Central to my “Chalcedonian” approach to Christology is the insistence that it is God who becomes human. Positively, from the viewpoint of my cosmological hypothesis, Incarnation is key to satisfying God's unitive aims in creation. Negatively, Divine solidarity is key to the solution of human non-optimality problems: Stage-I defeat requires that it is God who participates in horrors. Both ways identify God as the One of Whom we affirm that He was born of the Virgin Mary; that He walked and talked; spat and touched; ate, drank, and slept; that He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, died, was buried but rose on the third day.
Yet, common sense joins with philosophy and Myth-of-God-Incarnate theologians to press Mary's question: “how can this be?” (Luke 1:34). By way of an answer, I shall outline two accounts of the metaphysics of Christology: one offered by Richard Swinburne in his book The Christian God; and the other inspired by a family of formulations defended by thirteenth- and fourteenth-century medieval Latin school theologians. Like all theories, each has its costs and benefits. My own preference is for the second, but I believe that either is sufficient to rebut the mythographers' charge that the notion of a God-man is unintelligible.
First, a brief reminder of the historical parameters of the discussion is in order. Chalcedon laid it down that
(T1) in Christ there are two distinct natures – one human and one Divine;
(T2) in Christ, there is a real unity of natures in a single person or supposit;
Christ in the hearts of all people
In his monumental Atonement and Personality (1901), R. C. Moberly insists not only that
“[t]he meaning of Incarnation was not exhausted … when Jesus Christ passed away from this visible scene of mortal life,” but also that it is “not more directly” “to be recognized” “in the contemplation of the Presence of the Son of Man in Heaven … than in the recognition of the Presence working here on earth, of the Spirit of the Incarnation and of the Incarnate” in the hearts of all His people.
Moberly and others of his Anglican contemporaries (e.g., Weston, Forsyth, and Temple) were brought to this conviction by a kind of triangulation, this time among systematic desiderata on the one hand, and the testimonies of Scripture and Christian experience on the other.
Systematically, Moberly contends against mere retributivists that “external” transactions will not win Divine–human at-one-ment apart from the “internal” transformation of alienated human beings. He declares that nothing less is necessary than a change in the very meaning and significance of the word “I,” in which we are “translated into the Spirit of the Crucified” in such a way that “[t]he Spirit of the Crucified, the Spirit of Him who died and is alive,” is “the very constituting reality of ourselves.” Like many turn-of-the-twentieth-century British Christologians, Moberly conceives of human non-optimality problems moralistically, beginning with a Kantian paradox about how a righteous God, Whose systematic role is to render to each his/her just deserts, can forgive sinners who don't merit pardon.
Futuristic eschatology promises that, in the life to come, the plot will resolve for everyone: all shall be well, all shall be well, all shall be very well! But what about in the meantime? Horrors, the attendant alienation from self, God, and others, are a heavy cross to bear.
Christianity advertises a God Who wants to help us in the meantime. Traditionally, sacraments are means of grace, liturgical rites through which participants appropriate ante-mortem benefits of the Savior's work. Like birth, baptism is once and for all and acknowledges our adoption as God's children. By contrast, the second sacrament – the Lord's supper, holy eucharist, the sacrament of the altar, the sacrifice of the mass – is oft-repeatable, a rite to which we regularly return throughout our lives, and so a scene of Divine–human relationship development. For horror-participants who have not given up on God altogether, for the wrestling and congregating Church, the second sacrament is particularly promising because it puts horrors front and center. By Christ's own command, its explicit purpose is “to show forth the Lord's death until He comes”: “do this in remembrance of me!” My suggestion is that this makes the second sacrament an apt place for horror-participants to begin to “learn the meanings”: to enter into an ever deeper recognition of how Stage-I horror-defeat is accomplished through Christ's Incarnation and passion, and thereby to take some steps towards Stage-II horror-defeat.
Resurrection, another conditional necessity?
What you think the non-optimality problems are determines what you think it will take for God to solve them. Reflecting on the history of soteriology, Paul Tillich distinguished: for the ancients, death was the problem; for the medievals as for both Protestant and counter-reformers, sin was the problem; for “modern man,” meaning is the problem. In both this and my earlier book, I take a page from Tillich and other neo-orthodox twentieth-century theologians to contend that meaning is the issue and horrors are the problem. I have defined horrors as evils participation in which makes positive meaning prima facie impossible for the participant. Like Tillich, I have seen the meaning-problem as a fundamentally ontological problem, one which underlies and explains our propensity to inauthentic choices and living, to our being and doing the kinds of things that medieval and reformed theology identified as sin (see chapter 2).
Twentieth-century neo-orthodox theologians set about to solve the meaning-problem without solving the death-problem. Either they did not believe that biological death – after bringing each of us to an end – would be overcome and itself be brought to an end; or they did not bring that belief systematically into play. Tillich urged stoic courage to be, held out the hope of new being, of living without anxiety in the face of finitude. Bultmann promised “a new self-understanding” which accepts and moves into the uncertain future that God will provide.
Christ comes as Savior to solve our non-optimality problems. Like Anselm, I have argued that it takes a God-man to do the job. Like Anselm, I want my Christology to be normed by the so-called Chalcedonian definition, negotiated in 451 BCE. Sarah Coakley translates as follows:
Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all with one voice teach that it should be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, the Same perfect in Godhead, the Same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the Same [consisting] of a rational soul and a body; homoousios with the Father as to his Godhead, and the Same homoousios with us as to his manhood; in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of the Father before ages as to his Godhead, and in the last days, the Same, for us and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to his manhood; One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only begotten, made known in two natures [which exist] without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the difference of the natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved, and [both] concurring into one Person (prosopon) and one hypostasis – not parted or divided into two persons (prosopa), but one and the same Son and Only-begotten, the divine Logos, the Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from of old [have spoken] concerning him, as the Lord Jesus Christ has taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers has delivered to us.
Christ, the One in Whom all things hold together
The letter to the Colossians celebrates the preeminence (later dubbed the “primacy”) of Christ as a surprising fact of startling scope. Christ is the image of the invisible God. Christ is the first-born of all creation. Christ is before the One in Whom and through Whom and for Whom all things were created – things in heaven and things on earth, things visible and invisible. Christ is before all things, and Christ is the One in Whom all things hold together. Moreover, Christ is the One in Whom the whole fullness of God dwells bodily. Christ is the One in Whom God triumphs over the principalities and powers and makes a public example of them. Christ is the first-born from the dead. Christ is the One through Whom God reconciles all things to Himself, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross. Consequently, Christ is the head of the body, the Church, the One through Whom the whole body is nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, and grows with a growth that is from God. Christ is the One in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Christ is the One in Whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.
Rubrics, manifold and shifting
Good theories exhibit elegant simplicity by virtue of having one (type of) explanatory posit do many different jobs and thereby occupy a variety of theoretical roles. In patristic and medieval Latin school theology, God is taken to be the ultimate explainer of both the being and the goodness of everything. Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas add truth to the list of what needs to be explained; following Aristotle, Aquinas identifies God as the unmoved mover, the first efficient cause of any and every change. In the order of discovery, Christology begins with another set of explananda – with the fact that the human condition generally and Divine–human relations in particular are non-optimal. It attempts to analyze their nature, to trace their source, and to identify their remedy. Christian soteriology (which probes how we are to be saved from what ails us) concludes that God was in Christ exercising the Savior's role.
Beginning with the Bible, Christian tradition has conceptualized these twin non-optimalities in different, contrasting, and complementary ways. (1) In terms of purity versus defilement: The God of Leviticus declares, “You must be holy as I am holy!” (Leviticus 2:19). But humans are unclean, defiled. Christ is both priest and victim, the one pure sacrifice offered for us once and for all on the cross, that spotless oblation presented daily on that altar eternal in the heavens.
In my earlier book, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, I registered my discontent with standard “big-picture” and “free-will” theodicies. Not only do they not do justice to the very worst evils – the ones I identified as “horrendous.” I argued that, where horrors are concerned, no solution within the confines of a religion-neutral value-theory is possible. By contrast, a range of options opens up if one turns to the wider resources of Christian theology. One methodological moral of my story was that, in explaining how Christian faith can be coherent, Christian philosophers should not act as if Christian beliefs sum to “restricted-standard theism” – the claim that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good God. Instead, Christian philosophers should bring the richer and more nuanced doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, and atonement into play.
My own wrestlings with evil convinced me that, while sin and horrors are both problems, horrors are the more fundamental problem. My opening question in this book is: what does Christology look like, if rescuing the world from horrendous evils is the Savior's principal job? Where Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God urged philosophers to be more theological, Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology invites theologians to define the soteriological problem in a philosophical way. I myself am committed to this approach and its consequences. Naturally, I hope my arguments will convince many readers.
My topic is Christology; my thesis, the coherence of Christology; my theme, Christ as the One in Whom all things hold together. Metaphysically, Christ is the center both of Godhead and cosmos. Existentially, Christ is the integrator of individual positive personal meaning; psychologically, our inner teacher; body-politically, the organizer of Godward community. Christ saves us by virtue of being real and really present: Emmanuel, God with us, sharing our human condition; ascended to His most glorious throne in heaven at God's right hand; in the most blessed sacrament of the altar; and in the hearts of all His faithful people. Switching from object- to metalanguage, from the order of reality to the order of theory, turn-of-the-twentieth-century Anglicans declare that Christology is the centerpiece of systematic theology, that which integrates the creed, that from which we reason up to the Trinity, down to creation, out through the Church to the world. My own conviction is that they got this substantially right. Thus, in arguing for the coherence of Christology, I will take the coherence of theism for granted. But I will not treat Christology as an optional supplement to generic – what philosophers of religion often call “restricted-standard” – theism. My contention is that, because of its explanatory power, Christology has an integrating force of its own.
In the order of discovery, my argument begins with soteriology: with the fact that the human condition generally and Divine–human relations in particular are non-optimal.
Horrors threaten to ruin human lives. Horror–participation strains Divine–human relations to the breaking point. Cult condenses cosmos, becomes a focal scene of Divine–human relationship development. It is a scene of close encounters: even if God is supposed to be everywhere, Divine presence and influence certainly not confined to temple precincts, there is still the notion that by coming to the holy place one is drawing near to God. Cult is a scene of obstacle-removals: most notably, cult defines the etiquette that allows humans and divinities to share the same social space, furnishes ritual remedies by means of which offenses and disabling conditions can be recontextualized and removed. Cult is a scene of covenant-making, of covenant-renewal, and of payment of vows. It is also a scene of thanks and praise, of celebration and consummation.
In the Bible, patriarchal religion linked theophany with cereal and animal sacrifice. Tabernacle, shrine, and temple focussed worship in sacrificial rites, and codified elaborate rules and regulations as to who, what, when, where, how, and why. Nor was this an Israelite invention. Sacrificial emphasis was widely taken for granted and crossculturally shared. Nor was this a fleeting cultural phenomenon. Despite critiques, sacrificial cult – including the offering of animals – remained entrenched in majority-report religion in the Roman empire until Constantine. Christians and Jews (after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE) stood alone in refusing any longer to participate in the sacrifice of bulls and goats, birds and lambs.
No clear meaning?
A God-man can't have explanatory value without being logically or metaphysically possible. Embracing Chalcedon – the claim that in Christ there is one person but two (Divine and human) natures – medieval theologians recognized that explanations would be needed; “faith seeking understanding” shouldered the task of philosophical articulation. Already Boethius, in his theological treatises, draws on Aristotelian metaphysics to define “person” as “an individual substance of a rational nature.” Although in Cur Deus Homo Anselm recognized Incarnation to be one of the most difficult mysteries, he struggled through succeeding drafts of his Epistola de Incarnatione Verbi to offer an intelligible account that gets it (at least superficially) right. In the twelfth century, Peter Lombard took on the issue in Book III of his Sentences. Following Lombard's syllabus, the school theology of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries raised the standard of debate to a high level of philosophical sophistication, and spawned not one, but a whole family of attempts to modify Aristotelian metaphysics to accommodate the datum of a God-man. Thus, it is prima facie surprising to find 1970s Myth-of-God-Incarnate authors – most notably, John Hick, Maurice Wiles, and Don Cupitt – rendering the verdict that Christian theological tradition has never assigned the Chalcedonian definition any clear meaning.
Yet this declaration does not come out of nowhere. The way to it was paved by the previous century of British Christological thinking.
When contemporary philosophers probe the relation between faith and reason, their focus is on the propositional content of religious belief. They ask whether doctrinal propositions can be proved by sound arguments from premises acceptable to unbelievers, or, failing that, whether adherence to such theses can be rationally justified. Christian philosophers often see themselves as responding to pressure from the outside to defend the rationality of Christian faith. In the waning years of the Roman empire, St. Augustine, too, was preoccupied with defending the faith, first externally, against its pagan competitors (not only but principally the Manichaeans); then against heretics (Donatists and Pelagians) within.
St. Anselm’s eleventh-century situation was different from both of these. He spent most of his life in the Benedictine Monastery at Bec. Most of his works were penned for and at the behest of his monastic brother-students. Their overarching common aim was to become persons who could see and enjoy God’s face. Their intellectual pursuits were integrated into that project. Anselm’s written investigations of non-theological subjects were all occasioned by the exigencies of their doctrinal inquiries. These facts about Anselm’s career have left deep imprints on his philosophical theology, not least on his method. If he was eventually drawn into polemical contexts and confronted with real non-Christians, Anselm continued to see the drive to understand Christian faith by reason alone (sola ratione) as predominantly internal, arising not simply from his own monastic vocation, but from the natural teleology built into human nature itself.
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