Friday, November 18, 2011

An impure God

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5-8

Even as I stagger to a break in our academic schedule around here--blessings on Union Presbyterian Seminary for calling off classes for the entire week of Thanksgiving--and even as I occasionally wonder if I'm somehow "not getting it" at times, I continue to be fascinated by the splintery history of doctrinal squabbling that is the story of the early Christian church.  As any historian will gladly note, even if it sounds a bit cliched anymore, you can learn from the past, or you can repeat it.  

One of the tendencies that seems to underlie much of the theological debate of the era from roughly the 300s to the 500s or so is the question of just how much God could actually be involved in the muck and mire of human nature.  No, this is not the theological question of how much God might be implicated in the sinful nature of the world--my brain is still short-circuiting on how to process that theological debate. Here the question is whether or not, given the sinful state of humanity, just how much can it be said that God--the Divine, the All-Powerful, the Transcendent, all that good stuff--could be said to have any direct involvement in the redemption of that sinful humanity.  This was a difficult thing for the ancients to wrap their early-century minds around, and I suspect it still twists a few minds these days (though perhaps in a different way).  (Bear with me, folks, this gets to be a bit of a thicket.)

Arius, the chap whose name has become affiliated with a particular and long-standing heresy in Christendom (heresy=the side that lost the debate in the long run, essentially), could not-like so many in his time, it should be noted--stomach the idea of a God the Father (this was the language of the time) Who was not a singular, indivisible, transcent, impassible Being above all, and most emphatically could not stomach any notion that the Son was in any way of like form or substance or equality with that over-all God the Father.  A large spectrum of the church of the time bought was Arius was selling, but a broader spectrum could not; such a distant Father and merely-a-creature Son made no sense from the point of view of salvation--what good could a mere creature do in that respect?  They may not have known exactly what they believed at this point, but they knew what they couldn't believe, and Arius's extreme subordination of the Son to the Father was more than they could accept.  Their response, eventually, can be found in no less a place than the very Nicene Creed still used in many churches today, with its assertion of a Son who was "eternally begotten of the Father," "being of one substance with the Father," "begotten, not made," "was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man."  The making of that creed, which took two different councils (not just the Council of Nicaea), a bit of imperial arm-twisting from Constantine, and a whole lot of argument (some of it quite bitter) to hash out, is one of those events which brings to mind the old saw that those who enjoy sausage should not watch it being made.  Nonetheless, it was made, and still hangs around today in confessional churches of many denominations, and is formative language for understanding how the early church got to a notion of a trinitarian view of God.

By no means was the church through haggling over the nature of Christ, however.  Even as the need to refute Arius was provoking the trinitarian refinement above, other early church thinkers were still continuing to struggle with its implications for understanding Christ and what it meant to speak of a Son Who came to be crucified.  How can an immutable, impassible, transcendent God conceivably be said to suffer?  What could it possibly mean for Christ to be both "fully divine" and "fully human"?  How could that even be possible?

Quite a few third- and fourth-century Christian bishops and such took a whack at this contentious question.  Apollinaris of Laodicea argued that the Word (or the Son) took on a human body only; no human mind or soul or will was involved, preserving an absolute unity.  This position was naturally found wanting; Gregory of Nazianzus busted that claim up with his effectively pithy formulation "what He did not assume He did not heal," meaning that if the Son did not in fact take on in some way the full range of humanity--body, soul and all--then the whole range of humanity--body, soul, and all--was not fully redeemed by the Son.  Again, the church was nudged into a particular affirmation it didn't quite know how to handle yet.  [Yes, I have borrowed the old-fashioned practice of capitalizing pronouns referring to God in some way, mostly because I find it helpful to keep track of exactly who or Who I'm talking about.]

The nudge became a full-fledged shove when Nestorius proposed his two-natured, Word-plus-man christology, in which Divine and human natures were present in Christ but were totally distinct from one another; the divine nature was not at all affected by the human nature, nor vice versa.  This did a very nice job of protecting the notion of an immutable, impassible, all-transcendent Deity, but again failed the sniff test where a saving Son was concerned; could such a duality possibly live up to John the Evangelist's eloquently direct phrase "The Word became flesh"?  Didn't that end up sounding more like "The Word got carried around in a flesh suit for a while" instead?  Hashing this one out was even thornier than before, but nonetheless the church could not quite let go of the idea of the suffering Son; after much back-and-forth Nestorius was enlisted in the ranks of heretics as well, and the church more or less settled on a position that established once and for all the necessary joining of Word and humanity, even if it at times had to concede that the nature of such a union was rather difficult to explain (and believe me, I've left loads of fun out of this quick-and-dirty summary, including the whole business of what role Mary played in it all).

What I find fascinating in all this tangle of theological debate is the absolute mania on the part of some to protect the absolute impassibility, immutability, and transcendence of God the Father.  I find it fascinating because these people (Arius, Nestorius, and the like) seem to be putting much more effort into that protection than God did.  The position at which the church finally arrived posits a thoroughly mind-boggling idea; that a God Who (as the church has reckoned) is indeed all-powerful, transcendent, immutable, impassible, and all that stuff, was less interested in preserving that all-powerful, transcendent, immutable, impassible dignity than in doing whatever it took to restore His fallen creation.  God would rather get down in the mud with us to bring us back to God, than preserve God's dignity.  This is mind-blowing, when you think about it.  God would rather go through the whole of human experience, from infant pooping his swaddling clothes to angsty teenager, single adult, itinerant preacher/miracle worker/vaguely insurgent type, to crucified criminal, than to see humanity continue to be cut off from God's embrace.  

This does remind me that Arius and Nestorius still have their comrades today.  How many people are horribly offended by the phrase "infant pooping his swaddling clothes" above in relation to Jesus?  Hmm? And yet, if we're going to talk about the whole range of human experience, how do we avoid the idea that eventually Mary had to re-swaddle the poor child?  Certainly today, whether from prudery or an inability to process the notion of a fully human Son of God, there are plenty of people who don't want to imagine a Jesus who, but for sin, lived a fully human life with all the embarrassments and degradations that implies.  For that matter, what about the Jesus Who engaged in the nasty habit of breaking bread with the scummier elements of society and giving the good church folk a hard time?  The urge is still there to protect God in a way that God does not seem interested in being protected.

This jumbled and ill-formed complex of amazement haunts me as we sneak up on the Advent and Christmas seasons, a time when Christianity marks the beginnings of this earthly intervention.  It's worth putting aside some of the frillier parts of the season on occasion to chew over just what it means to call Jesus Christ "the Word made flesh," who "emptied himself," the "fully divine" who became "fully human" and hung with sinners and tax collectors and eventually died about as gruesome and awful a death as humanity has ever devised.  It is difficult to conceive and more difficult to explain, and frankly we don't always live as Christians as if we truly believe it.  But it's there.  Think about it.  

1 comment:

  1. Well said, my friend. I sense a book coming out of this! RWeaver would be proud. Best Thanksgiving and Advent thoughts.