Christology and Ascetic Theology

From 428 to 431, the Bishop of Constantinople was a man named Nestorius who got the heresy “Nestorianism” named after him. To what degree Nestorius was actually “Nestorian” is immaterial for what follows. When I look at the literature surrounding this controversy, three anti-Nestorians stand out in particular: St John Cassian, St Mark the Monk, and St Shenoute of Atripe. Although my actual research into their anti-Nestorian tractates remains to be done, their existence serves as the inspiration for this post, for all three of these opponents of Nestorianism are much more famous as ascetic writers than as theologians.

What is the relationship between ascetic theology and Christology? It is easy enough to see how a monk might object to either Pelagianism or Augustinianism. But what about Christology?

Sound Christology, I believe, lies at the heart of ascetic theology, and therefore of ascetic practice. We have to recall the purpose of the ascetic life, whether lived by a hermit, a monk in community, or the devout Christian today: participation in the life of Christ and an encounter with God, the Most Holy Trinity. In Eastern terms — and all three of the aforementioned monks had their faith nourished in the sands of Egypt — it is theosis, in the beautiful passage from Cassian I keep linking back to.

Asceticism is not just about cultivating a pure heart; seeking purity of heart or apatheia or hesychia is simply … getting the house ready for meeting with God.

Nestorian Christology undermines this. Nestorianism (again, not necessarily Nestorius himself) teaches that Jesus Christ exists as two persons, one human and one divine.

It turns out that the Protestant Reformation has something to say here. One aspect of English Reformation thought I have encountered in the last year (first in Oliver O’Donovan’s On the Thirty-Nine Articles) is the idea that from eternity, God’s good pleasure upon us, upon the elect, is a direct result of God the Father’s loving embrace of God the Son. We are mystically united to Christ through baptism and Eucharist; we are His mystical body. Thus joined to Him, when God the Father looks at love upon God the Son, he looks upon the Church as well.

I have probably expressed that poorly and without full justice to the idea. But that’s how I grasp it, anyway.

In the past month or so, I have been spending time with Richard Hooker and his contemporary interpreters. For Hooker, Chalcedonian Christology was part of the necessary apparatus of our sanctification and union with God, as Ranall Ingalls discusses in a book chapter about Sin and Grace in Hooker. Recall the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith (which I have translated here), that Jesus Christ exists in two natures but as a single person, without separation and without mixture/confusion. One of the theological results of the explication and elaboration of Chalcedonian Christology is the adoption within Chalcedonian circles (that is, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox) of St Cyril of Alexandria’s concept of the communicatio idiomatum (I’ve written about this before and also here) — what can be said of Christ as God is also said of Christ as man. Richard Hooker makes a clear articulation of this doctrine in Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.53.3.

An outworking of Chalcedonian Christology in Richard Hooker, then, is that we are able to be united to God the Holy Trinity through the human nature of Christ, fully united to his divine nature to that full extent laid out in the communicatio idiomatum (implied by his teaching at Laws V.50.3. Thus we read (I modernise the spelling):

Christ is whole with the whole Church, and whole with every part of the Church, as touching his person which can no way divide itself or be possessed by degrees and portions. But the participation of Christ imports, besides the presence of Christ’s person, and besides the mystical copulation [union] thereof with the parts and members of his whole Church, a true actual influence of grace whereby the life which we live according to godliness is his, and from him we receive those perfections wherein our eternal happiness consists. Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are imputed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. -Laws V.56.10, quoted in Ingalls, p. 174

The -ism associated with Nestorius, by breaking the indissoluble unity of the communicatio idiomatum makes this impossible. The union of two persons is not full enough a union to allow for theiosis, essentially. The hypostatic union — which is to say, union according to person — of the reigning Christ, bringing together the fullness of humanity and divinity as one is what allows the end goal of asceticism. If the humanity and divinity are not fully united according to hypostasis, according to person, then the fullness of the human has not been drawn upward into the Godhead.

Therefore, we cannot be united to Christ our God through ascetic effort, maybe not even through pure grace. After all, as St Gregory of Nazianzus said, what has not been assumed has not been healed. The hypostatic union is the result of the full assumption of humanity by God the Word.

This is the entire theological — true theology, true thinking upon and contemplation God Himself — basis of mysticism, and things mystical are the entire point of asceticism. We wish to be pure of heart so that we may see God.

Nestorianism makes sitting on a pillar, praying all night, fasting, wearing uncomfortable clothing, watching one’s thoughts carefully, eating plain food, getting rid of earthly possessions meaningless. It is just ethics, not a pathway to God.

No wonder the monks reject the teaching associated with Nestorius.

A little Richard Hooker on the Eucharist

I cannot shake this idea of writing something deep and involved about eucharistic soteriology, so I just Googled “Richard Hooker on eucharist”, whereby I found this article from The Continuum on just that topic. It is mostly about Hooker’s understanding of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Hooker (1554-1600), if you don’t know, is one of the greatest theologians of the Anglican tradition, and he is one of the people who really set the stage for what the Church of England would grow to be over time. He has been called a Catholic Protestant. Or perhaps a Protestant Catholic.

Anyway, I have lifted a quotation from the aforelinked article for your perusal, hoping that you can handle the Elizabethan English. It is worth reading. Hooker is a man of his age, and he does not shy away from vivid imagery such as ‘in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues.’ The bit that relates to my research trajectory is at the end; I have bolded it for easy skimming. 😉

Let it therefore be sufficient for me presenting myself at the Lord’s table to know what there I receive from him, without searching or inquiring of the manner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enemies to piety, abatements of true devotion, and hitherto in this cause but over patiently heard, let them take their rest; let curious and sharpwitted men beat their heads about what questions themselves will, the very letter of the word of Christ giveth plain security that these mysteries do as nails fasten us to his very Cross, that by them we draw out, as touching efficacy, force, and virtue, even the blood of his gored side, in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues, we are dyed red both within and without, our hunger is satisfied and our thirst for ever quenched; they are things wonderful which he feeleth, great which he seeth and unheard of which he uttereth, whose soul is possessed of this Paschal Lamb and made joyful in the strength of this new wine, this bread hath in it more than the substance which our eyes behold, this cup hallowed with solemn benediction availeth to the endless life and welfare both of soul and body, in that it serveth as well for a medicine to heal our infirmities and purge our sins as for a sacrifice of thanksgiving; with touching it sanctifieth, it enlighteneth with belief, it truly conformeth us unto the image of Jesus Christ; what these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my Soul thou art happy!” Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.67.12

This is the great, central, catholic, classic teaching on the effect of Holy Communion in the life of the believer. This is what I want to expound..

Saint of the Week: Richard Hooker

At a small meeting of people from the Presbyterian church I currently attend, a man said (in a grrrea’, rrrrolling Scots’ brrogue) that the Reformation never went as far in England as it did in Scotland. If by ‘Reformation’ we mean producing a national church that little resembles Roman Catholicism, then this is true. But if by ‘Reformation’ we mean putting Scripture high again, placing justification by faith to the fore, eliminating clerical abuses, and various other things, perhaps England went far enough.

Either way, we have folks like Richard Hooker (1554-1600) to thank for it.*

My first encounter with Richard Hooker was his Learned Discourse on Justification. In this, originally a sermon preached in 1585 when he was Master of the Temple, he proclaims justification by faith so completely and radically, perceiving the grace of God to transform us into righteous persons, that he says:

God, I doubt not, was merciful to save thousands of them [pre-Reformation Catholics], though they lived in popish superstitions, inasmuch as they sinned ignorantly; but the truth is now laid before our eyes.

Even if someone holds faith ‘but weakly and as it were by a slender thread’, God will smile upon that faith and save the soul at hand.

This stirred up the ire of the Puritans. Of course. Immediately upon working through Hooker’s florid, sixteenth-century prose, I was fond of the man.

Hooker, born in Devonshire, studied at Corpus Christi in Oxford, and was ordained priest in 1579. His first posting was as one of the preachers at Old St. Paul’s (no longer standing) in London, and three years later was rector of St. Mary’s Drayton Beauchamp, Buckinghamshire.

HM Queen Elizabeth I took an interest in Richard Hooker and appointed him Master of the Temple Church in London, one of the most prominent pulpits in England, the next year, 1585. His preaching there and then elsewhere as the years went by, as noted above, drew fire from Puritans who were scandalised by the idea of Roman Catholics being saved and who felt that Hooker’s support for further reforms in the Church did not go far enough.

In 1594, as part of his response to the Puritan reaction to his preaching, Hooker published the first four volumes of his eight-volume Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie. The next year, 1595, he became rector of the parishes of St. Mary the Virgin in Bishopsbourne and St. John the Baptist Barham in Kent. In 1597, he published the fifth volume of the Lawes, but the last three were published posthumously, following his death in 1600.

Hooker helped forge the beast ‘Anglicanism’ into what it historically has been. He saw the value in tradition and chose not throw it all away as the Puritans were urging. Instead, he believed that tradition and Scripture working together with our God-given reason can lead us to a proper understanding of Christian doctrine and the interpretation of sacred Scripture.

This ‘three-legged stool’ has survived in Anglican thought through the centuries, as we seek to understand the Scriptures anew with every generation, as we seek to explain the words of life in new ages. Our understanding of Scripture, exegesis, salvation, and the Church are much affected by Hooker; he helped steer us between the Presbyterianism of the Puritans and the Catholicism of some of his other contemporaries.

Would that we could find a safe path along this historic middle way today, using the critical faculties of our reason as we seek to be creatively faithful to our tradition and the Scriptures.

*See also Saints of the Week Thomas Cranmer and Lancelot Andrewes.