Christian Spirituality Pt. 2

My intention to post a series on Christian spirituality was pure, and I wanted to do it in consecutive days, but I attended a youth camp in central Texas last week and was unable to post consistently. So eleven days later… let us continue by looking at the foundational assumptions that governed early Christian life and worship. If you would like to read the introduction, you can do so here.

The first foundational assumption that governed life and worship in the early church was their doctrine of God. The Triune nature of God has long since been a defining characteristic of any distinctively Christian community, which states that there is one God who exists as three distinct persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.[1] Making this distinction clear through their life and worship was necessary because of the various heretical positions that arose in the early church in regards to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Gnosticism and Modalism became vibrant heresies during the early spread of Christianity, thus, wanting to show the distinction, early Christian spirituality was centered on the Triune nature of God. The divine essence was believed to be unknowable, thus the spiritual person had to be satisfied with mystery. Basil the Great writes, “we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us and the justness of His judgments; but not His essence.”[2] The Trinitarian nature of God governed the very episcopal structure of the church. For the early Christian, the bishop sat in the place of Christ as His representative to the church and is submissive to the Father in all things just as the Son is submissive in all things.[3] However, the Trinity did not merely govern their governmental structure, but it also depicted the Christian life primarily taking place within community. It was absolutely absurd to think that a Christian could possibly mature into a spiritual person apart from the greater body of Christ. However, because of the context that surrounds contemporary American FCE, Christian spirituality is typically privatized and individualized to such a degree that the full body of Christ has little influence on the maturation of believers. Instead, spirituality is measured by how much time the believer spends reading the Bible and praying.

Within the broader theology of the Doctrine of God is Christology, specifically the Incarnation. Christian spirituality ought to be shaped by the fact that the infinite Son became infant, the immaterial became material, and the non-sensible became sensible. St. Athanasius wrote a small treatise entitled On the Incarnation where he describes Jesus, the God-man as not merely appearing to be human, but human in actuality.

He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which he dwelt.[4]

Athanasius perceived the entrance of the divine logos into the physical realm as affecting the entire human race.[5] As previously stated, one of the primary heresies in early Christianity was Gnosticism. The foundational assumptions of Gnosticism were far removed from orthodox Christianity and simply pealing back a few layers will reveal the vast difference between the two. Gnosticism held to the belief that the Demiurge, a vile and evil god created this physical world. Gnostics viewed the God of the Old Testament as evil and the God of the New Testament, the Father of Jesus as good. The problem is because everything sensible, visible, and physical is bad, Jesus was not truly human but only appeared to be human. Ultimately, Gnostics believed salvation was escape and relief from the physical realm and being returned to the spiritual realm with the Father.  As a result of this faulty view of the physical realm, Gnostic spirituality seems to have revolved around the renunciation of the physical.[6] However, Christians hold to an all-together different set of assumptions. Christians believe that the Father of Jesus Christ and the Creator of the physical realm are one in the same. Therefore, when the Son of God became incarnate, the Triune God was making a statement about the physical; namely, Christ had come to redeem it to the fullness for which it was intended. Thus, Christian spirituality was not opposed to the physical, or in other words, non-sensible, but in light of the incarnation involves the senses. When the infinite Son of God took on a human body, he simultaneously gave the senses a renewed role into the forefront of spirituality. “He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things my apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God did in the body.”[7] In light of this we should not view salvation as escape from the physical and we ought not to refrain from appealing to the senses when it comes to the Christian life and spirituality.

Another aspect of Christian worship that flows from Christology is the life of submission to God. Jesus Christ, the Son of God was submissive to the Father in all things. He did not plot out his own course in any fashion but went where the Father sent him and spoke the words that His Father gave Him.[8] This aspect of life and worship seems to be missing in American FCE, and it likely because of the fact that the church is steeped in a democratic society, which claims no authority accept that which is “by the people.” In other words, we acknowledge no authority unless we have set it up. Christ claimed no authority over his own life, rather was in complete submission to His Father, the source. Contemporary spirituality is often concerned with conquering, or dominating certain aspects of life. However, early Christian spirituality was less concerned with rising above things and more concerned with being under things, or better, being dominated. Therefore, the question is not, “How can I rise triumphantly over this sin, hurt, or pain,” but rather, “How dominated, empty, and humiliated can I be by the Triune God?”

Finally in regards to the doctrine of God, spirituality is pneumatological. The third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is often times overlooked in various FCE traditions. The reason seems to be the aforementioned thought that the physical and sensible has no place in spirituality. However, what makes something spiritual is not whether or not it is material or immaterial, but whether or not it has been sanctified by the Spirit. “We can tell the Spirit’s divine nature by examining the Spirit’s activity in the economy of salvation: the Spirit is holy like God and is truly divine, because a creature cannot sanctify others.”[9]In other words, things become spiritual by virtue of the Spirit. Thus far, we have seen the Triune emphasis on Christian spirituality and the underlying assumptions that followed suit, namely, spirituality is communal, sensible, humiliating, and dependent on the Spirit’s work.

The next post will focus on the particular practices of the church and how these foundational assumptions drove their actions—focusing primarily on Catechism, Baptism, and the Eucharist (a.k.a. Communion/Lord’s Supper).

[1]     A more thorough description of orthodox Trinitarianism can be found in the Creed of Nicaea. See Chris Maunder ed. Documents of the Christian Church, (Oxford: Oxford University press), 1999, 27.

[2] Thomas Hopko, Christian Spirituality, Vol. 16. 25 vols. World Spirituality, Edited by John Meyendorff Bernard McGinn, and Jean Leclercq. (New York: Crossroad), 1985, 260.

[3]     John D. Zizioulas, Christian Spirituality, Vol. 16. 25 vols. World Spirituality, Edited by John Meyendorff Bernard McGinn, and Jean Leclercq. (New York: Crossroad), 1985, 32.

[4] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary), 1944. Reprint, 1982, 34.

[5] Charles Kannengiesser, Christian Spirituality, Vol. 16. 25 vols. World Spirituality, Edited by John Meyendorff Bernard McGinn, and Jean Leclercq. (New York: Crossroad), 1985, 64.

[6] Robert Grant, Christian Spirituality, Vol. 16. 25 vols. World Spirituality, Edited by John Meyendorff Bernard McGinn, and Jean Leclercq. (New York: Crossroad), 1985, 45).

[7]  Athanasius, 43.

[8] Cf. Jn 5:19, 30; 7:18; 12:49-50; 14:31

[9] Charles Kannengiesser, Christian Spirituality, 68.

One thought on “Christian Spirituality Pt. 2

  1. […] that drove the actions and overall worldview of the early Christians. You can read Parts 1 and 2 […]

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