Modernity is commonly reputed to have laid in ruins the account of Christological reason just outlined. It did not, in fact, do so; it simply installed in the centers of greatest intellectual prestige (the research universities) one contingent version of instrumental reason to which most Protestant and, later, some Roman Catholic theologies found themselves hard put to respond by anything other than concessions. The failure to respond and the readiness to make concessions were rooted in internal failures in Christian theology in the post-Reformation (and possibly the early modern) periods, notably the reluctance to deploy primary Christian doctrine (Trinity, Christology, pneu-matology) in criticism of philosophical teaching, and the assumption that methods of inquiry are content-neutral.
One of the chief aspects of the legacy of these failures has been a widespread belief that positive dogmatics is not and cannot be a critical activity. Dominant strands of modern theology have judged that theology can only be a critical undertaking in so far as - unlike the act of confession - its relation to the object of the church's faith is one of inquiry. In conducting its inquiry, it does not presuppose the truth of the Christian confession but tests its viability against independent criteria. The orientation which has been described so far is obviously incompatible with understanding the Christological task as critical in that way. This does not mean that the task is uncritical; on the contrary, Christology is from start to finish a critical activity. But what makes Christology critical is not conformity to certain methodologies, or a generally suspicious attitude toward received tradition, but its object: Jesus Christ, who as judge is other than any contingent representation. Christology is critical because of that to which it addresses itself and by which it is addressed. It is internally critical, in that it is sharply aware of both the inadequacies of its conceptual apparatus, and its capacity for distorting the object to which it turns itself unless it is ceaselessly and repentantly vigilant. It is externally critical in that at crucial points it begs to differ from the intellectual and spiritual conventions of the culture within which the church makes its confession of Christ, including that culture's conventions of criticism. Sufficient has already been said about the internally critical character of Christology, which derives from the impossibility of any comprehensive rendering of its object, the free, personal self-presentation of the Word made flesh. We now turn to look at the externally critical orientation of the doctrine of the incarnation, that is, its polemical or apologetic edge.
There is no "pure" Christology, no Christology which does not articulate itself with a measure of dependence upon the conventions of its context. But, equally, one test of the adequacy of a Christology will be the vigor with which it prosecutes theological judgments about those conventions, the strength with which it refuses to allow modern challenges to set the terms in which it responds. If Christology allows itself to be transposed into a modern idiom largely without residue, then in some measure its reference to its own object will be obscured. If, on the other hand, it is alert and robust in critical appraisal of the dominant idioms of its culture and refuses their claim to self-evidentness, it may well find itself released from some of the inhibitions under which it has often gone about its work.
A somewhat schematic pathology of modern Christology would identify three such inhibitions: the problem of nominalist treatments of the person and mission of Jesus; the problem of theistic construals of the identity of God; and the problem of the relation of the particularity of Jesus to claims about his universality.
In nominalist Christology, Jesus is illustrative but not constitutive of some reality of ultimate significance.1 His "name" (that is, his enacted identity as a particular figure) is relative to some supposed ultimate reality, of which it is a contingent expression. That ultimate reality is available under other (though not necessarily more adequate or comprehensive) descriptions. Whether the ultimate reality be conceived in moral terms (as absolute value) or in religious-theological terms (as divine being) matters little; the consequence for an account of incarnation is much the same. Jesus Christ is no longer irre-ducibly identified as ingredient within the reality of God. He may indicate God's reality, even paradigmatically and supremely so; but he is not identical with it, and so he cannot be the inconcussum fundamentum veritatis. As a distinguished representative of this kind of Christology puts it: "What is central is the transforming event associated with the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, a transformation that brings about a new way of relating both to God and to other human beings" (McFague 1983:333).
Two particular features of such Christologies deserve comment. First, the incompa-rability of Jesus Christ is de-emphasized, since his identity is rendered in relative terms. As Hans Frei put it, on this model the description of Jesus's identity involves comparative reference to the characteristics, conditions, or destinies of some other persons or of all mankind as they may be viewed from the standpoint of a given cultural or social framework. . . . [T]he comparative reference is usually to the common qualities of estrangement, self-alienation, or some other basically divisive conflict that may appear within the self, between the self and its society, or between social forces. (Frei 19 75:89)
The effect of this move is to suggest that Jesus is somehow transcended by some other context, which provides the ultimate ground for understanding him and his actions, in such a way that other persons and actions could be substituted for Jesus without irreparable loss. "Jesus" names not only a person but qualities enacted by or associated with that person.
Second, accordingly, Jesus becomes "archetypal," with a couple of consequences. One is that it does not matter very much whether Jesus is a present, operative figure -in effect, it does not matter whether he is risen from the dead. What endures is not necessarily Jesus himself but that which he instantiates or symbolizes. Nominalist Chris-tologies are thus irresistibly drawn to concentrate upon Jesus's moral and religious teaching, or his enactment of a radically challenging style of human relations, since it is here that his transparency to an ultimate reality can be most clearly discerned. And they are also drawn to exemplarist accounts of the saving significance of Jesus. He saves, not by undertaking a unique mission of which he alone can be the agent, but by acting out and recommending attitudes and commitments which ought to characterize all persons. Within such moralist and exemplarist Christologies, what matters is not that Jesus is, but that he was. His "presence" is the persistence of an ideal; it is imperative rather than indicative.
A second consequence is that in Christologies in which Jesus functions as archetype, human action threatens to become the real center of gravity. The divine act of incarnation quickly becomes mere mythic representation of work which needs to be undertaken by human persons themselves. Kant, for example, argues that
It is our universal human duty to elevate ourselves to this ideal of moral perfection, i.e. to the prototype of moral disposition in its entire purity, and for this the very idea, which is presented to us by reason for emulation, can give us force. But, precisely because we are not its authors but the idea has rather established itself in the human being without our comprehending how human nature could have even been receptive of it, it is better to say that that prototype has come down to us from heaven, that it has taken up humanity. . . . This union with us may therefore be regarded as a state of abasement of the Son of God if we represent to ourselves this God-like human being, our prototype, in such a way that, though himself holy and hence not bound to submit to sufferings, he nonetheless takes these upon himself in the fullest measure for the sake of promoting the world's greatest good. (Kant 1996:104)
Faith in Jesus Christ is thus "practical faith in this Son of God" (ibid.), a mode of conduct stimulated by him rather than an affirmation or acknowledgment of what he is.
Such Christological constructs shatter the logic of incarnation. At best, Jesus is a (the?) symbolic intensification of the divine; at worst, he is merely ornamental. But he is not God enfleshed. He is, perhaps, a mode of the divine self-manifestation, an instrument in the divine pedagogy; but, in the end, he is not the content of the divine instruction.
Undergirding this nominalism are two further features of modern Christologies: theism, and a bifurcation of the universal and the particular.
A good deal of theology in modernity has been theistic, in that the specifics of Christian conviction have not generally been considered constitutive either of the process of coming to believe in God or of the content of such belief.2 In effect, Christian doctrine concerning the Trinity, the incarnation, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the church have been relegated to merely contingent status, interpreted as refinements of or particular positive variants upon more basic theistic belief, into which they can be rendered without loss of anything essential. The authority of theism is the result of the coming together of a number of factors. One is the rise of prolegomena to theology in the early modern period, in which basic belief in "a god" was considered determinable by philosophical reason without reference to the experience of faith. Another is modernity's unease about revelatory divine action in history, which presses theology to construct its account of the identity of God out of metaphysical resources independent of the religious experience of Israel and the church. A third is modernity's preference for natural over positive religion, largely driven by distaste for the contentious claims of specific traditions and the desire to replace them by rational defense of the plausibility of belief in God as the foundation for moral consensus (such sentiments are still the backcloth for a good deal of contemporary Christian theorizing about the relation of Christianity to other world faiths).
In the case of the doctrine of the incarnation, the authority of theism both reinforces and is reinforced by the nominalism of modern theology. Christological nominalism presupposes an ontological separation of Jesus and God, with the result that the content of the term "God" is filled out by appeal to all manner of resources which are not Christologically shaped: theos and Christos are not mutually determinative. Once this bifurcation is allowed, then the doctrine of the incarnation is immediately unworkable, for that doctrine claims an ontological unity between God and the human career of the man Jesus, a unity not conceivable within the terms of the metaphysics of theism. Divinity, defined remoto Christo, cannot exist in union with humanity. And so the claim of the doctrine of the incarnation - that the end of the ways and works of God is to take flesh - comes to be rejected. Within the terms of a theistic understanding of God, there can be no hypostatic union, and so Christian theology must restrict itself to a Christology which is non-incarnational (and therefore non-trinitarian) and to a Christology in which Jesus manifests the divine character with singular potency but without ontological entailments.
This is linked, finally, to an antinomy between universal and particular, ultimate and historical. Modern theology was and continues to be deeply shaped by the disappearance of a conviction which shaped Western culture in the premodern period, namely the conviction of "the inextricable tie of all that is ultimately meaningful to Jesus Christ as a particular person" (Marshall 1987:2). The conviction was eclipsed by a metaphysical principle which separated the sensible and supra-sensible realms, and which considered that historical accidentals cannot be the bearers of non-contingent truths. This divorce of historical specificity from the absolute had a clearly devastating effect on incarnational doctrine: time, space, the body are other than that which is ultimate, and so Jesus's spatio-temporal and embodied existence cannot be identified with the being of God.
In the face of this legacy, there are at least three ways of reorienting a theological account of the incarnation. One is a form of accommodation, in which Christian theology accepts in some measure the constraints imposed upon it by the forms of its wider cultural environment, and seeks to develop a plausible account of the Christian confession within the limits imposed by those forms. If Christologies of this type are theologically deficient, it is not only because they often produce accounts whose resemblance to the family of Christian orthodoxy is hard to discern, but also because they are intellectually conservative. These Christologies characteristically exhibit considerable deference to external cultural conventions, and a reluctance to make use of Christian resources in the critical evaluation of intellectual traditions. A second response is apologetic: the general theistic framework is presupposed, but room is carved out for Christian theological conviction by demonstrating that Christian beliefs about the incarnation are a necessary corollary of (or at least are not incompatible with) the metaphysics of God. Again, if accounts of this type are deficient, it is because they may underestimate the critical impact of the Christian confession on philosophical conviction. A third option - adopted here - follows a strategy of combining dogmatic criticism with what might be called archaeology. As dogmatic criticism, it evaluates cultural and philosophical customs (including customary teaching about God) in terms of their compatibility with the church's confession, doing so on the basis of the metaphysical and epistemological priority of the church's confession of the gospel over the world's denial of it. As archaeology, it is especially concerned to unearth how contemporary theological conscience may be held to ransom by scruples which properly ought to have no authority over it.
If we are to understand, we must look, not at the universe, but at one particular; we must not seek first, within the historical series, universal laws of its development in terms of which we can, so to speak, interpret the fact of Christ; we must not seek to bring him within the terms of our thinking, but rather to recast the whole of our intellectual frame of reference by constant recollection of his particularity. (MacKinnon 1940:45)
What ought to have authority over the theological conscience, is the gospel as confessed by the church. At the heart of the gospel is the joyful and awed affirmation that the Word became flesh - that, as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed puts it, there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, begotten from his Father before all ages, light from light, God from God, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father; that it was through this one that all things were made; that for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. We turn to a more extended exposition of this confession.
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