Good Christology matters for Good Friday

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence
My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

In a little under two weeks, it will be Good Friday as we make the final push to the chief feast of the Christian year. Some preachers seem to dread Good Friday — they are uncertain what more could ever be said, or they feel that Protestant Christianity makes too much of the Cross and too little of the Risen Saviour, or they are awkward about how bloody the whole thing is, or they’ve decided to wash their hands of any theory of atonement or … or …

Well.

I can see their preaching predicament.

Good thing I’m not a preacher. 😉

One thing that will undoubtedly pass through the minds of many is that old, wretched ‘Divine Child Abuse’ line, or similar awkward thoughts about God unjustly lashing out against an innocent man to divert his wrath from ‘deserving’ sinners. That sort of thing.

I generally wonder what sort of Christology lies at the heart of their preaching when they question theories of atonement (how Christ’s death-and-resurrection make us one with God) from such angles.

If Nicaea I through Nicaea II have taught us anything about how to do theology that is at once (somewhat) philosophically coherent and biblically faithful, it is that God is Jesus. This is the meaning of all that high-flying ‘Hellenistic’ ‘philosophical’ jargon that gets thrown around in the patristic period and disparaged in the modern

(you know —

homoousios/consubstantial

hypostatic union

dyothelitism —

that sort of thing)

Consubstantial means that Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Word Incarnate of John 1 — the subject of our Faith and the author of our salvation — has the same substance or essence as God the Father, as the Person we tend to think of as ‘God’.

Hypostatic union means that the person (hypostasis) of Jesus is a single unity of both human and divine. Divinity does not swallow up humanity, nor does humanity deprive divinity of its reality. Jesus — who is fully God as articulated by consubstantial — is also fully human, a complete man with body and soul — to the point of (in later theology) somehow, inexplicably (as far as I’m concerned, though I know that Maximus has explanations) having two wills (dyothelitism).

So, what does this have to do with Good Friday?

I think the most powerful impact it has on many of the common objections to traditional atonement theories is that God is absolved from injustice and child abuse. Why? Because God is Jesus.

God chose to become a man and all that means.

God chose to be scourged, bloodied, and die an unjust death he did not deserve.

The result is not simply a quick and easy transaction whereby we get into heaven free. The result is that God has taken a human person into himself in some way. God is not distant. He has suffered all that ordinary humans suffer. He has tasted death and returned victorious.

And he did this because he loves us. We, through our rejection of the only true and right way to live, were heading — are heading — for destruction. We had incurred a debt greater than we could pay. God chose the path of love to remove that debt, he chose the hard path, the path that would lead him into the fullest depths of the human experience, thereby transfiguring human life and taking it into himself, and showing us that He knows us and loves and can relate to us.

And so, Good Friday.

While we were yet His enemies, God the Son, the Incarnate Word, died.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

Next week, I’ll be posting some medieval poetry and art about this. I hope that you can be drawn into the mystery of Jesus and love Him more as a result…

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Do you really believe the Nicene Creed?

Christ the Almighty -- as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)
Christ the Almighty — as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)

I just finished Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. I recommend it highly! In that book, he poses us the question — Do we truly believe that Jesus is who we say He is? If we really did, wouldn’t we act a bit differently?

Putting my own ‘classic Christian’ spin on Willard’s query, who is it that we say Jesus is? We believe

in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came to be;

who, on account of us men and our salvation, came down from heaven and became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man; and he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures and ascended to the heavens and is seated on the right hand of the Father and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end; (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed)

Do you believe in the depths of your soul that Jesus is true God from true God, of one substance with the Father? Do you believe that through him all things were made? Most of us will immediately say, ‘Yes.’

Certainly, we give mental assent to the propositions of the Creeds and of our denominational confessions or the doctrinal statements of ecumenical councils. Yet shouldn’t such shocking, earth-shattering truths affect how we approach life to its deepest level?

Jesus is the creator of the world. How should we, then, approach his teachings? Clearly as the teachings of the greatest moral philosopher who ever lived! And we should take them to heart. We should try to understand what they mean and how we can live by them. We should spend time reading through the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, to have these teachings of His imprinted on our hearts.

Should we not memorise and meditate upon the Lord’s Prayer? Should we not read over and over the Sermon on the Mount?

Jesus is not an intellectual, theological proposition — although these can be made about Him.

He is the most wondrous, powerful, beautiful, intelligent person in the universe. He is so loving that he chose to set aside His natural form of godliness and take on our form, that of a slave. And His immediate followers tell us that our attitude, our life, should be modelled on his.

Is it?

Wait — Monophysites??

You were probably quite thrilled to see the saints return this week. And then you probably cocked your head to one side and said, “Monophysites? Aren’t they heretics?”

Well. No. Not really.

Or, if they are heretics, it is for being schismatics, as under Jacob Baradaeus who consecrated John of Ephesus Bp of Ephesus which already had its own bishop. That must have been awkward. John claims Jacob maintained the canons of Nicaea, but this does not sit with the fact that he created bishops for places that already had bishops.

But Monophysites are not the heretics you think they are.

Chances are, if you’ve heard of the Monophysites, you thought of them as people who believed that Jesus had one nature, and that nature was divine. Or that in Jesus’ single nature the divine was so powerful it completely subsumed his human nature, rendering it useless. Or that Jesus’ divine and human natures were confused with each other. Or that Jesus had a glorified body through his whole life on earth and, as a result, never suffered.

Each of those statements is a heresy, and each of them is a Monophysite heresy. But none of them is mainstream Monophysism as represented by Severus of Antioch, Philoxenus of Mabbug, Empress Theodora, John of Ephesus, et al.

Mainstream Monophysism is a highly conservative reading of Cyril of Alexandria that refuses to affirm the Council of Chalcedon on the grounds that its Christological formula “in two natures” divides the person of Christ and you effectively have two sons and two Christs, which is Nestorianism.

The rallying cry of the Monophysites is the statement of Cyril: mia physis tou theou logou sesarkmomene — one incarnate nature of God the Word. Since Chalcedon affirmed two natures, it was a posthumous betrayal of St. Cyril, according to the Monophysites.

If someone came along trying to interpret Chalcedon so that it could jive with the Cyrilline rallying cry, the Monophysites would pull out more Cyril, and say, “Nature = person = hypostasis. If Christ has two natures, he has two hypostaseis/persons.”

Monophysites such as Severus of Antioch believed that Christ was fully God and fully man, possessing all of the attributes of Godhead and manhood within the single theandric (God-mannish) union. This union was a complete union within his person, or hypostasis — thus, hypostatic union.

Now, people don’t fight about nothing. Well, sometimes they do, but usually they don’t. There was a real, substantial difference between them and the original Chalcedonians. The sad reality for the Monophysites, though, is that by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, called by Emperor Justinian, the Chalcedonians had so interpreted and reinterpreted Chalcedon such that it could by understood by a highly Cyrillian thinker — so-called “Neo-Chalcedonianism”.

But it was too late. The seeds of schism were sown. And to this day, the “Syrian” Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox are out of communion with us, despite joint statements on Christology. This is a sad reality, and one that should be remedied. Would that we had the grace to sit down together and work out the centuries of trouble!

If any of this makes no sense, let me know and I’ll try to de-jargonise it! 😉

Pain & Anguish Greater Than We Could Ever Know

What use is Patristic theology? I mean, why read the Fathers? How does this stuff, this all-too-frequently high-flying, maximalist, cerebral theology help any of us in our daily lives?

Well. Today I was reading The Orthodox Way by Met. Kallistos Ware. The chapter at hand was his chapter all about Christ, the theanthropos — the God-man. And while I was reading, some thoughts took hold of me. They follow, inspired by the Fathers and Met. Kallistos.

First, let us consider the Person Who died on the Cross that Friday long ago. That Person, that God-man, that one-of-a-kind being was fully God and fully man. As my friend Pope St. Leo I says, he is complete in what is his own and complete in what is ours. Everything that could be predicated about God can be predicated about the incarnate Christ. So also everything about man — save sin.

And, as Holy Scripture tells us, Jesus suffered everything we suffered except sin. He is, by the Scriptural record, fully human. He grew tired, thirsted, hungered — died. God the Word was eight days old and held in the arms of his mother (as per St. Cyril of Alexandria).

Second, let us consider who God is. God, as we learn from the careful, prayerful reflection of the Fathers upon their deep reading of Scripture, is three persons. These three persons are co-equal and co-eternal and other suchlike things. They also are one, sharing a single essence. God, the one, true God of Christian monotheism, is also three. His existence is one of endless, boundless love, self-giving love at a level of intimacy we creations shall never know.

We’ll never know this kind of love because each of us has only one essence per person. God, on the other hand, has one essence and three persons. It is not the sort of thing we can really even properly conceive. Jesus, then, was a participant in this divine life of self-giving love and shared essence. He took on flesh and became human without ceasing to engage in the life of the Trinity.

Third, let us consider what this Person went through on the Cross that Friday long ago. Before he died, he went through enormous amounts of physical pain, torture, and suffering. Such is the stuff of many Good Friday sermons. Yet what else do we see him suffering before death? According to 2 Cor, God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us.

That is intense. Jesus was the perfect human, not only in terms of being entirely human complete with body, soul, and spirit, but also in terms of sinlessness. And now, this sinless soul, this one and only human being ever to not sin takes upon himself the sin of the entire world.

Think about how it feels to sin, knowing you shouldn’t. There is a definite feeling of sorrow, sadness. A feeling of separation. Separation from who you know you should and could be, from whomever you may have wronged in sinning, from God himself.

This separation is what causes the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” One of the Trinity was crucified and died for us. He was cut off from the divine life that gave Him life. He was cut off from everything he had ever known.

I don’t know how to express how powerful that anguish must have been because I can’t even express how glorious the love of the divine life is.

What I do know is this — He suffered this separation and pain out of love for His creation. He suffered this separation, this death both physical and spiritual (for spiritual death is the separation of the human soul from God) so that we might have true life through him. This is victory, friends.

This Good Friday, let us bless the Lord who loved us so much that He suffered the unthinkable.

Nikolaos, Part I

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Nikolaos (the one in the middle of the cluster to the right of Konstantinos) sat in the yellow sandstone cell. While his monastic lifestyle had accustomed him to harsh living conditions, he had normally sought them of his own will; being in prison was not the same as being a monk. He breathed in and out, trying to focus his thoughts, praying the name “Jesus” with each movement of his lungs.

“Jesus,” he breathed slowly in, focussing on the wall across from him. “Jesus,” he breathed out again. He had heard of some contemplatives who had made the prayer longer, larger, fuller, a declaration: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Nikolaos had found that simply calling out the Name of the Anointed Jesus was all he needed, that by so doing the risen, ascended Lord of Creation came near to him and indwelt his being, making him full. It helped quiet his thoughts and bring him to a place where the praise of God could truly be always on his lips. “Jesus,” he uttered once more.

But now — now his thoughts were having trouble calming down. He had been shocked to hear of the declarations of Elder Arios of Alexandreia, who declared, “There was when he was not.” How could that be true? The Anointed Jesus is Lord, so all the Assembly of God, so all the New Jerusalem scattered across the world declared. And there is only one Lord, and he is God himself. For Nikolaos, it was simple — Jesus the Anointed was God enfleshed; he was the . . . the God-Man! God had taken flesh up into himself; by this action, all humanity was able to be redeemed. If the Anointed Jesus were not God, then we are not saved. Nikolaos would be doomed; so also would be Arios. As the letters, messengers, and travellers passed through Myra, Nikolaos, as overseer, had learned of Arios and of the condemnation of his teachings in Antiokheia.

When the summons to Nikaia came, Nikolaos could not stay away from Bithynia. He set out to this gathering of all the overseers of the world. He was, as anyone would be, impressed by the grandeur of Konstantinos, his palace, and the houses he had built for the Lord in the city. But, as a monk, he saw that no matter how much gold was poured out, no matter how many gems were embroidered in garments, no matter how many beautiful images were painted, the hearts of men are still corrupted and corruptible. Indeed, amidst the 300 overseers, he was surprised that there was less virtue and discipline than he had anticipated — almost as though the brief years of what some called the Triumph had already corroded the very fabric of the Assembly.

The meetings troubled Nikolaos still further. Arios was not the only one who held that the Anointed was a created being, that the Word was begotten and created! This was heresy; Jesus was begotten, not made. Arios’ supporters explained that at the base of everything in the universe lay one uncreated, unbegotten Being who had no beginning and who was free from the vicissitudes of change. This Being had one substance and one divine nature. This Being was the Being to whom the Anointed Jesus referred as Father. There could be but one divine nature, they argued, since there could be a single divine substance; if Jesus has a divine nature as well, he must share it with the Father. Either this produces two gods or it reproduces the teachings of Sabellios, which confuse the persons of the Son and the Father. Surely, they argued, none of the overseers present was a heretical Sabellian, or so uncultured as to say that somehow there could be two divine natures and somehow a single substance! This would go against the clearly demonstrable rules of philosophy!

“We are not here,” declared Nikolaos when they had continued on long enough about Platon and Aristoteles, “to discuss philosophy. Philosophy is created by man, by pagans; it is flawed. What has Athenai to do with Jerusalem? We are here to discuss the infallible truths of the Book and the Traditions of the Holy Ones! What do these tell us? Did not Holy Johannes, companion of our Lord, write, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’? How could the Word both be God and not God at once? Does not your Aristoteles warn against contradiction in his teachings on philosophy?”

An Arian had stood and said, “According to the Book of Proverbs, the Son of God was created before time and everything was created through him in his guise as the Wisdom of God; he is pre-eminent before the rest of creation; he goes by the names God, Word, Wisdom, and Strength due to the grace of God, not due to his very nature.” [1]

Nikolaos interrupted, “But does Holy Paulos not write in his letter to Philippi that he was in very nature God?”

“Yes,” came the Arian response, “but Holy Paulos continues and declares that the Anointed did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. But the Anointed had his will perfect with the Father for all time, despite his changeability; thus, the Father granted him glory before all worlds. He is subordinate in terms of rank, authority, and glory. The Son is alien and dissimilar in every way to the essence and selfhood of the Father. He is a creature.”

“I am a creature; you are a creature; this very building we overseers stand is a creature.”

“And so is the Anointed.”

“A creature? Like me? How in Hades could a creature save a fallen creature?! This is sheer self-contradictory madness!” Nikolaos turned his blazing monastic eyes to Arios amidst the elders and holy servants. As he did so, he stepped from among the overseers and mindlessly walked across the gathered council. “I had no idea your idiocy ran so deep, Arios! If you are not excommunicated by the end of this for your deep blasphemy and hatred of the truth, I shall turn in my holy orders as overseer in the Anointed’s Holy Assembly! For there is nothing holy about an assembly in which such destructive evils as your teachings can abide! You are a scoundrel and an anti-Christ, heretic!”

And then the peace-loving ascetic overseer from Myra, a man who believed only in doing good works for the Anointed and his people, did the unthinkable. Using his right hand, the old man struck Arios with a back-handed blow. Elder Arios stumbled backwards, Nikolaos’ ring of office leaving a mark on his face.

Thus Nikolaos found himself in turmoil in his cell, trying his utmost to pray the Jesus Prayer, seeking the place of rest, of inner peace, where he could abide with his Maker and calm his thoughts. As the cell grew dark, he lay down on the straw pallet and drifted into sleep in a strange city, suffering the harsh justice of the Revered Konstantinos.

* * *

[1] All discussions of Arian theology are based on Hubertus Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007, pp. 235-237.

A Good Week for Egyptian Saints

This week in the Eastern calendar sees the feasts of four Egyptian saints of the ancient church: St. Antony the Abbot yesterday, Sts. Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria today, and St. Macarius the Great tomorrow.

St. Antony (d. 356) was the “founder” of Christian monasticism and was saint of the week here. Here’s a little something from his sayings:

Someone asked Abba Antony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.’

‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”‘

‘Our life and death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’ (trans. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

St. Athanasius (d. 373), St. Antony’s biographer, was the Patriarch of Alexandria in the height of the fourth-century Arian controversy and was saint of the week here.  Here’s a little something from his work On the Incarnation:

‘The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.  In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption.  Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image.  The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need.’

‘Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body.  Rather, he sanctified the body by being in it.  For His being in everything does not mean that He shares the nature of everything, only that He gives all things their being and sustains them in it.  Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling.’ (SVS Press trans.)

St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) was the Patriarch of Alexandria during the fifth-century Nestorian controversy and is the theological successor of Athanasius.  Here’s a little something from him as well:

‘Because the Son is God from God, in some mysterious way he passes this honor on to us.’

‘It is held, therefore, that there is in Emmanuel two entities, divinity and humanity. Yet our Lord Jesus Christ is nonetheless one, the one true Son, both God and man; not a deified man on the same footing as those who share the divine nature by grace, but true God who for our sake appeared in human form. We are assured of this by Saint Paul’s declaration: “When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law and to enable us to be adopted as sons.”‘

St. Macarius the Great (d. 390) was, like St. Antony, one of the Desert Fathers.  Here’s a little something from his sayings:

‘Abba Macarius of Alexandria went one day with some brethren to cut reeds.  The first day the brethren said to him, “Come and eat with us, Father.”  So he went to eat with them.  The next day they invited him again to eat.  But he would not consent saying, “My children, you need to eat because you are carnal, but I do not want food now.”‘  (trans. Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

‘Macarius  the Great said to the brothers in Scetis after a service in church, “Flee, my brothers.”  One of the brothers said to him, “Abba, where can we flee when we are already in the desert?” He put his finger upon his lips and said: “I tell you, you must flee this.” Then he went into his cell, shut the door, and remained alone.’

‘Macarius said also, “If you are stirred to anger when you want to reprove someone, you are gratifying your own passions.  Do not lose yourself in order to save another.”‘ (trans. Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks)