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To know Christ is to know the ‘one Lord… through Whom all things came and through Whom we live.’ (1 Cor 8:6). Therefore, without a Christological doctrine of creation, it is not simply that Christ’s work will be incomprehensible, Christ Himself will be blasphemed.
Thus, against the heresies of the sub-Apostolic era, it fell to theologians such as Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 200) and Athanasius (c. 297 – 373) to uphold the continuity of creation and redemption. They were able to do so precisely because, for them, Christ and His work was not a metaphysical conundrum to be solved - how can the Creator-Word become flesh? Instead, the Word-become-flesh was the Rock upon which they built (cf Col 2:8f; John 14:6; Matthew 11:25-27; Colossians 1:15; John 1:18)
Trevor Hart makes this analysis of Irenaeus:
[he made] the person of the Incarnate Son his dogmatic starting point, rather than the dualistic framework provided by the categories of Greek thought.
(T. Hart, ‘Irenaeus, recapitulation and physical redemption’, Christ in Our Place, Ed: Trevor Hart and Daniel Thimell, Paternoster, 1989. p.179)
Athanasius’ starting point is similarly Christocentric:
The first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word who made it in the beginning. (De incarn. 1)
These men were not concerned to hold creation and redemption together in an abstract sense (so as to keep a balanced theological ledger). Rather their commitment to Christ as Beginning and End of all things forced them to think through creation and redemption as the one divine work of the One Divine Word. The Bishops of Lyon and Alexandria were therefore able to maintain the coherence of creation and redemption in Christ and therefore to guard the gospel that still speaks powerfully today into our confusions.
To begin with, we will look at the confusions of their day as the context for their theology.
The early Church was assailed on all sides by those who divorced their understanding of Christ and His work from their understanding of the creator God. Those heresies which were most pernicious were precisely those which insisted on the centrality of Christ to redemption. Yet immediately the question must be raised ‘Redemption from what? And to what? And by Whom?’
The answers given by Marcion (c.80 – c. 160) were disturbing. Christ saves us from the Creator God of the Old Testament who is bad (viz. involvement with creation), capricious, legalistic and not the Father of Jesus. The death of Christ purchases salvation and His soul’s rising from death gives hope for our own soulish afterlife.
The Gnostic, Valentinus (in Rome from c. 136-165), provided Irenaeus with his chief ‘whipping boy’. He taught that the creator is not the Supreme Being but, as Irenaeus caricatures, ‘the fruit of a defect’ existing in a long chain of deity (the pleroma) which kept the created order at a great (almost by definition, unbridgeable) distance. Christ is simply one emanation from this pleroma (lit. 'fullness') as opposed to the One in Whom all the fullness of God dwells (Col 2:9). He came to save the true pneumatikoi (the 'spiritual') from this material world through imparting secret gnosis ('knowledge').
Arius (c. 250 – c. 336), was perhaps the most serious threat to orthodox Christianity because his account of Christ’s saving work was so apparently Scriptural. The ‘what’ of the cross was set forth plainly. Yet the ‘Who’ of the cross proved the decisive error. Arius committed the fundamental mistake outlined in the introduction – that of deciding his doctrines of God, of man and of creation in advance of considering the God-Man Creator. For him, the Divine Being is unitary and without distinctions, must be un-begotten, can have no contact with creation and can never partake in human (i.e. changeable) existence. Of course he could subscribe to none of these views if Christ were his dogmatic foundation. Thus it fell naturally to Athanasius, whose Christocentricity we have noted, to defeat this terrible heresy.
All of these heresies fail, not only on the point of Christ’s identity but also on the goal of His redemption. And such failures have contemporary echoes. If God and the created order are necessarily incompatible then you may have an earthy salvation but not true fellowship with God (think of Islam where paradise is exceedingly carnal but a place from which Allah is conspicuously absent). On the other hand you might have a spiritual future but only by escaping the creation (think of Buddhism or the new age movement). But how do you have both?
You need to affirm what Irenaeus and Athanasius saw so clearly: creation and salvation are part of the one divine work of the one divine Word.