A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 3 August 2017

An Athanasian Heresy?

I'm reading de Incarnatione by Athanasius of Alexandria, and it's brought to light a question that never really came up during my Anglican upbringing: what is the relation between sin, sinfulness, and salvation?

By sinfulness, or what Athanasius refers to as corruption, I mean the tendency towards sin. A standard Anglican view would be that our history of sinning means that we are generally unable to be with God - that is, to enter heaven. However, Jesus sacrificed himself to bear the punishment for our sins, with the result that by accepting this sacrifice we can be free from our sins and so enter heaven. Corruption, if it even enters the picture, is something that may be reduced through the work of the Holy Spirit, and which will be eviscerated entirely before we enter heaven, but it has no bearing upon the fact of our salvation. (Nor, for that matter, is there any discussion of precisely how we will cease to be corrupt: it will simply happen).

A Catholic view, as I understand it, pays more attention to this issue. Corruption cannot eternally prevent entry into heaven in the way that sin does, but it can delay it. Although Christ's death on the cross paid for our sins, we must also be purged of our corruption before ascending to heaven - hence Purgatory, in which through chastisement we are gradually purified. Eventually we emerge as the perfected visions of Christ, ready to enter heaven free of both sin and corruption. Or something. This is probably innaccurate, I am neither a Catholic nor a trained theologian.

Athanasius has a third and even more different view. There are two crucial building blocks to his view. The first, which I imagine both Anglicans and Catholics would in general be willing to accept or at least to be persuaded of, is that corruption comes as a consequence of sinning. The second, I think, would prove far more controversial.

There is danger in imputing views to historical figures, but it seems to me that Athanasius sees corruption as the primary force keeping us away from God. "Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough." (p16) Sin itself is covered by our repentance, our acknowledgement of it, with no need for Christ's death on the cross.

What, then, did Jesus come to save us from? "The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death... For this reason, he assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection." (p17-18) (Apparently not even Paul himself could compete with Athanasius for overly long sentences).

Let me be blunt: I have no idea how Athanasius' model of salvation fits together. The Christ-died-for-sins is quite clear: death is a punishment, we deserved this punishment, Christ suffered it instead. The debt was paid. ("How did he in three days bear the weight of the sins from billions of entire lives?" "Shut up, that's how.") It is much harder to see how a death could remove corruption.

But perhaps it will become clear from further reading. And perhaps it provides perspective on the theological debates of today, to see that at least we agree on what the founding event of our religion meant - so ething that, it seems, cannot be taken for granted.

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