God And Christ

Plato and the Old Testament had been at one in viewing the vision of God as the goal of human life. How does the person of Christ fit into this scheme? As we have seen, the New Testament endorses it, sometimes actually identifying Jesus as God. On the whole, though, he is the way to the Father, the one through whom the knowledge of God is made available to us. He is not 'absolute' himself. The New Testament remains theocentric and the main aim of the early Fathers was to define the special relationship of Jesus to God without endangering the inherited monotheism of the Bible. This means in practice that even after the full deity of Christ had been defined at the Council of Nicaea in 325, the theology and spirituality of the Fathers are primarily interested in the deity of Jesus rather than in his human nature. Jesus worship and Jesus mysticism, centred on the figure of the Gospels, are on the whole rare in the early Church. This fact by itself serves to distinguish the patristic period from the Middle Ages and the Reformation period, where devotion to Christ is central in writers as diverse as Julian of Norwich, Ignatius Loyola and Teresa of Avila.

With a few exceptions, the Fathers preserved the general practice of the New Testament and of the liturgy in making prayers to the Father, through the Son, rather than to the Father and the Son. The Mass did indeed address both the 'Lord have mercy' and 'Lamb of God' to Christ, but these seem to have come into the liturgy at a later date. Outside the liturgy examples of prayers to Christ are rare. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a fourth-century collection of alphabetically arranged words of the Fathers from the desert of Egypt, do indeed mention prayer to Jesus. And there is the 'Jesus Prayer'. It is not altogether clear at what date this prayer acquired its final form as 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.' Clearly the prayer for mercy has a gospel model in the prayer of the blind men at Matthew 9:28. The invocation of the holy name of Jesus occurs certainly in writings of a fifth-century bishop of Photice, Diadochus. In section 59 of his Gnostic Chapters, he recommends frequent remembering of the name of Jesus. This remembrance is to be accompanied by a warmth of feeling, quite unusual among the Fathers, whose general approach to the quest for God is not marked by any great stress on the importance of the emotions.

With the exception of the Sayings, which come from a more 'popular milieu' and Diadochus of Photice, the Fathers have little to offer in the shape of 'Jesus Worship' and it is on the whole true to say of them that for them the humanity of Christ is treated as a means through which we can arrive at either the Father or at the divinity shared by Father and Son alike. This reduction of the person of Jesus' role to that of intermediary derives above all from the fact that pretty well all the Fathers begin their theology and their search for God with a highly remote and distanced figure of God. A particularly clear example of this phenomenon is Origen, whose birth in 185

in Alexandria and subsequent education there under Platonist auspices may help to explain the origin of his idea of God. For him God is a completely spiritual being, bodiless, spaceless, timeless, beyond the reach of our senses and available to us partly through his action in this world and partly through what Origen saw as the 'spiritual senses'. This novel doctrine of his is outlined in his treatise On First Principles written in about 230. In answer to the objection that his highly abstract account of God left little or no possibility for any direct apprehension of God, he replied that in addition to the five bodily senses, we also possess senses of the spirit. Basing himself on Proverbs 2:5 in the Greek text, 'You will find a divine sense', he argued that we have spiritual sight (cf. Matt. 5:8), spiritual taste (cf. Ps. 34:8), and so on.

But, if we can know that God exists and something of his nature, and if the knowledge of God is the end of the spiritual life, it may be asked what place the person of Christ plays in all this 'knowing' process. How necessary is Christ and what sort of knowledge can and does he communicate? On the whole it must be admitted that the role of Christ in the Origenistic scheme is essentially supplementary. Christ is in some places spoken of almost as the poor man's Plato, enabling the simple Christians to know something about the divine nature. But even when he is so spoken of, Christ in his person as a historical figure is always a step on the way to God himself. In his great Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, Origen treats Christ as a complex figure, made up of several aspects—he calls them epinoiai—arranged like steps to a temple. The lowest and least important aspects are those which refer to the temporal life and work of Christ, as propitiation, shepherd and healer. From these lowly foothills the more ambitious ascend by means of self-mastery and mental exercise to the aspects of Christ as justice, wisdom and word. In other words, within the person of Christ we find a union of the historical and salvific aspects of his work and, beyond those, the cosmic and absolute elements. But even these last are not the end of the spiritual quest for Origen. The word and wisdom are essentially directed above to the simple, uncompounded nature of God that lies above all. In another place he makes a distinction between the temporal and eternal gospel, which corresponds exactly to the distinction between the Incarnate and Eternal word of God. The Christian is meant to move upwards, drawn on by the love of heavenly wisdom. The movement of desire is something given to us by God, a love for truth and ultimately for God as the source of all truth, which is part of the very fabric of our created natures. The restless mind can only find satisfaction, and even then not total satisfaction, in the thought and presence of God.

This highly theocentric spirituality clearly has roots in a form of Platonism. In his dialogue the Symposium, Plato had also placed us under the impulse of an upward moving eros (love or desire), which finds its rest only in the vision of absolute beauty. The thought of God as beautiful or as beauty appealed to Origen's successors, the Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nazian—zus, Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, defenders of the faith of Nicaea in Asia Minor in the last third of the fourth century. For Basil (330-79), underneath the structure of the monastic life, for which he composed a set of rules, there lies the God-given desire to rise upwards to the God who is beauty. In Gregory of Nyssa's early treatise On Virginity (370), the absolute beauty of Plato is identified with God.

Undoubtedly the best-known of all such identifications is to be found in a writer who can in no obvious sense be regarded as a follower of Origen, and who on several occasions took pains to distinguish his position from that of Origen, Augustine of Hippo (354-430). In book 10 of his Confessions (1991) he addresses God as follows: 'Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you.' Augustine was obsessed with the idea of and desire for God. Everything is God-centred. He is the 'one true God', from whom all things derive their being and for whom all things are made as their final end. The tragedy of human life is that we have the power to refuse the essential nature and drive of our beings. Although he is nearer to us than we to ourselves, we can refuse to attend to him and can be far away from him in our minds and hearts. The parable of the Prodigal Son of Luke 15 spoke to Augustine of the perpetual condition of the human heart made for but away from God. 'One does not go far away from you or return to you by any movement through space. The younger son in your gospel did not look for horses or carriages.' The human heart—a word for which Augustine in his Confessions shows a marked preference, using it about two hundred times— is a complex reality. It is the centre of the conscious life and of the drive to achieve ultimate satisfaction. And that satisfaction, he tells us at the beginning of the Confessions, despite all our attempts to divert the streams of desire, can find rest nowhere else save in God. 'You have made us, O Lord, for yourself and our heart is restless till it rest in You.'

So far the main difference between Augustine and Origen lies in the central object of desire. For Augustine it is the divine Trinity, for Origen it is the simple divine intellectual nature of the Father only. How does Augustine's treatment of the place of Christ in this highly theocentric scheme of things differ from that of Origen? The answer is, hardly at all. Commenting on John 14:6, 'I am the way, the truth and the life', he asks (in his thirteenth tractate on the Gospel) how can the same Christ be both the journey and the destination. His reply is that 'we go through Christ to Christ, through Christ incarnate as man to Christ discarnate as Word'. The principal difference between him and Origen is that for him the Word is fully divine, while for Origen the Word is only secondarily and therefore not fully divine.

Can we travel on the road to God without the help of Christ? On this crucial question Augustine makes an important distinction. We cannot do without the help of the saving work of Christ, the only mediator between God and us. The role of Christ as mediator is supplemented by his office as instructor in humility. Although Augustine seems prepared at times to say that we can know the existence of God and of our eternal home without the help of Christ, we cannot arrive there without him; and again, although one might perhaps know of God by the exercise of the mind, it is only a real possibility for the majority of the human race if they have Christ as instructor. But so strong was Augustine's conviction of the presence of God to himself and indeed to the whole of creation, that the need to go through Christ in order to discover this presence does not seem to have been urgent for him.

Origen and Augustine, without a doubt the two greatest thinkers and writers of the early Church, shared a powerful conviction of the presence and beauty and universal availability of God. It is true that by God Augustine meant the whole Trinity, Origen only the Father as the fount of deity; it is also true that Augustine writes about and to God with a passion which is, by and large, lacking in Origen. But despite these differences their theocentric vision of the world made it hard for them to find a place for the person, above all for the humanity, of Jesus. If the end of life was the entry into a lasting and eternal relationship with God himself, then clearly time and history could not be thought of as anything more than a stage on the way to this goal. This conclusion may disappoint those who expect to see Christ as the centre of Christian spirituality and they may feel inclined to blame the influence of Plato on both Origen and Augustine. This would be unfair, because although it is true that both writers owed an immense debt to Plato and his followers, the idea that Christ is the ultimate object of worship and service is not found in the New Testament either.

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