Union with Christ: Letham (5)

Transformation.

Lane Tipton: “Union with Christ allows Paul to speak in relational and judicial categories simultaneously, without conflating either into the other.”  “Union with Christ and Justification,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for us in Justification, ed. K. Scott Oliphant (Fearn, Ross-Shire, UK: Mentor, 2007), 38.

Jesus’s resurrection is a forensic verdict (Horton).

Ordo Salutis

Explores Gaffin’s comments on the ordo.

Theosis

Humans remain human while deified.  “It is union and communion with the persons of the Trinity” (92).  While Letham is giving the East a fair reading, it must be acknowledged that the Palamite strands of Eastern Orthodoxy revert to an impersonal, energetic union.  See the comments by Vladimir Moss.  Romanides writes, “But in Patristic tradition, God is not a personal God. In fact, God is not even God. God does not correspond to anything we can conceive or would be able to conceive,” Patristic Theology (Uncut Mountain Press: Dalles, Oregon, 2008), pp. 139-140.

What is truly meant by the Athanasian claim that “man becomes God?”   According to Norman Russell, “It is either to emphasize the glorious destiny originally intended for the human race, or to explain that the biblical references to ‘gods’ do not encroach upon the uniqueness of the Word made flesh” (Letham 92-93, quoting Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, 168).   If that is all that is meant, then the Reformed tradition has no real argument, but would better see that under the teaching of “glorification.”

Metochoi (Partakers):  we are called to glory.  This is not alien to Reformed thought but sometimes it doesn’t receive enough attention.  It would be interesting to link this with the OT concept of the glory-cloud.  Points to our destiny.

Letham then quotes numerous sources (almost to overkill) pointing out that the Reformed had a rich and nuanced appreciation of Union with Christ (102-122).

  • Per Calvin, the Spirit unites the spatial difference between us and Christ in the Eucharist (Comm., 11 Corinthians; CO, 49:487, in Letham, 105; see also Institutes, 4.17.10).  “That a life-giving power from the flesh of Christ is poured into us through the medium of the Spirit, even though it is at a great distance from us, and is not mixed with us.”  Here Letham seems to contradict part of his narrative.   He notes (correctly) for Calvin that we participate in God’s attributes, not his being (107).  However, earlier he said that the Greek (Palamite?) view does not see theosis as participation in God’s attributes (92, “Nor, on the other hand, is it simply communion with God’s attributes.”  If, however, Letham means for the East that the communion with the persons is also a communion with the attributes, then there is no real contradiction.  Even still, I have my doubts that the East can truly avoid collapsing the communion with the Persons into a communion with the energies (see comments by Moss and Jenson).
  • Contra detractors, Calvin affirms that the body and blood of Christ are substantially offered.  He simply explains the mode: the Holy Spirit transfuses the flesh of Christ to us (Theological Treatises, 267).  We just reject a local presence.
  • Letham is aware of the Nestorian charge and sense that Calvin drifted there at times, given his comments on 1 Corinthians 15:27-28.   But see Richard Muller’s response to Jurgen Moltmann on that point.
  • Per Polanus there is a real sacramental union and a conjunction between signum and res.

While there are suggestions that Calvin was close to the East, I think Letham overplays that point (115).  However, Letham is correct to criticize Michael Horton’s claim that we participate in the energies of Christ (Horton, Covenant and Salvation, 285, 302). The East does not mean by energies what Horton means by it.

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Union with Christ (Letham)

Creation

“Triadic manner of earth’s formation represents God’s character. He is a relational being” (11).  We see Spirit of God and Speech of God.

Man in the image of God.   Letham spins the Greek image-likeness into First and Second Adam.  All of humanity shares the image with First Adam.   Christ, the Second Adam, is also the image of God.   Regenerate humanity participates in this image.   Letham tries to claim this is what the Greek Fathers said, but he doesn’t offer any references and it doesn’t appear that they said this.  They said all of humanity is created in the image but must achieve the likeness of God.  I like Letham’s proposal. I just don’t think this is what the Greek Fathers said.

So ends chapter 1.  It’s well-written, if somewhat simple in style, and makes good points.  I simply dispute that the Fathers mean what Letham means by it. I think Letham’s model is superior.

Christ in Eastern Thought: Icons (9)

Byzantine piety was rooted in a geographical tradition where the idea of “image” had a cultic priority (173).    Meyendorff locates the iconoclastic imperial motives against icons in looking for a non-Muslim alternative to Greek Christianity.

Neo-Platonic Background

“It forced them to take the defence of material images, while their metaphysics considered matter as an essentially inferior state of existence.  Hence came their relative conception of the image, as a means of access to the divine prototype” (173).

Meyendorff even admits “From the moment paganism ceased to represetnt a real danger for the Christian Church, numerous references to images appeared in Christian literature” (175).

Iconodules reasoned that it wasn’t idolatry as long as the image wasn’t identified with the prototype.  Further, much of their argument rested on the claim that Christ assumed “all of human nature” and was “man in general” (185).

Evaluation

Neither side does a particularly good job of arguing.   The iconoclasts were wrong to say that “God” (whatever you want to mean by that term) cannot be circumscribed, for that would call the incarnation into question.  On the other hand, just because The Word took flesh, does not mean all images of the Word are warranted.   The iconodules make a huge logical jump on that point.

 

Christ in Eastern Thought: Damascene (8)

Defines nature as “a species which can’t be divided into other species” (154, quoting PG 94, col. 593).

Hypostasis: existence by itself (155).

“The Word has the initiative in the work of the Incarnation, and it is evident that the theory of enhypostasis while asserting and underlying Christ’s humanity, shows in an unequivocal way the primordial greatness of the divinity” (156).  No one will accuse John of Damascus of being a monothelite; in fact, his statement appears to be a restatement of the instrumentalization thesis.   Calvinists never say that Christ’s divinity overrides his humanity, or that the Holy Spirit mechanistically does so.  But if Calvinists are to be accused of monothelitism because the divine nature has precedence over the human nature, then the charge must also extend to John of Damascus.

Jesus’s hypostasis:  “constitutes or represents, in a sense, the whole of mankind” (160).  Reformed would say that Jesus represents the whole of mankind, but on covenantal not metaphysical grounds.

original sin: “Sin is not in nature but in the free choice” (162).  “The Greek Fathers conceived original sin as first of all hereditary mortality that mainatined mankind under the devil’s control” (162-163).  The consequence of the sin is that the soul submitted to the body.

John goes on to state that Christ only assumed the incorruptible passions like hunger and death, and not the passions leading to sin.  Interestingly, this isn’t that far removed from the Reformed contention that sin is accidental to the human nature and not a positive principle (cf Charles Hodge).

Christ Eastern Thought: Maximus (7)

“Being implies movement, but gives to that movement an opposite direction; movement does not consist in a fall, as in Origen, but of a movement upward toward God” (133-134).

Man’s will:  possesses a natural will, and that will is a freedom of nature in conformity with divine freedom and unable to lead to anything but the Good (137).

“For Maximus, and for the monastic tradition he represented on that point…the enjoyment of the senses is now more or less identified with the idea of sexual pleasure, and as such expresses what is corrupted in human nature from the moment of sin” (142).

Logos-tropos distinction:  every being posseses in himself a natural law but concretely exists only according to a mode of existence (145).

Gnomic will:  gnome reflects hypostasis or will, but Maximus is not saying that will is hypostatic.  It is the free will of created hypostases.  It is on a level with movement.  The point he wants to make is that sin is a personal action, not a natural one.  Christ did not possess a gnomic will (which raises the question, is he really consubstantial with our humanity?).

Alarmingly, Maximus writes, “Our salvation depends on our will” (149, Liber Asceticus, col. 953b).  “Spiritual life…supposes the transformation of our gnomic will into a ‘divine and angelic gnome'” (149).  Maximus goes on to say that union with God is natural to man, meaning that our nature points to it.

Evaluation

It’s a beautiful metaphysics, maybe the most beautiful.   While he did cut Origenism off at the knees, the spectre of Neo-Platonism and Ps. Dionysius haunts the realm.   We hear absolutely nothing of the gospel proclamation extra nos.  Meyendorff is quick to assure us that Maximus is no Pelagian.  Fair enough (though see comments by Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 17), but is he a semi-Pelagian?

Christ in Eastern Thought: Desert Spirituality (6)

Theme:  Spirituality and soteriology are tied together.  Further tying these two are three sub-themes:  doctrine of the imago dei, rejection of original sin, and deification (114).

Meyendorff begins with this interesting concession:  “There is no patrum consensus for a complete exegesis of Genesis 1:26-27) (114).   Another point where Orthodox Bridge is wrong.

“Image implies a participation in the divine nature” (114).  Commenting on Cyril, Meyendorff says “It appears from this passage that the proper dignity of human nature, as conceived by God and realized by Adam, consists of going beyond itself and receiving illuminating grace” (115).  This is the Eastern version of the Latin donum superadditum.

On freedom:  “The original existence of man presupposed a free participation in God through the intermediary of the superior elements of the human composite, essentially the intellect” (116; cf. McCormack essay and comments on Damascene).

Sin, for Cyril, is conceived as an illness (117).

A Thought:  If salvation is simply participation, does this mean that salvation is in some sense an arising upward of the inner man?  How does this square with the extra nos that comes by preaching?  Further, how does it escape Feuerbach’s critique?

Prayer: principal means of liberating the mind.  “This liberation implies for Evagrius a dematerialization…a prelude to the immaterial gnosis” (121).

Meyendorff is aware that desert spirituality, which seem a communion in the Archetype, borders on semi-Pelagianism.  He assures us this is not the case, for this is a real communion between image and archetype (125).  Perhaps, but if this paradigm is seen to be nonbiblical and neo-Platonic, then it is in trouble.

Rather than shying away from this neo-Platonic language, Meyendorff embraces it:  “All things exist by participation in the Only Existing One, but man has a particular way in which he participates in God, different from that of other beings. He communicates with him freely, for he carries in himself the image of the Creator.  Deification is precisely this free and conscious participation in the divine life” (128-129).

Christ Eastern Thought: False Dionysius (5)

A new “Alexandrianism” appeared in the church after the condemnations of Origen.

“God is a super-essence and therefore can be identified with no being as object of knowledge.  He is beyond any knowledge” (94). How, then, can we know God if he is “beyond-knowing?”  False Dionysius’s answer:  “the mind must go out of itself, for the knowledge of God is beyond the mind” (95).

In distinction from Greek polytheism, Dionysius claims we can’t know God through the natural processes of the senses (99).  I agree to a point.  I do wonder if this meshes with Romans 1:20.

Divine manifestations are God’s names and thus truly present in the world.   No real problem, but one must ask:  are these divine manifestations in a divine hierarchy?  If so, have we really overcome neo-platonism?  Meyendorff appears to answer the question:  the procession is not a dimunition of the divine being but a presence of God in the fullness of his being (100-101).  Fair enough, but why then the need for hierarchy at all?

Cosmology

Meyendorff gives a lucid summary of neo-platonic ontology:

All reality proceeds from the One, transcendent and unpartakeable, and is determined in a rigorous system of gradations, in proportion to the remoteness of each being in relation to its origin.  Each superior order (taxis) serves, on the other hand, as an intermediary for the inferiors, and, on the other hand, is itself divided into three elements:  the unpartakeble , the partakable, and the participating, and constitutes a triad (101, cf. Celestial Hierarchy, V, 6).

Ecclesiology

Triad of bishop, priest, deacon.   Meyendorff notes (and disapproves!) of the intermediary structure.

Problems

  1. How coherent is it to speak of the mind knowing by going outside of itself?  We are back to chain of being.  Something is simply wrong with man qua man that we need something added to him (and they don’t mean wrong in the sense of sin, but of finitude).
  2. Meyendorff downplays the role of Ps.Dionysius in the East.