St. Athanasius and Faith in the Divinity of Christ
VATICAN CITY, 9 MARCH 2012 (ZENIT)
Here is the first Lenten homily delivered by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household. He gave the sermon today.
* * *
In preparation for the Year of Faith proclaimed by the Holy Father Benedict XVI (Oct. 12, 2012-Nov. 24, 2013), the four homilies of Lent are intended to give impetus and give back freshness to our belief through a renewed contact with the "giants of the faith" of the past. Hence the title, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, given to the whole series: "Remember your leaders. Imitate their faith" (Hebrews13:7).
We will put ourselves each time in the school of one of the four great Doctors of the Eastern Church — Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa — to see what each one of them says to us today, in regard to the dogma of which he was champion, that is, respectively, the divinity of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, knowledge of God. At another time, God willing, we will do the same for the great Doctors of the Western Church: Augustine, Ambrose and Leo the Great.
What we wish to learn from the Fathers is not so much how to proclaim the faith to the world, namely, evangelization, or how to defend the faith against errors, namely, orthodoxy; but, rather, how to deepen our faith, to rediscover, behind them, the richness, beauty and happiness of believing, to pass, as Paul says, "through faith for faith" (Romans 1:17), from a believed faith to a lived faith. It will spell, in fact, growth in the "volume" of faith within the Church, which will then constitute the major strength of its proclamation to the world and the best defense of its orthodoxy.
Father de Lubac affirmed that there was never a renewal of the Church in history which was not also a return to the Fathers. Vatican II, whose 50th anniversary we are about to celebrate, is no exception. It is interwoven with quotations from the Fathers; many of its protagonists were Patristic scholars. After Scripture, the Fathers constitute the second layer of soil on which theology, liturgy, biblical exegesis and the whole spirituality of the Church rest and draw their lymph. In certain Medieval Gothic cathedrals curious statues can be seen: personages of imposing stature who rule, seated on the shoulders of very small men. It is the representation in stone of a conviction that theologians of the time formulated with these words: "We are like dwarfs seated on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more things and farther than they, not because of the acuteness of our sight or the height of our body, but because we are borne higher and are raised to a gigantic height." The giants of course were the Fathers of the Church. So it is also for us today.
1. Athanasius, the Champion of the Divinity of Christ
We begin our review with Saint Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who was born in 295 and died in 373. Few Fathers have left such a profound mark on the history of the Church as he. He is remembered for many things: for his influence in the spread of monasticism, thanks to his "Life of Anthony," for having been the first to claim the liberty of the Church also in a Christian State, for his friendship with Western bishops, fostered by the contacts he had during his exile, which marked a reinforcement of the bonds between Alexandria and Rome. However, it is not with all of this that we wish to be concerned. In his Diary, Kierkegaard expresses a curious thought: "The dogmatic terminology of the primitive Church is like an enchanted castle, where the most lovely princes and princesses rest in a profound sleep. Suffice it only to wake them, for them to leap to their feet in all their glory.
The dogma that Athanasius helps us to "reawaken" and to have shine in all its glory is that of the divinity of Christ; for it he suffered exile seven times. The bishop of Alexandria was thoroughly convinced that he was not the discoverer of this truth. On the contrary, all his work would consist in showing that this has always been the faith of the Church, that the truth is not new but what is new is the opposing heresy. His chief merit, in this field, has been that of removing the obstacles that had impeded up to then a full recognition without reticence of the divinity of Christ in the Greek cultural context. One of these obstacles, perhaps the main one, was the Greek habit of defining the divine essence with the term “agennetos”, not begotten. How to proclaim that the Word is true God, from the moment that he is Son, namely begotten by the Father? For Arius it was easy to establish the equivalence: begotten = made, that is to pass from “gennetos” to “genetos”, and conclude with the famous phrase which made the case explode: "There was a time when he was not!" This was equivalent to making Christ a creature, even though not "as the other creatures." Athanasius defended with drawn sword the “genitus non factus” of Nicaea, "begotten, not made." He resolved the controversy with the simple observation: "The term ‘agenetos’ was invented by the Greeks who did not know the Son."
Another cultural obstacle to the full recognition of the divinity of Christ, less perceived at the time but not less operative, was the doctrine of an intermediate divinity, the deuteros theos, linked to the creation of the material world. From Plato onward it became a common given in many religious and philosophical systems of antiquity. The temptation to assimilate the Son, "through whom all things were created," to this intermediate entity remained latent in Christian speculation, even if not in the life of the Church. The result was a threefold scheme of being: at the summit of everything, the un-begotten Father — after him, the Son (and later also the Holy Spirit) and finally the creatures.
The definition “One in being with the Father” ( homoousios), and "begotten not made," (genitus, non factus) removed forever the main obstacle of Hellenism in recognizing the full divinity of Christ and brought about the Christian catharsis of the metaphysical world of the Greeks. With such a definition, only one line of demarcation is drawn on the vertical of being and this line does not divide the Son from the Father, but the Son from creatures. Wishing to enclose in a phrase the everlasting meaning of the definition of Nicaea, we can formulate it thus: in every age and culture, Christ must be proclaimed "God," not in some derived or secondary meaning, but in the strongest meaning that the word "God" has in such a culture. Athanasius made the maintenance of this conquest the purpose of his life. When everyone — emperors, bishops and theologians — oscillated between a rejection and an attempt at accommodation, he remained immovable. There were times when the future common faith of the Church lived in the heart of only one man: his. One's attitude toward him determined the side one was on.
2. The Soteriological Argument
However, more important than insisting on the faith of Athanasius in the full divinity of Christ, which is a noted and peaceful thing, is to know what motivated him in the battle, from where he got such absolute certainty — not from speculation, but from life; more precisely, from reflection on the experience that the Church makes of salvation in Christ Jesus. Athanasius shifts the interest of theology from the cosmos to man, from cosmology to soteriology. Reconnecting himself with the ecclesiastical tradition antecedent to Origen, especially Irenaeus, Athanasius appreciates the results elaborated in the long battle against Gnosticism, which had led to concentration on the history of salvation and of human redemption. Christ is no longer placed, as in the age of the apologists, between God and the cosmos, but rather between God and man. That Christ is Mediator does not mean that he is between God and man (ontological mediation, often understood in a subordinate sense), but that he unites God and man. In him God becomes man and man becomes god, that is, he is divinized.
Placed on this ideal background is the application that Athanasius makes of the soteriological argument dependent upon the demonstration of the divinity of Christ. The soteriological argument is not born with the Arian controversy; it was present in all the ancient Christological controversies, from the anti-Gnostic to the anti-Monothelite. In its classical formulation is sounds thus: "Quod non est assumptum non est sanatum," "What is not assumed is not saved." It is adapted to the various cases, so as to counter the error of the moment, which can be the negation of the human flesh of Christ (Gnosticism), or of his human soul (Apollinarianism), or of his free will (Monothelitism).
In the use that Athanasius makes of it, it can be formulated thus: "What is not assumed by God is not saved," where the force is in all that brief addition "by God." Salvation exacts that man not be assumed by any intermediary, but by God himself: "If the Son is a creature —writes Athanasius — man would remain mortal, not being united to God," and again: "Man would not be divinized, if the Word that became flesh were not of the same nature of the Father." Athanasius formulated it many centuries before Heidegger, and took much more seriously the idea that "only a God can save us," nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten.
The soteriological implications that Athanasius draws from the homoousios of Nicaea are many and very profound. To describe the Son as "consubstantial" with the Father means to put him on a level in which absolutely nothing could remain outside his ray of action. It also means rooting the meaning of Christ on the same foundation in which the being of Christ is rooted, that is, in the Father. Jesus Christ, we then say, does not constitute in the history of the universe a second additive presence in regard to that of God; on the contrary, he is the very presence of the Father. Athanasius writes: "Good as he is, the Father, with his Word that is also God, guides and sustains the whole world, because creation, illuminated by his guidance, by his Providence and by his order, is able to persist in being … The omnipotent and Most Holy Word of the Father, penetrating all things and reaching everywhere with his strength, gives light to every reality and contains everything and embraces it in himself. There is no being whatsoever that can subtract itself from his dominion. All things receive life entirely from him and are maintained in it by him: single creatures in their individuality and the created universe in its totality."
However, it is important to make a specification. The divinity of Christ is not a practical "postulate," as the existence itself of God is for Kant. It is not a postulate, but the explanation of a "given." It would be a postulate and hence a human theological deduction, if one began from a certain idea of salvation and if the divinity of Christ was not deduced as the only one capable of bringing about such salvation; it is, instead, the explanation of a given if one begins, as Athanasius does, from an experience of salvation and it is demonstrated how it would not be able to exist if Christ were not God. It is not on salvation that the divinity of Christ is founded, but it is on the divinity of Christ that salvation is founded.
3. Corde creditur!
However, it is time for us to return to see what we can learn today of the epic battle sustained in his time by Athanasius. The divinity of Christ is today the real "articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae," the truth on which the Church stands or falls. If in other times, when the divinity of Christ was peacefully admitted by all Christians, one could think that this "article" was the "gratuitous justification by faith," now it is no longer thus. Can we say that the vital problem for the man of today is to establish in what way the sinner is justified, when people no longer believe they need being justified or are convinced of finding justification in themselves? "I myself accuse myself today — Sartre has one of his personages cry out from the stage — and only I can also absolve myself, I the man. If God exists man is nothing."
The divinity of Christ is the cornerstone that supports the two principal mysteries of the Christian faith; the Trinity and the Incarnation. They are like two doors that open and close together. If that stone is discarded, the whole edifice of the Christian faith collapses on itself: if the Son is not God, by whom is the Trinity formed? Saint Athanasius had already denounced this when writing against the Arians: "If the Word does not exist together with the Father from all eternity, then an eternal Trinity does not exist, but first there was unity and then, with the passing of time, by addition, the Trinity began to be."
(An idea — this of the Trinity that is formed "by addition" — that began to be proposed, not so many years ago, by some theologian who applied to the Trinity Hegel's dialectic scheme of becoming!). Well before Athanasius, Saint John established this bond between the two mysteries: "He who denies the Son, does not possess the Father either; he who professes his faith in the Son also possesses the Father" (1 John 2:23). The two things are or fall together, but if they fall together, then we must say sadly with Paul that we Christians, "we are of all men most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19). We must allow ourselves to be confronted directly by that very respectful but very direct question of Jesus: "But you, who do you believe I am?" and by that even more personal one: "Do you believe?" Do you really believe? Do you believe with all your heart? Saint Paul says that "man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved"(Romans 10:10). In the past, the profession of the correct faith, namely the second moment of this process, has been so highlighted at times as to leave in the shadow that first moment which is the most important and which unfolds in the recondite profundity of the heart. "It is from the roots of the heart that faith arises," exclaims Saint Augustine.
It is necessary perhaps to demolish in us, believers, and in us, men of the Church, the false persuasion of believing already, to be fine in regard to the faith. It is necessary to provoke doubt — not, of course, about Jesus but about ourselves — to then be able to go in search of a more authentic faith. Who knows if it might not be a good thing, for some time, not to wish to demonstrate anything to anyone, but to internalize our faith, to rediscover its roots in our heart!
Jesus asked Peter three times: "Do you love me?" He knew that the first and second time the answer came out too hastily, to be the true one. Finally, on the third time, Peter understood. The question about the faith should also be asked of us three times, with insistence, until we also realize and enter into the truth: "Do you believe? Do you believe? Do you really believe?" Perhaps at the end we will answer: "No, Lord, I do not really believe with all my heart and with all my soul. Increase my faith!"
Athanasius reminds, however, of yet another important truth: that faith in the divinity of Christ is not possible, if one does not also have the experience of salvation wrought by Christ. Without this, the divinity of Christ becomes easily an idea, a thesis, and we know that an idea can always be opposed by another idea, and a thesis by another thesis. Only to a life — said the desert Fathers — is there nothing that can be opposed.
The experience of salvation is made by reading the word of God (and taking it for what it is, the word of God!), administering and receiving the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the privileged place of the presence of the Risen One, exercising the charisms, keeping in contact with the life of the believing community, praying. In the 4th century, Evagrius formulated the famous equation: "If you are a theologian, you will truly pray and if you truly pray you will be a theologian."
Athanasius prevented theological research from remaining a prisoner of the philosophical speculation of the different "schools" in order to have it become instead a deepening of the revealed truth in the line of the Tradition. An eminent Protestant historian recognized in Athanasius a singular merit in this field: "Thanks to him — he wrote — faith in Christ has remained rigorous faith in God and, in keeping with its nature, clearly different from all the other forms — pagan, philosophical, idealistic — of faith … With him, the Church became again an institution of salvation, that is, in the rigorous sense of the term, 'Church,' whose own and determinant content is constituted by the preaching of Christ."
All this draws us in today in a particular way, after theology was defined as a "science" and is professed in academic environments, very much more disengaged from the life of the believing community than was, at the time of Athanasius, the theological school, called “Didaskaleion”, which flourished in Alexandria with the work of Clement and Origen. Science exacts from the scholar that he "dominate" his material and that he be "neutral" in face of the object of science itself; however, how can one "dominate" one who shortly before, you adored as your God? How can one remain neutral in face of the object, when this object is Christ? This was one of the reasons that pushed me, at a certain point of my life, to abandon academic teaching and dedicate myself full time to the ministry of the word. I remember the thought that surfaced in me, after having taken part in theological and biblical congresses and debates, especially abroad: "Because the university world has turned its back on Jesus Christ, I will turn my back on the university world." The solution to this problem is not, certainly, that of abolishing the academic studies of theology. The Italian situation makes us see the negative effects produced by the absence of a Faculty of Theology in state universities. Catholic and religious culture in general is relegated to a ghetto; in secular bookstores one does not find a single religious book, unless it is on some esoteric or fashionable topic. The dialogue between theology and human, scientific and philosophical learning is carried out "long distance," and this is not the same thing. Speaking in university environments, I often say that they should not follow my example (which remains a personal choice), but to appreciate to the maximum the privilege they enjoy, trying when possible to supplement their study and teaching also with some pastoral activity that is compatible with it.
If one cannot and one must not remove theology from academic environments, there is, however, something that academic theologians can do, and it is to be sufficiently humble to recognize their limits. Theirs is not the only or the highest expression of the faith. Father Henri de Lubac wrote: "The ministry of preaching is not the vulgarization of a doctrinal teaching in a more abstract way, which would be anterior and superior to it. It is, on the contrary, the doctrinal teaching itself, in its highest form. This was true of the first Christian preaching, that of the Apostles, and it is equally true of the preaching of those who are their successors in the Church: the Fathers, the Doctors and our Pastors in the present hour." H.U. von Balthasar, in turn, speaks of the "mission of preaching in the Church, to which the theological mission itself is subordinated."
4. "Courage, It Is I!"
To conclude, let us turn to the divinity of Christ. It illumines,
clarifies the whole of Christian life.
Without faith in the divinity of Christ:
God is remote,
Christ remains in his time,
The Gospel is one of many religious books of humanity,
The Church is a simple institution,
Evangelization is propaganda,
The liturgy is evocation of a past that is no longer,
Christian morality is a burden that is anything but light
and a yoke that is anything but gentle.
However, with faith in the divinity of Christ:
God is Emmanuel, God with us,
Christ is the Risen One who lives in the Spirit,
The Gospel is definitive word of God to the whole of humanity,
The Church is the universal sacrament of salvation,
Evangelization is the sharing of a gift,
The liturgy is a joyful encounter with the Risen One,
Present life is the beginning of eternity.
Written, in fact, is that "He who believes in the Son has eternal
life" (John 3:36).
Faith in the divinity of Christ is indispensable above all in this moment to keep alive hope about the future of the Church and of the world. Against the Gnostics who denied the true humanity of Christ, Tertullian raised, in his time, the cry: "Parce unicae spei totius orbis," do not take away from the world its only hope!"[18.] We must say it today to those who refuse to believe in the divinity of Christ.
To the Apostles, after having calmed the storm, Jesus addressed a word that he repeats today to their successors: "Take heart, it is I; have no fear" (Mark 6:50).
1. Bernard of Chartres, in John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, III, 4
(Corpus Chr. Cont. Med., 98, p. 116).
2. Athanasius, Historia Arianorum, 52, 3: "What does the emperor have
to do with the Church?"
3. S. Kierkegaard, Diary, II A 110 (Trans. Ital. by C. Fabro,
Brescia, 1962, nr. 196).
4. Athanasius, De decretis Nicenae synodi, 31.
5. Cf. Athanasius, De incarnatione 54, cf. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. V, praef.
6. Gregory of Nazianzen, Letter to Cledonius (PG 37, 181).
7. Athanasius, Contra Arianos II 69 and I 70.
8. Antwort. Martin Heidegger im Gesprach, Pfullingen 1988.
9. Athanasius, Contra gentes 41-42.
10. I. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, chapts. III,VI.
11. J. P. Sartre, The Devil and the Good God, X, 4, Gallimard, Paris
1951, p. 267 f.
12. Athanasius, Contra Arianos I, 17-18 (PG 26, 48).
13. Augustine, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 26, 2 (PL 35, 1607).
14. Evagrius, De oratione 61 (PG 79, 1165).
15. H. von Campenhausen, The Greek Fathers, Brescia 1967, pp. 103-104.
16.H. de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, I, 2, Paris 1959, p. 670.
17. H.U. von Balthasar, Contemplative Prayer, quoted Ibid. by de Lubac.
18. Tertullian, De carne Christi, 5, 3, (CC 2, p. 881).