Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Grace and Salvation: Is it Personal? Or is it Mystical?

Several weeks ago, I went round and round with some of gang at Called to Communion on the topic of Grace in the New Testament.

Grace in the New Testament: An Overview

Grace Part 1: Ancient Greek Conceptions of Grace

Grace Part 2: Biblical (OT and NT) Conceptions of Grace

And I worked through the letter of First Clement and showed how Clement misunderstands not only “grace” but also a number of other things in the New Testament.

Just a short while ago I came across a work by Donald Fairbairn, who picks up some of these “misunderstandings” and traces them further through church history.

Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the author of (among other things), a work called Grace and Christology in the Early Church (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press ©2002), in which he traces a “personal” (in contrast with a “mediated”) view of grace through a number of fourth and fifth century church fathers.

More recently, he’s published a work entitled Patristic Soteriology: Three Trajectories, which again traces three “trajectories” of salvation (and hence grace) through patristic soteriology.

One of these is the Western, or “personal” understanding, as espoused by Irenaeus and later Cyril of Alexandria (in a more “precise” way). The other two are those espoused first by Origen, and later modified by Gregory of Nyssa. Here are some of his comments on both of those “trajectories”.

First, he describes the view of Irenaeus and the “personal” understanding of salvation:

The centrality of a personal understanding of salvation in Irenaeus’s thought, the gift (described as eternal life, adoption, and incorruption) is connected to the Logos himself, to Christ. To be united to Christ is to share in his eternal life, his incorruption. Moreover, we again see that adoption lies at the heart of Irenaeus’s soteriology. When we receive the Logos, the true Son of God, he makes us adopted sons and daughters, and then we are able to share in the Son’s incorruption.

The centrality of a personal understanding of salvation in Irenaeus’s thought is further illustrated by his later work Demonstratio praedicationis apostolicae (written ca. 190). As he introduces the three articles of faith (that is, the three persons of the Trinity), Irenaeus writes that the Son “became a man amongst men, visible and palpable, in order to abolish death, to demonstrate life, and to effect communion between God and man.” Later, he writes of Christ’s preeminence: “Thus, in this way, is the Word of God preeminent in all things, for He is true man and ‘Wonderful Counsellor and Mighty God,’ calling man back again to communion
with God, that by communion with Him we may receive participation in incorruptibility.” Here one should note the order of the statements: communion with God is foundational, and incorruptibility is the result of sharing communion with God …. Participation, for Irenaeus, does not mean merely sharing in some qualities of God, and it emphatically does not mean virtual absorption into God’s being. Instead, Irenaeus uses the idea of participation in a decidedly personal way: through our union with the natural Son of God, we become adopted sons and daughters, and thus we share fellowship or communion with God. Sharing in God’s qualities (such as incorruptibility) follows from this primarily personal way of looking at salvation. By using the idea of participation in God to refer to adoption and communion, Irenaeus plots what I call a personal trajectory, which part of the Church will subsequently follow in describing salvation [emphasis added].

This sounds very much like Calvin’s [monergistic] doctrine of Union with Christ – a thing effected by God’s grace, to which man can never aspire on his own efforts.

Eastern writers Origen and Gregory of Nyssa went in a different direction:

Here one should recognize how sharp the difference between Irenaeus and Origen is, even though both are arguing against the same opponent, Gnosticism. Irenaeus’s rejection of Gnostic dualism enables him to accentuate the importance of the whole person, body and soul. He is then able to describe salvation in personal terms, as the communion of a human being with God through adoption into God’s family, with the result that the whole person shares God’s incorruption. In contrast, Origen’s rejection of Gnostic fatalism pushes him, ironically, toward somewhat of an acceptance of Gnostic dualism: he postulates a cosmos in which the very existence of the physical realm is a result of sin. In such a cosmos, the pre-existence of the souls gives those souls a kinship with God that the bodies, created later, can never have. This, in turn, prevents him from seeing human beings as whole persons, and thus makes it difficult for him to see salvation in personal terms. As a result, in Origen’s system salvation becomes the task of the human soul to achieve mystical union with God, and this soteriology bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Middle Platonic philosophy that had seeped into second-century Alexandrian Christianity through Philo and Clement.

This strong emphasis on salvation as the task of the human soul leads Origen to view participation in God primarily as sharing in God’s holiness, wisdom, and other qualities, not as sharing in his personal fellowship.

Fairbairn calls this the “mystical” trajectory, and it seems to lead to such things as the “chain of being” types of theology (to which a lot of Eastern theologians and some Medieval western theologians adhered).

There are several ways in which Origen’s understanding of salvation serves to plot what I am calling the mystical trajectory. His focus on the free human action to ascend to God, in contrast to a paradigm in which God’s downward action is the primary focus, promotes a view of Christian life in which our action is the key to union with God. His depiction of salvation as participation in God’s qualities, as purification so that we can see God as he really is, creates a climate in which the personal dimensions of salvation are underemphasized. And his insistence that the final state of believers (and indeed, of all creatures) will be immaterial paves the way for a view of salvation that comes dangerously close to blurring the distinctions between individual creatures, and even the distinction between God and all creatures [emphasis added].

That sounds very much like the kinds of things I’ve cited Joseph Ratzinger as saying.

Of Gregory of Nyssa, who provided “a minimalist correction” to Origen, he says, “Gregory continues to see through Origen’s eyes in many ways”.

Where does this “mystical trajectory” lead?

it seems to me that what I am calling the mystical trajectory was the one that gained preeminence during the Byzantine period. The emphases of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa were echoed prominently in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius early in the sixth century [upon whom Aquinas relied, mistakenly thinking that “Pseudo” Dionysius was the real Dionysius from Acts 17]. Later, Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580–662) launched an extensive critique of Origen’s cosmology, allegedly solving once-for-all the problems inherent in it, but in my opinion he did not significantly depart from the overall vision of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. This trajectory may be traced further through Gregory Palamas (ca. 1269–1359), who crystallized the distinction between God’s essence (in which we do not share) and his energies (in which we do share through salvation). With Palamas the Eastern Orthodox Church was locked onto a trajectory in which salvation consists more of participation in God’s qualities, his energies, rather than participation in a relationship [between persons].

Finally, he discusses Cyril of Alexandria, who distinguishes between “unity of substance (which God does not share with us at all), and unity of fellowship (which is the heart of what he does share with us)”:

like Irenaeus and Athanasius, and unlike Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, he places his dominant emphasis on salvation as personal participation. In fact, Cyril’s treatment of this theme is more extensive than that of other patristic writers. He emphasizes that Christians receive both the status of adopted sons and communion with the Father and the Son. More important, Cyril develops technical terminology to emphasize that believers do not share in any way at all in the substance of God, but that we nevertheless do participate in the fellowship that the persons of the Trinity have with one another because they are of the same substance. By developing this terminology, Cyril guards against a mystical concept of salvation (in which the distinction between the saved person and God is blurred) and also affirms the most personal concept of salvation possible. …

…[I]t should be clear that Cyril of Alexandria represents the same trajectory as Irenaeus and Athanasius, but he is considerably more precise than either of them. He guards sedulously against any idea of mystical absorption into God, and he tirelessly promotes a personal concept of participation in which we share in the very love between the Father and the Son. Cyril also places a great deal of emphasis on our human inability to rise up to God, and thus on God’s downward action through the incarnation and crucifixion in order to make us his adopted sons and daughters. These emphases stand in marked contrast to Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Virtually all Greek Fathers use the words “participation” and “deification,” but as I have sought to show, there are at least two quite different ways of understanding these concepts in the patristic period. And I believe that the personal participatory way of understanding salvation deserves a great deal of our attention. We should not let the problems of the mystical pattern lead us to write off altogether the concept of salvation as participation.

Of course, I’m certain that understanding these “trajectories” will require a great deal more study. He applies this to a current evangelical understanding:

Of course, evangelical spirituality, the typical concept of Christian life present among the people in evangelical churches, is abundantly personal. We focus on Jesus as our friend. We speak about “a personal relationship with Christ” or “knowing God personally.” Evangelical sermons and Bible studies stress that Christ is there for us, pulling for us. But I fear that this personal spirituality is often rather distantly removed from the primarily juridical theology common in evangelicalism. Most laypeople—and perhaps even many pastors—are unable to connect the juridical and the personal aspects of evangelical faith, and these aspects remain in separate boxes in people’s minds, relegated to separate sermons from evangelical pulpits.

This is just a very broad-brush view, but my hope is that many more Reformed and Evangelical scholars will follow these threads through history.

Meanwhile, around the turn of the third century, Tertullian asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” The context for this notes that importing secular ideas into Christs teaching is mixing chalk and cheese together.

It seems important to be able to understand how they got mixed, and what the effects were.

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