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.

On the “Creed” of “St. Athanasius” (pt. 1)

I’ve been fiddling with the pages on the sidebar recently; one change I’ve made is posting my own translation of the so-called “Creed of St. Athanasius”, the “Quicumque Vult.”  Whilst certainly a statement of faith, this document is not, strictly speaking, a creed, for a creed is a formulaic statement that a person makes, beginning in Latin, “Credo,” — I believe.  This document begins, “Quicumque vult,” — whosoever wishes.

Second, it is not by St. Athanasius.  No matter how much you may like the Quicumque Vult, it is a Latin document and strikes me as clearly post-Chalcedon (ie. after 451).  St. Athanasius (of whom I’ve written here) was a Greek father, the patriarch of Alexandria.  He died close to 80 years before Chalcedon.  He spent the majority of his career in the defense and explication of the Nicene Creed (325, my translation here).  He was one of the great Christologians, and certainly St. Cyril of Alexandria, whose Christological views were espoused by the Church both at Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451, was a close follower of St. Athanasius.

But the Athanasian Creed isn’t Athanasian.

Certainly its Trinitarian formulae are, for the most part, Athanasian: “we are to worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance,” and, “The Father is made from nothing, neither created nor begotten.  The Son is from the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten,” but this is followed by, “The Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son: not made, neither created nor begotten but proceeding.”

Most eastern Fathers do not believe in the dual procession of the Holy Spirit, a doctrine first (I believe) explicated by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430).  The closest we get is the Cappadocian statement that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son (Anthony Meredith wonders what exactly the great difference between the two formulations is).  Thus, although in everything else the Trinitarian formulations of the Quicumque Vult are universal, this clause makes it expressly western.

Second, its Christological formulations make me shy away from asserting that this is a production of St. Athanasius.  Certainly St. Athanasius would believe what is said here, for it does not explicitly use the tricky two-nature terminology of much Western Christology.  Nonetheless, I believe it is expounding a Western understanding of Christ’s Person.

Furthermore, the strong emphasis on the real manhood of Christ in the Quicumque Vult makes me think that this document is after Athanasius and at least from the time of Apollinarius (d. 390) who asserted the godhead of Christ so much that Jesus was not fully human, lacking a rational soul, a point on which the Athanasian Creed is quite explicit.

I would, however, place this text in the fifth century at the earliest.  The fifth century, especially in the heat following the episcopacy of Nestorius (428), was the age wherein the battle over Christ’s person and nature(s) really raged.  We’ll skip those heated decades and suffice it to say that the Church made an attempt at cooling everyone’s jets and at getting unanimity in the Council of Chalcedon in 451; the Athanasian Creed is very much Chalcedonian, stressing the fullness of Christ’s humanity and divinity while maintaining the unity of the person.

The (post)modern reader will not be excited by these ins and outs of dating the piece and of Trinitarian and Christological history.  Most today look at this document and, even if they don’t disregard the entire body of the text as Hellenistic philosophy that is irrelevant today, they see the introduction and the conclusion and see yet another example of religion gone bad.

But do they really?  (More on this tomorrow.)

Merry Christmas!

Given that he’s this week’s saint, here are some thoughts from Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermon 21, On the Nativity of the Lord I (the trans. will be that of Canon W. Bright, S. Leo the Great on the Incarnation):

Accordingly, God, the Word of God, the Son of God, Who ‘in the beginning was with God, by Whom all things were made, and without Whom was nothing made,’ in order to deliver man from eternal death, became Man; in such wise humbling Himself to assume our lowliness without lessening His own Majesty, that, remaining what He was, and putting on what He was not, He united the true ‘form of a servant’ to that form in which He was equal to God the Father, and combined both natures in a league so close, that the lower was not consumed by receiving glory, nor the higher lessened by assuming lowliness.  Accordingly, while the distinctness of both substances is preserved, and both meet in one Person, lowliness is assumed by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity; and in order to discharge the debt of our condition, the inviolable nature is united to the passible, and very God and very Man are combined in our one Lord:  so that, as the appropriate remedy for our ills, one and the same ‘Mediator between God and men’ might from one element be able to die, and from the other to rise again. –Sermon 21, On the Nativity of the Lord I (PL)

Saint of the Week: Leo the Great

In the year AD 440, the Archdeacon of Rome was away in Gaul on a diplomatic mission.  While he was there, the Bishop of Rome, St. Sixtus III, passed away.  Despite the fact that he wasn’t there, the powers that be in Rome elected the absent Archdeacon as Bishop.  They waited patiently for his return.  He thanked them for this patience in his accession speech.  This archdeacon was Leo I, the Great.

I have chosen Pope St. Leo the Great (c. 400-461; see my review of Leo the Great as well) because he is a big part of my life right now, and hopefully this state of affairs will continue for the next three and a half years.  I have also chosen him because tomorrow is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the day we remember the coming of God as a man approximately 2000 years ago, and St. Leo was a theologian of the Incarnation.

We have scant knowledge about Leo before his election to the papacy.  We know that he was Archdeacon in the 430’s when he commissioned my friend John Cassian (this post gives a list of my major posts about Cassian) to write On the Incarnation of the Lord Against Nestorius (my thochts on that here).  He may also have been involved in the Roman See’s actions concerning the Pelagian Controversy.  The fact that he commissioned Cassian’s anti-Nestorian work lets us know that in the decade before his rise to the throne of Peter, St. Leo was involved in the Christological controversies sparked in the East by Nestorius in 428.

Thus, he was already a student of theology by the time he became pope.  As Bishop of Rome, he changed the previously un-preachy* nature of the Roman episcopacy (taking his cue from our friend St. Ambrose) and began a cycle of preaching that followed the church year, with at least fifteen occasions throughout the year, including the Advent fast, the Nativity, Lent, the Pasch, ultimately Pentecost, the Feast of St. Laurence, the anniversary of his elevation to the Roman See, and other liturgical moments (see the CCEL for translations of a number of these).

These sermons are explications of the feasts/fasts and the theological underpinnings of the remembrance at hand.  In his Advent and Christmas sermons, St. Leo explicates in wondrous beauty the necessity and nature of the Incarnation — a birth “wondrously singular and singularly wondrous” — for our salvation from sin, death, and the devil.  The peroration, or conclusion, of each sermon exhorts the people of Rome to virtuous action; he wants to help them see that being a Christian is the same as being a good Roman.  He also takes aim at heretics in his sermons, at times Manichees, who had a presence in Rome, at times Eutyches, at times Nestorius.

If you read these sermons, and I encourage you to, you see that St. Leo was a theologian with a pastor’s heart.  No, actually, he was a pastor with a theologian’s insight.  He demonstrated for the edification of his congregation the theology and action necessary for a healthy Christian life.  He also emphasized strongly, contra the now-deceased Bishop of Hippo Regius, the will of God to save all mankind.  The question of how it therefore comes about that God happens not to save all mankind is not fully treated in Leo’s corpus.

In the letters, we see Leo as a pastor’s pastor, as a pontifical statesman, and as a controversial theologian.  He answered letters, for example, from bishops who had congregants from North Africa who weren’t sure if they had been baptised Catholic or schismatic.  His answer was that it was being baptised into the threefold Name of the Most Holy Trinity that counted, not the baptiser.  He answered questions about Priscillianism for a bishop in Spain.

He also tried to impose his will, to a degree, on the bishops of Illyricum.  Most strikingly, he tried to impose his will on the Bishops of Gaul.  He largely succeeded, diminishing to a degree the see of Arles under Hilary, demonstrating the power of the Bishop of Rome in disputes.  He saw the Pope as the universal court of appeal for the Church, a man who could intervene in the affairs of other dioceses beyond his own metropolitan zone in order to maintain and restore order.

In the year 444, St. Cyril of Alexandria passed away.  St. Cyril had been the theologian of the Incarnation par excellence throughout Leo’s career.  He had spearheaded the offensive against Nestorius and had largely engineered the outcome of the First Council of Ephesus.  With St. Cyril dead, the mantle of Christologian passed to St. Leo.  But was he up to the task?

St. Leo’s time came in 449 when he received a letter from an Archimandrite (a senior abbot) named Eutyches, whom a local synod in Constantinople had deemed a heretic.  Eutyches was appealing to Leo.  Soon Leo also received a letter from Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, explaining to Leo the circumstances of Eutyches’ trial.  Leo responded to Flavian on June 13 with his famous Tome, letter 28.

This document is the piece of writing for which St. Leo is most famous for.  In this letter, Leo has in his sights both Nestorius as Leo understood him and Eutyches.  The former, as far as Leo was concerned, denied Christ’s divinity; the latter, Christ’s humanity.  The Tome is a text of balance and duality.  Leo sets forth for his reader the balance and duality within Christ of the human and divine natures.  He strikes a balance that seeks to avoid the perceived pitfalls of Eutychianism and Nestorianism.  God the Word took on flesh, he became fully human without the stain of sin, the lowliness not diminishing the glory.  This was necessary for our salvation.  Christ was and is a living paradox.

That same year, 449, saw the calling of a second general council in Ephesus.  This council was engineered by Dioscorus, episcopal successor to St. Cyril in Alexandria, to rehabilitate Eutyches and hold aloft a one-nature Christology, an incipient Monophysite understanding of Christ’s nature.  Leo, as was the wont of Rome’s bishop, sent delegates.  They were to read aloud the Tome, Leo being convinced that all the Church needed was to read his account of the Incarnation and then all this controversy would end.  These delegates were steamrolled by Dioscorus and not allowed to speak.  Bishop Flavian received blows that may have led to his death shortly thereafter.  He was replaced by a supporter of Dioscorus.

Leo called Second Ephesus a Latrocinium, a den of pirates.  He wrote letters to Emperor Theodosius II trying to convince him to change his mind and overturn the decisions of the council.  He wrote letters to Pulcheria Augusta, the Emperor’s sister, enlisting her help to convince her brother.  Theodosius would not be convinced.

And then, in 450, he fell off his horse and died.  His sister married a nonentity named Marcian and became Empress.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon occurred.  This time, Leo’s Tome, along with three letters of St. Cyril, was read out and approved by the Council — albeit, not unanimously, with protests coming from some of the Illyrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian delegates.

It seems, as Bernard Green has argued,** that Leo didn’t really know what Nestorianism was until after Chalcedon.  Seeing what the objections to the Tome were, he quickly adjusted certain passages and clarified his thinking.  Thus, his letter 124 to the monks of Palestine is more representative of the mature thought of St. Leo and would be a better testimony to his thought for the generations to come.

Leo spent the years from 451 to 465 maintaining his preaching practice in Rome, keeping order in his Metropolitan, clarifying what the Tome was supposed to say, and keeping Attila the Hun from sacking Rome (this last may not be true, but it colourful nonetheless).

He was one of the good popes.  He was also one of the first strong steps down the road to the papacy’s claims to universal jurisdiction.  We cannot have Innocent III (1160-1216) without Leo I.  He produced, ultimately, a clear, lucid theology that dealt with the problems of Eutyches and Nestorius while synthesising the teaching of the great western theologians Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers with a dash of Cyril of Alexandria.  He truly deserves the appellation “the Great”, being one of only two such popes along with Gregory I.

*I was going to make up the word un-kerygmatic, but then I figured that if I’m going to neologise, why not at least make a word people will understand?

**See The Soteriology of Leo the Great, pp. 227-247.

Why “Theotokos (Mother of God)” Is Important

Pictured to the left is a giant icon of St. Mary “the Virgin” placed at the entrance to the Old City in Nicosia, Cyprus.  Framing this image of the Mother of Our Lord are the words, “Iperayia Theotoke, soson imas“, which I like to translate as, “Supersaint Mother of God, save us.”  This sort of behaviour on the part of the Church of Cyprus is the sort of thing that led one young Chinese man with whom I led Bible studies to say that the major religions of the world were Buddhism, people who believe the Bible, Islamists (his word, not mine), and people who worship Mary.  It is also the sort of thing that makes me more, not less, comfortable with my Protestantism.

What bothers me with that icon is not that it exists at all — I see no reason why one ought not to put up a giant icon of St. Mary if one so wishes.  I would rather it be one of the glorious icons of the crucifixion or resurrection, but, hey, that’s why I’m a Prot.  Nor am I bothered by the word Theotokos, literally “God-bearer”, usually translated as “Mother of God.”  I think that word is very important in our understanding of Who Jesus Is.  I am bothered by the words “soson imas” — save us.  Now, the devout, informed Orthodox will tell that it doesn’t mean the same thing as when they say “Kyrie Khriste, soson imas“, but the words are still the same.

Most Protestants, however, would have been stopped short at the word Theotokos, if not by Iperayia.  It is impious, they will fervently tell you, to call Mary the “Mother of God.”  Did the creator of the starry height have a mother?  Was the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be begotten of a woman?  Dare we to say that God, whom we all know to be the uncaused cause thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, was begotten of a human being within time?  Would it not be better to say that Mary was “Christotokos”?

Thank you for showing up, Nestorius.  Of course, in real life, if you were named Nestorius and were saying those same things in the late 420’s in Constantinople, your sermon would have been shouted down somewhere around the word “impious”, and an angry mob would cry out for your deposition (in a mere twenty years, such angry mobs are calling out for blood, so Nestorius got it easy).

Question:  Is Jesus Christ fully God?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Seeing as how He is fully God, is He therefore creator of the starry height, the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be, the uncaused cause?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Does Jesus Christ have a mother?

Answer:  Yes.

And you will say, “I know all this.  But Christ Our Lord was born of Mary only of His human nature, not of His divine nature.  As God, He was/is/is being/will be eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds.”

Indeed, God the Son only partook of the Blessed Virgin for His human nature.  To say that she in any way imparted divinity unto Him is blasphemy.  However, was the child born to her God?  Yes, yes He was.  And this is the scandal of the Incarnation.

You see, by limiting the role of Mary as Jesus’ mother to Christotokos, we limit His Incarnation.  We confuse the question.  There are and have been many heretics running about, some of whom imagine that divinity only came upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan or in the Transfiguration.  There were and are others who believe that He grew into being God’s son and that he was just a dude upon whom the Logos of God descended.  Others seem to think that He was/is St. Michael the Archangel.  Others think He was just another one of God’s spirit babies up in heaven and that He lived a pure, spotless life but is not identical in substance with God.

Yet St. John of Damascus teaches us that Jesus is of the same essence as God the Father as well as of God the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was born, God was a man.

The fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus.  He was, by nature, God.  He is, by nature, God.  The child whom St. Mary carried in her womb was God.  He took from her His humanity and became consubstantial with us thereby.  He already had His divinity, already was consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Since God the Creator of the Universe was born as a child, she who bore Him in her womb is rightly called Theotokos, God-bearer, the Mother of God.  It is a safeguard for the full divinity of Christ, a safeguard for the Incarnation.  It is not a point of Mariology but a point of Christology.

Saint of the Week: St. Athanasius

A few weeks ago, I had the “opportunity” to stand in a doorway and discuss the Bible and Christology with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses as the floodgates of Heaven opened outside.  What stood out to me as we talked was how truly Arian their Christology is.  They encouraged me to read Proverbs 8:22-31 (“The LORD possessed me [Wisdom] at the beginning of his way …”) and tried convincing me that when the Word of John 1 is called “god” this doesn’t mean the same thing as the God with whom the Word is.

I did my best to pull out some St. Athanasius — Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father.  If like begets like (“Do you have a son? Is he of the same nature as you?”), and the Father is God, then God begets God, so the Son must be God.  I also used the analogy of the sun and its rays being different but the same and one being incomplete without the other.  That analogy breaks down — as well it should, for God is the Creator and entirely different from His creation.  St. Athanasius was an appropriate choice to use in debate with the Jehovah’s Witnesses because he spent most of his ecclesiastical career arguing against the heresy of Arianism.

St. Athanasius (c.296-373) is one of the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church.  He was born of Christian parents of Egyptian, not Greek, descent, and educated in the Greek Christian catechetical school in Alexandria.  He was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 as a deacon and witnessed firsthand the debates about the divinity and eternity of Christ (Arius’ famous one-liner: “There was when he was not.”).  This is the Council that gave us that famous Creed that forms the basis of what we recite in churches around the world today (my translation here).  St. Athanasius was to spend the rest of his life combatting the teachings of the Arians and the Semi-Arians (or “homoiousians“), especially following his consecration as Bishop of Alexandria in 328.

He did his best to be a pastoral bishop, but constantly found himself running into heretical Arians or schismatic Meletians who were out to get him.  These run-ins, such as the Council of Tyre, had a tendency to end up with him in exile.  He was in exile in Trier (335-7), Rome (339-46), and the countryside around Alexandria (356-61, 362-3, 365-6).  While in exile within Egypt itself, he had occasion to take refuge with the nascent monastic movement that was flourishing at this time (ie. The Desert Fathers), encountering St. Antony about whom he would write one of the most influential works of hagiography (available in Carolinne D. White, Early Christian Lives).

His time spent in the West meant that the links between East and West were strengthened.  The Bishops of Rome during his episcopate (St. Sylvester I, St. Marcus, St. Julius I, Liberius, and St. Damasus I) were supportive of his teachings and polemic against Arianism.  Much of St. Athanasius’ work was translated into Latin, and he is one of the better-known Eastern Fathers in the West as a result of his time there and papal connections.

His theological works are focussed largely on the Person of God the Son, as seen in De Incarnatione Verbi Domini (On the Incarnation) and in his famous Contra Arianos.  One result of St. Athanasius’ reasoning about the Person of God was the statement that the Bible names God as Father.  This means that ontologically (ie. at the very root of Who God Is) God is Father.  Since God is eternal and unchanging, He will always have been Father.  One cannot be a father without offspring; God, therefore, begets the Son in eternity; God the Son is therefore eternal.  The implications for understanding Who God Is and what personhood is are far-reaching (see J.D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion, chh. 1-2).

St. Athanasius, like most of the Fathers, was not just a theologian, not just a pastor, not just a preacher.  He was also a believer in the life of holiness.  This was the root of his support of the monastic movement, for it is with the monks that we see the enduring persistence of costly grace (see D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, ch. 1).  We are reminded that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not to be divorced.  We are to think holy thoughts and live holy lives, worthy of the calling to which we are called.

St. Athanasius fell asleep on May 2, 373.  May we be half as vigorous in our defence of Truth as he.

Further Reading: Christopher A. Hall’s two books Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers and Learning Theology With The Church Fathers both deal with St. Athanasius.  I also recommend reading On the Incarnation as an entrance both to Athanasius and Patristic theology.