Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Essence of the Faith

Last night with my Bible class we delve into the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew 5-7 and various parables of Christ found throughout the Gospels. One theme that is strikingly consistent is that of forgiveness. If we want our sins forgiven by the Father, we must forgive our brothers, in fact we vow this when we pray the Lord's Prayer. "Forgive us our debts/ we forgive our debtors/trangessors". The parable about the unmerciful servant is the same way. St. Peter asks, "How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?" Christ answers "70 times 7." (Now, it should be asked, why didn't He just say "490 times"? Possibly He was making a connection to Dan. 9, where 70 sevens appears in context of God's forgiveness.)

The essence of Christianity, then, seems to be a concrete action: forgiveness. We can be forgiven by God for not understanding the hypostatic union, or for messing up predestination, or whatever. What cannot be forgiven, though, is our own unforgivingness. This is not because God is unable, far from it, but to not forgive is to consciously turn away from the likeness of God, who sends rain upon the just and the unjust. As C.S. Lewis puts it, "The gates of Hell are locked on the inside."

Forgive everyone for everything.

The Infinity of Theology

As my study of the Church Fathers grows deeper, I have come to wonder about the propriety of theological discourse. Can (should!) anything new be said? In one sense no, in another sense yes.

The point of academic theology is twofold: to pass along what has gone before (the Tradition) and to use that to speak afresh to our times and places. So, if we are just in the business of the first aspect, then, no, theology cannot say anything new. It is bounded by Jesus Christ's person and work. We speak of Him and no other. However, language changes, situations change, challenges come up, and we must speak of Him somewhat differently at times (the homoousias controversy seems to speak to this -- how do we confess what the Church confesses and safeguard that from Arian misunderstanding?): however the bulwark by which our theological language is judged is not the culture or the history or the place, but Jesus Christ Himself. Even in our re-expression we must avoid theological novelty.

Does this mean, though, that theology is complete? By no means.

The subject of theology, the One whom we long to know (and I don't mean knowledge in a purely "rational" sense here), is, by nature, infinite. So our knowing of Him progresses truly, but slowly as we are drawn deeper into His Life (the Holy Spirit) in His Body (the Church). Theology itself, then, is the infinite study of the Infinite One. We will never (thank God!) be able to say, "Well, now we know all there is to know." Nor will we be able to fully express it. All the other subjects, because they are being joined to Christ (Eph. 1:10ff.) are the same way: we may see (for example) an atom in various equations, or models, or super-collider experiments, but we still cannot comprehend -- have exhaustive knowledge of -- an atom. Nor shall we ever. We have true knowledge, but only partial. We look into a mirror darkly.

It is interesting, in this regard, that both Sts. John and Paul, at different points, basically say that someday, eschatologically, we will fully participate in this infinity, "knowing even as we are known."

Sunday, January 27, 2013

On Man's Two Natures

A thought-piece:

In (at least) pop-Calvinism, there is a tendency to view man as essentially sinful, that is, down to the very structural core of his being, man is inherently and inescapably controlled by sin. Man, in other words, cannot do anything to please God, whether towards earning salvation (understood as monergistic justification) nor towards maintaining or advancing the relationship (a sort of monergistic sanctification). While I haven't found this understanding to necessarily be the orthodox and official interpretation of the Calvinist system, it holds a lot of traction at the "lay" level and amongst certain types of preachers and pastors. I cannot tell, statistically speaking, whether or not this is a majority opinion, but I hear it often enough from a variety of sources that I think it should be taken seriously.

However, I think this understanding (which, at least superficially, sounds similar to Luther's in Bondage of the Will and Calvin in On the Secret Providence of God) is fatally flawed because it misunderstands the necessity of distinguishing between two distinct definitions of the word "nature." The first definition of nature I'd like to term "essential nature." This understanding of nature is that it is what man is created to be on the structural level by God: it is what makes mankind mankind, as opposed to any sort of created reality. It is what all humans share that makes them describable as such. The common theological understanding of this is the imago Dei, or Image of God. We all share (or participate) in God's Image (which the New Testament reveals to us as Jesus Christ) to some degree or another. What this means, though, is hard to define precisely: does it mean our rationality? our responsibility and tendency towards rule? our community one with another? All of these are theories that have been held throughout Church history (with St. Augustine, Richard Middleton, and Karl Barth being respective representatives). Whether or not our essential nature can be reduced to any one theory is debatable: our Image-bearing reflects the Image Himself, who is the Icon of the Invisible and Infinite God. Our bearing, then, is capable of the same infinity (here is the basis of the Patristic doctrine of theosis). This nature is fundamentally, by decree of God, "good" as proclaimed in Genesis 1. There is no language, that I can find at least, that describes this Image-bearing, or essential nature, as distorted, cracked, destroyed, mangled, or any other such perjorative term: even with the ravages of corruption and sin, we remain essentially human, bearers to a greater or lesser degreee, of God's Image. God's statement to Noah that man is still in the Image of God, immediately after the judgment of the Deluge, goes a long way towards showing this. This is also the basis of our redemption as well, since this Image God does not desire to see destroyed. (Questions about how our structural integrity before God, regardless of our directional infidelity, and the "eternal decree" of double predestination will have to wait until a different time; questions there are, but my ability to adequately answer them is another question altogether).

In the essential sense, then, it is incorrect, and quite possibly blasphemous, to say that mankind has a "sinful nature." God did not create man's nature to be sinful, nor can we so attribute power to sin and death that they are able to thwart the primal command of God's Word to structure human reality. Sin and death are more powerful than man outside of God's grace, but not ever more powerful than the Creator and Redeemer of the cosmos.

The second definition, however, allows for an understanding of man having a "sinful nature" in a proper sense. This is term "energetic nature," that is, a description of the actions (or energies) of man, which include the tendency of the will towards evil and sin and death. In other words, man often acts and thinks and speaks in sinful ways. A man can be an Image-bearer and yet be the worst cur on the face of all Creation. The effects of Adam's corruption on mankind have made such "modes of action" seem normal or, to use the term at issue, natural. This sort of corruption of our energies can seem to effect what we consider structural elements of mankind (our biological makeup, our sexuality, our personalities), however these things are distorted activities that can be healed by the presence of the Holy Spirit in conjunction with our own ascesis. We are in the environment of death, of being separated through Adam's rebellion from the Life of God, so our actions tend towards that way, even if our essential nature is proclamed "good" by God Himself. This is also what makes sin so sinful, as St. Paul might say: mankind, which is supposed to be oriented towards God and partaking of His Life (the Holy Spirit), has instead turned towards the nothingness of sin and death. This is why Christ came to "condemn sin in the flesh" not to condemn humanity. Man has become, through his federal head of Adam, a slave to sin, death, and the devil; he acts as a servant of such, even though his original intent is towards the freedom of Life in and with God. These energies need to be redeemed, which is why it is necessary for Christ, in the Incarnation, to take on a full human nature (essential good, yet subject to corruption), including these energies, so that we might wholly and fully be redeemed in Him.

To use a Biblical expression, we might term this the "likeness of God." The Image we bear whether we will or no, the likeness, however, is not mentioned after the Fall. Our likeness to God, promised at the Creation, was thwarted by Adam's desire to be "like God" (Gen. 3:5) on his (or the serpent's) own terms, rather than God's. Christ restores us to a place where we can, again, be like God -- as He says in the Sermon on the Mount ("Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect").

What, then, of total depravity? Our energies, our actions, our tendencies are, by virtue of their participation in the corruption of Adam, oriented away from God, rendering us inable to participate in God's Life. In this sense, yes, we are totally depraved: our environment and our energetic natures are estranged from God, even when we seek -- outside of God's grace -- to do good, we do it corruptly: one only has to look at the corrupting effects of nationally-instituted charity to see this. However, in Christ, although we still often fail, we can do good, that is, we can share the Life of God, through our actions in the Spirit. This does not mean, however, that we "earn" God's favor or love, the Scriptures never use this sort of language. Instead, we do what we were created to do as God's Image-bearers, as icons of Christ, when we do good. We are most fully human when we participate in God's Life and share that Life with the rest of the Creation, both human and non-human.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Athanasius on Theological Training

Years ago, I read St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation of the Word of God and was less than impressed. In fact, I hated it. Sure, there were some neat things in it, but I couldn't find myself agreeing with his soteriology (where was the eternal predestinating decree? the justification by faith alone? the penal substitution?) or his Christology (these were, after all, my unitarian days). Mostly, though, I was upset by what I conceived of as his sloppy use of language in speaking about Christ. That was six years ago (approximately). Then, I revisited his thought for a couple of classes at Trinity School for Ministry, in which I realized that his use of philosophical language was actually quite keen: by utilizing some of the terminology and concepts of Platonism he effectively burst the whole system open ("there are more things in heaven and earth, Arius, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"). It follows, now that I've reread his masterwork, that I should take some of the things back which I have said. Often when rereading what I've wrote in the past my reaction has lately been, "Fair enough, but have you thought about..." Possibly my thought is maturing, or at least that is what I hope.

I decided to revisit the work in the last week. Mostly this was for the excellent introduction done by C.S. Lewis, which I wanted to share with some of my colleagues at Geneva College. However, I couldn't resist reading the actual work, especially given some information I had gathered about his famous "He assumed humanity that we might become God" (this was the earlier crux of my displeasure with the work: "Greek philosophy!" I said. I have since moderated this view.). At the end of the book Athanasius gives some stunning recommendations about the studying of Scripture, which I think every student of theology -- especially those considering a "career" in the field -- needs to closely heed:
But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.
Understanding of the Scriptures is not contingent on seminary training (and, as is true of all education, such training can either be helpful -- it was in my case -- or quite detrimental), but rather a life seeking after holiness in Christ. There is an ascetical bent to the reading and interpreting of the Scriptures that is not commonly taught to theological students. But it is vital. My own life is witness to that.