Thursday, June 02, 2016

Christology in the Key of Middle C (pt. 1)

In a recent post, I playfully explored the question of what difference a "high" Christology makes for Christian faith and theology. Recall that a "high" Christology is a position that affirms Jesus' divinity and the doctrine that he is the incarnate Son of God.
The Baptism of Christ, by Francesco Trevisani
(via Wikimedia Commons)
Though the piece is whimsical, the central claim around which it spins is a serious one: The coherence, perhaps even the validity of Christian thought depends upon the categorical uniqueness of the Savior, a uniqueness that is qualitative and not merely quantitative.

This claim has a corollary: If the uniqueness of Jesus Christ is situated only within some aspect of his creaturely existence -- say, his perfect piety or obedience to God -- then it becomes difficult to affirm his unique dignity in any absolute sense. Whatever his blessedness might mean, in this case, it cannot be utterly unique if it resides merely within a perfection of some attribute(s) that all human beings share. In other words, the claim that Jesus is the unique Savior in a qualitative sense pushes us toward something like a traditional affirmation that he is truly God incarnate.

Of course, one might well counter: Why must Jesus be absolutely unique in the first place? Perhaps the human situation is not as dire as the doctrine of the Incarnation --- not to mention the atonement -- requires. Perhaps what Jesus does is to lead us into some form of completeness or perfection already latent without our humanity as such, albeit in a defective or stunted form. These retorts, by the way, show how intimately the Christological question is interwoven with the soteriological and anthropological ones. "To know Christ is to know his benefits," wrote Philip Melancthon.

At any rate, an astute interlocutor pushed back on my attempt to frame the Christological decision in terms of a simple binary: High Christology versus low? Bah! Posing the matter as a stark choice may have some rhetorical punch -- recall C.S. Lewis' famous trichotomy: Jesus is liar, lunatic or Son of God. Yet, perhaps, matters are more complex than my post suggested. Indeed, my friend is right, so in the next post I will discuss some of those complications. To do so, I will pull a thread from a fascinating essay by Princeton theologian George Hunsinger.

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16 comments:

Matthew Frost said...

Scott, well framed. :)

It seems to me it's hard to have a doctrine of the incarnation, period, from a truly "low" Christological perspective on this description. Nor, I think, does a Christology of that sort really require that the human situation be all that dire.

But I get a whiff of straw ticking, there; I don't really think the doctrine of the incarnation is in jeopardy. So perhaps the game is for a different goal: which one of the two natures carries the real soteriological freight. Whether God becomes human to save humanity, or whether God becomes human to save humanity. Whether, in other words, it is only his divinity that is unique, or also his humanity.

On the one hand, we have God taking on our humanity in every detail, assuming that which is to be redeemed. Humanity is the necessary context of the divine act, then, but Jesus' humanity is not therefore the saving fact itself. Jesus is unique because, while he is only one human among others, he is the one who is God among us. And on the other, we have suggestions that Jesus' humanity is fundamentally unlike ours, the unfallen nature versus the fallen nature. From that perspective, the humanity of Jesus is itself a gift, the unique contribution as such, and redemption becomes the regeneration of our humanity into his.

However, in both cases, God remains the agent; I'm not sure the latter is really a "low Christology." Does anyone actually have a Christology by which Jesus is a unique human who is not God? If so, who are they, when are they, and what then replaces the doctrine of the incarnation in such a system?

Matthew Frost said...

(By which I mean: are we citing "low Christology" along with "Gnosticism" as a function of vestigial heresiology for the sake of having a dialectical opposite, or is this a live debate? Who's alive among the opposition?)

Matthew Frost said...

I see a lot of hypothetical "The [synoptic] gospels don't think Jesus is God" suggestions, but the problem there is that the people I see citing the gospels don't then develop, say, a Judean apocalyptic sense by which the birth of Jesus fits its context, and his acts then fall into the proper Judean soteriological frame of the given text. The gospels are not works of Christian theology! And, I will contend, they do think Jesus is divine, and uniquely so. They do relate his agency as God's agency, and in a manner superior to the subordinate agency of the prophets who speak words given to them by God. The one who stands behind the prophet speaks in the person of Jesus, who speaks with authority instead of on another's authority.

What the gospels don't do is identify Jesus as "the Father"—who in a Judean context is not a Trinitarian person in the first place! John goes only so far as to identify Jesus with "the Father," as the one who manifests the One in whom they believe. While they give us the terms we later turn into Trinitarian theology, the principles by which "the Father," "the Son of God," and "the Holy Spirit" are related in these texts are more implicit, and would not spell out quite the way we have spelled them out for ourselves. Which is not to say that they don't belong together; the text clearly relate them!

Now, if we take the birth narratives in isolation, of course Mary is not understood to be giving birth to God Himself. Mary is giving birth to the Messiah, the deliverer—who will be known as "God with us," but that's not a totally novel thing, since God is with the people already in multiple understood ways. But the gospel texts never speak of Jesus' humanity as the unique thing about him, as though he's not human the way the rest of us are. Nor does Paul. Hebrews insists he's not an angel, and that he's exactly as human as we are, which suggests that there is a first-century discussion of Jesus' humanity vs divinity, and that there are multiple attempted solutions to it. But that's always the context: how to relate his obvious humanity with his obvious divinity. How to relate this human being to God in a way that is most accurately descriptive of his evident relation to God.

J. Scott Jackson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. Scott Jackson said...

Thanks. So yes, you've outed me for not being interested in low Christologies so much. And yes, though maybe I didn't make the point well enough, low Christologies, indeed, tend to go with less pessimistic anthropologies.

But just what do I mean by "low Christology"? Fair question. To keep it simple, I'd name a Christology "low" if it denies the divinity of Jesus and puts the wait of whatever is saving about his vocation in his human nature tout court. So a good example would be the position of John Hick, in The Metaphor of God Incarnate. To say that God is "incarnate" in Jesus is just to claim, for Hick, that the he is a paradigmatic example of a spiritual experience, an openness to the transcendent, that is in principle available to any person at any time. I think an option such as that is very much alive, and is especially attractive to folks who wince a bit at any hint of Christian exclusivism, whether understood in epistemological or soteriological terms -- or both. (I loaned this book to a friend years ago and never saw it again, so I hope I'm not butchering Hick's position).

In a similar vein, I might mention Schubert Ogden, who understands Jesus Christ (whether in his actual life history or within the narrative itself, perhaps) as a (or the?) "decisive representation" of authentic human existence.

"Does anyone actually have a Christology by which Jesus is a unique human who is not God?" - I think so. I think you could make a case for putting Schleiermacher's view in that category, but it requires more nuance than I'm prepared to offer at the moment.

But as for your other question: Be careful. I'm not saying an affirmation of Jesus' divinity means denying his human uniqueness. The Alexandrian-Chalcedonian Christology (as I understand it) holds that Jesus' human uniqueness subsists within his divine identity (without being conflated with it). You have stated matters pretty well, in your third paragraph, I think. (But on a side note: Recall that Barth has an interesting take on this question whether Jesus' human nature is fallen. He says, the Son assumes fallen human nature, for that is precisely wherein the problem must be addressed.) At any rate, the position you've sketched would certainly fall in the high Christology category, in my view.

J. Scott Jackson said...

And I just saw your last comment. Nope. Not going to follow you down the rabbit hole of NT exegesis. This is a THEOLOGY blog, after all, and we pride ourselves on our methodological independence. ;-)

Matthew Frost said...

Hm. Okay, I'll take the category roughly charted around Hick and Ogden as representing a "low Christology," but they do it for a reason that has very much to do with religious non-exclusivity. Which is to say that they are abstracting away from a whole range of Christian claims that they deem too narrowly specific and limiting.

Ogden owes this form of demythologization directly to Bultmann, but as he marries it to Process it ceases to be a matter of translating the old faith for today's Christians, and instead becomes a matter of making the faith analogous to other things in the category: other things that deal with the world and its god. Ogden and Hick are closest together on this idea of particular faith as a perspective on the general, one of many. And so the Sache becomes revelation of definitive reality, which exists at the universal level and is witnessed in particular examples. Jesus as a phenomenon of the noumenal.

It's gonna sound awfully intolerant of me, but: neither of these men is a genuine participant in this discussion for that reason! Both are attempting to escape the grounding particularities of Christology as though the particularity of scripture were not at all points bound up in the necessity to choose among truly different and competing realities. They are attempting, as such, to make the discussion go away, so they can have a different kind of discussion altogether.

Which brings me back to the question, differently framed, because there can't be a "middle ground" between incommensurable views, and I think these are basically incommensurable. We have to be agreeing on the "that" and disagreeing on the "how," agreeing broadly and disagreeing specifically, to synthesize a meaningful claim between antitheses. And that synthetic claim can only be about the thing on which we agree. If we don't agree on reference, then using the same terms in similar structures isn't actually commensurable. Logic isn't universal; context matters.

Matthew Frost said...

And yeah, when we talk about Christ's uniqueness as a human, much more specificity is needed than I employed, because of the range of options in play. I didn't mean to suggest that Jesus isn't unique among humans; I'm quite content with the posit that his uniqueness subsists in his divinity, in that he is the divine–human one. But that is also to say that his humanity is not unique among humans.

With Barth (and against Torrance AFAICT), I don't want to suggest that there are multiple humanities, and that Jesus has one and we have a different one. The question of "fallen humanity" having a nature is problematic there, and Barth solves it by insisting that our nature as the creature hasn't changed. We are entirely fallen, retaining no trace of the imago Dei that could be reconstructed, but we have still not made ourselves into anything other than God's creature. We have only brought chaotic negation into play in ways that change how we are what we are. We no longer resemble the covenant partner in grace, which is our purposive nature as the creature. And so "one human being among others is the man Jesus," who shows us humanity rightly functioning. Not another humanity to which we might aspire, but a way of being human to which we ought to aspire as fellow humans before God and one another.

Which, frankly, is kinda low in its effect, considering that the whole point of reconciliation is ethics, and that its outcome at the end of history isn't in any way decisive of redemption. But it's a high, fully divine Jesus that does it.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Sidebar

Matt, you made a couple comments:

"Ogden owes this form of demythologization directly to Bultmann"

"And so the Sache becomes revelation of definitive reality, which exists at the universal level and is witnessed in particular examples. Jesus as a phenomenon of the noumenal."

I want to be clear that this is not Bultmann's view of the Sache and, in fact, understanding it as some kind of universal is the exact opposite of what RB means. Whether your comments are accurate with reference to Ogden is a question that I'm not particularly interested in. :-)

J. Scott Jackson said...

"[T]he whole point of reconciliation is ethics..." Really?

Matthew Frost said...

I'm sorry, Travis; that was unclear of me. I was in fact attempting to say that while Ogden got demythologization from Bultmann, Ogden's practice is the opposite of Bultmann's. I was initially just going to oppose them, but then someone might remind me that Ogden learned it from RB, and that's a rabbit hole.

And yeah, I'll grant someone might be more fair to Ogden's details than I am here. :)

Matthew Frost said...

Yes, really, Scott. I'll admit that sounds a bit hyperbolic as shorthand. But the whole point of election is also ethics. The whole point of the creature is ethics. Or, at any rate, the whole point of the creature is responsible partnership in the covenant of grace, and there's no simple way back to that, this side of the Fall, besides doing ethics faithfully. There is no concursus Dei without it, even though there ought to have been and we can talk about what it might ideally look like—which Barth does under just such a disclaimer. And so reconciliation is that act of God by which we as free creatures are nonetheless constantly being restored toward our right covenantal existence within our providential limitations, so that we might exercise that freedom in responsible ways, instead of in rejection and negation. That's not a path toward (or away from) salvation for Barth. If we're lucky, we might reasonably hope for universal reconciliation before the eschaton, but there's no reason to expect it, and Barth doesn't need it for redemption, so he doesn't bother to force the issue.

Matthew Frost said...

I suppose my answer raises an important question of its own, also applicable to the Hick/Ogden matter: what is the point of Christology?

I could be seen to be saying that the whole point of the being and becoming of God in act is ethics. And I think that'd be an unfair reduction of my position, but if the whole point of the act of God is the being of God, what's the point of the being of God? If we submerge aseity into economy, but don't follow economy out all the way, have we done it right? God's doing is for us. God's being and becoming is for us. While we have to be careful not to instrumentalize God to our purposes (because really, we should be instrumentalized to God's purposes), we still have to go there.

George Plasterer said...

Wonderful discussion here. Thank you. Scott, when you originally referred to a low Christology as embracing piety or obedience to God, am I off to think of Gunther Bornkamm here? That was my first thought, although your later references to Hick and Ogden are helpful. Also, in the little discussion abut the goal of reconciliation being ethics, I am wondering if Paul does not move the same direction. I have been studying and preaching from Galatians lately, and I find it interesting that after his doctrinal concerns of law and gospel in the first four chapters, he moves toward ethical considerations in 5 & 6. It seems like even for Paul part of the passion he had around the gospel is how it could transform a human life, as he himself experienced and as he believed could transform others who would walk "in the Spirit."

J. Scott Jackson said...

Thanks, George. My main exposure to Bornkamm is his short Jesus book, a work of historical research, and I'm not sure to what extent that project resolves the question of Jesus' divine origin.

As for Paul, I'd probably fall back on those interpreters who stress that the indicative (salvation) is primary and the imperative (ethics) is secondary to and dependent upon the former. Since presumably the epistles are primarily paraenetic and pastoral in intent, it would not be surprising that Paul would use them to admonish his readers about living the Christian life in community. Whether that authorizes us to collapse salvation into ethics is another question. Doing so, of course, was a classic move among the liberal Protestant thinkers most indebted to Kant -- e.g., the Ritschlians.

George Plasterer said...

Scott, I get your point. Part of the challenge I see is an earlier comment I think from Matthew that the goal is ethics. which suggested a transformed human life. That is part of where I am pondering. To make the ethical exhortation in Paul secondary and dependent, which as you say is traditional, may separate them too much? At least, that is where I am wrestling a bit. Maybe I just need to embrace my inner liberal Protestant? :)