Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Summer Movie Report 2016

Here is my summer movie report for this year.  Sue and I saw seven official summer movies. Without giving too much away, I give my basic reactions.   Included are the Metacritic ratings in parentheses.

Love & Friendship (87)  Whit Stillman, known for his semiautobiographical triad Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, returns to his Jane Austen obsession (Metropolitan being inspired by Jane Austen.)  – this time with the re-telling a little-known Austen short story.  The critics loved this movie, and I can’t help but feel that I should have liked it more.  But in my dotage I found the plot a bit hard to follow and couldn’t quite keep the myriad characters straight.  Suggestion:  take notes.  Kate Beckinsale, however, is marvelous and astonishingly attractive at age 43.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (80)  For us, this wins as the flat-out most entertaining movie of the summer.   I’m going out on a limb here, but this movie may be Sam Neill’s finest hour (yes, and that includes Jurassic Park).  The movie could also double as a travelogue for New Zealand.

Cafe Society (64)  Here is more Woody Allen nostalgia.  The reviews were mixed on this one but, for Sue and me, it was also way up there in the sheer entertainment category.  It wasn’t as good as recent Allen offerings Midnight in Paris or Blue Jasmine, but still well worth watching.   With a funny Steve Carell, Twilight star Kristen Stewart, and Jesse Eisenberg as Woody Allen’s stand-in.

Captain Fantastic (72)  I’m of two minds about this movie. I think that you’re supposed to really admire the lead character for his totally principled approach to his life, but he was also really annoying and obnoxiously self-righteous.  So, I didn’t know what to think of him – perhaps that was the point.  But, for you Aragorn groupies, Viggo Mortensen, the lead, turns in a superb performance. 

Indignation (79)  Adam Chandler of the Atlantic Monthly once wrote an article entitled, “Stop Making Film Adaptations of Philip Roth Novels.”  Of course, moviemakers continue to ignore this demand.  (I think some six have been made so far.)  Indignation is the latest effort.  It may not fully capture Roth but it was still a pretty good movie – one of those movies that continues to haunt you days after you’ve left the theater.  Never did the 50’s seem so strange.

Don’t Think Twice (83)  We really enjoyed this movie.  It joins Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Café Society as our favorites of the summer.  Maybe all you need to know about this movie is who is involved.  Comedian Mike Birbiglia wrote and directed the movie, and is in the cast.  Also in the cast is comedian Keegan-Michael Key of the Comedy Central series Key & Peele.   And, I should mention co-star Gillian Jacobs, who grew up in Mt. Lebanon (class of 2000)(Did anybody know her?  James, Ali, Theresa, Pete?).  Finally, one of the producers is Ira Glass (Birbiglia has made a number of appearances on This American Life).

Florence Foster Jenkins (71)  Sue, I think, liked this movie more than I did.  And, it’s a rather amazing true story.  Jenkins was an item in the 30’s and 40’s in New York City.  So, it’s the sort of thing I would have liked to ask Mom or Dad about.  My problem was that I didn’t see why I should care about this person.  Sue, however, saw something honorable in Jenkins.  In any event, we agree that Meryl Streep is as accomplished as ever, and Hugh Grant gives a particularly elegant performance.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Related Peanuts

To go with Myk's Peanut post, I'll offer a 'trending' video:

I put 'trending' in quotes since, despite 6 million current views, this is what generally all contemplative people have been asking for thousands of years. Although there are countless books and articles, both fiction and non-fiction, written on this subject (some of which Mr. Fry and others may find interesting, informative and/or consoling), it is still a quandary. Maybe I should have placed a spoiler alert before the last sentence.

Art Imitates Life

I can't tell you how many times I've had this same sort of conversation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Populism vs Elitism

When I was in Pittsburgh to attend brother Pete’s dinner celebrating la fête nationale de la France, I learned that Bill and I were reading the same book this summer:  The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis.  It tells the pretty compelling story of how four men – George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison – almost single-handedly manipulated the American political machinery to send the Articles of Confederation packing and establish a national constitution.  It was an unlikely achievement.  At the time, few people had any interest in consolidating the 13 former colonies into a single nation.  They saw rule by a “distant” federal government to be no different than foreign rule by the British parliament.  (As the book points out, the Articles of Confederation were more of a treaty among sovereigns than a plan for a central government.)

One of the concerns of the quartet in framing this new govenment was what might be called “unbridled democracy.”  Even Jefferson, the anti-federalist, acknowledged that:  “a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom, that the first secretion from them is usually crude and heterogeneous.”  Or, as my conservative friend likes to say, “People are morons.”  

On the other hand, these four also recognized that the people represented the greatest check on tyranny.  Madison spells out the paradox in the Federalist Papers:  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary….  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the greatest difficulty lies in this:  You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.  A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on government, but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

So, they deliberately built into the constitution provisions that checked both the power of government and the power of the electorate.  Ellis claims that our founders would be utterly astounded to discover that their humble document had endured 230 years.  Ellis says that, “It has endured not because it embodies timeless truths that the founders fathomed as tongues of fire danced over their heads, but manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time:  namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkably well.”

Has there been a more salient example in our time of the people's choice not being distinguished for its wisdom than the nomination of Donald Trump for the presidency?  Based solely on popularity, with almost no support from any party or the political establishment, he has managed to secure this nomination.  And it was achieved by Trump being a textbook demagogue – “a person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people” -- appealing to the worst in the electorate.  I don’t need to give you the long list of Trump’s inflammatory statements; every day, he seems to come up with another one.  

Bill thinks Trump is essentially harmless, but 50 former senior Republican national security officials claim that he would be “the most reckless President in American history.”   See Statement by Former National Security Officials.  In any event, from now on, I’m going to be a little less critical of elitism.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Things I Don't Understand

Today I read another headline, "IEA Sees Oil Glut Easing". This confirms other headlines such as "Everything You Need to Know About The Oil Crisis" where oil prices seem to be associated with a thriving economy or "How Plunging Oil Prices Threaten the U.S. Economy". It used be that the oil crisis was about the lack of oil and skyrocketing prices. Now it's about oil glut and falling prices.

So the goal has gone from cheap energy to help support our oil industry? How can you not love economists who can give you a crisis no matter which way things turn? Is this all concocted for our amusement? I, for one, am amused. I'm not thinking about oil industry/media conspiracies or change-is-bad/Republican/media conspiracies. That would be stupid. I believe we're more silly than stupid.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Forced to Watch Breaking Bad

We all wish we were seeing the show for the first time, too.

Shorts & Murmurs - Forced to Watch “Breaking Bad” by newyorker

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Theories of Atonement V

Classical or Patristic Theory – Part 3(b)

[We pick up where Part 3(a) left off.]

God accomplished another thing in the incarnation that allowed him to confront the last enemy, death, and so complete His saving act. He overcame the related problems of impassibility and immutability. Classic theism teaches that God is impassible — He is not subject to suffering or other feelings. This is really a corollary to another principle of classic theism, the doctrine of God’s immutability: God cannot change.

This posed a dilemma for God’s plan to save humanity from its downward plunge. Since death was the real culprit behind humanity’s crisis, it had to be destroyed if humankind were to be saved. God, however, could not destroy death unless he could get access to it. He had to die and be enveloped by death in order to shine his divine light in death’s dark void and so eliminate it. But, death involves both suffering and change. God by his nature could do neither.

The incarnation – fusing God’s divinity with the person of Jesus – would allow God to enter the realm of death and undo it. As Myers puts it: “When Christ’s human nature succumbs to death, the fullness of divine life enters the privation state of death. As a result, the privation is filled, i.e. cancelled out. In the death of Christ, death dies.” In Jesus’ death, the Word of God “touches” death and the privation that is death is swallowed up in the essence of being that is God. “For when death came into contact with life, darkness with light, corruption with incorruption, the worse of these things disappeared into a state of nonexistence. …” Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Oration.  Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky explains that, “the only way to conquer death was to allow it to penetrate God Himself where it could find no place.”

Athanasius sums it up nicely:
The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as He could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through his indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. Athanasius, On the Incarnation.
And so, in his death on the cross, the Word of God destroyed death. Having annihilated death, Jesus was restored to life and rose on the third day.

Characterizing Jesus as the “generous wrestler,” Athanasius makes it clear that, by His manner of death, Christ demonstrated that the power of death in any form had been abolished, and need no longer be feared:
Death came to His body, therefore, not from Himself but from enemy action, in order that the Savior might utterly abolish death in whatever form they offered it to Him. A generous wrestler, virile and strong, does not himself choose his antagonists, lest it should be thought that of some of them he is afraid. Rather, he lets the spectators choose them, and that all the more if these are hostile, so that he may overthrow whomsoever they match against him and thus vindicate his superior strength. Even so was it with Christ. He, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind. No. He accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others, and those others His special enemies, a death which to them was supremely terrible and by no means to be faced; and He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. Id.
Just to be clear, even after Christ’s death and resurrection, people still die. But, as Myers puts it, death has become a doorway through which we step into the life of God.  Athanasius says, “death is no longer terrible.” Id. With Christ’s death and resurrection, death has lost its power.

But, we are not quite done.  As the Patristic fathers saw it, God did not simply stop the downward plunge and restore humankind to where it was before Adam’s fall. According to Myers, God raised us up to a higher status than we had ever known:
God's real intention wasn't just to free human nature from death, but also to elevate us to a new status.. If Christ had only freed us from death, we would still remain corruptible by nature ... the Son of God goes a step further. He not only removes us from the clutches of death, but also allows our nature to participate in his own incorruptible life.
In other words, if we were simply restored to the state of human nature before the fall, we would still be susceptible to corruption and might repeat the downward plunge. In order to save his creation, humanity, God implanted the divine life of the Son as a new trait of human nature, thus imprinting our nature with incorruptibility. Through the incarnation we have become divine.

Irenaeus, Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus all said it in slightly different ways, but Athanasius said it most directly: “God became man in order that we may become gods”. Athanasius, On the Incarnation. The goal of the Incarnation, said Gregory of Nazianzus in his second public sermon, is “to make man god and a partaker of heavenly bliss.” Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 2.

The Council of Nicaea of 325 C.E. defined the Son as having the same substance with the Father and was, therefore, fully God. (Today, we Catholics now say in the creed that Jesus Christ is “consubstantial with the Father.”) In the Incarnation, that divine substance was not simply united with a single human being but – and remember our Platonism here – was united with human nature itself. By taking upon himself our flesh through birth, Jesus as the Word of God united the essence of humanity to his divine nature. Athanasius says, “[T]he Word did come among us; and that He might hallow and deify them, the Word became flesh.” Athanasius, Against the Arian. And again, The Word “deified that which He put on, and more than that, gave it graciously to the race of man.” Id.

John Chrysostom emphasizes the great surplus we have received from Christ beyond a simple restoration of our prior status: “Paul did not say ‘grace’ but ‘abounding grace’. For from that grace we received not only as much as was required for removing that sin, but much more. … For Christ paid off much more than we owed – as much more as a limitless ocean compared to a small drop of water.” John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans.

And to drive his point home he makes this analogy:
As then if any one were to cast a person who owed ten mites [a mite is a Greek lepton, the smallest and least valuable coin in circulation the Hellenized world] into prison, and not the man himself only, but wife and children and servants for his sake; and another were to come and not to pay down the ten mites only, but to give also ten thousand talents of gold, and to lead the prisoner into the king's courts, and to the throne of the highest power, and were to make him partaker of the highest honor and every kind of magnificence, the creditor would not be able to remember the ten mites; so has our case been.  Id.
Myers says that the deification taught by Patristic fathers was not considered to be a transformation of each of us into individual gods, as the Mormons believe. Rather, it is human nature that is deified and, because in the Platonic view all individuals participate in that nature, once it is infused with divinity, each participates in the divine. And so, though the incarnation, we have all been united with the Father. According to Gregory of Nyssa “God united Himself to our nature in order that our nature might be made divine through union with God.” Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio Catechetica. Athanasius puts it this way: “For He has become Man, that He might deify us in Himself…, and that we may become henceforth a holy race, and partakers of the Divine Nature.” Athanasius, Letter To Adelphius.

Self-knowledge then becomes the knowledge of God:  "If one knows himself, he will know God, and knowing God will become like God.... His is beauty, true beauty, for it is God, and that man becomes a god, since God wills it. So Heraclitus was right when he said, 'Men are gods, and gods are men.'" Clement of Alexandria (circa 150 – circa 215), The Instructor.

We now glimpse a picture of humanity that bears little resemblance to a lot of what we hear from modern Christian preaching. I suspect that we have all heard preachers express a dim view of human nature. Indeed, the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity – “our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive” – yet endures. Wayne A. Grudem in his influential book, Systematic Theology, originally published in 1994, says, “It is not just that some parts of us are sinful and others are pure. Rather, every part of our being is affected by sin—our intellects, our emotions and desires, our hearts (the center of our desires and decision-making processes), our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies.” Pittsburgh native, Robert Charles Sproul, founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, puts it this way: “Our problem with sin is that it is rooted in the core of our being. It permeates our hearts.”

At the risk of engaging in superficial religion comparisons:  the Patristic view of humanity that sees divinity at its core seems closer to that of Vedantic Hinduism than the current Christian view.  Hindus in this tradition believe that each person has an individual soul, or “true self,” which is the essence of the individual – referred to as “atman.” Brahman is the term for “world soul” or “cosmic soul.” It is the eternal essence of the universe and the ultimate divine reality. It is the life source of all that has been, is and will be throughout the entire cosmos.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says it clearly: “Atman is indeed Brahman.” That is, the individual soul is the world soul. Our truest self participates in the ultimate divine reality. Athanasius could not have said it better.

This leads us to wonder, could Greek and Indian thought have influenced the other? Through Alexander’s conquests, parts of India were brought into the Greek world. And we know that the Greek philosopher Plotinus in the hope of studying Persian and Indian philosophy attached himself to a Roman military expedition to Persia led by Emperor Gordian III in 243 C.E. (The expedition was aborted when his own troops assassinated the emperor.)

I suppose the other question that might be asked is this: if the Indians and Greeks are correct, and we have within our true self a connection to the divine, how well are we living up to the promise?

Next time we will see why Christianity changed so drastically. And if our wash lady doesn't put my new straw hat in the soapsuds, and take all the color out of the ribbon, I’ll tell you about Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin.

John Chrysostom. "If you do not find Christ in the beggar at the church door, neither will you find him in the chalice.”
Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria
Gregory of Nyssa.  “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything."

Postscript:  You can skip these last two blog posts and just listen to Benjamin Myers' presentation at the third annual Los Angeles Theology Conference held in January 2015.  Unfortunately, it's a bit long (87 minutes).  But, he's a very intelligent and clear speaker and he has a mellifluous Australian accent.  I hesitate to include this video because it exposes how shamelessly plageristic I've been.

You may also wish to visit Myers' outstanding blog:  Faith and Theology

Prior Post -- Theories of Atonement IV (Classical or Patristic Theory – Part 3(a))

Theories of Atonement IV

Classical or Patristic Theory – Part 3(a)

I have decided to break into two parts (or subparts) this next installment of the "Theories of Atonement" series -- because it got so long.  Even as split both sections end up being a bit lenghty.  The first part will focus on certain preliminary matters and then turn to the notion of the Incarnation, and what it acheived.  The second subpart will discuss Christ's death and resurrection and the deification of humankind.   Just remember, these two posts were originally written as a single blog post.  And so to begin:

As we have seen, Gustav Aulén sought to correct earlier notions of Patristic thinking on atonement. Benjamin Myers now wants to correct Aulén.

Myers applauds Aulén’s efforts to show the depth and richness of the Patristic tradition, as well as Aulén’s ecumenical suggestion that this tradition could serve as a common source that all churches – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – could draw upon. But, Myers maintains that Aulén’s view of the Patristic theory of atonement is fundamentally wrong.

Specifically, he has two bones to pick with Aulén. First, he rejects Aulén’s contention that the Patristic view was merely a generalized idea or theme of atonement expressed in numerous variations, and not a fully realized theory or explanation of how salvation occurred. Myers’ second criticism of Aulén was that Aulén’s Christus Victor image – Christ’s triumph in a conflict between God and the powers of evil – is not an accurate characterization of Patristic thinking.

We will get to Myers’ first complaint when we discuss his alternative view of Patristic thinking. So, let me start with the second complaint.

In late antiquity, we see the rise of what we now call Gnosticism. It took many forms, but basic Gnostic belief was extremely dualistic, drawing a clear distinction between the physical world and the spirit realm. Gnostics believed that the visible, material world was fashioned – not by God – but by a lesser deity known as the Demiurge (from the Greek word for “craftsman”) and, hence, was 
a flawed copy of the true universe. Depending on the version of Gnosticism, the Demiurge was malevolent or incompetent, either infirmity being sufficient to account for the evil and suffering in the world.  The spirit realm where the true transcendent God lives, however, is untouched by the Demiurge and remains blessed. Even so, humans were bound in their “evil” physical body, and could only be released from its confines through gaining gnosis, or secret knowledge.

The early church drew a hard line on these beliefs. There was no Demiurge. Creation and the physical world came from God and were, therefore, good. Of course, that left the problem of evil and human suffering for which the Gnostics had a ready answer.

William Blake's "Ancient of Days" has been interpreted as a depiction of the Demiurge.

The solution for the church fathers was to say that evil was not, as the Gnostics claimed, another power like the Demiurge that strove with God; rather, evil is a privation, the negation of the good. Gregory of Nyssa describes evil as the absence of virtue:
For as sight is an activity of nature, and blindness a deprivation of that natural operation, such is the kind of opposition between virtue and vice. It is, in fact, not possible to form any other notion of the origin of vice than as the absence of virtue. For as when the light has been removed the darkness supervenes, but as long as it is present there is no darkness, so, as long as the good is present in the nature, vice is a thing that has no inherent existence; while the departure of the better state becomes the origin of its opposite. Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism.
Athanasius of Alexandria (circa. 296 - 373), renowned Christian theologian and Church Father (known as “the Great”), made it simple: “God alone exists, evil is non-being.” Athanasius, On the Incarnation.

So, while the ancient Christian writers liked to speak about demons and their leader, Satan, that was mostly for dramatic effect. If they gave the devil more than his due, it was because it made for a better story. Demons may have plagued humans, but they did not strive with God. The arguments against Gnostic dualism were frequent and consistent in early church writings. In Patristic thought, there simply were no evil forces for Christ to pit his strength against. Myers puts it this way: “Aulén has mistaken an eccentricity for a type.”

Rather, as the Patristic fathers saw it, humankind’s real foe and greatest evil was not Satan but the ultimate deprivation of being: death. Indeed, according to St. Paul, “Death is the last enemy to be destroyed.” I Corinthians 15:26. Death and the threat of nonbeing was not only a horror in itself, but the fear of death held humanity in its grip. We read that the “wages of sin is death,” but the Patristic fathers saw it the other way around: our mortality is the cause of sin. The modern Greek Orthodox theologian, John S. Romanides, says that because man  "lives constantly under the fear of death, he continuously seeks bodily and psychological security, and thus becomes individualistically inclined and utilitarian in attitude. Sin is the failure of man to live according to his original destiny of selfless love which seeks not its own and this failure is rooted in the disease of death."

John Chrysostom (circa 349 – 407), another important church father (Chrysostom in Greek means “golden-mouthed,” a tribute to his oratory skills), describes the advantages of one who does not fear death:
He who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying…[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed “man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,” [Job 2:4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one’s country? For these are small things to him ‘who counteth not even his life dear,’ says blessed Paul [Acts 20:24]. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Hebrews, Homily IV.
So, contrary to Aulén’s contention, evil is not some malevolent power that Jesus had to defeat in order to save the world. It is a deprivation – a void – that would have to be addressed quite differently to secure our salvation.

And that brings us to Myers’ second argument: that Aulén erred in his contention that the Patristic approach lacked any coherent theory or explanation of atonement. A closer examination of the Patristic theory makes Meyers’ point.

As an initial matter, to understand the Patristic explanation of both humankind’s fall and God's mechanism for salvation, we must consider a bit of Biblical history looking through our Platonic goggles. The early Christian theologians accepted that there was a universal form – human nature – in which all individual humans participate. Adam, the first human, was the blueprint of that form.

Adam and Eve were created with the potential of immortality. “[God] did not make [man] mortal, nor did He fashion him as immortal,” says Ephrem the Syrian in his Commentary on Genesis. Rather, as Athanasius puts it, “[God] gave [human beings] a law, so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise … besides having the promise of their incorruptibility in heaven.” Athanasius, On the Incarnation. Similarly, John of Damascus (c.676 – 749), the last of the Greek Fathers, writes that God gave Adam the commandment in Eden “with the promise that should he let reason prevail, recognizing his creator and observing his Creator’s ordinance … then he would become stronger than death and would live forever.” John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith.

As those of us who attended Sunday school know, Adam and Eve failed the test. By turning away from God in the Garden of Eden, Adam corrupted not only himself but he fatally altered the human blueprint – imprinting death upon the entire human race. As Irenaeus said, “in the original formation of Adam all of us were tied and bound up with death through his disobedience.” Irenaeus, The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. It was as if Adam had been afflicted with a genetic disorder that was naturally passed on to his descendants.

Athanasius makes it clear that our mortality was the natural result of turning from God and not some divine punishment:
For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time. For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption. Athanasius, On the Incarnation.
As Athanasius said, God is being, and so to turn from God inevitably leads to decay and non-being.

In any event, according to the Patristic fathers, humankind was in a perilous state, facing extinction. Due to its inherited infirmity, “the whole human race has been locked in a downward slide toward nothingness,” says Myers. Athanasius saw the situation as dire: “For this cause, then, death having gained upon men, and corruption abiding upon them, the race of man was perishing; the rational man made in God’s image was disappearing, and the handiwork of God was in process of dissolution.…” Athanasius, On the Incarnation.

God, however, had not yet lost his love for humankind and, like other monarchs, He didn’t like to look bad. Allowing his creation to fall into neglect and ruin certainly would have reflected badly on him. Better He had not made humanity at all. “For if He had not made them, none could impute weakness; but once He had made them, and created them out of nothing, it were most monstrous for the work to be ruined, and that before the eyes of the Maker.” Accordingly, “It was, then, out of the question to leave men to the current of corruption.” Id.

And for this reason, God’s Word became flesh in the incarnation. Here, God accomplished two things.  [Note:  God's second achievement will be discussed in the next post].  First, by joining himself to humankind, he healed the corruption wrought by Adam. In essence, he re-stamped human nature, removing Adam’s “genetic defect”:
For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man…. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons? Irenaeus, Against Heresies.
Again, just as it is not possible to understand the corruption of all humanity without seeing its cause as the injury to the abstract “form” in which all humans participate, it is also not possible to see how the healing of all people came about from the healing of that same form. Christ is humanity made new; he has altered human nature. “God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man” Irenaeus, Against Heresies. Indeed, St. Paul calls Christ the “last Adam.” 1 Corinthians 15:45.

It is clear that the transformation of human nature brought about by the incarnation affects all humans. Gregory of Nazianus (circa 329 – 390), theologian and Church Father, explains this by his well-known kitchen analogies: The Word became human “with the aim of hallowing Man through himself, by becoming a sort of yeast for the whole lump. He has united with himself all that lay under condemnation, in order to release it from condemnation.” Gregory of Nazianus, Oration 30. Indeed, “a few drops of blood recreate the whole world and become for all human beings like a curdling agent for milk, binding and drawing us together into one.” Gregory of Nazianus, Oration 45.

Athanasius explains the universal effect of the incarnation by comparing it with a great king coming to live in a large city: “You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so it is with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled....”  Athanasius, On the Incarnation.  (my emphasis). Because, through the Incarnation, the Word altered human nature itself, we all benefit from that change.

[Please see next installment for second half of this post.]

Early icon of Christ, c. 6th century.  Notice that the right half of the face is not a mirror image of the left.  This was to point out Christ's dual nature.  I'm still trying to figure out which side is divine and which side is human. 

Prior Post -- Theories of Atonement III  (Classical or Patristic Theory – Part 2)

Next Post -- Theories of Atonement V (Classical or Patristic Theory – Part 3(b))

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

David Cameron Humming

David Cameron Humming a tune after announcing Theresa May as new PM

It's a bit more sinister than it first appears:  

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sunday, June 5, 2016

What is the legal precedent for government authorized murder?

We must have a number of lawyers and legal experts who sporadically participate on this blog. I know President Obama and his administration have petitioned for and, apparently, been granted the power to kill U.S. or other citizens and not be prosecuted for such crimes actions. How did these powers come about? Do other countries legalize government murder? Do any other self-stated democracies participate in killing by executive order? What precedent allows our justice department to silently authorize these killings?

Yes, I freely admit that politically (and rationally) I am against this policy as a very undemocratic thing to do, but I wonder how a so-called democracy arrives in this position. I understand how the fear arrives to allow such a situation, but how does the law allow it?

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Theories of Atonement III

Classical or Patristic Theory – Part 2

In the next two posts I’m going to focus on two theologians of the modern era who have intensively mined the writings of early Christian scholars to try to uncover the basic Patristic view of atonement.  The first of these two thinkers is Gustaf Aulén, a Swedish theologian and a bishop in the Church of Sweden who wrote in the mid-20th century.  The second is Benjamin Myers, an Australian theologian currently teaching at Charles Sturt University's School of Theology in Sydney, Australia.  

In his groundbreaking book, Christus Victor (Christ the Victor), published in 1931, Aulén took a fresh look at the early Church fathers’ conception of atonement.  His book shook things up a bit in the theological community and generated renewed interest in the Patristic writers.  (FYI:  We speak of the Church fathers and the Patristic period, but there were Church mothers as well – ecclesiastical scholars in the early church who were women.  Among them were Macrina the Younger (330 – 379) and Proba Betitia Faltonia (310 – 360)).  

Before Aulén, theologians in the West mostly took a dim view of the ancient Christian theory of atonement, branding it the “ransom theory.”  Relying mostly on the second century writings of Origen of Alexandria (c.184 – c.254), these theologians saw the Patristic thinking this way:  by Adam and Eve’s disobedience and turning away from God, Satan was able to obtain ownership of the human race.   God made a deal with Satan to buy back humanity.   His own son’s death was the payment.  Satan, however, mistakenly believed that he had the power to hold Christ.   Instead, Christ overcame Satan and was resurrected on the third day as the devil helplessly looked on.  Said Origen, “[H]e (the Evil One) had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that [Jesus’] soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength greater than he was equal to.”  Origen, Commentary on Matthew.  Irenaeus (c.130-c.202) and Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – c.215) similarly described Jesus’ death as a ransom payment.

This approach had the advantage of some scriptural support. The Bible repeatedly uses the term “ransom” in connection with God’s saving act.  See Mark 10:45 ("For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many"); 1 Timothy 2:5-6 ("For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time"); 1 Corinthians 6:20 (“A great price was paid to ransom you”).

Nevertheless, the idea that salvation was achieved by a bargain between God and Satan has been heavily criticized and was generally dismissed as untenable.  It makes God look bad in two different ways.  First, it has God making deals with Satan almost as an equal.  Second, God then deceives Satan into thinking that the Son was someone that Satan could actually possess.  Satan honors his end of the bargain but God does not.  Accordingly, for centuries Church thinkers in Western Europe and the New World tended to ignore the Patristic writing on atonement. 

Aulén, however, stepped forward in the 20th century and claimed that this picture was both incomplete and a mischaracterization the view of the early church – even of Origen.  Aulén said that the better way of seeing the ancient Christian idea of redemption was not as a deal between God and Satan but as God’s confrontation of evil and the conquest of sin and death.  As the title of Aulén’s work suggests, Christ is not the ransom paid to Satan but he is a warrior who battles and defeats the forces of evil.  Aulén explains that the use of the word “ransom” should not be understood part of a bargain, but as the price or cost to Christ for his rescue and liberation of humanity from Satan’s imprisonment.  

Aulén also emphasizes that the classical “theory” of atonement was not really a rational theory or doctrine, but a theme with variations:

[T]he classic idea of the Atonement has never been put forward … as a rounded and finished theological doctrine; it has always been an idea, a motif, a theme, expressed in many different variations. It is not, indeed, that it has lacked clearness of outline; on the contrary, it has been fully definite and unambiguous. But it has never been shaped into a rational theory. (Emphasis in original)

As Aulén points out, there is still a basic storyline.  Satan held humanity captive, made possible by Adam and Eve’s original sin.  In order to gain entry into the devil’s kingdom and free humankind, God became man in the incarnation.  Satan did not recognize God in Jesus but saw him as an extraordinarily righteous man and, for this reason, desperately wanted his soul, if just to silence him.  Satan first tried to tempt Jesus in the desert but was not successful.  Then he turned to Judas and lured him into betraying Jesus and bringing about his execution.  Once Jesus was crucified and had died, he gained entrance to Satan’s realm in the underworld.  And then, like the Greek Trojan horse, Christ revealed his true nature, laid waste to Satan’s kingdom, freed the souls’ imprisoned there and destroyed death.  Christ gathered up those who had been imprisoned in hell and led them out of the netherworld to paradise.  His work done, on the third day, Christ was resurrected and ascended to the Father. 

Irenaeus of Lyons (130 – 202) writing in the second century, explains it this way:

For if man, who had been created by God that he might live, after losing life, through being injured by the serpent that had corrupted him, should not any more return to life, but should be utterly [and forever] abandoned to death, God would [in that case] have been conquered, and the wickedness of the serpent would have prevailed over the will of God. But inasmuch as God is invincible and long-suffering, He did indeed show Himself to be long-suffering in the matter of the correction of man and the probation of all, as I have already observed; and by means of the second man [Christ] did He bind the strong man [Satan], and spoiled his goods, and abolished death, vivifying that man who had been in a state of death. …  [W]herefore he who had led man captive, was justly captured in his turn by God; but man, who had been led captive, was loosed from the bonds of condemnation.  (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies).

This version of salvation also has Biblical support.  In the Gospel of John, at the last supper Jesus tells his disciples, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”  John 12:31.  In his first letter, John says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” 1 John 3:8.  Paul says in Colossians that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”  Colossians 2:15.   And in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, he says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”  Hebrews 2:14.

The early Christian writers often spoke about God’s saving act with striking, and occasionally borderline crude language.  Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) in the fourth century, for example, used the image of bait hung on a fishhook to describe the incarnation:

Hence it was that God, in order to make himself easily accessible to him who sought the ransom for us [the devil], veiled himself in our nature. In that way, as it is with greedy fish, he might swallow the Godhead like a fishhook along with the flesh, which was the bait.  (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism.)  

Then, in the fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), the well-known Latin writer, similarly describes God’s action as a deception, using his well-know image of the mousetrap:  

The devil jumped for joy when Christ died; and by the very death of Christ the devil was overcome: he took, as it were, the bait in the mousetrap.  He rejoiced at the death, thinking himself death’s commander. But that which caused his joy dangled the bait before him. The Lord’s cross was the devil’s mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord.  (St. Augustine, Sermons)

Yes, there is still some deception on God’s part in this revised theory.  Gregory of Nyssa, for example, concedes that God’s use of Christ’s human flesh as bait may not have been the most honorable thing to do:  “For that not by pure Deity alone, but by Deity veiled in human nature, God, without the knowledge of His enemy, got within the lines of him who had man in his power, is in some measure a fraud and a surprise….”  (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism)  Gregory nevertheless justifies the deception because it was used “for the salvation of him who had perished, and thus not only conferred benefit on the lost one [Man], but on him, too, who had wrought our ruin [Satan].”  (Ibid.)  Indeed, Gregory says that the devil has no cause for complaint, for he was deceived for his own good:  

[E]ven the adversary himself will not be likely to dispute that what took place was both just and salutary, that is, if he shall have attained to a perception of the benefit. 

For it is now as with those who for their cure are subjected to the knife and the cautery; they are angry with the doctors, and wince with the pain of the incision; but if recovery of health be the result of this treatment, and the pain of the cautery passes away, they will feel grateful to those who have wrought this cure upon them.  (Ibid.)

This passage suggests a recurring and intriguing theme in the Patristic writings that must, unfortunately, await exploration for another day – that Christ not only brought universal salvation to all humankind but also restored Satan himself.

We also frequently find among the writings of the Church fathers vivid portrayals of Christ’s military victory over Satan and his dramatic rescue of humankind.   The early Christian writers repeatedly speak of Christ advancing to Satan’s house, binding him, “trampling Hades” and plundering Satan’s possessions.  (Melito of Sardis (died c.180), On the Passover; Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans).  Ephrem the Syrian (306 – 373) writes, "By death the Living One emptied Sheol. He tore it open and let entire throngs flee from it." (Ephrem the Syrian, Hymn on the Nativity).  Cyril of Alexandria (378 – 444) says that Christ “despoiled Hades, and overthrew the tyranny of the enemy.”  (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke)  The Latin poet, Venantius Fortunatus (c. 530 – c. 609) writes, “The ruler of the lower regions, … who has always been a spoiler, becomes a prey to Thee. … [A]s a warrior, Thou carriest back ample trophies to the heavens. Those whom chaos held in punishment he has now restored; and those whom death might seek, a new life holds.”  (Venantius, “On Easter”) 


But the most extensive and probably the most entertaining account is found in the noncanonical Gospel of Nicodemus.

The present form of this work dates from the middle of the fourth century.  It claims to be a translation of the original Hebrew text written by Nicodemus, the Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin mentioned in the Gospel of John, who along with Joseph of Arimathea took care of Jesus’ burial.   The bible verse citation that we always see displayed on signs in the end zone at football games, John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”), is a statement that Jesus made to Nicodemus.

The story begins with a discussion between Hades and Satan.  Satan is apparently the fieldman while Hades serves as the warden of the underworld.  Satan begins by announcing to Hades the anticipated arrival of Jesus:  “Make yourself ready to receive Jesus, who boasts himself to be the Son of God, but is a man fearing death, saying, My soul is sorrowful, even unto death.”  (Nicodemus’ interpretation of Mark 15:34: “and at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice ... My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”)  Satan is especially interested in Jesus for his many grievances against him:  “he has withstood me much, doing me evil; and many whom I made blind, lame, deaf, leprous, and demoniac, he has healed with a word; and those whom I have brought to you [Hades] dead, he has dragged away from you.”  (The last is a reference to Lazarus who Jesus raised from the tomb).

Hades, however, is worried, since Jesus has already thwarted Satan’s efforts:  “If then, you are powerful, what is that man Jesus like, who, though fearing death, withstands your power?”  So, Hades pleads with Satan not to bring Jesus to the underworld:   “I adjure you by your powers and mine, do not bring him to me. …  [I]f you bring Him to me, all who are here shut up in the cruelty of the prison, and bound by their sins in chains that cannot be loosened, He will let loose, and will bring to the life of His divinity for ever.”

But, it’s too late, for while Satan and Hades are speaking, Jesus arrives at the gates to the underworld.  Hades bids his servants to bolt and lock the doors, but to no avail; Jesus shatters the gates and enters.  He seizes Satan and binds him in iron chains, and consigns him into Hades’ keeping.  That gives Hades the opportunity to let Satan know in no uncertain terms what a bonehead he was.  The language is so sumptuous here that I quote Hades at length:

O prince of perdition, and leader of extermination, Beelzebub, derision of angels, to be spit upon by the just, why did you wish to do this? Did you wish to crucify the King of glory, in whose death you promised us so great spoils? Like a fool, you did not know what you were doing. For, behold, that Jesus by the splendor of His divinity is putting to flight all the darkness of death, and He has broken into the strong lowest depths of our dungeons, and has brought out the captives, and released those who were bound. And all who used to groan under our torments insult us, and by their prayers our dominions are taken by storm, and our realms conquered, and no race of men has now any respect for us.  Moreover, also, we are grievously threatened by the dead, who have never been haughty to us, and who have not at any time been joyful as captives. O Prince Satan, father of all impious wretches and renegades, why did you wish to do this?  Of those who from the beginning, even until now, have despaired of salvation and life, no bellowing after the usual fashion is now heard here; and no groaning of theirs resounds, nor in any of their faces is a trace of tears found.  O Prince Satan, possessor of the keys of the lower regions, all your riches that you had acquired by the tree of transgression and the loss of paradise, you have now lost by the tree of the cross, and all your joy has perished.

Jesus then raises up Adam, along with all the prophets and the saints in the underworld. Together, they all depart from Hades, and ascend into Paradise.

Jesus Leading People Out of Hell

*          *          *

As I suggested at the beginning of this section, there has been a recent revival of interest in the Patristic view of atonement.  As we will discuss later, if nothing else, it avoids some of the troubling aspects of the current dominant concept.  More importantly, it presents a God on our side who is opposed to tyranny and the hostile forces intent on harming us.  As Aulén himself writes:

It was . . .my intention to emphasize that the outlook of the Atonement as a drama, where the love of God in Christ fights and conquers the hostile powers, is a central and decisive perspective which never can be omitted and which indeed must stamp every really Christian doctrine of the Atonement.

Indeed, Aulén adds, Christ “fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the 'tyrants' under which mankind is in bondage and suffering….”   It almost sounds like liberation theology. 

Even so, this is not the whole story on the Patristic theory of atonement.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, Ben Myers also had ideas to add on this matter.  

And if the black cat doesn’t cover himself with talcum powder and make believe he’s a white kid glove going to a dance, I’ll tell you about Myers’ view in the next section.