Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Suffering of the Impassible God (Arianism Opposed)

Continuing the summary of Gavrilyuk’s book:

In reaction against Patripassionism, with its failure to distinguish the Father and the Son, some turned to ditheism or tritheism and others demoted Christ from full deity. It was this last proposal that gained the most traction at the popular level.

Anti-Nicene literature is full of arguments against Sabellianism, a clear sign that their theology developed in response to modalistic extremes. Dionysius of Alexandria (d. c.264), for example, sought to correct certain Sabellian bishops by emphasizing the differences between the Father and the Son.  He wrote to them that ‘the Son of God is a creature and made’ and compared the Father and Son to a boat and its maker.

Another evidence of this resistance to Sabellianism can be seen in the local editions of the ancient Roman creed. In Aquilea and Milan (for part of the 4th century) the words ‘invisible and impassible’ were added to the first article (referring only to the Father). Rufinus of Aquilea wrote (early 5th century) that this language was added to counter the Patripassian heresy ‘which said that the Father himself was born of the Virgin and became visible, or affirmed that he suffered in the flesh.’

Ambrose of Milan, while recognizing that these creedal additions did effectively refute Sabellianism, contended that in his day they should be rejected because they lent credence to the Arians’ views. They used these additions to commend their contention that, unlike the Father, Christ was passible and mutable from the beginning. Again, the rejection of the extreme of Sabellianism led to the opposite extreme of subordinationism.

Five Interpretations of Arianism
There are at least five distinct interpretations of Arian theology:

1)      Following the later Platonic model of reality, Arian subordinationism emphasized the transcendence of the Father. He possessed all the apophatic attributes, unlike the generated God. The Son, being passible mutable, was able to communicate and interact with the creation. Suggested influences include: ‘Aristotle, Plato (and Platonists like Atticus and Albinus), Philo, origen, Lucian, Paul of Samosata, and the exegetes of the “schools” in Alexandria and Antioch’[1]
2)      The Arians were Judaizers, not Hellenizers. They sought to preserve Jewish monotheism. Christ was still somehow recognized as divine, or, as they often said, the ‘uniquely-generated God’ (monoghnej qeoj).
3)      Arius was a careful Bible student and took the statements about the Son’s inferiority to the Father seriously (John 14:28; Mark 13:32; John 6:38, etc.). Arius did not do much allegorizing. He tended to take the text rather literally, siding with the simpliciores rather than the Alexandrians who came before him. Maurice Wiles comes close to this interpretation.
4)      Arians believed that the Father freely chose to generate the Son. The Father foresaw the (Stoic) moral progress of the Son and adopted him – leaving an example for us all. Robert Gregg and Dennis Groh introduced this hypothesis. They claimed that Arians ‘emphatically’ denied that Christ was God.
5)      Arians insisted that Christ was in some way divine. That’s why they denied that the Logos had a human soul. The affirmation of the divinity of the one who suffered and died was of central importance for Arian soteriology. Hanson-Wiles interpretation.

Considering these diverse proposals about the overarching concern of Arian theology, Gavrilyuk contends that there is no single governing principle – the quest is in vain. He contends that the first three theories offer useful insights, the fourth has too many faults to be of much use, and the fifth theory needs drastic revision. [He goes into greater detail about the basis for these judgments here and later in the chapter. I’ll not be covering that material.]

Gavrilyuk stops here to point out that the diverse influences and interests of Arian theology is a good example of what is wrong with The Theory of Theology’s Fall Into Hellenistic Philosophy. The Theory utterly fails to explain Arianism. No philosophically neutral reading of Scripture is possible, contrary to the implications of the Theory. There’s more to the question of the nature and extent of divine involvement than a mere dichotomy of either Bible or philosophy.

Does Generation Entail pathos?
The generation of the Son, viewed primarily as a cosmological rather than soteriological matter, was a central concern of Arian theology. They sought to articulate the precise boundaries of analogical statements about the Son’s generation. So did their opponents.

Arian theologians tended to take the analogies more literally than orthodox theologians. The Arians accused the orthodox of sucking all meaning out of the terms. The orthodox accused the Arians of excessive anthropomorphism.

One of the primary issues of debate was the question of pathos. Did the generation of the Son involve pathos? Defining this term, pathos, is no simple matter. Jean Danielou suggests that ‘Pathos, as used by all fourth century theologians is an almost untranslatable word; it means anything that necessitates change or becoming or human experience.’

Arians insisted that the Son was necessarily involved in pathos since he was generated. And if generated he must have had a beginning. If not, what meaning remains to the analogy of generation? The Fathers insisted that the primary commonality between the generation of the Son and human birth is that humans beget humans. Likewise, God begets God.

Nevertheless, several Arian bishops refused to sign at the council of Nicaea because the term homoousios seemed to them to imply that the Son is the result of either ‘division, derivation, or germination.’ All of these analogies unacceptably entailed pathos.

Even those bishops who rejected homoousios upheld the impassible generation of the Son. The [semi-Arian] ‘dated creed’ of 359 declares that that the Son was ‘like to the Father who begot him,’ and affirmed that ‘the uniquely-generated Son of God…was begotten impassibly from God.’ This creed anathematized anyone who claimed that ‘the Father begot the Son unwillingly, i.e., being compelled by the necessity of his nature.’

The Arians offered Nicene theologians two options: either the Father was compelled to generate the Son (denying his sovereignty) or he begot him as a matter of will (which entailed that the Son came from the Father’s will instead of his essence). Athanasius responded by insisting that an act of essence is higher and did not minimize the freedom or power of God. He emphasized that the generation of the Son is a mystery beyond our understanding.

Gregory of Nyssa made the excellent contribution that even Christ’s earthly birth was without pathos. He was not the product of sexual union, but rather of the Holy Spirit. He further introduced the analogy of the new birth in water baptism. This birth frees us from passion. It is an impassible birth (John 1:13). If Christians can be willingly born-again impassibly then so can the Son.

Orthodox Responses
According to Gregory of Nyssa, the thing of primary importance for the Arians was that the High God be protected from the shame of the cross. They contended that his inferior (passible) nature allowed the Son to suffer on the cross. To say that the Father suffered was blasphemous to the Arians.
The orthodox, on the other hand, affirmed a sort of impassibility that still allowed the fully divine Son to suffer.

It is true that for the pro-Nicenes the Logos did not become an exact copy of his passible human nature. At the same time, as one of Athanasius’ supporters point out, when the flesh suffered, the Logos was not outside of it (evktos), which is why the suffering is said to be his’. As we will see in the next chapter, Cyril of Alexandria made the concept of appropriation (ivdiopoih.sij) of the flesh by the Logos central to his defence of the unity of Christ’s person in the economy of salvation. In the incarnation God put human nature to God-befitting use, sanctified it, and made it life-giving.

The orthodox held that the Logos was somehow the subject of the human experiences of Christ. He suffered impassibly. Athanasius declares that the Logos ‘permitted his body to weep and hunger,’ and ‘let his own body suffer’.

Closing Comments (Chapter 5)
I think I have a better grasp of Arianism after reading this chapter. It seems less ridiculous now.
Apparently, the intuition that God cannot suffer or change was truly widespread by this time. Would Arian theology have become the force it was had it not been for the popularity of this conception of impassibility?
Are we really expected to believe that impassibility came from somewhere other than Hellenistic thought? One thing I don’t think I’ve seen yet is any suggestion of an alternative source for it other than the LXX, which allegedly downplayed anthropomorphism/pathism in the OT in Alexandria without any influence from Hellenistic philosophy. I’m not persuaded.
It is noteworthy that orthodox theologians allowed that the fully divine Son did indeed suffer impassibly.  

[1] Robert Gregg, Early Arianism