Tuesday 10 November 2015

The Son is not great: Athanasius on orthodox christology

It is now a well-known fact that Arianism was not overcome by Athanasius, but by modern historical scholars overcoming Athanasius. But we can hardly blame Athanasius for the Arians, since he himself was not a modern historical scholar and so was not in a position to adhere to the guild rules.

Since we are so careful to uncover the true legacy of Arius, we should be equally diligent in our attempts to present the theological vision of Athanasius. It would be simply wrong to say that he disagreed with Arius' "low christology" and presented his own "high christology" in response. The stature of the Son was not the heart of the question. As Athanasius points out, scripture does not depict the Son as more illustrious than other creatures. Divinity is not measured in greatness.

The angels worship the Son, Athanasius observes, but not because he is greater than them. “The angels served [the Son] as one who is other than them.” If all that was required to be eligible as an object of worship was greatness, then we would all be free to worship other creatures instead of God. But Cornelius is told not to worship Peter, and John is told not to worship the angel. The Son is worshipped “not as one who is greater in glory, but as being other… than all creatures.”

As you read through the works of Athanasius, you do not uncover a scheme to elevate the status of the Son, but the astonishment of one who has discovered the humility of God. In De Incarnatione, he addresses those who wonder why the Son should come as a human instead of one of the “other more noble parts of creation… as the sun or moon or stars or fire or air?” Because, he suggests, the Lord did not come to “be put on display but to heal… One being put on display only needs to appear and dazzle the beholders; but one who heals and teaches does not simply sojourn, but is of service to those in need.”

Which leads me to wonder whether the categories of "high" and "low" christology are still useful at all as indicators of orthodoxy. If we think of "high christology" as emphasising the divinity of Christ, we find that Apollinaris undoubtedly had a "high" christology, but he's still a heretic. If we are tempted to think that there can be some negotiated compromise between the two, we need only remember poor old Eutyches, and his fateful mediating ousia. The language can be retained only if they cease to be poles on a continuum. A faithful christology is simultaneously "high" and "low"--a theology of the high made low for our sake.

The Son is not merely greater than us, but is entirely different to us. The good news of the gospel is that he becomes one of us. Salvation rests in the blessed union of difference and solidarity in the person of Christ.


Unknown said...

Lucid, amusing, important -- and irrefutable. Many thanks, Steve.

brian said...

How about stressing a kenotic Christology as an alternative wording that embraces your insight? I suppose that term already carries its own ambiguities and has been used differently by different folks, but I still find it helpful.

geoffrey holsclaw said...

Excellent post. I couldn't agree more. I was just teaching through early Christological heresies on Monday, and the common theme is not whether one was low or high, but rather then only orthodoxy christology is BOTH low and high at the same time. Heresies resolve the mystery to one end or the other.

John Hartley said...

Dear Steve, I was a bit puzzled by your use of the words "other than" as a corrective to the description "greater than".

"Divinity is not measured in greatness" - quite so, but it isn't measured in otherness either. Rather more subtly, if all that was required to be eligible as an object of worship was otherness, then we would be free to worship other others besides God. Surely the Son is worshipped not as one who is greater in glory, nor as one who is simply other than all creatures, but because of his identity as God.

I am no expert on Arius, Athanasius or Apollinaris, but surely the question at issue is not the difference between the Son and other creatures, whether that difference be a matter of degree or kind. Surely the issue is the identity of the Son with the Godhead.

Every blessing, yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY

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