The Problematic Basis of the Incarnation, Part II
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).2One 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.4The 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.
 Emphasis added; 36.
 36. Hick does note some non-Catholic theologians who take this particular approach, including Richard Swinburne (an Anglican), and Stephen Davis, an Evangelical Protestant.