Sunday, February 28, 2010

Christos angelos? (better than the angels, 1 of 5)

...having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they (Hebrews 1:4)

After having introduced us to the Person and Work of Christ, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews now turns to clarifying the supremacy of Jesus over the angels. From this point in chapter 1 up through chapter 2, the writer presents Christ as "better than" the angels in two ways: as Son of God and as Son of Man. So, in these chapters we see displayed both Christ's divinity and humanity without diminishing the integrity of His Person. Jesus Christ, the eternal Word, the only begotten God, and the firstborn of all creation, discloses to us what would be later termed by St. Athanasius the hypostatic union: the perfect unity of two natures in one Person.

Because of Christ's uniqueness as both fully God and fully human, we are presented with a seeming paradox that we often attempt to resolve by either denying or belittling one part of who Jesus is. For example, we have mentioned before that God is ontologically distinct, that is, different by His nature, from anything else that is. And, since God both exists by Himself eternally and caused everthing else that is to exist, we can consider a categorical distinction to hold between that-which-is-Creator and that-which-is-created. This sounds clean and neat so far: God caused to exists and is distinct by His nature from anything else, including angels, humans, animals, plants, etc. However, if we claim that Jesus is both fully God and fully human, this appears to pose a problem for our simple categorization. How can Jesus simultaneously belong to both that-which-is-Creator and that-which-is-created?

The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews begins to answer this question in the first four verses of chapter 1 by declaring straighforwardly the reality of Jesus' Person, which we have discussed beforehand (see, for example, this post). Throughout the epistle, the author develops a high Christology without ever denying or diminishing Christ's humanity or His deity, thus maintaining a line of thought consistent with the concept of hypostatic union. Still, beyond just declaring the truth of Jesus' nature, the author explicates for us in various ways why Jesus cannot be considered either God or human in the sense of an either/or dichotomy. The first way in which this is achieved is by comparing Jesus to the angels.

There are, I believe, at least two significant reasons for such a comparison. The first is that Scripture reveals of angels that they are personal beings who are different than humans. They are presented as mighty, powerful, and awe-inspiring beings who are often sent by God as messengers to humanity or, perhaps, mediators between God and humanity. The second reason is that Scripture reveals of Christ that He is clearly more than human, as was witnessed and testified by those who knew Him while on the earth both before and after His resurrection from the dead.

So, perhaps our human reasoning may proceed like this: 1) angels appear to be "greater" than human beings, 2) Jesus is also evidently "greater" than humans, as well (after all, He walked on water [Matthew 14:25-26], calmed stormy seas [Mark 4:36-41], was transfigured before Peter, James, and John [Matthew 17:1-2; 2 Peter 1:17-18], raised Lazarus from the dead [John 11:1-44], mystically appeared in in the midst of His disciples after His death and resurrection [Luke 24:33-37], and ascended into heaven in the sight of some of His disciples [Acts 1:6-10]), 3) therefore, Jesus must belong to the angelic realm, since there is only one God. Though this type of reasoning might seem sensible at first glance, the writer of Hebrews stresses that this is neither consistent with the reality of Christ's Person nor consistent with the reality God's Person (who is indeed One, though Three). Reading on in Hebrews we find manifold reasons to uphold the validity of the hypostatic union. At present however, the writer singles out angels in comparison to Christ in order to conclude that Jesus is better because He is the Son of God (Hebrews 1:5), because He is worthy of worship (1:6), because He is the eternal King (1:7-9), and because He is the omnipotent and immutable Creator (1:10-12).

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