Posts Tagged ‘trinity’


What have we done? We’ve reconnected the doctrine of justification with the gospel story. Simple as that. Where does that leave us, theologically? What’s the payoff of this approach to justification? Does it help us practically? A few suggestions.

1. Seen in this light, justification becomes a thoroughly Trinitarian act. One of the disturbing things about the classic evangelical exposition of ‘justfication’ is the relative absence of the Holy Spirit in the whole matter. Justification is seen as an act of God the Father, imputing righteousness to us for the sake of his Son. The Spirit has little role here. And since this is ‘the doctrine on which the church stands or falls’[1], ‘the hinge on which the whole faith turns,’[2] the result is a dangerously non-Trinitarian centre to modern evangelicalism.

But once the doctrine of justification is restored to its proper place as an explanation of Jesus’ resurrection, all this changes. Justification is clearly seen as the work of the Father by his Spirit towards his Son, proclaiming over him the verdict of ‘life’. ‘He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit’ (1 Peter 3:18). Our justification is likewise understood to be our sharing in this positive verdict, when we are united to Christ by the Spirit and receive the new life of the Spirit in him.

2. The apostolic view of justification cuts through our evangelical debates about imputation. We need to remember that the imputing of righteousness is the act of a judge when he declares one party to be in the right; so then this imputation is equivalent to justification, simply another way of saying the same thing (Rom. 4:5-7). Every judge imputes righteousness (and guilt): that is his job. Everyone who believes that God is the judge, believes in imputation by definition. So much of our confusion over imputation comes because we lose sight of the courtroom imagery which gives meaning to the word, and overplay the idea of abstract accounts into which ‘righteousness credit’ is placed by God. The forensic setting of the term is easily obscured in much of our justification talk. Justification is not primarily a mercantile image.

But once it is grasped that imputing righteousness is a declarative act of the court, the question, whose righteousness is imputed, becomes a strange one. It is difficult to give the question any clear meaning in a judicial context. Righteousness is a status created by the court, it is the court’s righteousness if it is anyone’s. A more natural and helpful question, the one frequently asked in the New Testament, is whose justification? Who is the object of God’s justifying verdict? The apostles’ answer is, Christ. It is to Christ that God imputes righteousness. God declared him righteous because of his righteous life. Our justification need not be seen as a separate verdict given to us on the basis of some transfer of merit. It is simpler and closer to NT thought to speak of our sharing in the one verdict given to Jesus at his resurrection. Righteousness is imputed to us because it was imputed to him.

To put it another way, the only person justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness was Christ himself. The apostles do not teach that we share his righteousness: they teach that we share his justification. So we can stop arguing about the details of imputation.

3. This Gospel-based view of justification also helps reveal the essential unity between Paul and Jesus on a central gospel issue. Paul’s teaching at this point is in no way a departure from that of the Gospels. Much modern scholarship is on entirely the wrong track here. On the contrary, Paul’s doctrine of justification, like all his teachings, is nothing but an explanation of the meaning of the gospel events – or, if you like, it is his working-out of the significance of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road.[3]

In other words, we are left with one gospel, not two. That’s a big achievement. For a long time we’ve put up with two gospels. One is a story about Jesus, including past, present and future elements. The other is a set of ideas, teachings, or propositions about salvation, which we derive from Paul’s epistles. The two have little overlap: they are very different sorts of thing. A narrative view of justification reunites these two, so we have just one gospel again. That’s enough gospels, don’t you think?

[1] Luther

[2] Calvin

[3] on which see Pannenburg, Jesus, God and Man

imagesMy other main beef about Athanasius’ On the Incarnation has to do with how he sees Jesus’ humanity. Most of the time the Big A talks about it as simply a human body. Occasionally he mentions that it’s human nature the Son has assumed. Apparently this is more-or-less the same thing as human body. What is notably absent is any reference to human mind or personality in Jesus. There is no hint of human involvement in his will or intentionality. All the willing, all the acting, is initiated by the Word in the body.

Is humanity then merely a glove, a kind of shell, an instrument within which the divine mind can operate? Like a fork-lift, with the Word in the drivers’ seat? Athanasius often described it in much this way. Jesus’ body was:

the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.

His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument.

though He used the body as His instrument, He shared nothing of its defect…

He was made man, and used the body as His human instrument. If this were not the fitting way, and He willed to use an instrument at all, how otherwise was the Word to come? And whence could He take His instrument, save from among those already in existence

It was natural and right, therefore, for the Word to use a human instrument

The Word of God thus acted consistently in assuming a body and using a human instrument to vitalize the body.

If the body was his instrument, was it truly him? Was he truly human? Could he, for example, put off the instrument again once the job was done? Could he, having restored humanity, leave it again? Athanasius never says, the matter is left uncertain. Uncertain, too, is the status of the humanity the Son assumed – did it become integral to his identity? We are not told, but the repeated language of instrumentality points pretty strongly the other way.

An human instrument that doesn’t seem to have a mind of its own: this all sounds very much like a famous heresy, called Apollinarianism. Apollinaris taught that the Word was dropped into a human body, so Jesus was a divine mind inside a human ‘shell’. No human mind involved. Interestingly, this heresy was condemned at the council of Alexandria, 361. And guess who the chief prosecutor was? You guessed it: Athanasius.

But it’s hard to see much difference between Apollinarianism and his own writing here in On the Incarnation. 


Tomorrow: what’s good about On the Incarnation

Ikone_Athanasius_von_AlexandriaI’ve been reading Athanasius’s classic work On the Incarnation. It has much in it that is interesting and insightful. However, overall I was distressed by its failure to give a Christian account of Jesus’ story. I will try to articulate what I find so troubling about it. It’s a complex work, it won’t be easy. Here goes.

1. Big A’s argument about the incarnation is deeply non-Trinitarian. Though Jesus is sometimes called the Son, he doesn’t function like a son in Big A’s account of him. ‘Son of God’ functions as a title that effectively means ‘God’, but he rarely describes the Son doing anything sonlike. Normally he calls him the Word. A much less personal, relational title is prefered to a familial one.

More troubling by far is the complete absence of any mention of the Holy Spirit in the entire discourse. Stop for a sec, read that sentence again. It’s staggering. Scandalous. Perhaps it’s just the translation I was reading, but it just wasn’t there. The whole incarnation story was something the Word achieved himself. Apparently by his own power. At every point Big A attributes to the Word the efficacy to carry out the incarnation plan, as something which he possesses in himself. Conception, birth, life, miracles, death – even the resurrection! In this story, there’s no need for a Spirit at all. You might say, no room for a Spirit.

Now this is seriously sub-Christian. It’s just too, too bad. Jesus effectively represents the presence of a monadic God who acts alone.

Compare this to the NT way of talking about Jesus:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:35)

she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Mat. 1:18)

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. (Matt. 12:28)

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee… (Luke 4:14)

…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:38)

the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God (Heb 9:14)

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit (1 Peter 3:18)

and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 1:4)

I find it distressing because in it I recognise my own Christian upbringing, I hear the ways I was taught to talk about Jesus. Non-trinitarian ways. Telling a story about one person acting solo, rather than three persons acting in concert. And I realise, it goes back to the fourth flippin century. The rot had already set in by then, it’s been with us ever since. I find that a depressing thought. So wrong, for so long.

There’s more. But this is the mother of all failures. I’ll get stuck in farther into Athanasius in a later post.