Wednesday, July 11, 2007

anathematizing Eutyches

Today on the new calendar we commemorate the miracle of St. Euphemia's relics, which according to Orthodox Tradition revealed the conclusion of the ecumenical synod at Chalcedon in AD 451. The teaching of Eutyches, that Christ has only a divine nature, was condemned as heresy, and subsequently the second ecumenical synod of Constantinople anathematized anyone who does not anathematize Eutyches (among other notable heretics).

It occurred to me last night at vespers, as I was listening to the account of this miracle, that I have never explicitly recanted my own formerly-held heresies in this area. I don't know whether it's strictly necessary that I do so--God knows what I believe now--but somehow it feels important. When I was in Bible college--my first semester, I believe--I studied the great Christological debates for the first time. The professor assigned our systematic theology class a book called Pilgrim Theology, by Michael Bauman. His main agenda throughout the book was to contrast two approaches that he labeled "pilgrim theology" and "fortress theology." In his scheme, pilgrim theology is what theology was meant to be--a journey of discovery, where we're constantly open to learning new things, refining our thinking, etc. Fortress theology is an aberration, where theologians stop exploring, settle down in one intellectual place, and build walls around their position. At the time, and for many years thereafter, it seemed a very sensible paradigm.

The chapters in Bauman's book were basically illustrative. Rather than developing a coherent argument throughout, he laid down the overall idea at the beginning, and then gave several examples throughout the book of how fortress theology rears its ugly head. One of the chapters had to do with the great Christological controversies, where Bauman felt that too much weight was placed on a few key Greek terms, so that the theological conclusions degenerated into absurdity--notably, the idea that Christ has two wills. (Keep in mind that Protestants generally ignore the seventh ecumenical synod, so two wills is basically the end of the line.) He described it as a multi-lane road that keeps losing lanes, and eventually it just ran out of pavement altogether. It was a theological dead-end. The conclusion that Christ had two wills signaled only one thing--that they were backed into a corner where they couldn't say anything else logically. Bauman's contention was that they'd had a good run, but they should have recognized that their method wouldn't take them any further, and moved on to something else. I'm not going to try to pick apart his argument here. I only bring it up to establish the context in which I drew my own conclusions.

At the same time, I was coming through a strong philosophical phase, mostly honed on Protestant apologetics, which (little did I know) had me thinking very much like the ancient heretics. (I'm not trying to make a direct connection here--this is how things played out in my head, not necessarily an accurate reflection of Protestant thinking.) I wanted theology to "make sense." Not that I was prepared to refute Scripture where it didn't fit my ambitions--I simply assumed that true theology, and therefore the true teachings of Scripture, would always conform with human logic. So, when we addressed the Chalcedonian teaching of two natures, I balked at the idea. How could anything have two natures? The nature of something is what it is, and if it doesn't strictly fit into one category or another, it must be something altogether different. So the notion that the two natures would simply merge into one appealed to me. More than that, though, I felt I had to inject some original thought into the debate, so I went on to articulate a heresy of a different sort, which I proudly labeled neo-Eutycheanism.

It went something like this. Paul's Christological hymn in Phil 2 is often referred to as teaching the kenosis--the self-emptying of Christ. This is explained in various ways, but the gist as I understood it at the time was that Christ, who was God the Son, somehow limited himself to become human. Now, if man was created in the image of God, and Christ is called the image of God, then wouldn't it make sense for the kenosis to have produced from actual God the image of God? I wouldn't have said that he actually stopped being God, but he voluntarily limited his divinity to the point that he became perfect man. One thing that I don't think I really processed at the time was what this would mean after his earthly life. Does he remain eternally limited, eternally nothing more (practically) than perfect man? Or does he return to being fully God and no longer man at all? Of course, if I'd pushed very hard on the idea it could have drifted into any number of heresies. Fortunately, I didn't; and fortunately, I ended up dropping the idea over time. I don't know that I ever explicitly decided it was wrong, and in fact when a few years later I encountered Oriental Orthodoxy, I didn't have to give their Christology a second thought. I just didn't feel like it was a very important issue. Whether Christ had one nature or two was all the same to me, in the sense that it didn't really affect anything else. It was an interesting question to play around with, but that was about it.

That was a problem for me with a lot of Protestant theology--it didn't seem particularly relevant. I think it's accurate to say that my wife thought so too, but our reactions were different. She was bored with it, while I turned it into a game. I didn't need it to be relevant, because it was fun to study regardless. In fact, as time went on, I learned to appreciate the irrelevance of theology, because it allowed the subject to become harmless data, available for whatever I wanted to do with it. I think to some degree that was the appeal of more left-wing Protestant varieties. They didn't have to worry about what implications the Bible might have for their theology or theology for their lives. They could just be scholars, playing with data and paradigms. But the fun only lasts so long. Eventually, I sensed something was missing, and the rest, as they say, is history.

One thing I appreciate about Orthodoxy is how theology remains so closely tied to the Christian life. The Orthodox experience only makes sense in the context of Orthodox theology. On the other hand, Orthodox theology is only justifiable on the basis of Orthodox experience. This was the major flaw in my own theologizing back when I started college and years after I'd finished seminary. You can't get there through pure logic. It's not always going to make great sense. That's not to say that God is illogical--it's more that he's beyond what our logic can reach. There's nothing wrong with using logic as part of the process, but we're fundamentally dealing with a personal God who is only known through relationship. Some of what that relationship has produced is in Scripture, more of it is in the whole Tradition of the Church, but until we get in there and live it, we're still just trying to work with data. We're missing the context for all this other stuff. It's the relationship that's key, and that's what the Fathers were trying to protect when they addressed these heresies. I see that now, in a way that never made sense to me as an Evangelical.


Jim N said...

I wouldn't worry too much about renunciation at this point. You'll formerly do that when you're chrismated (and you'll get to spit without using a hanky!).

Interesting and non-inflamatory thoughts about Prot ideology, too.

Trevor said...

Yeah, but do I get to make an indecent noise? Actually, I wasn't sure whether spitting at the devil was included in chrismation or not. I thought it might be specific to baptism.

Jim N. said...

yeah, you renounce him, then you spit on him. Its part of the vows you take when you renounce "all ancient and modern heresies".

As far as the noise, I suppose it depends on how vigorous the "wind up" is for the spit! :)

Trevor said...

Hmm . . . so, I guess it's best if you have a bad cold when you get chrismated. What better way to let Satan have it than with a big, green loogie?