/medieval) Christian theology, this is a very big flip. In the classical world, theology is all about ascent: moving upwards from the fleshly to the spiritual, from the earthly to the heavenly, from the human to the divine. The incarnation is understood as precisely the means that enables this ascent to the divine: God condescended to clothe his son with flesh in order to provide us, in our fleshly weakness, with a kind of cosmic “bridge”, an instrument to draw our higher intellectual faculties upward towards the contemplation and assimilation of a higher, truer reality — God in his majesty. And it ultimately leads us not so much to a contemplation of our frailty, as to a contemplation of our own potential for divinized glory.

Not so, says Melanchthon.

For Melanchthon, the incarnation is meant to precisely prevent our minds from “ascending” to higher realities – it is meant to draw us away from thinking of God “up there on a cloud”, and to actually draw it towards the flesh!

Whoa!

Why?

The central reason, which we’ll return to often, is that Luther and Melanchthon are absolutely convinced — in a way I think was completely unparalled in Christian theology at the time, even if it has since become rather popular — that you only ever encounter God in the flesh of Christ. There is no way that our minds, eager as they are, can penetrate “beyond” the flesh of Christ to encounter God “in his majesty”. In fact, it’s quite useless, and even dangerous, to try. (We’ll see in later posts why contemplating the majesty of God is an especially bad, bad idea.) No: the fullness of God is in Christ. So our knowledge of God never extends beyond the flesh. This is the famous “theology of the cross”: the only God we ever know is the crucified one.

That itself is rather mind-blowing. But there’s something more here too: the incarnation also invites us to contemplate our own frailty. So there is a place for contemplation, but it is not “upwards”, towards glory, our participation in divinity, our redeemed divinized agency, etc. It is “downwards” (!) to contemplate our weakness and our fallibility. That’s what the incarnation is about. The revelation of God and the revelation of our sin are deeply intertwined.  Meeting God and recognizing our own frailty go hand in hand.

Hmm.

But what is really interesting then — if we go a little further — is that this meeting with God is maybe not so much an experience of contrast between God and us, God in his strength, us in our weakness, God as spirit, us as flesh. No, we’re brought towards a contemplation of our weakness by meeting God himself also in his weakness. In effect, the incarnation incites us to the contemplation of the frailty of ourselves, but also… of God?(!)

Lots to ponder there.

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  1. Philipp Melanchthon, The Loci Communes, trans. Charles L. Hill (Meador 1944), p. 68. []
  2. ibid. p. 67. []