Christological thoughts from 2007

I thought I’d re-post this here, a long-lost piece from 11 November 2007 that I referred to in my most recent post. My thoughts have probably shifted and matured in 10 years. At least, I hope they’ve matured. They’ve definitely shifted — I would retract some things I say about Nestorius, and I definitely reject Jenson’s reading of Leo. But this fresh discovery of ancient Christianity and the excitement it brought me is worthy of remembrance…

Behold your God

… I got out a little light reading, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy by Thomas C Oden and Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century edited by Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A Hall.

And so, between walking and reading, and sitting in St. Alban’s Square reading, I had my mind blown away.

My mind was blessedly cracked open and happily split by Robert W. Jenson, whose essay “With No Qualifications: the Christological Maximalism of the Christian East”* (I told you it was light reading) delved into the depths of what it means for Jesus to be Lord.

He said nothing especially revolutionary–this is, in fact, the whole point of the book. Indeed, what he did was merely articulate what I already know to be true. What he said resonated with my spirit as well as with the universe and the revelation of Holy Scripture. Yet he articulated truths that are so rarely articulated and so rarely articulated well, and thus my brain is thinking about this and meditating and whirling and wanting to tell you–all of you!

So: Jesus is Lord.

And there is only one Lord–Yahweh, the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer of all things, the One Who exists from everlasting to everlasting, the Holy God, the King and Ruler of ALL–who is perfectly holy and perfectly just and perfectly loving and perfectly perfect and wholly God and wholly other and beyond all and in all and through all and all of it.

Jesus is Him.

And when we say, “Jesus is God” — or, rather, “Jesus is the Son, and the Son is God,” (17), we are to say unequivocally. There is no mincing of words as with Nestorianism (that sounds awfully a lot like some of the freaky weird “esoteric” Christianity out there as found in Tom Harpur):

the Son so “inhabits” Jesus that the man Jesus is a temple wholly transparent to his presence, or that the Son is so personally “conjoined” with Jesus that from our point of view they cannot be told apart, or that they too will be in fact one person at the End, after the suffering is over. (18)

And sorry to my Catholic brothers and sisters. I agree with Jenson, Pope Leo missed the boat, too [2017: I disagree with Jenson on this now]. Leo’s theology is what one of my undergrad profs described succinctly as follows: Jesus is like a marble cake. Leo says (and this is an actual quote from the Tome of Leo, which I think is online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library somewhere):

Each nature is the agent of what is proper to it, working in fellowship with the other: the Word doing what is appropriate to the Word and the flesh what is appropriate to the flesh. The one shines forth in the miracles; the other submits to the injuries. (19)

To skip over a large amount of the following controversies, the truth as I believe it is to be found when one reads the Scriptures and applies his mental faculties to them, when one finally admits to the entirety of the claim that Jesus is Lord is as follows, to quote Jenson:

the man Jesus, exactly as his personhood is defined by the life story told in the Gospels, is the one called the Son, the second identity of God. Jesus is the Son, with no qualifications. (22)

Thus, finally, what sort of blew my mind away was when Jenson applied this to the reality of who God is. Whoever the Gospels reveal Jesus to be, is exactly who God is–not just in character. Thus:

Mary is the Mother of God. Unus ex Trinitate mortuus est pro nobis. [One of the Trinity died on behalf of us.] One of the Trinity is a Palestinian Jew who came eating and drinking and forgave sin and prophesied implausible glory. Jesus saves. These and more sentences are the great metaphysical truth of the gospel, without which it is all religious palaver and wish fulfillment and metaphorical projection. Jesus really is Lord because he is one of the Trinity, and that is our salvation. (22)

Like I said, nothing new–indeed, St. Maximus the Confessor was saying these things in the 600s (some of his works are available through the St. Pachomius Library), and people were believing them from the Apostolic Age, and have believed it until now–”‘Tis mystery all, th’Immortal dies!” (Charles Wesley). This is the reality that causes The Bridegroom, an icon of Christ bound and crowned with thorns and stripped of all but the mocking purple robe and the stalk (hyssop?), my favourite icon, because it speaks a very profound truth about Who God Is. He suffers with us. He died for us.

In ways we cannot fully express with words, the eternal God, coeternal and consubstantial Father and Son, has human flesh as part of Him, while still maintaining His transcendence, His otherness, His holiness, His perfection, His immutability! Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He is crowned and throned in Glory and Eternity, with real flesh and bone because He took on flesh and pitched His tent among us, He set aside His glory out of love in order that we could know Him and be saved from sin and death! And so the Man Jesus is the Word, the Son. He is God–wholly God, entirely God, with no ifs ands or buts–no qualifications.

But these truths are not always so starkly and boldly stated.

They do leave us Protestants with some uncomfortable phrases. Like “Mary the Mother of God.” I’ve always been a fan of, “Mary, the mother of the human fleshly part of Jesus, the mother of Jesus’ human nature.” But Jesus, God the Son, kept that flesh when He ascended. He is not some ethereal Spirit, He has, is flesh! He took that flesh born from the womb of His mother and made it part of the Divine Nature. The Word took on flesh and pitched His tent among us! In a very real way, although Jesus is pure, preexistent, eternal God from everlasting to everlasting, Mary is God’s mom. But that’s not really what blew my mind.

Merely the simple, hard, earthy fact that Jesus with dirty feet, whom I love, whom I exalt, whom I praise, adore, extol, worship, point to, is, in fact, in Heaven ruling the Universe. And His hands are still scarred, along with His feet, His side, His brow. His heart broke for us. And He took that heart to Glory.

And it also messes with our ideas of God being transcendent. God the immutable was hungry. God the perfect pooped his swaddling cloths. God the holy thirsted. God the wholly other wept at the death of a friend. God Himself got tired and slept. He got angry. He laughed. He cried. In a very real, very orthodox, and extremely unheretical way, God was human. And when He left us to carry on His mission on earth, He kept that flesh, glorifying it and perfecting it.

Some of my other light reading recently was a book called The Trivialization of God by Donald C McCullough. In this book the author discusses how the church in the West has placed God off to the side and put up some pretty nice-looking golden calves in His place. He then discusses how we are to topple the golden calves, and how God Himself topples them, and what the foundations of our thinking really ought to be.

One thing that really stood out for me was his insistence on awe and wonder as necessary for our relationship with God. We need to realise that God is bigger than everything, that God is beautiful, that God is beyond our total comprehension, and that God loves us. And since God loves us unequivocally, He bridged the divide that our wickedness created between us and Him and came as a Man. Therefore, our thinking about God begins in agnosticism — we just don’t really know, and then it always moves through Jesus, through the God-Man, to find out who God is.

And so I’ve tried praying and thinking through that paradigm: I know nothing. God is hugemongous. And Jesus, being God, is His perfect revelation.

So this essay by Jenson was absorbed by me quite willingly. I recommend it highly.

*The random numbers (in brackets) represent page numbers from the essay, which is found in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A Hall, ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002, pp. 13-22.

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Trinity Sunday

Trinity Knot

Repost from elsewhere a few years back.

Today is Trinity Sunday, so here are some quotations on this Subject of subjects (since I’m a quote collector):

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
-AW Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy

Eternal Trinity, you are a deep sea, into which the more I enter, the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek.
-Catherine of Siena

If Jesus was the idealistic founder of a religion, I can be elevated by his work and stimulated to follow his example. But my sins are not forgiven, God still remains angry and I remain in the power of death. . . . But if Jesus is the Christ, the Word of God, then I am not primarily called to emulate him; I am encountered in his work as one who could not possibly do this work myself. Through his work I recognize the gracious God. My sins are forgiven, I am no longer in death but in life.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology

You should point to the whole man Jesus and say, “That is God.”
-Martin Luther

But the divine substance is form without matter, and, therefore, is one and is what it is. (or is its own essence.)
-Boethius, De Trinitate

God — if I may use my own jargon — is what happens between Jesus and the one he called Father, as they are freed for each other by their Spirit.
-Robert W. Jenson

What we can say is that, given our knowledge of the Trinity, personhood is tied up intimately with community, and with complementarity of Persons: the Trinity, a communion of irreducible Persons in complementarity and love, is our bedrock understanding of what it is to be alive. This leads us back to our understanding of Christian spirituality: authentic spirituality is the characteristic of a person in Christ who has enough wisdom and insight regarding self and others, and enough love and strength through the Spirit, that he or she can dare to be “ek-static” and so to enter into true intimacy with “the other,” an intimacy that will include both word and silence.
-Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty,
God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity!

Holy, Holy, Holy! all the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be

Holy, Holy, Holy! though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity!
-Bishop R. Heber

WHOSOEVER would be saved / needeth before all things to hold fast the Catholic Faith. 2 Which Faith except a man keep whole and undefiled, / without doubt he will perish eternally. 3 Now the Catholic Faith is this, / that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity; 4 Neither confusing the Persons, / nor dividing the Substance. 5 For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, / another of the Holy Ghost; 6 But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, / the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.

7 Such as the Father is, such is the Son, / and such is the Holy Ghost; 8 The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Ghost uncreated; 9 The Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Ghost infinite; 10 The Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Ghost eternal; 11 And yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal; 12 As also there are not three uncreated, nor three infinites, / but one infinite, and one uncreated.

13 So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, / the Holy Ghost almighty; 14 And yet there are not three almighties, but one almighty. 15 So the Father is God, the Son God, the Holy Ghost God; 16 And yet there are not three Gods, / but one God. 17 So the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, / the Holy Ghost Lord; 18 And yet there are not three Lords, / but one Lord.

19 For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity / to confess each Person by himself to be both God and Lord; 20 So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion / to speak of three Gods or three Lords. 21 The Father is made of none, / nor created, nor begotten. 22 The Son is of the Father alone; / not made, nor created, but begotten. 23 The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son; / not made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. 24 There is therefore one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; / one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

25 And in this Trinity there is no before or after, / no greater or less; 26 But all three Persons are co-eternal together, / and co-equal. 27 So that in all ways, as is aforesaid, / both the Trinity is to be worshipped in Unity, and the Unity in Trinity. 28 He therefore that would be saved, / let him thus think of the Trinity.
-from the so-called Athanasian Creed

Ancient Theology Blows My Mind

Some of you may recall my first encounter with paleo-orthodoxy in 2007, when, to quote my other blog, “My mind was blessedly cracked open and happily split by Robert W. Jenson.”  Well, as I read Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see post), Hall’s chapter “Christ the Son, Begotten and not Made,” which deals with St. Athanasius contra Arius, a similar event occurred.

To describe such a brain-cracking is hard.  It seems silly when I review the chapter.  It seems like, “Well, yes, this is Nicene theology, Matthew.  This is the mindset you were reared on.”  My Father is a big fan of St. Athanasius.  Nevertheless, the Truth comes bounding into my life and mind sometimes, and the shock of it is explosive.  Suddenly, my brain-pain is split wide open.  I gape in wonder at the beautiful simplicity of orthodoxy and proclaim, “Yea, verily!”  or “Sweet deal!”  So, at the risk of sounding like a pedestrian, small-brained kid from rural Alberta . . .

St. Athanasius primarily blew my mind by pointing out that when we talk of the Divine, we are talking about a categorically different Being than when we talk about anything else in the universe.

Thus, begetting with God is not the same at all as begetting with men.  How can it be?  Men are bound by time, and thus beget in time.  God is not; God is eternal and exists outside of time.  Thus, He would not necessarily beget in time.  In fact, since like begets like—were I to have a son, he would be consubstantial with me by nature—God cannot but beget anything other than God.  Therefore, whatever God begets is like God.

As Hall puts it, “whatever is predicated of the Father must be predicated of the Son . . . .  That is, if the Father is sovereign as an attribute of deity, the Son possesses that same attribute.  If the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord.  If the Father is Light, the Son is Light.  [Quoting St. Athanasius], ‘Thus, since they are one, and the godhead itself is one, the same things are predicated of the Son as of the Father, except the title of ‘Father.’” (p. 44).  I was also especially fond of St. Athanasius’ analogy of the Sun and its radiance; you cannot separate the two.  Thus it is between the Father & the Son.  Clearly this analogy, like all analogies (especially those used of the Godhead) could break down, but it is firm enough to do the job.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus sort of blew my mind also.  In Hall’s recounting of his Theological Orations, St. Gregory never goes beyond the bounds of Scripture yet uses logic to demonstrate certain truths of the Holy Trinity.  First of all, we see an element of Patristic methodological thinking that is absent today.  Hall, paraphrasing St. Gregory, writes, “Theology, while employing the mind, also involves the heart.  A pure heart, one grounded in the worship of the church and a life of prayer, will produce clear and fruitful theological reflection.  A murky heart and a dark mind, on the other hand, will produce a sick, thorny theology; it will offer no nourishment, only harm.” (p. 56)[1]

I once took a correspondence course from a prominent Protestant college in Australia.  This course was an introduction to the Bible, and its goal was to get us students acquainted with Scripture and the main foci and themes running throughout the divine narrative.  According to the authors of this work, using the interpretive method laid out by the book, anyone—Christian or pagan—would be able to correctly interpret Scripture and see what its plain sense was. St. Gregory and others would likely raise an eyebrow at this.  Really?  If we Christians see as through a mirror darkly, what about those who do not have the grace of the Holy Spirit to enlighten their hearts and minds?  This modernist approach also fails to take into account the human heart, something that St. Gregory of Nazianzus does first off—theology is both of the mind and the heart.  If we want to be true theologians, we should seek to be pure of heart.  How many academic theologians operate that way today?

However, these foundational challenges were not what blew my mind as I read about St. Gregory.  What blew my mind was the simple statement in a cool, logical fashion of the truth:

For indeed, it is not some deficiency in the Son which prevents his being Father (for Sonship is not a deficiency), and yet he is not Father. . . . For the Father is not Son, and yet this is not due to either deficiency or subjection of essence; but the very fact of being unbegotten or begotten, or proceeding, has given the name of Father to the first, of the son to the second, and to the third . . . of the Holy Ghost, that the distinction of the three persons may be preserved in the one nature and dignity of the godhead.  (71)

He blew my mind elsewhere, but I can’t find the reference just now.

May the Lord God Almighty blow all our minds by the stark reality of His Truth now and again.


[1] This sentiment is echoed in John Cassian’s Eighth Conference when Abba Serenus says that the pure of heart alone can properly interpret the high points of Scripture, and that a holy life is necessary for anyone who wishes to discern the true meaning of the Bible.