Athanasius

The Patristic Calvinists versus the Medieval Calvinists: Engaging with Athanasius’s Theology of Theosis in Conversation with Barth’s and Torrance’s Themes

I write about the same themes over and over again; someone even griped about that about me on FaceBook (I don’t think he thought I could see his gripe). But there’s a reason; I’ve been taken aback by the theology I have been confronted with in the writings of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, et al. I’ve been surprised by the depth and richness available in the history of ecclesial ideas; surprised in the sense that what so often is presented to evangelicals at the popular and mainstream levels barely scratches the surfaces. I’ve been surprised by finding out that the Christian theological world is not comprised of nor defined by the usual binaries (i.e. Calvinism versus Arminianism etc.) that are so often presented to the evangelical Christian world in North America and the West as if these are the absolute parameters wherein Christians can think and still be considered orthodox. So yes, I do write a lot about the same themes because I don’t think the themes I write about have been emphasized enough; at least not for the evangelicals.

With the above noted, this post will be in reference to Athanasius’s theology of deification or theosis; a doctrine us Evangelical Calvinists are very interested in and informed by. I am just finishing up Thomas Weinandy’s fine work on Athanasius’s theology, and so we will hear from his treatment of Athanasius’s theology in regard to this particular locus. What is striking about Weinandy’s account here is, if you didn’t know he was describing Athanasius’s theology you would think he was referring to either Barth or Torrance’s understanding of election and salvation in general. So when Torrance says he’s not a Barthian, but instead an Athanasian, when you read the following from Weinandy you might understand why. It’s not that Torrance was not a joyful student of Barth, it’s just that Torrance understood that much of what he found in Barth was first presented by Athanasius. Here is how Weinandy details Athanasius’ understanding of deification (at some considerable length):

Thus, the Son became man precisely that humankind might be ‘perfected in him and restored, as it was made at the beginning – with yet greater grace. For, on rising from the dead we shall no longer fear death, but in Christ shall reign forever in the heavens.’ As Jesus took on incorruptibility in his resurrection, so ‘it is clear that the resurrection of all of us will take place; and since his body remained without corruption, there can be no doubt regarding our incorruption’.

Athanasius equally understands Jesus’ resurrection, again following Philippians, as his perfecting ‘exaltation’. The Son is exalted not as God, ‘but the exaltation is of the manhood’, for he humbled himself in assuming humankind’s humanity even unto death on the cross. The Son’s humanity was raised up and exalted because it was not external to him, but his own. For Athanasius, the exaltation of the Son’s humanity was none other than that it was fully deified and so made perfect. Moreover, since all Christians die in him, so now the share in his exaltation. ‘He himself should be exalted, for he is the highest, but that he may become righteousness for us, and we may be exalted in him.’ As the second Adam then, the exalted and so deified incarnate Son becomes the paradigm in whom all human beings can come to share in his perfected risen humanity. Where the ‘first man’ brought death to humankind’s humanity, the Son ‘quickened it with the blood of his own body’.

In a similar fashion, Athanasius perceives that, in being exalted and so perfectly hallowed, the incarnate Son becomes ‘Lord’, ‘in order to hallow all by the Spirit’. In being made fully holy in the Spirit, Athanasius argues that we can rightly be called ‘gods’, not in the sense that we are equal to the Son by nature, but because we have become beneficiaries of his grace. Human beings are, therefore, ‘sons and gods’ because they ‘were adopted and deified through the Word’. Since the Son is himself God who became man, humankind can be deified by being united to his glorious humanity, ‘for because of our relationship to his body, we too have become God’s temple, and in consequence are made God’s sons’.

For Athanasius, the perfecting and so hallowing of Jesus through his glorious exaltation as a risen man is summed up in his notion of deification. Moreover, as Jesus is deified so those who are united to him are perfected and so hallowed by being united to him and so deified as well. Deification is not then the changing of our human nature into something other than it is, that is, into another kind of being. Rather, deification for Athanasius is the making of humankind into what it was meant to be from the very beginning, that is, the perfect image of the Word who is the perfect image of the Father. Moreover, this deification is only effected by being taken into the very divine life of the Trinity. Thus, as the Son is the Son of the Father because he is begotten of the Father and so is ontologically one with the Father, so Christians imitate this divine oneness by being taken up into it. Commenting on Jesus’ prayer, that Christians would be one with him as he is with the Father (see Jn. 17:21), Athanasius perceives that it is through being united to Jesus’ ‘body’ that we become one body with him and so are united to the Father himself. This ‘uniting’ is the work of the Holy Spirit. ‘The Son is in the Father, as his proper Word and Radiance; but we, apart from the Spirit, are strange and distant from God, yet by the participation of the Spirit we are knit into the Godhead.’ Thus the goal of creation is now achieved, that is, human beings have communion with the Father through his eternal Word.

For since the Word is in the Father, and the Spirit is given from the Word, he wills that we should receive the Spirit, that when we receive it, thus having the Spirit of the Word which is in the Father, we too may be found, on account of the Spirit, to become one in the Word, and through him in the Father. [Contra Arianos, 3.25]

Divinization then, for Athanasius, is the sharing fully in the life of the Trinity and it is this sharing in the divine life that thoroughly transforms the believer into the adopted likeness of the Son.[1]  

If you have read here regularly for any amount of time the themes of deification/theosis note in Athanasius’ theology will be or should be recognizable to you. As we have looked into the idea of Jesus being the image of God, and humanity being first created and recreated in the resurrection as the images of the image in Christ, again, what we just covered should be familiar to you. Or maybe as we think back to Barth’s or Torrance’s understanding of election, Athanasius’s theology, as told by Weinandy, should be familiar to you.

What this reinforces for me, other than that rich theological material that we can find in Athanasius’s thought, is that Evangelical Calvinism represents a distinct mode of Reformed theology. Surely it is not foreign to the aims nor many of the trajectories set forth in the Protestant Reformation (particularly as we think about Calvin, Luther, Knox and some other magisterial reformers, and some Scottish ones), indeed, what Evangelical Calvinism is seeking to do is to operate in the ‘spirit’ of Calvinist/Reformed theology by working in a type of ad fontes (back to the sources) mood. What this means though, is that just like the original Protestant Reformers, ensconced in their own time and circumstance, we will be looking back through the centuries from a modern, even postmodern vista. With that noted, I think Evangelical Calvinism in many ways could be said to be a Patristic Calvinism, as far as the Athanasian and Irenean type of categories we want to use; whereas classical Calvinists, I would like to suggest should probably be called Medieval Calvinists, given their proclivity to appeal to Aristotelian theories of causation and metaphysics. In this sense Evangelical Calvinists are more prone to thinking of salvation in terms of ontology and personalist Trinitarian understandings in regard to a God-world relation; whereas classical Calvinists are more prone to thinking in terms of declarational/forensic and decretral categories in a God-world relation.

We have covered a lot; we have looked at Athanasius’s theology of deification, and then used that as an occasion to draw further points of departure between Evangelical Calvinists and so called classical Calvinists. Hopefully you can see that; and hopefully you have benefited from the sharing of Weinandy’ treatment of Athanasius’s theology as I have.

[1] Thomas G. Weindandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 98-100.

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‘The Eternally Fruitful Father’: How Creation and Salvation only Make Sense if God is Father of the Son in Athanasius’s Theology by Weinandy

Thomas Torrance picks up on the Athanasian idea that God has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but that becoming Creator was something new for God. As we dig further into Athanasius’s theology itself, as told by Thomas Weinandy, what we see behind this is how this notion took place within Athanasius’s defense of the homoousion language Contra Arionos relative to both a doctrine of creation and how soteriology is understood within that frame; a Christologically induced frame grounded in the intra-Trinitarian life of God. Honestly the way Weinandy unfolds all of this is one of the most profound things I have ever come across in regard to answering the question of why God would create in the first place; in other words, how does creation itself flow organically from the who God is in his inner and eternal life (in se)?

As Weinandy details it is precisely because God is Father of the Son, and Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit (that:  by the Holy Spirit is my addition) that creation makes sense; i.e. there is place for the other in God by nature (or ‘being’ ousia). In other words the fact that God is, by nature, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit allows for the type of space to conceive of a God who could create ‘others’ if he wanted to; i.e. he’s a God, eternally so as revealed in Christ (the Son), who is relational—i.e. his oneness (De Deo uno) is given shape by his threeness (De Deo trino), and vice versa. A God who is Pure Being, or monadic, like the God of Islam or the Modalists, or of Arius, would never create, not for any theo-logical reasons anyway.[1]

Let’s get to it, here’s how Weinandy unfolds all of this in Athanasius’s theology (the quote is lengthy):

The central soteriological issue in Athanasius’ Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione was creation. Athanasius continues to stress within his anti-Arian and pro-Nicene writing that is only because the Son is truly divine  that the Father creates through his so that creation always possesses an intimate and immediate relationship with the Father through the Son. Employing Irenaeus’ famous analogy, Athanasius states that the Son is ‘the hand’ though [sic] which the Father brings into being all that is. This is again the theological basis upon which Athanasius founds the Father’s love for humankind and the Son’s innate responsibility, in the light of sin, for humankind’s subsequent redemption. ‘It is fitting that redemption should take place through none other than him who is Lord by nature, lest, though created by the Son, we should name another Lord.’ Thus, unlike Arianism, there is no need for an intermediate cosmological third party that bridges the ontological gap between the Father and creation, for the Son, through whom the Father creates, unites in an unmediated manner, in that he too, is God, the whole creation to the Father.

Moreover, in response to the Arian claim that the Son is a creature, Athanasius innovatively asks a veryinsightful and new question. How can God be ‘Creator’ if he is not first ‘Father’? ‘If the divine essence is not fruitful in itself but barren, as they hold, as a light that does not lighten or a dry fountain’, how is it that it can give being and life to others? For Athanasius, only if God is eternally the fruitful Father who, by the very nature of who he is, eternally begets his Son, is it possible for the Father, by his will, to create through his Son. ‘If then that which comes first, which is according to nature, did not exist, as they would have it in their folly, how could that which is second come to be, which is according to will? For the Word is first, and then the creation.’ However, since the Father has created, this manifests that he is inherently fruitful by nature and so he is first of all Father of the Son. ‘If he, by willing them to be, frames things that are external to him and before were not, and thus becomes their maker, much more will he first be Father of an offspring from his proper essence.’ If creation is the foundation of all soteriology, then, for Athanasius, its requisite is found only within the fruitful creativity of the Father begetting the Son.

This is a marvelous insight. If God was simply a singular existing being – a monad, something after the manner of Aristotle’s ‘self-thinking thought’, then God could never conceive of anything other than himself. Being simply One, it would be metaphysically impossible for him to conceive of two, or of three, or of an infinite multitude, for One is all there is. Actually, God would not even conceive of himself as One because ‘One’ itself implies a further numerical sequence of others. We only know what ‘one’ means because we equally know what ‘two’ means, without ‘two’, ‘one’ not only has no meaning, it is also, literally, inconceivable. God would just be and nothing more could be conceived, imagined, or said. As Athanasius rightly perceives, only if God is, by his very nature, the Father begetting the Son, could that God conceive of bringing into existence other beings that are not God.[2]

Much richness to consider.

One way to reflect on this, at least one way that I’d like to, is to note the theological taxis or ‘order’ present in all of this. It all starts with the Triune God as the ground and grammar of everything else; which is given shape by a Christological conditioning in regard to who we know God to be as Father of the Son, and as such we only have the capacity to know God as the Creator in this way first; i.e. as Father of the Son and Son of the Father. It is this basis upon which creation can be conceived of theo-logically, as the Father is understood to be, coinherently, as eternally fruitful; since that’s what Fatherhood entails, i.e. in having a Son. From this creation gains its telos or ‘purpose’, it is a Christologically oriented trajectory. And from within this frame we can finally have a discussion about everything else—like salvation, a doctrine of Scripture, so on and so forth—since everything else as far as we’re concerned requires created reality given the fact that we’re creatures coram Deo (‘before God’).

Let’s leave off there. But it is quite astounding, really, to see how thinking things from a Trinitarian ground, and one that is Christological conditioned, as Athanasius originally did, provides such rich and fertile soil to think about everything else that is subsequent; i.e. meaning all else that we might want to call “theology.”

 

[1] This insight comes directly from Thomas G. Weinandy.

[2] Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire/Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 79-80.

I am an Athanasian: How the Homoousion Saved Christianity by Inimically Implicating the Reality of Salvation

Thomas Torrance is known for his deployment of the homoousion, the grammar developed primarily at the Council of Nicaea in 325ad. It is the attempt to articulate how it is that Jesus, the eternal Logos, and Son of God is eternally consubstantial and of the same ‘substance’ or better ‘being’ (ousia) with the Father [and the Holy Spirit]. It is this idea that Athanasius, particularly after the Council of Nicaea went on to develop and argue for in his engagement with Arius et al. This serves as a key piece for all orthodox Christians because it helps us double down on what is revealed in Jesus Christ about himself as the Savior of the world, and how that is, as he is eternally Son of the Father. This doctrine is significant because it identifies the Trinitarian structure of the Gospel, and demonstrates how it is that the Son must be God, not just man (i.e. against Ebionite Christology and any other adoptionistic thinking), if in fact he would actually have the capacity to ‘save’, to redeem, to reconcile humanity unto God. This doctrine also is significant because it goes both ways, it not only positively notes the Son’s eternal relation to the Father as his one and only begot, but it also does double duty by pressing home the fact that he, the Son, is also fully consubstantial with human being; i.e. that he is fully human. Here the ‘bridge’ is realized between God and humanity, as the Son assumes flesh for himself, and in so doing becomes the Mediator between God and man (cf. I Tim. 2:5-6). It is in this reality, the homoousial reality that the gap between God and humanity, because of not only our finitude, but also our falleness is remedied; and we are brought from our lowly fractured state and elevated to God’s kind of life, not by nature, but by the grace of God who is Jesus Christ. It is because of the homoousial reality that we, as the Petrine theology asserts, are brought into the divine nature as participants through the grace of God’s life in Jesus Christ for us and with us. And it is because of the homoousial reality that any type of dualism between God and humanity is mitigated and brought into unity of both being (ontology) and thought (epistemology) as Jesus mediates God’s life to us, and our lives to God’s triune life in and through his life with the Father by the Holy Spirit. Because of all of this, and more, Thomas Torrance writes this about the importance of the homoousion:

As the epitomised expression of this truth, the homoousion is the ontological and epistemological linchpin of Christian theology. It gives expression to the truth with which everything hangs together, and without which everything ultimately falls apart. The decisive point for Christian theology, and not least for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, lies here, where we move from one level to another: from the basic evangelical and doxological level to the theological level, and from that level to the high theological level of the ontological relations in God. In that movement a radical shift in the basic fabric of theological thought takes place along with a reconstruction in the foundations of our prior knowledge. This is evident not least in the fact that in formulating the homoousion of Christ in connection with both his creative and redemptive activity, Nicene theology laid the axe to the epistemological dualism latent in Greek philosophy and religion that threatened the very heart of the Gospel; and as such it gave powerful expression to the indissoluble connection in Act and Being between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity, between οἰκονομία and θεολογία, which secured the Church in its belief that in the Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel they had to do directly with the ultimate Presence and downright Reality of God himself. Jesus Christ does for us and to us, and what the Holy Spirit does in us, is what God himself does for us, to us and in us.[1]

As Torrance highlights when we see the Father we see the Son; i.e. the ontological inner life of God (in se) is really made known in the economic outer life of God (ad extra). If it wasn’t, as Athanasius would argue, we are of ‘all men most to be pitied;’ because if true God of true God did not come for us then we would be doomed and left to ourselves in our sins. The gap between the Creator, who has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the creation (humanity) was so great that if God did not stoop down to us in the grace of his life in Christ we would forever be in our sins and creation itself would be lost. This is what Arius’s theology entails; i.e. since his view of the eternal Son [Jesus] is that he is generate, meaning a creature; if this was so all that humanity would be left with in this scheme, soteriologically, is a salvation that remains contingent upon us to ‘work out our salvation’ in such a way that we might find merit before God. Jesus becomes an instrument or exemplar in the Arian way of Christology and soteriology, such that there is no bridge, no Divine mediation between God and humanity; there is no union of God and humanity and humanity and God in Arian theology. Athanasius would go on and show how the homoousion undercuts this faulty way of Arian thinking both theologically and biblically. Thomas Weinandy explicates how this worked out, in Athanasius’s theology, and how the homoousion functioned as key for providing an orthodox understanding of salvation (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 63-4.):

As Weinandy has demonstrated without the homoousion, in Athanasian and orthodox theology, Christianity may have failed. We might still be in our sins. We must believe the Dominical teaching here when Jesus proclaimed that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Gospel reality (cf. Mt. 18); we must acknowledge God’s providential care in providing people like Athanasius for his church in seminal and early ways. Without such guidance we could only imagine where the church might be today.

Thomas Torrance understands all of this, and this is why he has made the homoousion  key to the whole of his theological program. As he once said of himself: “I’m an Athanasian, if anything” (my paraphrase).

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 95.

Athanasius’s Salvation as Logos Grounded Christ Conditioned Image of the Image Theology

I have written on this Athanasian Christological and soteriological theme previously, but I thought it would be good to reiterate it; particularly as I am continuing to read through Thomas Weinandy’s book Athanasius: A Theological Introduction. What I am referring to is the idea that the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ is the Pauline imago Dei as referenced in Colossians 1.15; and what happens in the Incarnation, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that humanity, through the vicarious humanity of Christ, is recreated in and through the archetypal and resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, we are recreated in the image of God, who is Christ, which would mean we are now images of the image. As Weinandy explicates (and Athanasius makes clear himself in his book Incarnation), Athanasius sees a direct soteriological linkage between this “re-imaging” of humanity in Christ’s; i.e. that without God entering into humanity, in Christ, humanity would have dissolved into nothingness and the subhumanity into which we were plunged in the ‘Fall.’ So it would take nothing less than the incorruptible God to become corruptible human, and recreate what it means for humans to be created in the image of God, as we are resurrected and recreated in the vicarious humanity of Christ; Christ being the original image of God by nature, and now we, by the faith of Christ inspired by the Holy Spirit, participate in and from his image (as ‘images of the image’) as partakers and participants in the divine nature. Here is how Weinandy masterfully develops this (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 34-6):

The profundity of this cannot be overstated. While there still remains room for some further development, in regard to Athanasius’s own development, what he does offer, as presented by Weinandy, is Christologically rich and soteriologically satisfying; at least it is to me.

I think what we can also see at work in Athanasius is the Irenean (i.e. Irenaeus) conception of recapitulation; except with Athanasius what we get is a more dogmatically (rather than narratively) construed picture of what the Incarnation implies about Jesus Christ and salvation; understanding that Athanasius’ context was even more directly in combat with some particularly pointed theological and Arian attacks that Irenaeus wasn’t pressed up against in the same way (although he had his own issues with the Gnostics et al.). Nevertheless, what Athanasius offers has some profound implications towards thinking about the role of a doctrine of creation (protology) and a doctrine of recreation (eschatology), and how both of those mutually implicate one another as they find their connective tissue and reality dead center in the person of Jesus Christ.

What we have in Athanasius is, in my view, as principially Christ centered as what we find in the theologies of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. It makes sense that Thomas Torrance when asked if he would identify as Barthian, would say that, no, he is an Athanasian, if anything. But I think in some important ways we can see Athanasius informing Barth’s theology just as directly as it does Torrance’s; and I think this is rather profound. It explains how and why the Reformed theology of Barth and Torrance (and us Evangelical Calvinists working after Barth and Torrance and Calvin) is so distinctive and in a different key than what we find in what I call classical Calvinism which is much more and almost exclusively Augustinian—and not just pure Augustinian, but mediated through a Thomist frame.

 

St. Athanasius and Thomas Torrance in Collusion on the Assumption of the Fallen Human Nature in Christ

As an evangelical in Bible College and Seminary (I still consider myself, broadly construed, an ‘evangelical’) I held to the impeccability view of Christ’s humanity. In other words, I believed that not only could Christ not sin*, but that the body he assumed in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, was likewise uniquely fitted for him such that he did not enter into the fallen human nature that the rest of humanity is born into in their mother’s womb. But then later, after Seminary (I graduated in 2003), as so many of you know by now, I came across the writings of Thomas Torrance; Torrance, as many of you also know holds to the Athanasian idea that Christ, in the incarnation, assumed a fallen human nature, just like the rest of humanity’s. Along with Nazianzen and Athanasius et al. Torrance maintained that unless Christ fully entered into our real and fallen human nature that real redemption, all the way down, could not take place. Torrance would be concerned, also, that if Christ didn’t enter the fallen human nature, in the assumptio carnis, that all we would be left with would be with something like an instrumentalist conception of the atonement. I.e. We would be left with a forensic understanding of salvation, necessarily so, since the death of Christ wouldn’t penetrate deep enough into the fabric (ontologically) of human nature to recreate it, but instead he would only be the ‘organ’ of God’s salvation to ‘pay the penalty’ of humanity’s sin (in particular the elect’s); a truly juridical and external type of venture.

Here is what Torrance has written in his New College lecture notes:

Now when we listen to the witness of holy scripture here we know we are faced with something we can never fully understand, but it is something that we must seek to understand as far as we can. One thing should be abundantly clear, that if Jesus Christ did not assume our fallen flesh, our fallen humanity, then our fallen humanity is untouched by his work — for ‘the unassumed is the unredeemed’, as Gregory Nazianzen put it. Patristic theology, especially as we see it expounded in the great Athanasius, makes a great deal of the fact that he who knew no sin became sin for us, exchanging his riches for our poverty, his perfection for our imperfection, his incorruption for our corruption, his eternal life for our mortality. Thus Christ took from Mary a corruptible and mortal body in order that he might take our sin, judge and condemn it in the flesh, and so assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it. In that teaching the Greek fathers were closely following the New Testament. If the Word of God did not really come into our fallen existence, if the Son of God did not actually come where we are, and join himself to us and range himself with us where we are in sin and under judgement, how could it be said that Christ really took our place, took our cause upon himself in order to redeem us?[1]

And here is what theologian Thomas Weinandy has to say about Athanasius’ view on the same loci (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 33-4):

It is easy to see the connection between the incarnation and salvation, in ontological terms, when we consider it from both Athanasius’ and Torrance’s theo-logic. It happens to be a theo-logic I affirm these days. Indeed, there are many objectors to this (Kevin Chiarot being the foremost) thinking; but it would be wrong-headed to think that there is not some seminal footing for this view from none other than the champion himself of Nicene Christology and Trinitarian theology, the theologian contra mundum, Athanasius.

It should also be kept in mind that this is precisely the point at which departure happens between Evangelical Calvinists and Classical Calvinists. Classical Calvinists frame their understanding of salvation, primarily, within forensic/juridical lenses; this flows well and even from their understanding of the Covenant of Works combined with the God of absolutum decretum (the God who relates to creation through absolute decrees), and a doctrine of unconditional election. Evangelical Calvinists follow Athanasius, Torrance, et al. in adopting this more ontological understanding of salvation wherein the primacy of Christ as the imago Dei is elevated to the point wherein salvation is understood as the realm where humanity is taken up in the assumption of God’s humanity in Christ, and we are recreated in Christ’s resurrected vicarious humanity for us (Romans 6–8); we are taken from living in subhumanity and corruptibility and brought to participate in and from the incorruptibility of God’s life in Christ, the life that is indestructible (Hebrews 6–7). We still see the forensic in the atonement, but we emphasize, with Barth, the idea that God in his election to be for us in Christ becomes the judged Judge in our stead and reconciles and elevates humanity to be partakers of the divine nature (by the grace of his life) in and through the recreated humanity of Jesus Christ who is our mediator.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation (DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 62.

*To be clear, I along with Athanasius and TF Torrance do not believe that Christ ever sinned, but immediately sanctified his humanity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, remaining the spotless Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. Such a sacrifice was required in order for actual salvation to inhere; which is of course why it took God in flesh, the double homoousion of the Son as God, and the Son as human in the singular person of Jesus Christ to accomplish such an impossible possibility.

Athanasius and T.F. Torrance Contra Mundum, Against the World of classical Calvinist Forensic Conception of the Atonement

Here’s a post I originally wrote in 2011. It illustrates how evangelical Calvinists, following T.F. Torrance and Athanasius are at odds with classical Calvinist or Federal theology. In this post I use Michael Horton as the representative of the Covenantal/Forensic approach. The focus is on what has happened in the atonement, and, indeed, in salvation generally.

I often speak of T. F. Torrance’s view of the atonement as the ontological view, which is inextricably related, for Torrance to the Incarnation (which is why his most recent posthumously athanasiuspublished books Incarnation & Atonement came in the order that they did— there is a theo-logical and even, dare I say it, necessary relation between the two). Well I just wanted to quote Athanasius directly, so that folks won’t think that Torrance fabricated such things out of whole cloth. Here’s Athanasius discussing the apparent dilemma God has set before Him given the reality of the “Fall” (and the non-existence or non-being that it brought humanity separated from Him), and the fact that not just a “legal” kind of relation had been violated between God and man through the “Fall;” but in fact an actual corruption of man Himself and the loss of grace as an intricate aspect of man’s relation to God had occurred —man’s very “nature” and even “heart” had been broken to the point of death (non-being and separation from God). Athanasius is sketching the only way the only dénouement possible for God to remain consistent with Himself as the Creator of man in His image; he says:

Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.[1]

Rich stuff. Now if you’re into the “kind” of Covenantal/Reformed/Federal Theology that Michael Horton & co. articulates, then you might as well throw Athanasius’ insights, just quoted, in the burn pile. Here’s why. Horton style Covenant theology offers a “Juridically-Forensically” based view of the atonement—the kind that would actually fit into the “repentance-only” model that Athanasius says or NO to—that frames what takes place on the cross as a Divine transaction between the Son and the Father. The “Law” (eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil cf. Hos. 6.7) has been broken (Covenant of Works), and the Father-Son agree to a pact (Pactum Salutis or Covenant of Redemption) wherein the Son will become a man, die on the cross for particular people (elect), “pay” their penalty (or fee), and give them back to God (Covenant of Grace). On the face that might sound good, but let’s think with Athanasius. All that has occurred in the Hortonian view of salvation is essentially to deal with an “external” issue and payment (which is akin to Athanansius’ point on repentance). The fundamental problem with this approach, as Athanasius so keenly points out, is that the issue isn’t primarily an external issue wherein a legal repentance will do; the issue is an issue of nature. Man’s nature was thoroughly corrupted and even lost. The only remedy is for the image of the Father (the Son) to literally become humanity; penetrate into the depths of our sinful souls through His redemptive grace; take that corrupted nature/heart from the manger to the cross to the grave; and resurrect/recreate it into the image of the Father which can only be realized as we are vicarious participants in Christ. The issue is not primarily an issue of a broken “Law;” the issue is that we have broken “Hearts,” and only God’s grace in Christ in the Incarnation can reach down into those depths and recreate us in Him. Horton’s approach to salvation does not allow for such thinking. It doesn’t deal with the heart, and thus we are left in our sins non-being.

 

 

[1] Athanasius, On The Incarnation, §7, 32.

 

The Athanasian Barth: The Holy Spirit of Christ in Salvation

Again, because this is important, in evangelical Calvinist theology, After Barth and After Athanasius, the work, the being and reality of salvation cannot be separated from the person of Christ (and the unio personalis). That said, how is the integrity of humanity simpliciter maintained if all of salvation is accomplished in the humanity of Jesus Christ as a prius? Following Barth, this
barthiconis something I affirm as an evangelical Calvinist; it is the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary, and the same Holy Spirit who did the work of salvation in the humanity of Christ, who works that salvation into humanity after the new/re-created humanity of Jesus Christ.

The following is a quote (a short one compared to my last post) that elucidates how this transitioning work looks from the humanity of Christ to the remaining humanity (or ours). The link is made between Barth and Athanasius at this point; you’ll see why:

We must further note that there are strong parallels between Barth’s development of the necessity of the identity of the Spirit as the Spirit of the Lord and the Athanasian development of the soteriological necessity of the hypostatic union. For Athanasius, if Jesus Christ is not fully God, he could not save us, for divine presence and power is indispensable to salvation. Likewise, if Jesus Christ is not fully human, he could not save us, for full and effective comprehension of human being is also necessary to salvation. In similar fashion, in Barth’s construal of this transition, if it is not genuinely the Spirit of Jesus Christ who comes to us, how can we be encountered by our new reconciled human being as it is in Jesus Christ? Moreover, if the selfsame Jesus Christ does not come to us, how can we be saved? The transition from Jesus Christ to others must be the radical encounter of Jesus Christ himself (not a tertium quid) and us others. Only in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Lord, is this possible.

Looking to the New Testament, Barth concludes that the solution given there to the problem of the distance between Jesus Christ in his crucifixion and us, and of the transition from him to us, is ‘[t]he outpouring of the Spirit as the effect of His resurrection, of His life in His death and in the conquest of His death, and therefore the occurrence of His self-impartation.’ On Barth’s reading of the New Testament, the holiness of the Holy Spirit is to be understood as:

the fact that He is the self-expression of the man Jesus, and that as such He is Himself His effective turning to us and our effective conversion to Him; His disclosure for us and our disclosure for Him; and, as this comes to us in this twofold sense, the new thing in earthly history.

Whatever else we might be said concerning the Holy Spirit, we cannot moderate the claim of the identity of the Spirit as the Spirit of the Lord, without sacrificing the genuine transition of reconciled human being and action from Jesus Christ to others.[1]

It is the whole Christ, both fully God fully man/human who we require to save us. It is in this hypostatic union wherein salvation is fully accomplished in Christ. In his humanity (theanthropos) what it means to be human before God has become fully actualized and realized, and this for all of humanity. Jesus’s yes to God, means that all humans can now say yes to God, from Christ’s (as the mediating and archetypal human). But, how does this work its way into the rest of humanity without violating what it means for the rest of humanity to be personal agents? By the Holy Spirit.

We will have to leave this here for now. I just wanted to share this quote with you because it fits well with my last post.

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 150-51.

Collapsing God Into Creation: On Athanasius and Evangelical Calvinism

Khaled Anatolios, in his most masterful book Retrieving Nicaea, offers something on the Trinitarian theology of Athanasius that is simply splendid! He is getting at something, relative to the neglect of a central aspect of Athanasius’s theology that indeed is key to something that I have written in my chapter for our Evangelical Calvinist book; here is what I have written:

Athanasius_Fresco

The conditio sine qua non of an Evangelical Calvinist understanding of God begins where God begins, with his Son. As Thomas Torrance makes clear, starting with God as revealed by the Son allows God’s triune nature to determine the way that we, as Christians, come to know him. That is, this is the proper way to think about the Christian God, trinitarianly; and we believe that this must lead to and from the conviction that God, as Athanasius held, has always already been Father and Son by the Holy Spirit before he ever becomes Creator.1 This becomes important, as Colin Gunton has explained in regards to the Nicene Council’s thinking; because “… By insisting … that God is eternally Son as well as Father, the Nicene theologians introduced a note of relationality into the being of God: God’s being is defined as being in relation. Such is the impact of the doctrine of the incarnation on conceptions of what it is to be.”2 The problem that arises if we fail to engage God on his (these) terms, if we start with God as creator before Father; is that the Son can come to be thought of as part of God’s creation, instead of the creator himself3 resulting in a project that simply looks at Jesus as another one of “God’s” works whereby we come to know God (as demiurge). Torrance makes this point vividly clear:

[I]n such an approach we can do no more than attempt to speak of God from his works which have come into being at his will through his Word, that is, from what is externally related to God, and which as such do not really tell us anything about who God is or what he is like in his own nature. That line of approach, as both Athanasius and Hilary insisted, is entirely lacking in accuracy or precision… . They differentiated themselves here sharply from the thesis of Basileides, the Gnostic of Alexandria, who taught, with reference to Plato’s statement that God is beyond all being, that we cannot say anything about what God is, but can only say something about what he is not. It was pointed out by Gregory Nazianzen, however, that if we cannot say anything positive about what God is, we really cannot say anything accurate about what he is not.4 [Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism, citing Chapter 4 by Bobby Grow, 95]

And here is what Anatolios has written in the same vein (and with more explanation on the theology of Athanasius, and a helpful elaboration of what I was thinking when I wrote what I did for my personal chapter in our book [quoted above]):

[T]he insistence that the creation of  the world is grounded in the generation of the Son is an aspect of Athanasius’s Trinitarian theology that has received remarkably little attention. But it is not an incidental detail for Athanasius. What is at stake is not only a certain vision of fecundity of the divine nature, as a merely abstract divine attribute. But it is also structural to Athanasius’s vision that both in the original creation and in the renewed and redeemed creation, God’s relation to the world is enfolded by the Father’s relation to the Son. Using the felicitous biblical image of God’s delight in Wisdom, Athanasius speaks of God’s delight in the world as derivative of and embraced within the intra-divine delight of the relation of Father and Son [Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 118]:

Therefore all the earth is filled with his knowledge. For one is the knowledge of the Father, through the Son, and of the Son, from the Father, and the Father rejoices in the Son and in this same joy, the Son delights in the Father, saying, “I was beside him, his delight. Day by day, I rejoiced in his presence” (Prov 8:30), except by seeing himself in his own image, which is his Word? Even though, as it is written in these same Proverbs, he also “delighted in the sons of people, having consummated the world” (Prov 8:31), yet this also has the same meaning. For he did not delight in this way by acquiring delight as an addition to himself, but it was upon seeing the works that were made according to his own image, so that the basis of this delight also is God’s own Image. And how does Son too rejoice, except by seeing himself in the Father? For to say this is the same as to say: “The one who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10) [Athanasius,Contra Arianos, 2.82, cited by Anatolios, 118]

Athanasius’s Trinitarian theology developed, as does so much of theology, in a polemical context. He is countering the thought of both Arius, and one of Arius’ tribe members Asterius; both of these “arch-heretics” held, in their respective and nuanced ways, that Jesus was ultimately a creation of the unbegotten, ingenerate Father (who functioned as a demiurge between the Father and his creation). Both of these heretics were what can be called (as Anatolios labels it) ‘unity-of-will’ theologians V. ‘unity-of-being’; meaning that they made a distinction between God’s inner life (‘ad intra’) and his outer life (‘ad extra’), such that the latter was simply an expression of the Unbegotten God’s desire (to create for example). And neither one of these heretics saw any necessary relation between God’s ‘will’ (his outer workings) and his inner life, or his divine ‘being’. The consequence of this was that these heretics placed Jesus into the ‘will’ category of God, such that there was no necessary relation of being between the Father and the Son; and so then, the Son becomes a part of God’s generation and creation–even if, for Arius and Asterius, they believed that the Son was a creation of God who was pre-existent to the creation of the world.

It is this setting into which Athanasius is speaking. Instead of making a disjunction between the ‘essence’ or ‘being’ of God with his ‘will’, Athanasius sees these two realities of God’s life as coordinate and necessary corollaries. As such, the will of the Father to create flows from an intrinsic reality of his being; which is to say, that the Father’s being cannot be such without his relation to the Son (which is what makes him ‘Father’). It is in this prior relation that God’s will to create takes form and is coordinate, and it is this reality that Athanasius believes (with the Gospel of John, no less) must be affirmed in order to faithfully understand a God-world relation that keeps the ‘being’ and person of God in-tact, relative to the triune relation that inheres between the Father, Son, and later the Holy Spirit (and I mean later relative to the way that the Patristics dealt with the articulating the divine life and the homoousion).

The bottom line is that the Father has always been the Father of the Son before he became a creator, as Thomas Torrance so often liked to iterate. Hopefully now you can see a little more clearly, at least, where Torrance got his line of thinking from. My concern is that classic Calvinists, by their adoption of classical theism, and the integration of Aristotelian categories into their theological methodology (prolegomena), is that they have provided a doctrine of God that is more akin to the errors of Arius and Asterius by collapsing God in Christ into the creation rather than providing a proper order of things relative to a properly construed Trinitarian theology.

The classic Calvinist ordering of creation, covenant, redemption is an example of how the problem I am referring to inheres in their theological method. By placing creation prior to covenant (or God’s life), they have set up a situation wherein the creation can predicate the life of God as God enters into creation in Christ. Creation takes priority over Christ in this instance, such that the only way to safeguard God as untouched by creation (the Unbegotten God) is to posit a distinction between God’s ‘will’ and God’s ‘being’. In the incarnation Jesus would be functioning at the level of God’s will, which must be separate from God’s being in order to maintain that the creation does not ‘touch’ God’s inner being. The problem with this, obviously, is that now there is ‘a God behind the back of Jesus’ and Jesus simply becomes an instrument in the Unbegotten God’s hand in order to accomplish his desired will in the world.

I will have to get into this more later. Suffice it to say, that the depth of what I was only really sketching in my personal chapter in our book gets into the issues that I am discussing in this post.

Image of the image of the image: Salvation

Here is a good quote from Greek Orthodox theologian Khaled Anatolios on the vicarious humanity of Christ and Incarnation:

A helpful way to synthesize the argument of Against the Greeks—On the Incarnation and to integrate it with Athanasius’s later and more explicitly polemical work is to focus on the trintarian-christological-athanasiusanthropological nexus that forms the guiding motif of the work: only the One who is true Image can renew humanity’s being according to the image (kat’ eikona). The trinitarian ground of this nexus is the immediate relation (though we do not find the later technical vocabulary of “relation” in this treatise) whereby the Son is the Image of the Father. The soteriological consequence of this immediacy is that the Son is uniquely able to grant direct and immediate access to the Father. The statement that humanity was created according to the Image is simultaneously anthropological and christological: to be created according to the Image is to be granted a participation in the one who is the true and full Image of the Father. When humanity lost its stability, which depended on remaining in the state of being according to the Image, the incarnate Word repaired the image of God in humanity by reuniting it with his own divine imaging of the Father. Jesus Christ is therefore both eternal divine Image and restored human image. The saving union of divine and human image in Christ is characterized by immediacy. One foundational principle of Athanasius’s theological vision is this stress on the continuity of immediate connections between God and humanity and a corresponding abhorrence of obstacles and opaque mediations. As perfect Image, the Son is immediately united to the Father and transparently reflects knowledge of the Father; anything short of this immediate and transparent relation would deconstruct our immediate connection with the Father through the Son from the divine side. Through his incarnation, the Son repairs our human participation in his imaging of the Father from within the human constitution; anything short of a full incarnation would leave humans disconnected from both Father and Son. Thus, incarnation and the full divinity of the Son are both integral to the immediacy of our contact with the Father. Far from indicating inferior divinity, the human life and death of Jesus Christ extend the efficacy of is divine imaging of the Father in the face of humanity’s loss of the state of being according to the image. It is a wonderful display of the loving-kindness that belongs to the divine nature as such, the philanthrōpia that is equally shared by Father and Son. [Khaled Anatolios,Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine,(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 107-8.]

So we are images of the Image in the Son as we participate from His life for us. He is the Image of God, and the recreated image of the image that was originally created in the garden in Adam and Eve. So Christ was the human image of God whom Adam and Eve reflected as the image of the image first. It is only as this image is recreated and restored through the ‘firstborn status’ of the Son (Col. 1.15ff) that salvation and reconciliation is realized for us in Christ. This fits well with Thomas Torrance’s understanding of Theosis, and his ontological theory of the atonement; and something that is central to what Myk Habets and I consider to be the grist of evangelical Calvinist soteriology.

 

Peter Leithart Critiques, John Webster Constructs … T. F. Torrance on Revelation and Scripture

I just finished a really good book, Athanasius by Peter Leithart. There are a few things I am intending on addressing from the book, on various fronts that he addresses in the process of getting at Athanasius’ theology (like a critique of Michael Horton’s Federal Theology … which is lovely). But this piece, this post comes from a hunting-gathering expedition I took into the Forest-land of end notes; which normally I tremble to enter, given its distance from the land of the living in the body of the text itself—but I was brave this time. As a result of my adventurous move, I came across a little critique that Leithart drops on T. F. Torrance’s reading of Athanasius. It’s really not a surprising critique, but it brings up an interesting discussion–methinks–and so I want to address it here.

In the following quote, Peter J. Leithart provides a mini-critique of the Barthian way that Torrance reads Athanasius relative to a theory of revelation (the context of the note is a discussion that Leithart is developing on the tripartite method of biblical interpretation that Athanasius follows—he is noticing how Torrance, according to him, misreads Athanasius). Note Leithart,

[…] and Torrance, “Hermeneutics of Saint Athanasius (Part 1),” Ekklesiastikos Pharos (1970-1971), in four installments. For all its virtues, Torrance’s series imposes a Barthian framework on Athanasius. Torrance detaches the res [reality] of revelation from the word of Scripture in ways that I think Athanasius would have rejected, and he attempts to explain his use of biblical paradigms while holding to Barthian scruples about natural revelation, scruples that Athanasius was far from sharing. [brackets mine] -Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, 182 fn. 19.

This might mean nothing to you, but to me it is, obviously, interesting. Leithart is simply seeking to provide a critical reading of Athanasius, and so I think his reading is quite fair; further, that his little critique of Torrance, is most likely accurate (Torrance is known for his, as some have noted before, his hagiographic readings of folk … I prefer to think of it as constructive). But this does bring up something, and I wonder how this impacts you. What Leithart is noting when he speaks of Torrance and how he ‘detaches the res of revelation from the word of Scripture’ is in reference to Torrance’s Barthian theory of revelation; wherein there is a depth dimension to scripture, such that the meaning of scripture can’t simply be read off of the syntactical, grammatical structure of the text of scripture, but that scripture itself points beyond itself to its, reality, or Christ. Note what John Webster has written in his abstract to an essay he has authored for the most recent volume of the Scottish Journal of Theology entitled, simply: T. F. Torrance On Scripture; he writes,

Although it was never completed and has had only slight impact, T. F. Torrance’s work on the nature and interpretation of scripture is a primary element in his theology, though largely unstudied. For Torrance, a theology of scripture and its interpretation derive from a theology of revelation; revelation takes creaturely form in the incarnate Word, out of which is generated the apostolic community and its witness, which in turn generates scripture, the human word which ministers the divine Word. Scripture is the divine Word accommodated to human form, and so a sacrament or sign which refers to revelation; its social location is the life of the apostolic community. Interpretation of scripture is properly ‘depth-interpretation’, following the semantics of scripture by which reference to divine reality is made, rather than terminating on scripture’s syntactical surface. Fitting interpretative practice follows the text’s reference, penetrates to the thing signified, indwells its subject matters and listens to the divine Word. The interpreter is summoned to mortification of prejudice and constantly renewed attentiveness…. (see full biblio and abstract here)

So what do you think? 1) What do you think about a theory of revelation? Would you follow what Leithart attributes to Athanasius?; which is really just the traditional understanding of revelation. I.e. that scripture itself is God’s special revelation to humanity. Or, would you prefer Torrance’s and Barth’s approach which hold, that properly ordered, God’s Self-revelation is not collapsed into paper or a Pope; but, instead, it is God’s personal Triune self-revelation of himself through himself, through his eternal Word, his Son? This, as Webster underscores, will have impact upon, at least, the emphases of your biblical interpretation (like your methodology, and the ethics of reading the text etc.).

I would like to know what theory of revelation you follow, and why? Only if you want to let me know though …