Posts Tagged patristic fathers

D.B. Hart: “For my money, if Origen was not a saint and church father, then no one has any claim to those titles.”

DB-Hart

David Bentley Hart, Orthodox Theologian and Philosopher

“For my money, if Origen was not a saint and church father, then no one has any claim to those titles. And the contrary claims made by a brutish imbecile Emperor are of no consequence.”  – D.B. Hart, from a blog post 11 May 2015.

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St. Gregory of Nyssa: Moses and “Luminous Darkness”… “seeing that consists in not seeing”.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395), is one of the three Great Cappadocian Fathers along with his older brother, St. Basil the Great, and friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus.  I especially love Gregory Nyssen for his deep spirituality and mysticism.  He was a highly original and sophisticated thinker who remains controversial among both liberal and conservative theologians to this day.  In his treatise The Life of Moses, St. Gregory tells us that a person’s encounter of the mystery of God corresponds to the three theophanies of Moses, involving successive entry into light, cloud, and darkness.  

According to St. Gregory Nyssen, the first stage in our quest to encounter God is Moses’ vision of God as the light of the burning bush; illuminating the darkness of our sin and ignorance.  The second stage involves a journey from light into partial darkness where Moses encounters God as the ‘cloud’; the intermingling of light and darkness, revealing the distance between the Creator and the created realm. The third and final stage entails Moses entering the darkness of Sinai where God is; and our realization upon encountering and even being united with God that He is utterly incomprehensible in his essence. 

In this treatment, I think, St. Gregory of Nyssa clearly identifies both cataphatic and apophatic theology, bridges the two and holds the tension between them, drawing the best from both.

 

St Gregory of Nyssa

St. Gregory of Nyssa

“What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first theophany, for then the divine was beheld in light but now He is seen in darkness. Let us not think that this is at variance with the sequence of things we have contemplated spiritually. Scripture teaches by this that religious knowledge comes at first to those who receive it as light. Therefore what is perceived to be contrary to religion is darkness; an escape from darkness comes about when one participates in the light. But as the mind progresses and, through an ever greater and more perfect diligence, comes to apprehend reality, as it approaches more nearly to contemplation, it sees more clearly that God cannot be contemplated. For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible and there it sees God.  This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness. Therefore John the sublime who penetrated into the luminous darkness, says “no one has ever seen God,” thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by humans but also by every intelligent creature.  When, therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had then come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension, for the text says,‘Moses approached the dark cloud where God was’.”   ~ The Life of Moses

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Maximos the Confessor: “How is unceasing prayer possible?”

Dover Beach

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“How is unceasing prayer possible? When we are singing the Psalms, when we are reading the Scriptures, when we are serving our neighbor, even then it is easy enough for the mind to wander off after irrelevant thoughts and images.
Yet the Scriptures do not require impossibilities. St. Paul himself sang the Psalms, read the Scriptures, offered his own apostolic service, and nonetheless prayed uninterruptedly.
Unceasing prayer means to have the mind always turned to God with great love, holding alive our hope in Him, having confidence in Him whatever we are doing and whatever happens to us.
That is the attitude that the Apostle had when he wrote: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”…
Thanks to this attitude of mind, Paul prayed without ceasing. In all that he did and in all that happened to him, he kept alive his hope in God.”

– St. Maximos…

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Diadochos of Photiki: “Early Mention of the ‘Jesus Prayer’, c. AD 450”

Saint Diadochos of Photiki (c. AD 400 – c. 486).   “On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination. One Hundred Texts”, No. 31. From Philokalia, Vol. 1.  One of the earliest written references to the “Jesus Prayer”; “the remembrance of the glorious and holy name of the Lord Jesus

Diadochus

“When our intellect begins to perceive the grace of the Holy Spirit, then Satan, too, importunes the soul with a sense of deceptive sweetness in the quiet times of the night, when we fall into a light kind of sleep. If the intellect at that time cleaves fervently to the remembrance of the glorious and holy name of the Lord Jesus and uses it as a weapon against Satan’s deception, he gives up this trick and for the future will attack the soul directly and personally. As a result the intellect clearly discerns the deception of the evil one and advances even further in the art of discrimination.”

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Saint Maximus the Confessor: “Flee from self-love”, philautía (φιλαυτία)

Dover Beach

Saint Maximus the Confessor

“Flee from self-love, the mother of malice, which is an irrational love for the body. For from it are born the three chief sinful passions: gluttony, avarice, and vainglory, which take their causes from bodily needs, and from them all the tribe of the passions is born. This why we must always oppose self-love and fight against it. Whoever rejects self-love will easily conquer all the other passions with the help of God: anger, despondency, rancor, and the others. But whoever is retained by self-love will even unwillingly be conquered by the above-named passions.”

– Saint Maximus the Confessor

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Gregory of Nyssa – “… only wonder grasps anything”

Greg Nyssa icon

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) – one of the great Cappadocian Fathers

 

 

“Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.”   ~  Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses    

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Atonement Theory 1

 

“We know that the Atonement works; but how it works is not as clear.”

 

Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins (cf., 1 Cor. 15:3). In this way he fulfilled the old covenant sacrificial system, reconciled us to God, and changed our lives forever.

That is the doctrine of the Atonement.  Its reality is not in dispute. However, many Christians struggle to understand this doctrine. We know that the Atonement works; but how it works is not as clear. Over the centuries many different theories have been suggested to explain how the Atonement works.

Many contemporary Western Latin Christians (Roman Catholics and Protestants) are unaware that there are other theories of the nature of Jesus Christ’s atonement.  Most are only familiar with their own Roman Catholic Satisfaction Theory of atonement or the related Protestant Penal Substitution Theory.  My guess is that few Catholics or Protestants are aware that both of their respective atonement theories are relatively new innovations theologically and neither reflects the theology of the ancient Christian church.  Consequently, even fewer Western Christians are likely familiar with the predominant atonement view held by those in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is commonly called The Recapitulation Theory, which does reflect ancient Christian tradition dating back to the late 2nd century.

First, a very general chronological overview of the four major Christian atonement theories

  • Moral Influence Theory (2nd century)
  • “Christus Victor”/Ransom/Recapitulation Theory (late 2nd century)
    • These are different, but generally considered together as the “Patristic” or “Classical” understandings of the early Church Fathers
  • Satisfaction Theory (11th century)
    • Developed by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109).
  • Penal Substitution Theory (16th century)
    • A variation of Anselm’s satisfaction theory developed by the Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin (1509-1564), and is often treated together with the satisfaction theory

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Atonement Theory 2

“…the classical or patristic view, … can be variously interpreted as the Ransom or Recapitulation view, under the general heading of ‘Christus Victor’.”

Throughout the centuries, Christians have used different metaphors and given differing explanations of Christ’s atonement to express how the atonement might work. The four most well-known theories are briefly described below:

The earliest explanation for how the atonement works is often called by contemporary scholarship the Moral Influence Theory.  According to this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change. He is understood to have accomplished this through a combination of his teachings, personal example, his founding of the ekklesia (Church), and the inspiring power of his crucifixion and resurrection. This view was taught by the Church Fathers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD along with what is called the classical or patristic view, which can be variously interpreted as the Ransom or Recapitulation view, under the general heading of “Christus Victor”.  Peter Abelard (1079-1142) re-popularized The Moral Influence Theory in the Medieval period partially in reaction against Anselm’’s Satisfaction theory (below).  It remains the most popular view of atonement among theologically liberal Protestant Christians.

Chronologically, the second theory, the “Christus Victor”/Ransom/RecapitulationTheory, was first clearly articulated by Irenaeus (early 2nd century – c. AD 202), Bishop of modern-day Lyon, France.  Gustav Aulén, in his 1931 book Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, gives us a description of “Christus Victor” as, “the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.”

“Christus Victor” and “Ransom” differ slightly from each other: in the Ransom metaphor Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to sin and Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom sacrifice (cf., Matthew 20:28).  Victory over Satan consists of exchanging the life of the perfect man (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind).  The “Christus Victor” theory, on the other hand, does not see Jesus as a ransom, but rather as defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor (Satan).

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Atonement Theory 3

 “Anselm used the analogy of Medieval Feudal society to illustrate his theory.”

The Recapitulation Theory is another variation of the “Christus Victor” model and also dates to the very early Church.  In the recapitulation view of the atonement, Christ is seen as the new Adam who succeeds where Adam failed.  Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and, because of his union with humanity, leads humankind on to union with God and eternal life.  This theory is found throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers.   Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373), the hero of the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, wrote the classic treatise On The Incarnation of the Logos in AD 318 which explains the overall Recapitulation view very well.

The “Christus Victor” Theory and its variants dominated Christian theology for a thousand years until Anselm of Canterbury moved the Latin West toward the “Satisfaction” theory in the 11th century.

The third atonement theory, the Satisfaction Theory, was developed by the 11th century theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109).  According to this theory, mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to the sovereign God himself.  Anselm used the analogy of Medieval Feudal society to illustrate his theory.  A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign, he cannot if the state has been dishonored. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy, and that Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. Therefore, the doctrine would be that Jesus gave himself as a “ransom for many”, to God the Father himself.

The next atonement theory, which was a development by the Reformers (including Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon) is based on Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory.  It is the widely held Protestant Penal Substitution Theory which, instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honor, sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (‘the wages of sin is death’), Penal Substitution sees sinful man as being subject to God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus’ saving work being his substitution in the sinner’s place, bearing the curse in the place of man (cf., Galatians 3:13).

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Atonement Theory 4

“The Penal Substitution Theory sees Christ’s suffering and death as the price for man’s sin.”

 

The Penal Substitution Theory sees Christ’s suffering and death as the price for man’s sin.  In many ways, the model for Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a courtroom.  Due to his sin, man needed to be made right with a perfect and just God.  Therefore, Christ came to suffer and pay the price in our place, i.e., He substituted Himself for us.  Now, in the courtroom of God, those who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior are judged innocent.  They have a forensic righteousness imputed upon them.

Clearly, Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Latin Christianity have significantly different theories of atonement as part of their respective soteriologies (doctrines of salvation).  The contemporary Orthodox Recapitulation Theory agrees with Western Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories in so far as God needed to deal with man’s sin.  Man was separated from God as a result of the fall and, left to his own devices, was incapable of returning to God.  However, the Orthodox see God’s model of dealing with man’s sin as a hospital rather than a courtroom.  This stands in sharp contrast to the forensic, legalistic models of Roman Catholic Satisfaction and Protestant Penal Substitution.

Instead of viewing the atonement as Christ paying the price for sin in order to satisfy a wrathful God, Recapitulation teaches that Christ became human to heal mankind by perfectly uniting the human nature to the Divine Nature in His person.  Through the Incarnation, Christ took on human nature, becoming the Second Adam, and entered into every stage of humanity, from infancy to adulthood, uniting it to God.  He then suffered death to enter Hades and destroy it.  After three days, He resurrected and completed His task by destroying death.

By entering each of these stages and remaining perfectly obedient to the Father, Christ recapitulated every aspect of human nature.  He said “Yes” where Adam said “No” and healed what Adam’s actions had damaged.  This enables all of those who are willing to say yes to God to be perfectly united with the Holy Trinity through Christ’s person, the Logos, the Son.  In addition, by destroying death, Christ reversed the consequence of the fall.  Now, all can be resurrected.  Those who choose to live their life in Christ can be perfectly united to the Holy Trinity, receiving the full love of God’s grace.  However, those who reject Christ and choose to live their lives chasing after their passions will perceive the love of God as torment, as hell.

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