One More Thought Prompted by Gregory of Nazianzus

As the title of Beeley’s book reveals, Gregory placed much emphasis on the knowledge of God. While I read through it, I began wondering how it was the knowledge could effect salvation in the way that Gregory proposes. This must not be taken in a contemporary sense of what knowledge is (often assumed to be some type of cognitive content). For Gregory, there is the process of purification and illumination (ch. 1 in Beeley’s book) by the Holy Spirit which points to Christ and through him to the Father. God is incomprehensible, but not unknowable and to my great surprise Gregory doesn’t hold to the essence/energies distinction found in Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. One can know God’s essence (though only partially) by knowing the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. That, however, is another topic altogether. More importantly here, Beeley’s book caused me to question how it is that knowledge can effect salvation. I will call it the Cognitive Salvation Model (CSM) and contrast it to what is taken to be it’s opposite (though whether it is or not is another question), the Ethical Salvation Model (ESM). Or, to put it more simply, deeds over creeds. I began to wonder whether those who are critical of CSM in favor of a type of ESM ever put worship of God into the type of action necessary for salvation. I ask this because my initial impression is that such a proposition would push one back into CSM,which of course would be self-defeating for ESM proponents. Obviously this is an over-simplificiation for the sake of analysis, but I wish worship of God was seen as a more important aspect of the “dogmas” (i.e., sine qua non) of salvation according to Christianity.


Two Thoughts on Gregory of Nazianzus

Just finished Dr. Christopher A. Beeley’s book Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light (an excellent introduction to Gregory’s theology), hence the many recent posts on/related to Gregory. Two thoughts have remained in my mind throughout my reading of the book.

  1. If Gregory edited his orations into the order that we now have them, then should they not be studied in that order? I wonder what insights might be gained by doing that. For instance, is it a coincidence that the first and last oration are Easter orations? Or that the first three orations deal with issues related to the difficulty of ministry? If I were to hazard a guess without actually having in my possession all 45 orations (or of even having read more than seven or eight), I would say that Gregory’s arrangement might be as a handbook for ministers which reinforces true doctrine (i.e., belief in the Trinity) with insights into the difficulties and joys of being a minister. Definitely something worth looking into.
  2. In Gregory, and in many other Patristic writers, there is a sense in which salvation is the beginning of a long healing process in which the mind and the body are slowly trained to be reoriented towards God. This got me thinking about Paul’s epistle to the Romans (now that I think about it, I’m not sure where the connection was), specifically the part in Romans 7 about the two different laws; one of my mind and one of the “members” of my body. When I revisited this passage, I all of a sudden saw the human flesh as a hindrance to spiritual progress (of course, the good Kupyrians/neo-Calvinists/N.T. Wright may shudder at the thought of “demonizing” physical existence as “Platonic”). Paul’s rhetorical quesiton about deliverance from a body of death refers to his real body (but not necessarily a complete removal from the physical body). If this is the case, could the law of the Spirit be a literal transformation of my physical humanity? I don’t know, and would have to look into this more. At the same time, I wondered if there are any precedents in earlier writers (Greek or Hellenistic Jew) which referred to human nature in terms of “law”. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree, but I am interested in biblical precedents for the Patristic understanding of the transformation of human nature by the spirit pre-resurrection.

Questions about Free Will

Most Christians (unless you teach at Fuller) will hold some sort of mind/body dualism. That is, the mind is not a physical object. If this is so, can one speak of the mind using physical-causal language? Is it right to think of the relations of ideas as one thinks of the relations of two objects interacting causally? Does a non-materialist view of the mind eliminate objections to free will (i.e., classical combatibalism expressed in similar ways by Christians such as Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards)?

Two Proposals on Free Will

Proposal 1: To avoid theological confusion and controversy, maybe the language of “free will” should be replaced with “morally responsible agency,” because isn’t that what most people are trying to say anyways?

Proposal 2: When speaking about the belief of “free will” in the Early Church, understand what they meant by free will in their own context because the concept has changed over time

The Rationale of Arianism

I’m now reading through Hanson’s account of Arianism and trying to differentiate his view from Gregg and Groh which I have posted on recently. He agrees with them that one must not think of Arianism as merely philosophical speculation on cosmology or the transcendence of God.  In other words, Arianism has a soteriology. Their doctrine of God is tied into their understanding of salvation. Yet, as I’ve mentioned before, Hanson critiques Gregg and Groh’s analysis (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 97-98).

1) Gregg and Groh align Arianism closer to Stoicism than Middle Platonism, but the relevant Stoic vocabulary is missing (though there is the use of Middle Platonist and Aristotelian terminology). Though, this isn’t that significant especially when one considers the Arian insistence on using only scriptural terms. Thus, while technical vocabulary would make the scholars job easier, I think Gregg and Groh’s point is that a Stoicism makes more sense of the data than Middle Platonism. That is, their thesis is a hypothesis and not a sum. It’s value should be weighed against the evidence to see if it makes sense of the data the best.

2) While there is evidence that the Arian’s gave value to the idea of a morally progressing Son, there is also evidence that the Son cannot make moral progress. Hanson’s argument is simply that if the Son received grace according to his foreseen merit, and that grace produced sinlessness (not by nature), then Christ would not be able to morally progress.  I’m not entirely convinced by this argument either because Gregg and Groh argue that the grace given is essentially adoption as Son and not sinlessness. Remember, Christ’s foreseen merit was that he would not sin (see the quote on my post “The Arian View of Salvation”), so sinlessness by grace cannot be the reward. The reward (i.e., “grace”) is adoption as Son.

3) The third objection is the most serious, and that is that Christ cannot be the virtuous man because he really isn’t a man. This points to Hanson’s analysis (to be quoted below) of the rationale of Arianism, namely that the pre-existent Christ assumed human flesh without a human soul. Yes, Christ is the example, but he is not an example of a human being making moral progress. This is an legitimate point, but I wonder how relevant it actually is. Gregg and Groh aren’t saying that the Arian view of salvation is that a man lived a perfectly virtuous life, but that a creature did (again, see my post, “The Arian View of Salvation”). If their view of salvation was one of example, then does it matter whether the example comes from a true man (i.e., with a human soul) or a true creature?

Nonetheless, I think Hanson’s analysis is worth quoting because it does illuminate something that was oddly absent from Gregg and Groh’s analysis.

We can now perceive the rationale of Arianism. At the heart of the Arian Gospel was a God who suffered. Their elaborate theology of the relation of the Son to the Father which so much preoccupied their opponents was devised in order to find a way of envisaging a Christian doctrine of God which would make it possible to be faithful to the Biblical witness to a God who suffers. This was to be achieved by conceiving of a lesser God as reduced divinity who would be ontologically capable, as the High God was not, of enduring human experiences, including suffering and death. This might be called an exemplarist soteriology, not in the sense that they presented the example of a man gaining perfection by moral effort, but in the sense that it was an example of God suffering as man suffers, or at least what man suffers, in order to redeem man. Arian writers are fully convinced of the genuine humanity of the body which the Logos assumed. They are not tempted to suggest, as many pro-Nicene writers do, that Christ’s human nature, though genuinely human, was not the same as ours because it was derived from a Virgin without the interposition of male generation, though of course all Arians believed in the virginal conception of Jesus. But they insist that what this Word assumed when he became incarnate was a soma (body) without a psyche (soul). Arianism never seems to have faced, as Apollinarianism may be said to have faced, the question of the mind, the nous, nor of the spirit, the pneuma, of the incarnate Son. Because Arians were determined that the Son of God did genuinely, seriously, undergo human experiences, within the limits of their doctrine they understood the scandal of the Cross much better than the pro-Nicenes. Neither Athanasius nor Hilary nor the Cappadocians could ever have envisaged the self-emptying of the Son as Asterius did, nor have written etiam sui ipsius impassibilitatem praeposuit salutem humanam (he even placed human salvation before his own immunity from suffering). Here Arian thought achieved an important insight into the witness of the New Testament denied to the pro-Nicenes of the fourth century, who unanimously shied away from and endeavoured to explain away the scandal of the Cross. We must give the Arians credit for this insight. But of course they only achieved their doctrine of the Incarnation at the expense of an account of the Christian doctrine of God which in effect taught two unequal gods, a High God incapable of human experiences, and a lesser God who, so to speak, did his dirty work for him. most of us will conclude that this was too high a price to pay.

As for the old contrast between cosmology or ontology and soteriology in Arianism, we have seen good reason to believe that this is a false problem. Arianism did not consist only of Prestige’s ‘glittering syllogisms’ nor was it composed of two incompatible halves (Harnack). The ontology fitted the soteriology and the soteriology the ontology. Once we understand the true rationale of Arianism, we realize that the two sides fit very well together, have in face been devised to fit together, and that it is only by accident that we have been given the impression that either Arius or his followers cared only for defining the relation of the Son to the Father. They laboured for and upheld that definition because they held a concrete and by no means contemptible doctrine of salvation which that definition was intended to undergird.”

-R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 121-122.

It’s a long quote, but then Hanson never did take Polonius’ advice. My only question, though, is regarding the mechanics of salvation according to Hanson’s picture. Yes, the Arians had a vision of a God who suffered (even if only vicariously through the Son), but how does that save humankind? Gregg and Groh were very clear on this, but Hanson seems to stop short of a clear explanation. It seems that Hanson’s construction looks like the Arian’s held a similar view of salvation as to that of Athanasius. That is, Christ suffered like us and thus took upon himself our infirmities, etc… This could make sense of the debate in that they held to a similar view of salvation, the only difference is Christology. Athanasius would then be arguing that in order for the similar soteriology to work, Christ must be truly divine. Hopefully this will come up when he discusses Athanasius, but for now I’m at a loss.

The Athanasian View of Salvation

“Essentialist” thinking constitutes the basis of Athanasius’ soteriology. We can see this most clearly by realizing that Athanasius founds his soteriology and Christology in a description of the characteristics of human nature rather than the human “situation.” That is to say, what we predicate about human nature, qua physical beings, is the key to salvation’s necessity and content. For example, the dominant problem which necessitates the physical incarnation of the redeemer is not the disobedience of human creatures. People disobeyed beginning with Adam and continuing with great persistence and no little inventiveness in that venture. But since the Fall and its perdurance, something radical has happened. Athanasius speaks of it in a variety of ways; but anthropologically, it means that death, mortality, and corruption are no longer external to human nature but an essential part of it. Therefore repentance, while important to a proper Christian attitude, is simply irrelevant to the initial reversing of the human condition:

Now if there were merely a misdemeanor in question, and not a consequent corruption (φθορά), repentance were well enough. But if, when transgression had once gained a start, men became involved in that corruption which was their nature, and were deprived of the grace which they had, being in the image of God, what further step was needed? Or what was required for such grace and such recall, but the Word of God…”

What we have after repentance (which means turning and willing what God wills) is an obedient creature who is dying, fading, rotting away–in short, penitent corpses! However, there are those mortals who now by the grace of the incarnation have escaped the consequences of their natures and who anticipate the benefits of the resurrection. And in the Life of Antony Athanasius has given us a portrait of one–we notice at points in the tract that Antony does not age or change in physical appearance. Antony shows by anticipation the properties of that grace which in the resurrection life will reverse mortal characteristics, even as the representative body of the Logos itself experienced no decay… Moreover, Athanasius describes our human plight in the De Incarnatione in terms of the fading funeral portrait… Here the Athanasian concern goes well beyond patristic commonplaces which view death neutrally as the “debt we all owe nature,” or even beyond the usual consequence of death as punishment for sin against God. It is not just death but continuing corruption even after death which is the real problem.

Athanasius’ Logos becomes incarnate because the cosmos is dissolving (διαλύειν). It is ontologically linked to “that which is not” and therefore abides in death, not simply in the sense that we die, but in the sense that we are disintegrating (διαλύειν). It is the perishing creation, this dissolving cosmos, this world on the brink of utter dissolution, that is offensive to God’s goodness. it is bad publicity for God because it is effacing God’s works. It is not a consequence of the divine nature that the Son takes a body but a requisite of stabilizing a universe about to give God its Creator a very bad name indeed.

-Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh, Early Arianism– A View of Salvation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 177-178.

The Arian View of Salvation

Just as I expected (and hoped), Gregg and Groh have elaborated the Arian view of salvation, which is pretty much what I was expecting  it to be based upon what they had said so far. Here is a long quote that summarizes nicely their proposed Arian view of salvation.

The Arian scheme of askesis proceeds from the axiomatic identification of Christ with creatures. Possible of attainment by other originate beings is his progress in wisdom, stature, and divine favor. As Christ was chosen and named “Son” because of the works he performed (works foreknown by God), so believers are adopted and perfected by following in the way of his obedience and moral excellence, his works done as a creature. The exemplar is not categorically other, “unlike us and like the Father’; hence the imitation envisioned is straightforward and strictly possible. The reason Arian Christians can assert, “we too are able to become sons of God, just as (ὥσπερ) [Christ],” is unambiguous: Christ’s election as a reward for his discipline, for his perseverance in the good by choice, is within the reach of fellow creatures. Athanasius protests his opponents’ insolent claim to be Christ’s equal, and in the process describes their position exactly:

There will be no difference between him and those who receive the name [that is, of “son”] after their actions (πράξεις), as this is the ground upon which he also has been declared to be Son.

Within this soteriological plan the word χάρις carries a distinctive meaning. In contrast to orthodoxy’s substantialist concept of grace as something “stored” in and dispensed from divine nature, Arianism attaches connotations of volition and transaction to the term. For Arius both Christ and creatures possess sonship “by grace,” and both can be said to have grace only derivatively–by attribution rather than by nature. It is the same thing to say that the savior is Son “by adoption,” “by participation,” and “by grace.” Although the election of the Son is a gracious act of God in the sense that divine initiative is involved, this “certain one” is named “Son” because his virtuous conduct merits the appellation. His grace, like his glory, though bestowed by God, is won by his own consistent choice of the good. Likewise, as Arian believers aspired to fulfill their adopted sonship in emulation of “the pioneer and perfecter of their faith,” they attained grace through moral diligence and discipline. When in De Decretis 9 Athanasius describes the sonship of the Arian Christ by saying that the “name was by grace united to him…for his virtue’s sake,” he also describes the dynamic which Arians see at work in the believers’ progress toward God, and the foundation for their idea of askesis. Perfected sonship consists in doing the works and enduring the testings accomplished first by the one Arius called “the perfect creature of God.”

-Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh, Early Arianism– A View of Salvation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 144–145.

With that said, I must also make a correction to what was said in the previous post. I still think the essentialist language could explain Augustine’s understanding of impartation, but it probably wasn’t fair to suggest that imputation alone leads to Arianism. I suppose the question should be more along the lines of sanctification since those who push imputation do so with a clear distinction between justification and sanctification in mind.

Does viewing sanctification in merely moral terms lead to Arianism? Do Protestant views of sanctification have any room for an essential change in human nature? I suppose I ask this because I never reflected on that specific dynamic of sanctification before and now that I do, I think I had always thought of sanctification as an empowerment (not a change, even though language of change was used) to live a righteous life. God never changed my nature (since I had Christ’s righteousness imputed to my account which never touched my actual nature), he only changed my mind. How much of that attitude is prevalent in American Christianity and how much of it derives from the development of  secular psychology?