Thursday, May 05, 2016

All Christologians Got a Place in the Choir: Some Sing "Lower," Some Sing "Higher"

English arguably has few advantages over German for theological expression. From the grammatical subtlety of inflected nouns to words that are just plain...well...long -- as befits a nuanced and profound Erkenntnistheoretischen -- the Teutons have us beat. With one crucial exception: In German all nouns are capitalized, whereas in English proper nouns begin with capitals and common nouns start with lowercase letters.

So what? you ask. (I like our DET readers: Y'all don't just click and share info because it pops up on your computers screens. Y'all want to know why).
Well, the payoff for the lowercase/uppercase distinction, for Christian theologians, is that it helps us illustrate what is, perhaps, the central issue in Christology: Is Jesus of Nazareth a mere human being, or is he also divine -- the eternal Son of God incarnate in the flesh? In his classic Philosophical Fragments, Søren Kierkegaard, writing under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, frames the uniqueness of the Savior with a capital letter: Whereas Socrates teaches small-t truth, a teaching in principle distinguishable from its human messenger, Jesus Christ brings large-T Truth, because he just is the Truth; thus, for S.K., the Truth Christ brings cannot be abstracted from his inner being and character.

(Though I don't read Danish, I reckon from this example it must more closely resemble English than German, at least in terms of capitalization. Unfortunately, the allure of reading S.K. in the original proved insufficient to motivate me to learn the language for myself. "Ah," a schoolmate once reminded me, "but learning Danish will open up to you the world of Ibsen." Quite. Tatsächlich.)

(A quick perusal of my copy of Philosophical Fragments, well-marked up but a bit dusty, suggests S.K. might not have expressed himself in precisely the terms I have above -- particularly the issue about capitalization. S.K. scholars: Please roll with us. We're on a tight deadline here! At any rate, I hope the gist of what I offer here might be deemed, at least, to be within the esprit de Kierkegaard -- that is, within the capital-S Spirit, if not the lowercase-l letter.)

Put another way, as a grad school classmate reportedly groused during a seminar: "There is no small-i incarnation!" The entry of the Son of God into a fully human life is sui generis, and its Subject uniquely divine. We are not, each of us, receptacles containing particles of divinity. We are not divine stardust. Not even David Bowie was. He was just the garden variety sort of stardust.

Furthermore, to invoke another binary -- I like to irk postmodernists by invoking as many of them as possible -- the divide between a low and a high Christology is ineluctable; a fundamental decision is required here. A priest friend of mine once quipped, "Jesus is divine, just as a sunset is divine." On the contrary, I retort: Jesus is divine -- better Divine -- as the second person of the Trinity. To the extent the sunset is divine too, it is derivative; as a prop in the theater of Christ's eternal glory, a mere reflection of that Glory -- at best small-d divine.

In a very fine blog post, J.R. Daniel Kirk defines "low Christology" nicely:

When I use this phrase what I mean is that the person or text in question sees Jesus as Messiah, as Christ, as specially empowered by God to act in God’s name, as specially anointed by the Spirit to work deeds of power over the entire created order–and that the document or person does not simultaneously depict Jesus as preexistent or otherwise divine. That is to say, its understanding of Jesus is a unique human.

Just so. Only, perhaps as a trained New Testament scholar, Kirk has in mind the ancient Ebionites, early Jewish Christians who affirmed Jesus as human Messiah and wonder-worker. Our low-c christologians today tend to be more post-Enlightenment in their thinking. Think, for example, of a deist like Lord Herbert of Cherbury, for whom Christ is subsumed within the universal religion of reason; of an Immanuel Kant, for whom Jesus is at best an exemplar of a universal, categorical moral ideal; of a John Hick, for whom the incarnation serves as a metaphor for a religious experience of transcendence available in principle to any one at any time.

If one follows this path, one might do well to ponder the rigorous consistency of Thomas Jefferson, who excised all supernatural claims in the Gospels to craft a portrait of Jesus as the itinerant teacher who traverses the grainy hills of Galilee dispensing enlightened bon mots upon anyone with ears to hear. (Sorry, but sometimes a French expression is more apropos than a rough equivalent in English. Or perhaps you think I'm just showing off -- if not my own language skills, at the very least my facility with Google translate. Touché.) Thus, low Christologies have abounded, especially in modern times, though they often go by other names -- i.e., "spirit christologies" (though that's a can of worms I'll save for some other times).

On the other side, in what used to be considered the mainstream of Christian thought, many key texts articulate and defend (if that's even possible) a high Christology, stressing the doctrine of the Incarnation as the linchpin for Christian soteriology, ethics, and even perhaps the doctrine of God itself: Athansius' On the Incarnation and Anselm's Why God Became Human, are classics in this genre, along with conciliar statements from Nicea to Chalcedon and, perhaps, beyond. For my money, though, the best text exemplifying this commitment is the New Testament itself. But I'm not going to proof-text you here.

Kierkegaard refused to mess
with Mr. In-Between
Now, lest you think I'm denigrating anyone holding a low christology -- or even no christology at all, per se -- let me say that any serious effort to put Jesus' ideas, even just a few of them, into actual practice propels one far beyond the tepid, lowercase-d discipleship that characterizes the conformist lives of millions of Christians, myself included. Perhaps the moral exertion involved in trying to follow Jesus' teachings, even if it issues in frustration, can be a propaedeutic (that's propædeutiske in Danish) for receiving the Gospel. Wait: I forgot I'm Reformed and a Barthian and am not supposed to believe that, exactly. Let's re-frame it in a more Kierkegardian vein: The Christian life, even if not attainable in this life, is not to be taken for granted, and it's salutary to be reminded of this when many who would never darken the door of a church are making a better stab at living a good life than many on the inside.

And yet, despite such caveats, I'm still left with with the stark decision forced by the Lord's vexing question at Caesaria-Philippi: "Who do you say that I am?" For my part -- perhaps your story is different -- but by my lights, a little-c christianity with multiple little-i incarnations just doesn't hold together very well. Those of us who think the doctrine of the Incarnation is crucial for the veracity and viability of the Christian faith -- not to mention the vibrancy of the Christmas-card industry -- having a neat (if facile) linguistic convention to emphasize the need for a high Christology seems, well, apt, (angemessen).

Perhaps I'm painting the picture too black and white, succumbing to a false dichotomy in doctrine. Doubtless some of the Aristotelian Golden Meanies out there -- the majority of whom, admittedly, tend to read blogs other than this one -- might desire some sort of Christological middle way (or, to use the king's English, via media). This desire is perhaps analogous to the plight of the beleaguered voter in the U.S. Presidential primaries seeking in vain for a centrist candidate between the liberal Democrat (Bernie Sanders) and the conservative Republican (Hillary Clinton).

Might there be a "middle c" Christology, lying somewhere between the old-school Incarnation dogmas of the past and the more deflationary accounts portraying Jesus as a mere mortal? Stay tuned: Next time I will consider an alternative.



Matthew Frost said...

Barth (though perhaps not McCormack) would say that Jesus is not merely divine as the second person of the Trinity, one among the three, God in a subordinate sense; but rather as the very character of God. This is the entire thrust of section 57.2 in IV.1, "The Covenant as the Presupposition of Reconciliation," which builds on election and creation together to declare God consistently and directly at work—rather than a person of the Trinity at work, or God at work through a subordinate. The only modification is that this is work God does directly as incarnate. Jesus Christ is "God's own being and acting and speaking as man" (36). It is God, our "living Creator and Lord" who "gives and preserves to this human creature [its] human life in all the plenitude and with all the limitations of its particular possibilities," and who thus "is to [us] a faithful and watchful Father" (37), who becomes and is Jesus Christ for us.

I'd call that the highest possible Christology, in which the very real communion among the persons is not a question of difference or separability among them, but strictly of the relations of origin in the self-originating transformations of God's being in and across eternity. Jesus Christ is God, and no other; God is Jesus Christ with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And God does not stop being Jesus Christ when that slice of providential history allotted to his mortal life is past or future; that's not how eternity works, and it's modalism besides. The problem that arises is how to describe God eternally being Jesus Christ when Jesus isn't (yet/any longer) alive. Which we make into the problem of God always having been Jesus Christ, but only temporarily as incarnate, because we have a problem with imagining eternity.

Much as I agree with the effort to write out the logos asarkos from Christology, the way to do it seems to be to remember that the logos outwith the flesh is what we mean by the person of the Father, and not a division of the pre-existent and eternally separate Son, because these two are one and the same God at work. It isn't the second person who becomes incarnate, for Barth, as though there were a first person who is other than this one; but rather the incarnate one who is the second person, and who may be spoken of as to-be-incarnated throughout the entire history in which he is not-yet-incarnated—which is a historical perspective on eternity, with all the distortions that entails.

(And if that's not a gauntlet drop, I'm not sure what is, but I'm doing a lot of these lately.)

Matthew Frost said...

To get closer to your post, Scott, I'm not sure treating "high" and "low" as singular notional paths, between which there might be a third way, is representative of the range of the field/tradition on Christology. Better-defined endpoints in terms of maximalist and minimalist (or non-)divinity would suggest a whole range of middle positions defined in terms of how united Jesus is with God in a given theology, possibly with extra dimensions for the manner of that unity/differentiation.

Matthew Frost said...

And there are definitely "high" Christologies that are maximalist in terms of the role of the Messiah, like in Hebrews, while remaining moderate in terms of his union with God.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Bring it. :-)

Your points take us into territory that go way beyond the scope of the original post, but so be it. I will take a stab at addressing some of these issues.

1.) On the contrary, Barth does preserve subordination of the Son to the Father, in a certain sense -- I believe the relevant passages are in par. 59, but I don't have my books at hand at the moment. He also has a rational for why this move doesn't constitute subordinationISM, in the classic sense. The position can be defended, but I do find Barth's position here somewhat worrisome and, at any rate, would not go to the mat to defend him on this.

2.) There's nothing "mere" about asserting Jesus' divinity as the second person of the Trinity, it seems to me and your reformulation of Jesus' identity "as the very character of God," while certainly unobjectionable, doesn't add anything to my original phrase, aside maybe from being more rhetorically compelling. The divine being is one, for Barth, and the dignity of the "persons" is indivisible. So there is no partitioning of the divine essence or identity.

3.) Barth prefers to refer to each person as a "mode of being" (Seinsweissen), to counter any hint of tritheism that might seem implied by modern notions of the personal subject. This is not "modalism," but a creative appropriation of a patristic position, and I'm down with it.

4.) To identity Jesus particularly as the Son (or Word/logos) doesn't mitigate the full involvement of the godhead as a whole in the incarnation, in creation or in reconciliation. Some folks seem to think that after he wrote his doctrine of election, Barth threw much of what he written on God previously -- esp. in I/1 -- into the dustbin. Not so, I'd argue. Even if those early conceptual distinctions aren't always explicitly mobilized in the doctrine of reconciliation, they are -- or many of them are -- still presupposed in the later part volumes. (Now I'm the one throwing down the gauntlet!) One such distinction is the classic doctrine of appropriation, which helps to guard the full, personal participation of the Godhead in all works ad extra even while certain operations highlight a particular person of the Trinity.

5.) The issues you raise in your second paragraph take us into new territory -- especially with all the time-eternity stuff raising a whole host of other problems, and I'm going to pass, for now.

6.) You say: "It isn't the second person who becomes incarnate, for Barth, as though there were a first person who is other than this one; but rather the incarnate one who is the second person...." I say that's a distinction without a real difference and the formulations are reciprocal. The character of that reciprocity gets at the debate over the logos asarkos, and I've had some conversations with a couple Barthian friends about this (I call them friends, if they'll still have me). But I'm not going to take the debate and weigh in that too explicitly just now. No more quacking from me, until all the ducks are in a row.

J. Scott Jackson said...

'I'm not sure treating "high" and "low" as singular notional paths, between which there might be a third way, is representative of the range of the field/tradition on Christology. Better-defined endpoints in terms of maximalist and minimalist (or non-)divinity would suggest a whole range of middle positions defined in terms of how united Jesus is with God in a given theology, possibly with extra dimensions for the manner of that unity/differentiation.'

Indeed. Duh. ;-) Though it may seem a dodge, I point out that the piece is highly rhetorical. There is a point to it, which I still affirm, but my goal certainly wasn't historical and systematic subtlety. Seriously though, I do hope to follow up with some material that is more nuanced and does discuss mediating positions and other metrics for mapping Christology.

Matthew Frost said...

I look forward to your next piece, and respect the fact that you threw out all these binaries to piss off people who break binaries habitually. :)

Matthew Frost said...

As to your taking up my gauntlet, I appreciate you having this kind of fun with me, especially when it goes way beyond the scope of the OP, and there's some good clarifications there.

In response, I'd like to point out that I almost never believe that subtle differences make no difference. :)

So I'll agree that in section 59, it is essential to Barth's argument that the Son becomes a servant. That Jesus Christ, who is fully God, self-subordinates to the Father as the Son. But he is not incarnate as a subordinate member of the deity; he is only subordinate to the Father within Godself as the incarnate human one. Only as such is he the Son, and as such Barth never hesitates to speak of him as God, simpliciter. But this is part of the same thread as in 57, and it serves in both places to demonstrate the point that God is not neutral toward us, not in any way fundamentally God at a distance and apathetic, but God who goes all in.

As to 2, I'll fold that in with 3: Barth's Seinsweisen in Gottes Sein are from the very first a commitment to a solid and permanent but minimalistic distinction between persons, which is why they aren't modalist and how they also manage not to allow scope to any of the monarchical heresies. And yes: it is a profoundly creative appropriation of Patristic nuances, precisely because it works against the whole vast mass of theologies in which we have made bigger and more individuating divisions between the persons, and so completely undermines the basis for the logos asarkos problem. (And pisses a younger Jenson off to no end.)

And rather than pick up your gauntlet, I'll throw another of mine in the pot with it: if we had gotten to reconciliation from election by walking through creation in its integrity, we wouldn't have missed those connections that keep II.1 and I.2 and I.1 fully on track with CD IV, and our speculations about redemption would be better. But that's not something I'm willing to blame on particular people; it's yet another failure of reception history, because we see only in part, and know only in part, and learn only a bit at a time, and how we got things in the first place ripples forward into how the next generations get them. So we fix 'em going forward!

And I'll wait on the other ducks, because after that we get pretty far afield from the topic. Thanks!

J. Scott Jackson said...

"That Jesus Christ, who is fully God, self-subordinates to the Father as the Son. But he is not incarnate as a subordinate member of the deity; he is only subordinate to the Father within Godself as the incarnate human one."

It's such a tricky issue in Barth, and it's two-pronged. On the one hand, this statement gets at the highly contested territory of the relation to the Son incarnate to the eternal Godhead. On the other hand, even if we prescind from that problem, Barth would have the expedient of situating this subordination squarely within Jesus' humanity. That option has a long pedigree. But Barth never lets anything go that easily. I don't have them ready to hand, but I recall passages where he insists that the differentiated superior/subordinate, above/above goes all the way down, so to speak -- into the very mystery of deity itself. So I'm not sure I'm willing to concede the point as you've formulated it here.

As for the last bit, how creation fits into all this, the board of directors has decided to take your proposal under advisement, pending further review. By the way, nice job slipping your thesis into my thread. Smooth. I don't forget precedents like that. ;-)

J. Scott Jackson said...

Oops, I see I slipped in more binaries into the convo. Mea culpa.

Matthew Frost said...

Hey, when you have a hammer, every comment thread contains nails. ;)

And it is a tricky issue in Barth. But Barth manages to tweak it such that situating the subordination of the Son to the Father squarely within Jesus' humanity doesn't remove it from the divine aseity. And it also doesn't allow Jesus' subordination to the Father to insulate any part of the Godhead from suffering what God so willed to suffer as the full measure of God's fidelity to us in the covenant of grace. And that's 59.2, "The Judge Judged in Our Place."

There is an above/below, a prius/posterius, that is mapped indelibly to Father/Son in God's eternal self-definition, and by God's free choice the Son really is below and posterior—but in relationship with and not alterity from the Father. The same God, the same will and intention, the same self and no other wills to be subjected to realities God willed to subject Godself to in order to do for us what God wills to do for us: make real our reconciliation with Godself, and make possible our reconciliation with one another and our existence as the good creature we have not willed to be. And that's the controversy Barth expressly wants to have on this point.

That's the thing that the eternally-(meaning pretemporally-)existent Son hanging around waiting to be incarnated and otherwise participating in the Father's actions (the Father traditionally and nigh-uniformly being the principle of God's deity) doesn't do. And it doesn't do it by design, insulating and protecting the principle of deity and so God's eternal ability to faithfully do anything without taint of contingency. (Which is why patripassianism is a heresy.) And it's the reason that the eternal Son as logos gets insulated from being eternally Jesus Christ, the divine-human one, and that we further wind up arguing about attributes and their appropriate hypostases, dividing Jesus Christ down an ideological line composed of his two genera. (Which is why theopaschitism is a heresy.)

Matthew Frost said...

There is a practically intractable section of the tradition, with adherents in every age (including one of my friends and colleagues since undergrad, and I've given up fighting him on it), that believes firmly that God's ability to save and the gospel's ability to comfort is predicated on the insulation of the divine eternity from time and human contingency. Apatheia, immutability, impassibility; purity as the condition of being able to fix the problems of our pathetic, mutable existence. The ability to choose subjection without becoming subject, so preserving that purity.

And that's also deeply Patristic, moreso than Barth's move. And if you ask me, it's the reason everyone freaked out over Romans and the time–eternity dialectic Barth introduced, and wants to see it largely replaced by his positive claims in Christology. But Barth never surrenders. He doesn't stop using apophatic theology, or abandon his by critiquing it in the Fathers. And that's because the Patristic apophaticism is really a positive absolutism, or where it isn't, tends to become one down the line. And so Barth uses apophaticism against that positivism of divine neutral purity, and replaces it with God who goes all in with us and refuses to be separated from the covenant partner and its experiences.

So yeah, it's not simple. There is an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, a permanent feature of God's freely chosen being, a constant dynamic between these two (of three) coeternal persons; but it doesn't run from the Father as the principle of deity in difference from a second person who is the Son and becomes incarnate. That's not how this subordination works. The Son is not naturally a subordinate; there's no ontological subsidiarity, which would imply hierarchy. Election does not produce him as a person determined by the Father's will; election produces a God who wills this for Godself and executes it as Godself. Jesus Christ is of the exact same order as the Father, which is why his voluntary self-subordination in relationship with the Father, for the purpose they share as God, matters. And so for Barth, our knowledge all runs from the Son, and nothing of his being can ever be isolated from the Father or the Spirit.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Wow, Matt, you've packed so much into those last two posts.... I will only pick up on one thread, briefly.

How to avoid the Scylla of the Unmoved Mover and the Charybdis of theopaschitism? Is there perhaps a third way? I'm still not sure. But I will say something quasi-autobiographical about the question. First, for my part the classic notion "that God's ability to save and the gospel's ability to comfort is predicated on the insulation of the divine eternity from time and human contingency" still carries some freight with me, for both my faith and my theology. The high soteriological claims that (for me) are essential to the Christian story seems to legitimate this concern. Of course, though, this approach entails many problems, which myriad recent thinkers have excavated. My procedure in recent years has been to begin with the main lines of "classical theism" (if I could use that short-hand) and then to move to challenge and complicate it: "Yes, but... the central Christian claims somehow dig deeper than the classical concerns with apatheia, aseity, etc." Many today begin with an opposite procedure (and I leaned this way early on in my studies): One can begin, say, with Christ's cry of dereliction, with a theology of the cross, and start over from scratch with the image of the suffering God. Then one would build the doctrine of God as a whole radiating outward from that central paradigm, all the while trying to show how a steadfast hope that such a God, in the end, puts all things to rights. I lean toward the first procedure, and it was especially my reading of Barth -- though a two-quarter seminar on Augustine probably contributed to my downfall in this area. Brilliant, profound theologians, including one or two heavy-hitters in the Barth guild, take the other strategy. I'll admit I'm nor 100% sure which way is best. But for me, still, there is still a strong personal, pastoral and systematic impetus for affirm that God, in God's infinite compassion, embraces and inhabits suffering and death -- but without being subsumed by them. And how this can be so gets at the central mystery of our salvation, as well as the ineffable mystery of God's very being. Even if God suffers *as God* (and not just with the expedient of placing all the crux of it, so to speak, within Jesus' humanity), God suffers *differently.* That's about the best I've been able to come up with so far.

Matthew Frost said...

Yep, that sounds about right for the landscape, its de facto binaries, their basic conflict with one another as approaches, and the thing that has to be affirmed regardless.