Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Comments on Daley's article

One of the articles in the recent work The Redemption: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on Christ as Redeemer is Brian Daley's article "He Himself is Our Peace' (Eph. 2:14): Early Christian views of Redemption in Christ'.

Rather than survey early Christian views about redemption comprehensively, Daley begins by asking what it is about the atonement that requires Jesus be fully divine. In asking and answering this question he seems to assume that the correct view of Christ's work would require Jesus be fully divine. I don't think that such an assumption is warrented. The New Testament writers do not seem to see a "need" for Jesus to be God in order for the salvation of man to be accomplished, and references to Jesus as God are few and far between.

In the pre-Nicene writers three distinct answers are given to the question of why Jesus was divine. (1) Justin Martyr's answer was that an important part of Jesus' teachings was to teach men the truth about the divine nature, and Justin therefore sees Jesus as being the "Word" of God, a Greek philosophical term to refer to a divine entity that conveyed knowledge of God to humanity. In other words, only God can truly teach accurately about the divine nature. (2) Lactantius' answer was that Jesus' teaching of moral virtue would only be perfect in all respects if Jesus was God. (3) Athanasius' answer was that Jesus had to be divine in order that by means of his human incarnation humanity and divinity could be metaphysically joined.

In the Christological councils of the fourth to sixth century it was the third view that was most influential, advocated by a vocal Alexandrian party. According to their soteriology, Jesus had to be fully divine and they succeed in legislating this idea. Daley's line of questioning hence strikes me as going backwards when he starts from the premise that Jesus is fully divine and tries to work to a conclusion about soteriology, when in fact it historically worked the other way around.

Daley then proceeds to outline major ways the Fathers speak of Christ's saving action. He lists and explains four views: The second and third of the three ideas I list here, and also Ransom and Christus Victor. That is a fairly comprehensive survey save that it is missing the most common view in the Fathers - Jesus as a teacher of moral virtue (see here and point 1 here and here and examples of that theology here and here).

Daley uses this survey to conclude that for the Fathers, generally speaking, salvation is not something Jesus "achieved or earned for the human race by acting on our behalf... Rather they all presuppose that salvation... is first of all something Jesus brought about in his own person". That idea appears to be Daley's thesis for which he wants to argue - that salvation is about who Christ is rather what what Christ did.

I would argue that this concept Daley proposes has only a very small amount of truth to it, and that by and large it is simply wrong. In the Fathers' generally it is not Jesus' divinity in and of itself which saves humanity. Rather the fact that Jesus is a divine being is seen as enabling and empowering him to do things that normal humans would not be able to do. Due to being divine, Jesus is able to perform actions to save humanity. For example, because of his divinity he can fight and defeat the devil, or is able to rise from the dead, or is able to teach humanity about the true nature of God, or is able to teach and exemplify perfect virtue. These saving actions that Jesus is seen as performing, he is capable of performing, empowered to perform, or can perform perfectly, due to being divine. But in these cases, humanity would not be helped if Jesus became incarnate and then did nothing.

Further I would argue that none of these ideas require Jesus to be divine: An arch-angel could potentially teach moral behavior, reveal the nature of God, be resurrected from the dead by God, offer his soul to Satan in exchange for humanity, or battle and conquer demons. A divine Christ might indeed accomplish these things better or more effectively, but divinity is not required in order to accomplish them.

The only view of Christ's work in the Fathers which absolutely demands and requires Jesus' divinity as absolutely essential to the very fundamentals of the theory itself is the Alexandrian view of Jesus uniting humanity and God metaphysically in the incarnation. In this view it is, just as Daley says, the very fact that Jesus is God and man which causes redemption. In this view, Jesus doesn't need to do anything or take any action in order to redeem humanity, but simply be who he is. Taken to its logical extreme, in this view Jesus could have lived a perfectly normal life with no one ever in history ever knowing that he had been God and his life would still have redeemed humanity because of who Jesus was. This explains why historically it was the Alexandrian party who held the divine-human-joining theory who were so adamantly against Arianism (which taught Jesus was a super-angel who was 'like' God rather than being one-in-essence with God himself). The Alexandrians' view required Jesus be one-in-essence with God as otherwise in his incarnation in which he united himself with human nature he would not be metaphysically uniting human nature with the divine.

So I see three fundamental flaws in Daley's approach:
1. He starts out by begging the question, asking why Christ "needed" to be fully divine. This presupposes that Christ did in fact "need" to be divine and that this was not simply an arbitrary decision on God's part as, for example, the Parable of the Tenants ("They didn't listen to my servants but maybe they will listen to my son?") might suggest.
2. In his survey of patristic views of the atonement, he omits the most commonly held one - that of Jesus as a teacher of moral virtue.
3. His attempt to draw the conclusion that the Fathers' saw Jesus as having saved humanity simply by virtue of being divine and not because of anything Jesus did or achieved is not supported even by the evidence that he presents. Daley's conclusion applies only to the Alexandrian theory about uniting divine and human natures, and while this theory was very popular in the East from the beginning of the fourth century onward, it was hardly the main patristic idea of the atonement.


Blogger Bryan L said...

Have you thought about emailing him your critique? He's pretty nice about responding and it could open up an interesting dialog for us who early church theology is Greek.

Bryan L


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