There is a spot in the Creed of 381 that came under discussion yesterday:
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
How you read that particular line may be influenced by your understanding of Election, or perhaps, your understanding of the Church v. World, wherein we who are saved are now the “us.” But, what if the “us” is indeed corporate and universal?
St. Gregory of Nyssa writes,
Those who submit to surgery or cautery are angry with their doctors as they smart under the agony of the operation. But if restoration to health follows and the pain passes, then they are grateful to those who effected the cure. In the same way, when after tedious processes the evil is expelled that had been mixed with human nature and had grown up with it, and when there has taken place the restoration to the original state of those who are now lying in wickedness, then will arise a unison of thanksgiving from all creatures, as well as from those who have suffered chastisement in the process of purification as from those who needed no purification at all. Such are the benefits conferred by the great mystery of the divine incarnation. By mingling with humanity, sharing all the distinctive features from nature (birth, nurture, growth) and going right on to the experience of death, he effected all those aforementioned results, freeing humankind from wickedness and healing even the inventor of wickedness himself. For the purification of the disease, however painful, is the healing of infirmity. ADDRESS ON RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION 26.
In another place,
For he who exists eternally did not submit to a bodily birth because he wanted to live, but in order to recall us from death to life. Then since what was needed was the ascent of the whole of our nature from death to renewal of life, he stretched out a hand, as it were, to the prostrate body, and in bending down to our dead corpse he came so near to death as to come in contact with our state of mortality and by his own body to bestow on human nature a beginning of the resurrection, by raising up through his power the whole of humanity along with himself. For that humanity that received the Godhead and through the resurrection was raised up with the Godhead came from no other source than from the mass of human nature. CATECHETICAL LECTURES 32.
St. John Chrysostom:
“And the Word was made flesh,” he says, “and dwelled among us.” After saying that those who received him “were born of God and became children of God,” he states the basic cause underlying this ineffable honor, which is the fact that the Word became flesh, and the Lord assumed the form of the slave. The one who is a natural Son of God became a Son of man, in order to make children of God out of the children of men. The lofty is mingled with the lowly but suffers no damage to its own glory, while the lowly rises out of the depths of its lowliness. This is what happened with Christ. He in no way diminished his own nature through this descent, but he raised us, who were sitting forever in dishonor and darkness, up to indescribable glory. In somewhat the same way a king who speaks with care and concern to a very poor person in no way shames himself, but he makes the poor person illustrious and admired by all. In a case of transitory human glory, therefore, association with an inferior does no damage to a superior; how much truer is this, then, when it is a question of that pure and blessed essence that has nothing transitory about it (either by means of loss or gain) but possesses all good things unchangeably and in a fixed form forever? So when you hear that “the Word became f1esh,” do not be upset or disturbed. The divine essence did not change into flesh (it is sacrilegious even to think this); no, it remained what it was and assumed the form of the servant. HOMILIES ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 11.11.
While St. Irenaeus comes before the Creed, his words here, I believe, help define this phrase:
God the Word restored Man in himself, his ancient handiwork, that he might bring death to sin, strip death of its power, and give life to Man. AGAINST HERESIES 3.18.7.
This phrase, by the way, is found in a similar fashion in the Creed of 325.
I believe it doesn’t point to the Church, or to a specific body of believers — notably, it is far removed from the line on the Church. Rather, this line points to the whole of humanity, not just believers (1 Tim 4.10). While there is a rejection that moves the soul out of sight, I believe that St Gregory and others (specifically those who participated in the 4th century theological dialogue) viewed with great hope the eventual salvation of the many. This doesn’t exclude the reality of a hell — in fact, restorationism (as opposed to universalism) must include a reality of hell.
Anyway, I’ve wondered about this phrase for a while so I took this chance to explore it slightly with the Church Fathers.
Maddox, for those interested, details Wesley’s use of the Eastern Fathers (with possible connections to St. Gregory). Further, google the two men. See what pops up. I say this because we are not a cult of John Wesley, and are not limited expressly to him. He gave us the theological tools to go forward, pulling from the first 4 or 5 centuries of Christianity. Even in this, he treated the East better than the West. It may be time for us to include others in our canon of theologians.