Saturday, April 16, 2016

Theories of Atonement II

Classical or Patristic Theory – Part 1

We start with perhaps the earliest theory of atonement, and one that held sway in the Church for about a thousand years:  the classical or patristic theory.  Christian theologians and writers developed this approach between the second and fifth centuries, CE.   These thinkers tended to be Greek or citizens of nearby regions in the Eastern Roman Empire.  It is also a view that has been mostly lost to those of us in the Western Church today.

And, I should add:  to be more precise, it is not a single theory but is rather a model from which several theories have been constructed.   The general view is this:  Christ’s death was the means by which the powers of evil, including death, which long held humankind under their dominion, were defeated.  

We will get to the actual mechanism for how this occurred next time.  But first, to fully understand this model, it’s important to know a few things about how those living Eastern Roman Empire during the first centuries of the Christian era viewed the world. 

To begin with, people at that time believed the world to be controlled by fallen angels and demons.  The notion of demons helped people of that day get around the problem that Neil deGrasse Tyson recognized in our own time:  how could a benevolent and kind God who cares about humankind create a universe “filled with all manner of things that would just as soon have you dead — like asteroid strikes and hurricanes and tornadoes and tsunamis and volcanoes and disease, pestilence”?  The early Christians explained these calamities this by attributing affliction to malevolent demons. 

In his Embassy for the Christians, written in 177 CE, the Athenian philosopher and Christian thinker Athenagoras gives us an overview of early Christian cosmology to explain the presence of demons.  He says that God has “distributed and appointed to their posts” a multitude of angels “to occupy themselves about the elements, and the heavens, and the world, and the things in it, and the goodly ordering of them all.”  God, as it turns out, doesn’t pay that much attention to the details.  Instead, He has “universal and general providence of the whole, while the particular parts are provided for by the angels appointed over them.”

Angels, like humans, however, says Athenagoras, “have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice.”  Some “continued in those things for which God had made and over which He had ordained them.”  But others “outraged both the constitution of their nature and the government entrusted to them.”

In his Apology, written in 197 CE, Tertullian, another early church writer, claimed that these angels spawned a much worse “demon-brood” bent on the downfall of humankind:

We are instructed, moreover, by our sacred books how from certain angels, who fell of their own free will, there sprang a more wicked demon-brood, condemned of God along with the authors of their race, and that chief we have referred to. It will for the present be enough, however, that some account is given of their work.  Their great business is the ruin of mankind. So, from the very first, spiritual wickedness sought our destruction. They inflict, accordingly, upon our bodies diseases and other grievous calamities, while by violent assaults they hurry the soul into sudden and extraordinary excesses.  Their marvelous subtleness and tenuity give them access to both parts of our nature.

The effects of their actions can be seen, says Tertullian, “when some inexplicable, unseen poison in the breeze blights the apples and the grain while in the flower, or kills them in the bud, or destroys them when they have reached maturity….”  

Origen, another early theologian, said flatly, “famine, blasting of the vine and fruit trees, pestilence among men and beasts: all these are the proper occupations of demons....” So too, demons are “the cause of plagues... barrenness... tempests...[and] similar calamities.”  (Contra Celsus, 178 CE).

In his Dialogues, written in 593 CE, Gregory the Great put it more simply: “In this visible world…nothing can be achieved except through invisible forces.”

The leader of this army of destruction was, of course, Satan.  According to Athenagoras, Satan was “the spirit” originally entrusted with “the control of matter and the forms of matter” (Embassy for the Christians).   Thus, God, in possibly one of the worst personnel decisions ever made, granted Satan authority over the administration of the entire material creation.  As we all now know, Satan chose to rebel against God and he now exercises his tremendous authority to oppose God and bring about the ruin of humankind.  Says Athenagorus, he abuses “the government entrusted to [him].” Given the nature of moral responsibility, God could not simply revoke Satan’s sphere of influence.  And so, as Athenagorus makes clear, “the prince of matter exercises a control and management contrary to the good that is in God” (Embassy for the Christians).

The writers of the New Testament also recognized Satan’s authority over the world.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of “the prince of this world” several times (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).  In Luke’s Gospel, when Satan tempts Jesus with authority over the kingdoms of the world, he states:  “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.” (Luke 4:6).  The epistle writers share this understanding.  John says that the entire world is “under the power of the evil one” (I John 5:19).  Paul calls Satan “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Eph. 2:2). 

Things were tough in the ancient world.

The second thing that must be understood before we get to the nuts and bolts of the classical theory is how extensively Plato, particularly his theory of forms, influenced the early Greek fathers.   Christianity made its appearance in Greece at a time when platonic thought was widespread and influential.  Plato was sort of the Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein of his day, the acknowledged brightest intellectual star of the time.  So, Plato ended up influencing a lot of early Christian thought.  In fact, it might be an interesting exercise to take a look at how the preaching of a first century itinerant Jew from Palestine got recast in the second century to look suspiciously like the ideas of the aristocratic Greek scholar.

According to Plato, reality consists of two realms:  there is the physical world, the world that we can observe with our five senses; and there is a world made of eternal perfect “forms” or “ideas.”

In his Socratic dialogues, Plato argues through the words of Socrates that because the material world is changeable it is also unreliable. But Plato also believed that this is not the whole story. Behind this unreliable world of appearances is a world of permanence and reliability. Plato calls this more real (because permanent) world, the world of ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’. 

Plato says that forms are perfect templates that exist outside our world of experience.  These forms are the ultimate reference points for all objects we observe in the physical world.  There are forms both of the qualities or properties of objects and their classification:  “We distinguish between the many particular things which we call beautiful or good, and absolute beauty and goodness.  Similarly with all other collections of things, we say there is corresponding to each set a single, unique Form which we call an ‘absolute’ reality.” (Plato, The Republic)

The objects of this world participate or, as Plato says, “share in” the forms. If something is beautiful, for instance, what makes it so is “the presence of,” or its sharing in, “the Beautiful.”  As Plato says through the words of Socrates, “all beautiful things are beautiful by the Beautiful.”  Similarly, objects also “share in” the form of their collection.  An individual horse is classified as a horse because it participates in the form “horse.”   (Antisthenes, the Greek Cynic, once told Plato, "A horse I see, but not horseness."  Plato reportedly replied, “That is because you have eyes but no intelligence.”)

If this all sounds a little crazy to you, think about it in terms of mathematics, which is how Plato thought of it – having been heavily influenced by Pythagoras.  

Math is full of ideas that have no existence in the real world, yet it explains so much of how the world works.  The number five, for example, does not exist in the physical world, except as a Sesame Street character.  The symbol for five exists, but the concept is only that – an idea.  It’s a form in which certain objects, like the fingers on one hand or the points on star pentagram participate.  Similarly, a circle – an infinite number of points equidistant a center point – is a concept that has no existence in the world of objects.  Real objects, however, like a ball, share in the characteristics of a circle.

Because mathematical concepts are so useful in explaining the world and seem to be universal and permanent, Plato thought of them as what was genuinely real and the objects that they explained to be only an imperfect and fleeting versions of an unchanging reality.  He simply expanded this idea to other attributes of objects found in the world.

I have one parting observation about Plato and how we think today.  Plato obviously put a lot of faith in human thought.  His argument in favor of the world of forms is based on his observation that we can conceive such perfect forms despite the fact that they don’t exist in our everyday experience.  So, because we possess a concept of beauty – we can think it and apply the concept to objects in the physical world – it must exist somehow, or else we could not know it. 

In the present day, we have lost this confidence in our own thinking.  Maybe it began with Galileo and his proof that the sun did not revolve around the earth, despite all appearances.  But certainly, with the emergence of quantum physics – where notions like the uncertainty principle or quantum entanglement resist human conception – any confidence that our own thinking can be counted on to reflect reality has been profoundly shaken.  How do we conceptualize a world in which, as physicist Niels Bohr tells us, “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real”?

The nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that humans reduce the objective world to one that they can comprehend: “[man] wants to find some formulas so as to simplify the tremendous quantity of his experience.”  Nietzsche thus concludes, “Parmenides [and we can add Plato] said, ‘One cannot think of what is not.’ We are at the other extreme and say, ‘What can be thought of must certainly be a fiction.’”  We’ve come full circle.

Next:  Part 2 of the Patristic Theory

St. Anthony tormented by demons
Plato pointing upward arguing his theory of forms

1 comment:

James R said...

This is nothing less than I expected: well spoken. If only more philosophy was presented this way, we wouldn't have as many rolled eyeballs.