Patristic Theology

Analogia Incarnatio: How the Christian Reality is Focused on an Embodied Existence: Incarnation Contradicts Gnosticism

The Christian reality isn’t “some angels in the heavens floating on white puffy clouds playing harps before God” faith; instead it is a richly and concretely embodied reality that places great emphasis upon bodily and physical reality. Note the Apostle Paul in his argument to the Corinthians (at length):

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another.41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. 42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

There is a one-to-one continuity between the pre-resurrection body, and the resurrected body; the perishable and the imperishable; the mortal and immortal body. The argument could be pressed further from the scriptural text (think of John 11 and 12 wherein we have more resurrection themes in the Dominical teaching; a correspondence between the ‘seed that falls into the ground and sprouts as a new blade of grass from what appears to be its deathly seeded life’). But for our purposes, the reference to the Apostle Paul will suffice. Christians believe, intensively, in the ‘good’ and ‘very good’ nature of embodied and physical reality; it’s at the very touchstone of ‘the faith’: for if Jesus did not raise from the dead we are of most people all to be pitied.

I preface this post in this way because I want to delve into the wonderful world of Gnosticism (maybe not so wonderful, actually). Gnosticism antedates Christianity, at least according to JND Kelly, in incipient or proto ways in what he identifies as a Jewish Gnosticism. But at the advent of Christianity, post-Pentecost, just as we have this kind of [super]natural organic movement from the ‘shadow’ of Judaism (i.e. the promises cf. Rom. 11.29), to the ‘substance’ in Christ (i.e. the fulfillments cf. Col. 2.18); this movement also takes place from the Jewish forms of Gnosticism[s] into Christian adaptations. Gnosticism, in the main, is a dualistic cult that generally teaches that ‘matter’ or the material world is evil, and the ‘spiritual’ or eternal world is pure and sacrosanct. The word Gnostic is ascribed to this belief framework because ‘gnosis’ (or ‘knowledge’), for the Gnostic, is the key for escaping the evil material world, and finding salvation in the eternal and abstract world of pure spirit. JND Kelly, at length, details all of this this way:

First, most of the Gnostic schools were thoroughly dualistic, setting an infinite chasm between the spiritual world and the world of matter, which they regarded as intrinsically evil. Secondly, when they tried to explain how the material order came into existence, they agree in refusing to attribute its origin to the ultimate God, the God of light and goodness. It must be the result of some primeval disorder, some conflict or fall, in the higher realm, and its fabricator must have been some inferior deity or Demiurge. Where the Old Testament was accepted as authoritative, it was easy and natural to identify him with the Creator-God of the Jews. Thirdly, the Gnostics all believed that there is a spiritual element in man, or at any rate in the élite of mankind, which is a stranger in this world and which yearns to be freed from matter and to ascend to its true home. Fourthly, they pictured a mediator or mediators descending down the successive aeons or heavens to help it achieve this. These ideas were expounded in a setting of elaborate pseudo-cosmological speculation, and extensive use was made of pagan myths, the Old Testament concepts borrowed from Far Eastern religions.

In this way, then, the Gnostics sought to explain the riddle of man’s plight in a universe he feels to be alien to himself. But what of the redemption they offered? Here we come to the distinctive feature which gives Gnosticism its name. In all the Gnostics systems redemption is brought about by knowledge, and it is the function of the divine mediators to open the eyes of ‘pneumatic’ men to the truth. ‘The spiritual man’, the disciples of the Valentinian Marcus declared. [sic] ‘is redeemed by knowledge’; while according to Basilides, ‘the Gospel is knowledge of supramundane things’. In other words, when a man has really grasped the Gnostic myths in all their inwardness, and thus realizes who he is, how he has come to his present condition, and what is that ‘indescribable Greatness’ which is the supreme God, the spiritual element in him begins to free itself from the entanglements of matter. In the vivid imagery of Valentinus’s Gospel of Truth, before he acquires that knowledge, he plunges about like a drunken man in a dazed state, but having acquired it he awakens, as it were, from his intoxicated slumbers. Irenaeus has a colorful passage describing how the possession of esoteric knowledge—of the abysmal Fall, of Achamoth, of the Demiurge and so forth—was supposed to enable the Gnostic to overcome the powers confronting him after death, and so traverse the successive stages of his upward journey.

It is easy to understand the fascination which the Gnostic complex of ideas exercised on many Christians. The Church, too, professed to offer men saving knowledge, and set Christ before them as the revelation of the Father. There was a powerful strain in early Christianity which was in sympathy with Gnostic tendencies. We can see it at work in the Fourth Gospel, with its axiom that eternal life consists in knowledge of God and of Christ, and even more clearly in such second-century works as 2 Clement and Theophilus’s Ad Autolycum. As we noticed above, Clement of Alexandria freely applied the title ‘gnostics’ to Christians who seemed to have a philosophic grasp of their faith. It is the existence of a genuinely Christian, orthodox ‘gnosis’ side by side with half-Christian, heretical or even non-Christian versions which in part accounts for the difficulty in defining Gnosticism precisely. As has been shown, many of the Gnostic teachers mentioned above sincerely regarded themselves as Christians, and there is an element of truth in the thesis that their systems were attempts to restate the simple Gospel in terms which contemporaries would find philosophically, even scientifically, more satisfying. The root incompatibility between Christianity and Gnosticism really lay, as second-century fathers like Irenaeus quickly perceived, in their different attitudes to the material order and the historical process. Because in general they disparaged matter and were disinterested in history, the Gnostics (in the narrower, more convenient sense of the term) were prevented from giving full value to the fundamental Christian doctrine of the incarnation of the Word.[1]

Much to digest. But I wanted to give a fuller context because I don’t think many Christians really grasp what the early Christian thinkers were up against. And this is ironic since what we count as ‘orthodox’ Christian doctrine today was constructed in precise ways to counter the teachings of folks like the Gnostics.

Another reason I wanted to highlight Gnosticism comes back to how I opened this article. Christianity is embodied reality; it entails body and soul realities, and sees such realities as an integrated whole. In other words, I fear that the early Gnosticism we just sketched still lives on in many expressions of 21st century Christian modes of thought. For example, the Dispensationalists, where my rootage comes from in my Christian heritage, emphasizes an ‘escape’ from this world through a secret coming of Jesus Christ for the church: commonly known as the rapture. At that point, this approach believes, the world will plummet into all out hell on earth finally and only overcome at the second coming of Jesus Christ. It will be at that time, according to Dispensational thought, that a thousand year reign of Christ will ensue only to terminate in one more battle between evil and good (i.e. the Demonic hoard of Satan), and then God will destroy this earth by fire. In other words, the “elite” or Christians will be cloistered away under the wings of the Divine Host somewhere aloof in the heavenlies, at which point a new heavens and earth will be created. The problem is, and the link between Gnosticism here is, is that there is no one-to-one correspondence between this earth we currently inhabit and the new heavens and earth to come. This is Gnostic teaching, it is not Christianity.

Let me not digress too much. The biblical teaching, and the early Christian teaching counter to the Gnostic teaching (of whatever varying expression that might take, ‘back then’ or now) is that these bodies we currently inhabit will themselves be metamorphized (cf. Phil. 3.20-21), and recreated just like Jesus’s was in the resurrection/recreation of his body (cf. I Jn. 3.1-3). What this implies is that there is continuity between the very goodness of this earth and these bodies with the elevated goodness of this earth and these bodies to come, in the age to come (in the consummation).

The analogia incarnatio (‘analogy of the incarnation’) puts to death all expressions of Gnosticism. Even though Gnosticism proper was something the early Fathers dealt with, as Christian thinkers in the 21st century we are no less confronted with a neo-Gnosticism of today. As TF Torrance has noted though, and with this we will close, what orthodox Christians think from is the reality and particularity of the mystery of the incarnation: i.e. God become [hu]man. If this bedrock reality does not flood our minds and hearts as Christians in such a way that all of our thinking is not colored by it, then we are thinking probably much more in line with the Gnostics than from within the Christian reality.

‘The Word was made flesh’ – but what is meant by flesh? John means that the Word fully participates in human nature and existence, for he became man in becoming flesh, true man and real man. He was so truly man in the midst of mankind that it was not easy to recognise him as other than man or distinguish him from other men. He came to his own and his own received him not. He became a particular man, Jesus, who stands among other men unsurpassed but unrecognised. That is the way he became flesh, by becoming one particular man. And yet this is the creator of all mankind, now himself become a man.[2]

[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 26-8.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downer Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 61.

A Mini-Sketch of Pelagius and Pelagianism with Reference to JND Kelly

We often hear of Pelagianism, or of Pelagius himself. We know it is a heresy which Augustine in the 5th century combated; but we don’t often hear exactly what Pelagianism entails. I thought in an effort to remedy this type of lacuna, at least for those who don’t know, that I would share something from JND Kelly on Pelagius, and in brief, what the main aspect of his troubling teaching entails. Kelly writes:

Pelagius was primarily a moralist, concerned for right conduct and shocked by what he considered demoralizingly pessimistic views of what could be expected of human nature. The assumption that man could not help sinning seemed to him an insult to his Creator. Augustine’s prayer, ‘Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt’ (da quod iubes et iube quod vis), particularly distressed him, for it seemed to suggest that men were puppets wholly determined by the movements of divine grace. In reaction to this the keystone of his whole system is the idea of unconditional free will and responsibility. In creating man God did not subject him, like other creatures, to the law of nature, but gave him the unique privilege of being able to accomplish the divine will by his own choice. He set life and death before him, bidding him choose life (Deut. 30, 19), but leaving the final decision to his free will. Thus it depends on the man himself whether he acts rightly or wrongly: the possibility of freely choosing the good entails the possibility of choosing evil. There are, he argues, three features in action—the power (posse), the will (velle), and the realization (esse). The first of these comes exclusively from God, but the other two belong to us; hence, according as we act, we merit praise or blame. It would be wrong to infer, however, that he regarded this autonomy as somehow withdrawing man from the purview of God’s sovereignty. Whatever his followers may have said, Pelagius himself made no such claim. On the contrary, along with his belief in free will he has the conception of a divine law proclaiming to men what they ought to do and setting the prospect of supernatural rewards and pains before them. If a man enjoys the freedom of choice, it is by the express bounty of his Creator, and he ought to use it for the ends which He prescribes.[1]

Augustine famously opposed this with his development not only of sin as privatio (privation), but also concupiscence (self-love). But beyond that, if you have ever wondered about Pelagius, or more pointedly about his teaching which has become known as Pelagianism, then this should at least give you a good start. If you want to see what Kelly says further about Pelagius I recommend you pick up his excellent book where he covers this, among other important developments in the early period of the church.

I think all Christians, whether classical Calvinist, classical Arminian, Evangelical Calvinist, Barthian, Lutheran, or what have you share common ground in their opposition towards Pelagianism. Sometimes it requires heresy in order for orthodoxy to be sharpened and articulated in such a way that it provides a fruitful way forward for the church. In this case what Augustine offered against Pelagius served as the basis for what many Christians, even today, think of Pelagianism, and more importantly, how Christians conceive of grace (of course we’ve had other developments since Augustine and Pelagius as well).

[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 356-57.

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.

‘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.

Not the Binity But the Trinity: The Holy Spirit’s Place in the Life of God

The Holy Spirit, unless you’re a Pentecostal or Charismatic, is often left in the background somewhere in theological discussion. Never mind that John Calvin has been called the ‘theologian of the Spirit’ or the fact that Colin Gunton made great appeal to the Spirit in his doctrine of creation, or that folks like my friend and Evangelical Calvinist colleague, has edited books devoted to Third Article Theology; the Spirit, in my experience anyway, is often under-referenced in the Reformed circles I have contact with when discussing things theological. And maybe some of this is actually by design: I mean the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to magnify the person and work of Jesus Christ; so He, by His person (hypostasis) stands in the background. As T Torrance was fond of highlighting, the Holy Spirit comes along for us with the coming of the eternal Son in the Incarnation; in other words, the Spirit comes with the Son for us, indeed he paves the way (think of the overshadowing of the waters in Genesis [protology – creation] or the overshadowing of Mary’s womb in Luke [eschatology – recreation]).

The aforementioned noted, the Holy Spirit was given his rightful place in the development of the Trinitarian theology that took was given expression in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. Kooi and Brink highlight this especially well when they write:

The question might be posed as to why, between 325 and 381, the view arose to describe the Spirit too as being of one essence (“consubstantial”) with the Father and the Son. Was that not a little too much of a good thing? Was a binitarian concept that safeguarded Jesus’s divinity not complicated enough? It was precisely in the fourth-century controversy with those who doubted the divinity of the Spirit that it became clear that the Trinitarian concept was not to be relinquished. It was not based just on some Bible texts that linked the Spirit to God; it had much more to do with the pneumatological insight developing in the early church that we human beings do not have the Spirit at our disposal and that we cannot manipulate the Spirit. A spirit that does not issue from God would automatically be on the side of the creatures and open to such manipulation. Nor would such a spirit be able to genuinely connect us with God. We would be left out on our own. Only because the Spirit is radically on God’s side is he able, through the Son, to incorporate us into communion with the Father. However, this work can happen only if the Spirit belongs fully, as a distinct person, to the divine essence. This soteriological insight played a major role in the labors of Athanasius and the Cappadocians and would eventually lead to the confession that the Spirit “is Lord and gives life” and must “be worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son” (the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, an expansion of the Nicene Creed; hereafter we will refer to both forms simply as the Nicene Creed).[1]

I like how they highlight that the Holy Spirit indeed is God of God; i.e. that He is indeed a hypostasis within the Godhead (Monarxia), and as such is Lord (cf. II Cor. 3.17). He is not an energy or a spark within humanity, He finds His reality in the eternal relation and coinhering life of the Father, Son, and indeed, the Holy Spirit.


[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 94-5.

Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Theosis in Convergence with the Eastern Orthodox: Part Two

Picking up where we left off yesterday, in this post we will jump right into how Adam Neder places Barth in a positive relation to the doctrine of theosis; particularly within the Orthodox iteration of that. Just as a reminder let me repost what I ended the post with yesterday; it is another short quote from Neder where he offers a distillation of the component parts of what makes up the doctrine of theosis; he himself is quoting Anna Williams’ compression of this doctrine for easy identification.

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[1]

Neder is contesting that Barth himself, a Westerner, contributes to the development of this prestigious doctrine along with other notables spanning from East to West (even though theosis is typically thought of as an Eastern theological reality).

Again, in the last post we saw how Neder framed Barth in rather oppositional terms relative to theosis, here Neder will place Barth in a positive stance towards the constructive development of the doctrine of theosis. Neder writes (in extenso):

There are of course other and important differences between Barth’s conception of the meaning of human participation in God and that of the Orthodox. I do not deny that such differences exist nor do I want to argue for some kind of rapprochement by smoothing them out. I am arguing, rather, that Barth is a contributor to the church’s history of reflection on this important issue, and that the quality of his contribution merits consideration within the present discussion. The following are just a few of the areas where their concerns overlap considerably:

[1] Both Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of participation in God teleologically and eschatologically. Participation in God represents the “ultimate destiny” of humanity. For Barth, this means the fulfillment of a perfect reality (i.e., the objective participation of all humanity in Christ is fulfilled as believers subjectively participate in Christ), whereas for the Orthodox the teleological movement is conceived along more gradual lines, as the final realization of a partial beginning. Nevertheless, both agree that participation in God is a teleological and eschatological concept.

[2] Both Barth and Orthodoxy insist that participation in God is not the abolition of true humanity, but its realization. Each works this out in a different way, but both agree that participation in God “does not suppress humanity, but makes humanity truly human.” Moreover, they agree that while the union between God and human beings is real, it is real as a union in distinction.

[3] For much of Orthodoxy, God’s nature (ousia) is unapproachable, unknowable, and imparticible. Deification is participation in God’s energies. Nevertheless, “these energies are not something that exists apart from God, not a gift which God confers upon humans; they are God Himself in His action and revelation to the world. God exists complete and entire in each of His divine energies.” Barth does not share this distinction between essence and energies, but he affirms something analogous to it. According to Barth, that which most basically distinguishes God from all else is his gracious and sovereign action. This action is God’s alone. God does not share it. God’s being is in-act, and God’s act is sovereign and gracious. But God freely shares himself with us. And he does so by including us in this action of his and therefore in himself. In the event of the union of God’s free primary action and our correspondingly free secondary response, we are given a creaturely share in God’s being. Thus, for Barth and Orthodoxy, God’s “nature” is imparticible even as human beings really participate in God.

[4] Barth’s actualistic anthropology, his insistence that human “being” does not precede human action, but rather is in-act, overlaps with what Meyendorff describes as “the central theme, or intuition, of Byzantine theology,” which, he writes, “is that man’s nature is not a static, ‘closed,’ autonomous entity, but a dynamic reality, determined in its very existence by its relationship to God,” such that “his very nature is truly itself only as much as it exists ‘in God’ or ‘in grace.’” I have already noted the divergent ways in which Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of nature and grace, and it goes without saying that Barth’s Christocentric framework for understanding creature nature is very different from that of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there is an important shared emphasis among them that human nature is only properly described in dynamic, active, and one might even say kinetic terms. What Meyendorff writes of Orthodoxy could, in its own way, apply equally well to Barth: “The logos  of every creature consists, therefore, in being essentially active; there is no ‘nature’ without ‘energy’ or movement.” Furthermore, both agree that participation in God is the event in which human nature is actively realized.[2]


Personally, I like Neder’s observations in regard to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis. As I alluded to above, theosis itself is not just an Eastern Orthodox teaching, it has prevailed throughout Western theology as well (even, as Neder suggests elsewhere, in Augustine himself). Off the top Martin Luther with his marriage mysticism and belief in the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’); John Calvin with his unio cum Christo (‘union with Christ’), unio mystica (‘mystical union’), and duplex gratia (‘double grace’) conception of salvation; T.F. Torrance with his actual doctrine of theosis in direct conversation with the Eastern church and Patristic theology all represent examples of how this doctrine was present in its own particular way within ‘Western’ theology—the examples could be enumerated exponentially.

As Neder has decisively shown, I think, Barth is one other significant figure who has helped forward our understanding of the doctrine of theosis; albeit from within his own unique framing of things. As we noted in the last post, as is the normal pace of Barth, he reformulates almost everything he gets his hands on through his actualistic theological ontology, driven by his intensively principial Christ concentrated way. He works, as Torrance, as a Reformed theologian with categories like: election/reprobation, covenant (foedus), and the Scripture principle in play; among other important identifying features as found within Reformed theology.

Even if you are Eastern Orthodox, maybe especially so, I commend Barth’s alternative approach to the doctrine of theosis to you. I think he offers a more robust version of this doctrine, and avoids the pitfalls that come along with the classical understanding of theosis as it affirms something like Luther’s commuticatio idiomatum, and a kind of attendant synergism in the “appropriation” of salvation.

I might do one more post based upon Neder’s work. If I do I will share four points where Adam Neder explicates what union with Christ theology actually is in Barth’s theology. These four points significantly differentiate, or at least nuance Barth’s understanding of ‘theosis’ and/or union with Christ theology from the Orthodox understanding. While, as Neder has pointed out there are some important points of contact between Barth and Orthodoxy on this doctrine, there are also significant points of departure (as my first post indicated, but these other four points might make that even clearer).


[1] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics(Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 91.

[2] Ibid., 90-1.

Karl Barth’s Reformed Doctrine of Theosis in Contradistinction to the Eastern Orthodox

In light of Hank Hanegraaff’s Chrismation into Eastern Orthodoxy, I thought I would do a post on theosis; it just so happens that in my readings, apart from all of this, I just read through a study on Barth’s theology where Adam Neder dedicates a section to Karl Barth and theosis. So for the remainder of this post we will see what Neder thinks about Barth’s theology in this regard; Neder offers five points where Barth is at odds with theosis, and then four constructive points where Neder sees Barth in some convergence with this typically Eastern framed doctrine.[1] We will look at Neder’s framing of Barth’s ‘negative’ posture towards theosis in this post, and then in another post we will look at Neder’s four points on how Barth is positively predisposed towards theosis within his theology.

We will get right into it through Neder’s accounting of this doctrine in the theology of Barth. Here are the ‘cons’ relative to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis as understood by Neder in Barth:

This way of stating Barth’s relationship to the history of the church’s reflection on deification will puzzle many readers. If ever there was an enemy of deification, was it not Barth? How can Barth be a contributor to the church’s clarification of the meaning of human participation in the triune being of God when he rejects deification literally hundreds of times throughout the Church Dogmatics? Consider just a few of the ways that Barth and Orthodoxy differ significantly on the matter of participation in the being of God.

[1] If human beings participate in God’s being, God’s being must, in some way, be particible. Barth does not affirm the distinction, widely (although not universally) held within Orthodoxy, between divine essence and energies, and he defends the filioque. Therefore their respective doctrines of God yield differing understandings of the meaning of human participation in God’s being.

[2] Participation in God’s life is a reality for human beings because it is a reality in Jesus Christ. Barth and Orthodoxy agree on this point. Yet their Christologies differ significantly—especially regarding the communicatio idiomatum—and therefore so too do their descriptions of the meaning of participation in God’s life. Unlike the Orthodox, Barth does not think that Jesus’ human nature is deified (in the sense of receiving and possessing divine “qualities” or “attributes”), and therefore he denies that human participation in the being of God involves such a transfer.

[3] The Orthodox synergistic construal of the relationship between divine and human action  is at odds with Barth’s understanding of that relationship. Both agree that human participation in God occurs in human freedom, but their conceptions of the meaning of participation will differ along with their differing views of human freedom, the imago Dei, and sin.

[4] Whereas the doctrine of election is centrally significant for Barth’s understanding of human participation in God’s life and touches every aspect of it, that doctrine plays virtually no role in Orthodox descriptions of theosis. Neither does Orthodoxy emphasize the covenant in the way that Barth does.

[5] The sacraments (mysteries) often figure centrally in Orthodox discussions of theosis, but, as we have seen, that is not the case with Barth’s understanding of human participation in God. In addition to his repudiation of sacramental mediation in general, Barth’s actualistic ontology is incompatible with the common affirmation of that grace is infused into the soul of the believer through the sacraments.[2]

This is interesting, really, cause if you know anything about Barth’s theology he has a huge emphasis upon a participationist understanding of salvation and what it means to be human in Christ; which is why Neder is able to offer a list of positives in Barth’s theology towards theosis (which we will get to in another post). But this list should highlight for you how Barth and theosis might not get along so well, and this because of the way that Barth re-frames much of the tradition through adopting another “metaphysic” and ontology (i.e. actualism). We see how Barth follows the Reformed way when it comes to Christology, and thus theoanthropology, which is what Neder’s point is about the communicatio idiomatum. We see how Barth’s doctrine of God is a bit different from the Orthodox in regard to the ‘particible’, and the idea that God can be ‘pieced’ out as it were which for the Orthodox is accommodated for by (at least for some of them) the distinction between divine essence and energies. We see how ‘human freedom’ is different, particularly because Barth holds strongly to a Reformed conception of God’s sovereignty grounded in a thick doctrine of divine freedom. Meaning that salvation is already accomplished, for Barth, de jure (objectively) in Christ—from both the Godward side and humanward side in Christ. In other words there is no cooperation between God and humanity in salvation (as there is in the Orthodox conception of theosis and its concept of grace), but instead there is a de facto (subjective) correspondence between the faith of Christ accomplished in his vicarious humanity for us, and then our ‘transfer’ into that by the Holy Spirit’s capacity to provide a correspondence between Jesus’s ‘yes’ to the Father for us, and now our ‘yes’ in correspondence to his to be for the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit—this is a strong distinction between Barth and the Orthodox, even though they both respectively hold to a view of salvation that is participationist (participatio Christi). And then we see how the Reformed emphasis upon ‘election’ differentiates Barth from the Orthodox; bearing in mind of course how Barth rightly recasts election/reprobation in and from Christ. And finally we see how Barth is distinct from the Orthodox in regard to the sacraments, and this gets into Barth’s actualism and how he thinks of Jesus as ‘grace’ in person versus the Orthodox conception which is oriented around and from the sacraments as a ‘means’ of receiving God’s grace and as the ‘means’ by which someone participates in God’s life through Christ in theosis.

What is Theosis? — In Conclusion

Let me close with another short quote from Neder where he quotes Anna Williams on four distinct contours of thought that she identifies as essential when attempting to identify if theosis is actually being considered or not. In other words, this is a compressed distillation of what one should expect to find if they are ever confronted with the doctrine of theosis. Indeed, it is these points of theological material that Barth in his own unique way is engaging with and contributing to within his own participatory understanding of salvation. Here is Neder quoting Williams:

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[3]

In this sense Barth fits quite well within the theosis discussion. What we just noted, via Neder, are the ways that Barth’s theology remains distinct from the Orthodox conception of theosis, but at the same time we can also see some over-lap; particularly in light of Williams’ definition of the component parts of what theosis entails as a doctrine. In another post we will highlight the four points of Barth’s theology, according to Neder, wherein he fits in well even with some of the Orthodox understanding of theosis and participation soteriology.


[1] Although as Neder notes, the concept of theosis is ubiquitous throughout the history of Christianity; whether East or West. He is right, John Calvin himself with his union with Christ theology is right there in his own Reformed way. T.F. Torrance actually had a doctrine of theosis in his theology, as my colleague Myk Habets has written on in his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas TorranceAnd lets not forget Martin Luther in all of this, the Finnish reading notwithstanding.

[2] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 90-1.

[3] Ibid., 91.

The Christology of Leo’s Tome, The Chalcedonian Settlement, and Miscellaneous Thoughts on Church Trad and Biblical Interpretation

I wanted to share J.N.D. Kelly’s summarizing of the theses presented in Pope Leo I’s Tome. The writings which helped contribute to what became known as the Chalcedonian settlement which occurred at the Council of Chalcedon in 451ad. It is this “settlement” which has been used, thenceforth, as the standard or canon for determining whether or not someone’s view of Jesus Christ is orthodox iconjesusfaceor heterodox, if not downright heretical. As you will see through Kelly’s summary what Leo offered in his Tome wasn’t necessarily original to him, instead it served as a good codification of what had come before him in the various christological struggles (which the Council of Nicaea in 325ad is related to in some important conceptual matters). Here is Kelly:

The Christology which appears in Leo’s Tome has no special originality; it reflects and codifies with masterly precision the ideas of his predecessors. The following are the chief points he was concerned to bring out. First, the Person of the God-man is identical with that of the divine Word. As he expressed it, ‘He Who became man in the form of a servant is He Who in the form of God created man’. Though describing the incarnation as ‘self-emptying’ (exinanitio), he claimed that it involved no diminution of the Word’s omnipotence; He descended from His throne in heaven, but did not surrender His Father’s glory. Secondly, the divine and human natures co-exist in this one Person without mixture or confusion. Rather, in uniting to form one Person each retains its natural properties unimpaired (salva . . . proprietate utriusque naturae et substantiae), so that, just as the form of God does not do away with the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not diminish the form of God. Indeed, the redemption required that ‘one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, should be able to both die in respect of the one and not to die in respect of the other’. Thirdly, the natures are separate principles of operation, although they always act in concert with each other. So we have the famous sentence, ‘Each form accomplishes in concert with the other what is appropriate to it, the Word performing what belongs to the Word, and the flesh carrying out what belongs to the flesh’. Lastly, the oneness of the Person postulates the legitimacy of the ‘communication of idioms’. We can affirm, for example, that the Son of God was crucified and buried, and also that the Son of Man came down from heaven.

These four theses may not have probed the Christological problem very deeply; it is obvious that they left the issues which puzzled Greek theologians largely untouched. They had the merit, however, of setting out the factors demanding recognition fairly and squarely. Moreover, they went a long way towards meeting the points of view of both the schools of thought struggling for supremacy in the East. Antiochenes could recognize their own theology in Leo’s vigorous affirmation of the duality in Christ, and of the reality and independence of the two natures. Some of his sentences, indeed, particularly the one cited above, were to prove stones of stumbling to Alexandrian Christologians. Nevertheless these latter, too, could see the essentials of their standpoint vindicated in the Pope’s unerring grasp of the identity of the Person of the Incarnate with that of the eternal Word. As he expressed it in a Christmas sermon, ‘It is one and the same Son of God Who exists in both natures, taking what is ours to Himself without losing what is His own’.[1]

It may or may not trouble some that Leo was a Roman Pope, but what this should illustrate for Christians across the spectrum is that we share an ecumenical past when it comes to the most basic stuff of our theological grammar and how we understand who God has revealed Himself to be in His Son, Jesus Christ. Beyond that, it is important to recognize that what we take for granted today as orthodoxy, when we speak of Christ’s two natures and the hypostatic union, or the Trinity, was something that developed over time within the mind of the church. We can be the most Free non-denominational Bible church out there, but it is important to remember that the orthodoxy we affirm when it comes to two-nature Christology, etc. is something that binds us to the church catholic itself. It is these realities, and church historical developments that ought to cause people who claim a nuda scriptura or solo Scriptura approach (meaning people who often claim the label of Biblicist) to come to terms with the fact that even they operate with some very basic tradition as the foundation for how they conceptualize God and Jesus Christ; which of course then impacts the way they  interpret and read Holy Scripture itself.


[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 337-38.

Augustine’s Theory of Atonement: Divine Child Abuse?

John McGuckin describes the basic premise of Augustine’s theory of atonement, and how that has impacted the Western church ever since. We often hear this Augustinian (and now Calvinist) sentiment derided; i.e. under the charge of God the Father being a cosmic child abuser of his Son in the atoning cross-work. As McGuckin also notes, though, there were multi-valent models of augustine1atonement theories abound during the patristic period; and as he notes (rightly, I believe), this is because of the diffuse nature of Scripture’s witness itself. Here’s what McGuckin has written:

In the West the idea of substitutionary sacrifice, to appease the anger of God, remained the dominate and most vivid idea of the atonement. The idea was prevalent in the North African writers Tertullian and Cyprian, and when it was restated by Augustine (in more balanced and philosophical terms) it was set to enter the Western church as the primary motif of atonement theology for centuries to come. It is conveyed in Augustine’s statement: “Since death was our punishment for sin, Christ’s death was that of sacrificial victim offered up for sins” (De Trinitate 4.12.15). Many modern patristic theorists have attempted to bring some order into the sprawling images of atonement we find in this literature, describing various “schools” or theories (physical theory, Christ the Victor, and so on). The simple fact is that the patristic writing is organically diffuse on the central mystery of Christ’s economiastic preaching. The writers used many images, often a combination of them, all of them devolving in some sense or another from the rich poetic tapestry of scriptural texts about the work of Christ. To impose systematic order on this wildly vivid kerygmatic witness is often anachronistic and inappropriately scholastic.[1]

It is the Augustinian model itself that has so deeply funded what we see taken over in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement given development particularly in the Federal or Covenantal wing of Reformed theology. Often this is also connected to Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, but really the only relationship there is the idea of satisfaction; i.e. not much material linkage, theologically.

I’m not going to comment too much on all of this, other than to say that those committed to the Augustinian theory, in the main, are going to have a difficulty appreciating the ontological theory of the atonement that we promote as evangelical Calvinists.

[1] John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology(Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 39.