St. Athanasius: A Man for All Seasons

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St. Athanasius

ATHANASIUS: THE TRUE MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

By Christopher C. MacDonald  

As impressive as Paul Scofield was in his portrayal of Thomas More in the 1966 film A Man For All Seasons, the man of conscience depicted there cannot really hold a candle to St. Athanasius who was once known as “Athanasius Contra Mundum (Latin forAthanasius Against the World).”[1]

My assertion is that in the middle of our relativistic Postmodern landscape in which we have either commercialized Jesus into a form of “Betterment Gospel” or dispersed him in some form of idealized semi-Gnostic way it is exactly with Athanasian clarity that we need to re-frame – or at least refresh – our Christology in significant ways.

The following are four short snapshots from Athanasius’ brilliantly compact booklet entitledOn the Incarnation. Each was selected expressly for its relevance to the current Postmodern situation.

Let us admit from the outset that while Athanasius had enemies it was a smaller pool. He did not have to answer an unending number of critics coming from all sides. Nor did he have to deal with the legacies of centuries old “theologies” and traditions (as he was writing in the Fourth Century.)

Context

Athansius sees the controversy or question over the “Word made flesh” in terms straight out of 1 Corinthians 1:18-23 concerning the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God:

Now, Macarius, true lover of Christ, we must take a step further in the faith of our holy religion, and consider also the Word’s becoming Man and His divine Appearing in our midst. That mystery the Jews traduce, the Greeks deride, but we adore; and your own love and devotion to the Word also will be the greater, because in His Manhood He seems so little worth.[2]

 

Firmly rooted within St. Paul’s rubric which understands an inherent blindness on the part of both Jews and Gentiles to the “mystery” of  Christ’s true dual nature, Athanasius sets out to boldly make the case to both audiences nonetheless. The motive seems to be adoration, devotion and truth-telling.

  1. The Word Incarnate is the Agent of Creation and of Salvation

Athanasius is utterly clear where we are so utterly vague and confused on the utter connection between Creation and Redemption:

“the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.”

 

One of the things which is striking in reading Athanasius is how he weaves scripture artfully through his presentation – not proof-texting as we so often do (like hanging a hat on a peg), but rather lacing his presentation with strains of well-chosen passages that are placed almost organically within his argument.

 

He sees the beauty and seamlessness of Christ as the Agent of Creation Who now is also the redemption of that Creation once fallen.

 

  1. Human History has Meaning and Corruption is Thwarted.

Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection…You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.[3]

 

When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) human history had been more than simply “tampered with.” Any talk of a Creator winding up Creation and walking off to let it do its thing was off the table. This was a God willing to gestate in a womb for nine months and spill out of a womb. This was the Word willing to take on sin, the devil and death. What happened in time and space mattered because as T.S. Eliot so eloquently would later write:

Then came, at a predetermined moment, a moment in time and of time,
A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history:

transecting, bisecting the world of time, a moment in time but not like a moment of time,

A moment in time but time was made through that moment :

for without the meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave the meaning.

Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of the Word,
Through the Passion and Sacrifice saved in spite of their negative being;[4]

 

Biblical faith is one of incarnation not reincarnation. That God came into the world as flesh and blood in time and space means what happens here and now matters. IT also demonstrates the extraordinary love of God.

  1. We Die a Different Death Overshadowed by Resurrection

Having set out the dilemma for a fallen and corruptible humanity in chapters 2-3  Athanasius begins to turn to the results of the Word made Flesh’s redemptive rescue operation saying:

We who believe in Christ no longer die, as men died aforetime, in fulfillment of the threat of the law. That condemnation has come to an end; and now that, by the grace of the resurrection, corruption has been banished and done away, we are loosed from our mortal bodies in God’s good time for each, so that we may obtain thereby a better resurrection.[5]

 

This seems a more cavalier attitude than the one we Postmoderns carry with us in our near silence on bodily resurrection as a reality and our avoidance with the rest of culture on mortality. Athanasius, along with the New Testament writers (especially Paul) see the resurrection hope as particularly powerful. Some modern authors do to. I am reminded of sociologist Peter Berger’s comment that “given the resurrection of Jesus “nothing is ultimately tragic.”[6] That can certainly be a game-changer in planning and living out one’s life and faith. What he means is simply that the power of death was sin and that died with Christ as sacrifice and then He was raised up from the dead, “Death used to be strong and terrible, but now, since the sojourn of the Savior and the death and resurrection of His body, it is despised; and obviously it is by the very Christ Who mounted on the cross that it has been destroyed and vanquished finally.” (On the Incarnation, p. 45).

  1. The Word Made Flesh leads to Peace Not War-Like Militarism

Athanasius, in his refutation of the Gentiles and his evangelistic appeal, writes something we dearly need to hear today as we attempt to join military might to religious agendas (specifically Christian):

While they were yet idolaters, the Greeks and Barbarians were always at war with each other, and were even cruel to their own kith and kin. Nobody could travel by land or sea at all unless he was armed with swords, because of their irreconcilable quarrels with each other. … as I said before, they were serving idols and offering sacrifices to demons, and for all the superstitious awe that accompanied this idol worship, nothing could wean them from that warlike spirit. But, strange to relate, since they came over to the school of Christ, as men moved with real compunction they have laid aside their murderous cruelty and are war-minded no more. On the contrary, all is peace among them and nothing remains save desire for friendship. (52) Who, then, is He Who has done these things and has united in peace those who hated each other, save the beloved Son of the Father, the common Savior of all, Jesus Christ, Who by His own love underwent all things for our salvation? Even from the beginning, moreover, this peace that He was to administer was foretold, for Scripture says, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not take sword against nation, neither shall they learn any more to wage war.”[7]

 

One of the things that set the Gospel a world apart from the idolatrous Heathen states was How Jesus and His Gospel of love lead to peace and a new way. The Kingdom of God and Christ’s Lordship took precedence over former idolatries and one supposes even ethnic ties as the faith went world-wide. We seem to be arming-up and attaching a religious agenda (alibi) to it at exactly the point where Athanasius says Christians were laying down weapons and turning them into plowshares. To him this was evidence of God’s presence in their lives.

 

Athanasius goes on to strengthen the point saying,

 

“The barbarians of the present day are naturally savage in their habits, and as long as they sacrifice to their idols they rage furiously against each other and cannot bear to be a single hour without weapons. But when they hear the teaching of Christ, forthwith they turn from fighting to farming, and instead of arming themselves with swords extend their hands in prayer. In a word, instead of fighting each other, they take up arms against the devil and the demons, and overcome them by their selfcommand and integrity of soul. These facts are proof of the Godhead of the Savior, for He has taught men what they could never learn among the idols. It is also no small exposure of the weakness and nothingness of demons and idols, for it was because they knew their own weakness that the demons were always setting men to fight each other, fearing lest, if they ceased from mutual strife, they would turn to attack the demons themselves.”

 

It’s a point well taken (about keeping us fighting each other) . If we hope to stand out as truly different than an barbaric world which knows only violence, idolatry and fear then we have to act in active faith hope and love. Apparently the believers in Athanasius’ time did just that.

 

____________________

[1] Wikipedia article on Saint Athanasius,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasius_of_Alexandria.  Cited on 12/8/2015.

[2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation (De Incarnatione Verbi Dei) St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Jersey City, NJ. 1999. Available in PDF. p. 4

[3] Athanasius, Ibid., p. 16

[4] Eliot, T.S. T.S. Eliot Collected Poems 1909-1962 “Choruses From the Rock,” (Harcourt Brace & Co., New York, 1963) p. 163.

[5] Athanasius, Ibid., p. 34.

[6] Berger, Peter L. The Precarious Vision. Doubleday & Co., 1961

[7] Athanasius, ibid., p. 82-83.

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On Cemetary, er Seminary

American Baptist Seminary of the West.

American Baptist Seminary of the West.

When best friend Scott Mitchell used to come back through Sacramento from Princeton Seminary we would stay up late arguing. I couldn’t understand exactly why he was paying big bucks to have his faith ritually shredded by rabid skepticism. My argument was pretty much “would you go to a school to learn English literature where the professor’s actually hated Shakespeare?”

We got through it (the beer helped – plus good humor and a somewhat undying devotion to one another).

Over the years, although never the least bit “fundamentalist,” I still had some vestiges of self-righteousness to shake off – and that happened in the late 80s.

Did I say “shake-off?” Oh…I miss-spoke.

“Stripped off” – like thick skin off a body would be more apropos.

Years later I would encourage my ex-wife to go to seminary in Berkeley – to the GTU. I knew she had a fine mind for theology and would do well. She did well but somehow in the process decided God no longer exists.

She is quite matter of fact about this now. I think she looks at me like someone in some infantile stage who will one day outgrow a “phase.” Jung now reigns supreme.

Okay.

Me? I feel no need to address this at all. It would be like her disbelieving that Scott Mitchell exists. I don’t need to convince anyone. I do think it curious that one goes to school to study God (“theology”=”the study of God”) and one comes away with a degree in God’s non-existence. Do you really graduate? (Shouldn’t you anti-graduate? And shouldn’t they tell you ahead of time that it’s essentially a waste of your time and money?)

It is from such stories (and they are legion) that the term “Cemetary” has been applied pejoratively to seminaries. It is where you go to kill and bury your faith.

Really? Seriously?

Well no one really starts that way I do not think. But some professors, it seems, take it as a sort of mission to “disillusion” (and that can be a good thing if you take it at the root meaning “dis -illusion”) their students – many of which come from highly coddled church environments filled with as much christenized mythology and nonsense as they do actual real information.

These students may come from a Christian High School, then College believing in a 7,000 year-old Earth – that everything in the Bible is to be taken literally (that there are no literary forms to be taken as poetry, or metaphor etc…) and they have been force-fed a brand of  Americanized Fundagelicalism that merges power, money and even splices America itself into Biblical prophecy.

Oh my…

imageThey are not taught to think critically (like how can Moses have written the first five books of the Bible when they record his own death? Also, isn’t that prior to written language historically?)

Well depending on what institution they go to it it is just like shooting ducks in a small barrel – only the ducks fly in and pay to be there.

And most ducks come unarmed.

My Experience

I have decided advantages.

I’ve never been an unarmed anything. I was deadly even at 21 at CSUS. In fact I terrorized my teachers and made them quack.

But that was Sac State. Not exactly top notch scholars. I got into it with the New Testament Professor on the authorship of Ephesians. He came at me with a knife..I came back with a 14 page annotated summary of twenty-two scholars work on authorship that landed him in another time zone (er, bazooka).

In my current situation no one would be impressed. Maybe a “okay…and?”

Not here  I take serious issue with some of the assumptions that are being made prior to investigation. They effect the outcome of the research. In my last paper, the tacit assumption that the psalm (89) was a “psalm of lament” with a rhetorical argument was weak in my view. I made my case directly from the text.

[But I realized later I could have strengthened it with examples of strong “Psalms of Lament” that were not “disarmed” by subordinate considerations like in Psalm 89.. Oh well…]

I want to make it clear that I do not identify with either “Liberals” or “Conservatives” theologically. In both cases it seems to me you have to sign-off on party-line items that require you check your brain at the door.

Not on this suit.

The-Fugitive-Tommy-Lee-Jones-I-Dont-Care

“I REALLY don’t care.”

When it comes to issues like the “inerrancy of scripture”, I see that litmus test as a thoroughly modernist construct meant to divide and miss the point of the gravity of scripture as different than any other “Word” with which we have to do. When questions like that crop up I keep seeing myself in that tube with Harrison Ford in The Fugitive as Tommy Lee Jones where Ford keeps jappering away and Jones just says “I DON’T CARE!”

Is it harder to work in a situation where a priori assumptions have to be painstakingly investigated first? Absolutely.

There is no doubting that I am functioning within a deep “hermeneutic of suspicion” where the only thing not under suspicion seems to be that very thing.

Why should you get off scott free?

Why should a purely literary theory currently in vogue in the West  (in a highly dualistic currently deconstructionist mindset) hold court over Ancient Middle Eastern documents formed mostly through an oral tradition and formed in a holistic culture?

Seriously.

I’m getting okay with working within the “hermeneutic of suspicion.”

I have to work harder.

Frankly it would be a lot more FUN to work within a system of overt highly-informed belief (possibly at a place like Regent or Fuller) – but my M.A. looks to be in Beckerian studies – which inherently implies someone with the elasticity of mind to move across academic disciplines, bear with wildly divergent views – be deeply committed to pluralism – and all the while not back off one iota from the idea of ultimate Truth.

Let’s hope God brings along some like-minded individuals…

The Psalm 89 paper can be viewed as a .pdf here

 

Wha Happa?

Why we are teetering on the verge of Looney Tunes I cannot help but hear Elmer Fudd asking “Wha Happa?”

I mean if you went to culinary school and they really had a disparaging view of food and seemed to not wanna celebrate it you might think you were in the wrong place, no?

So I am reading “scholars” who think that they just made up the whole Epyptian capitivity slavery thing and that the Jews where Canaanites all along who just rose up at a certain time in social revolt but later wnated a better cover story.

Seriously.

And of course all the families with their rich oral traditions and family histories were just gonna buy into this later all at once… when it came time to write it all down.

Okay, “Duane, I’m due back on the planet  Earth now.”

And it is exactly there that I really do not care.

Believe what you want.

Let me give you two examples of why.

The first is from the world of psychology. In the early 80s I was struggling to get any kind of coherence out of the psychology department at Sac State. It became obvious it was a vain attempt so I gave up – much to the consternation of onlookers

But no one today tinks that was a mistake. I can say to anyone in the field that I studied during that period and they just just shale their heads “oh…yeah, well.”

The other example is the infamous Graf-Wellahusen JEDP Theory (Source Criticism) which was first plunked in my lap in 1977. It seemed contrived and thin then (but not without some merits) and when it was reintroduced this year it felt about the same. But now – some 38 years later it has come under a high degree of scrutiny – not from Conservative sources, but Liberal sources as well – especially since 1986.

Sure, a rookie comes into the league with a novel fastball that looks pretty tricky; but wait awhile until the real hitters adjust to it and see how long he lasts.

What’s it all about?

Seriously?

I think it is about being cool for the most part – about human meaning.

Me? I am so patently uncool as to possibly be cool. It’s ironic I realize. I truly do not care.

I came here (to seminary) to play ball. I came here to do serious work. I didn;t come to bunt, or take base on balls.

I believe – and I believe for good reasons; smart reasons. The facts are on my side and when there are no facts there is mystery and what Luther called simply ruthless trust in God’s grace and nature.

On Finding Jesus

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It’s not easy being a human being, and that’s if you are born healthy, have resources, and don’t constantly shoot yourself in the foot by really dumb decisions.

During your adult life the spiritual question lays begging. No one is truly indifferent even those who claim passionately to be so. For example, everyone has an opinion on Jesus.

My real empathy is found with those who have been clubbed over the head by those who have “Found Jesus” and are damned insistent that everyone they meet find Jesus now on their terms. Their excuse for being belligerent is that “warning people” is actually “loving them.” When I have pointed out that Jesus was only stern and harsh with the Religious they usually turn and “warn” me.

I think they are just plain mean.

As for finding Jesus? It would seem it goes both ways. “He who seeks finds” says Jesus and he is certainly the Pearl of Great Price in the parable. But he more often than not finds us. His name means “Yahweh to the Rescue” and the incarnation proves it is always God moving towards us, not the other way around.

“Jesus found me” is a lot more accurate than “I found Jesus”. And it doesn’t stop there. I wander all the time and Jesus leaves the other 99 sheep, puts on his hiking boots and comes after me. I assure you, it has nothing to do with my likeability. Anyone who knows me will tell you this is true. It says everything about his character and nature.

To be more specific, and in 38 years I have never written about this before (and I am not sure why), I was leaving Colorado on a plane having witnessed my fill of Christian hypocrisy. As I waited, alone, an invisible heaviness filled the room that was undeniable.

Of course I know now what and Who it was, but at the time I had no way of having the slightest clue.

A dialog of sorts (non-verbal) ensued wherein I had a clear choice. There was never a threat; quite the opposite. It was an open door to a relationship of love and meaning.

I admit, the undeniable heaviness in the room helped sell the whole thing. I have long argued that some people have “less choice than others” (Like Paul…I mean, c’mon, how much choice did he really have after he gets knocked off his camel and Jesus speaks to him?). All I can say was it did not matter. Unlike C.S. Lewis, I went joyfully with only one caveat.*

*******

* Remember I was 18 and rough around the edges so I asked God “so if I give my life to you do I have to be like these other asshole hypocrites?” I got the mental impression “No,” and the Almighty did not mention my foul language.

Of course, six months later I would be just as hypocritical and have to really eat crow many times (and who knows how many more times in the future?) Just proving you can never get too much humility.

Raveling

He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. ~Col. 1:17-18

11x14The country is vast and feels often as if it is unraveling. I hear people say often that Americans are driven by lust or greed but it is not true at all. No. We are really driven by fear.

Christ know this and His depiction of us as “sheep” is not meant to be unkind at all. He is the Good Shepherd who “knows his sheep”.  Even today when shepherds get caught in the rain and have to hole up in a cave overnight they easily separate the sheep the next day by simply walking a distance apart and calling out. Their own sheep know their voice and gather around them.

Jesus doesn’t come moralizing.  He comes to be with us and for us to be found in Him. We unravel when we meet Him and He comes in and ravels within holding things together. To the extent we allow Him first place in everything this raveling is clean and straight and true. And if it starts to go awry in the Church we can pause…just stop and unravel some. He is the head of the body. Refocus on Him as the head. Allow the raveling to continue again.

Christ in “The Haunt of Jackals”

The Haunt of Jackals

No.1

Imagine a society where, instead of baking bread for hungry people, they produced mass quantities of pictures of bread and posted ads for them at every corner, and handbills were given out with pictures of different types of bread, hundreds of different types of bread. Pictures of wheat bread, pumpernickel, Jewish rye, banana bread, croissants, sheepherders bread, bread sticks, garlic bread…heck, even melba toast.

Now imagine that these images of bread not only became the dominant mode of exchange (some hoarding these pictures, others spending them as fast as they could get them), but were actually consumed on a daily basis despite the fact that they had no nutritional value whatsoever.

Imagine that, besides the handbills, posters and billboards which depicted the pictures of bread, the evening television news consisted of discussions and international debates over which of these pictures of bread were worth the most, and which were declining in value or had become disreputable as a true picture of bread. Imagine witnessing special interest groups arguing and protesting the advantages and disadvantages of consuming their particular type of bread-pictures. And, of course, in such a world, litigation would be intense over who had the actual rights to each type of bread picture, and there would often be disputes over counterfeit pictures or poor foreign copies had infiltrated the market.

And the entire time that men and women were viewing these billboards, wheat was growing up around the posts. And wherever they stapled posters, streams gurgled by with yeast cultures forming in the shallows and the sun.

What would you make of such a society?

No.2


Hold that thought while we look at another hypothetical situation… (for more go HERE)