Arius and Adam

Regular readers will know that my research interests right now swirl around the Christology of the Synoptic Gospels: who are we to understand this Jesus to be? What sorts of parallels do we find in early Judaism? If Jesus does certain things that seem to be restricted to God in the OT, what does that mean about his identity in the Gospels? If the NT writers apply YHWH texts to Jesus, are they calling him God?

A couple friends like to rib me, only partially joking, about my “Arian” project. You remember Arius? He’s the one who argued against Jesus’ identity with God: there was a time, Arius claimed, when the logos was not.

Preexistent? Yes. God himself? No.

Arius is deemed a heretic because he wrongly puts together the pieces about Jesus as heavenly being.

It is this kind of argument (though not this argument directly) that Richard Bauckham’s book, God Crucified was meant to curtail: the way that the NT writers identify Jesus with God does not have precedent in Judaism’s treatment of other heavenly beings.

In my work, I am not arguing that Arius was a better reader of the NT, and that heavenly but non-divine Christology typifies the Synoptic Gospels. This would be an argument against what the church teaches concerning Jesus’ divinity.

Instead, I am arguing that the Synoptic Gospels do not address the question of Jesus’ ministry on earth as one of a divine being at all. They neither to confirm or deny.
What we find in them is another aspect of the church’s theology of Jesus. The Gospels are not the place to go for understanding the nature of Jesus’ divinity. However, they are treasure troves of indications about what it means for Jesus to be human, to be the Adam figure who recapitulates humanity’s primal purposes upon the earth.

Irenaeus is the church father most closely associated with this understanding of the function of Jesus’ humanity: it is not something to apologize for (ah well, he had to be human, but the really cool thing is that he’s God!); nor is it simply negative, as though Jesus simply had to be human so he could die for our sins.

Jesus is human, and has to be human, because this was God’s plan from the beginning: that humanity would come, serve, and rule upon the earth in the name of God. Jesus has to be human because there is a human quest that needs to be fulfilled, a human vocation that must be answered–or else God’s project will come to naught.

Is my project Arian? No, it is Adamic. It is a plea to discover afresh what we too often pass by because we seem to think that true theological value is found only in the presence of God upon the earth.

No, there is more: an untapped vein of Christological gold to be discovered in the work of the Human One.

24 thoughts on “Arius and Adam”

  1. Hi Daniel,
    Really interesting project, one I’ve been working on from my psychological vantage-point. For example, this link takes you to a paper (“Feeling Queasy about the Incarnation”) of mine, an empirical study that links our anxieties about the Human One to existential worries about our bodies (I also talk about this in my book Unclean). Specifically, the study shows a correlation between death anxiety and rejecting images of the Human One:

  2. Basically agree, Daniel, though I’d add a word or two about the “Johannine bolt out of the blue” of Matthew 11:27/Luke 10:22 (a “Q” passage for those of you who don’t “queue” up to Michael Goulder/Mark Goodacre’s views). As a “patritics guy,” it’s clear to me that the “orthodox” bishops of the early centuries used the Fourth Gospel as the major focusing lens for reading the synoptics and deriving the Christology that emerged at Chalcedon and later councils. Modern-day “Arians” like Sir Anthony Buzzard (he’s really more of an neo-Socinian) reverse that move: they take the “low” Christology of the synoptics and read John in that light, inevitably eliminating pre-existence in the process. The Logos that was “in the beginning” with God was not a “person” until his (virginal) conception. Buzzard is not an adoptionist; his Christology is of the “conception” variety–ie Matthew and Luke call the tune, not Mark. So which way do we do? With Buzzard’s “synoptic biblicism” or an “ecclesial incarnationism”? Well, I have made my own choice–as has the universal church throughout the ages. The John-privileging orthodox/catholic (I would add “apostolic”) witness trumps the claims of “sectarian biblicism.” This is where “exegesis alone” runs into irresolvable dead-ends and permanent standoffs. The “common mind” of the church, in those instances in which such can be identified, is good enough for me. I take it as the validation provided by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of unity.

    Note: Sir Anthony Buzzard, now in Georgia, at one time studied and taught at Ambassador College in Pasadena. I learned this years later when I entered into a twelve-year “conversation” with him via email.

  3. What are your thoughts on this quote:

    “To the old sneer, that Jesus talked about God but the early
    church talked about Jesus, we may reply that Jesus did indeed talk about God and God’s kingdom – in order to explain what he himself was doing and would accomplish.”

    -NT Wright

  4. I like your explanation about the humanity of Jesus and that it isn’t something for which we need to apologize (colloquially or philosophically). I look forward to hearing more.

  5. This is really helpful. As one who is convinced that when the question arises “Is Jesus divine or human” the only good answer is “YES! He’s both!”, I am more than sympathetic with your view that the most Christians just don’t know what to do with Christ’s humanity and I appreciate your biblical insights about its importance. This clarification that your project pursues the humanity of Christ on the basis that the question of divinity is neither confirmed nor denied in the synoptics is, I think, a helpful step forward in building some sympathy from high Christology folks. The question I have then is if I grant that to understand Matthew-Mark-Luke aright we need to supress Christological questions about divinity, can we agree that in seeking to establish what we say as the church today on the basis of the whole scope of biblical testimony we cannot avoid putting the question of Christ’s divinity before us and answering in some kind of continuity with Nicaea-Chalcedon?

    1. Good questions, Adam. As a guy who’s spent years (decades, really) on some of these matters, both in their biblical context and in the early “fathers,” I have a few quick suggestions that might be of interest:

      1. If we claim to embrace a “canonical” Scripture, then we have to let the different parts “speak” to each other and supplement each other without collapsing their differences into facile harmonies. In the matter of John and the Synoptics, it’s easy to get hung up on what appear to be clashing histories. Concordance is easier at the level of teasing out their respective Christologies at a more abstract level.

      2. John’s gospel is too easily dismissed as having a “docetic” Christology (especially in Ernst Kasemann’s TESTAMENT OF JESUS). That view needs the correction of Marianne Meye Thompson’s THE INCARNATE WORD (earlier title: THE HUMANITY OF JESUS IN THE FOURTH GOSPEL) and similar works.

      3. Next to the Fourth Gospel itself (or perhaps surpassing it) in presenting a probing and balanced view of Christ’s divine-human personhood is the Letter to the Hebrews. I’m going through it rather carefully at the moment and am blown away.

      4. More controversial is the underlying Christology of the Philippians “Christ Hymn” (2: 5-11), but I’m personally convinced it affirms both something really important about Christ’s humanity and not merely as a “vessel” whereby his servant-body can die on the cross.

      5. From the (systematic) theological side, I am an enthusiastic advocate of the Christological/Trinitarian view of Thomas Torrance and his brother James. The former’s (posthumous) Edinburgh lectures, INCARATION and ATONEMENT, plus his more informal MEDIATION OF CHRIST have really helpful things to offer; the latter’s talks combined in his WORSHIP, COMMUNITY, AND THE TRIUNE GOD OF LOVE present his favorite theme (the vicarious humanity of Christ) is a most attractive light.

      1. Charles, you had me at hello. I’m doing my PhD on T. F. Torrance’s doctrine of Scripture and hermeneutics in their relation to each other and his Christology. Big fan.

        Your other suggestions are helpful as well. In my interactions with our illustrious host over the last three years or so, I have tried to be open to the idea that it might be unhelpful to move too quickly in allowing John/Hebrews/Phil2 to “speak to” synoptic Christology rather than having both speak in their full unique voices to our present situation. I’m still trying to figure that out. My hesitancy with some of Daniel’s suggestions are that sometimes I think I’m hearing that we ought to do something like hold multiple Christologies to reflect that multiple Christological voices of the NT. It seems to me better to acknowledge that multiplicity but also our obligation to speak singly. Daniel, could you speak to that?

        1. Adam, I’m on the run. Once again, I like what you’re saying. Am afraid to begin a reply because it might easily turn into a “book.” Don’t want to set people snoring. Glad to hear about your Torrance dissertation. Where are you doing your work? I did mine at Emory Univ here in Georgia.

          1. That is great. I got to spend a day or so at Emory last year just before AAR. I’m doing my PhD at the University of Aberdeen with John Webster, though I’m back in California now finishing my dissertation after having spent two years in Aberdeen.

            1. Exciting, Adam. Hope we can meet up someday. (I’m a Californian but have been in Georgia since 1969. Happy memories at Westmont and Fuller and living in places like Sierra Madre and Newport Beach.)

            2. I’m new to the blogosphere and have folwloed Near Emmaus for a while. Nevertheless, I do find your post to be true. Refe pointed out that technical subjects do relegate the audience quite a bit. While I enjoy mulling over posts about theology (in general, yeah I know that’s broad), I have attempted to comment in moderation. My motivation would be to ask questions about the topic, if somethings seems unclear, I would hope the blogger wouldn’t mind clarifying. Further, thanking the blogger that posted something noteworthy. I find someone willing to share something (in humility) honorable (in that he/she is avoiding an esoteric tendency).

  6. Please inform me of more scholars and theologians who think this way. You have been helping me come to grips with my own Christological quibbles about this subject for quite some time.

  7. Gotta admit, I’m a little baffled by this discussion; I didn’t realize there was any controversy about this. (Silly me!) Fully man? Fully God? Yes! Both/and…AGAIN. I’d love to make a list of all the both-ands sometime. That will explain everything, won’t it? ;)

  8. JRDK: “If Jesus does certain things that seem to be restricted to God in the OT, what does that mean about his identity in the Gospels?”

    In some cases, Jesus does things that the synoptic gospels themselves state to be restricted to God.

    Mark 2:5-6 (CEB)
    When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven!”

    Some legal experts were sitting there, muttering among themselves, “Why does he speak this way? He’s insulting God. Only the one God can forgive sins.”

    JRDK: “Instead, I am arguing that the Synoptic Gospels do not address the question of Jesus’ ministry on earth as one of a divine being at all.”

    At minimum, the question seems to be suggested in Mark 2:5-6.

    1. Um, I don’t think it needs to be suggested at all. Think on the ground reality- the law experts, Pharisees, High Priests, Temple leadership, etc. While they claimed that “Only the one God can forgive sins,” they were the ones who could pronounce this forgiveness to the people. It consolidated power in Jerusalem. For Jesus to forgive sins, or pronounce God’s forgiveness of the sins, was a challenge to their power. One need not read Jesus action of forgiveness as actually forgiveness, but a pronouncement of God’s forgiveness is possible. The link between God’s forgiveness and Jesus is only made in an accusation, to paint Jesus as irreverent, etc.

  9. Even a believer in the Lord’s pre-existence (like me) ought to be able to gain from you study Daniel.

    I don’t think it is possible even to begin to understand the incarnation if we don’t allow ourselves to really make a full stop at the great truth that God’s first order of business was that the Son … be made man.

    If God has ordained that this thing be done for post-Adamic man in this particular way (i.e. that the Son just then NOT be God), we might at least allow his making him man would be very thoroughly done – as they say “all the way up and down on both sides.” So we ought to make as much of his humanity as possible.

    But – speaking of the synoptics – I personally don’t think Matthew was making up stuff when he added to Mark’s account of Peter’s confession the wonderful point Jesus made that it “was not by flesh and blood” that Peter perceived his high identity.

    Far be it from anyone then. And far be it from theology. Until after the resurrection.

    1. Nice, John.

      Lots of these matters were discussed thoroughly in the debates and councils that took place AFTER Chalcedon, a fact that scholars like Roberta Bondi, Andrew Louth, and Iain Torrance know puts Chalcedon in the “middle” of the Christological controversies and not as its “settlement” (as with JND Kelley and most texts on systematic theology I’m familiar with. The claim of Harnack and others that the ancient church proclaimed a “docetic” Christology just won’t hold water.)

      1. Thanks Charles,

        It was the early chapters of S. Bulgakov’s book, “The Lamb of God” which recently allowed me to see into the huge potentials for Christology (and human spirituality) which seemed to go undeveloped as a result of Cyril of Alexandria’s timid concerns over the probings of Apollinarius and Nestor.

        I haven’t read further in Bulgakov’s book, but I’m sensing from what you say that Louth and others may be a help – thanks again.

        Meanwhile I see quite a bit of spiritual and social-justice value in the fact that nobody (really) grasped the Lord’s pre-existence before he died. The best anyone seems to make of it before the resurrection is “Jewish Messiah” – but compared to what God seems to have intended (visible in what was finally accomplished), this racial and biblical Messiah was only a small and utterly human projection.

        The profound human-ness of the Son is undeniably a great work of God, and that should support the orthodoxy of studies such as Daniel is contemplating. The worry over a lost sense of divinity is meaningless – unless we forfeit in the process the truth that some kind of real presence of his Spirit us in us (that teaching is to me the only living lynch-pin for the church’s claim of having a divine Master).

        1. Thanks again, John. Had to chuckle a bit at the linking of the word “timid” with Cyril of Alexandria! Don’t give up on this often abrasive bishop. Don Fairbairn and Fr John McGuckin are helping us see his potential for both the spiritual life and Christology. So did Thos Torrance in a celebrated essay in THEOLOGY IN RECONCILIATION.

          1. Yes, a little funny to hang the word ‘timid’ on Cyril! kind of the “Yosemite Sam” of theologians. But my current opinion is that he was too cautious (or too unsubtle) to follow into important depths on the problem of Incarnation being pressed by Nestor (I’m guessing he only feared for his flock’s lack of subtlety).

            On the other hand I think the concept of hypostasis, while an advance on the ancient psychology, was still not quite robust enough to support a fully-human/fully-divine Christology. I’m currently looking for a game-changer among pre-Freudian concepts of ‘person’ (i.e. the Christian personalists Bowne and Knudson, early 20th Cent).

            I am sympathetic with those who would argue that Nestor (if we examine his position) was not in fact a “Nestorian” in the sense signified by the label of heterodoxy manufactured for him by Cyril. Just a hunch – I’m only on the surface of studies in that regard.


            1. John, I think the work of Leontius of Byzantium and Leontius of Jerusalem in the sixth century and Maximos Confessor in the seventh may have fleshed out (no pun!) hypostasis/eis in helpful ways that go beyond where Cyril left them. My (unpublished) 1992 dissertation, “Perichoresis and Personhood in the Thought of John of Damascus” might provide a bit of help too. (Love to read Bulgakov; also love to read his nemesis, Georges Florovsky–both helpful for your “personalist” search. My dissertation proposal originally planned to include folks like Bowne and Knudson, but my director, Roberta Bondi, handed it back and said, “Chuck, you’ve got three dissertations here. Trim it down.” Thank you, Roberta! Thank you!)

  10. John, you might find some help in “fleshing out” hypostasis beyond where Cyril left it in sixth-century figures like Leontius of Byzantium and Leontius of Jerusalem and the great seventh-century thinker, Maximos Confessor. My own (unpublished) 1992 dissertation, “Perichoresis and Personhood in the Thought of John of Damascus” might have a few things to add too. I originally intended to include folks like Bowne and Knudson too, but my director Roberta Bondi told me I’d proposed three dissertations, not one! She said, “Trim it down”! I did.

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