I’m reading Tyron L. Inbody’s The Many Faces of Christology, and while this isn’t a direct comment on the book, it is inspired by something he writes about.
In discussing the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries, Inbody emphasizes that these were about soteriology first and foremost. All the seemingly esoteric talk about substance, person, essence, etc. was, at bottom, aimed at safeguarding the Christian experience of salvation. In other words, what kind of being must Jesus be/have been in order to be the Savior?
Inbody uses this soteriological lens to discuss the debate between Arius and Athanasius. For Arius (according to Inbody) salvation was primarily a moral matter, so the Savior had to be a creature–someone whose pattern of life it was possible for us to replicate in our own lives. By contrast, Athanasius viewed salvation as more of an ontological matter–the Logos must be divine because it was the unity of the divine and human natures that makes our own “deification” and salvation from death and corruption possible.
What was interesting to me about this discussion was that it enabled me to sympathize with Arius more than I had before. On Inbody’s account, not only was Arius concerned to safeguard the unity of God, but he also thought it was important for the Savior to be like us if we were to share in the sonship of Jesus, where sonship is understood as a moral relationship to God.
It also made clearer to me some of the issues I have with talk of salvation as “deification” or theosis. On Athanasius’ view, human mortality is a result of our separation from God. What’s needed in order for us to be saved from death is for humanity to be united to deity in an ontological or metaphysical fashion.
I have a couple of worries about this. First, contemporary science doesn’t really permit us to see mortality as a result of some spiritual “fall” that happened once upon a time. If we are to live beyond death, it will have to be the result of some supernatural act on God’s part.
Secondly, the language of theosis–at least as it is sometimes used–seems to present salvation as a “sub-personal” affair: we’re saved by having the right “stuff” (God stuff) injected into our humanity. I realize this is a crude characterization of at least some versions of this view, but I think ontological language does easily lend itself to this kind of misuse.
It has long seemed to me, rather, that Christians should think of salvation in fundamentally relational terms. That is to say, salvation consists in having a right relationship to God restored (and, correspondingly, a right relationship to other people and to the rest of the created order). I think some of the church fathers (e.g., Irenaeus) got this–by seeing salvation more in terms of Jesus reorienting humanity toward God rather than as the mere fact of the divine/human union understood in a metaphysical, quasi-substantialist sense. In other words, Jesus “re-narrates” human life (“reacapitulates” in Irenaeus’s terms) so that its relationship to God is restored.
This doesn’t mean that Jesus is simply a moral teacher, as some crude “moral exemplar” Atonement theories have it. (Or that “sonship” should be understood in narrowly moral terms.) And I would certainly want to affirm the intention behind the creedal affirmations that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. But to see this union primarily in metaphsical or ontological terms may not be helpful if the nature of sin and salvation is understood in terms of relationship.