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Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Faith, Reason, the Atonement and Theosis

One of the greatest obstacles to belief in God for those in the post-modern West is the perceived conflict between faith and reason. 

This obstacle or perceived conflict is far from new and has, in fact, exercised the minds of philosophers and theologians from the early centuries of the Church.

For those examining the Christian faith for the first time, or those considering it once again after a period of unbelief, the question of the Incarnation of Christ (the belief the God has entered into human life in the person of Jesus Christ) is central.

Inseparably linked to the Incarnation is the question: Why? Why would God want, or need, to enter into human life as one of us. Why would the Creator become a creature?
One of the principle reasons offered by Christians is connected to human sinfulness, our weakness and susceptibility to evil, etc. These are largely taboo topics in a narcissistic society which prefers to blame all failings and evil influence on “the system” or displaces responsibility on the shoulders of others.

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are linked to the cure for human weakness, sin and the evil that humanity participates in. Christians proclaim that sin is only overcome by Christ who gives himself for our salvation.

Many questions about the rationality of such claims are asked. None of these are new any more than the universal human need to atone for sin or offer sacrifice as seen in all virtually all religious traditions. 

Was the death of Jesus then, a payment to God’s justice to atone for the sins of all humanity?  Was this some kind of payment to the powers of evil?  Was it God’s profound trick, as was suggested by some theologians in the early Eastern Church, a trick which allowed Satan (the Devil, or the forces or evil) to collude in the death of God incarnate only to be defeated by Christ's unexpected resurrection from the dead?

All these and other theories for the atonement, the reconciliation of humanity with God, have been forwarded. To date no single doctrinal explanation for the atonement has been universally adopted in preference to all others and the Catholic Church has not settled on a single definition of the atonement. 

For many years in the early Christian centuries, the Fathers of the Church often gave preference to a form of substitutionary atonement.  Many saw the death of Christ primarily as a of payment for the sins of humanity and a solution to the problem of original sin which is the propensity of humanity to sin.

St. Irenaeus (A.D. 120 - 200) taught that the ultimate goal of Christ's solidarity with humankind is to make humanity divine. Jesus, he says, "became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself."

St. Irenaeus developed what has come to be known as the theory of recapitulation, a reasonable explanation (albeit based upon revelation) for why and how Christ brings together humanity and divinity:

So the Lord now manifestly came to his own, and born by his own created order, which he himself bears; he, by his obedience on the tree, renewed [and reversed] what was done by disobedience in [connection with] a tree.

. . . .  Indeed, the sin of the first-formed man was amended by the chastisement of the First-begotten, the wisdom of the Serpent was conquered by the simplicity of the Dove, and the chains were broken by which we were in bondage to death.

Therefore he renews these things in himself, uniting man to the Spirit; and placing the Spirit in man, he himself is made the head of the Spirit and gives the Spirit to be the head of man . . .
He therefore completely renewed all things, both taking up the battle against our enemy, and crushing him who at the beginning had led us captive in Adam, tramping on his head . . .

This concept of recapitulation has been central to the theology of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Church Fathers: Athanasius, Augustine and Clement of Alexandria developed this understanding of our participation in the life of Christ through his Incarnation and the atonement with God which Christ has achieved for us.

The Orthodox theology of recapitulation is known as theosis, meaning the process of humanity entering, by grace, into the life of God.

Some contemporary theologians in the West, have developed the recapitulation theory. D. E. H. Whiteley's reading of Paul the Apostle's theology in The Theology of St Paul (Oxford: Blackwell, 1964) favourably quotes Irenaeus' notion that Jesus Christ: "became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself." 

Whiteley refers to St. Paul's view of the atonement as a 'participation' rather than a recapitulation: “. . . if St. Paul can be said to hold a theory of the modus operandi [of the atonement], it is best described as one of salvation through participation: Christ shared all our experience, sin alone excepted, including death, in order that we, by virtue of our solidarity with him, might share his life.”

Another approach to faith, reason and atonement was taken in the Western Church in the Middle Ages. St. Anselm of Canterbury (born circa A.D. 1033), amongst many others, grappled with the question of faith and reason as it relates to the Incarnation. In his principle work, Cur Deus Homo, Anselm enters into dialogue with his interlocutor Boso.

Boso:  Suffer me, then to use the words of unbelievers, for it is fair that since we desire to inquire into the reason of our faith, we place before ourselves the objections of those who are not at all willing to attain to the same faith without reason. (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, A.D. 1098, translated by Edward S. Prout, Christian Classics)

Faith seeking understanding was the starting point for St. Anselm.  The universal logic of the reason for sin was followed by the logic of redemption.

Anselm:  And as the devil had conquered man (Adam) by   the tasting of a tree, to which he persuaded him, so by the suffering endured on a tree, which he inflicted, should he (Satan), by a man (Christ) be conquered."  Anselm, Cur Deus Homo III, III.

The centrality of the Atonement is kept before the Church in the Mass, the essential and central sacrament of the Catholic faith (its "source and summit" according to the CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH). The Mass conveys grace to rational creatures seeking to be united with God.

Henry Oxenham (1829 -1888), an Anglican priest, controversialist and poet, was received into the full communion of the Catholic Church. He speaks of the centrality of the logic of sacrifice and participation in the Mass:

The perpetual priesthood of Christ in heaven, . . . is even more emphatically insisted upon by Origen. And this deserves to be remembered, because it is a part of the doctrine which has been almost or altogether dropped out of many Protestant expositions of the Atonement, whereas those most inclining among Catholics to a merely juridical view of the subject have never been able to forget the present and living reality of a sacrifice constantly kept before their eyes, as it were, in the worship which reflects on earth the unfailing liturgy of heaven.

Henri de Lubac, a great theologian of the mid twentieth century, reflected upon the centrality of the Incarnation and Atonement in light of what he saw as a theology of false "dualism" which separated nature (and reason) from grace (and faith). This dualism held that human nature had been created with its own natural goal to which the supernatural goal of union with God had been added.

De Lubac, reading St Thomas Aquinas in the spirit of the early Church Fathers, wrote that it would be more faithful to Catholic tradition to believe that humanity has no natural end in itself, but naturally desires and points to the Beatific Vision i.e. theosis or union with God.  

In his words: "the spiritual creature does not have its end in itself, but in God". The entire natural world, by extension, is created for union with God in Christ through humanity and the Church. The cosmos is centred on the Incarnation and completed in theosis.

Hans Urs von Balthasar also opposed the dualism of nature and grace. He did not accept that it suffices to explain the interpenetration of grace and nature. Balthasar believes that God remains free at all times to give or withhold grace: our need for grace is a need precisely for the free gift of love. Balthasar’s understanding of the gratuity of grace is less in terms of a metaphysics of knowledge than of a metaphysics of freedom. He develops this metaphysics in his late work Theo-Drama. See "Infinite and Finite Freedom" in Volume II.

Grace, then, cannot be inbuilt at the creation. A personal "call" addressed from beyond our humanity is
necessary to open us to grace, a first call from the Cross – a call to which grace itself gives us the capacity to respond.

The "first gift" of our natural existence, reason and receptivity, including the desire for a gift that exceeds our nature, must be distinguished from the "second gift" that is sanctifying grace.

This is an important aspect in the discussion of Justification (by faith) and of Sanctification, which has been the cause of much misunderstanding since the Protestant Reformation. This problem has been addressed in The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) produced by Lutheran – Catholic international dialogue. JDDJ has been approved by a number of Lutheran and other Protestant bodies and is now a magisterial (though not ex cathedra) document of the Catholic Church.

In Balthasar's understanding, grace is a participation in God's nature, and thus precisely in God's freedom and rationality. This participation, by grace, transforms rational creatures, welding us into the life of God.

Balthasar writes that God: "offers to provide a home in the realm of the infinite (that is, of God) for finite freedom's essential self-transcendence; he offers it the right of citizenship there. This is something to which finite freedom [and reason]
cannot itself lay claim, on the basis of its own transcendental structure . . .  any such 'claim' would conflict inwardly with the act of thanksgiving for the gift of self."

Reason complemented by faith is at the heart of the Christian understanding of God. Never denying the power of the gift of reason, faith leads the human person to the transcendence which faith seeking understanding points us to.

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