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"In the beginning, God' (Genesis 1:1).
God comes first. Before anyone else is mentioned, He is there."— The Bible

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Athanasius on the Atonement

Are there two unreconciled theories of the atonement in Athanasius?
Do the writings of Athanasius contain two theories of the atonement - a ‘physical’ theory which teaches that, through Christ’s assumption of humanity, mankind is clothed in the incorruption and indestructibility that is inherent in Christ the Word and a ‘legal’ theory which maintains that the heart of the Gospel lies in Christ’s payment of the debt owed to God by humanity?
Seen in isolation from each other, as distinct theories, the terms, ‘physical’ and ‘legal’ can be very misleading.
In its modern sense, ‘physical’ is regarded as the direct opposite of ’spiritual’. With reference to the atonement, ‘physical’ suggests an automatic or mechanical understanding of the communication of the benefits of Christ’s atonement to humanity. The question must be raised whether the ‘physical’ theory is capable of giving adequate expression to the moral character of human beings.
The ‘legal’ approach suggests the idea of a legal framework, existing outside of God, to which God is obliged to conform. As well as posing a threat to the freedom of God, this legal approach tends to draw attention away from the divine love. We see this in connection with both the divine character and the divine purpose. There is the suggestion of a loving Son wringing forgiveness from a stern and unloving Father. There is the tendency to focus on acquittal, the re-establishment of the formal status - not guilty - rather than reconciliation, the restoration of fellowship with God.
Is it fair to use the terms ‘physical’ and ‘legal’ in describing Athanasius’ view of the atonement? It has been suggested that Athanasius sometimes gives the impression that ‘by the mere bringing into physical contact in Christ of the divine and the human our salvation was effected’ (Riviere, The Doctrine of the Atonement: A Historical Study, p.174).
This impression is based on such statements as these. ‘he (the Word) has … taken up his abode in one body … henceforth the whole conspiracy of the enemy against mankind is checked’ (De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, Section 9).‘Human nature and the divine are linked together in Christ, and thereby our salvation is established’ (Against the Arians, 2, 70. ‘Because the Word of God, the eternal Son of the Father, clothed with flesh and became man, we are delivered’ (Against the Arians, 2, 60).
Can the argument that Athanasius holds to a ‘physical’ theory of the atonement be sustained? A closer examination of Athanasius’ writings indicates that we would be misrepresenting him if we were to describe him as an advocate of a ‘physical’ theory of atonement. Athanasius’ understanding of ‘physical’, is quite different from the modern idea. He does not contrast the ‘physical’ and the ’spiritual’. He uses the Greek word, ‘physis’, from which ‘physical’ is derived, to mean ‘belonging to man’s nature’. He sees the atonement as related not to an element in human nature - the physical - but to the entirety of our humanity.
While it may be argued that Athanasius might have been expected to have said more about the personal appropriation of the salvation provided for humanity through Christ’s atonement, it should be observed that he speaks of the atonement in connection with those “who believe in Christ” (De Incarnatione, Section 21). He stresses the “need of a good life and a pure soul”, emphasizing that the heavenly reward is laid up “for the saints” (De Incarnatione, Conclusion).
The suggestion that Athanasius offers us a ‘legal’ theory of the atonement also needs to be treated with great caution. He does use ‘legal’ language. He speaks of our “debt” - “all men were due to die”. He speaks of the death of Christ as the offering of “the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression” (De Incarnatione, Section 20). By using this kind of language, he does not intend to detach the atonement from its source in the love of God: “He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men” (De Incarnatione, Section 1).
In his treatment of the necessity of the atonement, Athanasius thinks in terms of a “divine dilemma”.
“It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back on His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back into non-existence through corruption” (De Incarnatione, Section 6).
In both sides of this “divine dilemma”, the emphasis is on God’s faithfulness. God will not go back on his holy Word concerning the consequences of sin. He will not allow His purpose of love to be thwarted. Emphasizing both the priority of God’s love and the seriousness of our sin, Athanasius suggests a helpful way of thinking about the love and justice of God. By connecting both to God’s faithfulness, he raises our thoughts above the idea that the love and wrath of God should be seen as conflicting characteristics which battle against each other, with love winning the day.
It would be unfair to charge Athanasius with failing to reconcile two theories of the atonement. He did not set out to build a theory of the atonement, relating everything to one central theme. He did not describe two different theories of the atonement with a view to assessing their relative merits.
His purpose was to offer “a brief statement of the faith of Christ and of the manifestation of the Godhead to us” (De Incarnatione, Section 56).
He seeks to do this by viewing the atonement from different angles:
“You must not be surprised if we repeat ourselves in dealing with this subject. We are speaking of the good pleasure of God and of the things which He in His loving wisdom thought fit to do, and it is better to put the same thing in several ways than to run the risk of leaving something out” (De Incarnatione, Section 20).
There are different strands to Athanasius’ exposition of the atonement. We should be grateful to him for the variety of light he brings to our understanding of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

Karl Barth and Paul Tillich: Responding to Theological Liberalism

Two quite different responses to theological liberalism are represented in the theologies of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich.
In his protest against theological liberalism, Barth seeks to re-emphasize the lost emphases on man the sinner and God the Judge. In his article, “Liberal Protestantism, Liberal Theology, Liberalism” in A. Richardson (editor), A Dicitonary of Christian Theology, (London, 1969), J. Richmond points out that Barth “has stressed the centrality and the kerygmatic character of the biblical writings, the radical discontinuity between God and human nature, and has made much of the concepts of crisis, judgment and grace” (p. 193).
In his attempt to overcome the defects of theological liberalism, Tillich advocates a symbolic reinterpretation of the Christian message. Richmond maintains that the theology of Tillich (and Bultmann) is “partly continuous with the liberal tradition” (p. 193). together with Bultmann, Tillich has “tried to avoid the excesses into which the older liberalism fell; but … their critics frequently bring against them the criticisms which were brought against their theological predecessors in the second decade of the twetieth century” (p. 194). The theologies of Barth and Tillich are governed by two contrasting forms of ontic thinking which threaten to relativize the urgency of the call to sinners to respond to God. Barth tends to approach man via a consideration of the divine transcendence. Tillich tends to move in the direction of the divine immanence via a consideration of man.
Barth’s theology stand over against liberalism in a way that the theologies of Tillich and Bultmann do not. A few weeks before his death, in a conversation with T. F. Torrance, Barth affirmed his faith in the “bodily resurrection” (T. F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, (Grand Rapids, 1976), p. xi). While Barth’s theology is very different from the theologies of Tillich and Bultmann, there is still some force in the cautious words of A. P. F. Sell concerning Barth’s theology as well as the theologies of Tillich and Bultmann: “Sadly, such theologians as Barth , Bultmann and Tillich have been in danger of disengaging the gospel from history in all its ambiguity and messiness” (God our Father, (Edinburgh, 1980), p. 14). The point at which the difficulty in relating Barth’s view of the divine transcendence to historical reality is most observable is the point where he seeks to speak adequately of the urgency of the decision between faith and unbelief. Barth’s ontological conclusions - the ontological inevitability of faith and the ontological impossibility of unbelief - tend to weaken his protest against theological liberalism. Despite Barth’s rejection of a priori universalism, it should be observed that these ontological conclusions do suggest that Barth has propounded “a natural theology of his own” by presenting “a form of universalism highly palatable to modern man” (C. Brown, Karl Barth and the Christian Message, (London, 1967, pp. 12, 137, emphases mine).
From the perspective of his doctrine of God as Being, Tillich may be viewed as heavily accenting the transcendence of God over all that is finite and conditioned. In this post, I am not highlighting this aspect of Tillich’s thought. My concern is with the contrast between the theological methodologies used by Barth and Tillich. Broadly speaking, this is the contrast between the ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ approaches. Tillich’s ontological analysis of being, through which man’s being is presented as grounded in God as the Ground of Being tends to lead in the direction of an uncritical affirmation of modern man (as an illustration of this tendency, Brown (p. 78, n.3) refers the reader to Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, (Harmondsworth, 1962), pp. 63 ff.). Despite his rejection of rationalism, Tillich’s theology is highly appealing to rationalistic man. J. H. Thomas maintains that “(t)he liberal roots of Tillich’s theology are very evident” (Paul Tillich, (London, 1965), p. 5). Tillich’s interpretation of Christian truth is highly appealing to rationalistic man who does not take the Biblical witness to Jesus Christ particularly seriously. The weakness of the opposition of Barth and Tillich to theological liberalism lies not in the mere fact that both theologies, each in its own distinctive way, have a considerable appeal to modern man. rather, it lies in their failure to do justice to important aspects of the New Testament proclamation of the Gospel.
Tillich has failed to do justice to the historical revelation of the Gospel (B. J. R. Cameron, “The Historical Problem in Paul Tillich’s Christology”, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 18, No. 3, September 1965, pp. 257-272). Barth has failed to do justice to the human response to the Gospel. In highlighting Barth’s emphasis on divine transcendence, i am not overlooking the fact that Barth has written perceptively on The Humanity of God, (Atlanta, 1960) in which he write, “It is when we look at Jesus Christ that we know decisively that God’s deity does not exclude but includes His humanity” (p. 48, emphasis original). It should be noted Barth’s use of the expression, “the humanity of God” does not carry with it any suggestion that “Barth’s theology is humanistic” (J. Macquarrie, “Barth, Karl” in A Dictionary of Christian Theology, p. 30). Barth’s concern is to emphasize that the doctrine of God is not to be approached from the vantage-point of an abstract conception of deity. Rather, it is to be approached from the standpoint of the incarnation. This emphasis on the incarnation is essential if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is to be clearly distinguished from the God of natural theology. The particular way in which Barth relates his whole theology to the incarnation does, nevertheless, raise the question of the adequacy of his treatment of the human response to the Gospel.
Both Barth and Tillch have allowed the structure of their theological systems to determine which aspects of new testament teaching are to be emphasized and which are to be virtually ignored (C. Brown, Karl Barth and the Christian Message, pp. 12, 152; K. Hamilton, “Paul Tillich”, in P. E. Hughes (ed.), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, (Grand Rapids, 1969), p. 473). Thus, neither is fully able to overcome the tendency of theological liberalism to allow reason to become predominant over revelation. The simple fact that both theologies proceed on the basis of divine revelation does not diminish the fact that, in the course of interpreting the revelation, the interests of the theological system have not lent themselves to a prioper understanding of the entire Biblical proclamation of the Gospel. Christian theology must take care to avoid emphasizing a particular Biblical truth in such a way that other aspects of Biblical truth, equally important for a clearer understanding of the Gospel, tend to be misrepresented.

Assessing the Christology of Wolfhart Pannenberg

In his Christology, Pannenberg adopts a ‘from below’ approach rather than a ‘from above’ approach (Jesus - God and Man (1968; German edition, 1964), pp. 33-37).
Using historical reason, he concludes that it is more reasonable to defend the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection rather than denying it.
He accepts Kirn’s definition of the historical method: “A historical conclusion can be regarded as certain when … despite the fact that it is not removed from all possible attacks, it is nevertheless in agreement with all the known facts” Basic Questions in Theology, Vol. I (1970), p. 54).
Adopting this approach to Jesus’ resurrection, he concludes that “(t)he Easter appearances are not to be explained from the Easter faith of the disciples; rather, conversely, the Easter faith of the disciples is to be explained from the appearances” (Jesus - God and Man, p. 96).
Pannenberg holds that Jesus’ resurrection has retroactive power, i. e. in the resurrection, God sets His seal on the pre-Easter activity of Jesus, declaring Him to be the Son of God.
Insisting that “the idea that Jesus had received divinity only as a consequence of his resurrection is not tenable” (p. 135), he writes, “That God is revealed in Jesus can only be asserted on the basis of his resurrection from the dead … If Jesus as a person is ‘the Son of God’, as becomes clear retroactively from his resurrection, then he has always been the Son of God” (p. 141).
The notion of the retroactive power of the resurrection is carefully distinguished from all assumptions concerning any direct Messianic self-consciousness or direct Messianic claims on the part of the pre-Easter Jesus (pp. 327, 332).
Pannenberg’s view of the relationship between the self-consciousness of the pre-Easter Jesus and the retroactive power of the resurrection is undergirded by his concern to avoid any hint of determinism (pp. 330, 332).
This concern may appear to be apologetically relevant since it reflects the mood of modernity in its search for freedom. This claim to apologetic relevance does, however, become questionable when his interpretation of Scripture is closely examined.
Pannenberg’s conception of the retroactive power of the resurrection might have been extended in the direction of validating Jesus’ view of the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures (C. Pinnock, “Pannenberg’s Theology: Reasonable Happenings in History” in Christianity Today, 31, 3 (5th November 1976), p. 22). Jesus’ view of the Old Testament Scriptures may then have been related to the idea that Jesus Himself has given a Christological foundation for the Church’s confession of the authority of the New Testament.
Pannenberg refuses to develop his notion of the retroactive power of the resurrection in this direction, preferring to approach the biblicism - liberalism dichotomy by way of a theology of universal history.
His refusal to move in the direction of Biblical authority is determined not by the intrinsic rationality of his idea of the retroactive power of the resurrection but by his particular reaction against authoritarianism.
If he had drawn an adequate distinction between an authentic authority and an unwarranted authoritarianism, he might have developed his notion of the retroactive power of the resurrection in the direction of a more significant insight into the role of the words of Scripture in divine revelation.
Pannenberg’s interpretation of the Gospel narratives is dominated by his own conception of a ‘from below’ approach to Christology. As part of an apologetic theology, his analysis of Jesus’ Messianic self-consciousness is of ambiguous worth. The question arises whether it is more reasonable to believe that the resurrection declared Jesus to be what He had not claimed to be than to believe that the resurrection declared Him to be what He had claimed to be.
Pannenberg regards the “so-called passion predictions” as “vaticinia ex eventu” (i. e. written by the Gospel-writers with hindsight rather than spoken by Jesus Himself prior to the events) (Jesus - God and Man, p. 245).
Pannenberg holds that “Jesus’ claim to authority by itself cannot be made the basis of a Christology … everything depends upon the connection between Jesus’ claim and its confirmation by God” (p. 66).
The question arises whether there is any necessary connection between Pannenberg’s insightful emphasis on the resurrection as the confirmation of Jesus’ claim and his interpretaion of the passion predictions.
C. Brown’s words are worthy of consideration here: “if the traditional understanding of his mission is at all valid - and surely this possibility ought not to be ruled out a priori - the very thing we should expect to find is that Jesus would have tried to convey to his followers something of the meaning of his death and resurrection” (Philosophy and the Christian Faith (1969), p. 282, italics in the original).