Posts Tagged ‘Athanasius’

Why do you, being God, make yourself man?

December 24, 2009

Athanasius turns around the charge the religious experts level at Jesus in John 10:33. They say to him “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Why does Jesus, a man, make himself God? Rather, Athanasius says, in De Decretis 1, they should have put it: “Why do you, being God, make yourself man?” (διατὶ σὺ θεὸς ὤν ἄνθρωπος γέγονας;)

Why indeed? This is the surprise, the twist, in the Christmas narrative. Why is it that one of the Trinity has taken on humanity? Why has God become human – and a baby at that? Why has “he who was rich beyond all splendour” become so poor?

Christians have always marvelled at this – and spoken their answer in reverent awe. They take their cue from the Scriptures – for example, in Paul’s claim that Jesus came “in the fulness of time” to redeem us (Galatians 4:4), and John’s claim that he came to bring light, life, truth and grace (John 1), and in the “trustworthy saying” of 1Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”. God became man to save humanity.

Reflecting on this, Athanasius writes in his On the Incarnation that it was indeed necessary for God to become human to save humanity from sin, and the conseqences of sin – “death and corruption”. In words which resonate with such later writers as Augustine, Anselm and Calvin, and draw upon Paul’s language of “union with Christ”, he says:

“taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men” (2.8)

Christmas and Easter are bound together. As God became human, he became able to suffer the death and corruption that came about as a result of humanity’s sin. Truly becoming man, he was truly able to die, and in dying, “abolish” the punishment of death and corruption for all those united to him. Because he was, is and remains also God, death could have no hold on him, and was itself defeated – setting us free:

For by the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection. By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew. (2.10)

Athanasius points us beyond a pretty Nativity scene and gifts and goodwill to the mind-changing truth behind Christmas. That child in the manger is also God. “He who made the world lies in Mary’s arms”, in the words of a modern Christmas song. Why has he come? To reveal, to heal, to rescue… by his death. Easter cannot but follow Christmas, and that child cannot but one day be rejected and crucified – and in dying, paradoxically defeat death and sin and corruption for those he calls to be united with him. It’s powerful. It’s not what we expect. And if it’s true, it changes everything.

And all this, to use Athanasius’ phrase, is done “out of sheer love for us”.

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Non-Scriptural language

October 7, 2009

Does it bother you that the word trinity is not found in the Bible? It bothers some people – for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is unbiblical on the grounds that the word trinity is non-Scriptural. It seems that, during the Arian Controversy, Athanasius had to answer the objection that, in formulating the Nicene Creed, the orthodox bishops had used non-Scriptural language – probably focussing on the use of the word οὐσία (essence, substance, being). Athanasius replies, defending his use of such language at length (De Decretis, 18-24). Both the opponents and supporters of Nicea used non-Scriptural terminology, according to Athanasius, but the language used in the creed was valid because it expressed the truth:

But if someone enquires accurately into the things written and defined by the council, he will find that it completely embraces the sense of the truth, especially if one were to enquire with a love of learning and hear the fitting reason for the use of these words.
De Decretis, 18

Second, Arianism was a subtle heresy which attempted to defend itself from the Scriptures. The Arians and non-Arians would both have assented to the same Scriptural phrases about the Son’s relationship to the Father, but have understood it in different ways. Therefore, Athanasius says, it became necessary to rule out certain false ways of interpreting the Scriptural language, using non-Scriptural terms. But, this language is acceptable because it “gather[s] together the sense of Scripture”:

Nevertheless, let it be known to anyone who wishes to learn, that even if the words are not as such in the Scriptures, yet, as has been said before, they contain the sense of the Scriptures and they express this sense and communicate it to those who have ears that are whole and hearken unto piety.
De Decretis, 21.

In this way, while we concede that much of the language used in orthodox definitions of Christology and the Trinity are non-Scriptural or non-biblical (that is, they are not part of the vocabulary of the Bible), they are not for that reason unscriptural or unbiblical. Of course, Christians need to be careful that they find and use appropriate language when trying to “gather up the sense of Scripture”, but they need not feel limited to only using the Biblical vocabulary when doing theology. Such a limitation would also really limit theology to works written in Hebrew or Greek, since all translation involves interpretation to a greater or lesser extent. Non-Scriptural vocabulary often helps explain what the Biblical language means, rule out false interpretations where there is potential ambiguity, and acts as a shorthand for things that are Scriptural.

Should anyone then worry that the word trinity isn’t found in the Bible? No – because it is shorthand for the truth taught in the Bible about God’s identity. The Bible does teach that there is one God; that the Father is God; that the Son is God; that the Holy Spirit is God; and that the Father is not the Son nor the Spirit, and that the Son is not the Spirit nor the Father, and that the Spirit is not the Father nor the Son. These seven statements (and the nuances given in Scripture) lead directly to the Trinitarian belief expressed in e.g. the Athanasian Creed, and the word trinity is a useful shorthand for this, and fully commensurate with the sense of Scripture.

Charles Wesley’s Christology

June 16, 2009

I’ve heard it said that the early Methodists learned their theology through hymns, and particularly those of Charles Wesley. There’s a lot of theology to be learnt from his hymns, and I noticed this in my module on Christology and Atonement this semester. Almost every point of orthodox Christology is expressed in one hymn or another – a mark both of Wesley’s theological learning and tremendous poetic skill.

One of the favourite Christmas hymns of my pastor at my “home” church is Let Earth and Heaven Combine, with the line “Our God contracted to a span / Incomprehensibly made man”. As well as major bonus points for getting a six-syllable word into a metrical hymn, I think this is a brilliant and lyrical way of describing the incarnation. The same hymn goes on to summarise the theology of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation in a verse:

He deigns in flesh to appear
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.

The theologians of the early Church, particularly Irenaeus of Lyon and Athanasius, rejoiced in the parallelism of Christology – “God became man that men might become god (θεοποιηθῶμεν)” (Athanasius, On The Incarnation 54.3 – modern Western Christians might prefer to say “godly” or “Christlike” for the last word; in context this is what Athanasius means) and Wesley expresses this neatly and devotionally here. “We the life of God shall know, for God is manifest below” is (whether deliberately or not, I don’t know) exactly the thought of Origen in Against Celsus 3.28.

But perhaps better-known, the great-granddaddy of all Christmas carols, is Hark! the Herald Angels Sing:

Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’ incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

I’ve heard it claimed (and indeed askeda few people myself!) if “Veiled in flesh” is a bad choice of wording and possibly docetic. Giles Fraser calls it “heretical“, but the following lines “pleased as man with man to dwell” essentially rule out doceticism. What I think Wesley is trying to do with “veiled” is to emphasise the hiddenness of the divine nature in Jesus (that glory which is manifested for a second in the transfiguration [Matthew 17]).

Many of Wesley’s hymns have too many verses to fit comfortably into a carol service or worship “sesh” so we usually pick three or four. Hark! the herald has some extra verses, one of which picks up on Paul’s image of Christ as the Second Adam (1Corinthians 15:45-49):

Come, Desire of nations, come,
fix in us thy humble home;
rise, the woman’s conquering Seed,
bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
stamp thine image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

Love it.

Of course, nobody is perfect, not even Charles Wesley – and unfortunately one of his best hymns (and my favourite Wesley hymn) does have an unfortunate Christological line in it. I refer, of course, to And Can It Be?

He left his Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race

The offending line “Emptied himself of all but love” isn’t great – as one of my lecturers says, “I don’t believe that!” Kenotic Christology has its devotees, who take the self-emptying of Philippians 2:5-11 to mean precisely this – that Jesus gave up the divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence …) in the incarnation. I don’t believe that – and I don’t think the Bible teaches that (topic for another post, I think!). I thought it would be unfair to have a post on Wesley’s Christology without dealing with this anyway. Any suggestions for emending the verse? Use the comment box!

All in all, however, I think Wesley’s hymns show a great Christology and are jam-packed with theological truths, expressed in a way I find compelling and memorable – and that is why it’s great to sing them and learn some (biblically faithful!) theology from our hymns.

Scripture and Christology

April 20, 2009

I’ve been working on an essay for my Christology and Atonement module, and had one of the best, but broadest essay prompts ever: choose one particular doctrine of Christological controversy and show how it compels a particular reading of a text of scripture which could be read otherwise. Geeky, I know. I’ve also had a bit of trauma with it today, having found out the word limit is 500 words less than I had assumed, and therefore having to cut out John of Damascus and Leo the Great entirely from my essay, and paring Origen down to a soundbite. (Sorry, guys. We can chat more about your stuff in heaven!)

Anyway, I chose to look at the Arian controversy and Colossians 1:15, where Jesus is called the “firstborn of all creation”. In the fourth century, Arius taught that only God the Father was uncreated and eternal, and that therefore Jesus (the Word) was a created being who acts as a kind of demi-God – the agent through whom God creates and saves. His teachings were summed up – either by himself, his supporters, or his detractors – in the phrase “there was a time when he [Christ] was not”.  Arius claimed that his view was taught by scripture, and one of the texts he appealed to a lot (which is why I chose it) was Colossians 1:15:

 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation

Arius understood the genitive “of all creation” firstly as a partitive genitive rather than a genitive of subordination. A partitive genitive suggests Christ belongs to the set of things “creation”, as the firstborn. So an analogous genitive might be a student who is “top of the class” – the student is a member of the class, as the top of it. However, this is not the only way to understand “of all creation” – for example, the NIV translates the phrase as a genitive of subordination with “firstborn over all creation“. An analogous genitive would be to say someone is the “teacher of the class” – the teacher is not a member of the class!

Secondly, Arius understood the word “firstborn” to refer to Christ’s temporal status – that he preceded everything else, but had a beginning in time at some point. He also understood “firstborn” to qualify the Son’s relationship to the Father, as well as the Son’s relationship to creation.

One of the things that surprised me in looking at some of the early Church writers on Colossians 1:15 was that many of them also understood “firstborn” to qualify the Son’s relationship to the Father. Justin Martyr for instance:

…we know Him to be the first-begotten (πρωτότοκος – lit. firstborn) of God…
(Dialogue with Trypho 100.1)

Theodoret of Cyrus:

Thus is he the firstborn of creation: not because he has a created sibling but because he was begotten before every creature

Notably, Athanasius denies this:

Accordingly it is nowhere written in the Scriptures, ‘the first-born of God,’ nor ‘the creature of God;’ but ‘Only-begotten’ and ‘Son’ and ‘Word’ and ‘Wisdom,’ refer to Him as proper to the Father.
(Athanasius, Against the Arians 2.62)

And rightly so. To be fair to those who argued against Arius, a lot of them did do what seems to be the obvious thing and read on to the next few verses, which clearly distinguish Christ from the creation. However, I haven’t found a single ancient commentator who makes an appeal to the use of “firstborn” in Psalm 89:27 – “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” – which, according to Gordon Fee (Pauline Christology, pp.250-1) and Donald Macleod (The Person of Christ, p.57), had become a recognised Messianic title by the time Colossians was written. For Paul (or whoever – it is possible that Colossians 1:15-20 is a quote from an early hymn) to call Jesus the firstborn over all creation was to claim that Jesus was the Messiah and was the rightful heir and ruler of creation. It’s not a statement about coming into being or being “eternally begotten” at all.

So why is it that I can find this idea only in modern commentaries? Eduard Schweizer (The Letter to the Colossians, pp.251ff.) raises an interesting idea – it is because Paul’s world of ideas has been largely lost to Greek commentators by the 3rd/4th centuries; and so they were essentially unaware of the Jewish background of Messianic titles in this text (One might object that Paul may have been writing to a Gentile church – I’m with those who think it likely that Paul is quoting a bit of a hymn here that may well have been written by a Jewish-background Christian). This made it possible to interpret things like “firstborn of all creation” in a way that Paul didn’t mean. Of course, Arius had some other texts, and some philosophical presuppositions about what it means to be a monotheist as well, but it seems like a loss of touch with the world of ideas of the New Testament may also be partly to blame in allowing him to develop a heretical interpretation of this verse. A first-century Jew would never have thought of “firstborn of all creation” as referring to time, but to a position of honour and status promised to the Messiah in the Psalms.

Which brings me to a question I was chatting about on Saturday with another Christian theology student: How important is it to do the contextual and “critical” study of Biblical texts in terms of Christian reading of Scripture? We’d both noticed rather a lot of academic work that only seemed concerned with “What did this mean to the original writer/audience?” and agreed that this wasn’t a good approach for e.g. a sermon, or bible study; or even for doing systematic theology. We both agreed, too, that it was necessary to work out the implications for us, and that, believing the Scriptures to be God’s word as well, those implications are authoritative. But I think the close initial study of the text in terms of its historical context, and the world of ideas in which it makes sense, is important before we move on to applied or systematic theology. It doesn’t give us all of the answer, but maybe it can help prevent us from getting the wrong answer.