Archive for August, 2013

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:

mccabe“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)


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“The asking of radical questions is discouraged by any society that believes in itself, believes it has found the answers, believes that only its authorized questions are legitimate.” (Herbert McCabe, “God Matters,” p. 3)

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This is an unusually extended, scattered citation compiled from several distinct places in McCabe’s brilliant book; I bring these thoughts together because of their self-evident unity of focus.  The repetition that appears throughout will, I think, help acheive a firmer understanding of his critical points.  By way of introduction, I would argue that the following paragraphs constitute one of the most insightful interpretations of Philippians 2:6-11 ever written:

mccabe“The story of Jesus is what the eternal trinitarian life of God looks like when it is projected upon the screen of history, and this means on the screen not only of human history but of sinful human history.  The obedience of Jesus to the Father, his obedience to his mission, is just what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father appears as in history His obedience consists in nothing else but being in history, in being human.  Jesus did nothing but be the Son as man; that his life was colorful, eventful and tragic is simply because of what being human involves in our world.  We for the most part shy off being human because if we are really human we will be crucified.  If we didn’t know that before, we know it now; the crucifixion of Jesus was simply the dramatic manifestation of the sort of world we have made, the showing up of the world, the unmasking of what we call, traditionally, original sin…[Thus] there is no need for any theory about the death of Jesus.  It doesn’t need any explanation once you know that he was human in our world.  Jesus died in obedience to the Father’s will simply in the sense that he was human in obedience to the Father’s will.  The crucifixion in this sense [is] the supreme expression of Jesus’ humanity…

The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human.  Any minimally intelligent people who are proposing to become parents know that their children will have lives of suffering and disappointment and perhaps tragedy, but this is not what they wish for them; what they want is that they should be alive, be human.  And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human.  This is his obedience, an expression of his love for the Father; the fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Father has directly planned but what we have arranged.  We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not involve suffering.  Jesus accepted the cross in love and obedience, and his obedience was to the command to be human…

Not Adam but Jesus was the first human being, the first member of the human race in whom humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love–for this is what human beings are for…When we encounter Jesus, in whatever way we encounter him, he strikes a chord in us; we resonate to him because he shows the humanity that lies hidden in us–the humanity of which we are afraid.  He is the human being that we dare not be. He takes risks of love which we recognize as risks and so for the most part do not take…For this reason we are afraid and we settle for being less than human.  We recognize that our very nature calls us to something new and frightening; it calls us to communication, which means self-giving, self-abandonment, being at the disposal of others.  We recognize, however dimly, that we are the kind of being that finds its fulfillment, its happiness and flourishing only in giving itself up, in getting beyond itself.  We need to lose our selves in love; this is what we fear…Mostly we settle for what we are, what we have made ourselves.  We settle for the person that we have achieved or constructed; we settle for our own self-image because we are afraid of being made in the image of God…It is when love appears nakedly for what it is that it is most vulnerable; and that is why we crucified Christ.  Jesus was the first human being who had no fear of love at all; the first to have no fear of being human…His whole life and death was a response in love and obedience to the gift of being human, an act of gratitude and appreciation of the gift of being human…

So my thesis is that Jesus died of being human.  His very humanity meant that he put up no barriers, no defenses against those he loved who hated him.  He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world.  So the cross shows up our world for what it really is, what we have made it.  It is a world in which it is dangerous, even fatal, to be human; a world structured by violence and fear.  The cross shows that whatever else may be wrong with this or that society, whatever may be remedied by this or that political or economic change, there is a basic wrong, persistent through history and through all progress…The cross, then, unmasks or reveals the sin of the world.  In this sense the crucifying of Jesus is the archetypal sin of mankind, the root and meaning of our original ‘sin’…From one point of view the cross is the sacrament of the sin of the world–it is the ultimate sin that was made inevitable by the kind of world we have made.  From another point of view it is the sacrament of our forgiveness, because it is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us…

The supreme expression of his humanity in our kind of world is the cross.  The cross is the sign that Jesus is the first really human being, the first one to live and die, sheerly through love…It is Jesus as a human being who does the work of our salvation, acting of course through the grace of God and acting as the instrument of God, but acting as a human being, a saint.  It is this loving obedience displayed finally on the cross that merits for Jesus his resurrection and the salvation of his followers.  We are not saved by the intervention of a god but by the great sanctity of one of ourselves…

The cross and resurrection are the eternal dialogue of Father and Son as projected onto the screen of history, what it looks like in history.  If you want to know what the Trinity looks like be filled with the Spirit and look at the cross.  The Trinity, when reflected in our history, like something reflected in rippling water, looks pretty strange, just as the human being in our history looks strange, being despised and crucified: Ecce homo

The gospels as I have said on many occasions insist upon two antithetical truths which express the tragedy of the human condition: the first is that if you do not love you will not be alive; the second is that if you do love you will be killed.  If you cannot love you remain self-enclosed and sterile, unable to create a future for yourself or others, unable to live.  If, however, you do effectively love you will be a threat to the structures of domination upon which our human society rests and you will be killed…The life and death of Jesus dramatize this state of affairs…The obedience of Christ just is the eternal dependence of Son on Father, the procession of the Son from the Father, of true God from true God, projected into history…The fact that this obedience is an obedience unto death, even the death of the cross, is because the history upon which it is projected is a sinful history, one in which to be really human is to be murdered.” (Herbert McCabe, God Matters, pp. 22-23, 93-95, 97-100, 218, 233)

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mccabe“Aquinas begins his discussion of whether this doctrine [i.e. the incarnation] can be true or not (Quaest. Disp. De Unione Verbi Incarnati) by saying ‘In order to answer this question it is necessary first to consider what we mean by ‘nature’ and secondly what we mean by ‘person’…Part of the doctrine of the incarnation is precisely that Jesus was and is a human person; the other part is that this same identical person was and is divine.  The adjectives ‘divine’ and ‘human’ express what Jesus is (his nature), the name ‘Jesus’ refers to who (which person) he is.  In virtue of his human nature certain things can be asserted or denied of him, but all these assertions are about one person.  The point is a logical (or, as these authors prefer to call it, a ‘metaphysical’) one.  Thus it is true to say ‘God died on the cross’ or ‘God suffered hunger and thirst’ because in these sentences ‘God’ is a referring expression in Strawson’s sense, indicating the subject, the person, about whom the assertion is being made.  It is not, however, true to say ‘Jesus, qua God, died on the cross’ for here ‘God’ belongs to the predicative part of the proposition and has the role of signifying a nature.  There is no special mystery about this: it is no more than the logical difference between saying ‘A policeman murdered his wife’ and saying ‘Mr. X, qua policeman, murdered his wife.’

The mystery of the incarnation lies in the fact that while, alas, there is nothing in the least odd about someone happening to be both a murderer and a policeman, when we are dealing not with what someone happens to be but with what constitutes him as what he fundamentally is, with what it takes for him to be at all, with (if you will pardon the expression) his essence or nature, then it does seem extremely odd for him to be two kinds of things at once.  It is in this way that Chalcedon points to the mystery of Jesus.  Let me repeat: we may well find other ways of articulating this mystery, but if we are to speak in these old-fashioned terms of essence, nature, person, then to deny the paradoxical proposition of Chalcedon is to fail to grasp in faith the mystery which is Jesus.” (Herbert McCabe, “The Myth of God Incarnate,” in God Matters, pp. 56-57)

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That’s my somewhat awkward summary of C. F. D. Moule’s brilliant description of the earliest Christian moral vision:

moule“Perhaps nothing is more urgently needed than a concerted effort to hammer out the basis of ethics for Christians now…The guidance of the Spirit of God was granted to Christians in the form not of a code of behavior nor of any written deposit of direction, but of insight communicated by God through Jesus Christ.  It was granted ad hoc to Christians as they met together, confronting the immediate problems, with the gospel events behind them, the Holy Spirit among them, and the will to find out the action required of the People of God in the future…It is tolerably clear that the most characteristic Christian way of guidance was in the kind of setting indicated in 1 Cor. 14, where the Christians assemble, each with a psalm or a teaching or a revelation or a burst of ecstasy: and the congregation exercises discernment.  That is how Christian ethical decisions were reached: informed discussion, prophetic insight, ecstatic fire—all in the context of the worshipping, and also discriminating, assembly, with the good news in Jesus Christ behind them, the Spirit among them, and before them the expectation of being led forward into the will of God…

[The New Testament’s moral vision is] based, not on a rigid code of ethics but on the guidance of the Spirit in the light of the unchanging Gospel and of contemporary conditions carefully studied…Only in the light of this will guidance of the Spirit be realistically apprehended…Only by such means as these can an applied ethic that Christians can appropriate be hoped for.  Unless the Church expects the living voice of the Paraclete in such a context, to lead it forward into all truth, it will look in vain for specific guidance.  Christian ethical practice in the past may, and must, be carefully studied.  But in the last analysis we shall only know what Christian conduct today should be by letting the Holy Spirit direct the message—by trusting to contemporary guidance.  It was only so that the Church progressed and met its problems in those early years.  If this adds up to ‘situation ethics,’ so be it…All particular decisions, even when taken by the most resolute anti-situationalists, and upon the firmest foundation of principle, are bound to be situational…Situationalism may indeed be justly criticized by a Christian if its principle of love is divorced from the definitive implementation of love in Jesus Christ and made vague and nebulous; but even with a full grasp on incarnation, no Christian can escape the difficulty of ad hoc, particular decisions.” (C. F. D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament, 3rd ed., pp. 272-74)

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moule“A Gospel presumably needed to be a Gospel…It appears that what mainstream Christianity recognized as a necessary part of any normative collection of documents was a Gospel in the sense of a narrative of the earthly ministry of Jesus (or at least a sequence of anecdotes), presented in such a way as to follow the pattern of, or else be ancillary to, the apostolic proclamation—the proclamation of Jesus as God’s special emissary, crucified, and raised, all being in accordance with the design of God’s relation with his people found in the Jewish Scriptures.  Already, before the writing of the first Gospel, there were evidently a number of fragmentary documents in circulation—sayings-collections, collections of miracle stories, perhaps, and of conflict-stories; but these could not stand on their own feet as whole Gospels.” (C. F. D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament, 3rd ed., pp. 247-48)

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moule“What was the minimum constituent of a Christian community?  How far away from the apostolic kerygma must one stray to be altogether outside the fold?…The answer to which the main stream of the early Church was feeling its way is reflected in the canon of the New Testament…The writings ultimately excluded from the canon were mainly those which, even when claiming some apostolic connection, presented an estimate of Jesus out of accord with the apostolic estimate now reflected in the New Testament collectively.  This means that there must have been a commonly recognized norm of Christian confession forming itself on the basis of the apostolic kerygma.” (C. F. D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament, 3rd ed., pp. 205-06)

“Despite all their individuality and distinctiveness, despite the probably extreme vagaries of the ‘underworld’ of Christian communities from which they sprang, despite the considerable range of variation between the levels of language and style represented in the New Testament, its various writings speak with a nearly unanimous voice of a single Gospel and of one Lord.” (C. F. D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament, 3rd ed., p. 233)

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