Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Winter Sonnet

Upon the wastes of field and fen I plod,
And seek one lost, my love, whose body lies
Somewhere between the seafoam and the sod,
Betwixt the grassland greens and azure skies.
Your name I name with cries that sighing blow
Upon cold breezes carrion birds now fly;
Black wings and clouds descending with the snow
To cloak in palest shrouds, for hopes to die.
Ice falls and rests on limbs that lowly sway,
As tears from lookers on in canopies
Collect on shoulders plumed with winged splay,
As if to share the burden of my cries.
If winter ends in death and dirge's plaint,
Yet spring must resurrect my fallen saint.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Athanasius's On the Incarnation, IV

Welcome to the fourth post in the series on Athanasius's On the IncarnationThe first post discussed some of the historical context surrounding Athanasius's work. The second post discussed the context of On the Incarnation in Athanasius's three-fold portrait (or trilogy) of human salvation. The third post looked at Chapter 1, the first five sections of On the Incarnation.

The fourth post will begin covering the text of Chapter 2 of On the Incarnation. The Christian Classics Ethereal Library version of the text is easily accessible, so I'll be using that text for this series of posts. I welcome those interested in an alternative translation and arrangement to seek out John Behr's translation, published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

I'll summarize each section followed by commentary in italics.

II.6 Athanasius lays out the first half of the first divine dilemma, that God should leave man subject to death and corruption. He says that ignoring man's plight is unworthy of the goodness of God, since it would result in man being brought to nothing, bringing God's purposes to naught. It would be better that man had not been made than to be made in the image of God only to be lost to corruption.

II.7 Then comes the second half of the first divine dilemma, that God should go back on His word concerning the just penalty for man's transgression. He could not relent of His sentence, but neither could repentance suffice, since, though repentance removes the action of sin from the soul, it does not remove the corruption that inheres. Repentance does not restore the incorruption. Only by having the Word, who made all from nothing, suffer in the place of man, could man be remade in the incorruptible image which he had forsaken.

The first two sections present the first dilemma, regarding the plight of man in death and corruption. God, being good, cannot allow what He has made for Himself to be brought to nothing, but God, being just, cannot allow His word to be broken. Thus, in order to fulfill His word as well as His purposes for creation, the Word through which all was made must enter into creation's corruption, satisfying the just penalty in such a way as to bring the corruption through death and into incorruption. The precise way remains to be discussed, but here Athanasius has presented the problem and its only solution.

II.8 The Word of God fills all things that He has made, yet in the Incarnation He enters into creation in a new and unprecedented way, revealing Himself personally through the thing He has made. For what reason? His pity and compassion for man's plight led him to take up a human body, a human nature--not the appearance of a body and nature, but a body such as our own--using a "spotless, stainless virgin, without agency of human father," that is, not made though intercourse and transmission of sin. Yet he took on a body subject to corruption and carried it into death as a substitute for all; offering it to the Father. His death for all abolished death's power over all, and through resurrection He procured the incorruptible life for all. The great exchange of the Word's flesh for human flesh results from God's compassion for man. He is willing to enter into the lowly flesh, and take it through the penalty for sin, death and corruption, that death might be swallowed up in God's own incorruptible life, resulting in life incorruptible for all men.

II.9 The exchange of the Incarnate Word's life for man's life is sufficient because of the value of the divine life united in the body. The exchange of the Incarnate Word's life for man's life is complete because the incorruption of the divine life ensures that the body cannot remain in death, but must enter into new life in resurrection. Man possesses solidarity in their common nature, which the Word entered into when He took up flesh, and through the flesh He took up influenced all men by that same commonality of nature. Athanasius compares this to a King who takes up his dwelling in a city, simultaneously ennobling it and preventing it from molestation from evildoers. The analogy of the King's taking up residence in the city must have resonated with Athanasius's audience, not only for its truth, but perhaps even more in contrast to failed kingships that promised the same, yet could not deliver. The affirmation of man's common nature here is striking, since, as yet, Athanasius makes no distinctions between men who appropriate the life of Christ and those who remain in their corruption in Adam. Rather, the exchange apparently affirms the universality of the Incarnate Word's work throughout Creation. Whereas before death reigned in power, now the power of death is swallowed up in life. Whereas before there was only darkness, now the whole earth is swathed in the light of the Son. 

II.10 Again Athanasius highlights the goodness of God as the source of salvation, and he uses the analogy of kingship. The king who founds a city protects rather than neglects it; much more then shall God protect the race of men who are His own. He cites Scripture to show his fidelity to God's Word on the matter and to reinforce the Incarnation as the only proper solution to the problem of death and corruption: the sacrifice of the Word's own body put an end to death and made a new way into life through the resurrection. The divine dilemma regarding death and corruption is solved! Here Athanasius closes his argument with appropriate proofs from Scripture indicating what he has heretofore claimed; that the Word must become man in order to bring man out of death and into life. 

Having resolved the first divine dilemma, the next chapter will see Athanasius solving the second, which regards the loss of knowledge due to man's transgression.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Athanasius's On the Incarnation III

Welcome to the third post in the series on Athanasius's On the IncarnationThe first post discussed some of the historical context surrounding Athanasius's work. The second post discussed the context of On the Incarnation in Athanasius's three-fold portrait (or trilogy) of human salvation.

The third post will begin covering the text of On the Incarnation. The Christian Classics Ethereal Library version of the text is easily accessible, so I'll be using that text for this series of posts. I welcome those interested in an alternative translation and arrangement to seek out John Behr's translation, published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

I'll summarize each section followed by commentary in italics.

1.1 Athanasius refers to his first treatise, Contra Gentes, and summarizes his main points against idolatry and for the divinity of the "Word of the Father." He then articulates his plan for the present work, which is to treat the Incarnation of the Word. He states that the sole cause of the Son of God's taking on human flesh is twofold: the love of humankind and the goodness of the Father. Moreover, it is only fitting that the Word of the Father by which the world was made should be the same agent for the salvation of the world. Already in the introduction Athanasius places an antithesis between the wisdom of God and the religion of the Jews and of the Gentiles. That which the Jews reject and the Greeks mock God shows to be fitting and good. The paradoxical nature of God's revelation of Himself to man (what man considers impossible, God shows possible, etc.) arises from man's flight from knowledge and being rather than from the nature of things as God has made them.

1.2 Athanasius refutes three false views of Creation: Epicurean, Platonic, and Gnostic. The Epicureans deny any Mind to order the universe, but assert that all things are self-originated by chance. If no Mind exists to distinguish one thing from another, then the universe would bear no distinctions, but would be a mass of uniformity. The universe has distinction, therefore a Mind lies behind it, and that mind is God. The Platonists believe matter is pre-existent and that God makes the world from this uncreated material. If matter is uncreated, then God is limited in what He can do by the nature of the matter, thus making God subject to something other than Himself, and only a craftsman rather than Creator. God is not subject to any other than Himself, thus He created from nothing (rather than formed from what was already there) the matter from which things are made. Gnostics believe an Artificer other than God the Father created all things. Yet Scripture clearly declares (in places like Matt. 19:4-6 and John 1:3) that the Father creates and nothing is, but that which God created. Athanasisus's refutations are directed against two heathen views and one heretical view. The heathen views (Epicureans and Platonists) he refutes through reason: discerning the necessity of a rational first cause for rationally organized things (Epicurean view), and the aseity of God, that is, God independence of anything not Himself (Platonic view). The Gnostics represent heresy, since Athanasius reasons from Scripture rather than reason to refute their error.

1.3. Athanasius provides a true account of Creation. God, the infinite, created finite things out of nothing (non-existence) through the agency of the Word, as Genesis, The Shepherd of Hermas, and Hebrews declare. God created out of His own goodness; a goodness which did not begrudge the good of existence to non-existent things. Man, God made in His own image, reasonable as God is reasonable, yet in limited degree. Reason gave to man choice of will (to follow or forsake God), which God tested by placing man in paradise (place) with a prohibition (law). Forsaking obedience and immortality man chose disobedience and death--a remaining state of death and corruption. Here Athanasius succinctly serves the orthodox Christian doctrine of Creation and the Fall. Of special note is Athanasius's emphasis on God reason for creating--not His love (though that is true as well), but His goodness. Aristotle considered magnanimity (greatness of soul) to be the crowning virtue of man, and whether or not Athanasius is playing upon this Greek idea, the connection seems suitable. The greatness of God's goodness leads Him to create, that His goodness might be made manifest in and to the things which He makes. Also notable is man's likeness to God--man possesses a share in the being of God through his rational/volitional mind, though his creatureliness limits man's expression of this divine quality. Finally, Athanasius sets up the problem which will result in two divine dilemmas--man's sin has plunged him into death, not just the act of dying, but the state of death and corruption that characterizes even his life in the body.

1.4 Athanasius explains that Creation must be discussed since man's loss of his original state is the cause of the Incarnation of the Word--the love of God caused Him to take up human form for the salvation of man into His initial purpose--uninterrupted, incorruptible communion with God. Man did not remain in the state of Adam's corruption simply, but progressed into greater corruption, which is a return to his original state of non-existence. Not only did man give up the life of God, descending back toward nothingness, but also the knowledge of God by which he participates in communion with, in life with, God. This is what evil is--(the return to) non-being. Only through contemplation of God does man preserve his likeness to God--the turning away from God is both metaphysical (being to non-being) and epistemological (knowledge to ignorance). Athanasius infers this from The Wisdom of Solomon 6:18, "The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption." Athanasius moves from establishing the context of the divine dilemma to providing some definition to the reality of death and its effects upon man. Note especially the intimate relation between being and knowledge. Athanasius appears to place emphasis on knowing as the means to being, indeed, as the foundation of being--to remain in God one must contemplate Him, and so the turning away from the knowledge of God is a divestiture of the life man possesses in God alone. Surely the notion of idolatry undergirds this expression, since in man's giving himself to material things, to idols, he loses his contact with divinity. Note as well the intimacy between knowledge and obedience--contemplation of God includes the meditation upon and keeping of His law.

1.5 Athanasius elaborates on man in his state of innocence--subject to corruption, but shielded by his union with the Word--from which he fell due to the work of Satan and his own choice. From this point of departure Athanasius narrates the decline of man into greater corruption. He finishes by quoting Paul's same litany of corruption in Romans 1. The most significant addition in this section comes from Athanasius's acknowledgment that man depended upon "the grace of their union with the Word" of God in order to remain incorrupt--even in paradise--since man's nature was subject to corruption. Also significant is man's insatiable lust for corruption after the Fall. Athanasius makes apparent man's incapacity to curtail his appetite for evil left to himself.

That wraps up Chapter 1: Creation and the Fall. The next post will examine Chapter 2: The Divine Dilemma and its Solution in the Incarnation.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Athanasius's On the Incarnation II

Welcome to the second post in the series on Athanasius's On the Incarnation. The first post discussed some of the historical context surrounding Athanasius's work. In this second post, I'll briefly set On the Incarnation in its place within Athanasisus's trilogy on human salvation. I'm drawing mainly from John Behr's introduction to the St. Vladimir's Seminary Press edition of On the Incarnation.

It is undisputed that On the Incarnation is the continuation of Athanasius's earlier treatise Contra Gentes (Against the Heathen). Athanasius refers to this work in the preface of On the Incarnation. In Contra Gentes Athanasius sets out to refute idolatry, the overwhelming religious competitor of his day, and demonstrate the reasonableness of the Christian faith. Having done this, On the Incarnation sets out to show how God solves the problem of death, on the one hand, and the problem of human ignorance of God, on the other. The incarnation of God dissolves two divine dilemmas:

The Divine Dilemma of Death: since through sin death has entered the world and laid claim to man,
1. Either God must abandon man to death, showing Himself weak or uncaring for His creation,
2. Or God must disregard His own law, which was that disobedience of the creature would result in death and ongoing corruption.

The Divine Dilemma of Knowledge: since through sin man has turned away from the divine to materials things and lost the knowledge of God,
1. Either God must abandon man to ignorance, showing Himself weak of uncaring for His creation,
2. Or God must reveal himself through the material things to which man has turned, thus breaking His law against idolatry.

The incarnation dissolves both dilemmas, since the God-man's entrance into death fulfills the demands of death such that all humanity may escape; and through his coming as God-man men come to know him as a true man, yet through his divine works that he draws men's mind back to what is truly Divine.

Thus, the two works represent Athanasius's defeat of the idolatry that stands opposed to the Gospel and his articulation of salvation proclaimed by the Gospel.

So what forms the third work, and what is its place in relation to the two? Behr makes the point that Athanasius's Life of Antony, the biographical sketch of the desert ascetic, demonstrates the effects of the work of the incarnation articulated in On the Incarnation in the life of the Church through the life of Antony as a model for imitation. Throughout Life of Antony Athanasius shows that all of Antony's efforts--his renunciation of material goods, his seeking battle with demonic powers in the isolated realms where they dwell, his struggles against the temptations of the flesh, the world, and Satan (or lusts of the eyes, lusts of the flesh, and the boastful pride of life)--are made successful through the work of Christ in Antony. In particular, it is through Christ's conquest of death and corruption in the flesh that has made it possible for men to overcome the corruption of the flesh until death brings them into new life. The general movement of Life of Antony goes from intense solitary preparation for Antony to an outpouring of the fruits of the Spirit's work in his life in the lives of those who come to visit him. Moreover, through the intense suffering of affliction at the hands of Satan and his demons, Antony comes through with greater health and mastery over his body--and all of this Antony attributes to the power of Christ.

Thus, Contra Gentes demonstrates the vanity of idolatry, On the Incarnation demonstrates the hope of humanity, and Life of Antony demonstrates the faith upon which the Church progresses toward the culmination of the eschaton.

In the next post we'll look at Chapter 1 of On the Incarnation.

Athanasius's On the Incarnation I

After a few months of inactivity, I'm ready to jump back in with a writing project. I'd like to attempt blogging through Athanasius's, On the Incarnation, while I am teaching it to my eighth grade class. I'll begin with a post discussing the historical situation in which the book was written, and then a second post will place On the Incarnation within the corpus of Athanasius's writings. Subsequent posts will deal with each chapter of the work.

Just for classroom context, I've spent the first half of the year walking my students through the New Testament and the Early Church, using the Bible; Eusebius's, Church History; and several other primary texts. The main topics included how the Gospels and Acts write history and presents the person of Jesus; how Eusebius writes history and presents the narrative of the Church from a relatively peaceful obscurity through persecution and into an ascendant peace with Constantine. That brings us to Athanasius, whose book, On the Incarnation, both presents the orthodox understanding of salvation as well as the orthodox view of the Son of God in contradistinction to Arius. In order to prepare the students for the doctrinal context of the book, we discussed the Arian controversy as it played out between the first two ecumenical councils. We did this relying upon David Bentley Hart's chapter from, The Story of Christianity, entitled, "One God in Three Persons: The Earliest Church Councils." What follows is a summary of Hart's discussion.

Although the Edict of Milan brought an end to official persecution of Christians, it opened the opportunity for Christians to discuss their own understanding of Jesus Christ, in particular, His relationship to God the Father and to the Holy Spirit. There are three groups of Christians, other than the orthodox, Hart mentions as vying for their understanding of the Son's identity:

1. "Modalists" held that there is only One God who manifests at different times as "Father," "Son," or "Holy Spirit;" these being "modes" of the One God's singularity.

2. "Adoptionists" held that Christ had been a man who had been "adopted" into divine Sonship by the Father.

3. "Subordinationists" held that the Father alone is God in the fullest sense, the Son being a lesser expression of God, and the Spirit being a lesser expression of the Son.

Subordinationists were particularly concentrated in Alexandria, in part, perhaps, due to the fact that Jews and Pagans also held subordinationist views of God. Philo argued that the Logos, "Son of God," through whom the world was created, served as an intermediary between God and the world. Platonists held that the ultimate divine principle (the One) was so utterly transcendent of the world that all other things exist only through an order of lesser, derivative divine principles. Origen of Alexandria was the most influential early Christian thinker of his day, and his thought, though distinct from these Jewish and Platonist views, nevertheless shared some assumptions about the idea of transcendence and mediation; and he was a subordinationist.

It was in this Alexandrian context that Arius's own views developed and exceeded subordinationists. While Origen denied that the Father and Son we coequal, he nevertheless considered them coeternal. Arius went further, denying both coequality and coeternality to the Son, arguing that "If the Father begat the Son, the one that was begotten has a beginning of existence and from this it is evident that there was a time when the Son was not" (Hart quotes this from Socrates Scholasticus's The Eccelsiastical History). Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria during the time of Arius's arguments, expelled him Alexandria and from his position as presbyter there in 321. Arius published his views and even put them into popular song in 323.

By 324 Constantine had conquered Licinius, the last of his rivals, and brought stability to the empire. Having taken up Christianity as a stabilizing religion for the empire, he could not allow the dissension within the Church to continue. When Arius and Alexander could not be reconciled, Constantine called for a universal council of bishops to convene and determine the position of the Church on the relation of the Son of God to the Father. The First Council of Nicaea convened in 325 and included Arius, Alexander, and the young Athanasius (deacon to Alexander) attended in addition to three hundred or so bishops, most of whom came from the Eastern churches. Arius's doctrines were condemned, and only six bishops (included Arius) refused to accept the orthodox formula set forth in the Nicene Creed. The formula included a term foreign to Scripture, homoousios (consubstantial), which means "of the same substance," to describe the relation of the Son and Father. Though the idea reflects Scriptural descriptions of the Father, Son, and Spirit, it would be the source of ongoing strife.

Despite the unifying purpose of the First Council of Nicaea, the Church continued in controversy over the identity of the Son of God; and even Constantine was persuaded to become Arian by several prominent women in his household. Until the First Council of Constantinople in 381, where the final version of the Nicene Creed was formulated, bishops like Athanasius contended for Nicene orthodoxy over and against the majority who were Arians; often being exiled when Arian emperors came to power, or restored when Nicene emperors came to power. During the aftermath two groups articulated alternatives to Nicene orthodoxy:

1. "Homoeans" held that the Son is "of similar substance" (homoiousios) with the Father.

2. "Anomoeans" held that the Son is altogether unlike the Father.

It turned out to be the anomeans, in the figure of Eunomius, who came to represent the most prominent opposition to Nicene orthodoxy in the generation after 325. Athanasius did not live to see the final stroke fall upon the Arian heresy and its correlates--a threefold stroke struck by the Cappadocian fathers: St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Hart notes that their complex defense of Nicene orthodoxy could be faithfully reduced to a simple series of propositions that were central to salvation in the life of the Early Church (represented also in Athanasius's On the Incarnation): "if it is the Son who joins us to the Father, and only God can join us to God, then the Son is God; and if, in the sacraments of the Church and the life of faith, it is the Spirit who joins us to the Father, and only God can join us to God, then the Spirit too must be God."

The debates all turned on the nature of human salvation--what it took for man to be reconciled with God--and, in the end, only God-Man--fully God, fully Man--could reconcile all men to the Father and restore all Creation to incorruption.

In the next post we'll look at how On the Incarnation provides the cornerstone for Athanasius's three-fold portrait of human salvation.