I. The Demystifying Role of Chalcedon
There are two realities in question. One is fleshly: the life and death of the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth. The other is spiritual: an encounter with the living God, in judgement and salvation, grace and glory. The first is a matter of fact, the second a self-authenticating phenomenon, attested again and again in Christian experience. The christological problem is to articulate the relation between the two.
Classically the relation has been expressed in paradoxical juxtapositions: ‘There is one physician, fleshly and spiritual, born and unborn, in the flesh become God, in death eternal life, both from Mary and from God, first suffering and then beyond suffering, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians 7.2). This is quite close to the Pauline dynamic of the crucified and risen Jesus. In Tertullian, the paradox has a more doctrinaire thrust, marking that the union of divine and human in Christ is unsearchable to human intellect. His language builds on the Pauline ‘folly of the cross’ (1 Cor. 1:18-24): ‘Crucifixus est dei filius; non pudet quia pudendum est. Et mortuus est dei filius: credibile est quia ineptum est. Et sepultus resurrexit; certum est quia impossibile’ (God’s son is crucified; it is not to be blushed for for it is shameful. God’s son has dies; it is credible because it is absurd. And being buried he rose agains; it is certain because it is impossible; De Carne Christi 5.4). Later, this tradition of paradox builds more on dogma than on Paul, and can seem rather mechanical, rooted more in triumphant definition of truth than in the dynamic of its biblical unfolding: ‘Invisibilis in suis, visibilis est factus in nostris, incomprehensibilis voluit comprehendi; ante tempora manens esse coepit ex tempore; universitatis Dominus servilem formam obumbrata maiestatis suae immensitate suscepit; impassibilis Deus non dedignatus est homo esse passibilis et immortalis mortis legibus subiacere’ (Invisible in his own he became visible in ours; incomprehensible he willed to be comprehended; remaining before times he began to be in time; the Lord of the universe took a servile form, the immensity of his majesty obscured; the impassible God did not disdain to be passible man and, immortal, to be subject to mortal laws; the Tome of Leo, accepted at Chalcedon). [On all these developments see Raniero Cantalamessa, Dal Kerygma al Dogma, Milan, 2006, he sees Ignatius and Tertullian as exegetes of Romans 1.3-4 and Tertullian as aware of Ignatius. An ontologization of the kerygma proceeds with the replaces of the narrative sequence flesh-spirit by an ontological one, spirit-flesh.]
Chalcedon (451) perceives in Christ is the union of two natures in one person: ‘One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, made known in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation (asynchutôs, atreptôs, adiairetôs, achôristôs), the difference of the natures having in no wise been taken away by reason of the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved, and both concurring into one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis’. What strikes one immediately is that the two realities, the human and the divine, are here brought back to an underlying objective basis: the two natures. The relation between the two realities is similarly recalled to an objective foundation: their common hypostasis. Today this clarification is likely to be seen as an estrangement. Our search to articulate the relation of the human and divine dimensions of the Christ-event has to overcome the Chalcedonian perspective through a lucid critique of its limitations.
[Cantalamessa notes the narrowing of Christological teaching to the dogmatic core, and the post-Chalcedonian formalism that developed a fetischistic and divisive cult of formulae at the expense of what they were intended to point to. 'The dogmatic contraction and reduction of the kerygma consists in the progressive restriction of reflection to some contents that the process of ontologization privileged over others... Nothing of the New Testament variety of Christological themes is openly rejected, but theological reflection henceforth only illuminates a certain region of them that is ever more restricted... marginalizing and leaving inactive the contents less harmonizable with the dogmatic synthesis and shaping a pyramidal configuration of the Christological edifice in which the base is the biblical datum and the apex, ever more rarefied, the dogmatic definition' (p. 36). He notes the legitimate pluralism of Christological thought (holding up Athanasius Tomus ad Antiochenos of 362 as a model of tolerance) and the contingent aspect of dogmas, which were formulated in response to heresies with a largely apophatic purpose, not imposing a static frame but keeping free the dynamic stream of tradition. The Heideggerian sense of 'overcoming' could further enrich Cantalamessa's lucid and erudite vision. To overcome in Heidegger's sense is not to declare false but to set in movement anew, by a retrieval of more originary vision. However, though Cantalamessa has well learned the lessons of Harnack at the level of critical historical analysis of the formation of dogma, his proposals for the contemporary appropriation of dogma fall far behind the level of hermeneutical sophistication required of theology today. Making an analogy with Scripture, he treats the critical understanding of the history of dogma as belonging to the level of "the literal sense", to be supplemented by a grasp of the "spiritual sense" in the manner taught by medieval exegesis as analyzed by Henri de Lubac. Since dogmas, like Scripture, are inspired by the Holy Spirit, he argues, such a spiritual sense will inevitably unfold, in organic continuity. The example he gives is the mariological and ecclesiological developments issuing from the Creed's presentation of the Incarnation. That there are any incommensurabilities between ancient and contemporary horizons, such that one may speak with Michel Foucault of different regimes of truth, different dispositions of the world of knowledge, is something Cantalamessa would seem to deny. Renewal of Christology by a deeper understanding of the Johannine tradition, beyond the blockages of Origen and the fourth century, or by critical study of the historical Jesus and his Jewish context, or by consultation of other religious perspectives such as that of Buddhism, or by reading Christ in relation to the signs of the times as attempted in liberation theology or in feminist theology, is an idea that does not enter his ken. It is significant that his finest analyses date to the 1960s and his less imaginative proposals come from the 1980s, when he became a preacher for John Paul II. His career seems to reflect the turn inwards and the closure and paralysis that have marked Roman theology in recent decades. For his view on the historical Jesus, see http://www.catholic.net/global_catholic_news/template_news.phtml?news_id=20129&channel_id=2.]
Most of the waves of criticism that have washed against the rock of Chalcedon have been ineffectual; see especially, A. von Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (Tubingen, 1931), pp. 397-8; corrected by R. Seeberg, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte II (Darmstadt, 1965), and A. Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition (London, 1975). If we could pinpoint where exactly they have fallen short, this would be a good preparation for a critical hermeneutical retrieval of the truth of Chalcedon. One reason for the failure is that the critics have been unable to bring into view the nature of the Greek metaphysical horizon within which the classical doctrine developed; here Heidegger offers resources for a critical genealogy which theology has yet to exploit. Another reason is that the critics did not do justice to the necessity and truth of Chalcedon on its own terms, nor appreciate how well this rule of faith had served classical theology, holding in check the monophysite tendencies recurring throughout the tradition.
If we linger for a moment over some past episodes in christology, we may see that blind spots and distortions came chiefly from neglect of Chalcedon’s insistence on the integral humanity of Christ. The twelfth-century ‘nihilianists’ claimed that Christ’s humanity has no reality in itself, that insofar as he is a man he is nothing, that his human nature is less real than his divine; see M. Colish, Peter Lombard (Leiden, 1994), and ‘Christological nihilianism in the second half of the twelfth century’, RTAM 63 (1996), pp. 146-55. Some Thomists, such as Capreolus, Cajetan, and Billot, saw Christ’s human nature as having its being in the being of the Logos, with no existence of its own; see E. Gutwenger, Bewusstsein und Wissen Christi (Innsbruck, 1959), pp. 178-84; M. Nieden, Organum Deitatis: Die Christologie des Thomas de Vio Cajetan (Leiden, 1997). In Thomas himself, however, there is a development toward a fully Chalcedonian viewpoint which respects the integrity and autonomy of Christ’s humanity: ‘Christ has no human personhood not because he lacks something positive but on the contrary because something positive is added to his human nature’ (namely, the personhood of the Logos’ (Gutwenger, p. 177).
Monophysites tended to attribute omniscience to Christ’s human soul. Fulgentius of Ruspe argued that Christ’s soul must have had full knowledge of his divinity: ‘Durum est, et a sanitate fidei penitus alienum, ut dicamus animam Christi non plenam suae divinitatis habere notitiam, cum qua naturaliter unam creditur habere personam’ (PL 65:416). The schools of Laon and Saint Victor, misled by a pseudo-Ambrosian slogan: ‘The soul of Christ has by grace all that God has by nature’, attributed divine knowledge to the soul of Christ, some going so far as to claim that ‘the soul of Christ is equal to the Father’: see H. Santiago-Otero, El conocimiento de Cristo en cuanto hombre en la teologia de la primera mitad del siglo XII (Pamplona, 1970), p. 46. Again Aquinas corrects this in Chalcedonian style, distinguishing between Christ’s divine, uncreated knowledge and his human, created knowledge, which is twofold: a natural knowledge based on the senses and on receptive learning, and a supernaturally infused vision of things in the divine Word and of the Word itself; the latter is not immediate, but is conferred by a superadded habit ‘through which a created intellect is elevated to what is above it’ (De Veritate q. 20, a. 2). The application of Chalcedon is scrupulously thorough: ‘Oportet in ipso ponere omnia quae ad naturam divinam pertinent; et iterum seorsum secundum rationem naturae in eadem persona omnia quae speciem hominis constituunt’ (q. 20, a. 1).
As we ponder these past utterances, with their various orthodox or unorthodox implications, we discover that they have an oblique relation to present concerns and that they exercise us in an art of discrimination that can help us strike the right christological emphases today. Even today, Chalcedon can be effective in correcting speculative distortions in Christology, such as the popular theories of a ‘suffering God’ which undermine not only divine transcendence but also the integrity of Christ’s human nature.
But Chalcedon can be applied still more radically than its defenders have done. Within scholastic perspectives, reinforced by Aristotelean conceptuality, it is hard to do justice to the link with biblical vision which Chalcedon had retained. Thus Aquinas takes the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ preternatural insight and miraculous powers to warrant ascription to him of the greatest knowledge and power possible in a creature, including the capacity to see in the Word all that the Word sees. Only historical scholarship has allowed us to recover Jesus as a human being sharing the cognitive limitations of his culture. But this recovery is not in conflict with the Chalcedonian tradition; rather Chalcedon kept the stage clear for it and has allowed the Church to take aboard the findings of scholarship as a welcome confirmation of the doctrine that Christ is truly man. It helps us take in our stride the possibility that the human Jesus may have erred, due to the limitations of the framework of his eschatological thinking; such errors could include not only the Naherwartung (Mk 9:1; Mt. 10:23), but the elements in his teaching that gave rise to anti-Jewish supersessionist doctrine (Mk 12:9) and notions of eternal punishment. ‘Verus homo’ must include the errancy intrinsic to the human condition. It consigns the fleshly Christ to the processes of reinterpretation and correction to which all historical figures are subject. This is the task of reappropriation and supplementation in which the interpreting Spirit leads the church (Jn 16:13).
Again, Chalcedon has often been taken to teach a massive ontological amalgamation of divine and human substances, best expressed in such forthright statements as: ‘Jesus is God’, ‘the God-man’, ‘God became man’. But an authentic Chalcedonian understanding of the ‘communication of idioms’ can smooth away some of the unease these statements arouse. ‘Jesus is a man’ and ‘The Logos is God’ are direct predications, but ‘Jesus is God’ is misleading shorthand that needs to be spelled out carefully. Because the man Jesus is hypostatically one with the eternal Logos, we can attribute to this one person all the attributes of the humanity and of the divinity; thus we can say ‘Jesus is God’, ‘Jesus created the world’ or ‘The Logos was born of Mary’, ‘The Logos suffered and died’ as long as we ward off any suggestion that the human nature as such acquires divine qualities or that the divine nature as such is subject to human limitations; see H. Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI, 1978), pp. 439-47. We should not traffic too freely in such expressions, however. The Greek patristic idea of a mutual perichoresis of the human and divine natures of Christ, in a total mixture (Stoic krasis di holon), comes near to being an abuse of the communication of idioms, especially if misinterpreted to mean that qualities of the divine nature are attributed to the human nature, as in H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers (Harvard UP, 1970), pp. 418-28; G. L. Prestige, in contrast, plays down the ontological import of the patristic statements, in his God in Patristic Thought (London, 1964), pp. 291-9. An important text is John Damascene, Patrologia Graeca 94:1000A: ‘each nature giving to the other its properties through the sameness of the hypostasis and their perichoresis toward each other’. The ultimate hypostasis of Jesus Christ is God’s eternal Word; but this is not in rivalry with his human personality. The trinitarian modes of being (tropoi tes hyparxeos) of God as Father, Son, Spirit are clearly not ‘persons’ in the ordinary human sense. Chalcedon thus leaves considerable room for manoeuvre in interpreting the sense in which Jesus ‘is’ God’s Word spoken into our history.
Yet however subtly one expounds Chalcedon - at the risk, indeed, of making it a wax nose -, people will object: Is it not enough to say that in Jesus we encounter the living God? The pursuit of the ontological grounds of this encounter seems epistemologically dubious and has divisive and alienating effects. Moreover, others may experience God’s self-disclosure just as definitively elsewhere. ‘Jesus was and is divine for those who experience in him the manifestation of God... To be human is to live in a as the; to be inhuman is to deny that necessary slippage’, writes J. D. Crossan, in Who Killed Jesus? (San Francisco, 1996), p. 216. To show why Chalcedon may validly make a stronger claim than this today, we need to step back to the biblical sources, showing that they made Chalcedon necessary in the Greek metaphysical context, and that even when this context is overcome they continue to prompt accounts of Jesus which find his ultimate identity in the fact that he is the enfleshment of divine self-disclosure.
II. Rerooting Chalcedon in the Encounter with Christ
Chalcedon is often spoken of as the foundation of the christological edifice (Seeberg), a beginning not an end (Rahner), but today we need also to register the sense in which Chalcedon is an end. The possibilities of speculation about the hypostatic union, rearranging the ancient categories of nature and person, are exhausted. This is clear in the case of Schoonenberg’s attempt to think of the Trinity as becoming personalized and having I-thou relationships from the moment of the Incarnation, but also in the discourse of his critics who stay in the same rut of Chalcedonian argumentation; see P. Schoonenberg, Der Geist, das Wort und der Sohn (Regensburg, 1992); A. Kaiser, Möglichkeiten und Grenzen einer Christologie ‘von unten’ (Munster, 1992). One cannot beat the tradition at its own game; the speculations of process theology or kenoticism or tritheistic accounts of the intradivine social life are bad metaphysics that can be chased out by good, as in J. P. Mackey’s critique of Moltmann, ‘The Preacher, the Theologian, and the Trinity’, Theology Today 54 (1997), pp. 347-66. Mackey gives too much credit here to Augustine’s siting of the Trinity as a transcendent, ineffable archetype; for a critique of this Platonizing topography of revelation, see J. S. O’Leary, ‘The Invisible Mission of the Son in Origen and Augustine’, Origeniana VII,, pp. 605-22.
But good metaphysics is not enough. Whether in classical or modernized form, metaphysical theology has to be problematized and overcome as the thinking of faith finds it proper path. Four trends of hermeneutical awareness converge to impose this overcoming:
(1) Phenomenality: Modern theology insists that faith is grounded in an encounter with God in Christ and only secondarily in dogmatic formulae. ‘The presence of Christ in the Spirit is the all-encompassing situation of all christological statements’; F. J. van Beeck, Christ Proclaimed (New York, 1979), p. 252. ‘It is not “the Incarnation” that is the basis of dogma, but judgement and conversion worked out through encounter with the tellling of Jesus’ story’; R. Williams, in R. Morgan, ed., The Religion of the Incarnation (Bristol, 1989), p. 87. Dogmas mark certain logical constraints which must be respected in order to guard the integrity of the encounter, but they do not provide a foundation or synthesis superior to or equal to the biblical events themselves. Metaphysical theology is built on a reversal of this priority of revelation over dogma. In the space of thought it projects, the truths of faith are no longer grounded in encounter but in stable definitions and substances. In seeking to clarify the biblical events by asking first and foremost for reasons and grounds and by setting them within a doctrinal system, it overleaps both the pneumatic and the fleshly phenomenality of these events, which are no longer free to deploy their significance in the space opened up by scripture and its ongoing interpretation. Questions framed within a Greek metaphysical horizon, oriented to substantial identity, would not need to, and could not, be formulated in a thinking of revelation oriented to events and processes. Speculative construction would be stymied at the question stage by the impossibility of casting off the narrative vesture of biblical revelation in order to define the event in abstraction from its inexhaustibly pluralistic historical texture.
(2) Pluralism: The biblical events come to us in a plurality of experiences, languages, literary genres, conceptual frameworks, and cultural contexts. Metaphysical theology proceeds from a falsifying unification of these data under a homogeneous framework. Taking a view from above on the variety of biblical languages, it cannot respect the specificity of each as a distinctive style of understanding. Its ambition is to be the definitive, objective language which integrates all others. But it turns out to be but one more language, equally subject to historical and cultural plurality which cannot be ironed out. Even when the Church has agreed on one dogmatic formula and maintained it through the centuries, the speculative explanations of the formula (even within the schools of Neothomism) have never admitted of reduction to a single framework. Full recognition of this pluralism greatly limits the role that metaphysical speculation can play in the clarification of Christian truth.
(3) Historicity: All of the cultural frameworks within which Christian truth is articulated belong to limited historical epistemological contexts. They become to a large degree obsolescent and inaccessible when new contexts supervene. The metaphysics which attempts to isolate essential structures and foundations is itself a historically contextualized formation. Critical historical self-positioning has henceforth to be built into every responsible theological discourse. Full recognition of the historicity of theological thought makes us conscious that such notions as ‘nature’ and ‘hypostasis’ or any modern equivalent thereof are culture-bound constructs and provisional conventions. They may be aids to insight in certain contexts, but since they cannot be purged of historical relativity they refer us back to an ongoing activity of understanding that never halts in a definitive systematization.
(4) Epistemological limits: After the critiques of Kant and Wittgenstein, the construction of a metaphysics has become a highly problematic enterprise. To invoke a metaphysics in expounding Christian faith is to saddle theology with the defence of the inherently dubious. The truth of doctrine has to be retrieved independently of the metaphysical frameworks which provided a stable background at the time the doctrines were formulated. In this postmetaphysical context, dogmas will be rated less as positive breakthroughs in ontological insight than as practical rules of speech of a largely negative cast. Thus, the Nicene prohibition of denial of Christ’s true divinity remains in force, but a positive definition of what this ‘true divinity’ means becomes elusive; at best it becomes another rule of speech: ‘what is said of the Father as God must be said of the Son as God’. Within a certain conceptual horizon, a certain language-game, such rules impose themselves, but the absolute necessity and validity of such a take on the divine may remain open to question. We observe the dogmatic rules of language not for their direct cognitive yield but as safeguards of the ‘divine milieu’ in which we encounter God in Christ. This dogmatic minimalism undercuts the arrogance of a christological discourse that would directly speak of divine and human natures and hypostases, as matters of objective knowledge, obliging it to be rephrased in a tentative and hypothetical mode: ‘if we were to choose to speak in this archaic and rather problematic style, then this is what we would be obliged to say’. This apparent enfeeblement of dogma in fact renders it more functional and effective, recalling it to its role as defender of revelation, and preventing it from becoming the foundation of an alternative system of Christian truth in rivalry with the order of events that unfolds from Scripture.
Given that metaphysics is now so problematic, and that classical doctrine has relied heavily on a metaphysical background, it is clear that the task of recalling Chalcedon to its roots in the encounter with God in Christ cannot be simply a matter of fleshing out skeletal categories with the richer languages of Scripture. It involves a fundamental overcoming of the Chalcedonian perspective, through subordinating it to the more originary horizon within which Paul and John sought to articulate an intangible and encompassing reality, the Risen Christ. The kind of linguistic performance to which this unmasterable phenomenon drove Paul and John is not reducible to the bare, literal sense of their words - such words as ‘light’ and ‘spirit’ and ‘Logos’ elude definition in any case, and function as meta-phors, leading our thought to a level of pneumatic event which cannot be objectified and set forth as the person and natures of Christ are in classical dogmatic systems. Within this all-encompassing sphere wherein God is encountered as the ‘one who comes’ in Word and Spirit, in judgement and grace, the language of Chalcedon has the status of a kind of legal codicil, to be invoked only when needed; and like law, dogma is less a matter of timeless insights than of slow historical growth in function of particular cases. Dogma builds a barbed fence about the burning bush of revelation, and it has been a common idolatry to venerate the fence instead of the bush or what is encountered therein.
Chalcedon, ideally, is at the service of encounter. Its four negative adverbs ward off falsifications of that encounter, urging us to respect the integrity of Jesus’ humanity and of his divinity, neither fusing, altering, dividing nor separating them. Despite the Neoplatonic language (Porphyry uses asunchutôs and Plotinus atreptôs with reference to the soul’s relation to the body), the space of the statement need not be characterised as a cold, neutral one in which the hypostasis and the natures of Christ are objectified and torn out of the context of lived encounter. But Christology after Chalcedon became rigid, building a ‘cordon sanitaire around some irreducible core in Jesus’ (Van Beeck, p. 422), because the dogma was made into an absolute point of departure, instead of being constantly referred back to the encounter with Christ in Scripture and in the Church’s worship. A phobia about speaking naturally of Christ’s humanity undermined incarnational realism: ‘The condemnation of Nestorius was the most fateful event in the history of christology, for it made simple and natural ideas impossible in christology’ (Seeberg, p. 303; similarly Harnack, p. 374). After Chalcedon the world of dogma largely ceased to convey a living link with revelation, which people sought elsewhere, in the mystagogical world mapped by Pseudo-Dionysius.
Rudolf Bultmann remains an indispensable point of reference in the step back from an objectifying substance-based christology to one based on encounter: “Jesus Christ is the Eschatological Event as the man Jesus of Nazareth and as the Word which resounds in the mouth of those who preach him. The New Testament indeed holds unmistakenly fast to the humanity of Jesus over against all gnostic doctrine, naturally with a naivety for which the problems of ‘very God and very man’ have not yet arisen - those problems which the ancient Church doubtless saw, but sought to solve in an inadequate way by means of Greek thought with its objectivizing nature; a solution which indeed found an expression that is now impossible for our thought, in the Chalcedonian formula... Christ is everything that is asserted of him in so far as he is the Eschatological Event... He is such - indeed, to put it more exactly, he becomes such - in the encounter - when the Word which proclaims him meets with belief; and indeed even when it does not meet with belief, for whoever does not believe is already judged (John 3.18)” (Essays Philosophical and Theological, London, p. 286). Through a nuanced hermeneutics, it may be possible to square this orientation with the claims of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy as regards the Trinity is satisfied with the recognition of some kind of objective distinction in God between God, Word and Spirit, a distinction required if the New Testament evidence is to retain its full meaning. But the elaborate superstructures built on this in speculative trinitarian theology need to be dismantled if the original core of dogma and its necessity are to be brought into view. Orthodoxy as regards the Incarnation is satisfied with the assertion that the final meaning of Jesus is inseparable from the divine Word. The personality of the human Jesus and the personality of the divine Word cannot be one and the same, since an infinite abyss separates human personality from what we project as divine personality. The identity of Jesus and the Word has to be rethought in terms of event and process, as a coincidence of the human historical adventure of Jesus with the revelational activity of God. To encounter the risen Christ in faith is to encounter the divine Word; the two cannot be divided or separated: adiairetôs, achôristôs. But since the divine nature cannot be mingled with the human or subject to change - asunchutôs, atreptôs - Jesus is free to be integrally human, with all that this entails.
K. Beyschag, who is severely critical of Chalcedon’s play with bloodless categories, reminds us that Christ represents the eschatological inbreaking of God’s grace and judgement, he is its earthly personification, and thus it is precisely insofar as he is fully and entirely man that he is fully and entirely God (Grundriss der Dogmengeschichte II.1 [Darmstadt, 1991], p. 133. But such animadversions need to be set within a fuller account of the metaphysical provenance of Chalcedon’s categories and by a subtler, Heideggerian analysis both of their occulting effect and of the manner in which Chalcedon nonetheless functions as a disclosure event. B. Welte does not criticize Chalcedon but, recognizing its ontological framing of dogma to be historically relative, proposes to reground it in a quasi-Heideggerian language of event: ‘Es ereignete sich, indem sich der ganze Mensch ereignete, der ganze lebendige Gott auf den glaubenden Menschen hin. In dem einen Ereignis, in dem sich der Mensch ereignete, ereignete sich auch der lebendige Gott’ ‘Die Krisis der dogmatischen Christusaussagen’; in: A. Paus, ed., Die Frage nach Jesus (Graz, 1973), p. 177. Heidegger might say, as he did of Bultmann’s TWNT article on ‘faith’: ‘Too Heideggerian for me!’ But though Welte’s proposal needs to be cashed in richer biblical terms, it indicates the hermeneutic task: to clarify the phenomena that gave rise to dogma and to measure against them the limits of the horizon within which the dogma was formulated.
When we recall Chalcedon to its biblical basis we find that it is no more than a footnote to the incarnational vision expressed in John 1:14. But that text may allow of a subtler and wider exegesis than classical dogma countenanced. ‘The Word became flesh’ may mean: ‘The divinity manifest in the creative Wisdom through which the world was made and in the Torah through which the holy community of Israel was assembled is now manifest in a more fleshly, historical form, in and across the entire career of Jesus’. It is not Jesus as an artificially isolated individual, but Jesus in the entire extent of his connections with Jewish tradition and his ongoing pneumatic presence within the community as the ‘firstborn of many brethren’ (Rom
8:29), who is the enfleshment of God’s creative, revelatory Word. God made Godself known in Israel, dwelling among them (the shekinah). It is not through a radical break with this tradition or some monstruous metaphysical paradox that God once again dwells among us in the warm fleshliness of Jesus, that is, of the total history of Jesus, with its roots in and dependence on the Jewish people and its pneumatic unfolding in the anamnesis of the Christian community.
What is new about the new Torah, the new Covenant, is thus not the presence of the Word (for it is living and active from the beginning) nor ‘the revelation of the mystery of the Trinity’, but rather the role of the flesh, which permits a more intimate conjunction of human and divine. The prophets had seen God as identifying himself with the victims of oppression and with the human historical struggle for liberation and justice. In the crucified Jesus this identification is sealed. A grandiose theology has lost sight of the first lowly paradigm for making sense of the salvific aspect of Christ’s death, namely that of faith in the God of Israel who upholds the righteous. The fleshly story of Jesus’s life and death fashions a more intimate acquaintance with what the Hebrew scriptures name as God, Word and Spirit, now renamed as Father, Son and Spirit - metaphorical, narrative designations for dimensions or presentations of the divine. In Jesus the divine Word draws near in overwhelming glory as of a Son proceeding from a Father, and the outpouring of the Spirit in conjunction with the drama of his loving death has a new immediacy, given ‘fleshly’ expression in the experience of Christ as ‘risen’ and ‘exalted to God’s right hand’.
This vision of the Word incarnate is not the most immediate impact of Jesus of Nazareth; the categories of a Spirit-christology capture this more effectively. It is rather the fruit of a long reflection on Jesus and his ongoing impact, the emergence of a background awareness that the entire career of Jesus can be grasped as the work of God. Insofar as Jesus’s life, death and ongoing life are a vehicle of revelation in some definitive, unsurpassable way, they are seen as the Logos made flesh, and their ultimate meaning, the ultimate identity of Jesus, are henceforth to be sought in that dimension.
If we see ‘the Word became flesh’ as a statement of the same order as ‘God is Spirit’ or ‘God is light’, namely, as a resume of Christian experience, conveying a contemplative insight which one can appropriate only by a continual opening of the mind, then we can go beyond efforts to pin the event down to objective ontological privileges enjoyed by Jesus. Rather than a once-for-all ontological conjunction, somewhat magically and fetishistically located at the moment of Christ’s conception, can we not think of incarnation as the transformation of this human life, in all its extensions, into manifestation of God, just as in the Eucharist, the meal-event is ‘transubstantiated’ into a communion in the paschal mystery, so that its basic reality or ‘substance’ now has no independent existence alongside what it has become?
This more open-textured interpretation of incarnation attenuates the clash between the Christian claims and non-Christian religions, for the incarnation of God in Christ continues to unfold along the paths of historical, fleshly contingency as his Gospel and his pneumatic presence are redeployed in different cultures, and enter into dialogue with other historical apprehensions of divine presence in the world. Christian faith and devotion gravitates to Christ in a spontaneous and instinctive way, conferring on him the high titles which dogma subsequently interprets in a critical clarification. Is this gravitation a brute given, or can we map it as a geodesic within a relativistic interreligious space? Is the Incarnation a massive and unique event, the central reality of history and indeed of being? Or is it a cipher for [better: the central node of] a more subtle, historically textured disclosure process which is intimately linked with the broader web of human evolution, not as dominating that web, but as drawing its sense from it?
III. The Demystifying Role of the Historical Jesus
The perennial tension between the Christ of dogma and ‘the historical Jesus as he lives hidden in the Gospels’ – A. Schweitzer, Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung (Munich, 1966), p. 47 – has been exacerbated by clearer emergence of the historical Jesus thanks to two centuries of scholarship. The ‘God incarnate’ schema seems to impose an alien mythological framework on the eschatological prophet who announced the imminence of God’s Kingdom and gave body to his message through exorcisms and healings, table fellowship with outcasts, and a fresh interpretation of Jewish law and wisdom. Jesus associated acceptance or rejection of his own message with the eschatological judgement to come, and spoke in a way that gave rise to his identification as the Davidic Messiah and the coming eschatological Son of Man For well-grounded accounts of Jesus’s teaching; see John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus II (New York, 1994); Jacques Schlosser, Le règne de Dieu dans les dits de Jésus (Paris, 1980).. But such an expression as ‘I am God incarnate’ would have been unimaginable on his lips. The gap between the wisdom trajectory culminating in John’s vision of Christ as the Logos incarnate and Jesus’s more historical and eschatological claims about himself could be lessened if, as some exegetes suggest, Jesus thought of himself as personified Wisdom; see F. Christ, Jesus Sophia (Zurich, 1970); but this is unconvincing; E. O. Meadors, Jesus the Messianic Herald of Salvation (Tübingen, 1995), pp. 36-71; Meadors also rejects the theory that Jesus saw himself as Wisdom’s eschatological envoy. In order to close the gap a degree of demythologization of the incarnational tradition seems to be required. The step back from Chalcedon to Paul and John has to be followed by a further step back to earlier understandings of Jesus, including his own self-understanding.
Thus when we recall dogma to its Johannine basis, and John to his phenomenological foundations in a contemplative post-paschal anamnesis of Jesus, we still have to deal with the articulation between the historical Jesus and the post-paschal Christ of faith. John’s vision is legitimated by reinsertion in the process of reflection whereby the early Christians realized that the significance of Jesus could not be contained within categories less capacious than that of ‘Logos incarnate’, John’s presentation of Jesus is a theological vision, which for all its anti-docetic thrusts recalls the historical ministry of Jesus only as a set of sublime symbolic gestures, sighted within the dazzling blaze of his risen presence. The social concern with liberation from oppression and injustice, a defining trait of Jesus’ teaching, and which we are slowly discovering to be part of the definition of incarnation itself, is obscured by John’s focus on communal love. A Christianity based only on the sublimity of the Fourth Gospel would be ill-defended against blindness to these fleshly historical dimensions of the work of Christ. Theologians dismissive of critical exegesis, such as Von Balthasar, build on John to present idealized accounts of Christ’s life from which historical contingency is banished: ‘From the first act on, the entire drama is constructed in view of the fifth; thus it is portrayed by the witnesses, and only thus is it the divine work of art as which it presents itself’; Kennt uns Jesus - Kennen wir ihn? (Einsiedeln, 1995), p. 90. But it is precisely to the extent that the Gospels are literary works of art that we must suspect them of being false to the murkiness and accidentality of real life. Von Balthasar is right to remind us that ‘the Word was made flesh’ is followed by ‘and we have seen his glory’. Divine glory is the supreme biblical phenomenon, and it is at the heart of the Incarnation. Modern theology, cramped by the grids of dogma, the positivism of historical research, and activist demands for relevance, has had trouble opening up to this phenomenon. But a theologia gloriae which misses the broken, all-too-human texture wherein we are given intimations - ‘hints and guesses’ (Eliot) - of the divine glory, or which stylizes this fleshly texture into a sacralized icon, undermines the reality of the divine assumption of humanity in Christ. The revelation comes from the unmasterable divine dimension, but it does not come in a huge undifferentiated ahistorical lump; ‘it rides time like riding a river’ (Hopkins), espousing all the contingency and historicity of the human condition.
In a deep and rich synthesis of his thought, Étant donné (Paris, 1997), which will be closely studied by theologians, J.-L. Marion frees phenomenality and eventhood from the tight grasp of the principle of sufficient reason and other metaphysical conditions of possibility, thus making straight the paths to recognition of the possibility of such a phenomenon as ‘the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor. 4:6). Unfortunately, he ends up subordinating the phenomena to a totalizing, originary concept of givenness (donation), which enjoys the same transcendental status as being does in Thomism. Wittgenstein and Derrida, who are also in their way thinkers of eventhood and phenomenality, would object that this concept is a logocentric mystification, and that phenomena are caught in a pluralistic web of language which reduces ‘givenness’ to a moment within a wider context (différance) which itself is not governed by the values of presence, givenness, or phenomenality. The scholastic lucidity and thoroughness of Marion’s arguments leaves their weaker links all the more exposed, particularly in his lame, question-begging solutions to such objections, whose force he underestimates.
Christian revelation in this perspective, despite the rich differentiation of degrees and modes of givenness, is sighted in a monolithic fashion: we are convoked by a once-for-all event without any trace of pluralistic, historical open-endedness. Revelation as a rupture of the tissue of history prevails over all modern attempts to apprehend Christ in evolutionary and historical perspectives On the tension between these two dimensions of messianic thinking in modern Judaism; see Stéphane Mosès, L’Ange de l’histoire (Paris, 1992). When Marion speaks of Christ’s flesh as ‘affecting itself by itself and thus manifesting itself without having to inscribe itself in any relation, thus in an absolute mode, outside or beyond every horizon’ (Marion, p. 333), the docetist overtones are troubling. To abstract Christ’s flesh from dependency on human relations is untrue to the modalities of incarnation as theology has painfully rediscovered them over the last two hundred and fifty years. The fleshly Christ is ‘the light of the world’ (Jn 8.12) not from a place above and beyond it, but from within it, radiating out to it along historical pathways and interpreted to it differently in successive contexts by the dynamic activity of his Spirit. His flesh is of the same frail ‘dependently co-arisen’ texture as ours (Heb 2:14, 5:7-8), and it is precisely as such an ‘earthen vessel’ that it becomes the vehicle of the ‘eternal weight of glory’ (2 Cor. 4:7, 17) For an application of the Buddhist ontology of dependent co-arising to Christ; see J. P. Keenan, The Meaning of Christ (Maryknoll, NY, 1989). That glory is not given in raw immediacy, but for the most part in the straining of eschatological expectation; the story of the Transfiguration is firmly fixed in this horizon and not allowed to saturate or swamp it (Mk 9; Mt. 17; Lk. 9).
Reference to the historical reality of Jesus before the post-Easter interpretations provides an invaluable critical resource over against the entire christological tradition, preventing it from ballooning off into vacuous idealism. The very difficulty of such reference, the uncertainty and obscurity of the enterprise, can free our faith from a narrow positivism of facts as much as from a blithe confidence in theological portraits of Jesus. Scientific concern with the facts about Jesus has become part of any responsible christology At present it is being enriched by reconstructions of the social context of Jesus’s career, such as Sean Freyne’s studies of the world of Galilee., in counterpoint to the imaginative unfolding of the significance of Jesus in Christian tradition and its present transformations. We can no longer rest uncritically in our imaginings of Jesus; we realize that they are a ‘skilful means’ (Buddhist upâya) suited to a given epoch and in need of constant readjustment. But neither can we cease these imaginings by a return to the bare facts about Jesus, for these come clothed in religious interpretation from the start, and in any case their painstaking reproduction produces only museum fragments unless linked to the interrogation of Jesus by contemporary believers.
Even the earliest interpretations of Jesus, by himself and his disciples, are subject to historical contextualization and critical reassessment. There was an abundance of mythic schemata to draw on, and their application to Jesus was a human interpretative activity, however much it may have been led by the Spirit (cf. Mt. 16:17). Since Christology is so much a product of the mythic frameworks then available, the retrieval of its truth for today demands a radical reinterpretation: “In certain Jewish circles, the biblical story of Melchizedek expanded into a sort of mythical biography: Melchizedek became a pre-existent and immortal being; he was thought of as having been begotten in his mother’s womb by the Word of God, and there were those who expected him to be the judge of the Latter Days… The example of Melchizedek proves, therefore, that the time was ripe for the birth of Christianity, not in the Hellenistic world and surely not in the pagan world, but in the Land of Israel, where Jesus and his first disciples lived”; thus David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem, 1988), p. 192. Flusser comments that Jesus: “felt he was united with God as a son with his heavenly father and his unique tie of divine sonship became one of the main notions of Christianity, after having been interpreted with the help of Jewish theological motifs, mostly of hypostatic nature... Does Christ’s divine sonship belong strictly to Christology or already to Messianology?... Many aspects of Christian theology and dogmatics appear in Judaism, where they are autonomous, Jewish and not Christian” (p. 263). For more on these Messianic hypostases, see J. J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star (New York, 1995).
Jesus’ own messianological notions, thus, must in turn be interpreted against the background of Jewish religion and culture, in yet another step back. H.-J. Kraus, Systematische Theologie im Kontext biblischer Geschichte und Eschatologie (Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1983), F.-W. Marquardt, Das christliche Bekenntnis zu Jesus, dem Juden (Munich, 1991), P. M. van Buren, Christ in Context (San Francisco, 1988), and M. Wyschogrod, ‘A Jewish Perspective on Incarnation’, Modern Theology 12 (1996), pp. 195-209, are some of the works that propose a Christian theology of Jesus using only Jewish categories. But under pain of a naive biblicism we must recognize that these Jewish categories also need to be demythologized. This applies even to the ruling idea of Israel’s election, which cannot really mean that God binds himself to the physical descendents of Abraham; rather, Israel is the people of the Torah, and the Covenant is centered on that. Israel’s identity is not secured by literal obedience to the Mosaic Law or to its Rabbinic reinterpretation, but more largely by its spirit of Torah fidelity; against B. D. Marshall, ‘Christ and the cultures: The Jewish people and Christian theology’, in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 1997, pp. 81-100.
The obsolescence of Hellenistic myth does not entail any rejuvenation of Hebrew myth. The task of rearticulating in contemporary categories what the ancients envisaged in mythic terms is even more daunting in this case, for however refreshing we may find the older biblical representations by contrast with stale Hellenistic notions, it is the latter that harmonize with the tracks of thought most familiar in Western culture. The repertoire of Jewish eschatological thought-forms came to appear alien and inadequate as the Church spread, and though the notion of Messiah was crucial in controversy with Judaism, the Hellenistic mind was more engaged by representations of the pre-existent Son of God (Paul) and Logos (John). A reappropriation of the Jewish mythical categories in an existential translation, helped by thinkers such as Rosenzweig, Scholem and Buber, may challenge theology to break out of its Hellenistic rut, but it will also cut a swath through the over-abundance of mythological motifs in the Gospels.
Slowly, the actual phenomenological and interpretative structure of how faith encounters the living God in and across the human Jesus is coming into sharper focus. We begin to see that the historical, Jewish fleshly existence of Jesus is the locus of his unique revelatory and salvific status, and that it is a bridge rather than an obstacle as our tradition opens out to other major loci of divine disclosure, especially the Jewish and Buddhist traditions.
(from Archivio di Filosofia, vol.. 67, 1999)