Athanasius


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A marvellous wonder has this day come to pass: nature is made new, and God becomes man. That which He was, He has remained; and that which He was not, He has taken on Himself while suffering neither confusion nor division.

From Great Vespers of the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos

A rather belated happy Christmas to all who read this.

Also, I recently discovered that the edition of Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, that is translated by “A Religious of C.S.M.V.” (and with the introduction by C.S. Lewis where he speaks about the importance of reading old books) is available online here. I’ve no idea how legal this is – this is the translation used in one of the versions published in the St Vladimir’s Popular Patristics Series – but it is very good to have something like this available online.

It was not things non-existent that needed salvation, for which a bare creative word might have sufficed, but man – man already in existence and already in process of corruption and ruin. It was natural and right, therefore, for the Word to use a human instrument and by that means unfold Himself to all.

You must know, moreover, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life also might be engendered in it. If death had been exterior to the body, life might fittingly have been the same. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off. Suppose the Word had come outside the body instead of in it, He would, of course, have defeated death, because death is powerless against Life. But the corruption inherent in the body would have remained in it none the less. Naturally, therefore, the Saviour assumed a body for Himself, in order that the body, being interwoven as it were with life, should no longer remain a mortal thing, in thrall to death, but as endued with immortality and risen from death, should thenceforth remain immortal. For once having put on corruption, it could not rise, unless it put on life instead; and besides this, death of its very nature could not appear otherwise than in a body. Therefore he put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out. And, indeed, how could the Lord have been proved to be the Life at all, had He not endued with life that which was subject to death?

Saint Athanasius the Great, The Incarnation of the Word of God, 44.

Since, then, there was needed a lifting up from death for the whole of our nature, He stretches forth a hand as it were to prostrate humanity, and stooping down to our dead corpse He came so far within the grasp of death as to touch a state of deadness, and then in His own body to bestow on our nature the principle of the resurrection, raising as He did by His power along with Himself the whole human being. For since from no other source than from the concrete lump of our nature had come that flesh, which was the receptacle of the Godhead and in the resurrection was raised up together with that Godhead, therefore just in the same way as, in the instance of this body of ours, the operation of one of the organs of sense is felt at once by the whole system, as one with that member, so also the resurrection principle of this Member, as though the whole of humankind was a single living being, passes through the entire race, being imparted from the Member to the whole by virtue of the continuity and oneness of the nature. What, then, is there beyond the bounds of probability in what this Revelation teaches us; viz. that He Who stands upright stoops to one who has fallen, in order to lift him up from his prostrate condition?

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, 32.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘It had been better for me, had I not accepted Mary’s Son, for He has come to me and destroyed my power; He has shattered the gates of brass, and as God He has raised up the souls that once I held.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘My power has been destroyed. I accepted a mortal man as one of the dead; yet I cannot keep Him prisoner and with Him I shall lose all those over whom I ruled. I held in my power the dead from all the ages; but see, He is raising them all.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘My dominion has been swallowed up; the Shepherd has been crucified and He has raised Adam. I am deprived of those whom I once ruled; in my strength I devoured them, but now I have cast them forth. He who was crucified has emptied the tombs; the power of death has no more strength.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Holy Saturday Vespers, The Lenten Triodion , 655-656.

Since posting on my reaction to evangelicals and the substitutionary atonement theory, I have been reflecting on how very fundamental the Incarnation of Christ is to an Orthodox understanding of salvation. As a friend said to me recently, while western Christians may well believe in the Incarnation, the liturgical texts of the Church tend to rub our noses in it the whole time! I think that it was Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) who wrote somewhere (I can’t remember where) that whereas the West, and certainly evangelicals, tend to see salvation as Christ doing something for us, the East tends to see it as Him doing something in us. In conquering death, the Cross of Christ renews our human nature, restoring the Image of God within us. Or, as the texts for Small Compline on Palm Sunday put it, “He who suffers for us heals our passions by His Passion; for willingly He undergoes in our human nature His life-giving sufferings, that we may be saved.”

Photo courtesy of Jim Forest. More photos here

 

As I hinted at in the previous post, if earlier readers of this blog are still around they will appreciate that the coming of Father Andrew Louth to Amsterdam is a worthy occasion to resume blogging. (And if there are readers who don’t know why I should be interested in that they can click here). The reason for this was the launching of the Amsterdam Centre for Eastern Orthodox Theology at which Father Louth is going to be a guest professor and at which he was the guest speaker yesterday. This is a new institute located in the theology faculty of the Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam which will be more formally launched in October when Metropolitan Kallistos Ware will be guest speaker. Father Louth gave a lecture on “The Nature of Eastern Orthodox Theology.” I tried to take reasonably extensive notes, but couldn’t keep up with everything. However, I hope that the following is not too inaccurate an overview of his paper.

Father Louth began by noting that many people had first discovered Orthodox theology through Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Why Lossky used the term “mystical theology” in the title is not clear, for, having done a doctorate on Eckhart, he was acquainted with what the West considers mysticism, and yet the contents of Lossky’s book simply look like traditional Christian theology. However, in the introduction to the book, Lossky explains the complementarity between mysticism and theology, a complementarity that has been lost in the West:

The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology, between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church… To put it another way, we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically…

Lossky does not begin with the experience of God, but rather with participation in the divine mysteries, which refers both to the sacraments and to the truths of faith. These are truths that we experience and celebrate in the divine mysteries and within the Church. Experience cannot be detached from dogma, nor detached from the Church; it is not something individualistic but is rooted in the experience of the Eucharistic community.

Father Louth then proceeded to explore some of the features of this Orthodox theology by offering some reflections on the Fathers of the Church, specifically Saint Athanasius, Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint Maximus the Confessor and Saint Gregory Palamas.

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The end of all things is concealed from us. For in the end of all is the end of each, and in the end of each is the end of all [on the last day]. Whereas this time is uncertain and always in prospect, we may advance day by day as if summoned, reaching forward to the things before us and forgetting the things behind. For who, if they knew the day of the end, would not disregard the interval? But if ignorant, would they not be more ready day by day? It was on this account that the Savior said: “Watch; for you do not know when the time will come.”

Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians 3.49, quoted in Thomas C. Oden & Christopher A. Hall (ed), Mark, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 2005) 185-6.

***

Now when the straight course of the natural sphere comes to its end and reaches that great light which nourishes the spheres of the stars – which are manifold in their individual distinctions, as Paul says in his demonstration of the resurrection to come – and when it is joined to the rays of that light (I do not mean in a natural sense), then the chariot will be bound fast with unknowing and the two abundantly flowing springs will cease to pour forth their streams. And then the priests will depart from the sanctuary from before the cloud of the glory of the Lord. At that time the king of Israel will be Solomon, that is to say, the peace that is born of humility. He will build a house for the Lord and finish it with the adornment of all the sacred vessels.

St. Isaac the Syrian,The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (I, 36), translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. p. 160.

But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honourable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. For just as, if a man wished to see the light of the sun, he would at any rate wipe and brighten his eye, purifying himself in some sort like what he desires, so that the eye, thus becoming light, may see the light of the sun; or as, if a man would see a city or country, he at any rate comes to the place to see it;—thus he that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God, and thenceforth, as closely knit to them, may escape the peril of the sinners and their fire at the day of judgment, and receive what is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven, which “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man,” whatsoever things are prepared for them that live a virtuous life, and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord: through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honour and might and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Saint Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word, 57.

Some time ago a couple of blogs that I read (including Peter Gilbert and Father Gregory Jensen– there may have been another that I’ve forgotten) quoted the words of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus “Not to everyone, friends, does it belong to philosophize about God, not to everyone; the subject is not so cheap and low. And, I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits.” It is an appropriate enough quote for anyone discussing theology on the internet or elsewhere, and one which I had previously also quoted elsewhere. Speech about God is not to be taken lightly. 

But – and I thought of noting this at the time but somehow never got to it – Saint Gregory also continues to discuss the conditions necessary for theological speech:

Not to all men, because it is permitted only to those who have been examined, and are passed masters in meditation, and who have been previously purified in soul and body, or at the very least are being purified…

Now this is also rather daunting, especially for someone who is nowhere near to having been purified in soul and body. But I take comfort in his words “or at the very least are being purified”. This seems to me to be a crucial point and one that emerged strongly in my reading of Father Louth’s work. And so I could not but be struck by this last paragraph of Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word which I re-read this week. For here too we see the necessary link between a dynamic process of purification and theological understanding.

I was going to title this post “Ascetical theology” but then I realised that that is precisely what I don’t mean. Ascetical theology referred – at least in the Catholic parlance of the last few centuries – to the application of theology to the life of faith and prayer. What I hear the Fathers addressing here is something more fundamental, namely, the necessity of asceticism for all theology.

This raises important questions for us today. In what ways are the passions operating in theological discourse, not only in the blogosphere, but also in academic theology and the Church? How do polarised positions feed on them? How can we unmask them and come to self-knowledge? And are we really committed to being purified so as to be able to see the light?

This is what Saint Gregory of Nazianzus has to say about Saint Athanasius:

From meditating on every book of the Old and New Testament, with a depth such as none else has applied even to one of them, he grew rich in contemplation, rich in splendour of life, combining them in wondrous sort by that golden bond which few can weave; using life as the guide of contemplation, contemplation as the seal of life.

Oration 21, 6