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.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Notes on Christology in the Tradition, 2: Origen 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;

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)?

I locate Origen in the first type of the christological schema, wherein Jesus is seen as a binding exemplar for imitation by believers. Origen is justly famous for his christological moralism and ethical perfectionism. For example, An Exhortation to Martyrdom assumes radical and unstinting obedience to Christ’s command and example. The sense one gets is that in order to be saved one has to be utterly faithful, and faithfulness is extremely strenuous. (The connections to his doctrine of the person of Christ are suggestive; if Jesus is fundamentally God-in-(a-)man, then God may rightly expect each of us to be basically as obedient as Jesus.)

Specifically, though along with most everything else in Jesus's life, it is his self-denial in suffering and death combined with total submission to God’s will that is fundamentally normative for all believers’ lives.

The money quote here is from Contra Celsum:
Both Jesus himself and his disciples did not want people who came to them to believe only in his divine nature and miracles, as though he did not share in human nature and had not assumed the human flesh which lusts against the spirit; but as a result of their faith they also saw the power that descended into human nature and human limitations, and which assumed a human soul and body, combined with the divine characteristics, to bring salvation to believers. For Christians see that with Jesus human and divine nature began to be woven together, so that by fellowship with divinity human nature might become divine, not only in Jesus, but also in all those who believe and go on to undertake the life which Jesus taught, the life which leads everyone who lives according to Jesus’ commandments to friendship with God and fellowship with Jesus. (III.28)
Elsewhere, both in this and other works, Origen refers to Jesus as "the moral ideal," "a pattern of the way to endure religious persecution," "an example of the way to despise people who laugh and mock at [religion]," "an example of the life that [men] ought to live," "a noble example to men to show how to bear calamities," "an example of the way to die for the sake of religion."

Jesus's life is thus, in every sense of the word, a compulsory moral paradigm for believers' lives, and most of all in the way he endured suffering and death for the sake of faithfulness to God's will.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Notes on Christology in the Tradition, 1: A Fivefold Schema 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.

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)?

In seeking to discover how various theologians in the tradition have answered this question, whether explicitly or implicitly, it seemed to me that they fell roughly into five groups. To be sure, many of them could be classed with more than one group, but nonetheless they usually assign priority to one perspective over others, or in turn the tradition has taken them to do so (and so their openness to other positions tends to drop out).

I organized this grouping into a fivefold schema.

1. Binding exemplar for imitation

On this view Jesus is consistently put forth as the normative pattern for human life—considered morally, spiritually, politically, or otherwise. Allowances and exceptions are of course made, but the most perfect and commended form of life is that in strict correspondence to Christ’s. Representative theologians include Origen and Michael Sattler (in the Schleitheim Articles).

2. Non-binding but trustworthy example

In this approach Jesus’s example is supremely trustworthy and beneficial in every respect for everyone, and yet it is allowed that not everyone can, or should be expected to, follow Jesus’s way so closely. As a consequence, formal and institutional distinctions are made between, e.g., precepts and counsels, or clergy and lay, rulers and priests, etc. Appeal is also made to natural law, reason, virtues, philosophical conceptions of the moral life, and the like. Thomas Aquinas is an instance of this position—although, I hasten to add, he is also one of the most sophisticated christologians on this question, so he is absolutely not limited to this view.

3. Forerunner of the spiritual life

Here Jesus’s life is the spiritual paradigm of the believer’s life, especially in temptation. Rather than making parts of Jesus’s life fit to theirs (i.e., celibate, homeless, itinerant, wonderworking, whatever), believers should locate their lives in his earthly career. In the process they will find that he has paved the way for them to live in obedience to God’s will, purified and empowered to do so by Christ’s having blazed a trail in the flesh by the power of the Spirit. This is a popular patristic perspective, and can be found in Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, and Maximus Confessor.

4. Author and interpreter of Scripture

This answer to the question is something of a departure from the previous three. Jesus’s life isn’t so much not an example as it is subordinate to his teaching, which on the one hand is a sort of microcosm and intensification of Scripture as a whole, even as, on the other hand, the voice of this One is itself the voice of Scripture. In this way Jesus’s life and teachings are located and qualified within the broad scope of one and the same Lord’s teaching across the whole biblical text, which often will prove to be more relevant than the limited ministry of Jesus, whose words are on a level with those of the rest of sacred Scripture. Athanasius is a minor example, but the two chief figures in this line are Augustine and Calvin (even as each differs in emphasizing aspects of the other answers in the schema).

5. Inimitable summit of righteousness

Finally, as a more polemical response to the first three, this position admits that Jesus’s life is undeniably a perfect model for Christians’ lives, but insists that for that very reason it can be a terror and a scourge to faith and to holy living, especially if taken as primarily or merely an example. Better to consider Jesus’s life evangelically, as the unapproachable and inimitable summit of righteousness, which fulfills what we never could, and thus is to be received as a gift imputed to us by God’s grace, not (first of all, at least) as a model for imitation. Luther is of course the culprit here.

In subsequent posts in the series I will outline the particularities of the theologians' actual answers.