Stephen Wilson traces the history of a heresy

Although distance may not always lend enchantment, distance in time may sometimes lend perspective. The Church Times of 30 April this year paid tribute to Dr David Edwards, Provost Emeritus of Southwark, who had died the previous week, by re-publishing his review in 1977 of The Myth of God Incarnate (ed. John Hick, SCM Press 1977). He described the book as ‘explosive,’ ‘radical,’ and ‘a challenge’ to settled beliefs. In the introductory chapter to The Myth, ‘Christianity without Incarnation?’, the patristic scholar Maurice Wiles (d.2005) set the tone by questioning whether ‘the incarnation of God in the particular individual Jesus of Nazareth’ is actually essential to Christianity, or whether there can be ‘a Christianity without (in this sense) incarnation?’ Thereby hangs a controversy.

Wiles’ answer to the first question was ‘no’ and to the second, ‘yes’. He suggested that ‘Incarnation, in the more precise sense in which I am using the term, is an interpretation of the significance of Jesus.’ He intimated an analogy with the varieties of interpretations surrounding (a) the Eucharist, (b) the relationship between the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, and (c) the relationship of incarnation to the virgin birth of Jesus. For him, abstract doctrines (e.g. transubstantiation) could become so associated with concrete applications (e.g. the physical transformation of the Eucharistic elements) that any denial of the concrete applications were perceived to be denials of the abstract doctrines, and hence heresy. ‘And so with the concept of incarnation, which is not something directly presented in scripture. It is a construction…’ Nonetheless, ‘the truth of God’s self-giving love and the role of Jesus in bringing that vision to life in the world would remain.’ And how remain, then? Perhaps as ‘the eternal divine purpose being achieved through him’ as he had suggested in his Hulsean lectures (published as The Remaking of Christian Doctrine, SCM Press, 1974)?

Unsurprisingly, The Myth provoked a furore. But we can now better understand this controversy not as a crisis of faith but rather as a failure of theological nerve, a sense of the ‘pastness of the past’—the distance between ‘then’ and ‘now’—inducing a kind of vertigo. Since then the mantle of modernism in its various guises has rather given way to the ‘post-liberal’, ‘radical orthodoxy’ of George Lindbeck, and latterly John Milbank, Graham Ward and Catherine Pickstock, among others, though the ‘Sea of Faith’ school of deconstructionist theology would claim the post-modernist title for itself. But what does The Myth show us about the origins of disquiet, particularly among liberal protestants and (some) Anglican theologians of the time? One clue is in a quotation from historian of religion AD Nock, one which Edwards endorsed in his review: ‘The Christian hope had its roots in Palestine; Christian theology and above all Christology have theirs in Alexandria.’ The metaphysical language of the Nicene Creed would be a case in point. Biblical criticism now has its accepted role in the milieu of settled faith and has long since ceased to be a threat; what, then, of the Church’s ‘historic formularies’?

To be fair, Dr Edwards’ review was critical of The Myth in many respects. Nevertheless, if the metaphysical language of the ecumenical councils really is as far removed from the language and thought-forms of Jesus and the Gospels as it is from ourselves (and we from both) does this actually matter? It does, of course. And this is a matter of ontology, the ‘science of Being’ of Aristotle’s ‘first philosophy’.

The ecumenical councils, principally Nicaea (in 325), Constantinople (381), and Chalcedon (451) sought to establish a ‘rule of faith’—a regula fidei—principally concerning Christ and the Trinity. Greek philosophy (and perhaps most especially Aristotle’s ‘pursuit of substance’) informed their efforts to express the Christian message in language adequate to extraordinary demands and extraordinary pressures. The demands came in the shape of the revelation, believed to have been entrusted to the Church, and the need to express it in formal Christian doctrines, for the purposes of instruction, proclamation, apologetic and so on. The pressures occurred wherever some interpretation of that revelation was perceived as heresy.

Heresy is never mere falsehood. It occurs more particularly when one strand of the tradition becomes a controlling narrative at the expense of all others. An outstanding example of this tendency (there have been many others) was the Alexandrian presbyter Arius (d.336), in denial that Christ is homoousios—‘of one being’ or ‘consubstantial’ with—God the Father; because he thought this compromised divine transcendence. As ‘the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation’ (Col. 1.15) Christ is instead homoiousios, ‘of like substance’ to the Father, and created, not begotten. And not coeternal, either; the slogan ‘there was (a time) when He was not’ became the Arian battle-cry. (But turn to Colossians and see for yourself how selective is an Arian reading of that first chapter.)

Patristic efforts to refine theological language were always oriented to the core element of the church’s confession, rooted in scripture, that Jesus Christ is Lord, and always and only answerable to that confession. Their coinage of theological language, including their use of ontological categories (substance, nature and so on) was more one of being interrogated by, rather than interrogating, the deposit of faith. Webster calls this a task of ‘conceptual expansion’ which makes creative use of ‘a small number of ontological categories, chief among them being substance, person and nature.’ (John Webster, The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology, Chapter 13: ‘Incarnation’, 2012).

This process of refinement involved stabilising the usage of such terms as hupostasis (‘entity,’ ‘subsistent individual’ or sometimes ‘person’) and prosōpon (the Latin persona, or ‘person’). But in the first place this meant the (sometimes elusive) concept of ‘substance,’ ousia (substantia) and its daring and innovative employment in the homoousion at Nicaea—the statement that God the Son is ‘of one being’ (or ‘consubstantial’) with God the Father—in direct reaction to Arius’ denial.

However distant the linguistic idiom of the councils may seem to us now, their concerns and their ‘solutions’ are ours. And at the time of the publication of The Myth there were others who were endeavouring to show that we must cultivate a sharpened awareness of the ‘depth-grammar’ of those early theological experiments. In a penetrating essay, ‘Substance in Christology’ (1972), the late, great philosopher and theologian Donald Mackinnon observed that ‘the older British liberal critics of the traditional christology…rejected the use of substance in theology because it seemed to subordinate the concreteness of (Christ’s) person to Greek metaphysical abstractions.’ On the contrary, ‘the doctrine of substance, properly understood, is a part of analytical philosophy rather than an essay in speculation.’ In Christology, ‘substance’ is a metaphysical category, and specifically an ontological category, and the homoousion of Nicaea is an ontological proposition: ‘while initially Christian theological practice might be innocent of any self-conscious involvement with ontology, the simplest affirmation, for instance, concerning Christ’s relation to the Father, must include the sort of notions of which ontology seeks to give an account.’

To seek to express formally the relation of Son to Father meant that, ‘from the first, commitment to the use of such notions as substance was inevitable.’ In characteristically ruminative vein, Mackinnon concludes that the homoousion ‘is totally misunderstood if it is treated as a possible substitute or alternative to such affirmations. Its role is essentially complementary… over against the simpler, yet more mysterious, evangelical affirmations, it is a second order proposition… it is not about Christ, but about statements about Christ.” Thus ‘it is through the use of ontological categories that we are enabled to see precisely what it is that it may be confronts us in the person of Jesus.’ (All the above quotations are from Sections III & IV of that essay, in Christ, Faith and History: Cambridge Studies in Christology, ed. Sykes & Clayton, London, Cambridge 1972, all emphases mine.) In the same volume, in ‘Does Christology Rest on a Mistake?’, Maurice Wiles sought to address the perceived twofold gulf between biblical, patristic and modern thought-worlds. Wiles would further develop his thinking in The Remaking of Christian Doctrine, and then his contribution to The Myth.

A more conservative contributor to Christ, Faith and History, the New Testament scholar Charles Moule (d.2007) would later contribute to The Philosophical Frontiers of Christian Theology: Essays presented to D. M. Mackinnon (ed. Brian Hebblethwaite & Stewart Sutherland, Cambridge, 1982) There, in ‘The Borderlands of Ontology in the New Testament’, he proposes a relative scarcity of anything approaching ‘ontological’ language in the New Testament—making it all the more telling where it does appear, as in the ‘I and the Father are one’ of John 10.30 (egō kai ho patēr hen esmen). And there is the logos-language of the Johannine prologue, and the exordium (prologue) of the letter to the Hebrews though, he suggests, the ‘Platonism’ of Hebrews, ‘is a Platonism of convenience, rather than a consistently held philosophy.’

However, Moule repeats James Barr’s earlier warning that ‘it is foolish and unrealistic to draw sharp lines between ‘Greek’ and ‘Hebrew’ thinking’ and so I do wonder about the persistent and foundational language of presence in Old and New Testaments. The locus classicus is Exodus 3.14: ‘I AM who I AM’ and ‘tell (them) I AM has sent you’? Then there are the associations clustering around the language of the shekinah (‘the glory of the divine presence’) and the divine ‘dwelling-with’, surely a constitutive element in the Christology of the Gospels and throughout the New Testament. And what of the language of to plēroma—‘the fullness’ (of God in Christ) in Colossians 1.12 and elsewhere—surely to be understood in close relation to the language of ‘presence’ (parousia) in its different forms?

While they do not belong to more fundamental categories of formal, ‘hard’ ontology, the language of shekinah and of parousia, of presence and indwelling, are surely ‘ontological’ categories of a kind. And as we have noticed, Moule himself (like Mackinnon) was intent on warning against too readily assuming a contrast between the idioms and thought-forms of scripture on the one hand and later, more formal modes of theological discourse on the other.

If our sense of the ‘pastness of the past’ can induce a kind of vertigo, this is surely owed in part to the intellectual changes occurring in European culture since medieval times. It was that gulf between ‘then’ and ‘now’, that lent itself to the Enlightenment’s ‘disenchantment’ (Max Weber’s Entzauberung) with the patristic and medieval legacy, further fuelled by the rise of biblical criticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which led to the later reaction in various twentieth century circles which tended to view all such change as irreversible and insurmountable.

I began with what I understand to have been a failure of theological nerve in some quarters, and suggested that apparent disparities of idiom between scriptural narrative and doctrinal formularies have contributed to this. In what follows I shall try (with more than a nod to some of the other Myth contributors) to show why this is linked to a deference of the ‘secular given’ which is specious, and why its caricature of an uncritical ‘settled faith’ is totally unfounded.

Father Stephen Wilson is an assistant priest at St Stephen’s Lewisham.