Thursday, June 12, 2014

Athanasius against the Arians on Jesus' mediation

Athanasius wrote the following fantastic passage from his Orationes contra Arianos in which he interprets the descriptions of Christ's apparent lacks of power and glory and rule, etc., in terms of his vicarious humanity:

But in answer to the weak and human notion of the Arians, their supposing that the Lord is in want, when He says, ‘Is given unto Me,’ and ‘I received,’ and if Paul says, ‘Wherefore He highly exalted Him,’ and ‘He set Him at the right hand,’ and the like, we must say that our Lord, being Word and Son of God, bore a body, and became Son of Man, that, having become Mediator between God, and men, He might minister the things of God to us, and ours to God. When then He is said to hunger and weep and weary, and to cry Eloi, Eloi, which are our human affections, He receives them from us and offers to the Father, interceding for us, that in Him they may be annulled. And when it is said, ‘All power is given unto Me,’ and ‘I received,’ and ‘Wherefore God highly exalted Him,’ these are gifts given from God to us through Him. For the Word was never in want, nor has come into being; nor again were men sufficient to minister these things for themselves, but through the Word they are given to us; therefore, as if given to Him, they are imparted to us. For this was the reason of His becoming man, that, as being given to Him, they might pass on to us. For of such gifts mere man had not become worthy; and again the mere Word had not needed them; the Word then was united to us, and then imparted to us power, and highly exalted us. For the Word being in man, highly exalted man himself; and, when the Word was in man, man himself received. Since then, the Word being in flesh, man himself was exalted, and received power, therefore these things are referred to the Word, since they were given on His account; for on account of the Word in man were these gifts given. And as ‘the Word became flesh,’ so also man himself received the gifts which came through the Word (IV, 6).

Athanasius major point is that Christ is a mediator between God and humanity, being both God and human: he minsters the things of God to us, and ours to God, as he says. This means that his weaknesses, his sufferings, etc., were things taken on from humanity so that he might do away with them, and through his bearing them might put them to an end. Moreover the empowerments he receives from the Father, he receives as gifts to his humanity in his own person, to be given to us through union with him.

Christ is a kind of half-way point between God and humanity, both as it actually is and as God intends it to be. Or to put it another way, Christ is the half-way point between God's future kingdom in the eschaton and the glorified state which man will occupy therein, on the one hand, and humanity's current godless and weakened position, on the other. He steps into our position, taking upon himself the things which afflict us, but in faithfulness to his Father he bears them; therefore the Father gives him, in his humanity, the things which he intends for all human persons. And all of this is done for us because we get these gifts, and these burdens are lifted from us, when we unite ourselves freely to Christ. As he says: For as He takes our infirmities, not being infirm, and hungers not hungering, but sends up what is ours that it may be abolished, so the gifts which come from God instead of our infirmities, doth He too Himself receive, that man, being united to Him, may be able to partake them (IV, 7). Moreover this union is something Christ freely offers to all: believe, be baptized, and have fellowship with him through the Eucharist, in the Holy Spirit, by the scriptures, and in the fellowship of the body of believers.

In this light it would be a mistake to read the weaknesses of Christ in the scriptures and infer from this that therefore he was not also God. No, the weaknesses have to do with his humanity, and he bears these weaknesses precisely in order to exhaust them, to burn them up like straw in the fire as Athanasius says in some other place, and in order to give to us through union with him the gifts of his exalted state.