‘We ought to understand Jesus within context first’ – some thoughts on doing theology

A friend of mine likes to occasionally post religious questions on Facebook to inspire conversation. Today, I saw:

Before his Resurrection, did Jesus know that the Earth orbits the Sun?

My short answer, ‘Yes.’ I don’t actually know if it’s right, mind you.

One other answer troubles me not by its conclusion (‘No.’) but by the premisses the commenter alluded to:

I would say that he didn’t know. To provide an adequate rationale to my postulation will take me far too long. I think a start is to unpack how much western thought about God and systematics we have unappropriately projected onto Jesus while he was on earth. (Not that I am against western thought or systematics but we ought to understand Jesus within context first)

I am not entirely sure where this author is going, frankly. But it hints at things that concern me. Somehow, this person believes that understanding Jesus within context will cause us to reject an understanding of Jesus that would allow him to maintain divine knowledge whilst incarnate on earth.

First, I imagine (perhaps falsely) this person holds a dichotomous position between ‘Hebraic’ and ‘Greek’ thought. This is the sort of position that sometimes leads people to reject theological concepts about God such as His eternity (as classically understood), His Trinitarian ousia, his omniscience (as classically understood), impassibility as well as the creatio ex nihilo.

These ideas and others are often thought to be ‘Hellenistic’ importations, falsely grafted onto the pure ‘Hebraic’ gospel. This is not true. They are, in fact, Christian doctrines developed through prayerful reading of Scripture and resistance to ‘Hellenistic’ philosophy. For example, it is in resisting Plato in their reading of Scripture that Christians posit creatio ex nihilo and divine eternity as classically understood.

Let’s talk, then, about the hypostatic union, since that’s really what’s in question.

The hypostatic union is the theologically incomprehensible complete union of the divine and human in the single person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ such that he is 100% God and 100% human. He has the properties of divinity and of humanity. But he is not two persons. He is one person. Some of us articulate this as Jesus existing in two natures, some think that divides him too far and makes him into a pantomime horse.

This immediately grabs you as a fine piece of Hellenistic philosophy, doesn’t it?

Except, of course, that no one knows how it works, and most people who try to explain it realise they can’t and choose, instead, to stand in awe before the mystery of God.

And, really, what resemblence does this owe to Jesus ‘within context’?

First, what is Jesus’ context? Hellenistic Judaism in the Greco-Roman world? The apostles composed their works in Greek and cited a Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. St Paul even quoted a Greek poet. John’s Gospel begins with its beautiful prologue on the divine Word.

Furthermore, throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus performs many miracles with no divine aid, no magic spells, and no invocation of any god. This sets him apart his contemporary miracle men, the Hebrew prophets, and the Apostles. He also rises from the dead in an unprecedented manner — no prophet or holy man is used as God’s instrument in the Resurrection, unlike when the prophets and Apostles do it. Jesus also seems to think he can forgive people’s sins. And when his earthly ministry is over, he ascends into heaven.

And that’s just from the Gospels, without turning to the earlier Christian writings of St Paul, who says some pretty heavy stuff about Jesus that points to him being God.

Jesus is God. He is also fully man.

How it works, of course, we cannot fully say. Hypostatic union.

But if we realise that Jesus is, in fact, fully man and fully God, how we determine divine knowledge during the incarnation is not merely some sort of question of Greek vs Hebrew, which is a false dichotomy.

But, frankly, no one reads or even tries to comprehend the Fathers anymore. If we understood them in their context, besides Jesus in his, we might find out that they are speaking the same theological language.

One Parthian shot. If ‘western’ is the problem, I present you with Ephrem the Syrian, one of the last exponents of Semitic, Syriac Christianity before it was ‘hellenised’. From his Hymns on the Incarnation:

From Hymn 8

Blessed is the Messenger who came bearing
a great peace.  By the mercy of His Father,
He lowered Himself to us.  Our own debts
He did not take up to Him.  He reconciled
[His] Lordship with His chattels.

Refrain: Glory to Your Dawn, divine and human.

Glorious is the Wise One Who allied and joined
Divinity with humanity,
one from the height and the other from the depth.
He mingled the natures like pigments
and an image came into being: the God-man.
O Zealous One who saw Adam
who became dust and the accursed serpent
eating him.  Reality dwelt
in what had lost its flavor.  He made him salt
by which the cursed serpent would be blinded.
Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of Life.  He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!

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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…

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! 😉