Christology in the Key of Middle C (pt. 2)

In my last post , I explored what difference a "high" Christology makes for Christian faith and theology. To review: A "high" Christology is a position that affirms Jesus' divinity and the doctrine that he is the incarnate Son of God, whereas a "low" Christolgy eschews this construct, focusing exclusively on the humanity of the Savior. Might there be a third option lying somewhere between these two? To delve into this question, I draw out a thread from an essay by George Hunsinger, a contribution to ecumenical theology titled "Baptized into Christ's death: Karl Barth and the future of Roman Catholic theology (See Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, Eerdmans, 2001, chapter 11). Hunsinger introduces the notion of a "middle Christology" -- a kind of position about which he clearly is ambivalent, to say the least.

Christus Pantocrator in the apsis of the cathedral of Cefalù
Photo by Andreas Wahra (via Wikimedia commons)
In the second section of this essay (pp. 261-267), Hunsinger revisits a debate between the two leading Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner; more precisely, it concerns a critique of the latter by the former. Not even 100 blog posts would begin to do justice to these two figures; I will spare you, gentle readers, three years of steady blogging on this topic. My interest here is the basic contrast Hunsinger elicits from the debate.

At issue are the "extrinsic" and "intrinsic" dimensions of our atonement -- what Christ does on our behalf apart from our appropriation of salvation and what the Savior effects within us, respectively -- and how the two poles might be related. As an astute Protestant outsider, Hunsinger invites the question: To what extent, according to Roman Catholic theology, is our salvation a process brought to fruition within the lives of believers? As Hunsinger reads him, von Balthasar, amid the complexities and ambiguities within his tradition on this questions, takes a firm stand in favor of affirming Christ's saving death as an objective event in its own right -- an event whose reality and power are not dependent upon our knowledge or appropriation of it. Von Balthasar, then, holds to a "high" view of Christ's person that is concomitant with a high view of his saving work. Hunsinger writes:

The work of Christ is regarded as materially decisive, because it brings about our reconciliation with the God toward whom we as sinners are hostile and by whom we stand otherwise condemned. A high view of Christ's person is logically indispensable to this work (p. 264).

Matters are different with a middle Christology; in this kind of perspective, an attenuated view of the human plight goes hand-in-hand with a relativizing of the claims for Christ's uniqueness. Perhaps Christ finishes and perfects some sort of process already underway in common human experience. Hunsinger continues:

The work of Christ is again regarded as materially decisive for our salvation, but the definition of that work has changed. Sin is now more merely a matter of bondage than of guilt, so that what we are saved from is more nearly sin's power than its penalty. Consequently, the word of Christ is significant for us, because what it effects is more nearly our re-empowerment than our complete recreation (ibid.).

In this middle-C scenario (as I'm calling it), it is more accurate to say our problem is estrangement from God than standing under an objective condemnation based, say, on some violation of an external moral law. Consequently, the restoration of the human being in salvation is more aptly to be viewed in terms of subjective personal experiences wherein this estrangement is overcome than it is to be seen in juridical terms, as a transaction that occurs out there, objectively on the cross. Jesus is seen as the "redeemed Redeemer" who enables this process of transformation within us. And here, for our purposes, is the central issue for a middle Christology:

This person [of the Savior] would be materially decisive, because the work he actually accomplished is efficacious for us. But he is not logically indispensable, because it would seem at least in principle that any other human being, if sufficiently empowered, might have accomplished or might yet accomplish much the same thing. The person of Christ required by a middle Christology is unique but not unique in kind (p. 265).



Matthew Frost said…
The problem with this essay is that Hunsinger is making partisan statements as though they were universally true, and erecting straw opposition views that contain things he ought to be upholding—things Barth in fact upholds!

"High" work for Hunsinger here equals an event that is in no aspect repeatable or even touchable by a human being, a thing with no splash or echoes; a salvation that leaves no mark on humanity or history, but only changes the relationship from God's side. It is a purely forensic, purely substitutionary atonement, a reconciliation in which God's righteousness is satisfied and God's mercy shown because Jesus took on the pathology in order to resolve it once and for all. Boom, done. Nothing about sin changes, nothing about our existence changes, the "radical evil" apparently remains, but the penalty it entails is borne for us and so borne away from us.

And under his rubric of "if w(ork), then p(erson)," such a work is necessary to the divinity of Christ because if he is God, he's got to do something only God could do. Anything Jesus does that isn't a human impossibility is right out. And that includes anything that could in any aspect, however small, become a human possibility at any point. We aren't allowed to trust in any atonement between us and God that we could in any way participate in after the fact, anything that leaves an echo that we can touch, any splash of the event that can wash over us. If it has a human effect, it can't be a purely divine act, because Hunsinger claims it could then have had a purely human cause, even if it didn't and never would have in reality.

And, of course, he isn't content only to slam Rahner this way; his generosity extends to labeling liberation theologies and feminist theologies as deficient in the same way (266). By claiming "what took place extra nos is no more than the condition for what takes place in nobis," Hunsinger reduces an entire class of necessary theological truths to straw, because if atonement is at all a condition for human change, then it apparently can't be soteriologically decisive. If we can actualize a possibility created in that event, it can't be a divine prerogative, and so it can't be salvific. Only when he can remove actualization from the human sphere entirely is Hunsinger satisfied—in this 1997 essay, at any rate.
Matthew Frost said…
Of course, for Barth, this actualization in the human sphere is a necessary reality, and is precisely the work of the spirit subjectively actualizing the possibility Jesus Christ objectively actualized in history. It is, as such, the bulk of the work of reconciliation, irritated as that made Jenson around the same time because he thought Barth was subordinating the Spirit to the Son. And it is as such a work to which we are called as participants, as God's covenant partner. But then again, for Barth reconciliation is not salvation as an endgame; it doesn't produce redemption. Atonement is not a process toward salvation for Barth, which is something most people haven't seen because it is so almost everywhere else but in Barth.

As a Lutheran, I'm intimately familiar with this rejection spectrum reaction Hunsinger is having in 1997. We even make faith a thing God does for us, so we don't have to do anything. We are just that allergic to "works righteousness," because it looks to us like "meriting salvation." And so Hunsinger does the same kind of ridiculous thing with κοινωνία, making it so that the substitution is repeated in every individual, so that the communion of the saints is the communion of God with Christ who lives in each one of us, and not with we who live. Our lives, which don't change, are hidden in Christ so that God doesn't have to have a direct effect on us. Jesus as the gloves God uses to handle us in an isolation box! And yeah, all of this comes by way of von Balthasar, which I'm willing to use to limit Hunsinger's blame here, but he approves of it lock, stock, and barrel!

This is not a reasonable mean between extremes; it's just as polemical as I complained "low Christology" was as the implicit term in the last post.
Matthew Frost said…
And this gets back to my assertion that the whole point of reconciliation, for Barth, is ethics. It is action directed toward our responsible participation with God in God's work, which is God's original and ultimate desire, and which is therefore the nature of our nature as the created covenant partner. It's one thing to isolate God's works, and declare them as human impossibilities, which Barth does; it's quite another to insist that this means they create no human possibilities in their wakes. What God does makes space for us to do in response. This does not alienate God's works from God; it reminds us that we are not alien to God's works, and that the grounding possibilities of our created sphere are the things God actualizes for us, and nothing else.
Yeah, I'm just going to say that I think you're over-reaching a bit here. ;-)
Matthew Frost said…
And yeah, I suppose the essay isn't about Barth; it's technically about what's possible in Catholicism. But the approach is to ask to what extent a very specific confessional Protestant point of view can be seen by what particular Catholic thinkers, as a way of validating or invalidating other forms of Catholic thought on extrinsic terms. How profoundly ecumenical! What an objective basis for discussion of high and low Christologies! (Of course, Lindbeck was just as polemic in the guise of ecumenism during the same period; it's something postliberal theology had to get past to live up to its principles, and mostly did by encounter with other religions and other cultures in their own terms.)

All of which brings me back around to a question, Scott: why this essay? And why does it seem so objective to you?
Excuse me, but please remind me where I said the essay was "objective"?

As for the "why" question: Why "why"? As the editor of this blog once advised me: "Read something. If you have something to say about it, blog it."

Finally, "polemical" (=vigorous) is not for me a swear word. I'm not Lutheran but, rather, Episcopalian, and I wish we'd fight about theology, and more passionately, more often rather than less.
Now, about Hunsinger's piece, a couple things.

First, I do not here read a blanket endorsement of von Balthasar's critique of Rahner. Hunsinger admits, as one who is not claiming Rahner expertise here, that the situation may be more ambiguous than von B's polemic might suggest. I read him as listening into the convo within Roman Catholic theology and trying to relate it to his own, more Barthian perspective.

There are aspects of the essay I didn't go into -- including the comment about liberation theologies -- for a variety of reasons. I will say, though, that Hunsinger has shown himself capable of a very nuanced engagement with liberation theologies, as is the case in his essay on Barth and Gutierrez earlier in the volume (whether or not one agrees with his analysis).
Scott, I will just offer that Pannenberg, by this analysis, would have a low Christology, I think. He also wants to leave room for the personal appropriation of faith. I think one of the problems even with Barth is that all these wonderful things happen objectively, as if in some non-historical sphere, that does not really touch human life. However, with Barth, the way the Holy Spirit makes actual what Father and Son accomplish objectively, needs more emphasis in Barth studies.

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