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.

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2 thoughts on “Paradigm Problems (aka Corruption vs Guilt)”

  1. 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, “sin”), 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.

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