Athanasius and the eternal generation of the Son

Writing at Reformation 21, Aaron Denlinger recently pointed to Athanasius’s defense of the eternal generation of the Son. Athanasius was of course responding to the arguments of Arius that God the Son must have been created, since fathers always precede sons:

In response to Arius’s argument, Athanasius didn’t shy away at all from the designation of the second person of the Trinity as “Son” or as “begotten.” He simply pointed out, firstly, that human fatherhood is modeled upon divine fatherhood (rather than vice versa): “For God does not make man His pattern; but rather we men, because God is properly, and alone truly, Father of His Son, are also called fathers of our own children.” Thus warning signs are posted along the pathway of attempts to elicit essential truths about the relation of God the Father to God the Son from the relation of human fathers to their sons.

But Athanasius goes further by, secondly, showing how the analogy between divine fatherhood and human fatherhood properly understood (i.e,. in conformity with catholic and biblical Christian truth) actually supports Scripture’s broader identification of the Son as eternal and divine. “If they inquire of parents concerning their son,” he writes, “let them consider … the child which is begotten. For, granting the parent had not a son before his begetting, still, after having him, he had him, not as external or as foreign, but as from himself, and proper to his essence and his exact image, so that the former is beheld in the latter, and the latter is contemplated in the former.” Athanasius’s point is that sons, by the very nature of sonship, share in the nature of their fathers. Like begets like. Humans, who are temporal by nature, beget humans. Despite my younger daughter Geneva’s earnest hope, revealed when asked before Austin’s birth whether she anticipated a brother or sister, that “mommy’s belly” had a “baby puppy” in it, my wife gave birth to a human being last Thursday. Austin was born at a point in time — and so is, by definition, a temporal creature — because his mother and father are themselves temporal creatures who were born at specific points in time.

What human sonship properly implies for non-human sonship, then, is not the temporality of the one born, but the begotten one’s participation in (or possession of) the very same nature as the one who has begotten him. If an eternal (and divine) being begets, then, he necessarily begets an eternal (and divine) being; the begetting of a temporal being by an eternal being would be as implausible as the birth of a “baby puppy” to a daughter of Eve. And if the begotten One is himself eternal (like his Father), then his “birth” cannot have occurred at any moment; that birth itself is eternal (which is precisely what the Nicene Creed affirms).

Victim culture and microaggressions

Megan McArdle recently wrote a column for Bloomberg View about microaggressions. Pointing to a new sociology paper by Bradley Manning and Jason Cooper, she explains their theory that our society has evolved from an honor culture to a dignity culture to a victim culture:

Western society, they argue, has shifted from an honor culture — in which slights are taken very seriously, and avenged by the one slighted — to a dignity culture, in which personal revenge is discouraged, and justice is outsourced to third parties, primarily the law. The law being a cumbersome beast, people in dignity cultures are encouraged to ignore slights, or negotiate them privately by talking with the offender, rather than seeking some more punitive sanction.

Microagressions mark a transition to a third sort of culture: a victim culture, in which people are once again encouraged to take notice of slights. This sounds a lot like honor culture, doesn’t it? Yes, with two important differences. The first is that while victimhood is shameful in an honor culture — and indeed, the purpose of taking vengeance is frequently to avoid this shame — victim status is actively sought in the new culture, because victimhood is a prerequisite for getting redress. The second is that victim culture encourages people to seek help from third parties, either authorities or the public, rather than seeking satisfaction themselves.

She illustrates a difficulty that victim cultures face:

If you establish a positive right to be free from alienating comments, it’s hard to restrict that right only to people who have been victimized in certain ways, or to certain degrees. It’s easy to say everyone has a right not to be alienated. It’s also easy to say “you should only seek social or administrative sanction for remarks that are widely known and understood to be offensive slurs.” It is very, very hard to establish a rule that only some groups are entitled to be free from offense — because the necessary corollary is that it’s fine to worry the other groups with a low-level barrage of sneers, and those groups will not take this lying down. The result will be proliferation of groups claiming victim status, attempting to trump the victim status of others.

A while back, when I wrote about shamestorming, I ended up in a Twitter discussion with a guy who chided me for letting my privilege blind me to the ways that minorities (specifically women in tech, and more broadly on the Internet), experience microaggressions. You know how that conversation ended? When I pointed out that he had just committed a classic microagression: mansplaining to me something that I had actually experienced, and he had not. As soon as I did, he apologized, though that hadn’t really been my intent. My intent was to point out that microaggressions are often unintentional (this guy clearly considered himself a feminist ally).

But I inadvertently demonstrated an even greater difficulty: Complaints about microaggressions can be used to stop complaints about microaggressions.

McArdle’s approach seems pretty sensible. Of course microaggressions exist (and she has some interesting comments about the messages she gets from undercover conservative faculty members at universities), but the way that they are policed in a victim culture makes little sense.

The predictable outline of debating court decisions

Back in June, Alan Jacobs posted a brief list of “politico-judicial axioms” by which debates about court decisions are conducted. Here are the last two:

5) A judicial decision that produces a desirable outcome is (regardless of the legal reasoning involved) proof of the wisdom of the Founders in liberating the Supreme Court from the vagaries of partisan politics so that they can think freely and without bias. The system works!

6) A judicial decision that produces an undesirable outcome is (regardless of the legal reasoning involved) proof that the system is broken, because it allows five unelected old farts to determine the course of society.

I meant to post this back when I read it, but save it for future debates, when they will most likely be just as applicable.

Jake Meador: “Class and the Benedict Option”

At Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador recently considered how class might affect the feasibility of the “Benedict Option.” Using education as a test case, he first pointed to the importance of thinking well about the kind of schools to create:

In the first place, we need to be clear on exactly why we’re proposing a withdrawal from our nation’s public schools. If the withdrawal is purely defensive in nature, then it is likely to fail. If we have no further objective in our approach to education than protecting our children from the bad people out there, then we really have no philosophy of education at all.

Rather, we’ll simply end up with what some of our nation’s Christian schools functionally are—prep schools for the white upper-class that are in 80% of their curriculum indistinguishable from the public schools.

Then, how can Christian education be accessible to everyone in a Christian community?

Of course, in a healthy church environment you can probably further mitigate some of these problems. A good friend of mine who grew up Dutch Reformed told me once that there was not a single family in his church whose kids were in public school out of necessity. In his church if you wanted your kids in a private Christian school, the church made it happen. And yet the rarity of stories like the above highlight the very reason we’re having these BenOp conversations in the first place.

In far too many cases the communal ties that bind religious communities together are slender and easily cut. And so a family attending a well-off church that wants to send their kids to private school but cannot afford it will often end up sending their kids to public school out of necessity despite the fact that their fellow parishioners could help them pay for private school. It is out of this weakened sense of Christian community that many of the church’s contemporary problems have grown.

And so we end on a dilemma—to create BenOp communities that are accessible to everyone (and not just the rich), we need thick communities bound together by love and a shared commitment to care for one another, even when that care comes with a price in dollars. Yet the lack of those communities is precisely why we need some sort of BenOp. To put it starkly, the conditions necessary to create BenOp communities do not exist which is both why we need some sort of BenOp and why we may not be able to attain it.

Fictive baptism

Aaron Denlinger recently wrote a post at Reformation 21 describing his daughter’s recent interest in baptism after seeing a baptism in church. He referred to some stories from church history related by Marcia Colish in her recent Faith, Force and Fiction in Medieval Baptism Debates:

In the early church stories arose of pagan persons who pretended baptism as part of Roman plays enacted on stage in mockery of Christian beliefs. In other words, water was applied to individuals in the Triune name not in the interest of actually conferring the sacrament, but in ridicule of Christian faith and ritual. But, according to Christian legend, the actors undergoing baptism in mockery of Christian practice were on more than one occasion actually converted by the sacrament, and then immediately announced as much to their fellow-actors and audiences, and — without fail — were martyred either by the unimpressed crowds or civil authorities who happened to be in attendance. This apparently happened to one Ardalion in 293, one Gelasinus in 296, and one Porphyrius in 362.

Roman actors weren’t the only ones engaging in pretended baptisms. The fourth-century historian Rufinus tells a story of the Alexandrian Bishop Alexander observing several young boys mimicking Christian baptism on the banks of the river Nile. Intrigued (and somewhat troubled) by the scene, Alexander had the boys brought to him and interrogated them regarding their play. When one boy among them who had assumed the role of “bishop” described to Alexander the words and rite he had employed in baptizing his friends, Alexander concluded that the baptisms administered were in fact valid, and that the baptized boys should subsequently be catechized. The young baptizer (who himself came under care of the church) was no other than Athanasius, the future (real) bishop of Alexandria who championed the cause of Nicene orthodoxy for much of the fourth century.

The stories of actors and children pretending — whether innocently or not — baptisms which, by one judgment or another, proved valid if not effective, figured significantly into later patristic and medieval conversations about the proper criteria for baptismal validity and efficacy. So Augustine, for example, reckoned that pretended baptisms were genuine and that recipients of such, even if genuine faith came later, should not be re-baptized, but denied that such baptisms were ultimately effective (as instruments for those spiritual realities which baptism signifies, such as the remission of sins) until the persons so baptized came to genuine faith and repentance (See Augustine’s On baptism 1.12). This of course complemented Augustine’s position on baptisms administered by profane or heretical persons — such baptisms, according to Augustine, were likewise valid (but ineffectual unless or until the baptized joined himself to the true church). Thomas Aquinas took a slightly stricter view on these matters, arguing that proper intent to receive baptism was a criterion for baptism’s validity (at least for those of sufficient age to intend), thereby raising doubts about the authenticity (and so, by implication, the purported efficacy) of at least those baptisms received by Roman actors.

The age of DeSade

Yesterday, I read Carl Trueman’s post at First Things in which he suggested that we live in an age that fulfills the dreams of the Marquis DeSade:

DeSade’s ideal world is that to which we appear to be heading.   Like him, we deny any intrinsic moral significance to sexual activity whatsoever and thus see it as something which is of no more ethical importance than buying a cup of coffee or eating a sandwich. In such a world, the celibate and the monogamous are increasingly counted as freaks, representatives of a defective, repressive cultural vision. Thus, the social pressure to be promiscuous becomes an integral part of the culture and the withholding of consent comes to be increasingly difficult, the act of social schismatics, freaks, and (to use the favored clichés of the day) the inauthentic, those who do not wish to flourish.

As evidence, Trueman pointed to a piece by Rod Dreher discussing sexual mores on college campuses.

As if to illustrate the point further, a piece appeared at the Huffington Post yesterday in which Noah Michelson criticizes other gay people who don’t want a sexual free-for-all:

I believe sex is a gift that allows us to connect with others (and ourselves) for a night, for a lifetime or just for 25 minutes during our lunch break. I believe sex and pleasure are nothing short of magical and transformative. I believe queer people have been appointed by some higher power to help change the way that our society thinks about sex. And I refuse to believe that just because queer people are increasingly being folded into the mainstream, we should give up fighting for all of the things we’ve been fighting for all these years. The goal has never been to get the same rights as non-queer people so we could be just like non-queer people, even though some, like Caramanno, might argue otherwise. We’re supposed to be leading by example and showing that sex is not scary, sex is not dirty, sex doesn’t need to be with just one partner and in a healthy, happy society, sex should be an important and inspiring way of connecting with one another. If I had it my way we’d have sex shops in every neighborhood right next to the local McDonald’s and we’d talk about sex in every school and we wouldn’t give films with sexual content NC-17 ratings while slapping PG-13 ratings on mindnumbingly violent films.

While Michelson uses spiritual language in an attempt to ennoble his vision, what he actually advocates in this paragraph and the article goes along exactly with what Trueman discusses.

As Trueman points out in this piece and has pointed out before (along with others), the consent of the parties tends to be the cultural standard for judging the morality of sex, yet this may be unstable:

Yet if sex is evacuated of any intrinsic ethical significance, and the culture turns against celibacy and monogamy, the notion of consent itself may eventually become as morally meaningless as the orgasms it is supposed to legitimate.  Indeed, one could even see a case eventually being made in DeSade world for the withholding of sex being considered an act of oppression, like the withholding of a wedding cake or a photo-shoot.

Again, as if to illustrate Trueman’s point, Michelson has no sympathy for Thomas Caramanno’s complaints about, among other things, being groped. This doesn’t go as far as Trueman’s hypothetical future, but the trajectory seems similar.

Warning: The pieces by Michelson and especially Dreher contain implicit and explicit sexual references.

Luther and his critics

On the Freedom of a Christian: With Related TextsOn the Freedom of a Christian: With Related Texts by Martin Luther

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had only read excerpts of On the Freedom of a Christian before, so I was glad to read the whole thing. Luther explains not only the place of faith but also of good works in his theology. The accompanying documents were also helpful. There were lengthy excerpts of criticisms of Luther by his nemesis Johannes Eck and English bishop John Fisher. From another angle, the editor (Tryntje Helfferich) included the revolutionary theologian Thomas Muentzer’s harsh assault against Luther for not siding with the peasant rebels in the mid-1520s, as well as Luther’s call for the nobles to suppress the peasant rebels. The commentary by the editor was helpful, too.

View all my reviews


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 84 other followers