Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Notes on Christology in the Tradition, 3: Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus on the Normativity of Jesus's Life for Believers

This series consists of my notes in preparation for a (now completed) comprehensive exam in historical theology. Some of it is simply representation of figures' positions, but much of it is also interpretive, so I thought it might be of some use or interest to others. Each doctrinal locus is focused around a governing question.

Previous posts: Part 1: A Fivefold Schema; Part 2: Origen

To what extent is the shape of Jesus’s life a paradigm for the life of the Christian (e.g., how is the story of Jesus normative)?

Briefly, I locate Athanasius in the fourth type of the christological schema: Jesus as author and interpreter of Scripture.  I do this because, for Athanasius, one of Christ’s chief tasks was to enlighten us with the knowledge of God—hence we learn from his teaching both about God and about how to live (e.g., we die as martyrs rather than kill). From my foray into Athanasius's writings, however, I found little more that pertained directly to this question, so I'll leave it there.

As for Gregory of Nazianzus, he is clearly the prototypical representative of the third type: Christ as forerunner of the spiritual life. His rhetorical appeal in one of his Epiphany sermons is indicative here. He calls on his parishioners to "[t]ravel without fault through every stage and faculty of the life of Christ.” This journey includes birth, exile, purification, circumcision, presentation at the temple, threatened stonings, Herod's wrath, scourges, blows, and so on. He concludes: "[L]astly, be crucified with him, and share his death and burial gladly, that you may rise with him, and be glorified with him and reign with him."

In this way the life of Jesus is not normative literally—that is, corporeally—but spiritually: we needn't map every particular aspect of his human life to ours, for that would be absurd and would grossly generalize what needn't be universal. Rather, we must discover ourselves in his life, in his way, placed there by grace, and in turn undergo the trials which await through the spiritual example he has set us. For we know how we may succeed without falling because he walks ahead of us; and we practice such triumphs in advance through liturgical, scriptural, and prayerful inhabitation of his life as pictured for us by the Spirit in the prophetic and apostolic texts.

Elsewhere Gregory calls on his listeners to preserve the baptismal gift. For after baptism new Christians cannot give in to languor but must engage, like all Christians, in constant and consistent discipleship to Christ in order to live in purified correspondence to him. Recommended practices include vigils, fasts, sleeping on the ground, prayers, tears, pity of and almsgiving to those who are in need. His exhortation is to remember, for example, how when poor Christ made you rich; how when hungry Christ fed you at table; how Christ became a stranger for your sake; how when wounded Christ healed you; how when indebted Christ forgave all you owed, and so on. Believers' lives follow after Christ's example when they recall what Christ has done for them, and do as Christ did, having already been practicing such obedience through various rituals and habits of mortification of the flesh and spiritual imitation of the incarnate One.

Gregory's views would prove profoundly influential for both the western and especially the eastern tradition of understanding how Jesus's story is normative for the life of Christian faith.

No comments:

Post a Comment