It is interesting when you write about the Nicene Period how many others try to align themselves with the church Fathers without understanding the full implications of what they were saying. I have been involved with a forum based in America for many years and I have been posting much about what the Fathers were saying. There is an Antiochian Orthodox person and a Catholic person who have been watching me closely and have made comments that either embrace or contradict what I am saying.
I have been talking about ‘bias’ recently to establish the importance of understanding the filter through which we interpret the Christian Message. The two main areas that I believe are diametrically opposed are Objective union and sin defined as separation from God. We cannot bring the two together without some significant problems. Yet, this is what I am confronted with all the time. I do agree that what I believe is Catholic but only as the Fathers like Athanasius and his contemporaries understood the term. I do believe that I am orthodox but only as the term is understood through these Father’s eyes. What they saw and understood in Jesus Christ is drastically and often dramatically different to how He is seen and understood to today. As long as we persistently try to squeeze the understanding of the Scripture and the Nicene era through the sin mince machine, we will misunderstand the vital clues that this period offers to us.
Let us begin with the role of Jesus Christ as Mediator. Here we must bring together the very person of Jesus Christ, Light from Light, true God from true God and of the one being with the Father and His humanity together in unity. Furthermore, not only is Jesus the Christ, He is also Jesus the Nazarene where we must also hold together the unity of his humanity of fallen Adamic stock mutually indwelling and interpenetrating the very being of God. All of Christ’s divine being and person flow from this one human being. When we look at the atonement, reconciliation of God and humanity occurs within the eternal life and being of Jesus Christ. It does not occur as an external exchange between the Father and the Son but the exchanging activity actually occurs within the very Person of Jesus Christ Himself (Heb 1:3, 2:4-18, 4:14 – 5:10, 9:11 – 10:10).
It must be absolutely clear that when we are talking about the Incarnation of the Word we are talking about the union of God with our sinful and corrupt humanity that is in conflict with God. In saying this emphatically, there might be some discomfort within the Christian community as we dare to think that Jesus plunged Himself so deeply into our fallen state. However, we must take a deep breath and try to understand what Torrance means by this. What this means is the union of God and fallen humanity is reconciling union where sin is condemned in our sinful humanity. To put it simply, sin has no chance now the One who knows no sin has arrived in our condition. The Divine nature of Jesus Christ overcame our sin, guilt, condemnation and death and was transformed into a new human being at peace with God all within the incarnate reality of Jesus Christ. Redemption occurs within the very Person of Jesus Christ where all things opposed to God is brought into God’s redemptive work in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ (2Cor 5:21, Heb 2:14 & 4:14-16). The tensions with humanity’s relationship to God is taken up in Jesus Christ. Our rebellion and contradictory sinful behaviour is now actively worked out within the humanity of Jesus Christ from the moment of His birth throughout His life culminating in His death. Jesus took on the onslaught of all our opposition to Himself allowing it to gradually overtake Him and even been taken out by it. Within the depths of our darkness and depravity He sanctified our flesh through withstanding the Judgement upon it and giving new life to every aspect of our humanity. Therefore, mediation is an internal activity done on our behalf and for our sake.
Christologies began to emerge that ignored the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures towards a more neutral or some sort of perfect human nature from the Virgin Mary. This disconnected Jesus and the Mother Mary from the rest of the human race. Central to the Nicene theologians is the unassumed is the unhealed, the Latin view took on the idea that the Son of God has not actually assumed our fallen humanity but a humanity that was entirely different to our own. They proposed that Jesus humanity was perfect and sinless and completely different to our own.
Jesus Christ in the Incarnation is the Son of God stepping into our plight and making our plight His own. All that divides us from the very life of God is assumed into His Divine/Human activity which are interwoven into one another. Jesus’ Humanity, His Person, His Divinity, His Act are one and undivided where they interpenetrate and involve one another. Atonement can only happen if the Word Himself as He is to the Father actually plunges into the dark depths of our sinful depravity and guilt. It is from these depths where the Person of Christ in His hypostatic union with His divine and Human natures is able to be enacted. Jesus did not come to fix the fruit of our sinful condition. Rather He went underneath all our deplorable acts and attacked the human condition at the root. When we are talking about the atonement, we are not talking about a process that is outside of Jesus but the very Person of Jesus is the Atonement in Person. While Jesus is the Atonement in Person, He is also in union with the Father. Thus the atonement occurs in our fallen humanity at the same time as it occurs in the heart of the Triune God. the Atonement is a Triune event but carried out in the Person of Jesus in His indivisible union with the Father and the Spirit, the One Being of God.
Therefore, Jesus Christ is the representative for every single human being that ever existed. Every fabric of creation is also wrapped up in the very humanity of Jesus Christ and included in His redemptive activity. If we take into consideration Colossians 1, the idea that sin is separation from God would mean all creation would collapse in on itself into nothingness. The existence of the Christian God likewise is the existence of all creation as Jesus is the one in whom all things were created by and for and in Him all creation is held together. However, from around the fifth century cracks began to appear in the idea that Jesus Christ assumed fallen sinful and alienated humanity and other ideas were adopted to fit in with worldly approaches to who God is and what He can do. Athanasius was clear that if our premise begins with an ontological understanding of the relation between the Father and the Son where He is inherent in the Father, then everything else will fall into line with this foundation. However, if there is even the slightest of crack in this relationship and God is painted as someone, higher, greater or different from what we see in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, then the gospel is built on a different, less stable foundation. Depending on the degree of the distance placed between the Father and the Son, the greater the distance theology is driven from the One and only source God has given us. Subsequently, a whole theology is built on the sandy foundation of humanity as the measure of all things. Torrance, in his exegesis of Athanasius, asserts:
“To know the Father through his Incarnate Son who is of one and the same being as God is to know him strictly in accordance with what he is in his own being and nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is the Godly and precise way.”
If we endeavour to seek and know God in any other way then what God has revealed in His Son is to speak in vague, imprecise and negative terms where the glory of Jesus Christ is dimmed. This can be traced back as far as Tertullian. Though he would have outrightly rejected Arianism, his thought processes were dualistic in a typically Arian way. Instead of falling with humility under the full revelation of Jesus Christ, he used a fixed set of logical inferences through reasoning and wove them together to lay down teachings of the church of what he felt was the closest in line with what the Apostles handed down. He believed that what Jesus actually said did not originate in the very being of God. This was the beginning of the wedge between the Being and Act of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, God was not the dynamic speaking Being but only spoke in the Incarnation.
Augustine took up Tertullian’s concept where divisions were established between the sensible and the intelligible worlds. This resulted in Jesus being pushed further and further away from God where the being of Jesus was no longer the very one and the same as the Father. Thomas Aquinas took this up further and introduced Aristotelian abstract type of thoughts. God was now viewed as the Unmoved Mover and all theology was squeezed through this framework. The grace of God, rather than dispensed universally in Jesus Christ by the Spirit, was now an emanation that was given into the hands of the Roman church as a depository with the authority to dispense and administer under its rules and regulations.
With Jesus now held at a distance that satisfied the Latin theology, mediation and atonement was a legal transaction outside our humanity and away from our sins as well as outside of God. Rather than atonement being worked out within the depths of our human nature in Jesus Christ, it is done outside of us somewhere else. This is a rather strange twist in theology from this time that has been adopted by Roman Catholic theology and has largely been followed by Protestant theology. If Jesus is the sinless perfect human being then the Mother Mary also has to be explained in a similar fashion where we have in Roman theology the development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
What we now have is external judicial interpretations of the atonement where have the transfer of the penalty of sin from the sinner to theSin-bearer. Nevertheless, if we look at the genealogies of Matthew we find that Jesus’ heritage is incorporated to a long line of sinners making their generations His own. This reality is not covered up but is explicitly revealed as fact. However, Jesus is portrayed as living His life in perfect obedience in His perfect sinless humanity now at a distance from our humanity. On the Cross, He takes our place and endures the wrath and judgement of God that would otherwise have been directed at us. In doing so, Jesus satisfies the Father through His agonising death fulfilling the justice required for our crimes against God. As a result, we are now freed from the penalty of sin but this theory of atonement leaves the root of our alienation and sin untouched. God is not really with and He is not really for us. For us nothing changes except that we are forgiven now and will be in heaven later.
In Roman theology, original sin is cured through the healing medicine of transferable grace merited by Christ and dispensed by the church through the sacraments. Thomas Aquinas concluded that we have no direct access to the relationship in God and God does not communicate with us directly. This was given to the church to stand in and pass on the things of God to humanity. The Roman church have held that they stand in the gap between the sensible and the intelligible, the human and the divine, and the temporal and eternal.
In the Reformation there was a revival in the tradition of Nicene theology where the very acts of Jesus was directly connected to the being of God. There was a swing back to wholeness of God revealed in the Person and work of Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. There grew a sentiment that we are given direct access in the dynamic mind of God in and through the Scriptures. Jesus Christ gained the all important position as the Arche of all the ways and works of God, the very Truth of God clothes in His gospel. Calvin taught that through union with Christ first that we partake of all His benefits. Torrance again in explaining Calvin’s viewpoint says:
“By that he referred, not as in Augustinian or Pietists tradition to some inner illumination in believers, but to the Spirit of Truth who inheres in the very Being of God and through whom God bears witness to Himself. It is that Self-witness of God which He makes to echo within us as through union with Christ we partake of the Spirit whom He sends to us, and hear the living Word of God addressing us directly in the Holy Scriptures .”
However, post-Reformation, we find the theologies of both, Roman, Protestant and Reformed churches began to take on the old familiar divisions between the Father and the Son and returned to the Augustinian/Aristotelian approach to theology. Jesus is no longer the exact representative of the being of God. With Jesus no longer the centrepiece of the gospel, the church in general is left to tackle the treacherous and stormy seas of humanity’s own idea of what God is and is not and what he should or should not be.