The Self-Communicating God of Athanasius Against the Mute God of Arius: God’s Being As Love Rather Than An Absolute Self

The doctrines of old never really get old. The heresies of old never really get old, they just re-emerge in new language games per the periods those language games are played within. Aspects of what is known as Arianism continue to rear its ugly head into the 21st century. If you don’t know Arianism, at base, is the idea that ‘there was a time when the Son was not’; in other words, there was a time when the Son of God, who we now know as Jesus Christ, was non-existent, that he is a creature. This was the heresy that flowered early in the church through the teachings of Arius, and his followers, and which Athanasius argued against starting early at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Ironically there are many, even today, who want to argue that the development of what became Nicene theology is really the result of overly imposing Hellenic categories upon God thus making God into a three-headed monster; or making God into a pantheon of persons seated above in the heavenlies. I say this is ironic because we do have a case of an over imposition of Greek categories upon the Christian God, but it isn’t from the Trinitarians (the Nicenes); it is from the Arian impulse to mold God into the monadic conception of godness that we can derive from the classical philosophers (e.g. the god of the philosophers). In fact it is the Trinitarians who refused to give into the seduction provided for by the intellectuals, and instead flipped the grammar they developed on its head by allowing the pressure of God’s Self-revelation and Self-communication in Jesus Christ to reify such categories in such a way that the Revelation of God forged the categories Christians think God from. There is indeed a Greek impulse available in the Christian tradition, but it is resident with those who would identify with Arius and his followers rather than with Athanasius and his.

Arthur McGill, in a distilled and precise fashion, offers a fruitful line in regard to what Athanasius accomplished contra [mundum] Arius and the dead fruit he produced.

ATHANASIUS AND ARIUS: A STUDY IN CONTRASTS

Let us conclude this chapter by setting the Trinitarian God and the Arian God in the sharpest possible contrast so that all the issues may be clearly seen.

At one level, we are concerned with the question of God’s essential being, of the quality that gives him his identity as God. According to Arius, the indispensable mark of divinity is unbegottenness, or what we might call absolute independence. God is divine because he exists wholly from within himself, wholly on his own. He needs nothing, he depends on nothing, he is in essence related to nothing. And this, according to the Trinitarian theologians, is precisely what the powerfulness disclosed in Jesus Christ discredits. For as these theologians read certain passages in the Gospel of John, the powerfulness in Jesus is characterized as fully and perfectly divine, and yet at the same time, as totally and continually derived.

In other words, as present in Jesus, God’s powerfulness has a form—the form of dependence—which Arius can only reject as quite unworthy of God. In place of self-contained and self-sufficient autonomy, what the Trinitarian theologians see as the defining mark of divinity is that totality of self-giving which proceeds between the Father and the Son. The Father gives all that he is to the Son; the Son obeys the Father and offers all that he is back to the Father. The Father and the Son are not divine, therefore, in terms of the richness of reality that they possess within themselves. They do not exist closed up within their own being. Rather, they are divine in terms of the richness of the reality that they communicate to the other. Against Arius’ reverential awe of the absolute, Gregory of Nazianzus puts the alternative:

Thus much we for our part will be bold to say, that if it is a great thing for the Father to be unoriginate, it is no less a thing for the Son to have been begotten of such a Father. For not only would he share the glory of the unoriginate, since is of the unoriginate, but he has the added glory of his generation, a thing so great and august in the eyes of all those who are not altogether groveling and material in mind. (Theological Orations III. ii; Christology of the Later Fathers, p. 168.)

If Arius identifies God’s divinity with his absolute independence, Gregory identifies it with his inner life of self-giving.

At a second level, we are faced with the question of how God exercises his divinity in relation to the world and to men. For Arius, God’s complete self-sufficiency means that with the world he appears in the form of absolute domination. As God depends on nothing, everything else depends on him. As he is completely rich, everything else is completely poor. As he is completely powerful, everything else is completely weak, and is called to revere his power. And as he can affect other things without himself being affected, i.e., through an intermediary agent, everything else is its activity affects itself and other things, but not him.

According to the Trinitarian theologians, nothing could be more contrary to the power of God that men encounter in Jesus Christ than this Arian picture. Far from being a vessel of dominating mastery, Jesus is just the opposite. He does not come on clouds of glory. He does not stand over his followers, ordering them hither and yon to his bidding and vindicating his authority by unopposable acts of self-assertion. In the Epistle to Diognetus, and early Christian writing, the question is asked, Why did God send his Son?

To rule as a tyrant, to inspire terror and astonishment? No, he did not. No, he sent him in gentleness and mildness. To be sure, as a king sending his royal son, he sent him as God. But he sent him as to men, as saving and persuading them, and not as exercising force. For force is no attribute of God.

“Force is no attribute of God”—that is the basic principle for the Trinitarian theologians. God’s divinity does not consist in his ability to push things around, to make and break, to impose his will from the security of some heavenly remoteness, and to sit in grandeur while all the world does his bidding. Far from staying above the world, he sends his own glory into it. Far from imposing, he invites and persuades. Far from demanding service from me in order to enhance himself, he gives his life in service to men for their enhancement. But God acts toward the world in this way because within himself he is a life of self-giving.[1]

Which conception of God are you being exposed to today in the Christian church? There is a major recovery movement taking place in and among evangelical Protestant theologians; they are attempting to recover the classical theistic conception of God that they believe is the church catholic conception of God. But we might want to ask ourselves if the God being recovered, the version of the classical theistic conception of God that is being recovered resembles the Athanasian or the Arian understanding more or less? Is the God being recovered for the church the relational and self-communicating God that Athanasius articulates, or are the impulses being recovered more in line with the Arian monadic conception of God wherein God’s absolute independence, apart from relational emphases, is being emphasized? While a fully fledged Arianism may well not be being recovered, this does not mean the untextualized impulses of the Greek godness principles that Arius thought from can’t be attendant in some modulated form in the God being recovered for the evangelical churches.

More materially, as McGill distills Athanasius, what stands out is indeed the reality that God, at core, in se, is a God of onto-relation; a God who finds his being in subject-in-being relation such that the oneness of God (ousia) is shaped by the threeness of God (hypostaseis), and vice versa. That God’s being is necessarily one of love, and that love is defined by his very activity of self-giveness as he is resplendently Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is within this anterior coinhering relations of God that we can begin to understand why God created to begin with; that the who of God’s life precedes the what as that is revealed for us in the God for us in Jesus Christ. It is within this antecedent reality of God’s life that our lives make sense, and that suffering itself takes upon new hues of bright and vibrant color; as we come to recognize the deep relationality of God, and the Self-relating dependence of God within himself, that we recognize how significant relationship is for us. God is able to reverse what the enemy intended for evil by using suffering and tragedy to recognize our deep need for him; that we can come to recognize that the ground and bases of our lives is an ecstatic one given to us as gift ever afresh and anew by the guarantee of the Holy Spirit sealed upon our hearts with the kiss of Jesus Christ.

I am sorely concerned for the churches. I’m concerned that they are getting a more Arian-like conception of God that does not provide them with an adequate understanding of God which can only result in a deleterious spirituality that has nothing to do with who God really is in himself as revealed as the Son of the Father. Yes, the God of the schoolmen has certain qualities to him, but are they the actual realities that Athanasius could see? Yes, Athanasius used a similar grammar to the Greeks, and a similar grammar to the God of the classical theists, but he may well have used that grammar in equivocal ways from the way that say medieval classical theists used that grammar. These are big ideas, and big concerns; but they have real life and concrete iterations and implications in and for the people of the church of Jesus Christ.

[1] Arthur C. McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (Eugene, OR: Wipf&Stock Publishers, 1982), 80-2.

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Jesus’s Death and Death

A thought on Jesus’ death:

Jesus’ death, moreover, is not a fateful fatality like the image of the automobile accident. It does not serve to show how humans, in spite of all their passion for life, can be wiped out in a moment’s notice. By his death Jesus does not represent the enormity of the power of death. On the contrary, he chooses to die. He lays down his life freely and deliberately, and he does so in accord with God’s own will. Jesus’ death is just the opposite of an unexpected, unforseen auto accident. For the New Testament there is absolutely nothing accidental at all about Jesus’ death. It belongs to his conscious purpose; it is grounded in God’s loving will. Far from proclaiming the mutilating power of death (as does a nuclear bomb), Jesus’ death takes death out of the demonic and makes it an event informed by the free decision of this man and by the graciousness of this God.

— Arthur McGill, Death and Life, 46.

Death is not in control, God is! Death is a relational concept, it is a cutting off from life (who alone is God). In other words, death, in the Bible has never been framed as non-existence; it’s always been understood in terms that are relative to life. So that to be dead is to be cut off from life itself. Death is to be in a state that asserts itself in a way that only God can; which is to say that life is always a “received” reality (for example the Son receives His life from the Father, the Father from the Son and the Father and Son from the Holy Spirit). To die, then, is to be “cut off” from this receiving (relationally) — to remain in this state is hell!

Just some random thoughts on death, and what Jesus’ death is all about. I think McGill does a great job with this.

*Something I originally posted back in 2010.

The “Avoidance” of Death [Billings and McGill]

Tragically a recent acquaintance of mine, Fr. Matthew Baker, just died as he was driving his vehicle in the weather (in the East Coast of North America) and had an accident; he died, but his six children were spared (please keep his wife and kids in prayer). Death is a reality we all face, even in America. I was once again just recently reminded of my own mortality as I went in for my annual CT scan to make sure that I am still cancer free; free from a cancer (DSRCT) that is typically terminal, incurable, and aggressive (as many of you know, by God’s grace I have remained cancer free, and as I write this, for five years). I also just happen to be reading a book from another theologian friend, J. Todd Billings. Todd was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer (Multiple Myeloma) back in September, 2012; he has since undergone treatment (and continues to receive maintenance levels of chemo), a stem cell transplant, and as a result his cancer has gone into remission.

Death is an ever present reality that each and every person who draws breath on the face of earth must face it. Death is indiscriminate, and transcends racial, ethnic, geo-political, and all regional boundaries; death is an equal opportunity reality that we all must face. But living in the West, particularly in the United States (and/or Europe), we would rather not deal with reality; we would rather pretend, as much as possible that death has no reach into our personal lives and plans. In fact, we are so dedicated to avoiding the reality of death that we have created a whole society dedicated to not dealing with it; as much as possible. Todd Billings, in his recently released book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ has written this:

The Denial of Death in Western Culture, and Death in the Church

In contrast to God’s story, which includes and envelops death, the currents of consumerist, Western Culture move toward repressing dying and death. To come face-to-face with our mortality would be to encounter our frailty and limitations—showing the absurdity of our attempts to center the world on ourselves. But our consumerist culture would rather deny these limits. Western culture glorifies youth and spends billions of dollars annually to make the appearance of youth last longer and longer. The actual experience of dying and death is isolated to nursing homes, hospices, and the funeral industry, away from children and youth and the rest of the family. This cultural trend was exposed to me with particular potency while working in community development for six months in a rural area of Uganda. In that context, dying and death were thickly woven into everyday life. When I would meet a new family, I would often hear explanations like, “We have seven children, but only four are still living.” Ailing and dying members of the “extended” family were not institutionalized but lived in the same house as children and young people. And death itself was an everyday thing—not a rare incursion. I remember writing about it at the time, saying death was like “enya,” a staple food eaten at least twice a day. We should not romanticize this state of affairs in Uganda—this is not the way things are supposed to be. But we need to recognize that in the West today, we not only have better medical care but we also tend to put our elderly and sick out of sight. Intentionally or not, we isolate ourselves from the real-life dying and death of others, and we have a culture that is often so focused on positive self-esteem and accomplishing one personal “victory” after another that dying and death are pushed to the margins.[1]

In this exact same vein, Arthur C. McGill has written in his amazing little book Death and Life: An American Theology:

The Ethic of Avoidance 

As we observe our lives in this country, we cannot help but be struck by the effort Americans make to appear to be full of life. I believe this duty is ingrained deeply in everyone. Only if we can create around us a life apparently without failure, can we convince ourselves that death is indeed outside, is indeed accidental, is indeed the unthinkable enemy. In other words, the belief that death is outside of life is not a fact to be acknowledged; it is a condition to be attained. Consider the American commitment to nice appearances. We often speak of the suburbs in terms of near and flawless appearances. When we look at the lawns and the shrubs and the solid paint of those homes, who can believe the human misery that often goes on within them?… What about the people who do fail in America? And what about those who collapse of life? What about the sick and the aged and the deformed and the mentally retarded? Do they not remind us that the marks of death are always working within the fabric of life? No, because in the United States, deliberately and systematically, with the force of the law itself, we compel all such people to be sequestered where we cannot see them. You’ll find no beggars on the streets of America. You’ll visit few homes where a very aged person is present and where that person’s imminent dying is integrated into the rhythm of family life. As for the insane, they are hidden in such well-landscaped institutions, behind such beautiful lawns and trees, that when we drive by in our shiny automobiles we cannot imagine the suffering that goes on within those walls.[2]

This is heavy and serious stuff, and I think something that we can all recognize as true as those who inhabit (for the most part) the Western existence. It is true, we have not been designed by God to die, but live. But we can only live, if we are united to life itself in Jesus Christ, who is life. Through his death, burial, and resurrection, and our participation in that we can face the reality of death and life as dual realities in Christ for us. We don’t have to pretend like death isn’t happening to us; especially when it is. And when we are faced with tragic things like cancer diagnoses, or car accidents—like the one that just claimed the life of our dear brother, Matt Baker—or other terrible things, we can look to the One who raises the dead, as he raised himself for us. We do have a real and concrete hope for Matthew Baker; if I were to die from a recurrence of my cancer (God forbid it!) I have a real and living hope; if Todd Billings were to die from his cancer (God forbid it!) he has a real and tangible hope—and all of this because of Christ and the hope that his resurrection has provided for all of humanity.

But, as Billings and McGill have underscored for us, we continue to live in a Western society that will try and avoid the reality of death at all costs; this makes sense if for the ‘world’ there is no hope, if they have no hope of resurrection in Christ (personally). Life is a tragedy without a hero who can actually conquer death, and then give that victory to us as we participate in his victory, His life. But we live in a world, by definition, that will reject this even until its own death and destruction. We live in a world that will marginalize the plight of those types of people that most remind us of what we most fear, death; and so we will continue to build societies and buildings that hide what is happening all around us; death.

14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.[3]

[1] J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2015), 105.
[2] Arthur C. McGill, Death and Life: An American Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987 republished by Wipf and Stock Publishers), 18-19.
[3] NASB. Hebrews 2:14-15.

Jesus’ Death and Death

A thought on Jesus’ death:

Holbein Dead Christ, detail

Jesus’ death, moreover, is not a fateful fatality like the image of the automobile accident. It does not serve to show how humans, in spite of all their passion for life, can be wiped out in a moment’s notice. By his death Jesus does not represent the enormity of the power of death. On the contrary, he chooses to die. He lays down his life freely and deliberately, and he does so in accord with God’s own will. Jesus’ death is just the opposite of an unexpected, unforseen auto accident. For the New Testament there is absolutely nothing accidental at all about Jesus’ death. It belongs to his conscious purpose; it is grounded in God’s loving will. Far from proclaiming the mutilating power of death (as does a nuclear bomb), Jesus’ death takes death out of the demonic and makes it an event informed by the free decision of this man and by the graciousness of this God.

— Arthur McGill, “Death and Life,” 46

Death is not in control, God is! Death is a relational concept, it is a cutting off from life (who alone is God). In other words, death, in the Bible has never been framed as non-existence; it’s always been understood in terms that are relative to life. So that to be dead is to be cut off from life itself. Death is to be in a state that asserts itself in a way that only God can; which is to say that life is always a “received” reality (for example the Son receives His life from the Father, the Father from the Son and the Father and Son from the Holy Spirit). To die, then, is to be “cut off” from this receiving (relationally) — to remain in this state is hell!

Just some random thoughts on death, and what Jesus’ death is all about. I think McGill does a great job with this.

Cancer, The Sick, The Outcasts, The Dying: Don’t Forget!

I wanted to take a moment and call us to remember a certain sector of people, of whom I was once apart (not too long ago), that are currently living in a reality that is worlds apart from the daily, mundane reality that ‘healthy’ jesusjairuspeople experience on a day to day existence. As Arthur McGill aptly notes of our society in relation to life and death:

[A]s we observe our lives in this country, we cannot help but be struck by the effort Americans make to appear to be full of life. I believe this duty is ingrained deeply in everyone. Only if we can create around us a life apparently without failure, can we convince ourselves that death is indeed outside, is indeed accidental, is indeed the unthinkable enemy. In other words, the belief that death is outside of life is not a fact to be acknowledged; it is a condition to be attained. Consider the American commitment to nice appearances. We often speak of the suburbs in terms of neat and flawless appearances. When we look at the lawns and the shrubs and the solid paint of those homes, who can believe the human misery that often goes on within them? And given the fine appearances of the suburbs, who can tolerate the slums of the inner city? After all, there we see life collapsing and going to pieces. Urban renewal is required, not to improve the living condition of the people, for they are simply moved elsewhere to less conspicuous slums. It is not to increase the tax revenue, because so much of urban renewal involves tax breaks, subsidized construction, and government office buildings. Rather, urban renewal is required in order to remove from the city that visible mark of the failure of life. [p. 18]

And following a little further on from this:

[W]hat about the people who do fail in America? And what about those who collapse of life? What about the sick and the aged and the deformed and the mentally retarded? Do they not remind us that the marks of death are always working within the fabric of life? No, because in the United States, deliberately and systematically, with the force of the law itself, we compel all such people to be sequestered where we cannot see them…. You’ll visit few homes where a very aged person is present and where that person’s imminent dying is integrated into the rhythm of family life. As for the insane, they are hidden in such well-landscaped institutions, behind such beautiful lawns and trees, that when we drive by in our shiny automobiles we cannot imagine the suffering that goes on within those walls. [Arthur C. McGill, Death And Life: An American Theology, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1987), 18-9.]

portlandtramI used to drive by that tall and shiny glass plated building with the sky tram connected to it in downtown Portland, OR, and not give that building a second thought—the building that had OHSU stamped on it; I just thought it contributed to the picturesque skyscape of the Portland metroplex. Before 2009 I never would have imagined the kind of death and suffering I was driving by; I never would have contemplated the kind of human suffering that was being experienced, the reality of life-together dreams being snuffed out as spouses, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandparents and grandchildren were slowly dripping away as each drop of poison fell into the veins of those hoping that somehow this magical cocktail would resurrect instead of quench their shared dreams and hopes. But my experience changed. Once I was diagnosed with my statistically terminal cancer, I broke through that glass house, and saw what it looked like from the inside looking out, looking out (literally) on all the cars and people driving by aloof to the fact that I, along  with a host of others, was sitting there dying (of course I generalize to a degree, I am only referring to those driving by who themselves are generally healthy and not on their way to a glass plated building of their own).

Anyway, I thought I would just offer this (cheerful) post by way of reminder. There is a universe next door (as James Sire has used in another context), and people, even in America, are suffering untold misery (even self imposed as it might be sometimes). As you drive by the freshly waxed luxury car today, or you drive by the shiny glass palaces of veneer,  just remember that everyday life looks entirely different from the inside (of those glassy buildings) looking out.

As Christians (and McGill gets to this in the second half of his book), we embrace death, the death that Christ took for us, that His life might also be made manifest through the mortal members of our bodies (II Cor. 4.10). And we glory in weakness, because God’s strength is made complete in our weakness, as we understand that we ec-statically and continuously receive our life as gift from the Son’s life for us. So we don’t hide behind glass windows, and well manicured lawns; we look past the mockery of all that, just as Jesus did when he walked past all of the window dressing and false-mourners at the little girls death. Jesus confronted death with His life, and gave life by absorbing her death through His spoken Word Talitha koum! (Mark 5:35-42). We need to penetrate through all the falsity offered by the worldly crowd, those who mock death, by not genuinely dealing with it; and remember the sick among us.

PS. I would appreciate your prayers, I have my next CT scan at the end of May (just to make sure the cancer is still gone).

Jesus' Death and Death

A thought on Jesus’ death:

Jesus’ death, moreover, is not a fateful fatality like the image of the automobile accident. It does not serve to show how humans, in spite of all their passion for life, can be wiped out in a moment’s notice. By his death Jesus does not represen the enormity of the power of death. On the contrary, he chooses to die. He lays down his life freely and deliberately, and he does so in accord with God’s own will. Jesus’ death is just the opposite of an unexpected, unforseen auto accident. For the New Testament there is absolutely nothing accidental at all about Jesus’ death. It belongs to his conscious purpose; it is grounded in God’s loving will. Far from proclaiming the mutilating power of death (as does a nuclear bomb), Jesus’ death takes death out of the demonic and makes it an event informed by the free decision of this man and by the graciousness of this God.

— Arthur McGill, “Death and Life,” 46

Death is not in control, God is! Death is a relational concept, it is a cutting off from life (who alone is God). In other words, death, in the Bible has never been framed as non-existence; it’s always been understood in terms that are relative to life. So that to be dead is to be cut off from life itself. Death is to be in a state that asserts itself in a way that only God can; which is to say that life is always a “received” reality (for example the Son receives His life from the Father, the Father from the Son and the Father and Son from the Holy Spirit). To die, then, is to be “cut off” from this receiving (relationally) — to remain in this state is hell!

Just some random thoughts on death, and what Jesus’ death is all about. I think McGill does a great job with this.