When contemporary theologians want to form judgments about social and political matters they often turn immediately to the trinity for guidance. Rather than Christology, a theology of the trinity is enlisted to support particular kinds of human community – say, egalitarian, inclusive communities, in which differences are respected – or to counter modern individualism by greater regard for the way personal character is shaped in community. What the trinity is like is thought to establish how human societies should be organized; the trinity is taken to be the best indicator of the proper relationship between individual and community; and so on. Jürgen Moltmann, John Zizioulas, Miroslav Volf, Leonardo Boff, and Catherine LaCugna are all important names in this regard.
Theological judgments here can seem very easy and clear-cut. For example, if the persons of the trinity are equal to one another, then human beings should be too. Figuring out the socio-political lessons of the trinity is a fraught task, however. This chapter systematically explores the complexities and perils of the attempt, and concludes it would be better to steer attention away from trinitarian relations when making judgments about the proper character of human ones in Christian terms. Christology (specifically, a discussion of the character of Jesus' relationships with other people) is the better avenue for making such judgments: it is less misleading, far simpler, and much more direct.
This could seem an unexpected turn on my part.
This book is the promised sequel to my brief systematic theology, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity. The central theological vision of both books is the same: God wants to give us the fullness of God's own life through the closest possible relationship with us as that comes to completion in Christ. In the incarnation one finds the immediate convergence of the most disparate things – God and humanity suffering under the weight of sin and death – as the means by which the goods of God's own life are to be conveyed to us in fulfillment of God's original intentions for us.
The first book developed the basic import of this Christ-centered theological vision by showing how it could be productively used to talk about almost anything of Christian interest in an integrated way. By carrying it through a number of different topics and thereby interconnecting them, my intent was to give readers a general sense of this overall vision and sufficient confidence about its fruitfulness to employ it themselves, if they so chose, on topics the book either did not raise or fully explore. The present book takes the heart of that theological vision – Christ – and shows in less systematic fashion how this understanding of Christ throws fresh light on otherwise tired theological topics and opens up new avenues for approaching them by breaking through current impasses in the theological literature.
What light might be thrown on the well-worn idea that humans are created in the image of God, if Christ were the key to understanding it? Theological treatments of the topic often concentrate on human nature in and of itself, in the effort to specify some set of well defined and neatly bounded characteristics that both make humans like God and clearly distinguish them from other creatures. Humans are created in the image of God, as the Genesis verses say, because unlike other creatures they have reason, free will, or the ability to rule over others as God does. In contrast to these theological tendencies, I show that a Christ-centered treatment of our creation in the image of God turns attention initially away from the human altogether; and when attention returns to the human what is of theological interest about it is its lack of given definition, malleability through outside influences, unbounded character, and general openness to radical transformation. A whole Christ-centered account of humanity, from creation to salvation, we shall see, might be fruitfully developed on this basis.
What humans are thought to image – God, the trinity, or the Word – determines in great part whether theologians focus primarily on human nature in and of itself as the image of God. When human beings are thought to image God generally, without, that is, the need for any further trinitarian specification of who or what God is, general human characteristics tend to be identified with the image of God.
Christ is the key, we have seen, to human nature, and to the sort of grace human nature was made to enjoy. But Christ is also the key, I want to show now, to the trinity and its significance for us. Christ is the key to understanding this second set of topics because of the peculiar character of the human life he leads. Because he is the Word, Jesus Christ displays in his human life the relationships that the Word has to the other members of the trinity; as a human being he leads, in short, a trinitarian way of life.
The life of the Word is constituted by its dynamic relationships with the other members of the trinity from which it is inseparable; the Word has no life apart from the other two. In becoming incarnate the Word therefore extends this same pattern of trinitarian relationships into its own human life so as to give it shape according to that pattern. The description of Jesus' human life, which the New Testament offers, becomes in this way the basis for understanding both what the relationships within the trinity are like and what they are to mean for us as new organizing principles of human living.
This meaning of the trinity for us brings the discussion of previous chapters to its appropriate next step. Although the preoccupations of earlier chapters might seem to have nothing to do with the present one, they lead into it.
This final chapter explores the split or bifurcated understanding of how the Spirit works that is typical of modern Christian thought and practice. On the one side of this split (perhaps the dominant side in modern times), the Spirit is thought to work immediately – both instantaneously and directly, without any obvious mediating forms – in exceptional events, rather than in the ordinary run of human affairs, upon the interior depths of individual persons, apart from the operation of their own faculties, in ways that ensure moral probity and infallible certainty of religious insight. On the other side of the split, the Spirit is thought to work gradually, and without final resolution, in and through the usual fully human and fully fallible, often messy and conflict-ridden public processes of give and take in ordinary life. On this second view, the Spirit does not begin to work where ordinary sorts of human operation come to an end. To the contrary, the Spirit works through the whole of those ordinary human operations, in and over their gradual and apparently meandering course, to surprising, indeed unpredictable, effect. The one side stresses, then, immediacy, interiority, privacy, singularity, and the bypassing of the fallibility and sinful corruption of the human in both the Spirit's operations and effects; the other side, historical process, mediation, publicity, surprise within the course of the commonplace, and the ability of the Spirit to make do with the fallibility, corruption, and confusions of human life for its own purposes.
The final issue about grace is one that I would like to discuss in some detail. It concerns how to resolve a set of problems that often arises in contemporary Catholic thinking about the relationship between nature and grace when human nature is taken to be itself directed or oriented to grace. Because my own account makes grace central to human life, it raises these same problems. They concern the free character of grace and the integrity of human nature.
If God had created humans in a way that allowed them to exist entirely apart from grace by giving them a nature that made no reference to it, there would be no trouble recognizing the free or gratuitous character of God's grace. God's grace in that case offers something over and above what we are by nature, a whole new layer or tier of gifts that our nature neither requires nor gives us any particular reason to expect. For the same reason, the integrity of human life, its dignity and value, would also be easy to see apart from the gift of grace. However wonderful, grace would come as a supplement to a nature complete on its own terms and esteemed in unqualified fashion for its created goodness.
Indeed, in order to show that God's grace is not owed to us and that human life without it is still something to be appreciated, Catholic theologians in the early modern period increasingly posited a “pure” human nature, meaning by that human nature with a self-contained and self-sufficient character apart from God's grace.
With an eye to Christ, who is both the model for and means to our becoming the image of God, we saw in the last chapter that humans primarily image God by attachment to the divine image itself, an attachment that forms human life according to its pattern. Through the power of the Holy Spirit within them, humans are molded by the very impression of the divine image to become human versions of it. This Christ-centered treatment of the way humans image God contained implicitly an account of grace. We become images in the strongest fashion in being bound in Christ to what we are not, the second person of the trinity, and by having what we are not, the Holy Spirit, within us as the power for new life according to that divine image. The strong sense here in which we participate or share in what we are not could simply be called grace.
In this chapter (and the next) I make this account of grace explicit by developing the way it accords quite well with Protestant sensibilities while bridging the usual theological divides between Protestants and Catholics. Despite the fact that early church sources formed the underpinning for the treatment of the way humans image God in the last chapter, the Protestant resonances of what that treatment implies about grace are nevertheless very strong.
Serious attention to the incarnation enables one to revise traditional descriptions and explanations of the saving significance of the cross so as to do justice to the criticisms that feminist and womanist theologians rightfully lodge against classical atonement theories. This is among the more controversial claims to be found in my Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity. I expand upon the argument now, and show how it provides a nuanced and subtle reworking of classical images for the cross – the primary test case for my purposes here being images of sacrifice.
Reflecting to some extent theological differences about the nature of sin and salvation as well as the complexity of the event itself on a Christian understanding of it (for example, this event involves both God and humanity in Jesus' person, and both Jesus' sinless humanity and the acts of sinners against him), descriptions of what is happening on the cross are notoriously diverse among the followers of Jesus, beginning at least with the New Testament. The cross is the final expression of God's wrathful condemnation of sin, the place where sin, and the suffering and death it entails, are borne by Christ and put to death, destroyed. The cross is the ultimate expression of God's loving choice to be with sinners, in all the sufferings of a spiritual and physical sort that burden human life in its sinful condition.
Barth's treatment of creation and providence in the Church Dogmatics is notable for its effort to make those doctrines distinctively Christian, meaning by that doctrines that reflect the centrality of Jesus Christ for understanding God and world. The methodological and substantive effects of such a project on the doctrines of creation and providence are the focus of this chapter.
First and most obviously, the attempt to make creation and providence Christian doctrines is part of Barth's attack on natural theology. One should turn to Jesus Christ for one's understanding of a world created and ruled by God rather than draw conclusions about such matters from more general observation of the world and its natural and historical processes. One should not, then, assume that the world exists and search for its cause; this way leads to the philosopher’s God, the Creator as world-cause (CD III/1, pp. 6, 11). Nor should one form conclusions about the point or direction of God’s rule over the universe – about the providential arrangement of things – by following the lines of observable trajectories of historical events (CD III/3, pp. 20–3). Both ways of proceeding subordinate understanding of God for us in Jesus Christ to what one supposedly knows on independent grounds about God’s creation and rule of the world, rather than the other way round.
Not all Christian theologies are overtly christocentric; they do not all make Jesus Christ the focal point for their exposition of theological topics. But Jesus Christ is arguably the centrepiece of every Christian theology in so far as beliefs in and about him mark with special clarity the distinctiveness of a Christian religious perspective and have an impact, whether it is a matter for explicit theological notice or not, on an exceptionally wide range of other issues - for example, the Trinity, human nature and its problems, sacraments, church, God's relation to the world and the character of Christian responsibility.
The early church in its ecumenical creeds laboured to establish guidelines for theological discussion concerning the nature of Christ's person and his relation to God. The creed of Nicaea affirmed the full divinity of Christ and the Council of Chalcedon strove to resolve problems that this affirmation of Christ's divinity posed for an understanding of Christ's person: a terminological distinction between 'nature' and 'hypostasis' was enlisted in an effort to clarify the proper way to speak of the very same one, Jesus Christ, who is both divine and human.
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