St Athanasius’ Trinitarian and Incarnational Theology

St AthanasiusIn the 21st century context, I have found that the most relevant presentation of the Gospel to American society, which is mostly agnostic or subjectivist in matters of religion; as well as materialistic and individualistic, is precisely the unchanging Tradition of the Church. It is through the Church of the Apostles that Christ comes to meet the world in the Sacraments and unites heaven and earth in the Divine Liturgy.

For the purposes of this essay, however, I will explore aspects of St. Athanasius’ trinitarian theology and how it provides answers to questions raised in philosophy and theology in the last 100 years in the West.

Modern Questions Concerning Unity and Plurality in Relation to God and Man

We cannot avoid using human models, since we do not have an insight into the essence of God. How do we avoid the problems inherent in any human models, like anthropomorphism and ideologies? It seems as though contemporary theologians are often unaware or unconcerned with these two essential problems. Human beings historically have used ideas to oppress other people, which is the development of ideologies (e.g., communism). Are we projecting our own ideologies in our conception of the Trinity?

Jurgen Moltmann, for example, begins with a contemporary critique of oppression, and argues that monotheistic conceptions of God need to be discarded because of their inherent oppressive character. For this needs to be replaced with social trinitarianism, which is the only way to preserve equality. Thus, he projects his own ideas into the reconstruction of Trinitarian theology, where equality and plurality come first. Then, he derives from that theology a reconstruction of social relations and structures. This amounts to Feuerbach’s idea of theology as anthropology.

Today, under the influence of Derrida, Heidegger, and others, there are some important questions referring to metaphysical categories of being, relation, etc.

  1. How do explain the unity and plurality of God using such categories?
  2. How do speak of one God as three irreducible distinct realities?
  3. How do we speak about their relations?
  4. What are the pitfalls to avoid (modalism, subordinationism, etc.)?
  5. How do we speak of the relation of the Triune God in relation to the world?

 

For St Athanasius, in our understanding of God the Father it is less important that he is the creator of all things; more central is the fact that he is the unoriginate Father who begets the Son. The relation of unbegotten and begotten (and the spiration of the Holy Spirit) comes to the fore.

Essence and Persons

I and my son are two distinct beings, and yet I am as human as my son and vice versa. Generation means communication of the same nature; as Aquinas says, Peter does not beget Peter, but a human being. In this way, generation presupposes both identity of nature and distinction of persons. This is an important conceptual tool. The difference of course is that created beings share part of their respective natures, while the Persons of the Trinity each share the totality of the divine essence.

Hypostasis means something that underlies accidents. The word, its origin, it is not different than substantia. Hypostasis, however, was meant to be a personal subsistent being, whereas in the Latin tradition the word substance has two different meanings. Aristotle himself speaks of substance α – the concrete individualized existence of a being. If this is applied to the Trinity, it lands in tritheism. But the Fathers themselves spoke of homoousias. Substance β refers to the essence of things, the ousia of things. Therefore, when we speak of one nature or substance and three Persons, the word substance refers to substance β, the essence of things.

Therefore substance in its primary meaning means the individual reality which is an independent existence underlying accidents. God does not exist not three substances in that sense. Substance in the secondary sense means the nature, the essence of a thing – and in this sense the Son is consubstantial with the Father, sharing the same essence with him.

Subsistence always means existing in one’s own right, underlying the accidents. The thing is the substance in which the accidents inhere. When this subsisting reality has the character of rationality, then there is a person. A person is a subsisting being with a rational nature. Aquinas argues that the Greeks used the word hypostasis in this sense of persons.

St Athanasius and Theological Models

In his Discourses Against the Arians, St Athanasius is still dealing with the aftermath of the council of Nicea, and therefore Christology is at the fore. But as one admits the divinity of the Son, one has to ask about the role of the Holy Spirit, and how to preserve the unity and diversity of God. Here begin the Trinitarian controversies in preparation for the later Cappadocian settlement.

St Athanasius’ paradigm was of salvation through deification – salvation not only from our present conditions, but also in the eschatological sense, salvation from ultimate death, which is a dimension neglected today in contemporary theology. Modern theology rightly stresses that it is important to include our temporal welfare in salvation (e.g., salvation from oppression, sexism, racism, poverty, hatred, etc.), but salvation cannot be merely reduced to that level to the exclusion or neglect of the eschatological dimension.

The peculiarity of human mode of generation involves the idea that generation requires temporality and matter. One is begotten and comes into being after the one who begets. The fathers wanted to avoid anthropomorphic thinking about God, and so they opposed the direct application of human analogies to the being of God. Medieval theologians were also acutely aware of this; human language is inescapable, but its most appropriate realm is to describe things in this world. How can it describe things about God? This is something that Aquinas addressed extensively.

One of the most important things in Trinitarian theology is the question of what model is being used. We use human, material models. St Athanasius uses the model of generation, begetting, as opposed to the model of making or creating. How far can the model take us, and what are the necessary “negations” (or apophatic theology) so one does not fall into anthropomorphism and materialism?

Discourses Against the Arians

Arius’ claims as far as they can be gathered from St Athanasius:

  1. There is one unoriginate being, God the Father
  2. There are creatures which have been made
  3. Creatures could not have been made by the Father, so a mediator was needed
  4. The mediator was the Word, the Son
    1. There was a time when he was not, he came to be
    2. Therefore, there also was a time when God was not the Father

Common to Arian and the Fathers was the idea of Wisdom. Human making is mediated by an idea, a blueprint of the thing to be made. As this is applied to the Word, all things were already there in the Wisdom, the mind of God before things were created. The mind of God is the antecedent exemplar of all things created. God creates the word according to his wisdom, his intellect. What then is the status of this wisdom, this mind? According to Arius, this wisdom and word was prior to the creation of all things but was itself brought into being.

Who is this creature through whom all creatures came into being? The best metaphysics of the time affirmed that there were basically two kinds of beings: divine and created (out of nothing). There was a basic division between creator and creature. The question then becomes in which side the Son should be placed. For St Athanasius, it is through union with the Son that we are deified and saved, and so he has to be divine. As he says,

For as Christ died and was exalted as man, so, as man, he is said to receive what, as God, he always had, in order that this great gift might extend to us. For the Word was not degraded by receiving a body, so that he should seek to ‘receive’ God’s gift. Rather he deified what he put on; and, more than that, be bestowed his gift upon the race of men.[1]

The question then becomes how to allow for the existence of two divine beings, while avoiding polytheism. St Athanasius argued that the wisdom and the power of God are as eternal as God himself. How then could God be distinguished from his wisdom? How can two things be distinguished that are so internally related to one another? Jesus always refers to God as his Father, and so the Father/Son language was standard. What is unique about generation is that parents generate their children and therefore the children are not the same individuals as their parents (like extensions), but different individuals; at the same time, there is a communication of the human nature, and therefore they have identical human natures. The nature a parent communicates to his child is something internal to the parent, and it is communicated in its totality. This was a perfect model of identity of nature and distinction of Persons.

Can this be applied to God? This is when the moment of negation comes in. Just as it is the whole of human nature that is communicated to the children, so in the case of divine generation the Father communicates his own entire divine nature to the Son, and they are distinct Persons. The whole divine nature is communicated, and so there is an identity of nature between the Father and the Son. The Son shares the same essence of the Father, and so he is a natural Son, not something created out of nothing. Everything else has the power to become sons of the Father only by participation, not by essence.

Making is an external act, and requires parts and temporality, as well as the will of the maker. In the case of the communication of the nature of the Father, this is an eternal act of divine generation apart from the will of the Father. The language of participation and of adoption is Scriptural and used by the Fathers. We are children by grace, but not by nature.

One of the distinctions between human generation and divine generation is that the former involves materiality, even though it is the whole of the human nature that is communicated. It also involves time; and it is a communication of a generically identical nature, not a numerically identical nature. Peter begets a man, not Peter. Human nature exists in numerically distinct individuals. No human individual can exhaust human nature, because it exists always divided and multiplied, concretized in different individuals.

Divine nature, on the other hand, is indivisible. There is only one nature, one essence, and that is the nature of the Father that is communicated to the Son and the Holy Spirit. They inhere in each other, one God fully sharing the same numerical identical nature.

What then guarantees the distinction between the Persons? The model of generation has the virtue of preserving both the identity of natures and the distinction of persons. The sharing of the numerically identical nature guarantees the unity of God, and generation requires that the Son is not the same as the Father. The distinction is also maintained by the relations between the Persons.

The power and monarchy of the Father lies precisely in the fact that he shares the totality of his essence and power with the Son and the Holy Spirit. I am not capable of sharing the totality of my power with another human being. The paradox is the almighty power of the Father is exercised in sharing the totality of his power and superiority with the Son and the Holy Spirit, eternally generating and spirating them equal to himself.

This paradoxical monarchy that sublates itself refutes modern criticisms that argue that monarchy and equality of persons are mutually exclusive. This is an important aspect of Trinitarian theology that needs to be expounded in contemporary discussions.

The divine begetting is not temporally successive. The word or wisdom through which the Father makes the world cannot be a third entity, other than the Father. St Athanasius insists that the Son is the natural, proper offspring of the Father. Creatures are contingent beings who need to participate in the being of God, the One who is (ο ων).

There are two ways something can be an image of another: in a complete, perfect way, or in an imperfect way. As Plato says in the Timaeus, time is the moving image of eternity.[2] We are created in the image of God in an incomplete way, but the Son is the perfect image of the Father, because he receives the totality of the Father’s nature. God cannot find himself completely in a creature. To say that Christ is the image of the Father is to say that he is also divine and a perfect reflection and expression of the Father. We are created in the image of the Son, and only through the Son we share the image of the Father.

St Athanasius also uses the term “work;” a creature is a thing made, produced. The Son is not a work because there is a difference between what is begotten and what is made. This is the opposite of what Arius argued, when he equated the two (begotten and made). Things made are contingent upon the will, but not things generated. The Father’s generation of the Son is eternal and necessary, but God’s creation of the world is not necessary, and it is temporal.

Four different meanings of “unoriginate” (First Discourse, chap. IX)

In this discourse St Athanasius says,

Therefore the Son is among things originated,’ and well have we said, ‘He was not before His generation.’ Thus they make any kind of disturbance and confusion, provided they can but separate the Son from the Father, and reckon the Framer of all among His works. . . . They ought then, when they ask the question, to add in what sense they take the word ‘unoriginate,’ and then the parties questioned would be able to answer to the point.

Theologians have always learned from philosophy. Yet, Trinitarian theology is a distinctively Christian contribution that cannot be reduced to Hellenistic philosophy. St Athanasius explicitly contrasts Hellenistic philosophy to how concepts are appropriated in Christian theology:

For, in calling God unoriginate, they are, as I said before, calling Him from His works, and as Maker only and Framer, supposing that hence they may signify that the Word is a work after their own pleasure. But that he who calls God Father, signifies Him from the Son being well aware that if there be a Son, of necessity through that Son all things originate were created. And they, when they call Him Unoriginate, name Him only from His works, and know not the Son any more than the Greeks; but he who calls God Father, names Him from the Word; and knowing the Word, he acknowledges Him to be Framer of all, and understands that through Him all things have been made.[3]

For St Athanasius, the grammar of Trinitarian predication and  the grammar of Christological hermeneutics are reconciled in the Scriptural passages about Christ in two ways

  1. All the references to the non-divine aspect refer to the economy for the sake of salvation. God who eternally is divine becomes human so he will save human beings. The soteriological motif is central.
  2. References to the human nature of Christ are an expression of God’s concern for us in soteriology (e.g., “he became Lord and Messiah”)

As theology requires the moment of negation in the apophatic aspect necessary in any speaking of God and his essence, St Athanasius says,

Nor must we ask why the Word of God is not such as our word, considering God is not such as we, as has been before said; nor again is it right to seek how the word is from God, or how He is God’s radiance, or how God begets, and what is the manner of His begetting. For a man must be beside himself to venture on such points; since a thing ineffable and proper to God’s nature, and known to Him alone and to the Son, this he demands to be explained in words. It is all one as if they sought where God is, and how God is, and of what nature the Father is. But as to ask such questions is irreligious, and argues an ignorance of God, so it is not holy to venture such questions concerning the generation of the Son of God, nor to measure God and His Wisdom by our own nature and infirmity.[4]

In this way, St Athanasius connects these moments in the work of Christ in his Incarnation and in our deification:

But this would not have come to pass, had the Word been a creature; for with a creature, the devil, himself a creature, would have ever continued the battle, and man, being between the two, had been ever in peril of death, having none in whom and through whom he might be joined to God and delivered from all fear. Whence the truth shows us that the Word is not of things originate, but rather Himself their Framer.

For therefore did He assume the body originate and human, that having renewed it as its Framer, He might deify it in Himself, and thus might introduce us all into the kingdom of heaven after His likeness. For man had not been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God; nor had man been brought into the Father’s presence, unless He had been His natural and true Word who had put on the body.

And as we had not been delivered from sin and the curse, unless it had been by nature human flesh, which the Word put on (for we should have had nothing common with what was foreign), so also the man had not been deified, unless the Word who became flesh had been by nature from the Father and true and proper to Him. . . .

Therefore let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to His Essence, deny also that He took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin; for in neither case had it been of profit to us men, whether the Word were not true and naturally Son of God, or the flesh not true which He assumed. But surely He took true flesh, though Valentinus rave; yea the Word was by nature Very God, though Ario-maniacs rave; and in that flesh has come to pass the beginning of our new creation, He being created man for our sake, and having made for us that new way, as has been said.[5]

He summarizes,

The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine [also translated, “that we might become God.” Or, “he was humanized that we might be deified.”]. He displayed himself through a body, that we might receive knowledge of the invisible Father. He endured insult at the hands of men, that we might inherit immortality.[6]

St. Athanasius’ Summary of the Work of the Son

In his book On the Incarnation of the Word St Athanasius writes that God created the universe out of nothing, and created man in His own image, with intellect, but the fall brought about a gradual damaging of the image of God, and men could no longer lift up their heads to contemplate and relate to the Truth, despite all of God’s warnings; it would be unseemly that God would let man ultimately perish and not fulfill his original purpose, and so He sends the God-man to meet men half way, to show them the Father, to offer Himself as a pure sacrifice in men’s place, and to impart immortality to men.

God created man in His own image, meaning that He gave him a portion even of the power of the Word, i.e., rational. God made man for the purpose of incorruption, but death gained upon man, and, besides the legal hold it established on us, in the gradual perishing of the rational man, the image of God was weakening. It is, however, unseemly that creatures made rational, and with a purpose, should go to ruin, and turn again toward non-existence because of corruption. It would have been better if man was never created, than once made, left to neglect and ruin. What was God to do?

For this purpose the incorruptible and immaterial Word of God took a body of our own kind, albeit pure; and the Person of the Son, taking human nature without losing his divine nature, destroys death by death; the Word now redeems man. This is the first reason for the incarnation. Secondly, the Word becomes incarnate to restore unto man union with the Father. Christ takes a body, walks among men and thus meets us half-way. Creation confesses Christ as Lord, demons are cast out by Him, and not even death can hold Him. Thus, no matter where men look, Christ shows Himself as God, the Redeemer.

St Athanasius often casts his theological constructs in the framework of what is fitting. It was not fitting for Christ to die of sickness, for men would think him weak who had healed others. It was not fitting for him to just give up the body in death to atone, for since he came to accomplish not his own death, but the death of men, it was necessary for him to receive death that came from men.  It was not fitting for him to die in secret, for there would be no witnesses to prove he really died and thus had really resurrected.  He died on the cross so as to take upon himself the curse of the Law, to die with open arms embracing Jew and Gentile, and so as to die lifted up, dethroning the prince of the power of the air from his own realm. He rose on the third day, not sooner or later, so that no one could say he had not really died (if sooner), or rather that he had taken another body (if later).

From these things, then, St Athanasius draws out the evidence of the Son’s work. It is evident that he is still alive from the fact that he still daily does many works: drawing men to him, changing lives, displacing idolatry, and expelling demons. It is evident to the Jews that he is the Messiah from the confirmation of Scripture, especially in the fulfillment of so many prophecies concerning his suffering (Isaiah), his crucifixion (Ps. 22), flight into Egypt, etc. He performed works never done before, such as healing the lame, the deaf and the blind from birth. He has performed all that would be expected of the Messiah.

It is evident to the Greeks that he is the Logos because, although he had a body, he was the rational principle present everywhere. Plato states that the author of life rescues and corrects the cosmos from chaos, which can be seen in the works of Christ. His incarnation and suffering were necessary because men had already been made and needed to be rescued. This could not be accomplished by mere fiat, as when man was created.

The Physician and Savior had to cure. He put on a body, to find death in the body and to put it out. Every part of creation submits to him: he expels demons, changes the substance of water, walks on water, and resurrects. He alone is worshipped as one and the same among all peoples. He has convinced more people than the ancient philosophers. Lives are changed, and as a result, there is an expectation of his return. The Christ-loving man is to apply his mind to the Scriptures and through the grace of God live an honorable life with a pure soul, so as to be a clean vessel apt to understand the mind of God.

Conclusion

St Athanasius is a paramount example of how the theology of the Fathers answers questions that modernity continually raises. He also brings to the front some different approaches between East and West. As some modern theologians have argued, (e.g., Sarah Coakley)

    1. There is a major difference between East and West
    2. In the West, Trinitarian theology was divorced from Christology and soteriology
    3. In the West, Trinitarian theology was divorced from Biblical exegesis

 

Christian theology does not exist for the sake of the theologian. Theology is for the sake of the Church; it is for the sake of the challenges of the community. If it is not received by the Christian community, it has failed, for it must echo the responses of that community. Christian theology has to be historical and cannot be separated from contemporary issues. Christianity is an incarnational religion, which lives also within time and circumstances..

Trinitarian theology is central and foundational to Christian theology, which has to do with the logos of theos. This was at the core of St Athanasius’ writings. There has been a struggle for the Christian understanding of God and the result has been the conception of the Trinity. Christians believe in God, but God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Ontologically, Trinitarian theology is at the foundation of all things, for God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of all reality. All our social, human, historical, problems are rooted in Trinitarian theology. This is why Karl Barth deals with Trinitarian methodology in his first volume. Epistemologically, on the other hand, we do not know God first and foremost. Our order of knowing does not include the Trinity at the very beginning; the Fathers’ formulations were the result of a long process of reflection and development.

One thing that is common from the earliest fathers (Justin, Irenaeus, Origin) is the very important distinction between God in his own essence and God in relation to the created world, as known through creation and special revelation. We do not know God in himself, but only as he has revealed himself to us, through his effects. Christianity affirms both the essential incomprehensibility of God and God’s condescension to reveal himself to us. We do not have an insight into the essence of the Trinitarian God.

As a reaction against essentialism, and under the impact of postmodern critiques, theologians have been moving more to a pluralistic tradition of the East, beginning with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Trinitarian theology, as seen in St Athanasius, arose because of Christology, since, without the question of the divinity of Christ, simple Jewish monotheism would have remained. If, however, Christ is divine, are there two gods, is he a lesser god, or are there other options? Many today are looking for alternatives to the traditional conceptualities.

Scripture does not contain the doctrine of the Trinity spelled out explicitly. Trinitarian and Christological doctrines are the result of historical development, even while having roots in Scripture. Historical theology is part of any history of human ideas; the more important they are, the more blood is likely to be spilled. This has been true of revolutions such as the American, French, Russian, etc. Some enlightenment rationalists put blame in religion without realizing that ideologies of freedom, etc, have always been abused by the State. State persecutions have killed millions of people.

Historically, Nicean Orthodoxy has become the Tradition of the Church by the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and yet, as experienced by St Athanasius (and the hero he was) many times it seemed as though it had failed. It is always an important question, to consider whether orthodoxy can be measured by the status quo; the place of God’s providence also has to be assessed. By what criteria can we build Trinitarian theologies today, and how are they binding? St Athanasius is a beacon of God’s light that has shown for 1,700 years on these issues.

 

 

 

[1] Against the Arians, i. 24-25

[2] “When the father creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; and as this was eternal, he sought to make the universe eternal, so far as might be. Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting, but to bestow this attribute in its fullness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time. For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also.”

.”

[3] First discourse, chap. 9, 33.

[4] Second discourse, chap. 18, 36

[5] Second discourse, chap. 21, 70

[6] On the Incarnation, 54

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Love and Suffering – Can It Be Redemptive?

antonie-de-suroj3_bAmerican Christianity, by and large, is not very comfortable with the idea of suffering as redemptive in any sense.

I appreciate this interview with the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (of Great Britain) in which he addresses suffering in the context of love. I try to watch it at least once a year, and Lent is a particularly good time for it.

Here are some excerpts from the interview (and the video below)

Roy: I did an interview last year with Eli Weisel, a Jewish author for Man Alive. He contradicted the Christian notion of suffering. He said for example that in the Jewish faith life of suffering is completely alien to what they believe. Life should be celebration, should be joy. And suffering had no redemptive power as far as he was concerned.

Metropolitan Anthony: Well, I think it’s difficult to uphold this view completely in the face, for instance, of the image of the suffering servant in the book of Isaiah and of quite a few other passages from the Old Testament. I think that he’s right when he says that life should be a celebration. But then life should not be marred by the condition of men in which we live.

Roy: Do you think God wants us to suffer?

Metropolitan Anthony: I would say, I’m sorry to be so stubborn, I would say He wants us to love not to suffer. But suffering is always inherent to love in a world which is disharmonious, ugly, violent, aggressive, and so forth. He does not want us to suffer. He wants us to love. Yet, he warns us, love means death, the shedding of blood, heart blood or physical blood.

Ideally, yes, it should be celebration. But in the face of a world of disharmony, of hatred, of mutual antagonism, of contrast in a position, then suffering is inevitable, is a fact. And it can be turned into a redemptive experience.

Roy: Is the notion that suffering is redemptive unique to the Christian faith?

Metropolitan Anthony: Well, for one thing, in itself, suffering is not redemptive. Suffering is redemptive only if it is connected with love and when the suffering is a result of giving one’s life or giving something of oneself. In itself suffering as such may be a curse and a hell without any issue out of it.

But I think that this being said it is true that suffering,when endured in the name of love, for the sake of love, ultimately for the sake of God and of men, in a personal way, is redemptive. And I think it is only in Christianity that it has all this fullness. Because I believe that only in Christianity has history and the physical world a complete significance.

Metropolitan Anthony: Well, St. Paul I think made it extremely clear when he said that if we do not suffer the right way we suffer in vain. And also in the Epistle to the Corinthians when he speaks of love and says that even if I gave my body to be burned but have no love it would be vain and empty.

I think it is the love that gives meaning to the suffering. Otherwise it’s a purely physical event . . . I think lots of people miss this point, and many other points indeed, in the Gospel and in life in general. Because it’s much easier to work out of a world outlook in which enduring suffering is meaningful than to say to endure suffering is nothing if I do not love. And loving is infinitely more difficult than enduring.

Enduring is a passive state. Once suffering is inflicted, it takes courage, determination to undergo it. While to love does not mean undergo, it means volunteer. It means take upon oneself. It means give what is not claimed. And that is a much more difficult thing.

 

Hell – An Orthodox Perspecive

As we prepare to enter the time of Great Lent, the Church reminds us that our lives belong in a greater context than the mundane and immediate things of everyday life. In the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the Church reminds us that we trust in Christ’s love and mercy, and yet we must not forget His righteous judgment when He comes again in glory. Fasting and praying are ways to prepare our hearts towards true works of love.

Recently our Bible study group was discussing how hell is not a “place” because it is outside time and space, and it is a subjective (and real) state. It is not a specific location where God sends people in order to torture them there. This would be a view that imagines God as the great torturer, who will have his blood, either from Christ on your stead in a legal fiction, or from you (a view common in Protestantism).

Rather, to experience the disembodied state, beyond physical death, as we discussed, is the experience of the unveiled presence of God who is a consuming fire – for those who love God, that fire is the uncreated light of the unending day that warms, purifies, deifies, and fills with joy and love.

gollumFor those who have rejected the love of God, his unveiled presence is not experienced as the fire of his love, but a fire that burns. Hell is not the absence of God (which is impossible); it is the presence of his fiery love. A fire that is not desired, but rejected, alien.

Burning bushIt is not experienced as the burning bush, filled with the glowing fire of God but never consumed; but as the fire that burned Sinai.

This has been the common view of the Church since the beginning, as seen in many of he Fathers.

It occurred to me that CS Lewis, in the Great Divorce (my favorite book by him, and I haven’t read it since college) paints a picture that is not entirely different. The people leave the beautiful land of heaven because they can’t stand the grass, which hurts them. So they return to the Grey Town.

eternityIn Lewis’ allegory, he sees everything in heaven (grass, rocks, trees, water, etc.) as “much solider than things in our country” in contrast to the people coming from earth who are transparent and ghostly. They have thought of their world as the “real” one, the one with substance, while thinking of heaven as the less substantial spirit world. If they are not changed, Heaven will have no appeal to them. They cannot live there, and neither will they want to live there.

Conversely, a small taste of hell is already experienced here, even if temporarily, by those who love God and by those who don’t. God uses suffering in this world to refine and purify his people. As St Paul said, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

From Old Testament times, the prophet Malachi had already said,

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” (Malachi 3:1-4)

 

Excerpts from the Letters of Cyril to Nestorius, and the 12 Anathemas.

cyrilApproved by the Council of Ephesus, AD 431.

“To the most religious and beloved of God, fellow minister Nestorius, Cyril sends greeting in the Lord . . .

The holy and great Synod therefore says, that the only begotten Son, born according to nature of God the Father, very God of very God, Light of Light, by whom the Father made all things, came down, and was incarnate, and was made man, suffered, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven. These words and these decrees we ought to follow, considering what is meant by the Word of God being incarnate and made man.

For we do not say that the nature of the Word was changed and became flesh, or that it was converted into a whole man consisting of soul and body; but rather that the Word having personally united to himself flesh animated by a rational soul, did in an ineffable and inconceivable manner become man, and was called the Son of Man, not merely as willing or being pleased to be so called, neither on account of taking to himself a person, but because the two natures being brought together in a true union, there is of both one Christ and one Son; for the difference of the natures is not taken away by the union, but rather the divinity and the humanity make perfect for us the one Lord Jesus Christ by their ineffable and inexpressible union.

So then he who had an existence before all ages and was born of the Father, is said to have been born according to the flesh of a woman, not as though his divine nature received its beginning of existence in the holy Virgin, for it needed not any second generation after that of the Father (for it would be absurd and foolish to say that he who existed before all ages, coeternal with the Father, needed any second beginning of existence), but since, for us and for our salvation, he personally united to himself an human body, and came forth of a woman, he is in this way said to be born after the flesh; for he was not first born a common man of the holy Virgin, and then the Word came down and entered into him, but the union being made in the womb itself, he is said to endure a birth after the flesh, ascribing to himself the birth of his own flesh. . . .

We, therefore, confess one Christ and Lord, not as worshipping a man with the Word (lest this expression “with the Word” should suggest to the mind the idea of division), but worshipping him as one and the same, forasmuch as the body of the Word, with which he sits with the Father, is not separated from the Word himself, not as if two sons were sitting with him, but one by the union with the flesh. If, however, we reject the personal union as impossible or unbecoming, we fall into the error of speaking of two sons, for it will be necessary to distinguish, and to say, that he who was properly man was honored with the appellation of Son, and that he who is properly the Word of God, has by nature both the name and the reality of Sonship.

We must not, therefore, divide the one Lord Jesus Christ into two Sons. Neither will it at all avail to a sound faith to hold, as some do, an union of persons; for the Scripture has not said that the Word united to himself the person of man, but that he was made flesh. This expression, however, “the Word was made flesh,” can mean nothing else but that he partook of flesh and blood like to us; he made our body his own, and came forth man from a woman, not casting off his existence as God, or his generation of God the Father, but even in taking to himself flesh remaining what he was. This the declaration of the correct faith proclaims everywhere.

This was the sentiment of the holy Fathers; therefore they ventured to call the holy Virgin, the Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word or his divinity had its beginning from the holy Virgin, but because of her was born that holy body with a rational soul, to which the Word being personally united is said to be born according to the flesh.

These things, therefore, I now write unto you for the love of Christ, beseeching you as a brother, and testifying to you before Christ and the elect angels, that you would both think and teach these things with us, that the peace of the Churches may be preserved and the bond of concord and love continue unbroken amongst the Priests of God. . . .

Confessing the Word to be made one with the flesh according to substance, we adore one Son and Lord Jesus Christ: we do not divide the God from the man, nor separate him into parts, as though the two natures were mutually united in him only through a sharing of dignity and authority (for that is a novelty and nothing else), neither do we give separately to the Word of God the name Christ and the same name separately to a different one born of a woman; but we know only one Christ, the Word from God the Father with his own Flesh. For as man he was anointed with us, although it is he himself who gives the Spirit to those who are worthy and not in measure, according to the saying of the blessed Evangelist John.

But we do not say that the Word of God dwelt in him as in a common man born of the holy Virgin, lest Christ be thought of as a God-bearing man; for although the Word tabernacled among us, it is also said that in Christ “dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily”; but we understand that be became flesh, not just as he is said to dwell in the saints, but we define that that tabernacling in him was according to equality  But being made one kata fusin, and not converted into flesh, he made his indwelling in such a way, as we may say that the soul of man does in his own body. . . .

And since the holy Virgin brought forth corporally God made one with flesh according to nature, for this reason we also call her Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word had the beginning of its existence from the flesh. . . .

The 12 Anathemas, Proposed by Cyril and accepted by the Council of Ephesus:

 

  1. If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is God in truth, and therefore that the holy virgin is the mother of God (for she bore in a fleshly way the Word of God become flesh), let him be anathema.
  2. If anyone does not confess that the Word from God the Father has been united by hypostasis with the flesh and is one Christ with his own flesh, and is therefore God and man together, let him be anathema.
  3. If anyone divides in the one Christ the hypostases after the union, joining them only by a conjunction of dignity or authority or power, and not rather by a coming together in a union by nature, let him be anathema.
  4. If anyone distributes between the two persons or hypostases the expressions used either in the gospels or in the apostolic writings, whether they are used by the holy writers of Christ or by him about himself, and ascribes some to him as to a man, thought of separately from the Word from God, and others, as befitting God, to him as to the Word from God the Father, let him be anathema.
  5. If anyone dares to say that Christ was a God-bearing man and not rather God in truth, being by nature one Son, even as “the Word became flesh”, and is made partaker of blood and flesh precisely like us, let him be anathema.
  6. If anyone says that the Word from God the Father was the God or master of Christ, and does not rather confess the same both God and man, the Word having become flesh, according to the scriptures, let him be anathema.
  7. If anyone says that as man Jesus was activated by the Word of God and was clothed with the glory of the Only-begotten, as a being separate from him, let him be anathema.
  8. If anyone dares to say that the man who was assumed ought to be worshipped and glorified together with the divine Word and be called God along with him, while being separate from him, (for the addition of “with” must always compel us to think in this way), and will not rather worship Emmanuel with one veneration and send up to him one doxology, even as “the Word became flesh”, let him be anathema.
  9. If anyone says that the one Lord Jesus Christ was glorified by the Spirit, as making use of an alien power that worked through him and as having received from him the power to master unclean spirits and to work divine wonders among people, and does not rather say that it was his own proper Spirit through whom he worked the divine wonders, let him be anathema.
  10. The divine scripture says Christ became “the high priest and apostle of our confession”; he offered himself to God the Father in an odour of sweetness for our sake. If anyone, therefore, says that it was not the very Word from God who became our high priest and apostle, when he became flesh and a man like us, but as it were another who was separate from him, in particular a man from a woman, or if anyone says that he offered the sacrifice also for himself and not rather for us alone (for he who knew no sin needed no offering), let him be anathema.
  11. If anyone does not confess that the flesh of the Lord is life-giving and belongs to the Word from God the Father, but maintains that it belongs to another besides him, united with him in dignity or as enjoying a mere divine indwelling, and is not rather life-giving, as we said, since it became the flesh belonging to the Word who has power to bring all things to life, let him be anathema.
  12. If anyone does not confess that the Word of God suffered in the flesh and was crucified in the flesh and tasted death in the flesh and became the first born of the dead, although as God he is life and life-giving, let him be anathema.

 

Some thoughts on Orthodox/Protestant dialogue.

GrahamI was sent an article written by the late Fr Seraphim Rose on “The Proper View of Non-Orthodox Christians” and I would like to share some thoughts on its argument.

While I do not disagree with the general intent and purpose of the article (how to cultivate φιλανθρωπία, or the love of neighbor), I do believe that the article is not as effective as it could be because it does not take into account the many nuances and complexities of Orthodox/Protestant dialogue in the 21st century.

Maybe that is because Fr Seraphim wrote during a time when globalization and the Protestant awareness of Orthodoxy in America had not grown to the extent it has today. Be that as it may, I’d like to address some of the article’s arguments. (Please note that I am addressing only the content of the argument, not making any appraisal of Fr Seraphim, his writings, or anything like that).

The article is available in many places online, e.g., here.

After making some general remarks about how Orthodoxy is the Church, the article starts by saying that

It is not for us to define the state of those who are outside the Orthodox Church.

I think Fr Seraphim begins by unintentionally committing the fallacy of poisoning the well when he asserts that it is not for us to define the state of those who are outside the Church. It assumes that criticisms of error and debates about the church and doctrine, at least in the majority of times, consist of people judging the personal state of those with whom they were interacting; but that is not always the case. Plus, this is not the topic of the article to begin with.

It goes on to say,

About those Christians who are outside the Orthodox Church, therefore, I would say: they do not yet have the full truth. Perhaps it just hasn’t been revealed to them yet, or perhaps it is our fault for not living and teaching the Orthodox Faith in a way they can understand.

Here, I believe Fr Seraphim equivocates on the concept of “the truth not being revealed to them yet.” Of the several possible meanings of this idea, which one is intended here? One could think that he means that people never heard in their entire life about the Orthodox Church and of Christian doctrine, and if so I think this could be a valid point.

However, most interactions in a place like the United States today are not of the sort. On the contrary, they are interactions between Orthodox people and Protestants who know what the Orthodox Church is and what it teaches; and they often are very happy to deny her teachings, in its most central dogmas, and explicitly call Orthodox people non-Christians. So they know. And they reject it.

The only other possible meaning of “God has not yet revealed that to them” would be a subjective, Calvinistic idea of God conveying some secret revelation to people in their hearts. I don’t know if Fr Seraphim meant this, but this meaning would be problematic for several reasons: first, because it is not for us to inquire about secret and hidden things; also, because the Church in its history did not simply tell those who opposed Christian truth by saying, “maybe God didn’t reveal it to you.” Well, maybe God didn’t, but truth is truth, and error was rejected. Explicitly. In many councils.

The article also makes some vague statements about using the terms “heresy” and “heretic.” For example,

Among Western converts to Orthodoxy there is indeed a temptation to speak too freely of “heresy” and “heretics,” and to make the errors of the non-Orthodox an excuse for a certain pharisaic smugness about our own Orthodoxy.

Perhaps it is true that people might use those terms too loosely at times. However, the clear, intentional, informed, obstinate, and deliberate denial of the central tenets of Christianity by many Protestants is also a reality.

It is a common experience of many practicing Orthodox people in a place like United States, who have friends and relatives who are Protestants, to be told explicitly things like, “there is no such thing as the Eucharist, there is no such thing as the bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ. This is idolatry and paganism. Communion is just a memorial, it’s just bread and wine, or better, crackers and grape juice.”

Or, “the Virgin and Theotokos is neither a virgin nor the mother of God. This is idolatry and paganism; she is only the mother of Jesus, she was just a pipe through which God sent the physical body of his Son.”

Or, “The Orthodox Church is not the Church; it is not in the Body of Christ. It is at best just another denomination, at worst a pagan group developed after Constantine, and people in it deny Christ and go to hell.”

Or “asking for the help and prayers of the ‘saints’ is idolatry, necromancy, paganism, it is empowered  by demons, and it is a sure sign that one is going to hell.”

I could go on with many other examples. These I report from personal interactions and listening to Protestant public teaching, from the pulpit, media, etc.

Maybe one is prepared to be confronted with such things and shrug if off in the name of love. After all, there is some truth in Protestantism (as it is inevitable – there is much truth in Buddhism and Islam as well), and, as Fr Seraphim says,

Almost all of the [Protestant] religious Christmas carols are all right, and they are sung by Orthodox Christians in America (some of them even in the strictest monasteries!).

Maybe Fr Seraphim was thinking of some of the classic Protestant hymns of John Newton and the Wesleys, not the, shall we say, interesting things sung in modern pop evangelical Jesus-is-my-boyfriend Christian rock.

Be that as it may, I don’t think that true love, in this situation, is one not to address truth. This would be simply superficial indifference and compromise. And I don’t think the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils who gave their lives to defend truth and evangelize the world would agree with that approach either.

yelling1Many Protestants say these things outlined above to Orthodox people. They deny the Eucharist, the Church, the Mother of God, the communion of saints, the Mysteries (Sacraments), and Orthodox Christology. They actively teach the erroneous alternatives to the Christian Faith.

They also say these things to other Protestants. Pastors and teachers say these things from the pulpit. Protestant churches use all available media tools to spread these errors and to keep people from being joined to the Body of Christ. I have heard, read, or been told these things hundreds of times.

The article ends by affirming that we should view or non-Orthodox people as potentially Orthodox, and live peaceably with them and not be harsh towards them.

In the end, we should view the non-Orthodox as people to whom Orthodoxy has not yet been revealed, as people who are potentially Orthodox (if only we ourselves would give them a better example!). There is no reason why we cannot call them Christians and be on good terms with them, recognizing that at least we have our faith in Christ in common, and live in peace especially with our own families. A harsh, polemical attitude is called for only when the non-Orthodox are trying to take away our flocks or change our teaching.

I think this is a very problematic equivocation, and here’s why.

It assumes that opposing these errors I listed here, and many others, is automatically, and by definition, equivalent to being harsh, to considering people as lost causes, enemies, or wanting not to be peaceable with them.

Not only this is not true, very often the opposite is true. We speak the truth in love with the hope that people will embrace the truth and reject error, not because we don’t consider them as potentially living in the Truth.

We live in a society where truth has been, by and large, demoted from the public square and reduced to personal, subjective preferences. The  popular idea that “truth is relative” is something that many people actually believe. And one offspring of such darkness is the increase in hatred against opposing views.

We already see this in the current socio-political condition of this country, where “toleration” is something that one only wishes to apply to his or her opinion, but never to extend to the ones who disagree with him or her. More than ever, people do not accept opposing views, and express hatred against those who hold them. We are living in an increasingly fascist society when it comes to ideas and freedom of speech. It probably won’t be too long before people can be jailed for simply saying particular Christian beliefs out loud which are out of step with current popular opinion.

This carries on to the religious arena as well. Ironically, very often, the same evangelical Christians who complain about not having the liberty to believe as they will in the secular world, will not tolerate being questioned in their beliefs by other Christians either.

I cannot count how many times I have witnessed Protestants reacting with hatred at the mere mention that their views are in error. Not necessarily by an Orthodox –  it could be a Lutheran questioning Word-of-Faith preachers, or many other combinations.

Protestants are often very eager to affirm the things I outlined above, but if one tries to explain why the affirmations are erroneous, the reaction is something like, “how dare you? Who do you think you are? How dare you judge me? You are rude and judgmental and harsh!”

Image result for yelling womanMost often, it would not matter if you were to oppose their views on your knees and holding out flowers and a box of chocolates. The mere objective mention of their error, or the defense of the Christian faith and truth, is a cause for hatred and the accusation of rudeness, arrogance, and of being judgmental.

It is no surprise that those who have been wounded by the zeitgeist (as we all have some way) get angry when confronted with the truth, even if the “confrontation” is done with respect and even gentleness.

I do not doubt that many people have failed to be gentle and respectful in their theological interactions. I am sure I have at times. We should all heed the call to gentleness and respect.

But I am convinced that more often than not, the problem is just the opposite. It is that people knowingly and deliberately reject the truth they do know, much like the Pharisees of old; they do not like being opposed in any way that does not suit their personal preference. Because for many Christians in America, Christianity, either in itself, or in its different “expressions,” is a matter of preference, not ultimate truth. That is why many Protestants now, more than ever, incessantly pursue the Holy Grail of being “relevant” to the public preferences du jour.

I do not even need to list the numerous passages in the New Testament where St. Paul and others command their co-workers to “rebuke sharply” those who oppose the truth.

I worked for a few years in countercult apologetics when I was a Protestant. I have seen how cults operate. Groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on. They might be “potential” Protestants and Christians, but they are not Protestants, and they are not Christians. They’re cults. They jeopardize peoples’ lives spiritually. Maybe God has not yet revealed something to them either.

Often they also react with anger and hatred against those who very gently, objectively, and respectfully speak and publish against their serious errors. Against people who have spent their entire lives, as a calling, reaching out to them and “speaking the truth in love” to help pluck them out of the fire.

Many of those people speaking the truth are former cultists. I have met them. Many of them are very thankful that somebody reached out to them. They are thankful that people were not afraid to be hated or thought of being jerks by simply telling them the truth. They are thankful that people cared and reached out and spoke the truth to them.

Our friends and family members who are Protestants may not be in cults. But, as I mentioned above, they can very clearly, deliberately, and obstinately espouse very serious error and spread such errors against the truth of Christ. They do it here in this country. They also send missionaries to Orthodox countries to “evangelize” them – i.e., get them out of the Church and into their own groups and versions of “Christianity.”

I believe Fr Seraphim’s article, which I have seen circulating on the interwebs, and which is well-intentioned, does a disservice by implying that presenting truth is, automatically and by definition, unkind; and that we should “live in peace” and quiet alongside outspoken error and heresy for the sake of being nice and not being thought of as rude.

On the contrary, we should speak the truth in love.

As I write this, I’m reminded that last night I was invited by a friend to attend the Service at the old ROCOR Cathedral in San Francisco, when in a couple of weeks he (a Protestant convert) will be made an official catechumen so he can be baptized and Chrismated into the Church. Because people who cared (including me) spoke the truth in love and took the time to answer his questions.

Glory to God!

St Symeon the New Theologian on the Theotokos and the Eucharist

st-symeon-the-new-theologian“The same undefiled flesh which He accepted from the pure loins of Mary, the all-pure Theotokos, and with which He was given birth in the body, He gives to us as food.

And when we eat of it, when we eat worthily of His flesh, each one of use receives within himself the entirety of God made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, son of God and son of the immaculate Virgin Mary . . .

He is present in the body bodilessly, mingled with our essence and nature, and deifying us who share His body, who are become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone . . . This is the mystery all full of holy terror which I hesitate even to write, and tremble in recounting.

Thus, while from His immaculate mother He borrowed her immaculate flesh, and gave her in return His own divinity – o strange and new exchange! – He takes no flesh from the saints, but He does make them sharers of His own deified flesh. . . .

Just as we all receive of His fullness, so do we all partake of the immaculate flesh of His all-holy Mother which He assumed, and so, just as Christ our God, true God, became her son; even so we too – O the ineffable love for mankind! – become sons of His mother, the Theotokos, and brothers of Christ Himself . . .

The Mother of God is lady and Queen and mistress and mother of all the saints. The saints are all both her servants, since she is the mother of God, and her sons, because they partake of the all-pure flesh of her Son . . .

The saints therefore are triply her kin: first in that they are related to her from the same clay and breath of life given Adam;

Secondly, that they have communion and share with her in the flesh which was taken from her;

Thirdly and last, that on account of the hallowing which has come to pass in them through her by virtue of the Spirit, each conceives in like manner to her within himself the God of all, as she bore Him in herself.

For, if indeed she gave birth to him in the body, yet she always possessed all of Him in the Spirit, and has Him now, and will ever have Him inseparable from her.

So this is the mystery of the marriages which the Father arranged for His only-begotten Son, Who with Him is co-everlasting and of equal dignity. And He invited many, and sent his servants to invite those who were called to the weddings, and they would not come.”

St Symeon the New Theologian, c. 1010 AD
First Ethical Discourse

St. John of Kronstadt: “We must carefully tend the field of our heart”

saintjohnofkronstadtWhy is it necessary to pray at home, and to attend divine service at the Church? Well, why is it necessary for you to eat and drink, to take exercise, or to work, every day? In order to support the life of the body and strengthen it. So also it is absolutely necessary to pray in order to support the life of the soul, to strengthen the soul, which is sick with sin, and to cleanse it, just as you employ some kinds of food and drink to cleanse the body.

If you do not pray, you behave inadvisedly and most unwisely, supporting, gratifying and strengthening your body in every way, but neglecting your soul.

Our soul, as a spiritual, active being, cannot remain idle; it either does good or evil, one of the two; either wheat grows in it or tares. But as every good comes from God, and as the means of obtaining every good from God is prayer, those who pray fervently, sincerely, from the depths of their hearts, obtain from the Lord grace to do good, and, before all, the grace of faith; whilst those who do not pray, naturally remain without these spiritual gifts, voluntarily depriving themselves of them by their own negligence and spiritual coldness.

And as the wheat of good thoughts, inclinations, intentions, and works grows in the hearts of those who labour and pray fervently to the Lord, so in the hearts of those who do not pray, the tares of every evil grow, smothering the small amount of good that has remained in them from the grace of baptism, chrism, and subsequent penitence and communion.

We must by every means implant in the field of our heart the seeds of the virtues, faith, hope in God, and love for God and our neighbor, fertilize it with prayer, patience, good works, and not for a single hour remain in complete idleness and inactivity, for in times of idleness and inactivity the enemy zealously sows his tares. ‘While men slept, the enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way’ (Mt. 13:25).”

We must carefully tend the field of our heart, lest the tares of every vice should grow in it; we must daily weed it – at least by morning and evening prayers – and water it with abundant tears, as with rain.

It is good for me to draw near to God, said David, who had tasted the sweetness of prayer and praising God. Other men confirm this, and I a sinner also. Observe, that to draw near to God is a good and blessed thing (even here on earth) while we are yet in the sinful flesh. What bliss, then, will it be to be united to God there in heaven! And the bliss of union with God here on earth is a specimen and pledge of the bliss of union with God after death, in eternity.

St. John of Kronstadt (1829 – 1908), Spiritual Counsels.