Monday, November 17, 2008

Athanasius contra mundi!

They called him the "Black Dwarf." But he stood treetop tall back in the fourth century. If he hadn't, we'd all be cycling two by two, passing out tracts and attending churches with no windows. Here's what happened:
The Arian controversy was not settled at the great convention in the balmy resort city of Nic├Ža (AD 325). Even with more than 300 conventioneers present, and despite a couple of months of all day meetings followed by casual conversations in the bar, sipping colorful drinks topped with paper umbrellas and orange slices, some of the boys still weren't satisfied with the (now orthodox) assertion that Jesus is homoousios to Patri: "of one substance with the Father." You remember: God of God, Light of Light, Of one substance with the Father . . .
The problem was the modalists. That's right, the ones that said God is one person who wears three different hats depending on the mood he's in. The modalists decided to "spin" homoousios and make it say, not same substance, but same person: in other words, the Father and Son are one person, not just one substance. That kind of spin wasn't hard to do in those days because the Greek words for person and substance were often used interchangeably. (That would get straightened out later).
Some of the other boys who had attended the convention didn't think much of what the modalists were up to. They didn't like the three-hat scenario. So they decided the best way to flank the modalists was to change same substance to "similar" or "like" substance." That way they could get around the modalist spin on homoousios (same substance) and say, "See! They're not one person 'cause their not the 'same'; they're similar." Here's how it works in the Greek language: they wanted to change homoousios (same or one substance) to homoiousios (similar or like substance). Only one little letter different. Did you catch it? Just one little-bitty "i" right there in the middle. But man, does it make a difference.
Constantine, who wanted to keep everybody happy to avoid more riots in the streets, decided to go along. Even though the emperor himself had contributed the word homoousios (same substance) to the convention (that's a popular rumor but I doubt it's true), he agreed to change the word by that one little letter "i" to homoiousios as the "official" assertion of the relationship between the Father and Son. This was a kind of "semi-Arian" compromise; maybe just enough to satisfy the Arians who said Jesus wasn't divine like the Father and, at the same time, satisfy those who were afraid of modalism. The compromise seemed so reasonable that pretty much everybody decided to become semi-Arians and adopt the new word, homoiousios.
Everybody but one that is. Enter the stalwart defender of Nicene orthodoxy: the Black Dwarf—six guns blazin', white hat gleaming in the desert sun—none other than the great Athanasius, the new senior pastor from Alexandria. Athanasius stood alone against the world (contra mundi). (Get ready. Here comes the serious stuff:J) Athanasius stubbornly refused to go along with the popular compromise to the Nicene language. He understood that the implementation of homoiousios ("like substance") was tantamount to asserting that Jesus is not God. As Athanasius realized, the difference between homoousios and homoiousios is the difference between the divine and the creaturely. The former says that the Son is God; the latter that the Son is merely like God (Olson, 1999:165). For Athanasius, the good news of human salvation was at stake with the reintroduction of the pre-Nicene subordinationism implied in the word homoiousios (i.e., Jesus as only similar to God is "less divine" than the Father; hence, ontologically subordinate). According to Athanasius, the Son must be God, not merely a creature, for only God can unite creatures to God. Salvation is not possible through a hierarchal chain from the Father through the intermediate Son, for an intermediary divides as much as it unites (Olson, 1999:164, 165). If the Son is not God in the same sense that the Father is God, then we are not saved, for only God can undo sin and bring us to share in the divine nature (Olson, 1999:169; cf. Gonzales, 1987:298; Torrance, 1995:149).
Athanasius rejected the "Arian disjunction" between the being of the Son and the being of the Father and confirmed the Nicene homoousion as showing that the Son belongs on the divine side of the Creator-creation relationship (Torrance, 1995:86). (NOTE: To get at what Torrance is saying, draw a vertical line with divinity on the left side and creation on the right. Where do we put the Son? Arius says on the right because, according to him, the Son is a created, not eternal, intermediary between the world-transcending Father and us. Athanasius, on the other hand, says put the Son on the left, because he is the eternally begotten (not made) Son who is "of one substance with the Father" (homoousios to Patri)). According to Athanasius, the Nicene homoousion asserts that God has became man in such a way as to give us access through the Son and Spirit to the Father himself (Torrance, 1995:130; cf Eph 2:18). The phrase homoousios to Patri ("of one substance with the Father") expresses the fact that what God is toward us, in the midst of us, and for us through the eternal Word made flesh, God really is in himself. In other words, God is, in the internal relations of his eternal being, the same Father, Son, and Spirit that he is in his redemptive activity for us in the incarnate Son and the gift of the Spirit (Torrance, 1995:130).
Moreover, Athanasius recognized the importance of relationality in the doctrine of the Trinity. For Athanasius, the fatherhood of God belongs eternally to God and defines the being of God (O'Collins, 1999:128). While God has not always been Creator, God is eternally Father (Torrance, 1995: 87). Athanasius articulated the fundamental trinitarian principle that the Father-Son relationship defines, at least in part, the word God (O'Collins, 1999:128). Following the Nicene creedal affirmation that the Son is "begotten, not made," Athanasius distinguished the divine operations of generation and creation to assert that God is inherently relational and generative. Against Arius, he argued that the denial of the eternal existence of the Son is a denial of the eternal fatherhood of God. Moreover, Athanasius asserted that one can know or say nothing of any one person of the Godhead in isolation from the other two (O'Collins, 1999:129, 130). The Athanasian (and Cappadocian) emphasis on relationality in the Godhead is markedly different from the Augustinian-Thomist-Western emphasis on the impersonal "substance" of the Godhead.
As the fourth century progressed, Athanasius was exiled numerous times by Constantine and the emperors that followed. Yet the Black Dwarf refused to compromise the Good News that Jesus is the revelation of God. Jesus is not merely like God; Jesus is God, the eternally begotten Son who has reconciled all things to the Father (2Cor 5:19). As theologian Roger Olson (1999:161) notes, without the steadfast determination of Athanasius to defend the full divinity of the Son, the Christian doctrine of God would closely resemble that of today's Jehovah's witnesses.
Gonzalez, J.L. 1987. A History of Christian Thought (vol 1). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 400pp.
O'Collins, G. 1999. The Tripersonal God: Understanding and Interpreting the Trinity. New York, NY: Paulist Press. 234pp.
Olson, R.E. 1999. The Story of Christian Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 652pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1995. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. London: T & T Clark. 345pp.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Arians are Not Skinheads

Hey, everyone. Before we get started with the new post I wanted to mention something. Since this blog started, some friends and relatives have subscribed who have other things to do than study theology. So what I'm going to do is use the fancy theological lingo for the budding theologians among us and then translate it into street-speak for the normal people. So here we go!
In the fourth century, a real ruckus broke out between the popular deacon Arius, and his bishop Alexander. The fireworks started down around Alexandria (Egypt, not Louisiana). Like so many of the day, Arius wanted to protect the monarchy of the Father (mone-arche, "one principle"). That is, there is only one divine principle of Deity in the Godhead, and that is the Father. To say that the Son was divine would split up the Godhead, or so they thought, so they naturally agued that the Son was less than fully divine, sort of a subprime version of deity. Arius argued that the Son was a creature, a created being like the rest of us, yet he gave the nod to the Son's greatness by conceding that he was the first and greatest among creatures. To sum up his insistence that the Son was created and hence did not eternally exist, Arius maintained that "there was a time when he was not." Arius must have been very popular, for in Alexandria, riots broke out as his followers marched in the streets, carrying signs saying, "There was when he was not." (I'm not making this up!) Even in the pubs, people made up drinking songs in tribute to Arius' teaching. You have to give Arius credit: How many of us preachers and teachers have had people write drinking songs about what we have to say?
Now, I don't want to make the Arians out as bad guys. I doubt they were. The traditional text book view of them, however, is that they were Jesus-haters who couldn't accept his divinity. But recent scholarship says that ain't so. Arius' concern was primarily soteriological (having to do with human salvation). He thought that in order to be saved, we had to submit to the will of the Father in the same way the Son did. In other words, for Arius salvation meant imitation, doing what Jesus did just the way he did it. In order for that to be possible, the Son had to be a creature (a created being) like the rest of us, else we didn't stand a chance of imitating his submission to the Father's will. Where Arius got off on the wrong foot, however, is that he saw salvation as a matter of performance (imitation). We get saved if we perform well. Apparently, grace was something he did not understand, so he advocated a salvation by works. So that let's us in on the soteriological concerns that drove the Arians. Face it: His followers didn't riot in the streets because they were concerned with theological hair-splitting. They mistakenly thought their salvation hinged on the incarnate Son being a less than fully divine creature capable of imitation. But let's move on.
What were the philosophical and theological presuppositions that drove the Arians (and to a certain extent, the orthodox party)? Here's the deal: At the root of the Arian controversy was subordinationism, the view that Christ and the Spirit, in deriving their deity from the Father (as was the prevailing idea of the time), were in some way ontologically (having to do with the essence or being of something) subordinate to the Father. In short, they were less divine than the Father. Subordinationism was all over the place in those days, and here's why: The whole thing was based on Greek (read: pagan) philosophy. Remember, this whole Arian thing got started in Alexandria, one of the premier centers of Hellenistic (Greek) culture. According to Greek philosophers from Parmenides to Plato to Plotinus, the Divine is "immutable," which means, simply, that God does not change (Don't go quotin' script-cha out of context, now.). On the surface that sounds alright, but Baby, there are boo-coo problems with that idea (more in future posts). In academic jargon, the Greeks posited a dualism, an ontological gulf, between Deity and materiality (I like to wax academic occasionally. Ain't it fun!) Although the rest of us live in an imperfect world of constant change, according to Greek thought, Deity is remote, aloof, unmoved (unchanging), and utterly transcendent (way up there all alone by itself). In its static perfection, Deity is immutable; it does not change. Change in the Deity was ruled out from the beginning by Plato's maxim that any change in a perfect being could only be for the worse (We need to talk about that one Plato Baby). That means that the Divine can have no interaction with creation, for to do so would make it somehow conditioned (changed) by creation.
Alright, enuf! To the point: So what's a remote, unchanging Deity to do? You send a less than divine intermediary to deal with that world of dirt down there! So here it comes: The Greek notion of divine immutability, with its correlate that Deity can have no interaction with the world, led some Christian thinkers to assert that the Son (and later the Spirit) is a subordinate deity, that is, a less than fully divine intermediary between the world-transcending Father and creation, sort of a cosmic go-between, if you get my drift. See how that works? If the Big Guy, as fully divine, cannot dirty his hands with materiality (for that would induce change), then he sends the less than fully divine Logos (the preincarnate Son) to do the work for him. In short subordinationism allows the world-transcending Father to keep his hands clean while the ontologically subordinate (less than fully divine) Logos acts as intermediary to engage creation.
Here's another thing, and this is straight from Arius. If the Logos is divine, then the incarnation and suffering of Jesus would mean change in God, and that is a no-no. Therefore, the Logos is not divine. (Unfortunately, the orthodox party held a similar view and the way they handled the problem was not cool. More later.) And one more thing, Arius said that if the Son is begotten of the Father's substance (ousia: being, essence), then the being of God can be divided up (changed). See how it all gets back to the Greek notion of divine immutability? And one more one more thing, Arius argued that if the Son is "begotten" he must have a beginning in time. Hence, the slogan, "There was when he was not." (He didn't get the idea of eternal generation.) So the long of it is this: according to Arius, the incarnate Logos is a less than fully divine, created intermediary between God and the world. The short is this: Jesus ain't God. (Take heart, little ones; Arius was dead wrong!)
Catherine Mowry LaCugna, a Roman Catholic theologian, says that Christian thinking (both orthodox and not) in both the fourth century and today has been severely constrained by the philosophical presuppositions of Greek (pagan) thought. (BTW, many theologians today decry the Greek pagan influence on the "Christian" doctrine of God. Barth, Torrance, Gunton, Jenson, Kruger, Bloesch, Pinnock, Sanders, and many others say the same thing.) Just a note in passing: Some theologians were much more influenced by Greek thought than others (Can you spell A-u-g-u-s-t-i-n-e?).
Moving on: All this fuss, including rioting in the streets of Alexandria (Can you believe it?) threatened the stability of the empire. So Constantine, who was no political dummy (he saw Christianity as the glue that could hold the empire together), convened a great council to settle the Arian controversy, and take care of a few other issues at the same time. That's right: You guessed it, Bubba. I'm talkin' 'bout the first great ecumenical council held at Nicaea in 325 A.D. This is where the Arian party and what would become the orthodox party went at it. To make a long story short, the Arians did not fair well at the convention. Fact is, they were shouted down by the many present who were appalled at some of their teaching. Under the leadership of Alexander of Egypt, and his young but brilliant compadre Athanasius, the Nicene theologians hammered out the words routinely read in churches all over the world. Jesus is God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Of one substance with the Father (homoousios to Patri), Begotten not made (a direct jab at the Arian assertion that the Logos was created). In short, the Nicene theologians asserted the now orthodox view that Jesus is fully God; he shares the divine substance (ousia) equally with the Father. Thankfully, the orthodox party did not allow Greek philosophy, with its notion of divine immutability, to rule the day. Instead, they relied on the biblical witness where Jesus himself says, "I and the Father are one," and "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." The Council of Nicaea proclaimed the Good News that Jesus really is the full revelation of God. He is not somehow less than or different from the Father. He is not merely like God; he is God. In short, he's the real deal!! In the loving eyes of Jesus, the very one who has united you, me, and the entire cosmos in eternal union with God, we peer deep into the very loving heart of God. Hooray!!
So let's end this post here. Here's the thing to remember: the Arian argument that Jesus was a subprime deity was rooted in the pagan presupposition of divine immutability. The world-transcending God can have no commerce with creation, so he sends a less than fully divine intermediary, the Logos to do the dirty work. The Nicene party (the good guys), however, held to the biblical revelation, relying on the words of Jesus himself rather than the presuppositions of Greek thought, to assert that the incarnate Son is very God. Jesus is the real enchilada!!
P.S. The Arian controversy did not end at Nicaea. It took a lot of work from Athanasius and those wild and crazy Cappadocians to finally put it to rest. But we'll get to that in a later post. Adios!