True Rationality and The Recreation of the Divine Image

 

A quick update before we get into On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. I finally turned in my final assignments and my theology comprehensive exam and graduated from seminary two weeks ago with a Master of Divinity. Going to seminary was one of the best things I have ever done and I’m better for going even if I will be poorer financially as I pay off my loans. It was worth it. I made some good friends and appreciate the time I spent there. My parents flew over from South Africa and were there at my graduation ceremony which made it incredibly special. I’m grateful to God for his good gifts to me.

Back to St. Athanasius, and we turn to the next few chapters from On the Incarnation. In chapter 11 St. Athanasius notes that God made humanity in the image of Jesus Christ and that they would be able to know God the Father through the divine image of the Word of God (Jesus). This results in humanity living a blessed and happy life. Unfortunately this is short lived and he points out that our ancestors despised God’s grace and turned away from him. They made false gods and fabricated idols and honored beings who do not exist, going to far to even sacrifice animals and other humans to these idols and false gods. He ends chapter 11 by saying that even though humanity no longer recognized God he still left methods by which they could know of him.

In chapter 12, St. Athanasius says that God was not surprised by what his creation had done and anticipated their carelessness. If they could not recognize God through themselves in the divine image they were created in they could still “see” God through the works of creation. Not only that but God also sends the law and the prophets so even if they did not see God in creation they still had instruction from other humans about the true God. Expanding on this he makes two points:

  1. The greatness of the heavens testifies not just to God’s existence but also to God’s providential goodness.
  2. God sends holy ones to testify of himself and that humanity needs to turn away from the false gods and idols they have made for themselves.

Sadly, even though God had anticipated the carelessness of humanity and had performed actions to show his goodness, humanity “beaten by the pleasures of the moment and the illusions and deceits of the demons were not able to raise their gaze to the truth but sated themselves with even more evils and sins, so that they no longer appeared rational…”

What I find interesting in chapter 12 and 13 is that St. Athanasius does not just tie in rationality with the general ability humans have to think and reason. For him the height of irrationality is not someone who cannot think, but someone, who because of sin, has not recognized God through his creation or through his messengers and has persisted in sating themselves with evil. This is a far cry from how rationality is commonly understood in our own context. For modern peoples, rationality is marked by the ability to think through ideas and to form arguments, hypotheses, and conclusions. But for St. Athanasius the height of irrationality is the one who has rejected the true God.

He goes on in chapter 13 to note that since humanity was made in the image of Jesus Christ it would not be right for humanity to be destroyed. God’s response to all of this is the enfleshment of the Word of God (Jesus). So God the Word takes on humanity so that the divine image present in humanity could be recreated.

This is heavy stuff but it is basic for how Christianity views the world and the Incarnation of God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Athanasius provides, to this day, a better anthropology of humanity and the necessity of Christ’s Incarnation, and what the Incarnation means for the totality of our salvation, then anything thought up by modern theologians. The Incarnation matters more than just as a device by which God the Father sends Jesus into the world. It has a significant effect on the world and our relation to God.

(The icon used of the creation of Adam was found at http://wp.me/pYVj0-6H from a general image search)

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As Straw From the Fire (and a brief update)

 

It’s been far too long since my last update. I’ve been fairly busy since the holidays with work and school. I’m teaching twice a week now at my church, Tuesday morning and Thursday evenings, for our in house Bible school program. It functions as a sort of catechesis/discipleship group and I have a good group of students. The highlight of the past few months was my trip to Princeton to attend the Florovsky Symposium on the Patristic Doctrine of Scripture. There were some amazing lectures and I came away with much to think about in regards to how I read and interpret Scripture. I’ll be graduating from seminary in June with my M.Div and have begun to seriously contemplate my post graduate school plans. I’d appreciate any prayers you may feel inclined to offer. Ok! Back to St. Athanasius and On the Incarnation. (by way of reminder I’m reading and quoting from the V. Rev. Dr. John Behr’s translation published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

In chapter six, St. Athanasius concluded that it is right for God to not allow human beings to be carried away by corruption because this would not be worthy of his goodness if he did not do so. It is with this in mind that we move to chapter seven. He asks what was God to do in response to human sin? Should he demand repentance? St. Athanasius then notes that repentance can only halt sin, it does not recall human beings from the consequences of the fall. In order to answer this question he writes that since God the Word (Jesus) created the world, then the Word alone is able to recreate the universe, suffer, and intercede for humanity before the Father. He does this in order to make what has been corrupted into something incorruptible. This also saves the consistency of the goodness of God in relation to his creation.

In chapter eight St. Athanasius moves to The Word’s incarnation. Rather than try to summarize, I’ll post a piece of what he says because he says it beautifully, and more completely than, I can.

“For seeing the rational race perishing, and death reigning over them through corruption… and seeing the excessive wickedness of human beings… and seeing the liability of all human beings to death – having mercy upon our race… and condescending to our corruption, and not enduring the dominion of death… he takes for himself a body not foreign to our own.”

He comments on how the Word, though being the powerful creator of the universe, took on human flesh through the womb of Mary. He does this so that he can, in his love, offer himself in his incorruptible flesh on behalf of all humanity to the Father so that the law of corruption in all humanity can be undone. And the grace of the resurrection “banishes death from them (humanity) as straw from the fire.”

I like that last quote, namely that God the Word banishes death from us as “straw from the fire.” Fire burns through straw quite quickly and this makes a powerful image about how the work of Christ should burn through us removing all impurities as we turn our hearts towards God. We can only do this because God the Word condescended to humanity first out of his goodness and love for human beings. Because of this we can be healed and freed from our bondage to sin and death. Quite a profound thought and one worth meditating on this week.

(not sure if the fire picture is a stock photo. Found it at geringcitizen.com)

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.