Bridging the unbridgeable gap

Continuing my series on the Anglican 39 Articles, I note that this second one is the first of three on the Son of God, and like the first on God, it seeks to root Anglican theology in the mainstream classical tradition.

II. Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.

There’s both a clear borrowing (as there often is in the articles) from the Augsburg Confession, but also some interesting differences:

Also they [our = Lutheran churches] teach that the Word, that is, the Son of God, did assume the human nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, so that there are two natures, the divine and the human, inseparably enjoined in one Person, one Christ, true God and true man, who was born of the Virgin Mary, truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, that He might reconcile the Father unto us, and be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.

Although closing with the purpose of God’s uniting God’s own nature with human nature, the Anglican article places a much greater emphasis on the divine nature of the Son begotten in eternity. This seems to be on a par with the omission (at this point) of what in the Augsburg confession is a preceding article “of original sin”. The first five of these Anglican articles are much more concerned with the Godness of God.

The Son is defined by who he is in relationship to the Father before he is known in relationship to the human situation. The doctrine of the Trinity is about God and God is not just about us.

What this tradition seeks to do, it seems to me, at its best is to hold together two things. First it not only admits, but emphasises the radical difference of God from that which is created by God. Eternity and time, impassibility and being acted on, necessity and contingence are wholly and utterly incompatible. Second, it insists that in Christ these incommensurable differences are yoked together: divine and human nature in one person giving hope of immortality and eternity to the fleeting fragility of created existence.

There is rather more to be said of this than the article says, before it moves like its Lutheran model (with most of their mediaeval forbears) to original guilt and all actual sins. Part, it seems to me, of taking the incarnation seriously (I use the narrative of the Genesis myth) is to say that what is restored in Christ is greater than what was lost in Adam. This is also the way Paul deploys the contrast in both Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15: the greater redemption exceeds the earlier loss. This is captured in the “felix culpa” of the Easter liturgy

O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam
which gained for us so great a Redeemer.

and also the mediaeval carol Adam lay y-bounden

Ne had the apple taken been,
The apple taken been,
Ne had never our lady,
Abeen heav’ne queen.
Blessed be the time
That apple taken was

By comparison with that vision (don’t get sidetracked by the mariological version), it seems rather limited to see atonement of sins simply as restoration of what was rather than an even greater transformation into what will be.

However, this article is not only limited in what it says about atonement, it actually, I think, gets the emphasis wrong. Is it really appropriate to say “to reconcile his Father to us”? Among the stronger Pauline statements are these (all NRSV) which are very much about us being reconciled to God:

  • “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” (Rom 3:24-25 – even if ἱλαστήριον is read as propitiation, it doesn’t change the status of God as initiator)
  • “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Rom 5:10)
  • “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5:18-19)
  • “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:20)

The primary direction of reconciliation, is of our being reconciled to God, by God, through Christ, and not of God being reconciled to us. The language of the article is, at best, careless, and such language gives an unfortunate apparent authority to some versions of atonement theory that divide God’s work from Christ’s. (Equally, we should remember that the “prayer of consecration” (as the 1662 Prayer Book calls it) gets the emphasis right by locating the initiative in God’s “tender mercy”.) The direction of reconciliation belongs with the direction of creation, because it is essentially the same work of the same divine subject. (“My Father goes on working, and so do I” – Jn 5:17 JB)

This correction of the article’s language, however, should not detract from the main thrust which emphasises the incarnation of the eternal Son as the undergirding presupposition of any possible reconciliation. As it seems to me, unless the Son partakes both in the uncreated God, and created humanity, there is no bridge across the unbridgeable gulf between necessary creator and contingent creature. Any overcoming of broken, disordered, and distorted relationships and natures (which we call sin) is dependent on the logically a priori overcoming of the impossibility of a relationship between two such radically different natures.

Creation can only become what it is fully meant to be because God embraces it within Godself by sharing its creaturely nature. Forgiveness, healing, reconciliation find their place within that dynamism and direction of creation completed through Christ.