Paradigm Problems (aka Corruption vs Guilt)

Athanasius

I remember back in my Bible College days we watched a training video on the power of paradigms. It was a Joel Barker training video and in it he tells stories of how shifts bring about change. I had a bit of a chuckle when, 13+ years later I would watch the exact same video in seminary during a leadership class. Paradigms shifts can be good and we need to embrace them once we recognize they are happening. Reading Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation has been shifting some of my major theological paradigms, to what end I’m not quite sure yet (I have some thoughts on that but I’m unwilling to share publicly at the moment).

In chapter four of On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius remarks to his reader that at this point they may be wondering why he is discussing the origins of humanity. He says it is necessary because our transgression evoked the Word’s (Jesus’) love for us, and this love led him to take on human flesh. He writes, “When humans despised and overturned the comprehension of God, devising and contriving evil for themselves… then they received the previously threatened condemnation of death, and thereafter no longer remained as they had been created, but were corrupted… and seizing them, death reigned.”Just like in chapter 3 he restates the problem of the human condition as corruption and death, not inherited guilt. He then says that humans are mortal by nature but if humans had guarded themselves through their comprehension of God then they would not have sinned and humanity would have remained incorruptible. If humanity had remained incorruptible then we would have lived like God, being made in his image, reflecting Psalm 81:6-7 which states, “I said you are gods and all sons like the most high..”

Saint Athanasius’ explanation of the problem makes sense to me but it grates against my Protestant upbringing. We read sin nature in the Genesis story and don’t focus on corruption, but God said, “Don’t eat this or you will die.” Actually, literally die. Not an instant death, but the introduction of corruption which cause all things to break down and die. This corruption makes all humanity susceptible to sin, but I may be getting ahead of myself. I’ve been reading through this slowly and though the chapters are short, their ideas are dense and contra to much of what my tradition believes about the Fall. So far there is nothing here that would denote a belief in Adam’s sin setting in motion guilt being passed to every single person, there is only corruption and death. I’m not sure when he will get into sin, though he mentions it when he said that man didn’t comprehend God, but when he does I’ll make a note of it.

Update: A good friend of mine, who has much more experience than I with the church fathers, left me a comment on Facebook about this post and has agreed to let me post it here. He writes, ” It’s been a while since I read “On the Incarnation,” but I think it would be fair to say that Athanasius doesn’t really see a sharp distinction between sin and corruption, precisely because sin is “missing the mark” (the literal meaning of “hamartia”), not “committing a crime.” As such, all corruption is sin, whether it is a deliberate act of the will or not. I am a sinner whether I have deliberately sinned, because I am mortal, imperfect, corrupt. This is how David can say he was conceived “in sins” in Ps. 50/51 (though it’s in the singular in the MT) without any sense that sexual reproduction is inherently evil (as per the error of St. Augustine, who acknowledged the need for children but said married couples should “descend to it with regret”). If I am diseased, while the cause and exacerbations of the disease are important, the real key is the nature of the disease itself and the cure.”

“One of the keys to reading the Fathers is that they always have in mind what is called the “soteriological motive” — that is, everything they write about dogmatic questions is precisely with the salvation of mankind in mind, not so they can “get it right” about doctrine. Of course they want to get it right, but the reason it has to be right is because it’s about salvation. And that’s also why getting it wrong is dangerous in their eyes. For Athanasius, On the Incarnation is not merely a treatise on what happened when the Son of God became man, but precisely what that means for salvation.”

I found this to be very helpful and a useful “grid” as I interact with the rest of the book. The comment was left by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, Pastor of Saint Paul’s Antiochian Orthodox Church. He blogs at www.roadsfromemmaus.org and www.orthodoxyandheterodoxy.org and the content on both of those sites is worth a look.

What’s the Problem?

god_as_architect

G.K. Chesterton was once asked to contribute to a newspaper article entitled, “What is Wrong with the World?” He responded with, “Dear Sirs, I am.” Witty, but true. We all contribute to the state of the world, but how did it get to be such a mess in the first place? And what exactly is the problem? How did we get where we are and how do we fix it?

In Chapter two of Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation he delves into God and creation. He calls into question those who say that the world was created by spontaneous chance and notes that a cause preceded creation. Through this we can see that there is a God who created and ordered all things.

Athanasius then says that diversity proves creation and its providential care by God. This is interesting because, essentially, science’s proof for evolution is the same thing. Diversity, especially in the same type of animal, proves natural selection and mutation. He then deals with Plato’s idea that God made everything from pre-existent matter but then this begs the question how could Plato’s god be a creator? If God is using uncreated matter to create what underlies matter then he could only be a craftsman working with raw materials, thus making Plato’s god weak (and not God).

He concludes with a comment on the heretic’s notion of God. Some heretics say that the god that created all things is a different god then God the Father of Jesus. He quotes from the Gospel of Matthew in answering this and notes that there could not possibly be another creator. He then in chapter three immediately says that God brought everything into existence through the Word, the pre-incarnate Jesus.

He notes that God creates man in his own image, makes them to live in blessedness, and gives them free choice as well as “law and a set place.” In other words, God’s command to not eat of the tree and Eden. They then had a choice: to live in paradise without sorrow or pain or to break the law and be corrupted by death. He writes, “What else might it be except not merely to die, but to remain in the corruption of death?”

Two things interest me about the last part of chapter three. The first is that St. Athanasius does not say that man’s sin transmitted sin nature to us and that we are all guilty of the sin of Adam. The problem he lays out is that sin introduces corruption. The problem is not inherited sin nature, it is corruption and death. This is very different from a traditional Protestant reading of the Fall in Genesis. The second area of interest is his firm belief in the free choice of humanity. Later on Augustine will set the stage for the Reformers 1200 years later to deny the free will of humanity due to sinful nature, but we see belief in it here. Of course one could say, “Well St. Athanasius is wrong about that issue” but this book is the seminal work of Christian theology on Christ’s Incarnation so his view deserves serious consideration.

Religion, Relationship, and Incarnation

jesus-is-my-savior

Today while driving home from class I saw a bumper sticker that stated, “Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship.” Later on in the evening I reflected on a chapter I had just read in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

He wrote, “Come now blessed one and true lover of Christ, let us with the faith of our religion relate also the things concerning the Incarnation of the Word.” I understand why people use the well worn relationship vs religion cliche but personally I do not use it. St. Athanasius doesn’t have a problem with not using it either. He links the true lover of Christ with one who will use the faith of their religion to learn more about the work of Christ. Quite a different point of view from the bumper sticker. I have seen many people online with “Christ follower” or “walking in the way of Jesus” as their religion status on Facebook because to them the idea of religion is equivalent to dead legalistic fundamentalism.

St. Athanasius though seems to link true love with religion, so maybe calling Christianity a religion isn’t such a terrible thing after all.

He then goes on to talk about how people mock and scorn Christ’s Incarnation. He says the more people mock and scorn, the more it witnesses to Christ’s divinity because humans cannot understand how the things we think are impossible, God sees as possible. He gets into some very important territory towards the end of the chapter when he states that Christ does not have a body by nature, because by nature he is bodiless.

Christ out of his love for humankind and the goodness of the Father takes on an a human body to save humanity. He concludes the chapter by noting that God through Christ made the universe and that God re-creates the universe through the same person who created it. My friend Father Andrew Stephen Damick said about this, “This is a pretty critical point Athanasius is making here, because it sets the stage for what salvation actually is – the “re-creation” of all things to return them back to the path of deepening communion, and in the case of man, deification/divinization/theosis.” We’ll get more into what that means as we continue to work our way through On the Incarnation.