The Problematic Basis of the Incarnation, Part II

My last post was about a quite significant change that has taken place in Christian theology in the recent past. The recognition by Bible scholars that Jesus did not claim to be God, and the widespread acceptance of this by theologians, has forced Christian theology to rethink the basis of the doctrine of the incarnation. If it can no longer be based on Jesus's explicit teaching, it has to be based on something else. John Hick, in his book The Metaphor of God Incarnate, has identified four types of responses to this development, the first of which I described in the earlier post. Now I'll describe the other three.

The Christ-Event

The second type of response makes reference to the rather vague notion of the "Christ-event," a notion that generally blurs the lines between the events of Jesus's life and the Church's beliefs about him. The distinction between what Jesus taught and instituted and what the Church taught and instituted is no longer considered to be of any importance.

Hick notes that this idea does call attention to an important fact: "The meaning, for others, of anyone's life consists not only in the conrete actuality of that life itself but also in the way(s) in which he or she is perceived, revered or denigrated, remembered and responded to by others."1

There is a problem with this particular approach, however:
We know of him (Jesus) only because others responded to him, with yet others responding to their responses, so that a movement developed which almost inevitably came to regard him as divine in the highly elastic sense in which outstanding religious and political figures were often regarded in the ancient world. This 'soft' divinity, expressed in the 'son of God' metaphor, eventually developed into the 'hard' metaphysical claim that Jesus was God the Son, second person of a divine Trinity, incarnate. But to use the 'Christ-event' concept to validate this development involves arbitrarily stretching that highly flexible 'event' at least as far as the Council of Nicaea (325 CE), and preferably to include the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE).2
One might ask, in other words, if the 'Christ-event' can last until the mid-fifth century, why not longer? Who gets to decide when enough development has taken place?

One possible answer to that questions brings us to the third type of response.

Guidance by the Holy Spirit

"This is," Hick notes, "mainly a Roman Catholic position."3 Unlike the 'Christ-event,' this idea can be used to validate any number of beliefs, which is how we ended up with two very dubious, but nevertheless "infallibly proclaimed" Marian dogmas in the last 156 years.

I don't really need to describe the doctrine, as we're all familiar with it: the Holy Spirit, some say, guides the tradition of the Church, protecting the leaders of the Church from teaching erroneously in matters of faith and morals. Since they have, in fact, taught that Jesus is fully divine, it must be true. If it wasn't true, God presumably would have intervened and stopped them from teaching it.

Hick's rebuttal of this idea is quite good, so I will quote it in full:
The claim to divine guidance of the church’s developing theology is prompted by the immense differences between that theology and the message of Jesus himself. But it should be evident that an appeal to the Holy Spirit cannot add anything to the case for the truth of the Chalcedonian or any other dogma. In propounding the further dogma that those who created the original dogma were divinely guided, one is simply shifting the point of debate from a first-order belief to the second-order belief that the first-order belief is divinely guaranteed. But we have no way of determining whether the councils were in fact divinely inspired other than by evaluating their pronouncements. If we can accept these as true we might accept that the authors were inspired in making them; if not, not. There is an obvious circularity here: one believes the dogma to be true because the ecumenical councils were divinely guided in declaring it, and one believes that they were divinely guided because one believes the dogma to be true. There is no escape here from the question of the first-order grounds for the dogma. This third response is thus deceptively redundant.4
The Heavenly Christ

The fourth response downplays the significance of the pre-Easter Jesus to some extent in favour of the Christ experienced as a present reality. Hick does not deny that Christians may have vivid experiences of Christ as present in their lives, but he notes that comparable phenomena are found in other religious traditions. Furthermore, I would point out that whatever people are experiencing when they experience Christ as a present reality, it is not a literal incarnation of God, which would imply a physical, bodily presence. It should be obvious, I think, that such experiences are incapable of grounding the belief in Jesus's divinity.

I'll have more to say about Hick's book in the near future.


All page references, unless otherwise noted, are to Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, 2nd Edition.

[1] 36.

[2] Emphasis added; 36.

[3] 36. Hick does note some non-Catholic theologians who take this particular approach, including Richard Swinburne (an Anglican), and Stephen Davis, an Evangelical Protestant.

[4] 37.

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The Problematic Basis of the Incarnation, Part I

I read John Hick's The Metaphor of God Incarnate a couple of years ago, and I quite enjoyed it, but it didn't have much of an impact on my way of thinking until I read it again last weekend.

I've decided to write an extended review of the book. It will take a few posts, as Hick packs a lot of argument into 188 pages. I want to share some of his insights, and hopefully encourage some people to read it, because I think it's a terrific and important book.

One thing Hick writes about at length is how New Testament research has completely undermined the traditional source of authority for the doctrine, namely Jesus's own teaching, putting theologians in the difficult position of finding a new basis for it.

The consensus among scholars -- even among those who affirm the Nicene-Chalcedonian formulas -- is that Jesus never claimed to be divine. Hick quotes a number of "orthodox" scholars' admissions to this effect, including Michael Ramsey, C.F.D. Moule, and James Dunn, as well as some Chalcedon-affirming theologians like Brian Hebblethwaite and David Brown.1

This development is no small matter. Hick writes,
From at least the fifth to the late nineteenth century Christians generally believed that Jesus had proclaimed himself to he God the Son, second person of a divine Trinity, living a human life; and their discipleship accordingly included this as a central article of faith. But that supposed dominical authority has dissolved under historical scrutiny.2
With the traditional basis of the doctrine having collapsed, theologians who "adhere to the Nicene-Chalcedonian dogma...have had to find a new basis for it." He observes that they have "decided that the doctrine of the incarnation does not require the knowledge or consent of the historical Jesus himself."3

Hick questions whether an incarnate God who doesn't know that he's divine is an intelligible idea, and asks further "how it is possible for the church to know something so important about Jesus that he didn't know about himself?" He has identified four types of responses:
The first involves a qualification of the admission that Jesus was unaware of and did not teach his own deity. This response holds that he was implicitly aware of it in his uniquely intimate filial relationship with the heavenly Father, and that he implicitly taught it by his actions, particularly in abrogating the law of Moses and in forgiving sins.4
Hick accepts the "widely received view that Jesus' use of the word [abba] did constitute a genuinely new contribution to Western spirituality," but points out that Jesus taught his disciples to think of and address God in the same way. Hick also points out "that to experience God as one's heavenly Father is not the same as experiencing oneself as uniquely God the Son, second person of the divine Trinity."5

Similarly, Hick finds unpersuasive the argument that Jesus was claiming to be God by teaching some things contrary to the Torah, citing the argument by E.P. Sanders that Jesus only demanded the transgression of the law in one instance, that being in Matthew 8.22, when he said, "Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead."6

Another quotation from Sanders explains the weakness of the argument that Jesus's forgiving of others' sins entailed a claim to divinity:The oft-repeated claim that Jesus "put himself in the place of God" is overdone. He is often said to have done so in forgiving sins; but we must note that he only pronounced forgiveness, which is not the prerogative of God, but of the priesthood.7

In my next post, I'll describe the other ways theologians who affirm the traditional doctrine of the incarnation have responded to the modern discovery that Jesus did not claim to be God, as identified and described by Hick.

Go to Part II.


All page references, unless otherwise noted, are to Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, 2nd Edition. See Works Cited.

[1] 27-28.

[2] 29.

[3] 29.

[4] 30.

[5] 31.

[6] 32. The argument from Sanders is in Jesus and Judaism, 267. I would argue, following John P. Meier's fourth volume of A Marginal Jew, that there were other instances in which Jesus abrogated the Mosaic law, specifically in his prohibition of oaths. Having said that, this prohibition conflicted with a rather obscure point of the Mosaic law, and I imagine it's possible that it never even occurred to Jesus that there was a conflict. See Meier, Marginal, 4.182ff.

I would further point out that disagreeing with the law does not imply a claim to divinity. Paul was far more liberal in his approach to the Torah than Jesus was, and he certainly never claimed to be divine. Sanders argues, "It was Jesus' sense of living at the turn of the ages which allowed him to think that the Mosaic law was not final and absolute," (Jesus and Judaism, 267; quoted in Hick, 32). Paul also understood himself as living "at the turn of the ages," and claimed authority on the basis of what he interpreted as a revelation to him from God. It strikes me as probable that Jesus understood his own authority in a similar way, and for a similar reason.

[7] Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 240; quoted in Hick, 32. It's ironic that this argument is sometimes made by Catholic priests -- and Hick notes that it has been used by Cardinal Walter Kasper in his book Jesus the Christ -- despite the fact that Catholic priests do exactly the same thing in the confessional everyday.

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"...medieval princes prancing about Rome."

Cardinal Franc Rodé is in the news again, for reasons you can read about here.

I quite liked a comment regarding this story that was posted on the America blog, by someone named Christa, so I thought I would quote it in full:

Once again, in the mouths of the medieval "princes," the words, "secular," and "modern" are seen as evil.
The benighted hierarchy, particularly those in the curia, are trying desperately to continue "ruling" the church, but those of us who live in the real "secular" world in this very post-modern age, love the creation that God has given us and love the fact that the world is a holy place to live and work.
We do not need or want to look like the medieval princes prancing about Rome. We do not need or want to be "set apart" for special adulations. We have the intelligence and zeal to carry out the mission of Christ in this God-created, God-redeemed place called Earth. Our minds and hearts have developed to the extent that we take very seriously the message and example of Christ in ministering to his people. Like Christ, the religious and laity together blend in with all of God's people in God's marvelous world. Our faith is in our hearts and translated to our hands. What we profess is seen in what we do for others, not in how we observe the bows and folded hands of rubrics.
This glorious world is also home to our human condition - one that is not perfect or perfectable in this life. Because we are all imperfect, we find in this beautiful world the results of what Pere Teillard called our diminishments - violence, war, hatred, injustice, and all the evil things we do to each other. It is in these arenas where life is hard to the point of being snuffed out that our mission and ministry leads us - not to the hallowed halls of palatial residences or mighty cathedrals.
I believe Christ never wore a cappa magna, tiara, miter, ring, bejeweled crucifix, lace, or silk slippers. I believe he never carried a crosier or was followed by white-gloved little boys who carried his accoutrements like robotic pages. I believe that Christ saw his life and the lives of his followers as giving glory to God through what they DID for each other, not how they wanted to APPEAR to others; through how they lived their lives, not how they observed rituals.
The Good and Holy Pope John XXIII helped Ruah* breathe more freely through the church after the Second Vatican Council. Rode and his ilk still cling to form over substance and so cannot imagine how Ruah is at work today.
* The Hebrew word ruah, if you're not familiar with it, appears frequently in the Hebrew scriptures, and is usually translated "spirit," or "wind."



Evolutionary spirituality, without fear

I kind of liked this quote from Andrew Cohen, the editor of EnlightenNext Magazine, so I thought I would share:
Evolution is a messy process. So anybody who really wants to make the effort to strive for something new is going to have to be willing to make mistakes, take wrong turns, even to fail, but never give up. The simple truth is this: if not failing is more important to you than genuinely succeeding, you’re never going to make it. If you really want to succeed, you have to have the big heart, heroic will, tenacity, courage, and commitment to fearlessly engage with the evolutionary process until something profound, mysterious, and extraordinary happens that cannot be undone.
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