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))

Next Post -- Theories of Atonement VI (Anselm of Canterbury)


James R said...

I don't know what to say, because I don't know what to make of all this. On the one hand it felt like the ideas could be woven together into a tale much greater than, say, The Lord of the Rings. And I think you, Myk, would be just the person to do it. Some people can make poetry out of reading the phone book. I was almost mesmerized by the writing itself. It sounds fascinating, but so esoteric that it may come straight from the head of a pin. That brings me to the other hand. Why? Why delve into the already arcane topic of Atonement to such detail that it obscures general notions of sense and sensibility. Why take a mystery or a hypothetical and treat it as if it were a lab specimen?

Well, I guess I know the general answer—because it reflects human nature and the human condition, but it is a long, long journey to get there. We must follow Aeneas through hell. And it all feels like a Jenga tower built by metaphysical postulates and scriptural pieces.

So I am contradictory. Like the Benjamin Myers' lecture and discussion, among those in the group, the cognoscenti at Comic-Con or Darkcon or the Christian Atonement revival, it is a great way to exercise one's knowledge and immerse oneself into that particular world. The question is, does entering into such reverie reveal or obscure the more general human condition. I don't know. It seems a bit too esoteric for me, but what do I know?

Yet, as a story, without all the metaphysical and scriptural axioms, I find it fantastically entertaining and feel it would, with some editing, reveal much about the human condition.

Big Myk said...

The "why" is a good question; and it is certainly a legitimate one. One relatively easy answer is that I'm utterly fascinated by this stuff. I confess that I'm not sure why. (Patton: God help me, I do love it so.) A lot of people have passions that I don't fully understand, like collecting rocks or playing golf. So, I have discovered a passion that others may not understand. I started this on a lark and now, like Professor Hill in the Music Man, I've got my foot stuck in the door.

Plus, the Patristic fathers were pretty great writers. I love the image of Christ as the generous wrestler who allows the crowd to pick his opponent. Or the idea that salvation is like a great king coming to live in a large city, where everyone is better off for it. Or, the story where the guy and his entire househould (including servants) are thrown into prison because he can't pay a debt of a few cents, and he suddenly finds himslf living in a palace. You can say that its awfully esoteric, but that doesn't stop it from being compelling. Cats Cradle didn't make much sense either, but it was still pretty intriguing.

I don't know if this blog series will reveal much about the human condition. But, I hope that it reveals something about religion. We've talked about how the idea that we are saved by Jesus' death has always seemed like gibberish. But what a gap in our knowledge! Salvation is the central tenet of Christianity, but no one knows anything about it, even we who endured years of religious education and attended Catholic colleges. Hopefully, that deficiency will be corrected by the series' end. Now, at least you understand one explanation.

Along the same lines, I see this project as another way to get in a few licks on the new atheists, mostly because they criticize something about which they know nothing. Everyone thinks that religion is simple and that they fully understand it, but James Carse says otherwise: religious "conversations can become exceedingly rich and complicated, requiring long preparation for entering into them….” If examining this just one issue in just one religion can help people see the complexity there, then I've accomplished something.

Sam Harris in his book, "Letter to a Christian Nation" loves to talk about Jesus' "blood sacrifice" that stands at the center of Christianity. Here's what he says: "Christianity is more or less synonymous with the proposition that the crucifixion of Jesus represents a final, sufficient offering of blood to a God who absolutely requires it." But, let's look at Christianity at its beginnings: do any of the church fathers speak of Jesus' death as a sacrifice to appease an angry God? Absolutely not; it's completely absent. Jesus may have sacrificed himself, but it was the sacrifice of someone who throws himself on a handgrenade or pushes another out of the way of an oncoming car, not an attempt to secure God's favor.

One more thing: because I've been learning this as I've gone along, this first portion on the classical theory ended up being much longer than it needed to be. Had I known what I know now when I started, this would have been a lot shorter. I'm hoping that the other blog posts won't be so long.