What is Repentance?

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Icon of the return of the prodigal son

Kallistos Ware, in his collection of fascinating essays called The Inner Kingdom, has an essay on repentance. He explains rightly that the life of the Christian is a life of constant repentance. He quotes St Isaac the Syrian who says that “this life has been given to you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things”.

The Christian life is meant for repentance, is defined by repentance, and should not be wasted. “But what, in fact, is repentance?”, asks Ware (p 45). This is an important question, because the word repentance, or perhaps otherwise known as penance, is loaded with images of guilt and self-punishment, sometimes even self-loathing. “Such a view is dangerously incomplete”, Ware comments. “Grief and horror are indeed frequently present in the experience of repentance, but they are not the whole of it, nor even the most important part” (p 45).

What then is repentance? Ware explains:

We come closer to the heart of the matter if we reflect on the literal sense of the Greek term for repentance, metanoia. This means “change of mind”: not just to regret the past, but a fundamental transformation of our outlook, a new way of looking at ourselves, at others and at God — in the words of The Shepherd of Hermas, “a great understanding”. A great understanding — but not necessarily an emotional crisis. Repentance is not a paroxysm of remorse and self-pit, but conversion, the reentering of our life upon the Holy Trinity (p 45)

Repentance is not necessarily sorrow for the past, though it can include that; rather, repentance means to change your mind, to understand reality different in light of what God as accomplished in Christ. It is, before anything else, a conversion of the mind: in light of the work of Christ, I now see and perceive reality and myself differently.

Ware continues this explanation:

As a “new mind”, conversion, reentering, repentance is positive, not negative. In the words of St John Climacus, “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair”. It is not despondency but eager expectation; it is not to feel that one has reached an impasse, but to take the way out. It is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God’s image. To repent is to look, not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become. (p 45)

Ware then boils down repentance to a continuing daily attitude:

When interpreted in this positive sense, repentance is seen to be not just a single act but a continuing attitude. In the personal experience of each person there are decisive moments of conversion, but throughout this present life the work of repenting remains always incomplete. The turning or recentering must be constantly renewed; up to the moment of death, as Abba Sisoes realized, the “change of mind” must become always more radical, the “great understanding” always more profound. In the words of St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance…

To repent is to recognize that the Kingdom of heaven is in our midst, at work among us, and that if we will only accept the coming of this Kingdom all things will be made new for us (p 46)

To repent is to see clearly the world in light of God and his action in Christ. To repent is to see the kingdom in our midst. To repent is therefore to see the world rightly.

Luther, who picked up on this ancient understanding of repentance, rightly said in his Catechisms that repentance is simply a return to baptism. By this he meant that to repent is to see once again — over and over again — who God has made a Christian to be. To repent is to understand: “God has washed me, cleansed me, united me to the death and resurrection of Christ. Behold, all things are new!” To repent is to appropriate yet again this reality. That is not to say that the Christian life is simply a bare mental exercise of remembrance; there is moral effort and growth in holiness. The point however, is that to repent of your sin is to return once again and appropriate the reality of God’s action in Christ; and it is a life-long vocation.

Contract God verses Covenant God

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By far, one of the best books I’ve read this year is The Claim of Humanity in Christ by Alexandra S. Radcliffe. This is a simple yet magnificent overview of the theology of the Torrance brothers JB and TF. Strangely enough, the book hasn’t gotten much love over at Amazon. I would highly encourage people to read this as an intro to the Torrances’ theology, and to an overall introduction into what is popularly called “evangelical Calvinism”.

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Thomas F Torrance

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James B Torrance

The Torrance’s were Scottish Presbyterians, and yet they were greater than their own tradition, challenging many of the categories of the Westminster Confession. In fact, much of their theological framework was informed, as Alexandra Radcliffe rightly informs us, by Eastern Patristic theologians like the Cappedocians and Athanasis and Cyril of Alexandria. These theologians had radically differing ideas from common Presbyterian theology.

I want to give a brief overview of Torrancian theology from this great . Radcliffe has her chapters laid out magnificently in 6 short theses. I summarize the theses in three points below:

  1. God the Father as Covenant vs Contract
  2. God the Son as Ontological vs External
  3. Participation in the Spirit as Objective vs Subjective

There is more to her book than these three, but most of the heavy lifting is done with these three points. In this post (I’m hoping to extend this overview to three posts! We will see :)) I want to consider the first of three theses: God the Father as a covenant God rather than a contractual God.

To understand this thesis, we must take a step back to understand much of the doctrine posited by Westminsterian theology: this is called federal theology or federal headship theology:

Federal theology was the prevailing preaching and teaching of the Torrances’ Scottish Reformed tradition in their time. Federal theology has had a history of dominance in the perspective of those wishing to adhere to Calvinism and it continues to have an abiding authority toady. It currently governs the North American Reformed perspective and “is considered, by many, to be the only orthodox Reformed theology acceptable”. According to Federal Calvinism , God made a covenant with Adam as the “federal” head of the human race. God created Adam to discern the laws of nature by reason and, if Adam was obedient, God would give him eternal life. If he was disobedient, it would lead to death. Adam disobeyed the law and, as federal head of the human race, his curse affected all of humanity. Out of his love, God made a new covenant, electing some to be saved by Christ. In order to forgive humanity, God had to satisfy his righteousness and justice and Christ therefore became a penal substitionary sacrifice to atone for the sins of the elect. This federal scheme is expressed confessionally in the Irish articles and the Westminster confession. (p 16)

This is a pretty basic overview of the gospel for those who know the Westminster confession. However, this construal of the gospel was totally abhorrent to the Torrances. JB Torrance in particular wrote a now infamous article known as “Covenant vs Contract”, in which he outlined how this construal is not only biblically inaccurate, but it turns the gospel on its head.

But how does it turn the gospel on its head?

Both Torrances believed that federal theology overturned the gospel by making God a Judge primarily and a Father only secondarily. Put another way: God is primarily  judge of mankind. He judges them according to works, and they must perform them rightly to stay in his good graces. For the Torrance’s, this meant that mankind’s relationship to God is one of law, conditions, and works over grace, communion, participation. Radcliffe expounds:

TF believes that an overarching legal framework distorts the nature of the Father, presenting him primarily as a Judge and Lawgiver and only a Father to those who satisfy the requirements of the law. If you begin with a concept of God as Lawgiver, JB considers, there is the tendency to understand salvation in terms of God being conditioned into being gracious by human works or by Christ satisfying the conditions of the law…

JB also perceives that a legal framework leads to a distortion of our understanding of humanity. He writes, “the federal scheme has substituted a legal understanding of man for filial. That is, God’s prime purpose for for man is legal, not filial, but this yields an impersonal view of man as the object of justice rather than as primarily the object of love. (p 21)

In the Torrances’ view, federal theology leads to a strict view of God who demands obedience and performance. Man owes God obedience not because of a loving relationship, but simply because God is judge!

While they don’t disagree that God is a judge, for the Torrances, God’s first and primarily identity is one of Father. And as such, he creates mankind for loving communion with him in the Son:

However, if you begin with the God revealed by Jesus as the triune God of grace, you will see his unconditional filial purposes whereby he draws us as his son into communion with Him… God’s primary purpose for humanity is filial, not just judicial, where we have been created in the image of God to find our true being-in-communion, in sonship, in the mutual relations of love (p 21)

Put another way, God is concerned not primarily with our conditioned obedience to him as a judge would be. Rather, his purpose for creating mankind is to draw us into loving communion by the Spirit through the Son into his own triune love. His primary identity is one of Father: he wants mankind to participate as imaged sons in the Son by the Spirit. Obedience is a necessary corollary of being family. But, man obeys not to condition God; rather, mankind obeys because God is Father and he is son!

The Torrances take this identity of God-as-Father, as man-created-for-sonship, and move next to God’s means of relating to mankind. JB Torrance, particularly, says that because God is a Father, he does not relate to man conditionally, as in a contract, but rather covenantally, as in a family. Radcliffe explains:

JB defines a contract “as a legal relationship in which two people or two parties bind themselves together on mutual conditions to effect some future result”… The Torrances identify contractual thinking in Federal theology when salvation is made dependent upon our personal response. Although God’s grace may be upheld, contractual thinking can unintentionally steal in when forgiveness is made conditional upon repentance, with devastating consequences for assurance of salvation. (p 22)

Thinking of God contractually, in the Torrances’ mind, means that salvation is thought in terms of “do this, then…”. If I do this, then God will accept me. If I repent; if I have enough faith; then God will accept me. Instead, the Torrance’s explain that God primarily relates to man through a covenant. While covenant is likened to a contract, it is fundamentally different. A contract is a mutual exchange of properties and obligations. A covenant is an exchange of persons, and it creates a familial relationship. It creates a blood-bond. It creates a family bond not of merit and reward, but of communion and fellowship.

God makes successive covenants with mankind throughout the biblical narrative precisely because he wants to be our Father. It is not a works based contract that he creates with us, but a familial covenant. This covenanting of God culminates with the sending of the Son who performs both sides of the covenant–as perfect human Son and as faithful God–through the incarnation death and resurrection. In his coming, Christ creates a bondedness between man and God that allows man to participate in Christ’s own Sonship through the Holy Spirit. In my next post, I want to discuss how the Torrance’s understand the atonement as objective, universal, and actually accomplished in the person of the incarnate Son.

Apollonarianism: The First Christology

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I am reading through the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov’s seminal work The Lamb of God. And I decided that I would (try to, at least) blog through this work. The work itself is Bulgakov’s Christology, or what he calls the divine-humanity. The question he asks throughout is: how is the divine humanity possible? Or, put another way: how is the union of God and man in Christ in reality even a possibility?

I want to begin with a few posts outlining Bulgakov’s highly important introduction. This introduction, which is quite long — a whopping nearly 90 pages — is a captivating survey of the patristic Christology. He surveys how the earliest church understood Christ’s divine humanity, which he understands as a long process of positive and negative development. He is surprisingly critical of much of the early fathers of the church, particularly of Cyril of Alexandria and the great Athanasius. I must admit that I was a bit put off by some of his negativity, especially of Cyril; but I must also admit that much of his critique was quite valid.

Bergakov begins the introduction by surveying Apollonarius’ theology. I want to devote this first post to Bulgakov’s recommendation of Apollonarius as the first theologian to actually articulate a Christology. That Bulgakov recommends Apollonarius may seem surprising by some, especially because his Christology is historically deemed as heretical. However, he starts there because, as he says, Apollonarius “was the first to pose the problem of divine-humanity” (p 3). Bulgakov goes so far as to say that the epoch of Christology “originates with his problematic” (p 3). What he means here is that Apollonarius was the first to pose just how God and man, by definition two differing beings, can fit together in the one person of Jesus Christ. Bulgakov explains:

Apollonarius was the first to consider a fundamental problem of Christology: What is the divine-humanity? Or, how is the incarnation possible? What does it presuppose? Apollonarius went beyond the naive physical notions of his predecessors, who were satisfied with the soteriological postulates of the incarnation and the affirmation of the fact of the latter. He began to analyze this fact, and from this analysis, Christology was born (p 4)

Bulgakov makes an important point: Apollonarius was the first to ask how it is that Jesus is God and man at the same time. How do they fit together in a unity which makes logical sense? Strictly speaking, before Apollonarius, the Fathers were content with saying things like “God assumed a human nature” or “the divine Son became a man”. This is Bulgakov’s problem with many of Athanasius’ schematics. While Athanasius was a great defender of the faith against Arianism (that the Son was a lesser demi-god), he still did not articulate how the Son was both God and man. And, while the Chalcedonian definition is creedal and therefore a “non-negotiable”, even that is minimal in its affirmation: the Son is consubstantial with God the Father and man. But, again, what does that mean? Apollonairius was the first to posit a solution to the problem.

Bulgakov explains this problem more in depth:

What meaning an we attach to this becoming (genesis) of the Word, who in himself possesses divine unchangeability but who assumes flesh, “becomes incarnate and is in-humanized” (these two notions being equated according to the Nicene Creed)? The flesh denotes the body and thus refers to man’s creaturely corporeality, which is opposed to the noncreaturely spirituality of Divinity. The in-humanization is thus defined, first of all, as the assumption of a body. We find this doctrine in  particular in St. Athanasius: to express the doctrine of the incarnation, he is content to use the notions of soma (body) and sarx (flesh). Strictly speaking, there is no Christology here. (p 8)

What Bulgakov means here is that this isn’t really a postalizing about how the Son is incarnate: it’s just stating the matter! Apollonarius, whether for ill or good, was the first to give some sort of explanation.

But what was Apollonarius’ Christology? Before explaining, it is first important to note that Apollonarius’ intention in his Christology was to protect the unity of the God-man. Christ, as Apollonarius says, “is not two persons, as if one God and the other man” (p 5). Christ is one person somehow containing two natures. Another thing Apollonarius set out to do was to protect the unchangeability of the divine nature. God does not become anything, nor can he. So how can the unchangeable God become man? With these two boundaries set, Apollonarius set forth a Christology. Bulgakov explains:

According to [Apollonarius’] theory, the Logos [the Son] replaced, in the human essence of the God-man, the supreme principle of man, which Apollonarius calls (in the language of Hellenistic philosophy) pneuma or nous and which corresponds to the hypostatic spirit in man’s nature. (p 8)

Put another way, when the divine Son became united to the human nature, the divine nature replaced something within the human nature, thus “fitting” together in one person. To the historically astute, this articulation inevitably paves the way for monophysitism, the thought that the union of God and man in Christ creates a third single nature. This is not how Apollonarius understood it, however. In his mind, this articulation protected the unity of the God-man and the unchangeability of the divine nature.

It is also important to acknowledge that it is unclear what exactly Apollonarius meant by the terms pneuma or nous. In some places in his writings it seems like he means man’s soul or spirit. But in other places it seems like he means man’s intellect: “How does God become man without ceasing to be God if God does not take the place of the intellect of man?” (p 11). Bulgakov also notices importantly that Apollonarius believed man to be composed of three parts: body, soul, spirit. This means that Apollonarius almost certainly still understood Christ to have a human body and soul. So then, what part of the human nature did the divine replace, and how does it all fit together into a unity? There is confusion on this, but Bulgakov explains:

Apollonarius’ conception is …interpreted to mean that Christ assumed an incomplete human essence, namely body and soul, but without the human reason, which is replaced by divine reason. That is precisely how Apollonarius’ theory was interpreted by his contemporaries and his opponents, by St. Gregory the Theologian and in part even by St. Gregory of Nyssa. (p 13)

Bulgakov argues that this is not necessarily how Apollonarius meant it. His language was very imprecise, and he could have meant nous to be another part of the human person. In any case, the early church rejected Apollonarius’ Christology because they understood him to mean that the divine Son assumed a human nature devoid of human intellect or the human mind. If that was the case, it meant that the Son assumed an incomplete human nature. And this is of course where St. Gregory of Nazianzas’ famous saying came from: “Whatever is not assumed is not healed”. If Christ had not assumed a complete human nature — including the human mind — than the human nature as such is not fully regenerate, and thus salvation is not possible for mankind.

While agreeing with the church on this, Bulgakov makes this general observation before moving on in his introduction:

[Apollonarius’] errors did not find adherents in dogmatics; on the contrary, it was the positive aspects of his doctrine that were adopted and endure in dogmatics. In this sense there is an essential difference between Apollonarius and Arius, with whom he is sometimes compared with reference to Christology: Although Arius did awaken the dogmatic consciousness, gave rise to the homoosian movement, and was indeirectly responsible for the Nicene Creed…, his proper doctrine represents a direct rejection of the truth, pure falsehood without any ambiguity. In contrast, in Apollonarius’ doctrine everything has a double meaning; everything is a mixture of truth and error. In this respect he does not greatly differ from certain fathers who are honored as teachers of the Church…

But the access into historical dialectic Christology lies through Apollonarius’ theological doctrine, and this constitutes his enduring historical significance and, of course, his great achievement in behalf of the church. (p 18-19)

It is a bit odd to find Bulgakov speak so highly of this heretical Christology; and yet, I cannot disagree with Bulgakov. Apollonarianism was the first achieved Christology. Apollonarius meant to makes sense of Christ as one person, as a unity, yet being composed somehow of two natures. In the next post we will move to St. Cyril of Alexandria and his opposition to Apollonarius.

 

A New Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice

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One of the more famous stories from the life of Jesus is his cleansing of the temple. It is famous, of course, because it highlights Christ’s anger against the money-changers who were selling animals for sacrifice at a hefty price.

They were in essence using the temple sacrificial system for their own benefit. And not just that, the money-changers were hindering worshippers. The temple was a place of communion of YHWH with his people. And not just His people, but with the watching world. The outer most court of the temple — called the court of the Gentiles — was open to any and all who would want to come and see the temple. And yet, as soon as they walked through the door, any who entered would be halted by the swindling money-changers. It is certain that any righteous Israelite would be scandalized by it. It makes total sense that Jesus himself was infuriated.

Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus, upon entering, “overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold the pigeons. He said to them, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers'” (21:12-13). Jesus says in essence that the money-changers had perverted the purpose of the temple as a place of prayer and fellowship into a place of profit.

While Luke ends his version of the story there, Matthew includes an additional part. He tells us that after Jesus overturned the tables, that the “blind and lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (vv. 14).

Now why would Matthew include this little addition? It certainly isn’t random. Matthew doesn’t waste space in his gospel. What is the connection?

The connection is this: the blind and the lame were seen as unclean according to the law of Moses. And should they desire to enter the temple beyond the outer courts, they would need to be cleansed by a sacrifice. And yet, Matthew tells here that when they entered they not only had no sacrifice (presumably they wouldn’t have been able to afford the animals the money-changers were offering!), but they were also immediately cleansed by Christ himself without a sacrifice. What I want to suggest is that within the context, Matthew means to picture Christ as a new temple and sacrificial system, one better than the old; one that supersedes and fulfills the old.

Matthew is presenting Christ as replacing the old cultic temple system. The old way of the Mosaic system had been perverted by the money-changers, and thus Christ becomes the new way into the presence of God. He is in himself a temple, housing God’s glory. And, he is in himself a new priest presenting himself as a cleansing sacrifice, thus enabling us to enter “through the veil of his flesh” (Heb 10:19-22). Matthew is, in his own brilliant way, presenting a rich atonement theology!

Incarnation and Non-Competitiveness

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Here is an excerpt from Robert Barron’s Catholicism that I have always loved! He says that the incarnation means that God is non-competitive with his creation. And actually, the closer the divine life gets to us, the more alive we are:

The incarnation tells us central truths concerning God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature the he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation. In many ancient myths and legends, divine figures such as Zeus or Dionysus enter into human affairs only through aggression, destroying or wounding that which they invade… But there is none of this in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. The Word does indeed become human, but nothing of the human is destroyed in the process; God does indeed enter into his creation, but the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God of the incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song. 

And the incarnation tells us the most important truth about ourselves: we are destined for divinization. The church fathers never tired of repeating this phrase as a sort of summary for the Christian belief: Dues fit homo ut homo fieret Deus (God became human so that humans might become God). God condescended to enter into flesh so that our flesh might partake of the divine life, that we might participate in the love that holds the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in communion. And this is why Christianity is the greatest humanism that has ever appeared (p 1-2)

Christ in the Garden

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Mary Magdelene meets Christ “in the garden” after his resurrection

In the Gospel of John, there is an interesting “garden” theme that runs from the betrayal of Judas all the way through the resurrection. I cannot help but assume that John is attempting a connection between Adam and Christ.

The setting for the whole garden theme begins in John 13. After Christ washed the disciples feet, John says that Jesus signaled Judas as betrayer by dipping the bread and giving it to him to eat. John tells us that “after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him” (13:27) (almost an anti-Eucharist, no?). After this, it is said that Judas/Satan left to betray Jesus.

What is interesting, is that after Jesus finished his instruction of the disciples, it says in John 18:1 that Jesus “went out with his disciples across the brook of Kidron, where there was a garden”. This garden is where Judas, possessed by Satan, came to capture Jesus and his disciples with a Roman army. It is almost certain that Jesus’ disciples would have been captured and killed along with their leader. And yet John tells us that Jesus protected his disciples by telling the soldiers to take only him and to “let these men go” (18:8). This means that Jesus protected his disciples from Satan’s attack in the garden.

One can’t help but see how this scene almost mirrors Satan’s entrance into the garden in Genesis 2. Satan entered the garden to attack Adam and his bride. The only difference here is that Adam failed to protect his bride. He allowed Satan to seduce her into sin. Christ on the other hand stood up to the enemy. He protected his people by giving his own life for theirs. John then portrays Jesus here as the faithful Adam who stood up to the enemy in the garden, protecting his bride with his own life.

Fast forward to the crucifixion scene, John tells us that the “place where [Jesus] was crucified was a garden” (19:41). John wants us to know then that Jesus gave his life for his people in a garden. On the one hand, this could be a mere historical fact; and yet the detail is random. I believe the detail is theological: Jesus gave his life on a tree in a garden for his people, while Adam on the other hand saved his life in a garden at a tree, and gave his bride to the tempter. John is contrasting the selfishness of the one, and the selflessness of the other.

One last detail is during the resurrection scene. We are told that Mary Magdelene, having discovered Jesus’ body missing from the tomb, was weeping. John tells us that while she was weeping, Jesus came up to her and asked: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (20:13). Mary answered, “supposing Him to be the gardner, [and] she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him'” (20:14). Notice two important details: first, Jesus called Mary “woman”; second, John tells us that Mary supposed him to be the gardner. Adam named his wife “woman”, or Eve. And he was tasked as the gardner! John is clearly referencing the creation account. Christ’s resurrection restores Eden. Jesus in himself becomes a second Adam.

So then it becomes fairly clear that throughout the entire betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection narratives, John is making a connection between Jesus and Adam. Jesus steps in to protect and give his life for his bride in a garden. Adam allows Satan to tempt and seduce his bride, and dies in a garden. Jesus is, as Paul says, the Last Adam.