One of the lost generation of Catholic Anglican theologians? Jonathan Baker looks again at the word and achievement of E.L. Mascall, and the particularity of the incarnation

Eric Lionel Mascall, priest, wit, philosopher and theologian died in 1993. In his address to the National Assembly of Forward in Faith in November 2002, Fr Aidan Nichols op numbered Mascall among those ‘separated doctors’ of the Anglican Church ‘in whom the Church of Rome can recognize the overwhelming preponderance of the apostolic patrimony she has received.’ Mascall’s writings on Church, the Eucharist and the Sacraments, and his skilful exposition of orthodox Christology in Theology and the Gospel of Christ should make him required reading for all seeking a firm grounding in Christian doctrine. In both the Church and the academy, however, Mascall has slipped, with surprising speed, out of view: a consequence in part, no doubt, of his Anglo-Catholicism and conservatism. Rehabilitation is surely overdue.

The humanity of Jesus

One of Mascall’s last books was Whatever Happened to the Human Mind?, published in 1980, seven years after his retirement as Professor of Historical Theology at King’s College, London, and dedicated to the ‘priests and people of St Mary’s, Pimlico [Bourne Street],’ who had given him ‘both an altar and a home.’ The book is a reply to Geoffrey Lampe’s God as Spirit; but the last section of the book stands somewhat apart from the rest, and is entitled Sexuality and God. In the introduction to this final part of his book, Mascall reminds us of the importance of the humanity of Jesus, ‘and this humanity, this human nature, this manhood is no fiction or phantom, no logical or psychological abstraction,’ but rather ‘concrete and fleshly’ as our own.

While there is no contradiction between the universality of Jesus as Saviour of all humanity, and his particularity as one individual first-century Jew, yet, as with all humans, the humanity of Jesus is differentiated: and the most fundamental of all differentiations is that of sex: the distinction between male and female. ‘In order to be a normal human being,’ writes Mascall, ‘it is necessary to be either male or female; it is, not only psychologically or practically, but physically impossible to be both.’

Next Mascall applies this to the Incarnation. God incarnate – God become human perfectly and completely – must be God who has become complete and perfect male, or complete and perfect female; and, in fact, God incarnate is a man. Now Mascall puts the question which is of such significance in the debate over the ordination of women (and which was also raised in ch.4 of Consecrated Women?) ‘Is there,’ he asks, ‘any special significance in this? [Or] does the fact that what was assumed was human nature as male and not as female amount to anything more than the fact that if you spin a coin it will come down either heads or tails, since it cannot come down both at once?’

The place of Mary

Mascall turns first, in seeking to answer his own question, to the place of Mary in the mystery of the Incarnation. It is Mary’s involvement in the divine flesh-taking – and Mascall comments that ‘the incarnation itself waited for the courageous and obedient fat of Mary’ – which guarantees the centrality of womanhood in the story of God’s redemption of mankind. The incarnation guarantees the dignity of women: Mascall recalls Aquinas’ observation that one reason why it was fitting that Christ should take flesh from a woman was that it abolished any excuse for despising the female sex.

But Mascall is interested in more than establishing that, because of Mary’s involvement, the maleness of the incarnate Christ does not exclude women from the fullness of redemption. He wants to ask whether ‘not only the humanity of Jesus but also the sexual mode under which he assumed it reflects a real aspect of the eternal Word?’ He adds that this will not be determined by a shaky logic based upon the masculinity of Jesus (‘Jesus is male, Jesus is God, therefore God is male’), but rather ‘upon the way in which God has revealed himself in the concrete historical revelation of Judaism, with its culmination in Christ and its expansion and explication in the worship, thought and witness of the Church down the ages.’

Drawing substantially on the work of Austin Farrer, Mascall answers his own question with a qualified ‘yes.’ Mascall recalls Farrer’s proposition that images have a ‘direct epistemological function’ – that is, they do not rely on any secondary thought processes to be apprehended – to reflect on the images for God which are found in Scripture and the Tradition. Nearly all, including all the most obvious (King, Father, Shepherd, Husband) are clearly of a male character. Thus, Mascall observes, ‘unless we are to reject the biblical revelation altogether, may we not be forced to conclude that, in however analogical a way and with whatever reservations about modus signifcandi, the notion of maleness is appropriate to God in a way that the notion of female-ness is not?’

Only one father

He refines this conclusion almost at once, however, by bringing in the French Oratorian Father of the Second Vatican Council, Louis Bouyer, who argues that the attribution of male epithets to God is not so much an assertion of masculinity as of fatherhood: a fatherhood which men can exercise only by proxy (unqualified fatherhood being alone the prerogative of the Father in heaven), while women are able to exercise motherhood totally, and in their own right.

What of the ministerial priesthood? Mascall characterizes Bouyer’s method as predominantly symbolic in character, depending as it does on a sense of biblical revelation and the sacramental economy as, in turn, resting upon a fundamentally symbolic understanding of creation, and of human nature in particular. Without locating the theology of the ordained ministry within such a symbolical scheme – without, in other words, having a strong sense that the ministerial priest and bishop participate in a distinctive way in the high priesthood of Christ by means of a particular sacramental sign – it is difficult to establish the relevance of Mascall’s line of argument in the debate over the ordination of women. But with such an understanding (which is surely consonant with the Tradition), it is not difficult to see how the pieces fall into place. Is the maleness of the Incarnation soteriologically significant? Eric Mascall’s is not the last word on the subject: but those who would say, ‘no,’ must surely give his arguments the courtesy of a response. ND