Christmas needs the cross, part 3

January 3, 2014

In my ongoing non-conversation with United Methodist pastor, author, and blogger Jason Micheli, I have vehemently disagreed with his contention that Christ would have become incarnate regardless what happened in the Garden, regardless whether or not humanity sinned. To me, this idea contradicts the Bible, which is reason enough to argue about it. But it also demotes the cross’s central role in the theology of the New Testament, and minimizes the problem of sin and death. (You can read about my disagreements: here, here, and here.)

He has said that he’s merely restating or paraphrasing what has been said by classic Christian exegetes and theologians, and on this point I feel slightly out of my element: I haven’t read Maximus the Confessor or Duns Scotus. I’ve read a little of Gregory of Nazianzas and a little of Thomas Aquinas. But I haven’t read them make his argument!

I’ve read the Bible, of course. But that’s not good enough, apparently.

In today’s post, however, he writes about something Athanasius supposedly said:

To paraphrase Athanasius without distorting his original intent: God became man and was always going to do so; so that, man could be with God.

I’ve read Athanasius! So I posted the following in the comments section:

You write:

“To paraphrase Athanasius without distorting his original intent: God became man and was always going to do so; so that, man could be with God.”

Paraphrase aside (why no direct quotes?), I can’t see how this doesn’t contradict Athanasius’s own words in a book of his I’ve actually read, On the Incarnation. Athanasius says repeatedly that Christ became incarnate in order to deliver us from the corruption wrought by sin during the Fall. He says it in many ways, but let me quote one part directly:

“You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word’s becoming Man”—he just finished talking about the Garden and the Fall “The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body. For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion.” [St. Athanasius, <em>On the Incarnation</em> (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 29]

I could go on, but I hope you get the point. Athanasius doesn’t say or imply here that the Word would become incarnate regardless what happened in the Garden. On the contrary, it was because of what we lost through our disobedience that the Word was made flesh. The incarnation was a response to our sin. Its purpose, as Athanasius says, is to save us from the law of sin and death.

Keep in mind, as a Wesleyan whose orientation is already prima scriptura, I don’t need Athanasius to affirm this for me. But I’m glad to know that he does: we have the same Bible, after all.

If Athanasius sounds positively Western and soteriological in his orientation, it’s because Western Christianity didn’t get it all wrong, after all.

6 Responses to “Christmas needs the cross, part 3”

  1. Clay Knick Says:

    Long live Athanasius! I’m thankful the Lord raised him up for his time and for the generations to come.

  2. James Lung Says:

    Well put. But remember, Jesus’s incarnation is as much about ontology as it is soteriology. If any man is in Chsirt, (s)he is a NEW CREATION — ALL THINGS . . .

    • brentwhite Says:

      I disagree that soteriology and ontology are on the same plane. The ontological change, I believe, is part of salvation.

      But I don’t think this is a terribly important difference.

      • jwlung Says:

        I agree. We are saved from the penalty, power, and presence of the sin. My only point in talking about ontology is that western Christianity can be subject to the criticism that we overemphasize the forensic aspects of salvation. Wesley’s understanding of salvation by faith incorporates all that Christ accomplished in His life, death, burial and resurrection. I use the term ontology to emphasize the real change that is available to free us from the power and presence of sin.

      • brentwhite Says:

        No argument here. The new birth is a real inward change. Methodists are anti-Lutheran in this regard.

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