“You said that you knew the stranger—I mean the man I was looking for,” Matthew said. “He’s not…Is he…is he Jesus?” Matthew’s heart skipped a beat.
“No, he is not,” the old man said. “Though it is a high compliment to both that you ask. It is a chief goal of the Father that all his children be conformed to the image of his Son. The man you seek is indeed a son of God, but he is not the Son of God. He is by adoption what the Son is by generation.”
“Exactly what do you mean by that?” Matthew asked.
“Perhaps overstated,” the old man replied. “Yet not by much. Are you aware of the great Christological creeds?”
“I’m afraid not,” Matthew replied.
“Well, much could be said. But for now it’s sufficient to note the early church was concerned to maintain both the complete deity and complete humanity of the Son. Jesus isn’t a hybrid—part God and part man. He’s fully both; the theanthropos, both God and man. The implications of this are far reaching in Christian theology, and I don’t pretend to understand it all. The early fathers—Athanasius, Augustine, the two Gregorys, and others—laid a road that the modern church still walks. But the reason I mention it at all is because the dual nature of Christ has relevance to the Christian understanding of salvation, the very thing that accounts for the amazing similarity between Christ and the man you met. Are you interested?”
“I am,” Matthew said truthfully.
The old man continued, “The Son, the fathers taught, is eternally generated from the Father. But the idea that the Son is generated should not lead us to conclude he has a beginning. Just as the light of the sun is generated by the sun and exists simultaneously with it, so too the Son exists in temporal unity with the Father. The sun cannot exist without giving forth its light, and the Father cannot exist without generating the Son. In other words, there never was a time when the Son was not, for the Son is eternally generated from the eternal Father. Are you with me so far?” the old man asked.
Matthew nodded slowly. “I think so,” he said.
The old man went on, “Since the Son’s existence is by eternal generation from the Father, the divine nature belongs to the Son naturally. It is not a gift from the Father, but belongs to the Son by right. It is this eternal uncreated Word of the Father—begotten, not made—that took upon himself flesh and bone, and became as us. And this incarnation of the Son was for the sake of humanity—whatever other benefit it might have for the Son, independent of our salvation; but that’s a different story.
The reason for the Son’s becoming as us—and here I quote the fathers loosely—was so that we could become as him. It’s not for nothing St. Peter tells us we become partakers of the divine nature. The Son came to share himself with humanity. He doesn’t just bring salvation; he is salvation. He is the living branch into which the dead branches are grafted. He is the head that gives life to the body. He is the bread of life, the spring of living water. Christianity is not merely belief—though it is that. It is not merely a religion—though it is that too. But it is first and foremost a relationship, a bringing together of humanity with divinity. Indeed, the primary relationship the apostles used to illustrate the relationship between Christ and his Church is that of a marriage. There is a oneness, a shared life—a perichoresis—that results from the union of Christ with the Christian. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Christian comes to participate in the divine nature. The Son possesses a divine nature by generation, a human nature by adoption. What belongs to the Son by adoption belongs to us by generation, and what belongs to the Son by generation belongs to us by adoption. The fathers never meant to suggest—nor did Peter—that redeemed humanity somehow becomes ontologically equivalent to God. The finite creature can never equal the infinite creator. Yet through the incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Creator and the creature have come to share in the other, such that the life lived in the flesh—for both Christ and the Christian—is lived in union with, and under the power and guidance of the Godhead.”
“And now,” the old man said at last, “I return to my original statement—what the Son posses by generation we posses by adoption. We are finite creatures wed to an infinite divine nature. He is an infinite creator wed to a finite human nature. In this union, the redeemed human becomes a little incarnation—a reverse picture of Christ’s own dual ontology.”
Matthew eyes widened and then narrowed. He pulled his head back. “It’s a bit much, don’t you think?” he asked incredulously.
“Indeed,” the old man said. “More than we have the right to ask, and more than we could ever could have hoped for.”
Matthew said nothing, and the old man continued after a while. “It shouldn’t surprise us, really. How else could the vast gulf between creator and creature be bridged if not through mutual participation in the other? And it is in this dual becoming—he as us, and we as him—that God has intimacy with his creatures in a way that would not be possible otherwise.”
“I’m not sure I’ve every really appreciated the dilemma,” Matthew said. “I’ve always just assumed that God and man could relate well enough.”
“That’s because you’ve never really appreciated the complete ‘otherness’ of God. He is not like us. And by this I do not mean that he is not like us simply in that he is perfect and we are sinful. Or that he is not like us in that he is merely greater than us. No. The gulf between God and humanity is that of the finite to the infinite. He is immaterial, we are material. He is incorruptible, we are corruptible. He is immutable, we are mutable. He has life in himself, is self sustaining. Tell me,” the old man said, leaning toward Matthew, “did you not sense the ‘otherness’ when you spoke with the stranger? The divine nature saturates him like water in a sponge, like fire in a glowing iron.”
“I did,” Matthew said, awed at the thought. “And it terrified me.”
“Well it should have,” the old man said, leaning back. “Well it should have. And even then much of his glory was hidden from you. He said so himself. Imagine what it would have been like to stare upon him without the veil. He would have consumed you, simply by his presence. Do you see the dilemma now? It's a dilemma of ontology.”
Matthew nodded slowly, his mind lost in thoughts of the stranger’s terror. The old man’s eyes still looked toward Matthew, but his mind seemed somewhere else, perhaps chasing down memories of his own. Neither man spoke for a long time.