Thursday, September 23, 2010
I've been taking this class at Harvard Divinity entitled Early Christian Thought I: The Greek Tradition. I was very excited to take this course given my limited exposure to the patristics. Thus far, we have read Origen's First Principles, The Life of St. Antony (also known as the Vita by Athanasius), and the Letters of St. Antony. For the next class, we are assigned to read Athanasius' On The Incarnation. I fell behind with the Origen reading, but I have found the writings by or about Antony to be the most fascinating thus far.
Today in the discussion group that follows Thursday's class period, I was concerned about Antony's understanding of the importance of "self-knowledge." In the Letters, Antony emphasizes that self-knowledge is important in that it is directly connected to the knowledge of God (despite their major differences, I heard Calvin echoing in the background). Knowledge of God is essential in order to produce a virtuous life and to master the desires of the body. However, I didn't think that Antony gave an adequate argument or defense for how the individual, who falls from an original state of rationality through idolatry, has the ability to be introspective. Perhaps I was asking him to be too systematic, and reading my reformed categories back onto his text. However, it was such a high view of human ability that it took me off-guard. My professor responded by stating that Antony believes the ability for self-knowledge comes through Christ (I wasn't sure my professor thought that the Incarnation or the atonement itself achieves this end for the individual). I did not see this explicitly stated in the text, which made me question him further. He then went on to explain that Antony believes that the work of Christ, prophesied in Is. 53, allowed for the will of the individual to be healed. The problem facing humanity, post-Incarnation, is now a lack of knowledge. Thus, the quest for Antony was one of internal illumination. This is why Antony, among other Eastern fathers, are charged with pelagianism since the will is seen to be perfected. The process of salvation involves not the healing of the will, but a perfection of knowledge and understanding.
This raised a tremendous amount of questions for me. In truth, I always assumed that the Reformed circles painted the Eastern fathers as pelagian for polemical purposes. Yet, my professor (not reformed from what I can gather), affirmed their pelagianism even though he did not have any pejorative connotations in using this label. After Augustine, pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange in 529. This council was not ecumenical so it is not formally recognized by all parts of the catholic (small c!) church. What does this mean for ecumenical dialogue? Despite my disagreements with pelagianism, is the individual Christian necessarily required to condemn pelagianism in order to be considered orthodox? How does the Church affirm that this part of the tradition is still affirmed today by various parts of the Church? If one affirms that it is heretical, especially in light of the testimony of Scripture, how does one account for the fact that the will wasn't formally assumed to be damaged until Augustine? If so, then what does this mean for the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit to the life of the Church?
Unfortunately, I didn't get the time to ask those questions. But the tradition and confessions of the Church deeply fascinate and trouble me. We must engage with all of the tradition in order to truly understand what we have inherited. I am burdened by the amnesia of the evangelical Church, and I hope that I will continually understand the history of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. This isn't for the aims of sheer historical studies but rather to understand the deposit of faith more deeply in order to properly engage constructive theology.