Christological Anthropology pt. 3 – Communion with the Trinity

read part 2 here…

communion, trinity, humanismWhat we learn from this brief description of patristic Christological anthropology is first of all that, as creatures, human beings, even before the fall, depended on God’s grace, and as made in Christ’s image, are created with the capacity for communion with the Trinity.[1] Joined to Christ the true image, human beings can so become human versions of this image.[2] Human nature thus possesses ‘naturally,’ as it were, capacities for imaging God, but this capacity is completed only when we participate in the Trinitarian communion through Christ, the true natural image of God in the glorified flesh.  This view suggests that the completion of our nature rather than its distortion by sin becomes the focal point of Christological anthropology. The goal of divine grace has always been to complete our nature in the image of Christ, and both before and after the fall, mankind was always in need of grace to do so.[3]

As patristic scholar John Behr has argued, modern theologies often reduce the fall and redemption to humanity’s loss of the power to obey the law and salvation from sin as the restoration of this ability. On this basis, even the most radical Protestant version of justification by faith alone may turn out to be little else than glorified legalism. You see, the danger of a strictly forensic understanding of atonement is that the Christian life becomes defined not primarily as union with God but as the ability to obey the law willingly. Consequently preaching and worship are no longer focused on Christ’s presence and on being drawn into divine communion, but on asking forgiveness for disobedience and trying again to obey better this week.[4] By contrast, patristic anthropology regards the forgiveness of sin as merely one step in the restoration of our true nature in the divine image.[5]

Mankind, humanism, communion, trinity

Anthropology resides at the heart of Theology

We also see that for patristic theologians, anthropology is not a marginal subtopic but resides at the heart of theology. Theology is necessarily also anthropology since God chose to reveal himself most fully in the God-man, Jesus Christ. Looking at the incarnate Son of God, we can see who we are and are to become. Christ is the fulcrum on which hinges our knowledge of God and human beings. St. Basil the Great sums up the essence of patristic incarnational humanism, in this brief catechism. Question: “What is Christianity?” Answer: “Likeness to God as far as is possible for human nature.”[6]

Basil’s cautious expression (“as far as possible for human nature”) reminds us that attaining likeness to God is not a striving for the equality with God, but it does entail the transformation of our nature into the humanity assumed and glorified by the God-man Jesus Christ. As the fathers insisted, the beginnings of this new creation is already living in each Christian by the power of the Holy Spirit, indicating our participation in Christ’s “holy flesh and blood.”[7] Christians have differed on the exact nature of this participation, but the basic idea of Christianity as assimilation to divine likeness retained its force well into the Protestant Reformation. Even Luther can still speak about the deification of our being through participation in the divine, when he preaches: “You see that God pours himself and Christ his beloved son, into us and, conversely draws ourselves into him, so that he becomes completely humanified and we completely deified, and everything is altogether one thing, God, Christ, and you.”[8]



[1] “For man has been otherwise constituted by nature, so as to have fellowship with God. As, then, we do not compel the horse to plough, or the bull to hunt, but set each animal to that for which it is by nature fitted; so, placing our finger on what is man’s peculiar and distinguishing characteristic above other creatures, we invite him—born as he is, for the contemplation of heaven, and being, as he is, a truly heavenly plant—to the knowledge of God, counseling him to furnish himself with what is his sufficient provision for eternity, namely piety” (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, ANF, 200).

[2] Tanner, 58.

[3] Tanner 58-59.

[4] Another consequence of this attitude is that instead of emphasizing the presence of Christ and have worship and sermon draw the congregation into the divine life, the people are asked to adopt a certain counter-cultural stance in the name of Christ rather than to be confronted with Christ himself.

[5] The Mystery of Christ, Reference ???

[6] On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse 1, 45.

[7] St. Cyril of Alexandria On The Unity of Christ, 58.

[8] The German terms are “vermenschet” and “vergottet” respectively. Martin Luther, D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesasmtausgabe, 58 volumes Weimar, 1883 -), 20:229,30. Cited as a 1526 sermon in Kurt E. Marquart. “Luther and Theosis” in Concordia Theological Quarterly. Volume 64:3, July 2000, 182-206, 185. Marquart also notes that there is quite a bit more of theosis language in Luther than the language usually cited from his theology of the cross. Marquart finds this little surprising, since “’Deification’ is part of the church’s traditional vocabulary, while that profound opposition, ‘theology of the cross’ versus ‘theology of glory’ is Luther’s own coinage” (ibid., 187).

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