Orientation

Construals of who Jesus Christ is and construals of the nature of the Christological task are mutually reinforcing. Thus, for example, from the end of the eighteenth century the method of Protestant Christology was dominated by deep and sustained engagement with the historical records about Jesus; but the plausibility of the historical methods used to pursue that engagement derived not only from the general prestige of historical science in German and (slightly later) English intellectual culture, but also from the humanist and moralistic interpretations of Jesus which found classic expression in Kant's religious writings. The critical and sometimes apologetic use of historical inquiry both drew upon and confirmed theological convictions about Jesus. However, formal and material concerns rarely exist in equilibrium; much more often, precedence is given to either the formal or the material. Mainstream modern Christol-ogy, especially when it acknowledges an obligation to its wider intellectual environment, characteristically gives a measure of priority to the formal conditions for public speech about Jesus. The reason for this is that the intellectual world in which modern Christology was decisively shaped (Germany at the turn of the nineteenth century) was much preoccupied with the effects upon religious claims of philosophical idealism and the disciplines of historical inquiry to which idealism was closely akin. To put matters very crudely: religious claims about Jesus were subordinate to universally valid processes of intellectual inquiry considered to have greater authority than the merely domestic doctrine of the church. Those universally valid processes of inquiry were, of course, by no means religiously neutral; in the case of Christology, as we shall see, they usually involved an assumption that Jesus is not a presently active figure but simply a figure from the past, available only through historical report. But the effect of their acceptance was that the domestic doctrine of the church was not trusted to have sufficient authority to determine the formal means by which investigation into Jesus Christ might properly be undertaken.

The hegemony of the formal has rarely been overthrown by explicit refutation, which often ends in a methodological tangle. The most persuasive attempts to operate by a different set of rules - amongst Protestants, Barth's Christological metaphysics; amongst Roman Catholics, von Balthasar's Christological dramatics - have not waited upon formal permission to proceed but simply set about the descriptive Christological task, demonstrating in actual use the priority of material claims over formal requirements. Though what follows advocates the priority of substantive doctrine, it nevertheless begins by drawing attention to some of the formal or methodological consequences for Christology of the material content of the church's claim. That material content can be summed up thus: The doctrine of the incarnation is an attempt at conceptual expansion of the church's confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The doctrine is concerned with the church's confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. Because the doctrine of the incarnation is an attempt at a conceptual expansion of the church's confession, it starts from a given. It is neither an arbitrary nor a constructive exercise, but the following of a reality which precedes and incloses its activity. That which is given to Christology is, however, more closely defined not as an intellectual or spiritual positum, a received piece of tradition or authoritative Christian experience. What is given is the personal, communicative self-presence of Jesus Christ, in and as whom the creative, redemptive and perfecting work of God, willed by the Father and brought to realization by the Holy Spirit, are enacted. He is the given; in his inalienable and unique subjectivity, he is the supreme conditioning factor in all creaturely occurrence and therefore the supreme conditioning factor in all thought and speech about himself. Because he is Lord, he can only be thought of as Lord; if he is not thought of as Lord, and with the rational deference which is due to him as Lord, then he is not thought of at all. As Lord, he is the incomparably comprehensive context of all creaturely being, knowing and acting. The ontological ground of Christology is he himself; similarly, the epistemological ground of Christology - the condition under which true knowledge of this reality is possible - is he himself, for he is the agent through whom knowledge of himself is realized. Because Jesus Christ is Lord, comprehending all other contexts but comprehended by none, thought about him must follow the particular path indicated by his self-presenting reality.

Two images, both taken from Bonhoeffer's Berlin Christology lectures of 1933, reinforce the point. The first is that Christology is the "center of its own space" (Bonhoeffer 1978:28). That is to say, the intellectual activity of theology does not transcend the reality of Jesus Christ but is transcended by it; his reality incloses theology, rather than the other way round. Accordingly, thinking about Jesus Christ cannot be classificatory, a matter of assigning him a place in an existing order of objects, whether material or spiritual. Rather, he is that in terms of which all other reality is to be mapped. The second image reinforces the first by suggesting that Christology is concerned, not with spontaneous human utterance about Jesus Christ but with a divine "Counter-Logos": "When the Counter-Logos appears in history, no longer as an idea but as 'Word' become flesh, there is no longer any possibility of assimilating him into the existing order of the human logos" (1978:30). Such a Counter-Logos shapes Christol-ogy in a profound way, most of all by repudiating any idea that theological talk about Jesus Christ is a pure initiative: it is, rather, that which must be said because the church and its theology have already been spoken to, arrested, and in a very important sense, silenced by Jesus Christ who is God's Word, the free and lordly utterance of God. "The incarnation of the Word is the great 'Thus saith the Lord' to which theology can only give the assent that it has heard and understood it" (Barth 1958:59). And so: "Teaching about Christ begins in silence" (Bonhoeffer 19 78:27).

The point of both those images could be stated more formally by saying that for Christian faith and theology, the church's confession of the lordship of Jesus Christ the incarnate Word is analytic not synthetic. That confession indicates a reality which cannot be broken down into more primitive elements or deduced from some higher vantage point, and so it works from an assumption which "is a genuine and proper assumption, in so far as it cannot be over-topped by any other, and therefore suspended on, and even disputed by, a higher assumption" (Barth 1956:131). Christology deals with that which grounds all things and therefore cannot itself be grounded. "Christol-ogy deals with the revelation of God as a mystery" (ibid.). Because according to the confession Jesus Christ is divine, he is that than which nothing greater can be conceived; theology, therefore, may not operate as if it were competent or permitted to occupy a position prior to, independent of or outside his reality. The office of theological reason is to follow the direction in which the divine reality beckons as it sets itself before us; that is theology's discipleship to revelation. And so, the ratio cognoscendi for a theological account of the incarnation is the sheer active, self-bestowing majesty of the Word made flesh. A number of consequences follow from this.

First, the doctrine of the incarnation is an exercise of retrospective rather than constructive or poetic reason. That is, it seeks to draw attention to that which has taken place, that which has already announced itself and made itself a matter for confession; it is not a matter of engaging in a struggle to establish the conditions under which an event of incarnation might be considered a possible object of confession. The rule for theological (indeed, for all) reasoning is: thought follows reality, because possibility follows actuality. The incarnation is thus that from which theology moves, rather than that toward which it moves. The incarnation is a perfectum, an achieved reality which guides theological thinking by ordering thinking toward itself. Such language -guiding, ordering - is inescapably personal, once again reminding us that what generates the theology of the incarnation is the active self-present reality of Jesus Christ, who is, independent of and inexhaustibly prior to any representation of him that might be made.

Secondly, therefore, the doctrine of the incarnation is only in a very limited sense a "valuation" of Jesus Christ. Talk of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh is not to be thought of as a mythological expression of the religious or moral value which Christians find in him or place upon him as an object of regard or worship. Naturally, of course, all theological language, however objective in orientation and however much it may reach beyond itself, is also an expression of the speaker: to deny this would be docetic. But what is of critical importance is that in this self-expressive, "worldly" character, theological language about Jesus Christ should genuinely refer, genuinely - if confusedly and certainly inadequately - point beyond itself to that by which it is confronted. Where such reference fails, and language about Jesus Christ is no longer properly ostensive, then theology becomes merely a nominalist expression of religious feeling, contingently attached to the name of Jesus. But a doctrine of the incarnation must properly operate in a quite different fashion: it must be an acknowledgment of the inherent transcendent goodness, beauty, and truth of Jesus Christ the Word made flesh; it cannot be an arbitrary conferral of value or dignity. In the end, this is because of the nature of the reality with which Christology concerns itself. Jesus Christ is Lord; lordship which is conferred is a contradiction in terms. To speak theologically of the Word made flesh is thus not to predicate an honorific title of Christ, or to assign him a place in a Christian world of values, even if it be the highest place. It is to confess him to be the one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God. Theology is not competent to make any other judgment.

Thirdly, the sphere of the doctrine of the incarnation is the church. Much of the disrepair of the doctrine of the incarnation in modernity stems from the assumption that the doctrine can be transplanted out of its natural habitat - the practices of Christian faith - and nevertheless continue to flourish. This transplanting occurs very often when the doctrine of the incarnation is approached as a matter for apologetics, defended by the deployment of historical evidences, by the reasoning of philosophical theism, or by a theory of religious symbol. All such strategies are characteristically underdetermined by the content of the doctrine, assuming that it can be defended by showing its compatibility with a generic theory of what is ultimate. The cost, however, is that the "churchly" character of the theology of the incarnation - its inseparability from the worship, witness and holiness of the church - is laid aside. Crucially, theology thereby loses sight of the all-important word which stands before and brackets the confession of the one Lord Jesus Christ: Credo, I believe. The sphere of the Credo is the sphere of the church; and as conceptual expansion of the Credo, the doctrine of the incarnation cannot aspire to leave behind the domestic culture of the Christian community.

Fourthly, however, that "domestic culture" is not to be envisaged as a happily stable set of ecclesial practices "containing" Jesus Christ or, perhaps, embodying in its life the same divine reality of which he is the supreme incarnation. (Anglican Christology of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries sometimes fostered this impression.) To think in such terms is to confuse incarnation and immanence, and thereby radically to misconstrue what it means to say that the church is the sphere in which the doctrine of the incarnation is to be located. The church is not the institutional container of the incarnation; it is, rather, that sphere of human life and fellowship which is besieged by, permanently under attack from, the Word made flesh. One of the most striking features of Bonhoeffer's Christology fragments is his insistence that Jesus Christ is a question posed to the church, that the church is relentlessly interrogated by the fact that at the heart of its life is the presence of the incarnate one, who cannot be assimilated into or clothed by a form of religious life (Bonhoeffer 1978:301, Torrance 1965:117-27). The consequences of this for theological procedure are immense. It means that - not only for spirituality but for theology, too - "There are only two ways possible of encountering Jesus: man must die or he must put Jesus to death" (Bonhoeffer 1978:35). To speak thus risks seeming indulgent, even histrionic. But it is soberly to draw attention to something close to the heart of an authentic doctrine of the incarnation, namely that the function of any such doctrine is in part to keep the church alert to two realities: the sheer critical force of the one who is confessed, and the pervasive temptation to use concepts for the purposes of idolatrous control.

To sum up so far: the doctrine of the incarnation is oriented to the core element of the church's confession, namely that Jesus Christ is Lord, the one who as Lord himself sets the conditions under which he comes to be known and acknowledged as such. Theological talk of incarnation is an act of retrospection rather than poiesis; of acknowledgment rather than valuation; of the church rather than universal reason; of being interrogated by, rather than of interrogating the personal reality which is the matter of the church's attestation.

Next, and more briefly, the task of the doctrine of the incarnation is conceptual expansion of the church's confession. The expansion takes the form of appeal to and refashioning of a small number of ontological categories, chief among them being substance, person and nature.

A long and authoritative tradition in modern Christology has held that the conceptual idiom in which the doctrine of the incarnation found classic expression is a declension from authentic Christian engagement with Jesus. That tradition - of which the most authoritative popular example is Harnack's What Is Christianity?, but whose presiding genius is Ritschl - was given renewed energy by theological existentialism, and found a more recent voice in liberal Anglican revisionary histories of patristic Christology from the last third of the twentieth century. These diverse figures were in their different ways and for different reasons all agreed on one central point: that the "metaphysical" conceptuality of the doctrine of the incarnation was an unsuitable vehicle for articulating the ethico-religious concerns which ought to lie at the center of theological talk about Jesus Christ. This conviction was backed up in a variety of ways: by reading the Christology of the New Testament in "functional" rather than "ontologi-cal" terms; by critical doctrinal history of the patristic developments, claiming that ontology was an infection caught from the cultural context of Christian faith; by an emphasis upon the saving work of Christ "for me" over the technicalities of his person; and by a commitment to Christian existence as the foundational reality around which "objective" doctrines have to be arranged and by which they are to be criticized.

It must readily be admitted that there is a debased form of Christology which is "abstract" in the sense that it accords priority to concepts such that the personal history of Jesus's life, death and resurrection comes to seem almost a symbolization of an idea. No part of Christian theology - least of all theological talk about God in the flesh -should fail to avoid that. Nevertheless, the wholesale rejection of concepts in Christology is untenable on a number of grounds. First, it tends to read the concepts of which the doctrine of the incarnation makes use as belonging more to descriptive than to analytical metaphysics, whereas in their Christological employment the concepts are more concerned with the relations between substances than the nature of substances. Description and analysis, obviously, cannot be kept entirely distinct. But when the categories used to give an account of the incarnation are read only descriptively, then they can threaten to become little more than a bizarre piece of metaphysical psychology -as, for example, when the term "person" is construed as "personality" (cf. Williams 1976:253-60).

Secondly, it is of the utmost importance to emphasize that the use of concepts may modify, or even radically transform, their habitual range of reference. As we shall see in looking at some of the basic concepts used in incarnational theology, what is most interesting about them is not their pre-history but their modification when they are bent to serve the purpose of articulating the Christian confession. Liberal Protestant Christology frequently underplayed the element of transformation, in order to maximize the gap between credal Christology and the religion of Jesus, and to minimize the differences between credal Christology and its intellectual environment. But it could only do so by overlooking the intellectually innovative and culturally dislocated character of patristic Christology.

Thirdly, the retention of conceptual language in giving an account of Jesus Christ is a conditio sine qua non for the rejection of subjectivism in Christology. Ontological concepts, above all, the concept of "substance," resist the debasement of Christology to spirituality, and so function as an essential element of theological realism. Christology which does not spell out the ontological dimensions of the person of Jesus Christ in relation to God finds it very difficult to resist the pull of subjectivism and moralism, and quickly turns Jesus into a mythological condensation of the religious and ethical commitments of the believing self. The use of ontology is thus a way of ensuring that the identity of Jesus is not subject to the vagaries of religious use, and that what faith confesses is who Jesus indissolubly is.

Lastly, the doctrine of the incarnation is an attempt at conceptual expansion of the church's confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. Like all Christian doctrine, the doctrine of the incarnation is caught between the necessity of concepts and the fact that they are not naturally fitting. What is required in this situation is not the rejection of concepts but their sanctification. Responsible thought and speech simply could not proceed without some kind of conceptual equipment; what is needed is, therefore, the conversion of concepts. Thought and speech about Jesus Christ are thought and speech annexed by his self-exposition. They are the exercise of "dethroned and distraught reason" (Bonhoeffer 1978:30). But though they are not fitting, they are made fitting, sanctified, in service to the communicative presence of Christ, even though they always stand on the threshold of breakdown, in the midst of the crisis of the fact of their own unsuitability for the task they have to perform. That task is to enable rational grasp of the character and scope of the church's confession. The concepts of Christology are not an improvement upon the confession. They do not provide a better warranted, or a more conceptually stable and precise, mode of expression - in fact, they are always frail and ill-adapted. Nor are Christological concepts speculative, in the sense of being an attempt to identify transcendental metaphysical conditions from which a doctrine of incarnation might be deduced. Rather, they have the modest task of ordering and arranging the church's thought and speech about Jesus Christ in such a way as to display its shapeliness, coherence, and explanatory power. Concepts do not add to the confession, but work both from it and back toward it, starting from that which is well known in the sphere of faith and church, and returning to that sphere having undertaken their task. But concepts can only do this if the theologian deploys them with a sense that they are permanently on the brink of dissolution, always aware of their own impossibility, and never, therefore, any more than an attempt.

In such an attempt, it is the task of Christian theology to construct concepts which are appropriate to the matter of the incarnation, and to ensure their appropriate use. Concepts and their use are to be judged appropriate, first, if they are sufficiently transparent and delicate to enable apprehension of that which they indicate - the reality of Jesus Christ. Concepts must not obscure, and certainly not dominate, that reality, but should be subservient to it. Secondly, concepts and their use are to be judged appropriate if they resist the temptation to replace the primary modes of speech in which the church's confession of Christ is expressed: homological, kerygmatic, doxological, and aretological language and, above all, the prophetic and apostolic language of Scripture. If it is true that "the root of dogma is the confession of Christ" (Schlink 1967:34), then the conceptual matter of dogma needs to be self-effacing, such that dogma will adopt a rhetoric of indication. That is, its rhetoric - its language and concepts, its patterns of argument, its "voice" - will be such that it is a testifying to the matter of incarnation. Its rhetoric will therefore be deliberately minimalist, unelaborate, unfinished, shy of exhaustive explanation, above all, governed by the scriptual witness in which it finds its beginning and end.

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