Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Question of Christ's Relation to God: Sample writings from the 100's AD

There is a question that keeps recurring in Christian thought: "Is Jesus subordinate to God?" Since the question of whether a human is subordinate to God is, at face value, absurd, sometimes the related question is asked instead, "Is the Word of God subordinate to God?" This is considered an equivalent question by those who believe that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. The second framing of the question may come closer to the point, since the intended question tends to be less about Jesus' humanity and more about the eternal nature of God and of the Word of God.

Here we look at some examples of how the early church came to understand the Word of God in relation to God, focusing on some writers from the 100's AD: 

And His Son, who alone is properly called Son, the Word, who also was with Him and was begotten before the works, when at first He created and arranged all things by Him, is called Christ, in reference to His being anointed and God’s ordering all things through Him (Justin Martyr, died around 165 AD)
But this Offspring, which was truly brought forth from the Father, was with the Father before all the creatures, and the Father communed with Him; even as the Scripture by Solomon has made clear, that He whom Solomon calls Wisdom, was begotten as a Beginning before all His creatures and as Offspring by God, who has also declared this same thing in the revelation made by Joshua the son of Nave (Nun) (again Justin Martyr, died around 165 AD)

But the Son of God is the Logos of the Father, in idea and in operation; for after the pattern of Him and by Him were all things made, the Father and the Son being one. And, the Son being in the Father and the Father in the Son, in oneness and power of spirit, the understanding and reason (νοῦς καὶ λόγος) of the Father is the Son of God. But if, in your surpassing intelligence, it occurs to you to inquire what is meant by the Son, I will state briefly that He is the first product of the Father, not as having been brought into existence (for from the beginning, God, who is the eternal mind [νοῦς], had the Logos in Himself, being from eternity instinct with Logos [λογικός]); but inasmuch as He came forth to be the idea and energizing power of all material things. (Athenagoras of Athens, died around 190 AD)

In these examples, the idea that the Son is the Word of God is taken fairly literally, in context of some different philosophical and theological ideas about the Logos (λόγος). I have not seen any areas of tension between these writings and the Bible, though as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes there are some areas of tension between these writings and later orthodoxy. 

To be continued ...

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Word of God (Logos) in the ancient church

The "Logos", or Word of God, is an ancient concept that has been used in Christian circles since the days when the New Testament was being written, particularly in the writings attributed to John. The Catholic Encyclopedia's article on the Logos helpfully traces some of its origins before that use so that we have some context for what the word may have meant at that time. 

The same article also traces what the early Christian church understood about that in reference to Jesus. The thinkers and theologians of the church grappled with it for centuries. The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges frankly that there were "subordinationist tendencies found in certain Ante-Nicene writers." That is, many of them saw the Logos -- and consequently Jesus -- as subordinate to the Father. 

The article also notes an interesting contrast between theology in the early church and now. The Christian thought of that day, and now, affirms that the Word was not created but generated (begotten) of God. However, the Catholic encyclopedia views the early church's theology as "less satisfactory as regards the eternity of this generation and its necessity; in fact, they represent the Word as uttered by the Father when the Father wished to create and in view of this creation." 

I have spent some hours over the last few weeks reading up on this, and I find the research going more slowly than I could wish. Still, as any regular reader here knows, I'd rather be thorough than fast. The questions of interest to me are: What were the arguments on each side of that question, and how did we arrive at our current understanding? 

To be continued

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Hegelian dialectic can explain why the U.S. is stuck in a rut

U.S. politics has seemed stuck at the same impasses for the longest time. The different approaches have tended to go back and forth like a pendulum depending on the latest election. Each side is generally convinced that the reason their solution hasn't worked yet is because it keeps getting reversed every time the other side is in charge. 

Maybe. But maybe the country generally goes back and forth between the major parties because each solution, by itself, is incomplete. Consider this possibility: What if Hegel was correct about the development of ideas: First there's an idea or "thesis"; then there's the counter-argument, rebuttal, the other side of the pros-and-cons list, however you want to view that: "antithesis." In politics, the opposing sides seem to be in that kind of relationship. That tension between thesis and antithesis remains stuck until the two sets of ideas interact, their proponents talk to each other, listen to each other, understand each other, and find ways that they can rebuild their views to combine into a new solution: "synthesis." 

If that diagnosis is correct, then going back and forth between two parties that try to dominate each other will never reach a better solution. And either solution by itself -- each ignoring its antithesis -- will never become that next-level solution. It will fossilize in its opposition to the ideas that could have improved it, declaring enmity toward the thing it would most benefit from understanding. But both sides are avoiding that next step -- synthesis -- because that's the step where each side has to treat the other views with serious and respectful consideration. Both sides' views have to become part of the new solution, both sets of ideas are a necessary part of the solution as they come together -- and lose the identity that has, at least in U.S. politics, consisted of devaluing the other side. 

If Hegel was right, then we're stuck in solving our problems until we treat each other with respect, and at least consider the possibility that the other side has an important missing piece of our own puzzle. 

Sunday, November 08, 2020

The Son: "Begotten, not made"

When we discuss the Son of God, begotten of God the Father, it is easy for our thoughts to drift to Jesus' birth without human father from the Virgin Mary . But when theologians speak of the Trinity and of the Son being "begotten" of God, they are not speaking of any event in this world or in human history. They refer to the Word of God which existed not only before Jesus' human conception, but before this world was formed. 

When we turn our attention to questions about the Trinity before the world was formed, we find ourselves without direct information either from God or from human witnesses: we are at a disadvantage for solid facts. I would like to review some of the previous thought on the matter, and will quote a section of the online Catholic Encyclopedia (article about the Holy Spirit which considers the bigger picture) : 

The Son is, in the language of Scripture, the image of the Invisible God, His Word, His uncreated wisdom. God contemplates Himself and knows Himself from all eternity, and, knowing Himself, He forms within Himself a substantial idea of Himself, and this substantial thought is His Word. Now every act of knowledge is accomplished by the production in the intellect of a representation of the object known; from this head, then the process offers a certain analogy with generation, which is the production by a living being of a being partaking of the same nature; and the analogy is only so much the more striking when there is question of this act of Divine knowledge, the eternal term of which is a substantial being, consubstantial within the knowing subject. [Note: they credit Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo for the development of thought to that point.]

In the Bible, does "image of God" mean God's self-image? I'm not convinced of that, but for the most part their argument is independent of whether that was an appropriate application of the text. So let's watch the line of thought that is being developed. 

Their starting point is that God has a self-image. That's something we can understand. For example, would King Solomon's self-image have been something like "I desire wisdom" at one point? Did King David's self-image include "I'm a musician"? So we can understand self-image. Does God have a self-image? If we grant that God has intellect and wisdom, if we grant that God is sentient, then it follows that God has a self-image, even they haven't yet demonstrated that's the answer to the question on the table. As for God having a self-image, there are some interesting side-questions there. Does God have infinite capability to decide his own character? Is that a meaningful question for God? And I expect that God's self-reflection is faithful and true to his character. 

I'll also grant that we tend to understand things by producing a model, map, or other image of the object in our minds, though sometimes we also use words or various symbols as tools for understanding. For the sake of evaluating the argument we'll suppose that God's mind did something similar on self-reflection: that God is capable of self-understanding and some sort of self-image. But is God's self-reflection distinct from God who does the reflecting? Does that reflection have existence in a meaningful sense? Is it independent? Is it equal? While I am fully persuaded that the Word of God is eternal, it leaves more to discuss on the questions of whether this Word of God or Image of God is meaningfully distinct from God before the act of creation, before anything existed besides God. 

That question -- "Is it meaningfully distinct?" -- becomes clearer after creation exists, and particularly after people exist. At that point there is someone besides God, and so communication becomes part of the picture. If we continue to grant that we generally understand what is outside us by producing a model or image in our minds, then our human understanding of God depends on how (or if) we form an image of God. An image of God is the source of all idolatry -- and the source of a relationship that is not blind. Christianity is tightly attached to this idea: there is such a thing as a true image of God. 

To be continued

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Laying the ground for the best of the next four years

As expected, the presidential race is not yet called. I could live with either major ticket winning far more easily than I can live with the dishonesty and hatred that have come to pervade the political scene. If we want the next four years to be ones that we can enjoy, it matters far less who is in the white house and far more how we treat each other, and whether we accept hatred and rage in public discourse. If we want a time when we can heal and grow and recover and prosper then I would encourage us all: Insist on civility, honesty, and kindness. And find out what the other side actually thinks. To be clear: I am not talking about what our own media outlets or politicians say the other side thinks; that tends to be a distorted caricature (if not worse). Find out what your side is saying about the other that they consider to be ludicrous, outrageous, or demonstrably false. What would it take to delegitimize hatred, dishonesty, and violence? That is our calling regardless of the outcome of the election. If we want a good next four years, it is no longer up to any administration that might be elected. It will take enough of the public to choose honesty and kindness -- not timidly but publicly, to stand firm against those who do not. 

Sunday, November 01, 2020

The full armor of God: Does the choice of arms choose our side?

Note: I'd meant to get this post written on Wednesday but I have not quite cleared enough of my schedule to go back to posting twice a week. Because I am prioritizing getting this post published before the election, it means that the next post on the Trinity series will not be out today. 

Finally, brothers and sisters, be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the tricks of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against the spiritual forces of evil on high. 

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness. Prepare your feet, lacing up with the good news of peace. Above all, take the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. Watch with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

Eph 6:10-20

Everywhere I go, every conversation I hear, people are struggling to maintain normalcy -- and having as much trouble with the powder-keg political environment as with the pandemic. The verbal battle is constant, dividing families and friends. Verbal battles have a way of escalating; the nation finds itself bracing for a fight that most of us don't want. In a few corners of the internet there may be people who are preparing more than words; many stores are prepared for violence on the night of the election. One of the conventional safety-valves of democracy has to some extent failed already: much of the "free press" prefers their point-of-view over the big picture, and so lost any ability to unite us. Information has become brokered and gated, and important stories can disappear. Recently it feels like we passed Orwell, and have no reference point for where we are now. 

When we have no confidence that our institutions are equal to their job, then individuals feel compelled to step forward. When facts are in dispute, when the ability to unify is lost, what remains is that we act in accordance with a moral compass. With that end, I'd like to discuss some points of the moral compass that Paul passed along in his letter to the Ephesians: 

  • Be strong in the Lord. We act from a position of spiritual strength: we do not act in fear, anger, or hatred. 
  • We do not fight against flesh and blood. Demonizing or disparaging another human being is picking the wrong target. We can destroy people or property or reputations and count a victory when in fact nothing was gained, and much was lost. 
  • Our strength and our tools are truth, righteousness, the good news of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit of God, the Word of God, prayer, and perseverance. The popular tools of contempt, sarcasm, and malice are out-of-bounds. 

In short, the tools that God's people use in a fight are ones that are upright, and do not injure flesh and blood, which are not our targets. Paul does not suggest anywhere that our tools include mockery, sarcasm, disdain, contempt, half-truths, power-plays, false accusations, or spin: these are not tools of the good fight, not weapons of the follower of Christ. Those are guerrilla-warfare tactics that too often damage innocents along the way, like throwing poison gas in the public square. 

If we use Christ's tools then we can strengthen Christ's kingdom. If we use dishonesty or disdain, we do not use Christ's tools but the enemy's. The tools we use in this fight will show which side we are really on. By "side" I don't mean Team Left and Team Right, both of which are human sides filled (for the most part) with people who are doing the best they can with the information they have. If we want to fight against principalities and powers of darkness, we use the armory of God, with truth and righteousness leading the list. If we use the weapons supplied by the principalities and powers of darkness, then rest assured we are fighting for them. The idea that we can use evil tactics for a good cause is one of the tricks of the devil that we are to resist. Make no mistake: we are fighting for the side who has supplied us with arms. As we head into this next week, may we honor God with our choice of how to stand firm.