Friday, June 17, 2016

Christology in the Key of Middle C (pt. 3)

If a "high" Christology emphasizes Jesus' identity as God incarnate while a "low" Christology mitigates or denies this emphasis for faith and theology, what might a "middle" option look like? (To follow the thread of my discussion so far, click here and here). In exploring this issue, I'm drawing upon an essay by George Hunsinger, in which he reviews a critique Hans Urs von Balthasar leveled against Karl Rahner (see "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 does not attempt a full assessment of this critique, and nor do I.

Though Hunsinger here does not relate this middle Christology to the low-high dichotomy with which I have been working. But clearly a third way is in view here. Middle Christology is maximal, in a certain sense: Jesus is unique, at least as the only perfect member of the species. His specialness, however understood, does exercise an effective role in human salvation.

 Portrait of Karl Rahner by Letizia Mancino Cremer,
wife of Karl Rahner´s nephew Christoph Cremer.
(via Wikimedia Commons)
As Hunsinger points out, Rahner's own Christology is extraordinarily complex, and assessing the extent to which his position fits this rubric would get quite technical. Allow me a brief thumbnail of the main issue, at least. For Rahner, human existence is characterized by an intrinsic openness to grace, a capacity to receive divine self-communication, which he labels the "supernatural existential." As a modern thinker who takes Immanuel Kant's philosophy seriously, Rahner understands this openness as a capacity of the self to transcend itself. For this orientation to make sense, in his view, there must be an infinite horizon and source of all existence, as the matrix within which human life is actualized in transcendental knowledge and freedom. This horizon is identified as God, the ground and horizon of our existence that we encounter as ineluctable mystery.

If this framework is presupposed, then perhaps we can understand the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the perfection, within a concrete human life, of this capacity for self transcendence. Jesus is the unique individual who enjoys unimpeded communion with God. Every moment of his existence is lived out in total submission in love and obedience to the infinite horizon of mystery that is God. Perhaps the life of the Savior can also be related to the overall history of human self transcendence within a modern evolutionary understanding of world history. (Rahner develops these ideas in numerous places, but they are conveniently -- if rather densely -- summarized in his Foundations of Christian Faith, chapter 6.)

To recap my last post: von Balthasar worries that Rahner has mitigated the classic view (at least, the classic Western view) that Christ's death is an expiatory sacrifice that atones for an ineluctable human guilt -- a concrete, unique moment in history that decisively alters the human situation.

Rahner's Christology, on the face of it, seems to fit the description of a middle-C position, as Hunsinger defines it. But for Rahner, matters are not so simple; for he is an ecclesiastical theologian of a high order and he affirms the dogmatic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as a matter of principle. Along with this commitment goes a high view of the ancient church councils and theologians who articulated and defended the doctrine of the Incarnation. As I read Rahner -- and I'm far from being an expert, though I benefited greatly from a Rahner seminar with the late Anne Carr -- he is trying to reconcile classical views of Christ's person and work with his modern transcendental view of human nature. In this view, Rahner is attempting a mediating Christology -- that is, a position that embraces both the dogmatic tradition and the reframing of that tradition to address particularly modern concerns.

Nonetheless, it seems to me, one cannot avoid the logical and existential decision posed by Hunsinger's analysis, the question posed by von Balthasar to Rahner: Does this position mitigate the objectivity of the atonement? Moreover, is an account of the atonement that situates soteriology in a transformation within the human subject as such adequate to address the plight of the human situation. This question is both deep and complex, and I scarcely have begun to scratch the surface in these short posts. All I have done is raise the questions. There is a certain rubric to which I often find myself returning: I once heard a superb historian of Reformation theology, Susan Schreiner, say that the work of the Reformers, with their fixation on the theologia crucis only makes sense for folks who are desperate. How desperate was Karl Rahner? More to the point, how desperate are you and I?



George Plasterer said...

As a reader more of Pannenberg than Rahner, I have two comments. One is that Pannenberg has many favorable references to Rahner. The other is that your basic description of the view of Rahner is quite consistent with everything I have read of the anthropology and Christology of Pannenberg. For that reason, I am hesitant to accept an analysis of the Christological debate that suggests that Pannenberg has a low Christology. Of course, I could be wrong here in making these connections and am always open to correction.

J. Scott Jackson said...

From what I know of Pannenberg's Christology -- which doubtless is not enough -- I've never thought of it as a low Christology either. I commitment to constructing theology "from below" (which Rahner shares in Pannenberg, at least in part) is something of a different issue, and doesn't necessarily mitigate the divine dignity of the Savior, it seems to me.

Andy said...

Hmm. Maybe "middle" christology can be a thing. Seems to me as though Chalcedon was after something like that. But it may not be a good sign that "key of middle-c" makes no musical sense.

Andy said...

That should be read as friendly and sympathetic snark, btw, not hostile snark. ;)

J. Scott Jackson said...

Touche. I chuckled. And you're quite right, of course. I should know better. My piano teacher no doubt would be rolling his eyes if he were still among us. ;-)

George Plasterer said...

I am not seeing the post now, but one of the posts stressed the forensic nature of justification. I am preaching in Galatians right now. One of the things impressing me is that Paul seems to prefer the analogy of family, adopted children of God and participation in or belonging to Christ, as over against forensic terms. In fact, he seems to push his readers away from Law in order to focus upon another identifier, namely, Christ. I am not sure if I am misreading here, but it would seem to be that our concern ought to be more with adoption into the family of God as over against a judge passing judgment upon as guilty but Christ bearing the punishment. Is this totally off? If I read the blog right, the forensic view is a high Christology, and adoption, because it requires my participation in faith, is either low or middle c.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Well, I certainly can't disagree that the notion of being adopted into the family of God through Jesus is a very Pauline theme. It's probably even more clearly the theme in Romans than in Galatians, esp. Romans 9-11. But nothing about this takes away the forensic or juridical themes in these letters. If I may do a little proof-texting from Galatians, I'd lift up these passages especially: 3:13 (Christ becomes a curse for us on the cross); 4:4-5 (Christ is born under the law, for our behalf, to free us from his tutelage -- so that the adoption you rightly mention can become possible); and Rom. 5:6-11 (Christ dies for the ungodly; esp. v. 9: "Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.")

Soteriology, as classically conceived, is polyvalent. There are myriad images and concepts in the NT and in the theological tradition more broadly groping toward the full meaning of salvation in Christ. But the question about forensic models of atonement is not the main issue I was trying to examine -- though maybe, as you intuited, this kind of concern is implied in one or more of my comments (and in the quotes from Hunsinger).

Let me try to restate the main point as simply as possible. Doing so though might take me even further afield, but here goes:

The gravity of the human situation resides in powers (namely, sin and death -- and yes, the law also) that are within us but not entirely from us. At any rate, whatever realities these terms name are beyond both our ken and our control. Acknowledging this fact is concomitant with an account of salvation as something that is effected, first and foremost, outside of us, on our behalf. To the extent that something is effected inside us as well, this is dependent upon the priority of the external work.

Note carefully: I didn't say we have an independent or prior knowledge of the human plight before or outside of experiencing salvation. It may very well be the case that our knowledge of the plight is retrospective, following upon our apprehension of Christ's saving work. But that is a different set of questions.

I was arguing that the issue of how the soteriological quesiton is framed -- in terms of what our problem is and how it's resolved in Christ -- is closely tied to the question of Christology proper: "Who do you say that I am?" A strong sense of the human dilemma as I've named it above is concommitant with a "high" view of Christ's person. What this means, simply, is a position that holds that the reality of Jesus' divinity is logically and ontologically prior to the reality of his humanity. This commitment has usually been expressed in terms of a theology of the Incarnation: Jesus of Nazareth is the Word (or Son) of God incarnate. I'm suggesting that once the theologian moves away from this paradigm -- for example, when Jesus divinity is reinterpreted as an instantiation of his perfection as a human creature (thus collapsing his divinity into his humanity), then the Christological position is ill equipped to address the gravity of the human situation. To put it more simply, if the human plight is such that human beings as such can't address from their own resources, then the Savior must be something more than (just) human. We can't save ourselves, so God must save us. But it also can't be a work that's so extrinsic that it fails to address our problem where we are. So the Savior must be one of us as well, and his work must be intrinsic to the human situation.

I hope some of that is helpful.