Trinity and Incarnation: comfort in tension

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Man is an animal of grave consequence and inescapable predicament. On one hand he supposes to enjoy, unbound, the diversity of creative intercourse and non-determinative freedom. On the other, he longs for the unity of person and absolute authority that would yield a final solution to his doubts, a final deductive indubitable certainty. This epistemological interplay between oneness and many-ness, universality and particularity, as a part of man’s cognitive milieu, is age old. One need only consider Raphael’s famous ‘The School of Athens’ in which Plato and Aristotle are depicted in conversation about the real. The great Athenian master has his finger raised toward the sky, lifting his hopes toward an ideal and abstract realm of certain formality. The equally astute pupil points his palm toward the ground, emphasizing the concrete particularity of things as ultimate in common experience.

So which is it? One, form, universal-invariant-absolute OR Many, accident, particular-changing-temporal? Is there a system of thought that can responsibly unify the poles? Will the answer find its locus in autonomy and terrenal starting points? Even a cursory scan of the last 2500 years of western thought must yield a resounding nein.

Enter the discomfort of every rationalist: the supra-rational, divine cognition, transcendental necessity.

Trinity and Incarnation. I will assert through interrogative: what else can actually account for one and many, transcendence and immanence? If there is silence, then there is also an answer.

Augustine lays the smack down on Heretics

The last pre-Reformation Church to be examined is also the most important one. Augustine (354-430) was the Bishop of Hippo and he is a giant among giants in Church History. It is well attested that his writings have had a massive effect on Church thought, stretching from medieval theology to the Reformation and even today.[1] It is only appropriate that we should look into his highly influential views on Justification because they serve as a foundation for many coming after him.

Like many of the previous mentioned theologians, Augustine never explicitly taught on Justification but there is plenty of his work to glean from. In his writing, he shares many similarities with Athanasius in that justification for him is primarily about ontology.[2] We will notice this in two of his major works dealing with this topic, On the Spirit and the Letter and On Faith and Works

On the Spirit and the Letter is an argument against the Pelagians who believe that man inherently has the ability to serve God in and of himself. Augustine attacks these Pelagians using the seemingly Protestant argument of Law and Gospel. Concerning the law, he writes that it shows the “foulness of their disease,” and that it “increased sinfulness rather than lessened it when the law entered in so that sin might abound.”[3] When the law reveals how sick a person is, it leads him to the only doctor with the power to heal, namely Jesus. He writes concerning the Gospel, “He extends His mercy, not because they know him, but in order that they may know him, and he extends his righteousness, by which he justifies the sinner, not because they are upright of heart, but in order that they may be upright in heart.” [4] He also uses Romans 2 as evidence against Pelagianism when he compares it to Old Covenant Judaism. He remarks on how Paul used the law to show that the Jews were breakers of the law because they relied on their flesh and not on the Spirit of Christ.[5]

Although Augustine sounds like a Protestant when he uses the Law and Gospel distinction to battle Pelagianism, he means something entirely different. Where  Protestants harm with the law and heal with the Christ’s death, through the imputation of His righteousness, Augustine on the other hand, harms with the law and heals with Christ’s resurrection, there by imparting His righteous Spirit. For Augustine, Christ’s death gave us a clean record but Christ’s life gave us His righteousness so that we can be justifiably righteous before God. Not on our own strength but on the strength that He gives us. Romans 5.5 is a key verse for him in that we are made right with God by Him pouring His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit; justification for Augustine is primarily transformational. We become righteous receiving the Spirit of Christ by faith.[6]

So what exactly is the justifying role of the cross for Augustine? According to him it has a dual purpose. In On Faith and Works, Augustine is arguing against Anti-Nomians. To refute them, he writes about how on the cross, Jesus crucified the record of Christians’ sins; yet, that is not the only aspect of it. He also says through union with Christ believers were crucified to the world so that they would die to sin. Faith achieves two things simultaneously for him. For Augustine, the cross makes one righteous both forensically and intrinsically. [7]

Augustine is similar to Athanasius in many ways; In fact, Augustine was probably influenced by Athanasius.  In their understanding of justification , the atonement made Christians innocent before God, but it was Love of God poured into our hearts that God that made them righteous; both of these were essential.  For Augustine, his understanding of justification was developed by his conflict with the Pelagians.  It only makes sense that he would combat them by displaying the depravity of humanity and hearkening the Grace of God which gives a new nature through the Spirit.  It is the new man, who produces the fruit of good works, that God declares to be righteous.


[1] Alister McGrath, 24.

[2] When I mention ontological changes this is what the Reformed tradition would associate with Sanctification.

[3] Augustine, On the Spirit and the Law, 9.

[4] Ibid. 11.

[5] Ibid. 13.

[6] In comparing the Law of Works vs. Law of Faith Augustine states in paragraph 22: By the law of works God says: Do what I command! By the law of faith we say to God: “Give what you command! After all, the law commands in order to remind us of what faith should do.”

[7] Augustine, On Faith and Works, 15.

Athanasius hearts Incarnational Justification

No wonder Athanasius could understand the incarnation.  Look at the size of his cranium.

No wonder Athanasius could understand the incarnation. Look at the size of his cranium.

Athanasius (293-373 A.D.) is one of the most influential theologians in Church History. He has contributed much to the Church, but his most famous work is The Incarnation of the Word of God. The purpose of this book is to answer the question, why did the Eternal Son of God become flesh? Athanasius’ answer to this question involves justification.

In The Incarnation of the Word of God, Athanasius places justification within the context of a creation, fall, and redemption. He argues that it is essential that God’s creation was ex-nihilo because it must be dependant upon God for its very existence. When mankind, who is created in the image of God, turns away from God he in fact turns to a corruptibility, which causes a movement towards non-existence: Their natural end is death and destruction. He writes,

For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature ; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.[1]

To him the primary problem of sin is corruption. To support his theology, he largely cites Paul with verses such as 1 Corinthians 15.53, “This corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.” Sin produced death and corruption through the law that Adam was given. Mere repentance is not enough to stave off the effects of sin because the problem is the actual nature of man. The problem for Athanasius is primarily ontological in nature, not forensic.

Athanasius’ solution to this ontological corruption is in Jesus’ Incarnation. Jesus, the Eternal Son of God, took on flesh and fulfilled the law by suffering total corruption on the cross on behalf of all who believe in him. For him, it is not so much about a legal verdict but about legal debts being paid off. Adam (and his seed) contractually owes God death for his sin; Jesus paid off his debt by becoming sin and dying on the cross for humanity. Jesus conquered death through his resurrection; therefore, humanity can be renewed in its very being. [2]

His understanding of imputation is that of corperate association. He likens it to a whole city being honored because of the presence a great king. If we live in his city then we share his glory. How does one enter into His glorious city? We are received into the city through faith.[3]

A good summary of Athanasius’ view on justification is that Christ, the Eternal Son of God, died as a pure and spotless lamb to settle humanities debt by fulfilling the curse of Adam. Through His resurrection, humanity can receive a new nature in which they can live in the world as true humanity was always meant to. Though his view contains forensic elements to it (i.e. legal debt), justification is primarily about the ontological renewal of the image of God.

[1] Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word of God, 1.4.

[2] This can be seen in 2.9 when he states, “For this reason, therefore, 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. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent.”

[3] Ibid. 2.9.


Justification Under Water

The question begging to be asked is, “why didn’t the early Church formulate Justification better?”  Were they ignorant of it? Were they legalistic?  Did they forget to read Paul?

The answer to that question lies under water (especially if you are a Baptist).  Today, if you were to pick up a systematic theology and open it up to the table of contents you would find a bountiful supply of interesting categories.  These include: Theology Proper, Anthropology, Hamartiology, Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, Ecclessiology, Eschatology,…etc.  Now, if you were to look at  the Catechisms of old, like the one by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, you would find a severely reduced amount of -ology.  They kept it simple; they basically had four categories in order of Paterology, Christology, Pneumatology, and Ecclessiology.  They followed the basic pattern of the Apostles Creed.

Which of these four categories included justification?  If you guessed Christology you would wrong.  Suprisingly, it was ecclessiology.  For the early Church,  soteriology was included in ecclesiology.  In other words, to be part of the Church was to be saved.  This leads us to an even more specific doctrine where we find the early Church discussing justification; namely, we see this in Baptism.

If you read the Patristics, then you can get a feel for how important Baptism was for them.  It was through this sacrament that people were united with Christ, in His death and ressurection.  Baptism, though simple in act, was deep, profound, and mysterious.  Somehow through this act the heavenly realities were enacted through the earthly.  Just as the Spirit of God hovered over the waters in the beginning of Creation, so does It in Recreation.  It is this Holy Spirit which unites all those who have faith with Christ.  If one is united with Christ then he is justifed, sanctified, they have entered into the age to come, they are adopted as children, they have died to sin, renounced Satan and joined the Majestic Army of God, they have been elevated above the angels, they are annointed royal priests, they have been mortared into the temple  (church) of the Living God; this list could go on ad infinitum.

The Early Church was not ignorant of justification, but they did see it within the context of a larger picture.  To be justified is to be baptized, but to be baptized is to be in Christ and all His blessings.  For them, justification was not an ethereal doctrine; it was wet.  The reason why they didn’t systematically discuss this doctrine was because it is organically ingrained with the Church; but the Church was Spiritually ingrained in Christ.  Justification is a vibrant thread in the majestic robe, which a Christian is clothed with when he enters the Church through baptism.

If you want to check out the writings of the Church Fathers then check out this link.  Its incredibly edifying.

Beaker shows his Christmas Spirit

I know I have been posting a bunch lately, but this is funny.  Kara and I watched The Muppet’s Christmas Carol last night.  I have seen this movie before but I never noticed this particular scene.  If you watch the end of the clip closely you will notice Beaker flipping Scrooge off. Beaker, tell me what you really think?!   Tis true.  Watch it.

Chrysostom’s view of Justification

Chrysostom knew how to dress.  I think he is wearing Gucci.

Chrysostom knew how to dress. I think he is wearing Gucci and has a Prada halo.

John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.) is another valuable Patristic. Unlike Origen, he has a clear definition of Justification. He writes, “What does the word ‘justified’ mean? That if there could be a trial and an examination of the things He had done for the Jews, and of what had been done on their part toward Him, the victory would be with God, and all the right would be on His side.”[1] Justification was about God’s vindicating righteousness over and against the Jews. In one sense, it is not necessarily about our justice before God.

Chrysostom also writes something akin to the Reformation doctrine of double imputation. In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, he writes about how Christ became sin on our behalves so that we may receive the righteousness of God. He uses justification verbiage when he remarks,

For this is the righteousness of God, when we are justified not by works, in which case it would be necessary that not even a spot should be found, but by grace, in which case all sin is done away. And this, at the same time that it does not allow us to be lifted up (for it is entirely the free gift of God), teaches us also the greatness of what is given. For what came before was a righteousness of the law and of works but this is the righteousness of God.[2]

Chrysostom notices a Pauline doctrine that draws near to the concept of an imputed righteousness that comes by faith alone.

Nick Needham points out that with Chrysostom, the way justification relates to a Christian after his conversion is a little complex. He states that Chrysostom falls in line with the Patristic tendency to deny the sufficiency of faith after initial conversion.[3] He gives an example of how Chrysostom comments on the parable of the wedding feast, in which there was a man inappropriately dressed; this man was called by grace and entered by grace, but he did not cloth himself correctly. This clothing is the pure life that Jesus gives by His Spirit.[4]

This idea seems to contradict his previous one. How can one receive the righteousness of God by grace through Christ’s death, but lose it when he doesn’t live perfectly after receiving it? Many of the Patristic writers live in this tension comfortably. On one hand, it is as if Christ’ death on the Cross brings one into the kingdom of God; on the other hand, Christ’s resurrection life lived out by the believer, through the power of the His Spirit, is what keeps him in the kingdom. This is a very confusing subject with the Patristics. Yet, we should acknowledge that they held justification to be by grace; although, it had complex implications.[5]


[1] John Chrysostom, Homilies of Romans 6. As you might notice this will be similar to Paul’s second use of justification as mentioned the exegetical section below.

[2] John Chrsostom, Homilies on 2 Corinthians 11.

[3] Nick Needham, Justification in Perspective, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), pp. 42-43.

[4] John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, 69.2.

[5] It is important to note that I am using very broad categories for the Patristics. The Early Church was very diverse but they did seem to have some common themes such as this.

Origen on Justification

Doesn't he look like the creepy scientist from Looney Tunes?

Origen (185 A.D. – 245 A.D.) was one of the earliest Biblical scholars in Church history. Though considered heretical in some of teachings (i.e. universalism), his commentary on Romans was highly influential in the Church’s understanding of Paul.[1] This commentary was widely known due to its many Latin translations by such men as Rufinus and Jerome. [2] C.P. Bammel even makes the argument that Augustine’s Pauline understanding comes from Origen.[3]

Origen’s view on justification is tricky to pin point. In the works that we have today, he never explicitly gives a definition of it. There are a few things that we should note that are implicit in his writings though. The robber crucified with Christ is brought up multiple times, but it is especially focused on in his commentary of Romans 3. This is his main example of a person being justified without any previous works. At bare minimum, this shows that all works prior to faith are worthless.

He also believes faith itself is a gift from the Holy Spirit that should result in good works.[4] Does Origen fall in line with the traditional protestant view of how Justification and Sanctification relate to one another? Surprisingly, the answer is no. For Origen, justification by faith seems to consist in two parts. On one hand, by faith, one is reconciled to God through the blood of Christ. This eliminates all past sins from life of Christian.[5] On the other hand, faith continually justifies a person before God as well. Origen in his commentary of Romans 4 examines the life of Abraham. He describes how Abraham’s works were evidence of his faith and that these also justified him before God: In some sense faith is perfected by works. [6] M. F. Wiles notes, with Origen, faith in Jesus was servant like faith, which he lived out the reality of Christ.[7] Justification by faith is a two sided coin that cleanses the sinner’s past and transforms the saint’s future.


[1] Origen’s commentary on Romans was largely historically based. He is often misunderstood as one who merely practices allegorical interpretation; but, this seems to be practiced mainly with Narrative.

[2] D.H. Williams, Ibid., p. 656.

[3] C.P. Bammel , “Justification by Faith in Augustine and Origen.” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 47 (1996) , pp. 223-35.

[4] Ibid. pp. 228-229.

[5] Ibid., pgs. 228.

[6] Ibid. pgs. 229-230.

[7] M. F. Wiles, The Divine Apostle: The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles in the Early Church, (London: 1967), 114.