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Exploring the Christian Way of Life - The Identity of Jesus - Church History (Pre-Reformation) - Nicea and Augustine

Just as Arius and “Arianism” is greatly misunderstood, so is the Council of Nicea and its creed. The goal was not to create a universally binding statement of Christology that was authoritative for all time. Its purpose was to resist Arianism. Local baptismal creeds that often deployed different language were assumed to still hold sway over their congregations.[1] The creed’s goal was to win as wide a consensus as possible in renouncing Arius and those like him.[2] The Son was declared to be of the same substance as the Father and eternally generated from him. He was true God from true God which eliminated any possibility of an adoptionist Christology. Subordination is not entirely eliminated by the creed, just the Arian form that posited that the Son was ontologically inferior because Father and Son share the same being.[3] In the anathemas coming from the council, insistence on the immutability of the Son was also insisted upon.[4] The difficulty this last point makes for the incarnation was not perceived.

Augustine stood in continuity with Nicean Christology even as he pushed beyond it, especially in terms of types of themes he focused on.[5] His most focused treatment of Christology is in On the Trinity. We will also work in relevant material City of God.[6] While his formally presented Christology may have lacked the New Testament emphasis on kingship, it is present in ancillary but important ways in this latter work.

Of utmost importance to Augustine was to emphasize the unity and equality of Father, Son, and Spirit. All three members of the Trinity are involved in every divine act.[7] There is a creator/creature dichotomy, and the Son is on the side of the creator and thus equal to the Father.[8] The eternal Son is in no way subordinate to the Father, it is only in the incarnation, when enfleshed, that he is subordinate, in his role as mediator.[9] To substantiate this, Augustine resorts to what can only be called terrible exegesis trying to dismiss passages that could challenge his position and special pleading.[10] This process culminates in Augustine’s discussion of the sending of the Son in On the Trinity II.2. Augustine starts from the assumption that God is everywhere, which means that the Son is everywhere. So what can be meant by the sending of the Son in the incarnation, since he already was in the world? It merely means that he became human.[11] Additionally, the logic of Augustine’s understanding of the way the Godhead acts results in him affirming that not only the Father, but the Son as well sends the Son.[12] At every step of the argument, Augustine remains steadfastly committed to his foundational beliefs about the divine economy.[13] However, Augustine does try to be careful to not lapse into a modalistic understanding of the Trinity. He clarifies that while they act inseparably, they are distinct manifestations of the same substance.[14] The heart of their distinctiveness is the way they relate to each other.[15]

The humanity of Christ posed some interesting challenges for Augustine. Augustine believed that being born of a sexual act caused one’s soul to be corrupted prior to birth.[16] Thus, the virgin birth is vitally important since it excuses Jesus from the taint of sin. His flesh was real human flesh and subject to physical corruption, however there was no possibility of sinning.[17] He could embrace death, the penalty of sin without a sinful nature.[18] Additionally, whatever was left of his will was overridden by the Word dwelling in him.[19] Of course this means a very different experience of humanity for Jesus. Augustine went as far as to place the experience of emotions down to the choice of the Son to do so, so he could be a model for humanity.[20] With Keech, I must agree that it is hard not to see Augustine’s Jesus as less than fully human.

Divine kingship was a very important for Augustine. That the God Christians worship is king of his kingdom is the central presupposition of the City of God. His kingship is rooted in his role as creator.[21] While Ayres pushes back on claims that Augustine focused so heavily on unity in the Godhead that he eliminated difference, his emphasis on unity results in subsuming the New Testament emphasis on Jesus as divine king. Most of the discussion of kingship in City of God is the kingship of God more generically. When Jesus is called king, it is specifically when discussing eschatology.[22] There Jesus takes on the kingly role of revealing divine judgment on the last day.[23] As it relates to salvation, Jesus’ kingship is subsumed into a bigger category, that of mediator.[24] That Augustine does not focus on the kingship of Jesus is not surprising given Augustine’s insistence that all three members of the Trinity participate in every act. Otherwise it would be nothing short of stunning in a work like the City of God, which emphasizes the superiority of divine rule. Given the content of the work, it seems fair to say that Augustine seems to be unwilling to emphasize the role of the Son in ruling the way the New Testament texts do.

For Augustine, the role of the Son is primarily to reveal the Father as mediator between God and humanity. Augustine believes that is why there is such strong focus in Scripture on the Son as the wisdom and Word of God.[25] Through the Word, God’s wisdom is revealed and we are instructed in the proper pattern to follow. Our debt of sin made it necessary for Christ to come, so he could subvert the system.[26] In the incarnation you have a perfect mixing of human and divine natures, resulting not in God in man, but God actually being man.[27] When we are redeemed we participate in the life of God, but not perfectly as Christ does.[28]

[1] Ayres 2004 pp. 85-92.
[2] Ibid., p. 99.
[3] Edwards 2006 p. 553, also Ayres 2004 pp. 95-96.
[4] Grillmeier 1975 p. 266.
[5] I am not suggesting that we seek to understand Augustine’s Trinitarian theology as an adaption of Nicean theology, per the concerns expressed by Ayres 2010 p. 2. That there is continuity, particularly in the topics of focus is obvious as Ayres would agree. If one is interested in the speculative aspects of Augustine’s Trinitarian theology, Ayres work is the place to start along with Levering 2013. An adequate treatment would takes us way too far afield given our purposes. I will simply suggest that Augustine’s analogies of books 8-11 of On the Trinity may make the divine relationships too abstract for real beings, even if their existence is spiritual.
[6] It is a shortcoming of this paper that I could not read through his sermons, as I’m sure his expositions of Scripture would greatly enrich this paper. The task was just too great.
[7] On the Trinity II.7., Kelly 1978 p. 273.
[8] On the Trinity I.1-2.
[9] Ibid. I.3.14. For Augustine, the human Jesus Christ is less than the eternal Son, here taking Philippians 2:7 seriously. Even here Augustine is very cautious. See Ayres 2010 pp. 178-81.
[10] See, e.g., On the Trinity I.3.15-21, II.1. II.1.3 is particularly inadequate. Levering 2013 p. 154 notes that Augustine in the end claims that Scripture speaks this way to wear down our pride and cause us to rely on grace. That sounds to me like an admission of defeat.
[11] Of course the sending of the Son has more meaning for Augustine, as the sending of the Son opens up the possibility of faith for us via the revelation of the Son. See Ayres 2010, pp. 183-85, who generally is more generous than I in his reading of Augustine, a fact I don’t take lightly.
[12] In fact, the divine Son of Man stayed in heaven while the Son of God walked the Earth. Keech 2012 pp. 92-93.
[13] This includes the Old Testament theophanies. Often all three members of the Trinity are involved. See On the Trinity II.4-7, especially II.5.26, Kelly 1978 p. 273 and Levering 2013 pp. 155-56.
[14] On the Trinity IV.5.30.
[15] Kelly 1978, p. 274, Chadwick 1986 p. 93. Aquinas fleshes this point out in detail as we will see later on.
[16] Keech 2012 pp. 147-48.
[17] Ibid. has an excellent extended discussion on pp. 92-99.
[18] Ibid. draws out the ties to Origen’s thought on pp. 124-33.
[19] Ibid pp. 181-83.
[20] Ibid. 2012 pp. 162-63.
[21] See Ayres 2010 pp. 196-97.
[22] See, e.g., City of God XV.1, XX.9
[23] City of God XX.30. See Levering 2013 p. 142 and Kuehn 2007 p. 580.
[24] City of God XVII.16 is particularly instructive. In a passage discussing Christ in kingly terms, Sion is said to be set free by rebirth.
[25] On the Trinity VII.2.4.
[26] Keech 2012 p. 82.
[27] Grillmeier 1975 pp. 409-11.
[28] On the Trinity IV.4. See Levering 2013 p. 158, Grillmeier 1975 pp. 410-11.


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