Review: “Athanasius and His Legacy” by Thomas Weinandy and Daniel A. Keating

Thomas G. Weinandy and Daniel A. Keating, Athanasius and His Legacy: Trinitarian-Incarnational Soteriology and Its Reception (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). 131 pages.

In this short volume from Fortress Press, Weinandy and Keating provide a pointed, if not exhaustive, exposition of the life and teaching of Athanasius of Alexandria. The authors also consider at length the reception and use of Athanasius in Eastern and Western theology, in addition to Reformation theology and contemporary theology with special attention given to the opposing views of Isaac Newton and John Henry Newman.

This volume begins (Ch 1) with an excellent overview of Athanasius’ theology, providing a concise but thorough explication of the issues of the Arian controversy, and situating his theological project into its proper context. While not a proper participant at Nicaea, the authors show how Athanasius came to be known as the true defender of Nicaea and what it cost him: namely, he spent a great number of his years as bishop in exile as the Arians gained the political favor of the emperor. This volume quotes Athanasius at length and helpfully show how his understanding of biblical hermeneutics shaped his defense of Nicene doctrine. Likewise, in Chapter 2, Weinandy and Keating provide ample material showing Athanasius’ arguments for the Holy Spirit as the third person of the triune God. The strength of their argument in each of these chapters is to show how Athanasius’ arguments were thoroughly grounded in Scripture, rather than philosophical imposition upon the faith or arguments from other authorities.

Chapter 3 is the strongest section of the book, and the crux of their argument: Athanasius Incarnational Soteriology. Their discussion of the necessity of the incarnation, Jesus’ true humanity, the communicatio idiomatum (though this language was not yet formally established) and deification are all quite helpful expositions of Athanasius thought. Also in this chapter, the authors defend Athanasius against charges that he did not teach Christ has a human soul. Weinandy and Keating assert that these critics have missed the point of Athanasian Christology: namely, that Christ became fully human and did not merely take on humankind’s passions. His entire Christological argument would fall apart if he denied Jesus had a human soul. Likewise, he affirmed the Council of Alexandria in 362, which condemned denials of Jesus having a human soul (45-46).

In addition to Athanasius own life and theology, the authors also consider his reception by later theological movements, including the filioque controversy. This section is helpful to understand how the East and West appropriated his arguments for their own positions. There’s also a section that will benefit those new to Athanasius on the Athanasian Creed, which he did not write himself and which originated after his death. However, this section also includes the weakest part of the book: the use of Athanasius among the Reformers. This is perhaps to be expected, given the Catholic background of the authors, but nonetheless seems to be a weakness of the volume that, if present, would commend is more strongly to a wider audience. The authors acknowledge Athanasius bore great influence on Luther and Melanchthon but say little of precisely how or where. Further, they say that Calvin has “no positive use” (84) for Athanasius. This is a bit of an oversimplification, and other scholars have noted otherwise1.

The book closes with interesting and engaging sections on modern reception and criticism of Athanasius, showing the ongoing relevance of Athanasius’ Trinitarian-Incarnational Soteriology even today. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book is the discussion of Isaac Newton’s commitment to Arianism and his belief that the Council of Nicaea represented the opening of the seventh seal of judgment, whereby the Whore of Babylon is……drumroll please…..the doctrine of the Trinity. Bit of a rollercoaster, that. I am somewhat skeptical to the claim that Newton’s private claims are a forerunner to later contemporary criticism of Athanasius, but the case made here is certainly interesting.

In general, this is an excellent and helpful volume. For casual readers of theology, this volume is accessible and light, weighing in at only 130 pages. It would serve as a great text for undergraduate students, or a supplementary text for seminarians. It is sure to provoke conversation around the chapters on contemporary appropriation of Athanasius. This book also engages with some of the most recent reception of Athanasius and Nicaea in the work of Khaled Anatolios, John Behr, and Lewis Ayres. For that reason, it is not given to many of the early to mid-20th century assumptions about Athanasius which have improperly, in my view, accused Athanasius’s views as leaning toward modalism or Apollinarianism. This book helpfully summarizes the arguments against such criticisms. I would note, finally, that the title may be deceiving for certain streams of protestants (such as my own stream). Soteriology here refers not to doctrines such as justification, atonement, depravity, or predestination. Weinandy and Keating are more concerned with the fittingness of Jesus to save as the incarnate Son of God. If you purchase or assign this book, please adjust your expectations in that regard.

I’m happy to say that I enjoyed this book and gladly recommend it.

Thank you to Fortress Press, who provided me a review copy of this volume.


1. See also, Stephen M. Reynolds, “Calvin’s View of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds,” Westminster Theological Journal 23.1 (Nov. 1960): 33-37.

On Diverse Reading Lists: A Friendly Response to Denny Burk

Disclaimer: During my time in Louisville, Denny Burk was the associate pastor of the church where I was a member. We maintain a friendly relationship to this day, and this post should be read as no exception to that.

I spent some time yesterday reading and thinking about Denny Burk’s recent reflections posted on his blog entitled “The Dead-end of Research Justice.” Burk can always be relied upon to interrogate the demands of an ever-secularizing culture on Christians. Secularizing is perhaps not strong enough a word for the idealogical conformity demanded by some sectors of the American left. In this case, Burk is concerned by “research justice”, also known as decolonizing, approach to academia. I share his concern.

Just this past week I saw a completely absurd post from a student attempting to put her professor on notice publicly for failing to meet whatever arbitrary standard the student thought was acceptable. This is a real problem in academia and in our culture writ large. It needs to end.

Burk writes, “Research justice requires racial preferences for authors from marginalized groups and racial discrimination against authors from privileged groups. When you add to this standpoint epistemology (which is also a favored tool of Critical Theory), it’s not difficult to see why the racial identity of the author outweighs reason and evidence as a criterion for excellence.”

So what then? What should professors do? For Burk’s part, he says that he has never screened potential textbook authors with consideration to race. He only screens them for excellence of content and assumes all person of any race or culture can produce such work. Burk writes, “Racial identity just doesn’t figure into that calculus, nor do I see why it should. It is certainly no failure of justice to leave it out of the calculus.”

This is where I want to push back on Burk. First, let me agree with him. I do not think it is wise, correct, or helpful to label Burk’s standard as racist, xenophobic, or unjust. I asked Denny for clarification on this on twitter and he gave it: “Racial identity is not a category that either commends or condemns a prospective text.” It would be fair to say that he takes a “colorblind” approach to text selection.

I want to put forward disagreement with Burk here. While I do not believe racial identity or cultural identity condemn a prospective text (e.g. “no white male authors!”), I do want to offer some reasons that I believe they may commend a text. In sum, I want to argue for the inclusion of diverse voices in theological reading. I believe it would be good for theological educators and Southern Baptist ones in particular to strive towards this sort of intentionality.

The lack of diversity in reading for theological education is a real issue of debate. During my time in seminary, countless students of colors expressed their dismay and frustration to me that in 3-4 years of theological education, every single author without exception was a white man of European descent with the possible exception of Augustine. How can this be possible?

Why Does This Matter?

First, we have to ask: does this even matter? Yes, it matters. Diverse perspectives are meaningful and worth intentionally including in our theological work. For this part of the discussion, I want to draw off of David Clark’s excellent book To Know and Love God: Method for Theology. This is one of the standard texts in Evangelical theological method. In his book, Clark makes a distinction between the sort of postmodern deconstructionism that Burk is concerned about and the value of different perspectives for doing theology. Clark writes, “One’s perspective always forms the grid out of which the world is interpreted and life is lived” (100). To borrow the old phrase, to a hammer everything looks like a nail.

Clark wants to balance the importance of diverse perspectives with evangelical truth. Culture can not determine truth. He says that Christians must adhere to the universality of the gospel as true for all people and totalizing as a worldview. He writes, “The gospel is true for all peoples in every culture… perspectivalism, however, must deny this is so. Therefore…evangelical theology must reject the current rampant perspectivalism.” This perspectivalism is the belief that cultural/racial/social perspective determines meaning, and therefore, truth itself. This is what Burk is rejecting as well, and rightly so.

However, we should not suggest that we are utterly objective in how we approach theology or exegesis. We all come to the text with presuppositions, both conscious and unconscious, which shape our views. Clark writes, “Evangelical theology at its best will acknowledge that perspective influences all thinking. And a modest deconstruction of overly assertive modernist claims is all to the good. But proper evangelical theology also realizes the need for deliberate strategies to prevent cultural and historical location from imprisoning theology in the though of a particular time” (144). What should we do then? We should a) interrogate our own assumptions, and fight their influence over our interpretation and theological method and b) refuse to allow our culture to imprison our theology.

We are people who are not inherently objective working to interpret Scripture which is absolute. This is a difficult task. D.A. Carson tells us that there is something to learn from this view of different perspectives. He says, “…gently applied [this] rightly questions the arrogance of modernism… ruthlessly applied [this] nurtures a new hubris and deifies agnosticism.”

Clark is insistent that we not give into these cultural forces. What Burk, and the sources he cites, calls “standpoint epistemology”, Clark calls “epistemic relativism” and says it is “deeply flawed” and self-defeating. He says that this view is that “all truth depends on the knower’s viewpoint” and that this is utterly inconsistent with Christian belief.

Commending Diverse Perspectives

Why then would I argue against Burk’s point? Simply put, it’s because there are significant benefits that commend diverse perspectives in curriculum without giving an inch to critical theory, intersectionality, epistemic relativism, or any other secular theory that contradicts the gospel as a totalizing worldview. As such, we should consider works by scholars from the majority world, as well as minorities in our own spheres when we decide which resources to use.

Clark gives an example of why this is valuable. One day, teaching a 90 minute class on divorce and remarriage a student approached him to tell him how the lecture did not relate to his needs. Why? Because he is the eldest son of his father’s fourth wife. His father is a polygamist. In that moment Clark realized that culture had affected his approach to theology, his emphasis on teaching, and his application of Scriptural truth.

I am decidedly NOT saying that there is truth that is inaccessible to white men and therefore we need BIPOC to interpret Scripture in a way that we can not understand as white men. That is some weird form of ethnic gnosticism. I am purposefully NOT saying that culture should determine theology.

What I am saying is that we should read diverse perspectives to prevent undue influence from one culture over a theology or exegetical task that should speak universally. The issue is not the Scripture. The issue is us.

The church is diverse. Evangelicalism and the Southern Baptist Convention are diverse. We need each other. We need to hear each other and balance each other. So then I want to conclude with a list of reasons that commend an intentional effort to include diverse voices and perspectives that are not beholden to worldly approaches. Every point below assumes that diverse perspectives and cultures does not mean divergent views about the gospel and assume a refusal of secular worldview; diversity in perspective and background, unity in common confession and a common gospel: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”

  1. Preventing bias. We need diverse readings to prevent a single culture from having unchecked cultural influence over our study of theology. We have blind spots. By their very nature, we can not see them. Diverse perspectives will challenge us on our assumptions, some of which we may find to be less biblical and more cultural.
  2. It’s who we are. We need diverse perspectives because we are diverse. The SBC repented of racism in 1995. Since then, the number of black churches in the SBC has increased significantly. It should not be the case that our nearly 4,000 black SBC churches can send their students to seminaries that they fund and their students basically never read a scholar that looks like them or shares their background. Their tradition is loaded with great resources. That is not even to speak of contributions from Asian scholars, Latin American scholars, and others. Why are we not drawing from them? This brings me to the next point.
  3. There’s no good reason not to. We should intentionally consider diverse perspective because they are not hard to find and countless minority scholars are producing excellent work. It speaks to our blind spots that this requires effort! There are many, many faithful scholars of color who far surpass our standard of excellence in Christian scholarship. Sometimes we saying we are only choosing the “best stuff”. What are we communicating to students who are non-white if the “best stuff” is always from white scholars? This does not reflect the reality of many scholars from diverse backgrounds producing great work. Unintentionally we may be communicating that only we are capable, or that all are capable but culturally we are simply better. Representation matters for precisely this reason.

    (I do not believe Burk, or other scholars believe this. I am speaking here of the kind of communication between a husband and a wife when she is sharing about her day, and he won’t look up from his phone. He may be listening, but is communicating something different. This may not be conveyed in one class, but perhaps over the course of a whole theological education without any minority authors.)
  4. We would benefit. We need to include diverse perspectives because it would be beneficial to us. Diverse perspectives have given us countless insights about honor-shame culture, sacrifice, etc. Asian and African Christians do not help us read the Bible by eisegeting their culture into the text. They have helped us see things we otherwise might not notice, because of the assumptions we bring to the text without realizing it.
  5. It’s another way to show how we have been reconciled to one another. Diverse reading is a picture of the gospel ministry of reconciliation. I am hesitant to put this only because I know of how some may represent it. What I am not saying is that those who assign reading from authors of a single cultural perspective are denying the gospel. I am not saying that the gospel requires my view here. What I am saying is that God in Christ has reconciled people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation to himself. Diverse readings train students to see how God is working throughout all the world and all people so that we are not unintentionally convinced that God is only leading us to produce theology that is up to the standard of excellence.

I want to close by saying that I am grateful for Denny Burk. I don’t see him saying everything I’m pressing against here. We don’t always agree, but I have always found him to be willing to engage in a charitable conversation with me. I hope this brings far more light than heat to this conversation. I think Denny would agree with a lot of what I say here. I do not think he is guilty of intentionally excluding any authors, and he explicitly encouraged reading widely. I just wanted to go a step further and say that these reasons listed above commend diverse readings and should encourage us to intentionally shape our reading lists, within our confessional standards, in such a way. I am not condemning “colorblind” reading selection; I am attempting to affirm intentionally diverse reading as a better way.

Now, go read widely.

John Calvin on Sinful Theological Disagreement

Recently I wrote a paper for a Ph.D. seminar about the contrast between Bavinck and Berkouwer’s view of the tension between beatific vision and divine invisibility. One small thing I found in the course of my research is that Herman Bavinck claims1 Calvin has no contribution on the subject. I began to track down this claim and I found a really interesting comment from Calvin on the necessity of guarding against sin in theological disagreement.

Bavinck is partially right. Calvin does refer to such issues (debates about seeing God’s essence, etc.) as the “thorny questions” of revelation. Where Bavinck is wrong is that he claims this is proof that Calvin merely bypasses the question and has no position. Calvin’s theology and exegesis give clues that he is more open to the idea than described here. In his Institutes (II.14.iii.), Calvin describes a future time in which Christ will set aside his mediatorial office and his “middle place between God and us” and “his divine majesty shall be beheld face to face…God will cease to be the head of Christ, and Christ’s own Godhead will shine forth of itself, whereas it is now in a manner veiled.” In his exegetical commentary on 1 John 3:2, Calvin concludes, “…when the Apostle says, we shall see him as he is, he intimates a new and ineffable manner of seeing him, which we enjoy not now…hence the majesty of God, now hid, will then only be in itself seen, when the veil of this mortal and corruptible nature shall be removed.”2

These are interesting points, but Calvin’s introductory comments on the matter are instructive for all of us in the midst of theological disagreements over the “thorny issues”. Whether we can see God in his divine essence in some meaningful way or not, Calvin warns about “wrangling” on this issue so much that “we lose the peace without which no one will see him…”

Does this complex theological issue matter? Is it worth debating or worth even forming opinions on? Yes. Clearly. Calvin does so, as well as Bavinck. But there is something more important. No matter how we will see God, we will not see him at all if we do not do so in a way that reflects Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

Was Calvin perfect at this? It’s doesn’t take much more than a quick google search of Calvin’s faults to know that he was not. A better question is this: How are we doing? How are you doing? May it never be said of us that we debate the finer points of theology in a way that disgraces the Theos or use words that bring scorn upon the Logos.

May it be said of us that when we say our piece, we keep our peace.


1. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2, 190.

2. John Calvin, Commentaries on The First Epistle of John, trans. John Owen, vol. 22, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005).

J.I. Packer’s 1978 Moore College Lectures

In 1978, J.I. Packer gave a series of lectures, 5 lectures in total, at Moore College in NSW Australia. These lectures were on the broad topic of the gospel, and more narrowly on the person and work of Christ.

What is the gospel?

In the the first lecture, Packer says that Christ crucified is the heart of the gospel. In the narrower sense, the gospel means “the work God has done as men’s savior on the cross, and that he does in bringing men to faith to know him now, and that he will do as he leads men on in that life that the Holy Spirit gives.” In the broader sense, Packer says, the gospel signifies “nothing less than the whole counsel of God; that whole divine plan which began in eternity and will only be completed in eternity from eternity to eternity, the plan of salvation not completed until the church is perfect in glory” (36:00).

In order, the lectures are as follows:
1) “We’ve a Story to Tell”
2) “The Man Jesus Christ”
3) “He Emptied Himself: The Divinity of Jesus Christ”
4) “The Wonderful Exchange”
5) “No Other Name: The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ”

I cannot recommend these lectures more highly. You may find them in full below.

As a bonus, I’ve also added a Q&A between Packer and Mark Dever, Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, at the end of this post.


Bonus Q&A between Dr. J.I. Packer and Pastor Mark Dever; Capitol Hill Baptist Church, 1999.

You can’t have Nicene conclusions without Nicene methodology

Last night on twitter, I posted the following pair of tweets about Nicaea. This topic requires more space than Twitter can provide, so I want to try and build them out here.

Khaled Anatolios, in his book Retrieving Nicaea (future page numbers refer to this work), models this hermeneutic and doctrinal foundation. I want to use just a bit of his work to give some insight into what that looks like and what it might mean for doing theology.

Anatolios says that for the church fathers, and for Athanasius in particular, patterns of scriptural divine naming must correspond to the pattern of divine being. For Athanasius, divine names were paradeigmata, symbols by which to understand God’s uncreated being. By arguing from divine naming, Athanasius is demonstrating “a correlation between, on the one hand, the scriptural intertextuality involved in the naming of God and Christ and, on the other hand, the ontological correlativity of Father and Son” (111). In other words: hermeneutics, then theology.

The argument from divine naming goes like this:
A. Certain phrases and title are ascribed to God such as speaker of the Word, possessor of Wisdom, one who brings Light, etc.
B. These same terms and titles are applied to Christ. Chris is the logos, the Word from the beginning. Christ is Wisdom. Christ is the true Light, etc.
C. God is the one to whom these attributes are titles are inherent to his being.

For Athansius, this argument is crucial to force back the Arians, who said that ‘there was a time when the Son was not.” Because of divine names, it denigrates the essence of the Father to say there there was a time when he was without Wisdom, Word, Light, etc. (115). To deny that the Son is the Word is to deny that God is the Creator. If the Son is external to God, then Creation through the Son1 means that God may have willed creation, but the act itself is external to him. Likewise, when Scripture gives any divine title to Jesus, such as Wisdom, then “anything predicated of Wisdom anywhere in Scripture is predicated of Christ” (122). Intertextual reading is essential to maintaining a) Christ’s shared divinity with the Father and b) God as Creator.

So what does this have to do with the tweets? What you see here from Athanasius (recounted by Anatolios) is a thoroughgoing Trinitarian hermeneutic that reads Scripture through the lens of God’s being and actions as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The guardrail is a distinction between divine attributes ascribed to the Father and thereby shared with the Son, and those actions with are proper to Jesus in his incarnation. So Christ as Wisdom has divinity as its referent, but Jesus being tired after a long day does not compromise the almightiness of God.

It is often said that Scripture interprets Scripture, but what does that mean? For Athanasius, intertextuality also comes with a core commitment that the telos (the purpose) of the Scripture is the revelation of God. This is not merely what he has done in securing our salvation, but also who he is. Who God is revealed to be in Scripture will then inform our understanding of what he has done. When we read intertextually, we are reading in such a manner that we connect related language from different parts of Scripture intentionally revealing who God is attributionally, and thereby who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the intentional pattern of the New Testament authors, who identify the Son using the divine names of the God of Israel to show that the two share in the same nature, though distinct persons.

There are those in modern Evangelical theology who advocate a rigidly biblicist approach to theology that is more concerned with prooftexts than this kind of Trinitarian theological method. Biblical reasoning takes a backseat to linguistic, ANE context, and talk of authorial intent (with nearly all of the emphasis on the human author). These things are not unimportant, but if divorced from the trinitarian reading enumerated earlier, this method is utterly inconsistent with that which produced Nicene orthodoxy. Alexander said this about the Arians:

“Recalling all the words about the salvific suffering, humiliation, self-emptying, poverty, and other attributes that the Savior took on for our sake, they pile these up to impugn the supreme deity that was his from the start.”

“Piling up” is not a substitute for the Trinitarian theological method that produced Nicaea. Now, I am not inferring that these contemporary theologians are Arians3. Far from it. But I am saying that we all would do well not to imitate their method and call it “biblical”. Refusing to acknowledge a doctrine due to an insufficient pile of prooftexts is not the way to do theology. Rather, we should ask ourselves if our theological method is capable of producing Nicaea in such a manner that it is not given to the objections of the literalist Arians, nor insufficient to the task of grounding Nicene orthodoxy both hermeneutically and doctrinally in the way of the church fathers.

Nicaea was not ultimately a set of doctrines to check the box on before rejecting its foundations, implications, and related doctrines. Nicaea is founded upon Trinitarian hermeneutics and trinitarian doctrines. Were Nicaea a house, the eternal generation of the Son would be considered a load-bearing wall. If you remove it, the house falls. It is important then, if we are to be consistently and thoroughly Nicene2, to have a consistent hermeneutic and a consistent doctrinal foundation with those who produced it.

When it comes to the importance of Nicene methodology, a little wisdom from the American South may help: “Dance with the one who brought you.”

__________________________

1. Colossians 1:16
2. Which I’m assuming here is something we would like to be.
3. Who complained the homoousios should be rejected as unbiblical since the term couldn’t be found in Scripture.

Who should do theology?

Is theology for everyone? R.C. Sproul has made popular the phrase “Everyone’s A Theologian,” even publishing a book by the same title. He’s right: everyone has thoughts and foundational beliefs about God that shape their lives. In asking the questions though, I have something more specific in mind: who should engage in theological discussion? Who should be part of the debates, write the blogs, and host the podcasts?

St.Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D. 330-390) answers:

Who should listen to discussions of theology? Those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are people who counter chatter on theology and clever deployment of argument as one of their amusements.

“…there are people who counter chatter on theology and clever deployment of argument as one of their amusements.

Endemic to Evangelicalism, particularly the very-online Evangelical social circles, is what I have come to call “theology as sport”. Like the old show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. It may be that one of the worst effects of a Twitter and Facebook timeline is how serious theological claims are thrown into a stream as if they’re no different from the latest political charade or Hollywood fanfare. And so arguing over theology takes on all the gravity of a sports debate, or can be filled with all the competitive vitriol of a political fight.

We do well to heed this warning from Nazianzius about such people who use theology for their own entertainment, their own platform, or their own social ladder:

They are like the promoters of wrestling-bouts in the theaters, and not even the sort of bouts that are conducted in accordance with the rules of the sport and lead to the victory of one of the antagonists, but the sort which are stage-managed to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause. Every square in the city has to buzz with their arguments, every party must be made tedious by their boring nonsense… Such is the situation: this infection is unchecked and intolerable; “the great mystery’ of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere social accomplishment.

Sounds familiar.

Gregory of Nazianzus quotes taken from “On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius” Order a copy here.

Bird is the Word

In his commentary on Psalm 102, Augustine writes:

I have become like a pelican in the wilderness, and like an owl among ruined walls. Behold three birds and three places: the pelican, the owl, and the sparrow; and the three places are severally, the wilderness, the ruined walls, and the house-top. The pelican in the wilderness, the owl in the ruined walls, and the sparrow in the house-top. In the first place we must explain, what the pelican signifies: since it is born in a region which makes it unknown to us. It is born in lonely spots, especially those of the river Nile in Egypt. Whatever kind of bird it is, let us consider what the Psalm intended to say of it. It dwells, it says, in the wilderness. Why enquire of its form, its limbs, its voice, its habits? As far as the Psalm tells you, it is a bird that dwells in solitude. The owl is a bird that loves night. Parietinæ, or ruins, as we call them, are walls standing without roof, without inhabitants, these are the habitation of the owl. And then as to the house-top and the sparrows, you are familiar with them. I find, therefore, some one of Christ’s body, a preacher of the word, sympathizing with the weak, seeking the gains of Christ, mindful of his Lord to come. 

Let us see these three things from the office of His steward. Hath such a man come among those who are not Christians? He is a pelican in the wilderness. Hath he come among those who were Christians, and have relapsed? He is an owl in the ruined walls; for he forsakes not even the darkness of those who dwell in night, he wishes to gain even these. Hath he come among such as are Christians dwelling in a house, not as if they believed not, or as if they had let go what they had believed, but walking lukewarmly in what they believe? The sparrow cries unto them, not in the wilderness, because they are Christians; nor in the ruined walls, because they have not relapsed; but because they are within the roof; under the roof rather, because they are under the flesh. The sparrow above the flesh cries out, hushes not up the commandments of God, nor becomes carnal, so that he be subject to the roof. What ye hear in the ear, that preach ye on the housetops. There are three birds and three places; and one man may represent the three birds, and three men may represent severally the three birds; and the three sorts of places, are three classes of men: yet the wilderness, the ruined walls, and the house-top, are but three classes of men.

Augustine here speaks of the Steward: in this case, God’s servant who carries the gospel into all such situations, whether isolation, ruin, or comfort. If you have become like a pelican, Christ goes to the barren places where isolation is found and there is no help near. Christ comes to those like the barn owl, who make their home in those walls ruined and in disrepair. Like the sparrow, Christ calls out constantly to us; never ceasing, always calling that we should hear Him. This he does through his Stewards which bring the Word.

Moreover, Christ himself becomes as we are to redeem us from that which we have become. Christ is to us a pelican, redeeming us by his own blood. Augustine continues: Let us not pass over what is said, or even read, of this bird, that is, the pelican; not rashly asserting anything, but yet not passing over what has been left to be read and uttered by those who have written it. Do ye so hear, that if it be true, it may agree; if false, it may not hold. These birds are said to slay their young with blows of their beaks, and for three days to mourn them when slain by themselves in the nest: after which they say the mother wounds herself deeply, and pours forth her blood over her young, bathed in which they recover life. This may be true, it may be false: yet if it be true, see how it agrees with Him, who gave us life by His blood. 

Today we may find ourselves in the wilderness, having strayed from the celestial city where security may be found. Christ is there a pelican to us.

If we find ourselves in disrepair, Christ comes to make his home among us.

Wherever we are, Christ ever calls to us just as the sparrow sings his song without end.

It may be that like the pelican, the Lord must slay us for a season. This often comes in the form of discipline, though it is not outside of God’s character to even painfully discipline those who are far off. Yet also, he then by his own blood brings healing and redemption. He, who gave us life by His blood, is not a seasonal bird. He is always ready to come to us as we are, and redeem us according to our need.

My attention was drawn to this passage by this tweet. You can read the full sermon here.

Calvin on the Two Natures of Christ Applied to His Role as Mediator

Recently I spent a fair amount of time researching theologies of the beatific vision among Reformation theologians. In the course of that research, I came across this excellent reflection on the two nature of Christ from John Calvin. In this section of Institutes of The Christian Religion, he applies the doctrine of the two natures of Christ to His role as Mediator in the life to come. Calvin writes:

…because he was hid under a humble clothing of flesh, and took upon himself the form of a servant, and humbled himself (Phil. ii. 8), and laying aside the insignia of majesty, became obedient to the Father; and after undergoing this subjection was at length crowned with glory and honour (Heb. ii. 7), and exalted to supreme authority, that at his name every knee should bow (Phil. ii. 10); so at the end he will subject to the Father both the name and the crown of glory, and whatever he received of the Father, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. xv. 28). For what end were that power and authority given to him, save that the Father might govern us by his hand? In the same sense, also, he is said to sit at the right hand of the Father. But this is only for a time, until we enjoy the immediate presence of his Godhead.

Some may take issue with Calvin’s argument that Christ’s place at the right hand of the Father has a terminal point. His point is that this is Christ’s place by virtue of his role as mediator. His role as mediator is not eternal. Certainly Christ subjects himself to God. But even this is only for a time. Calvin claims that tremendous damage has been done to the doctrine of Christ by not paying appropriate attention to Christ’s role as Mediator and the telos of that role in balance with his fundamental identity as the Son. He continues:

Christ, therefore, shall reign until he appear to judge the world, inasmuch as, according to the measure of our feeble capacity, he now connects us with the Father. But when, as partakers of the heavenly glory, we shall see God as he is, then Christ, having accomplished the office of Mediator, shall cease to be the vicegerent of the Father, and will be content with the glory which he possessed before the world was… His giving up of the kingdom to the Father, so far from impairing his majesty, will give a brighter manifestation of it. God will then cease to be the head of Christ, and Christ’s own Godhead will then shine forth of itself, whereas it is now in a manner veiled.

As Mediator, Christ brings us to the Father. But there, joining Christ in our glorified state, we see God. We see him not as Mediator, but we see him in His glory–“Christ’s own Godhead”.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to know what Calvin means by this phrase. In his commentary on 1 John 3:2, Calvin says, “…hence the majesty of God, now hid, will then only be in itself seen, when the veil of this mortal and corruptible nature shall be removed.” What is this majesty? Do we see God’s per essentiam– which is to say “as He is” in his essence? His glory? The relations between the persons? Calvin isn’t clear, and even warns against wrangling with such questions. What is he certain of, however, is that when we see God there will be a shared glory between the persons without exclusion to one or the other. Christ is not eternally the Mediator. Calvin is re-centering our knowledge of God in the age to come on the Son’s eternal generation. He will be known to us as the Son in the glory he had with the Father before he world began. This glory is not to the exclusion of his incarnation. It’s important not to confuse Christ’s laying aside his role as mediator with his laying aside his body. He does no such thing. As the incarnate Lord, his glory will shine forth before his people with greater effect when he sets aside his mediatorial office.

Some claim that Christ gives the Kingdom to the Father as an act of special glory reserved for the Father (to whom the Son is then eternally subordinate). Instead, Calvin’s claim is that the Son gives the Kingdom to the Father. In doing so, his own glory shines forth. More can be said, but for now this is a beautiful reflection to sit with. It will be a lovely thing to see the Son in his glory.

For more, see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), II.14.iii.