From a brilliant exchange between Maurice Wiles (a moderately liberal Protestant) and Herbert McCabe (a generally traditional yet deeply innovative Catholic) on the doctrine of the incarnation. In response to Wiles’ criticisms and doubts concerning the mainstream, “orthodox” and historic Christian understanding of the two natures (fully human, fully divine) of Jesus, McCabe writes:
“I for my part have no reason to think that the formula of Chalcedon is the best way of making sense of the evidence about Jesus and, as I said in my review, there is every reason to hope that the modern Church enlightened by a whole range of insights from Darwin to Heidegger will come up with new and more illuminating ways of presenting the mystery of Jesus. It is this relativity of ecclesial documents such as those of Chalcedon that marks them off from ecclesial documents such as the New Testament. It seems to me the main business of theologians to explores just such possiblities, and I have certainly no disagreement with you about the need for ‘a dialectic between the tradition…of the Church and the twentieth-century European way of understanding man and his place in the world’–though, of course, neither of us would want to restrict ourselves to European ways of thought. I don’t think my position here is very different from your own in The Making of Christian Doctrine where you say, in reference to Chalcedon, that such developments as were defined there might be regarded as ‘necessary to the life of the Church’ but another position is possible–evidently your own (and mine): ‘If…while still regarded as a true development of christian doctrine, they are understood as the Church’s self-expression within the terms of a particular limited cultural system then…the (hypothetical future) African theologians will be seen not so much as building on the foundations of Chalcedon but rather as repeating the work of the early centuries within a new idiom.’
I think, however, we still differ, for it is not clear to me that you still regard Chalcedon as a ‘true development’ in the sense that its denial is false; for me the definition, however inadequate, stands in the sense that we now know that the denial of it is incompatible with the Christian faith. I believe that the Church is capable at certain historical moments of, so to say, gathering herself together and saying who and what she is and what she is not, and that if ever there was such a moment Chalcedon was one.
I am not certain whether I am here saying the same thing as your concluding passage in The Making of Christian Doctrine: ‘It is only as the Church as a whole gives herself with full seriousness to the task that true development becomes a genuine possibility. And the only test of whether the development in question is a true one is for the Church to ask herself repeatedly whether she is expressing as fully as she is able the things to which her Scriptures, her worship and her experience of salvation bear witness.’ For me the Church as a whole asks and partially but definitively answers such questions in, for example, an ecumenical Council such as Chalcedon. I think there can be debate, often inconclusive debate, about which pronouncements by representatives of the Church amount to such an act of self-definition [McCabe then lists several secondary issues given by previous papal pronouncements that he personally disagrees with, such as the legitimacy of birth control, the merits of socialism, and the potential salvation of those outside the visible Church]…But there are some cases, such as Chalcedon, which are clear by any criteria. The topic is plainly central to the Christian faith, the doctrine was produced consciously as a formula distinguishing the Christian faith from error, and it was, broadly speaking, endorsed and accepted in the life of the Church for centuries afterwards.
Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum [‘I am risen, and behold, I am with you’]. I take this to imply that the deepest insights into the meaning of Jesus are to be found in the faith of the Church where he is present in word and sacrament–and I do not understand why anyone who did not believe this would bother to belong to the Church. For this reason I think that to depart from the faith of the Church (as distinct from merely recognizing its inadequacy and continuing reformability) is to make mistakes about Jesus. There is, to my mind, a clear difference between seeking and improvement on the Chalcedonian expression of Christian faith and asserting what Chalcedon sets out to deny.” (Herbert McCabe, “The Incarnation” in God Matters, pp. 67-68)