July 2018 Credo
‘10 In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering’ (Hebrews 2:10, NIV 1984)
The writer to the Hebrews uses a unique word — ‘fitting’ — to describe the salvation that has been brought to his church congregation (and to us). The Greek word eprepen (‘it was fitting’) covers a certain semantic range, but the meanings all centre on the notion of the suitability or propriety of an action or decision.
So in what way is our salvation, which involves the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his suffering, ‘fitting’?
Here in Hebrews, at least, our salvation is fitting given the theme of identification which runs through this chapter. If Jesus is to be the great forerunner of what humanity was meant to be as God intended (Heb. 2:8–9), then it is fitting that Jesus identifies with humanity. ‘11 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family’, Heb. 2:11 reminds us. Of course, as Heb. 2:14–15 goes on to show, Jesus’ identification is not one of capitulation to the same forces of death and the devil that held us in slavery, but it is precisely the opposite: a victory.
The language of fittingness is similarly seen in the great church father Athanasius. In On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius argues for the fittingness of God’s salvation based on the connection between creation and the renewal of creation.
Because it is the Word that brought about creation (including humanity), Athanasius argues that it is entirely fitting that the ‘the renewal of creation [is] the work of the self-same Word that made it at the beginning’ (§1.4; 4.2–4).
To be sure, the need for renewal is brought about by man’s own fault and rebellion. Having turned away from God who is the supreme being, we are ‘everlastingly bereft … of being’, with death and corruption now as our lot (§4.5). God’s goodness would not allow man to remain in this state of corruption (§6). Thus, the Word of God, which at the beginning made everything out of nothing, should come to bring ‘the corruptible to incorruption’ (§7.4–5).
The above, Athanasius stresses, is a fitting action, because ‘being Word of the Father, … He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father’ (§7.5). And that is what the Word does — takes on a body of similar nature as ours, gives it to death in the place of all as an offering to the Father, in the process undoing the law (involving the ruin of mankind) and turning mankind towards incorruption again (§8.4).
The idea of the fittingness of God’s salvation is picked up again and expounded in Anselm’s classic work, Cur Deus Homo. Anselm differs from Athanasius in framing his discussion around the concept of a debt payment or recompense for sin instead of a renewal of creation. Notwithstanding the difference, he shares with Athanasius the conviction that only a perfect God-man can fittingly undertake the task of salvation.
Cur Deus Homo can be seen as one long substantial answer that Anselm gives to the central question raised by his interlocutor, Boso: ‘Given that God is omnipotent, by what necessity and reason did he assume the lowliness and weakness of human nature in order to restore human nature?’ (I.1)
Anselm’s answer centres on the notion of sin and that which is involved in making recompense for sin. If every rational creature ought to subject his or her will to God, sin is nothing other than the failure to render obedience that one owes to God, resulting in a dishonouring of God (I.11). For God to leave sin unpunished would be to leave sin in an unordered state (I.12, 13). That cannot be the outcome given the character of God.
To further compound the problem, Anselm adds that the recompense must be proportionate to the sin (I.20, 21). This means that even if mankind — were we able to — could honour God by fearing, loving and obeying him, that would count only as repayment to God for what we owed him in the first place if we had not sinned, and not as payment for the debt which we owe for having sinned (I.20). Specifically, this recompense (for having sinned) must be ‘something greater than everything other than God’. Effectively, this translates to the fact that only God can make this recompense (II.6).
The logic culminates in Anselm’s conclusion that it is therefore only fitting that a perfect God-man make this recompense, for it is one that only mankind owes and that only God can make (II.6, 7). That is what Jesus does. By laying down his own life for the honour of God, Jesus — as one of true humanity — pays on behalf of sinful humanity the recompense owed to God. Because there is no sin in Jesus, his death is neither obligated of him nor reckoned as his debt before God (II.11), thus Jesus’ death truly counts as the recompense needed.
To complete the triple A-list of theologians, I mention very briefly Aquinas. Aquinas in the Summa Theologica addresses this question ‘Whether it was fitting that God should become incarnate?’ at the head of all the questions he treats in considering the incarnation (ST III, q. 1, a. 1). His refreshing answer comes in the form of leveraging on the idea of divine goodness. Since the essence of goodness is to communicate itself to others, so it is fitting that this divine goodness is communicated in the best possible way to the creature; that best possible way being seen in the incarnation.
Taken together, four different perspectives are presented as to why our salvation involving the incarnation and suffering of our Lord is a fitting salvation. That the one who is to be humanity’s forerunner should fully identify with humanity (Hebrews), that the one who created is the one who would renew creation (Athanasius), that only a perfect God-man can pay the debt that mankind owes to God (Anselm), that divine goodness should be communicated to the creature (Aquinas), all provide us fitting reasons to praise our Heavenly Father for his grace bestowed upon us.
O what a fitting salvation!
Rev Dr Edmund Fong is currently an Associate Minister in Adam Road Presbyterian Church. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology on the theology of the great German theologian Karl Barth. Happily married to Mei and blessed with 3 children, Edmund enjoys watching movies and running when he’s not found either reading a good book or writing his dissertation.