This is the Way: The Nicene Way:: The Nicene Creed V The Westminster Confession of Faith

Scholastic Reformed theologians claim to be in line with Nicene theology proper. But when you read scholastic Reformed theology, particularly their confessions, what becomes immediately apparent is that scholastic Reformed theology operates out of the apophatic ‘negative’ and/or speculative tradition for thinking a doctrine of God (and Christ); whereas Nicene theology thinks from cataphatic ‘positive’ and/or revealed theology for thinking God. By way of prolegomena or theological methodology this places Niceno-Constantinopolitano theology at loggerheads with something like we see in the scholastically Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Note the way the WCF articulates its doctrine of God: 

Chapter 2 Of God, and of the Holy Trinity  

    1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty. 2. God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himselfpleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands. To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them. 3. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost:the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. 

Notice the WCF’s entrée: it starts with ‘negative’ and or philosophical attributes of Godness, only to “get-to” the triune life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in its last chapter, chapter 3. This is illustrative of the spirit and mode by which the scholastic Reformeds attempt to think God. Somehow, they maintain that this way is in keeping with the catholic theology we find articulated in Nicene theology. But you do see what they are doing, right? They start with a logico-deductive schematized notion of God’s singularity or oneness (actus purus) prior to ever getting to the revealed categories for God, and this only in the last paragraph of chapter 2.  

With the aforementioned in mind, let’s now review the Nicene Creed. What the reader will see is that my original claim, in regard to the discontinuity between Nicene theology and scholastic Reformed theology, vis-à-vis a doctrine of God, bears out.  

We believe in one God,
      the Father almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all things visible and invisible. 

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      begotten from the Father before all ages,
           God from God,
           Light from Light,
           true God from true God,
      begotten, not made;
      of the same essence as the Father.
      Through him all things were made.
      For us and for our salvation
           he came down from heaven;
           he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
           and was made human.
           He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
           he suffered and was buried.
           The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
           He ascended to heaven
           and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
           He will come again with glory
           to judge the living and the dead.
           His kingdom will never end. 

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the Lord, the giver of life.
      He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
      and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
      He spoke through the prophets.
      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
      We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
      We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
      and to life in the world to come. Amen. 

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit condition and define the terms of the Nicene Creed itself. There is nothing speculative or discursive about Nicene theology, in regard to its doctrine of God. Nicene theology affirms the doctrine of Divine simplicity (the idea that God is non-composite), but it thinks simplicity from within the co-inhering relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; rather than thinking this doctrine from negations about what Godness must entail based on the sort of logico-deductive schematizing that we see funding the scholastic Reformed theology that is communicated in the Westminster Confession of Faith.  

Athanasius was clear about the sort of Nicene theology he was a central proponent of when he wrote in his famed document Contra Arianos:  

    1. Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call HimUnoriginate. For the latter title, as I have said, does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more does calling God Father surpass the calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son. And ‘Unoriginate’ is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son; but ‘Father’ has been acknowledged and vouchsafed by our Lord. For He, knowing Himself whose Son He was, said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me;’ and, ‘He that has seen Me, has seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One ;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate. Moreover, when He teaches us to pray, He says not, ‘When you pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven Luke 11:2.’ And it was His will that the Summary of our faith should have the same bearing, in bidding us be baptized, not into the name of Unoriginate and originate, nor into the name of Creator and creature, but into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For with such an initiation we too, being numbered among works, are made sons, and using the name of the Father, acknowledge from that name the Word also in the Father Himself. A vain thing then is their argument about the term ‘Unoriginate,’ as is now proved, and nothing more than a fantasy.1 

In context, of course, Athanasius is working against the Arians, and even aspects of the homoiousion sect (think Eusebius of Caesarea et al.) wherein what was meant with reference to ‘Unoriginate’ was that the Father alone owned this status, whereas the Son (and Holy Spirit) were originate (or ‘begotten’) lending to the idea that the Son was a creature and thus subordinate to God. But this is to our point: to think God from speculative philosophical notions, as the Arians and Homoiousions did, only leads to unbiblical conclusions, and thus grammar about who God is; indeed, it thinks of God in terms of whatness rather than whoness as a first-step. Athanasius, and the Nicene theology he helped develop, repudiated thinking God from Hellenic frames of reference, and instead allowed God’s Self-revelation in the Son, Jesus Christ, to shape the way he, and the other Nicenes, thought God. Indeed, Arius, and his homeboys would also assert that they were equally being faithful to Scripture; but in fact, what they were doing, instead, was allowing their a priori commitment to strict Hellenic thought-forms to shape the way they arrived at their biblical exegetical conclusions vis-à-vis God.  

Are the scholastic Reformeds Arian with reference to God; or homoiousion with reference to Christology? No. But this isn’t because of their theological method; instead, it is because of their piety. If they were consistent with their respective commitment to their speculative (Aristotelian) theological methodology, as Arius et alia were, they would necessarily need to arrive at the conclusion that the Son and Holy Spirit were somehow subordinate to the Unoriginate Father (which would serve as a cipher for their concept of ‘oneness’). 

I am Athanasian Reformed because I am slavishly committed to the Nicene theological way. This way only thinks God from within the concrete and revealed terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it allows God’s triune life to serve as the ‘ground and grammar’ of all subsequent theologizing. The scholastic Reformeds, as much as they like to assert to the contrary, do not have these sorts of continuous connections to Nicene theology in the way they suppose. This discontinuity between scholastic Reformed theology and Nicene theology serves as the basis by which I as an Athanasian Reformed (or Evangelical Calvinist) negatively critique the scholastic Reformed. But you will note: the critique is made from a positive orientation insofar as my theology is grounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; this is the way, the Nicene way.    

1 St. Athanasius, Contra Arianos 1.9.34, accessed 06-18-2021.

Reading the Bible Through the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ is the Only Genuinely Christian Way

Orthodox (little ‘o’) Christians of all ages have affirmed the Chalcedonian grammar about the two-natures/singular person Christology. The Chalcedonian council was a council convened in 451 AD in order to mitigate a variety of heretical christologies that had been plaguing the patrological church.[1] Ever since, the grammar produced has been the standard, the regula (rule) by which all other christological efforts are measured. The grammar has become so pervasive, that at least among the orthodox, all Christians operate with even a tacit understanding of it (although recent polls suggest that more than 30% of so-called evangelical Christians do not affirm the deity of Christ; which is why I keep qualifying with ‘orthodox’). As any good theology does, Chalcedon, and in this case, in a catholic way, offers a theological grammar that finds its correspondence in conceptions presupposed in the inner-logic of Holy Scripture. With this noted, here is the Creed of Chalcedon:

We, then, following the holy fathers, all with one consent teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; coessential with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the creed of the holy fathers has handed down to us.[2]

The point of rehearsing these things is to get us somewhere else, in a related way. I contend that since all orthodox Christians, in every place, operate with these conciliar categories—two natures/singular person—with reference to Jesus Christ, that it is this fortification, these grammatical loci, that fundamentally give hermeneutical shape to the way that even the most low-church evangelicals think Christ. As a subsequent implication then, this tacit Chalcedonian grammar, is, or should be the explicit way Christians interpret all of Scripture (both Old and New Testaments). More crudely put: since the conciliar Christ is fundamental to how orthodox Christians think Christ, and if Scripture is, at a first-order level, intensively and principially in reference to Christ, if Scripture is the sign (signum) to its greater and ontological reality (res), Jesus Christ, then all Christian exegesis of Holy Scripture will be and must be regulated by this sort of catholic (universal) Christological standard. That is to say, if Christians are going to think who Christ is through the Chalcedonian grammar, in an essential, but proximate way (vis-à-vis eschatological reality), eo ipso they will interpret Scripture through this rule insofar that Scripture refers to Jesus and the triune God as its inherent and life-breathing reality.

With the aforementioned noted, we now turn to Karl Barth; and in particular, with noted attention to an interpretive mechanism George Hunsinger has identified as a helpful key in regard to understanding the way Barth (and after Barth exegetes and theologians) constructively applied the Chalcedonian grammar, as a pattern towards his exegesis of Scripture whilst paying close attention to Scripture’s inner-theologic (which is what theological exegetes do). In the following Hunsinger describes the way this pattern looks when applied to various theological loci, as those are identified in the under-bubbling of Holy Scripture’s witness:

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.[3]

We see, in Hunsinger’s description, the way Barth used the revealedness of the miracle of God become human in Jesus Christ as the standard by which Christian exegetes ought to approach the many paradoxes that emerge from a world that is shaped, and given purpose (telos) by the reality of its confrontation by God in Christ. In other words, if what Chalcedon has attempted to describe (albeit through a series of ‘without’ negations) about the mysterium incarnatio (mystery of the incarnation), is indeed of an otherworldly origin, then the Christian engagement with Scripture, and all of reality, will take its hermeneutical cue and shape from this miracle; viz. it will not allow thisworldly conceptions of God, and thus Jesus Christ as the Theanthropos (Godman), to be determinative: 1) of how they think of a God-world relation, and 2) (as a subsequent) towards the way they interpret Scripture—insofar that Jesus Christ is Scripture’s centraldogma.

The point of highlighting the so-called Chalcedonian pattern is to note, at a first-order level, the way that orthodox Christians consciously or sub-consciously (as the case may be) approach their thinking of who Jesus Christ is. And then, at a second-order level, as that is determinative for the way Christians think Jesus, particularly as that finds concrete reference within the evangelical character of the triune life, of whom he is integral, and insofar that Jesus Christ is indeed the warp and woof of Holy Scripture, it is this miracle that ought to regulate, in a categorical way, the mode by which Christians interpret the Bible. Insofar that this Chalcedonian pattern is diminished, either through lack of intentional education, or merely by lack of education, per se, the Christian’s interpretation of Holy Scripture will be lacking; if not totally deleterious to the Christian’s soul and Kingdomed way of life.

A secondary point: many evangelical Christians operate with a sort of “cancel-culture” when it comes to church history and the history of interpretation. They often suffer from the myopia and fall-out that turn-to-the-subject modernity has projected into the soul of postmodern humanity. As such, they will, again, tacitly affirm, if they are ever confronted with it, that they believe Jesus is both fully God and fully human (so Chalcedon). But they won’t intentionally or self-consciously apply the emergent pattern this should evince for them, in regard to the regulative role that the miracle of the incarnation ought to play for them in their interpretation of Holy Writ. So, because they are willfully (and thus woefully) ignorant of the history of interpretation; because they are often intentionally devoid of the spirit of Church History (and her ideas); they will simply interpret Scripture from their own rationalizing about things, rather than from the miracle of the incarnation (particularly as that is given intelligible grammar by the Chalcedonian creed and its constructive engagement).

The fall-out is that many (most) modern evangelicals, particularly in North America, and the West in general, will piously affirm Jesus as the Godman, and yet proceed ignorantly blissfully as if this affirmation does not have the sort of pressure and force it ought to have on everything else following. In other words, they will and do read Scripture as if it is solely about them, and the Jesus they have constructed from their own desires and projections therefrom, instead of reading it, as the Chalcedonian pattern requires; as if Scripture is about how God freely chose to become human in Christ for them, for the world. In short: evangelical Christians, because the Chalcedonian pattern is not the pattern of their thinking as Christians, live in a world of dissonance and self-manufacture, rather than the miraculous world given shape by the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Evangelical Christians of this order, as such, live in a rationalist, positivist, individualistic, empiricist world that is not given shape by the faith of Christ (pistis Christou); but instead it is given shape by the limit of their own short and self-sighted vision—albeit, all in the name of Jesus Christ.[4]

An Addendum: Click Here

 

[1] See the following description provided by Protestant Reformed Churches in America, “The Creed of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, is not mentioned by name in any of our three forms of unity, but the doctrine set forth in it is clearly embodied in Article 19 of our Confession of Faith. It constitutes an important part of our ecumenical heritage. The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon settled the controversies concerning the person and natures of our Lord Jesus Christ and established confessionally the truths of the unity of the divine person and the union and distinction of the divine and human natures of Christ. It condemned especially the error of Nestorianism, which denied the unity of the divine person in Christ; the error of Apollinarianism, which denied the completeness of Christ’s human nature; and the error known as Eutychianism, which denied the duality and distinction of the divine and human natures of our Lord Jesus Christ. What was confessionally established at Chalcedon concerning the person and natures of Christ has continued to be the confession of the church catholic ever since that time.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology(New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-6 nook version. 

[4] I have hit on many themes in this post. It is not as coherent as I’d like, but it represents a first draft of a possible essay on such things.

Thinking the Triune Grammar with Augustine and Gregory the Theologian

I am an ardent believer in being exposed to Trinitarian grammar as much as possible. The mysterium Trinitatis is a reality that all Christians, at all times, in all places ought to be getting lost in over and over again. I find great joy, and a peace that surpasses all understanding as I contemplate the great mystery of the triune reality; but I don’t do see blindly. To think God as triune is to think concretely about the divine life as that has been Self-revealed and exegeted for us in God’s givenness for us, with us, and in us, by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ. St. Augustine captures the sense of what I’m after this way:

Should I even ask, O Lord? Should I even ask? You have spoken, and you have acted, and you have called us to believe. You have taught us that we walk by faith and not by sight, by trust in your good promises of goodness, and not by understanding. It is enough that you know the nature of things. Should I ask?

If I ask, will I receive an answer? You are beyond all my thoughts, greater than all that I can say, incomprehensible in your eternal communion as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You cannot be encompassed with any concept, bounded by anything greater than yourself, since you are greater than all. All my efforts to encompass you are acts of idolatry and not true worship. And you made all things and all things shine with the bright radiance of your glory. Your world seems as incomprehensible as you yourself.[1]

With this sense of awe about who God is, as that is set before us by Augustine, let’s turn to Gregory Nazianzus to get his eloquent and rather to the point thinking on who God is as the Triune reality:

I set before you the One Deity and Power, Found in the Three-in-Unity, Embracing the Three one by one, equal in essence and nature, Neither increased not decreased by ideas of greater or less; In every way equal, in every way the same, Just as the loveliness and hugeness of the heavens are one: The infinite oneness of Three Infinite Ones, Each of whom is God when seen individually in Himself. As the Father is God, so is the Son, And as the Son is God, so is the Holy Spirit; And the Three are likewise One God when seen together. Each is God because they are of the same essence, And they are One God because of the single principle of Deity. The very instant I conceive of the One, I am enlightened by the brightness of the Three; The very instant I differentiate them, I am carried straight back to the One. When I regard any One of the Three, I think of Him as the Whole; My sight is filled to the brim, And the greater part of what I am thinking of eludes me! I cannot grasp the greatness of One of the Three So as to reckon a greater greatness to the Others. And when I see the Three together, I see only one torch, And I cannot divide or share out the Undivided Light.[2]

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how unfathomable his ways!

34 For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?
35 Or who has first given to God,
that God] needs to repay him?

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.[3]

 

[1] Augustine cited by Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, xv-xvi.

[2] Gregory Nazianzus cited in, The Early Church Fathers, edited by Nick Needham (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2017), March 7th entry.

[3] The Apostle Paul inspired by the Holy Spirit, Romans 11:33-36, NET Bible.

Maximus the Confessor, Cyril of Alexander, and the East are not with Leighton Flowers on Freewill

In some of my more recent posts I have been engaging with a guy named, Leighton Flowers; and his ‘Provisionism.’ I have attempted to show how his position fits into, what historically, is understood as semi-Pelagianism. I still think that’s the case. In this post I want to get into a distinction that Flowers likes to appeal to himself; he likes to align his position with the pre-Nicene church fathers, with particular reference to what he takes to be their understanding of “freewill.” Mind you, Flowers isn’t really all that concerned with whether or not he can find historical catholic precedent for his soteriological view or not; but when debating Calvinists like, James White, or Lutherans like, Jordan Cooper—people who have been similarly framing Flowers’ position as semi-Pelagian—Flowers, in counter to their Augustinianism, which he takes to be a species, categorically, of Manicheanism, will attempt to find counter voices in the primitivism of said proto eastern church fathers. He believes that his understanding of freewill in salvation aligns with their respective understandings; particularly as that would stand in contrast to the mature Augustine’s doctrine of predestination/election and “determinism.” In this post I simply want to say to Leighton: not so fast! I will do that by way of reference to Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: Vol 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600–1700), and his brief sketch of Augustine’s position in contrast to Maximus the Confessor’s. By this simple reference my hope will be to alert the reader to the fact that Flower’s attempt to appeal to the eastern understanding of “freewill” in salvation is equivocal; particularly because the eastern Church has a robust Christological condition underwriting the way they think humanity vis-à-vis freewill in salvation. Further, in my attempt, I will also refer to some of Cyril of Alexander’s thinking with hopes of fortifying what we find out about Maximus’s thinking.

Pelikan writes:

No less striking was the contrast between the Augustinian tradition and the Greek tradition in the understanding of grace and salvation. An epitome of the contrast is the formula of Maximus: “Our salvation finally depends on our own will.” For “one could not conceive a system of thought more different from Western Augustinianism; and yet Maximus is in no way a Pelagian.” This is because the dichotomy represented by the antithesis between Pelagianism and Augustinianism was not a part of Maximus’s thought. Instead, “his doctrine of salvation is based on the idea of participation and of communion that excludes neither grace nor freedom but supposes their union and collaboration, which were re-established once and for all in the incarnate Word and his two wills.” Even though the century following the death of Augustine saw his predestinarianism attacked by his critics and mollified by his disciples, the Augustinian understanding of original son and of grace continued to shape Western theology. Eastern theology, on the other hand, continued to emphasize, with Maximus, that divine sonship was a gift of God and an achievement of man, and neither of these without the other. Such diametrically opposed interpretations of the very hear of the Christian gospel would almost inevitably come to blows when the ecclesiastical situation had shifted and all the other doctrinal differences that we have been examining became matters of open controversy. Nevertheless, over the centuries of the controversy, it was neither in the doctrine of grace nor even in the doctrine of the church that East and West came into dogmatic conflict most frequently, but in a doctrine on which, supposedly, not only East and West, but even Nestorians and Monophysites, were all agreed: the dogma of the Trinity.[1]

On the face of things, it might sound like Flowers is onto something, in regard to the idea of freewill, as that is ostensibly operative in Maximus’s and the East’s soteriology. But what Maximus has, and Flowers doesn’t, is a soteriology grounded in a robust understanding of Christology and our participation in His humanity as the ground and frame of reference wherein we have capacity to finally say yes to God. In other words, following Athanasius et al. the east understands that apart from union with Christ, by way of His hypostatic union with us, the person, in and of themselves, does not have the capacity to say yes to God. In other words, the east has a heavy doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ operative in their soteriological understanding; so heavy that they referred to their soteriological doctrina as theosis. Flowers doesn’t have this doctrine funding his conception of soteriology, which again, is why he is left open to the charge of forwarding semi-Pelagianism.

To help further fortify this thinking on participatio Christi in the eastern understanding of salvation, let’s turn to Donald Fairbairn’s discussion on union with Christ in the soteriology of Cyril of Alexandria (another eastern father). This passage from Fairbairn is rather lengthy, and you’ll notice that he has a dialogue between Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics in mind, but I think the whole context helps to grant greater insight into just what Cyril’s union with Christ and/or doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ was all about. Fairbairn doesn’t get into the how of union with Christ in Cyril’s theology, but he does point out that for Cyril it is the indicative of being in union with Christ wherein the person has the capacity to be for God and not against Him. This is what Flowers doesn’t have in his soteriological conception, and again, why his view easily falls prey to the charge of semi-Pelagianism. Here is Fairbairn:

From what I have written, it is clear that there are important similarities and differences between Cyril’s understanding of justification and that of Protestantism. Cyril repeatedly writes of the believer’s righteousness as one that is given by another, by Christ, from the outside. This emphasis on Christ as the source of the Christian’s righteousness is similar to the Protestant understanding of the passive nature of the Christian’s righteousness. Cyril, as much as Luther or any Protestant subsequently, sees the righteousness or holiness of the Christian as that which belongs to Christ and which Christ actively grants to the believer, who passively receives it through faith and grace. But as we have seen, there are also differences between Cyril and many classical Protestant writers. Cyril does not adopt a forensic framework as the dominant aspect of his soteriology. He does not distinguish justification and sanctification to any great degree at all. And he certainly does not make justification the central idea of his soteriology. Thus, Cyril stands as a caution against the potential dangers of a theology that is too exclusively forensic or makes the justification/sanctification distinction too sharply.

When one examines Cyril’s relation to modern Eastern Orthodoxy, we find that there are also similarities and differences. The participatory nature of salvation shines very clearly in both Cyril and modern Orthodoxy. But on the other hand, two things about Cyril’s understanding of participation stand in partial contrast to some expressions of modern Orthodoxy. First, the basis for Cyril’s understanding of participation is not the qualities of God (whether they be the energies, as in later Palamite theology; qualities such as incorruption and immortality that dominate the attention of many Greek patristic writers; or even qualities like righteousness and holiness on which this article has focused), but the person of Christ. For Cyril, participation is at heart personal. We become righteous when we are personally united to the one who is righteous, to Christ. (Notice again that this exactly parallels the fact that we become sons of God when we are united to Christ, the true Son.) Second, the very fact that participation is at heart personal means that it is not fundamentally gradual or progressive. The outworkings of union with Christ are indeed gradual, but union with Christ himself, effected in baptism at the very beginning of Christian life, lies at the heart of Cyril’s concept of participation. To say this even more directly, for Cyril even deification is primarily the present state of the believer, rather than the culmination of a process, and his teaching on justification undergirds this fact.

At this point, readers from both Protestant and Orthodox traditions may object that their tradition does in fact emphasize personal union with Christ. This is true. There are some – perhaps many – voices within both traditions that possess such an emphasis. But my point is that in both Protestantism and Orthodoxy, the centrality of personal union with Christ tends to be obscured by these other emphases: forensic justification in Protestantism and a more mystical and/or progressive approach to union with God in Orthodoxy. I ask my readers to recognize these tendencies, even though the mistakes to which they can lead are sometimes successfully avoided.

With that caveat registered, I suggest that as one looks at these two sets of similarities and differences between Cyril on one hand and either Protestantism or Orthodoxy on the other, they expose a false dichotomy that has perhaps hindered dialogue between the two groups. Protestants, schooled in on-going disputes with Roman Catholicism, are often quick to point out the difference between imputed righteousness and imparted or infused righteousness, and the classical Protestant concept of justification is closely tied to the first of these, in opposition to the second. It seems to me, though, that Protestants sometimes extend this dichotomy into an opposition between imputed righteousness and participatory righteousness, thus unhelpfully applying concepts borrowed from anti-Catholic polemic to anti-Orthodox polemic. (Whether those concepts are appropriate even in dialogue with Roman Catholics is another question, but one I will not address here.) I believe Cyril’s thought demonstrates that this is a false dichotomy. Instead, Cyril teaches us that participatory righteousness – or better, our participation in the one who is himself righteous – is the very heart of imputed righteousness. To say this in Protestant terms, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the Christian when the Christian is united to Christ, who is the righteous one. But to say the same thing in Orthodox terms, participation in Christ, because it is a personal participation granted to the believer at the beginning of Christian life, implies that his righteousness becomes ours.

As a result, I suggest that a deeper consideration of Cyril’s doctrine of justification can both challenge Protestants and the Orthodox, and help to uncover latent common ground between them. Protestants need to recognize that justification is not merely or even mainly transactional, but primarily personal and organic. We are united to Christ as a person, and as a result, his righteousness is imputed to us. The forensic crediting of righteousness grows out of the personal union. At the same time, the Orthodox need to recognize that the gradual process of deification (even the continual reception of life-giving grace through the Eucharist, one of Cyril’s greatest emphases) is grounded in an initial personal union with Christ, and thus, both righteousness and deification are at heart gifts that Christ gives us when he gives himself to us. Perhaps both Protestants and Orthodox can then recognize that as Christians, we are righteous, holy, and even divine, because – and only because – we are in Christ. And if we are righteous, holy, and divine in Christ, then throughout Christian life we will progressively become more and more who we already are.[2]

Lengthy, I know; but necessary to provide the whole context. These are details that Flowers never addresses when he almost casually refers to the eastern fathers and their conception of salvation and freewill. Their idea of freedom isn’t like Flowers’ understanding, which sounds more like libertarian free agency; their conception is drenched in a robust doctrine of participation with Christ (Calvin’s doctrine of unio cum Christo and duplex gratia actually sounds much more akin to someone like Cyril than what we find in Flowers’ naked conception of human freedom in the soteriological package).

Honestly, I’m not sure why I’m spending so much time with Flowers on these things. He has already doubled down over and over again on the idea that his position is not semi-Pelagian; but he dupes himself. My goal with this post was simply (in a bloggy way) to take away Flowers’ easy appeal to the eastern fathers, as if they stand with him contra, Augustine. They do stand against Augustine, but not in the way that Flowers does. Flowers, unfortunately, is more in the camp of Pelagius himself, and someone, early, like John Cassian. Pax Vobis

 

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 182-83.

[2] Donald Fairbairn, “Justification in St. Cyril of Alexandria, With Some Implications for Ecumenical Dialogue,”Participatio Vol. 4 (2013): 142-44.

Is the Antichrist an Actual Person? Irenaeus Thought So

The Bible teaches that there will be, or currently is, an Antichrist figure who will come, or has come, and attempt to thwart the very purpose of God in a climaxing form. When the reader reads passages from the book of Daniel, II Thessalonians, and Revelation they are confronted with this shadowy figure. I grew up, and was even trained in a tradition that maintains that the Antichrist is indeed a singular person who will show up during the seven year period known as ‘Jacob’s Trouble’ or the ‘Great Tribulation.’ My former tradition teaches that this personage will rise up and provide world peace, but only for the first three and a half years of the Tribulation. Mid-point through the Tribulation this Antichrist personage will reveal his true character, his devil-possessed character, and declare himself God; to be worshiped in Nebuchadnezzarian fashion. During the last three and a half years of the Tribulation this Antichrist will wreak all sorts of pain and torture upon the world; that is if the world doesn’t bow down and worship him as God.

I have since moved away from the above tradition of interpretation, and believe that the Antichrist, while real and personal, does not necessarily have to be a single figure, nor does he have to fit into the ‘timeline’ of a purported seven year period known as the Great Tribulation. I believe, along with Richard Bauckham, that a proper reading of the book of Revelation leads us to believe that the ‘power of the Beast’, which is the power of the Antichrist, has been pervasive and present ever since the ascension of Jesus Christ; that the book of Revelation’s historical referent, when referring to his power and even personage, was the Roman Empire, and Nero as her emperor. This doesn’t mean that there cannot be multiple referents in mind, in regard to John’s apocalypse, but it does mean that the power of the Beast and the Antichrist have been present throughout all of the world empires that would seek to dominate the world over through military might and economic dominance built upon the backs of slave labor and human trafficking. What my view does entail is that the world empires are desperately evil and wicked above all else; no matter what period of world history we find ourselves in. What is interesting about our period in history is that we now live in a globalized situation never known before; mostly because of the techno-age we have come to inhabit. At some point in history there will be a final generation; the hard part is knowing if we are it or not. Indeed, this really isn’t the Christian’s aim, per se; but Jesus did say that we should be watching, and the Apostle Paul said that this time of orgasmic irruption should not take the sons and daughters of the light as if a thief in a night had come (I Thess 5). I believe all of the conditions for Christ’s second coming have already obtained. This is not to say that there cannot be a literal Antichrist figure who steps up, and attempts to have the whole globe worship him as God. But it is to say that we already have conglomerates of world leaders who already fit that bill; we already have had and continue to have Great Tribulation the world over, of the sort that the Scriptures indicate will be indicative at the parousia of Jesus Christ.

I write all of the above, really, to get to an early pre-Nicene church father, Irenaeus, to see what he thinks about the Antichrist. The interesting thing about Irenaeus was that he is reported to be the disciple of Polycarp, and Polycarp was the disciple of the Apostle John (and also, in the traditional account, for some: the author of the book of Revelation). Irenaeus was what was known as a chialist, today we would call that a ‘premillennialist.’ His chialism was different than what we typically understand as premillennialism today; and his reasoning for it had more to do with his debates with the Gnostics. Here is what he thought about a personal Antichrist:

In this age, some walk towards the light, and unite themselves with God by faith. Others, however, avoid the light, separating themselves from God. Therefore at the end of the age, the Word of God comes preparing a suitable dwelling place for both sets of people. For those who are truly in the light, He gives an abode where they can enjoy the light’s blessings, and the good things the light contains. For those who are in the darkness, by contrast, He gives an abode where they must share in the tribulations of darkness. Thus He says that those standing on His right hand are summoned into the heavenly kingdom, whereas those on His left hand He will send away into everlasting fire, since they have freely abandoned all that is good (Matt. 25:34, 41).

This is why Paul says: “Because they did not receive the love of God that they might be saved, therefore God shall also send upon them the power of error, that they may believe a lie, so that all may be judged who have not believed the truth, but consented to unrighteousness” (2 Thess. 2:10-12). For Antichrist will come, and by his own agency he will concentrate in himself the whole human enterprise of rejecting God. Antichrist will carry out whatever he does by his own will and choice, sitting in the very temple of God, so that those deceived by him will adore him as the Messiah. On this account, he will justly be cast into the lake of fire.

By His foreknowledge, God foresees this human choice of sin, and therefore at just the right time, He sends to sinners such a man as Antichrist, “that they may believe a lie, so that all may be judged who have not believed the truth, but consented to unrighteousness.”[1]

We see things in the world today, particularly in the strange times we are currently inhabiting, that could make some to think that we are right in the very midst of a moment where a shadowy Antichrist could easily rise up and bring ‘salvation’ to this world order. It isn’t hard, not at all, to imagine a global delusion whereby people could be led into a state of panic and fear, of the sort that they would be willing to jump off a cliff if the ‘leadership’ told them to. No matter what moment we’re in, the Bible is clear that there will be, or maybe even is now, an Antichrist who will deceive the people, with satanic power, and attempt to ultimately rise up against the true and living God with all of his serpentinish might. Irenaeus, believed, clearly, that this intensification of evil would rise up at just the right, and ordained moment, leading the world to one last death-dance as the devil himself seeks to thwart the purposes of God’s Kingdom in Christ. Maranatha

[1] St. Irenaeus cited by Nick Needham, Daily Readings: The Early Church Fathers (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2017), February 28th.

Jesus is the Image of God For Us: How This Centraldogma Changes Everything

I’ve written, more than once, on the theological anthropological theme of humanity being images of the Image of God or imago Dei. This theme, and its importance cannot be overemphasized, since it is directly related to how humanity is related to God. The primary point of the theme is that when the Christian refers to the imago Dei, what or who we are really referring to, according to the Apostle Paul, is Jesus Christ; he writes:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.[1]

Notice, for Paul, to be created in the imago Dei is really to be created and recreated in the imago Christi (‘image of Christ’). Our humanity is a gift, it is extra nos (outside of us), it is continuously mediated to us through the intercessory life of Jesus Christ for us (cf. Heb. 7:25). This, what we might call, centraldogma, of the ‘image of Christ,’ is interconnected to a swarm of other theological themes; in particular a doctrine of God, doctrine of Creation (inclusive of protology and eschatology), doctrine of Sin, doctrine of soteriology/anthropology (inclusive of a doctrine of Scripture) so on and so forth. This makes sense, since as Jesus says: “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (Jn 5:39). In other words, if all of Scripture, if all of creation, if the whole cosmological sweep is centered upon Jesus Christ as its telos (or purpose), then it would only make sense to see Jesus Christ as the centraldogma of all theological reality. Our humanity, or our image of Godness, is contingent upon Jesus’s image of God for us. All of reality is contingent upon His choice to be this for us. It is a reality that presses into the very essence or esse of what it means to exist before and with God at all.

As my earlier posts have made clear, this theme of the imago Christi, among the Patristics, was of significant importance to Athanasius (later we would be right to think of Maximus the Confessor as well). But even before Athanasius, someone else noticed this theme, mostly in the Pauline corpus; Irenaeus, the theologian who can be closely linked to the Apostle John (through Polycarp), thought in these imago Christi terms as well. He writes:

The Word has saved His creation, humanity, which had perished. Seeking its salvation, He established through Himself that fellowship which should exist between humanity and God. Now, perishing humanity had flesh and blood. . . He Himself, therefore, took flesh and blood, summing up in Himself the Father’s original creation, seeking the race that had perished. That’s why Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians says, “Though you were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now you have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight” (Col. 1:21-22). He says, “You have been reconciled in the body of His flesh,” because the Lord’s righteous flesh has reconciled the flesh that was enslaved in sin, bringing it back into comradeship with God.

If, then, anyone says the Lord’s flesh was different from ours in that it didn’t sin, neither was falsehood found in His soul, while we, conversely, are sinners, this would be true. Yet if anyone claims the Lord had some other substance of flesh than ours, he overthrows the biblical teaching on reconciliation. What is reconciled is what had previously been hostile. But if the Lord had taken flesh from some entity other than humankind, He wouldn’t have reconciled to God the flesh that had become hostile through disobedience. Now, however, through human nature’s union with Himself, the Lord has reconciled humanity to God the Father, by reconciling us to Himself in the body of His own flesh, and redeeming us with His own blood. As Paul says to the Ephesians “In whom we have redemption through His blood, the remission of sins” (Eph. 1:7) . . . Indeed in every Epistle, Paul clearly testifies that we have been saved through the Lord’s flesh and blood.[2]

Reading, Irenaeus words, we might for a moment think we are reading John Calvin on unio cum Christo (union with Christ), or Martin Luther on mirifica commutatio (the wonderful exchange), or Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively, on a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. There is this silver thread woven throughout the whole of historical theology; it is a thread that finds its brilliance and splendor in the fabric of God’s flesh and blood in Jesus Christ.

I am afraid that what has been thwarted upon the Western evangelical churches of the 21st century has kept it from ever delving into the depth dimension of what we are considering here. This focus on Christ, even a so called ‘conciliar Christ,’ is the focus of the New Testament, in particular, and the whole of Holy Scripture, in general! Without this focus the Christian will slide off into abstract scholastic philosophical or turn-to-the-subject discussions that have little to do with these riches. I commend this theme and Christ concentrated focus to you. Start trying to think all things theological from this christological reality. Start thinking the duplex consubstantiality of the singular person of Jesus Christ, who is both fully God and fully human, into all of your theological machinations; you won’t be sorry. You’ll only be sorry if you don’t.

[1] Colossians 1:15-18, NKJV.

[2] Irenaeus cited by Nick Needham in, “Daily Readings, The Early Church Fathers: February 17th ‘Our Flesh and Blood’,” (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Christian Heritage Imprint, 2017).

I’m a Christian not a Greek! Is God Static?

Is God static, or dynamic? Is God a God of ‘feeling,’ or is He a God aloof? Clearly, according to Scripture, God is dynamic. Clearly, according to Scripture, God ‘feels’ and has emotion. But from early on in the Church’s tradition the theologians have felt it necessary, instead, to affirm that God is static and without emotion (i.e. He is ‘passionless’). So, they must opine, when we come across examples in Scripture where it ‘appears’ that God is dynamic and has feeling, that tradition’s theologians qualify such things as anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms (i.e. attributing human qualities and emotions to God). These theologians had a noble aim in mind; that is to offer a heavy Creator/creature distinction. But ultimately I think they are awry. Jaroslav Pelikan notes this of these theologians:

Whether theologians found Platonic speculation compatible with the gospel or incompatible with it, they were agreed that the Christian understanding of the relation between Creator and creature required “the concept of an entirely static God, with eminent reality, in relation to an entirely fluent world, with deficient reality”—a concept that came into Christian doctrine from Greek philosophy.[1]

This tradition of thinking God in these Hellenic terms carried on through the centuries; indeed many take such thinking to be the standard for thinking God in orthodox terms. Here is an example of how this impacted the theology as far removed from the Patristic period, as Puritan, William Perkins. You will notice this same sort of ‘Greek’ understanding of who God is: “I answer that affections of the creature are not properly incident unto God, because they make many changes, and God is without change. And therefore all affections, and the love that is in man and beast is ascribed to God by figure.”[2] We could enumerate such sentiment by the gazillions if we were to survey all of church history, but these examples and sentiments should suffice.

Unfortunately, such thinking has indeed come to be thought of as ‘orthodox’ by many in the church catholic. I can accept the intention behind this sort of thinking; viz. to honor and emphasize the Creator/creature distinction. But it is unnecessary to simply transpose the Greek thinking about pure being into the cast of Christian grammar without completely disorienting it from its original context (as we have been referring to previously). In other words, I am contending that much of what counts as orthodox theology proper (or doctrine of God) has failed to properly ‘evangelize the metaphysic’ they are deploying for a grammar of God.

God is love. We know who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ. We see God’s face and heart in the face of Christ. In the face of Christ we see a God who weeps, who laughs, who has passion for the world; to the point of assuming humanity and dying on a cross so that humanity might share in the love-life that He eternally is in Himself. Yes, we want to avoid collapsing the inner processions of God into the outer missions in the economy of revelation. But this does not entail that God becomes a God behind the back of Jesus Christ when we get to His processions. While we cannot read all of the aspects of the missions back into the processions, at the same time we must not think the antecedent of God’s life unrevealed is anything less than what is revealed in the actualization of His life for us in Christ.

I’m a Christian, not a Greek. I’m a Trinitarian, not a Monadist. I’m in a love relationship with the God who first loved me that I might love Him. This is as close as I’ll get to subscribing to an analogy of being (selah).

 

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of Doctrine and Development: Volume 1 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 53.

[2] William Perkins, God’s Free Grace, 1.723 cited by Ron Frost in, Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology [Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of London, King’s College, 1996], 61-2.

The Early Church Read Holy Scripture In A Principled Christ Concentrated Way, So Should We

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, –John 5:39

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. –Luke 24:25-27

The early Christians took these passages to heart. They believed that the Apostolic hermeneutic, the one that followed the teaching of Jesus himself, like we find in the passages mentioned, was a deeply Christ concentrated one. It is this approach that Martin Luther and John Calvin took to heart; in their respective ways. Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance et al. in the modern period have likewise taken this hermeneutic to heart. When Christians take a Christ conditioned hermeneutic seriously it does things to the way they read Holy Scripture. It takes the focus off of me-centeredness, or nation-centeredness (like we get in Dispensationalism), and instead places the primacy of focus on the primacy of Jesus Christ; as if God’s plan was to reveal Himself from the very beginning (cf. Gen 1:1; 3:15 etc.). JND Kelly comments on how this sort of hermeneutic took hold early for the Patristic Fathers of the Christian Church:

The inspiration of Scripture being taken for granted, the Church had to work out the methods of exegesis to be employed in interpreting it. The fundamental issue here, as was very soon perceived, was to determine the precise relation of the Old Testament and the New, or rather (since the earliest stage there was no specifically Christian canon), to the revelation of which the apostles were witnesses. As has already been mentioned, the solution arrived at consisted in treating the Old Testament as a book which, if it were read with unclouded eyes, would be seen to be Christian through and through. In adopting this attitude Christian theologians and teachers were merely following the example of the apostles and evangelists, and indeed of the Lord Himself. It is evident from every page of the gospel records that the incarnate Christ freely took up, applied to Himself and His mission, and in so doing reinterpreted, the key-ideas of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Kingdom of God, etc., which He found ready to hand in the faith of Israel. In harmony with this the essence of the apostolic message was the proclamation that in the manifestation, ministry, passion, resurrection and ascension of the Lord, and in the subsequent outpouring of the Spirit, the ancient prophecies had been fulfilled. Whether we look to the fragments of primitive preaching embedded in Acts, or to St. Paul’s argumentation with his correspondents, or to the elaborate thesis expounded in Hebrews, or to the framework of the evangelists’ narratives, we are invariably brought face to face with the assumption that the whole pattern of the Christian revelation, unique and fresh though it is, is ‘according to the Scriptures’. In this connexion St. Luke’s story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is highly instructive, for it presents a vivid picture of the primitive Church’s conviction that all the events of Christ’s earthly career, together with their profound redemptive implications, are to be understood as the fulfilment of what was written about Him ‘in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and in the psalms’, and that the ultimate warrant for this conviction was His own express authorization.[1]

Kelly helps summarize the early Christ concentrated way of interpreting Scripture. It was the supposition that Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testaments were thoroughly about Jesus and His fulfillment of the promises made by the Old Testament Prophets. As a result of ‘critical’ biblical studies, and the naturalistic assumptions that attend this sort of Enlightenment project, this Christ-centered exegetical approach was lost to things like History of Religions, and reading the Bible in a de-confessionalized way. Ironically, this is the sort of mode that has not only produced things like the Jesus Quest, and Rudolf Bultmann, but indeed, it has just as readily produced hermeneutical approaches like we see in Dispensationalism (an approach that focuses on the nation of Israel as the key to biblical prophecy rather than Jesus Christ).

There are clearly various ways to be Christ-concentrated in approach. But it is in keeping, I’d argue, with the Dominical teaching, with the Apostolic witness, and the early Church Fathers to see Jesus in every nook and cranny of the text of Holy Writ. If we are going to err, let us err in this direction rather than in the alternative directions which read the confessional and canonical and covenantal Jesus out of the text, only to displace Him with their own culturally-conditioned lenses that end up looking like the collective-cultural-self.

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 64-5.

‘Early’ Does Not Necessarily Mean It Should Be Normative: Engaging with Assurance of Salvation in the Early Church

I wanted to respond to a tweet that an anonymous tweeter tweeted the other day on his Twitter account.[1] The tweet has to do with eternal justification coram Deo; more pointedly it has to do with so called ‘assurance of salvation.’ As you’ll note, the tweeter believes, along with his reading of ‘early Christians’ (which I think he offers a sweeping generalization that is ultimately unhelpful) that it is not possible for Christians to have a certainty of hope in regard to eternal life. He believes if a certainty of hope is given to Christians that, for one thing, there will not be impetus for Christians to engage in ‘good works,’ to persevere in faithfulness. I wonder if you are starting to get a sense of where this thinking is situated in the history of Christian ideas. Let’s read the tweet, and then I will respond further on the other side.

For the early Christians, salvation was eschatological. We are not declared righteous (i.e., justified) until the final judgment. Not conversion, good works, baptism, wonders, or profession guarantees our justification, but faithfulness (i.e., perseverance). If you were to ask an early Christian to describe salvation, he would analogize it with a race or contest. We are runners racing for an imperishable crown. Along the way, we can benefit from assurances, but we lack total certainty in our salvation until we reach the end of life. We find this mentality present also in Scripture. It is not until he is being led to his execution that Paul can at last say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). One could say that from the perspective of the Father, I am already justified since all time exists before His eyes as a single consummate present. But if you are to ask me, I would have to say, “No, not yet. But my hope is in Christ and on Him I daily rely.” If I am currently justified and my salvation is certain, then I am suddenly without any incentive to continue trusting Christ for something already guaranteed. Good works become weirdly superfluous “expressions” of faith, rather than the practice of faith.[2]

I do believe this tweeter has grounds in the early church for coming to his conclusion about the ‘incentive to continue trusting Christ,’ but it isn’t with the orthodox among the earlies; it is with what came to be understood as heretical. I emboldened the crux of the problematic that is presented in the tweet. The tweeter seems to think that if a Christian is going to ‘persevere’ in order to attain to a realized and personal experience of eternal life, the would-be saint will constantly live in a life of good works. The theological reductio to this is not promising for the tweeter. It is true that in the early church there was much confusion about various loci, and doctrines. T.F. Torrance identifies in many of the early fathers a strain of what can only be called out-right Pelagianism, and at best semi-Pelagianism.[3] If the tweeter has picked up on anything in his engagement with the early Christians it is this unfortunate strain. JND Kelly helps us appreciate what Pelagius taught; as you read this I think you will be able to place the tweet as corollary with the sentiment in Pelagius’s positioning:

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.[4]

Kelly gives us a good sense of Pelagius’s theology, and beyond that he helps us see how the tweet we’ve been engaging with has the same sort of feel and trajectory as we find set forth in Pelagius. The tweeter himself might push back and repudiate any sort of necessary connection to Pelagius’s idea of reward or pain, but I think the push back would be artificial based upon what the tweet itself is funded by.

Beyond all of the above, I also think in regard to method it is not advisable to simply read off one’s theology from this or that period of theological development; in other words, as 21st century Christians we ought to be more critical and constructive than that. More importantly, for the Protestant Christian what ought to be normative and authoritative for life and practice is not our reception of the theologoumena (theological opinions) of various theologians, per se, but only Holy Scripture and its reality. If we come across theologians who faithfully explicate the inner theo-logic of Scripture then appealing to their imaginary, in regard to the grammar they help develop, can be helpful; but this should be done with care. Either way, ‘early’ does not always or ever mean better; this seems to be the supposition of the tweeter.

 

[1] I am going to keep the tweeter anonymous because I didn’t ask him if I could quote his tweet; I just am. If he happens to come across my response, and wants me to give him credit for his tweet, I will. But the sentiment he articulates, in my view is, to say the least, highly troubling; thus I want to respond to it.

[2] Anonymous Tweet, accessed 11-17-2018 [emphasis mine].

[3] See Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine Of Grace In The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1960).

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

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

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

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

ATHANASIUS AND ARIUS: A STUDY IN CONTRASTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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