Feast of the Holy Martyr Agathonicus
THEY HAVE not seen the stars,” speaks Ray Bradbury of the non-human creation in his poem of the same name (They Have Not Seen the Stars: The Collected Poems of Ray Bradbury, 259-60). Of all the creatures in the world, humanity is privileged to know what it is seeing, to give voice to mute creation. So also, patristic and Orthodox theologies speak frequently of humanity as the priest of creation. What if we consider Christ in His humanity as the priest of creation in terms of T. F. Torrance’s doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ? For Torrance, it is not simply the death of Christ that is vicarious, on our behalf and in our place, but the entirety of His life is atoning, His vicarious humanity that intercedes for us. Intercession is needed because “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom. 8.26). Intercession is not just an act of divine fiat but that which God takes from the side of our human nature, knowing our inability, in Jesus’ vicarious faith, obedience, service, and prayer. This is God living a life of advocacy for us (T. F. Torrance, Atonement, 275). Such advocacy is that which reflects the Trinitarian relationship of the Son before the Father, as the Son takes upon our human nature as our worship and prayer before God in both substitutionary and representative ways, recognizing our total need. As Torrance remarks, “That identification is so profound that through the Spirit Christ’s prayers and intercessions are made to echo in our own, and there is no disentangling of them from our weak and stammering and altogether unworthy acts of devotion” (Ibid.). Barth reminds us to keep our eyes on Christ who prayed for us on the cross, not on our abilities to pray (A Karl Barth Reader, 104). It is also a life of an eternal offering before the face of the Father, of which the incarnate life and obedience unto death is a mirror (T. F. Torrance, Atonement, 115). Offering is a part of the continuous intercession. “The offering is itself a continuous intercession: the continuous intercession implies the offering is a present thing” (Ibid.). As such there is a fusion between His divine and human life, a continuing life of Jesus Christ that lives before us, and all of creation, always. The advocacy of Christ has ontological content in the vicarious life of Christ and our union with Him.
Key to the continuing life of Christ in our midst are the pictures of Jesus praying in Gethsemane, the Last Supper, the High Priestly prayer of John 17, and, of course, the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ‘overhear’ Christ pray so that He, in turn, may place these prayers in our mouths, not just as representative, but as substitute for our desperate neediness in prayer: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk. 11.1; ibid., 117).
Not least among these priestly ministerings of Christ is His benediction, His blessings, most of all, in the Holy Spirit, the blessing of the ascended Christ (Acts 1.5; 2.33), recalling Melchizedek’s blessing of Abraham (Gn. 14.19, 20) and the Aaronic blessing of God’s people (Num. 6.24-26). “He ascended in order to fill all things with His person and bestow gifts of the Spirit upon men” (T. F. Torrance, Atonement, 118).
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The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of “Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf,” who has entered the sanctuary of the temple, “having become a high priest” (6.20). This priesthood lasts forever, so “He is able for all time to save those who approach God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (7.24-25). “Holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7.26), yet He was “like His brothers and sisters in every respect” (2.14), one who can sympathize with our weaknesses (4.15). This priest is the Son (7.27-28), whose “more excellent ministry” than Moses is “the mediator of a better covenant” (8.1-6). In the ‘high priestly’ prayer of Jesus in John 17, Jesus prays, “I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth” (Jn. 17.19), the One for the Many. There is no other sanctification apart from the sanctification of the Son. So there is no other human response apart from the human response of the Son. Therefore, Torrance can say, “Jesus Christ is our human response to God. Thus we appear before God and are accepted by Him as those who are inseparably united to Jesus Christ our great High Priest in His eternal presentation to the Father” (T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 80). As the one genuine human response, He “thereby invalidates all other ways of response” (T. F. Torrance, “The Word of God and the Response of Man,” 145). Hence, the command to participate in the response of Jesus, to follow Him, is in union with Him, “one derived from, grounded in, and shaped by the very humanity of the Word which originally gave Him being as man and continues to sustain Him in His human nature and spontaneity before God as well as in His engagement in the world of things and persons to which He belongs,” that is, creation (Ibid.). He is the priest of creation, including human beings.
“Like His brothers in every respect”! How far is this true? Is He really the priest that Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance speak of, that even assumed fallen human nature, who reconciled even the human mind, in contrast to much of ‘evangelical’ and religious rationalism of all ages (T. F. Torrance, “Epilogue: The Reconciliation of Mind,” Atonement, 440-47)? How far then did God identify with His creation, in all of its “groanings” (Rom. 8.23)? For only in plunging into the depths of the alienation of creation itself will there be its salvation. God’s grace in creation will be His willingness to ‘get dirty’ with His creation run amuck.
The challenge of possible ecological disaster and the problem of human culpability is rarely related to Christology. Regardless of the debates about the extent of human responsibility, for example, of global warming, no one would deny the fact that human beings, including human sin, affect the wider world around us, socially, physically, and spiritually. Often we are left with a social ethic that either restricts creation to a question of origins (on the right) or that all problems in nature can be solved by human ingenuity (on the left). We will not give answers to those questions here. But perhaps we can give a ‘prolegomenon’ to a theology of nature based on a christological view of creation. Can we speak of Christ, the vicarious priest of creation, who can lead us to a better way? From a Christian perspective, does Jesus know something about creation that we do not? Is it significant, therefore, to speak of Christ as the vicarious priest of creation?
Three theses are presented here [in the rest of this essay in Kettler, The Breadth and Depth of the Atonement: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ in the Church, the World, and the Self – Essays, 1990-2015, available from Eighth Day Books]. Christ the vicarious priest of creation is: 1) the one obedient hearing human of the word of God, with perfect trust, joy, and worship (Lk. 10.21); 2) the intersection between creation and redemption; and 3) the affirmation of creation, yet maintaining its distinction from God.
*The Breadth and Depth of the Atonement: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ in the Church, the World, and the Self - Essays, 1990-2015 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 66-69. Available for purchase at Eighth Day Books...give them a call at 1.800.841.2541.
Christian D. Kettler is Professor of Theology and Religion at Friends University. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and preaches regularly at the Church of the Savior. He lives in Wichita, KS and is owned by two Siamese cats, Linus and Lucy.
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