Sunday, September 08, 2013

Athanasius' On the Incarnation

A redated post.

Athanasius had theological reasons for insisting on the doctrine of the Trinity. It wasn't just a matter of "who won the election." He was concerned about what Arianism would do to monotheism (in spite of a unity of purpose between the Father and the Son) and he was also concerned about the fact that if Arianism is true, then someone other than God is saving us. This edition, of course, includes Lewis's fanous preface, otherwise known as "On the Reading of Old Books."


Mike D said...

I enjoyed Lewis' introduction. My first surprise was his mention of a 3-hour single-subject serious "conversation." I envy that experience.

My second delight was his description of the unity of Christianity. It still fits but I wonder if he would recognize a melding of the denominations that seems to be occuring. The movement seems to be an embracing of orthodoxy and evangelicalism, with, however, a dubming-down of theology. It seems to me positive yet dangerous. There is a sense of a shift from dogmatic theorizing to pragmatic relationships.

Lewis celebrated the underlying unity at a time when it would be hard for the Christian insider to see. Today it is hard for the Christian insider to detect error when he hears it. The typical Christian does not know the issues or categories to use to think about issues.

The third point I enjoyed was his reccomendation of primary sources. This was my favorite part of education. The authors he mentions remind me of how much reading I have left undone.

slaveofone said...

In regard to Athanasius having a problem with someone saving Israel who was not literally Yahweh himself, I've been continually perplexed at this self-same position among Christians today... I just don't see what the issue is...

People don't seem to have a problem with Moses being called the deliverer (saviour) of Israel and the one who led Israel out of Egypt even though it was Yahweh who orchestrated it and was his Power and Hand that made it happen...

People don't have a problem with Priests expiating individuals and all of Israel collectively of their sin on a daily and then yearly basis...

People don't seem to have a problem with Abraham walking before Yahweh blameless and therefore being accounted righteous...

I've never heard anyone say that the burning bush is a separate and distinct Person in God, or the Shekinah, or the Merkabah Kavod, or the woman Wisdom, or any of the three men that visited Abraham, or Michael, or the Seven Spirits mentioned in Isiah and in the psuedepigrapha, etc, etc, etc...and yet suddenly Yeshua comes in and he alone is a Person in God next to the Spirit and Yahweh.

I've never heard anyone say that all three men who visited Abraham and to whom he worshipped and called Lord were ontologically Yahweh, and yet people worship Yeshua and call him Lord and suddenly he must be God incarnate...

The list could go on almost ad infinitum... And yet, for some reason, when it comes to Yeshua, all the rules suddenly change and what was acceptable or good before suddenly requires ontological divinity or two fully united but fully distinct natures--one being human, another being divine... I just can't wrap my mind around the inconsistancy or the sudden cultural and theological amnesia.

Mike D said...

On the issue of comparing Jesus to priests, Hebrews 5 and 10 are helpful. The New Testament writers have a great deal of trouble about the efficacy of animal sacrifice to accomplish atonement.

Jason said...

{{In regard to Athanasius having a problem with someone saving Israel who was not literally Yahweh himself, I've been continually perplexed at this self-same position among Christians today... I just don't see what the issue is...}}

The issue is that the OT scriptures occasionally promise that God is going to save Israel from their rebellion (and the disruption with God's fellowship that occurs because of rebellion); that this will happen through someone God is going to send with final authority; that this salvation (not only the final authority part, though that too) also applies to Gentiles somehow; _and_ that this person is referred to, in the OT scriptures, as somehow being identified with YHWH Himself--yet distinct in Persons, in what is described (at least once) as a Father/Son relationship. (This isn't how _I_ come to the issue, but it's how at least some people in Judaism were coming to the issue in 1st century Palestine. I arrive at much the same _kind_ of conclusion, minus the specific historical links, by the route of metaphysical logic; after which I then look to see if there is decent evidence of the process I am expecting having been already carried out in history among a culture.)

Add this theme being carried forward (in various ways and degrees) through the post-OT Jewish literature; one popular time-reckoning of Daniel-ic prophecy about when this savior would arrive; a corrupt family running the Sanhedrin; a lack of Davidic kingship (under a family the people despise anyway for the family's behavior); schism among the priest factions; and military occupation by super-efficient pagan overlords who have taken over the known world, and--poom. Early 1st century CE Palestinian Messianism.

The relevant question then is why Yehsua bar-Yosef won the Messianic claimant title so solidly and completely among an increasingly larger number of Jews and Gentiles--_despite_ being rejected by the chief religious authorities, condemned for blasphemy, and executed in a fashion cursed by God (and by the pagan overlords no less!)

If that sounds suspiciously like the NT crew had no primary connection to Greco-Roman philosophy (much less to Greco-Roman mythology)--well... {g}

{{People don't seem to have a problem with Abraham walking before Yahweh blameless and therefore being accounted righteous...}}

Neither did Paul of Taursus (i.e. the guy who wrote about 1/4 of the NT {g}). On the contrary, he specifically stresses the point. Although to be more specific it was the 'walking before YHWH' part that he taught God reckoned as righteousness, because it was faith (i.e. faithfulness) on Abraham's part. No surprise there, since the word we English 'righteousness' in Hebrew and Greek--though moreso in Greek--means 'fair-togetherness'.

I especially like the way George MacDonald puts it:

"The apostle [Paul] says that a certain thing was imputed to Abraham for righteousness; or, as the revised version has it, 'reckoned unto him:' what was it that was thus imputed to Abraham? The righteousness of another? God forbid! It was his own faith. The faith of Abraham is reckoned to him for righteousness. To impute the righteousness of one to another, is simply to act a falsehood; to call the faith of a man his righteousness is simply to speak the truth. Was it not righteous in Abraham to obey God? The Jews placed righteousness in keeping all the particulars of the law of Moses: Paul says faith in God was counted righteousness before Moses was born. You may answer, Abraham was unjust in many things, and by no means a righteous man. True; he was not a righteous man in any complete sense; his righteousness would never have satisfied Paul; neither, you may be sure, did it satisfy Abraham; but his faith was nevertheless righteousness, and if it had not been counted to him for righteousness, there would have been falsehood somewhere, for such faith as Abraham's is righteousness."

Again, it is St. Paul himself who states (by rhetorical question) that God requires nothing else of us but that we will walk in fair-togetherness with Him and in regard to our fellows. The former is simply common sense, if we are talking about the ground of all reality from which our own existence is necessarily derived; trying to cut ourselves off from this can only be hurtful to us. (As well as hurtful to God insofar as He willingly loves us--and the position of orthodox Christianity is that God _is_ actively love at the level of His own fundamental self-existence. This, not incidentally, is why I am a Christian universalist: I work pretty hard at avoiding technical heresy {g}, and the other positions seem to involve a denial of the unity of the Trinity sooner or later.)

Jason Pratt

Jason said...

It occurred to me over the weekend that in answering the question in regard to historical context, I probably didn't answer the question in regard to the Athanasian context of why an 'incarnation' along the lines Arius proposed and defended would be soteriologically inferior.

Rowan Williams, in his thorough analysis and commentary of the history and ideas of the Arian/orthodoxy dispute, puts it fairly well. (The following is excerpted from _Arius: Tradition and Heresy_ (Revised edition), Eerdsmans Publishing, 2002, p.240. Emphases in the original.)


[I]t is important not to forget that Arius claimed with no less fervor and sincerity to speak in conformity with Scripture and Catholic practice--which is why Athanasius' replies seldom stray far from exegesis, both of Old and New Testaments and of Christian liturgy, and turn, time and again, on what it is that the Church hopes for. Only God can 'deify', only the unequivocally divine savior can decisively transform our lives, on the creator can re-create. [...] In the eyes of Athanasius, Arius, for all his stress on the divine freedom, fails to see [this] freedom _directly_ involved in redemption as well as in creation: Arius' God does not act without mediation to save us, and so the liberty of the redeemed lacks any share in the finality, the absoluteness, of divine liberty. How, asks Athanasius, can the Son create in us what has to be created in him? If God can truly give a share in his freeom and his glory to a creature by pure causeless will, resting on nothing but his own being, why can he not give directly to us what he gives the Son? If, on the other hand, we do not receive a real share in the divine life through the Son because he, as a creature, is as far from God as we are, what is the point of his incarnate work? On either showing, the history of salvation becomes meaningless when God is held not to be directly at work in it. If he can bestow theo_sis by mere fiat, there is nothing to be said for there being a _history_ of salvation; but if God has to work through the Son, and the Son cannot fully recreate us, how is it a history of _salvation_?


Personally, I would go a lot farther with this. But in order to do that properly, I would first have to go very far in establishing dozens or even hundreds of positions, so that the _context_ for salvation would be in front of us.

I suppose I could presume all those instead, and then take a few more steps from there--but wouldn't that be cheating, in a way? {s} God knows, I _want_ people to understand better... {sigh} But provisionally presuming virtually all of orthodox trinitarian metaphysics as a context for a discussion of salvation, isn't understanding. And I can foresee how pointless it would be for an opponent to try that.

The only thing I will say here--which has relevance to the anti-theistic Argument from Evil, btw (which discussions I usually keep out of, because without loads of prior argumentation I could only be working at it backward)--is that if there is going to be any demonstration of fairness on God's part, toward reconciling us with Himself, then it must be _God_, the One with final responsibility for the world we live and suffer in, Who pays for letting Creation be a real creation, and for letting us be real sinners. An uber-hero, or prophet, or saint, or demiruge, or Dynad, doesn't go far enough; because none of them have the final responsibility.

And Arius denied that God Himself has the final responsibility, to pay for our sins. There is no downreachment (to give the Greek word Paul uses) from God to man in the crucifixion. Only from the Dynad or demiurge or whatever. It is not God making conciliation with us.

And that, among other reasons, is why Arius deserved to lose.

Jason Pratt