Sunday, July 24, 2016

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))

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