Stephen Wilson continues his essay on post-Enlightenment trends in biblical criticism
Biblical criticism has ceased to be the threat to ‘settled faith’ it once may have been. It reached one climacteric in the quiet desperation of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung) of 1913 and rumbled on through varieties of Form and Redaction Criticism, as scholars recovered a measure of confidence that, yes, through the prisms of oral and then written traditions, the sayings and deeds of a historical Jesus were after all accessible to a degree.
Part One of this essay was therefore more concerned with the post-Enlightenment disillusion with the Church’s ‘historic formularies,’ applying Max Weber’s notion of Entzauberung (‘disenchantment’ or ‘desacralization’ of the universe) to the patristic and medieval Weltanshauung (‘world-view’) as liberal protestant theology conceived it.
The formularies of the early Councils had their origins in efforts to refine theological language in ways that would be faithful to the revelation of God in Christ, expressed what we now call ‘doctrine’ in a normative and schematic way, and in particular the (unavoidable) resort to the vocabulary of Being: the ‘ontology’ lying beneath the language of ‘God in Christ.’ I looked back to the 1977 publication of The Myth of God Incarnate as an instance of a failure of nerve, a loss of confidence in the formularies of Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, born of a (by then already dated) deference of theology to the ‘secular given.’
Such misgivings have lingered on into the twenty-first century. Graham Richards, in Creationism: Design Errors and Cross-Purposes (Lindsey Press, 2014) writes: ‘I believe that reversion to ancestral religious creeds, rooted in cultural contexts profoundly different in character from any in which people now live, is mistaken. If the needs commonly called “spiritual” are to find any satisfaction, we must move forwards not backwards, jettisoning vast swathes of traditional religious doctrine, not least the claims to exclusive possession of the truth as made by Christianity and Islam.’ In fairness to Richards, Creationism is a well-argued rebuttal of both creationism and intelligent design doctrine, and his comment is arguably incidental to his main argument.
I mentioned the challenge issued by Professor Donald Mackinnon around the time of The Myth that we grasp formal doctrine’s ontological nettle, and in particular the homoousion inserted into the Nicene Creed by the (otherwise intensely conservative) Council Fathers. The fact that they accepted this unbiblical neologism is significant. With its Johannine resonances the homoousion clause sits side by side with narrative elements (‘was born, crucified, rose, ascended’), eschatology (second Advent, resurrection of the dead and ‘the life of the world to come’), pneumatology (the being and work of the Holy Spirit) and ecclesiology (Church and baptism). The formularies answered to the demands of communicating the deposit of faith and the countervailing pressures of heresy, when one strand of the tradition becomes a controlling narrative at the expense of all the others.
The late-modern reaction against the patristic project stemmed particularly from attempts by nineteenth century liberal Protestant theologians to surpass and re-define ‘classical,’ ancient Christologies from the vantage point (as they thought) of a modern and post-Enlightenment narrative. This is (in part) the legacy of the kind of liberal Protestant repudiation of ‘Christian Hellenism’ we find in the writings of F.C. Baur (died 1860) and the ‘Tübingen School,’ the work of Adolf von Harnack (died 1930), and the later New Testament criticism of Rudolph Bultmann (died 1976).
Harnack’s What is Christianity? Lectures Delivered in the University of Berlin During the Winter Term 1899–1900 targeted the patristic appropriation of ‘Hellenistic’ philosophical concepts and categories in interpreting the New Testament witness. Indeed, he held the New Testament itself to be a distortion of the original, initially oral Gospel tradition which had (he thought) already suffered embellishment at the hands of New Testament authors, including the Gospel writers themselves, and especially the author(s) of the fourth Gospel. Roman Catholics were shielded from all this, at least for a while, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century papal edicts against modernism. Meanwhile, as we have seen, reaction against the patristic project still lingers, sometimes almost unconsciously, in the liberal mindset: we are entirely children of our time, as the Fathers and their pioneering experiments were of theirs—in thrall to an opaque ontology inaccessible to us now. The narrative of disenchantment seems so compelling, indeed overwhelming and irreversible, that there seems nothing for it but to ‘remake’ doctrine.
I treated The Myth of God Incarnate of 1977 as emblematic of this disenchantment. In his contribution to it, New Testament scholar Leslie Houlden opines (in the essay ‘The Creed of Experience’) that ‘we must accept our lot, bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, and make the most of it.’ And the book’s preface quotes with apparent approval T. S. Eliot’s view that ‘Christianity is always adapting itself into something which can be believed,’ a mantra already quoted in Dennis Nineham’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible, A study of the Bible in an age of rapid cultural change. (Macmillan, 1976)
And there’s the rub. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nineham’s quotation is noted by David Tracey’s preface to his 2005 translation of a classic of nineteenth-century disenchantment, Franz Overbeck’s How Christian is our Present-Day Theology? (1873). For Tracy, Overbeck’s thought ‘emerges from, indeed is an expression of, the conflict between Christian and [modern] culture… Overbeck reacted particularly sensitively to any attempt at what he termed ‘accommodating’ Christianity to new conditions…’ Overbeck himself relates how after his move from Jena to Basel he experienced, as an avowed ‘Tübinger,’ ‘something akin to shipwreck’ and writes of his growing friendship with Friedrich Nietzsche—itself surely a clue to his developing animus against ‘accommodation.’ Overbeck, then, would have no truck with Eliot’s dictum, nor with any other protagonists of ‘accommodation.’ And the irony of Houlden’s remark about ‘making the most of it,’ is that this (somehow distinctively) Anglican, liberal protestant courtesy towards the demands of modernity was already looking dated by the mid-twentieth century, and terminally so by the 1970s. It is the remark of a Biblical scholar seemingly blithely unaware of the roar of the receding tide of post-Enlightenment modernity (pace Matthew Arnold) and in the face of a postmodern negation, a Nietzschean ‘anti-theology’ where lie some of the real pressures on theology today. Houlden’s remark was by no means an isolated example of this characteristic trope of deference; the contributors to The Myth, notably Maurice Wiles, Dennis Nineham, Don Cupitt and (maybe less explicitly) John Hick, were among the more prominent exponents of a deferential apologetic-by-accommodation. The two other contributors, Frances Young and Michael Goulder, were perhaps less obvious examples of this deference, yet the rhetorical undertow can still be felt of that ‘philosophical idealism’ against which Donald Mackinnon consistently (and rightly) fulminated. In point of fact, the mindset which saturates The Myth is nowhere more evident than in the opening sentences of Frances Young’s essay, ‘A Cloud of Witnesses’: ‘“In Jesus Christ I perceive something of God”: a confession of that kind lies at the heart of Christian belief; it sums up the common mind of the faithful. Yet, as a matter of fact, Christian believers have experienced and understood this confession in more than one way. Since Jesus is confessed and has been confessed in many different cultural environments by many different types of people with many different hopes and expectations, there must be potentially a multiplicity of christological affirmations analogous to and parasitic upon the multifarious ways in which atonement and salvation have been experienced and expressed… christological statements should be regarded as belonging not to the language of philosophy, science or dogmatics, but rather to the language of confession and testimony.’
This is a threefold proposition that ‘at the ‘heart of Christian belief’ is something ‘perceived,’ that its confession is ‘expressed’ in a multiplicity of ways, and that Christology belongs to ‘the language of confession and testimony’ rather than that of ‘philosophy, science or dogmatics.’ Might this not smack of the philosophical idealism of which Donald Mackinnon was so critical? Perhaps.
At the time of publication of The Myth a new phase of accommodation to the Zeitgeist was under way. There were already some postmodern stirrings in Anglican and liberal protestant circles: Myth contributor Don Cupitt (then Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge) was moving towards a programme of post-critical theology in the sunlit uplands of postmodern semiology. The Long Legged Fly (SCM Press, 1987) would be a triumphant announcement that philosophy has finally broken free of an absolutizing ‘metaphysics of presence.’ But Cupitt simply replaces that with another absolutism, ‘linguistic idealism,’ in which language—’sign and communication’—is ‘the true universal stuff, in which and of which everything else is constructed.’ ‘The surface play of phenomena—words, signs, meanings, appearances—is reality.’ Language, indeed, is all there is: ‘You are always already shut up within it, and must explain it from within… (it is) the true universal stuff, in which and of which everything else is constructed.’ We can never get beyond language to compare it with reality. ‘Objectivity is given in and with language; it is not, as realists suppose, something external to language around which language wraps itself.’ This is heady stuff, as postmodernism in its solipsistic, deconstructive moods as can be. The Sea of Faith Network (as it came to style itself) would adopt Cupitt’s radical deconstruction of transcendence. Religious symbols are artefacts, guides to action, not pointers to transcendent truth. There is no transcendent truth, except the truth of self-transcendence—though in fact there is no ‘true’ self, only an endless becoming. And ‘God’ is a focus of value, in me, in language.
We may question whether a humanly constructed God, wholly trapped within experience, could find any place within any genuine faith tradition, or could be squared in any way with its core beliefs. Such a ‘God’ cannot be a creator, cannot redeem us. Cupitt (and the Sea of Faith Network) have translations to hand for these terms. Preaching to ‘settled faith’—as clerics of that persuasion must sometimes find themselves having to—presumably involves cloaking everything in the language of traditional orthodoxy. But all the meanings will have changed, in a radically idealist direction.
The pressures within and upon Christian theology since the Enlightenment may seem in every way so different from the patristic controversies as to defy any useful analogy with them. This may seem especially so if we regard early heresies as typically ‘endogenous’ to emerging Christian tradition, whereas the post-Enlightenment era’s persistent and pervasive patterns of negation are in every way more opposed to Christian narrative than at home with it. In fact the contrast is less than total: Early Christian heresy was partly ‘home-grown’ and thus all the more readily anathematized as the enemy within; Cupitt’s later writings are more an ‘anti-theology,’ yet they shadow Christian narrative and are parasitic upon it.
I have concentrated here on The Myth to the exclusion of much else (including its sequel, Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued, ed. Michael Goulder, SCM Press, 1979) so as to focus on just the one example of late-twentieth century theological anomie. The third and final part of this essay looks at The Myth’s metaphysical undertow, speculates on that undertow’s more distant pre-Enlightenment origins, and attempts a constructively (radical?) orthodox response to it.
Father Stephen Wilson is an assistant priest at St Stephen’s Lewisham.