28 February 2013

More Than a Feeling: Response

This marks our fifth post in this series, now responding to Schleiermacher's points of criticism regarding the hypostatic union:

Schleiermacher's third and fifth points we can treat at the same time. In them, we come to the crux of his criticism: How can there be a real unity of person in two natures? This has produced, according to Schleiermacher, an unavoidable precipice on all sides—either the two natures are mixed and form a third (e.g., Eutychianism), or the two natures are kept separated at the cost of the unity of the person (e.g., Nestorianism), or one nature becomes less important than the other and limited by it (e.g., certain kenotic or docetic or Apollinarian views). In practice, Schleiermacher rightly notes that this often manifests itself in the church in one of two ways: so emphasizing Christ’s deity that his humanity is obscured and vice versa.

As alluded to in the previous post, Schleiermacher depends heavily on the definitions given to words like nature and person during the course of his criticism. This gets him off track, but not indefinitely. Nature, for example, before Chalcedon, necessarily implied a hypostasis (the substantive existence of being; the term came to approximate “person” [i.e., the one who has this substantive existence] during and after Chalcedon).1 After Chalcedon, however, “‘natures’ could no longer be understood solely in terms of capacities abstracted from existing individuals,”2 but came to mean an essence with the attributes proper to it—a concrete reality, a particular being with its particular attributes or nature. Thus, in the time of Schleiermacher there would have been no reason to obsess over the pre-Chalcedon implications of the word nature or uncritically apply the popular definition of the word person in his day to the equation.

The argument itself also reflects that of Apollinaris of Laodicea and his charge against the Arians. Along with his eagerness to emphasize the deity of Jesus and the unity of his person, came the denial of the existence of a rational human soul in Christ’s human nature, this being replaced in him by the Logos, so that his body was a glorified and spiritualized form of humanity. “The effort to conceive the unification of originally independently existing divine and human natures into a single individual in whom both natures nonetheless remain distinct leads inevitably to an impasse from which there is no escape.”3 Hence Schleiermacher’s criticism on this point.

While his approach to this dilemma “from the ground up” (so to speak) is commendable, his failure to bring us to the great mystery of the incarnation is not. Studying Jesus’ aims, beliefs, actions, agenda—his sense of calling or vocation—through the lens of history can bring us to the Definition of Chalcedon (albeit with different words). As with the opposing parties in the early church, the problem for Schleiermacher “is insoluble so long as Christology is developed from the concept of the incarnation, instead of culminating in the assertion of the incarnation as its concluding statement."4 His answer, however, falls outside the bounds of Chalcedon; or, rather, his answer finds itself playing in an altogether different playground—one without fences.

Along with Karl Barth, retaining the language of an utterly unique incarnation in “two natures” while maintaining reservations about applying the concept of nature uniformly to both God and humanity, may be a helpful way forward.5 The union of God and humankind in Jesus is sui generis—unique, singular and irreplaceable, and therefore must be understood solely on its own terms. To conceive of the manifestation of God’s Christ through the appropriation of psychology, that is, the inner life of humankind (e.g., gefühl), is to grant a more fundamental union of God and man (in that moment before thinking and acting). No, says Barth, the incarnation of the one God-man in two natures has no analogy, and thus it cannot be twisted into a mere type or exemplification of the feeling of absolute dependence.

Finally, we come to Schleiermacher’s restatement of the creedal affirmation of the existence of God in Christ. In it he focuses, rightly, on the historical particularity of Jesus’ human activity as the basis of the confession that in him God became man. Again, it’s not so much this method that creates the problem, beholden to (or kicking off!) modern hermeneutics as it is6; rather, it’s the definition he gives to God (and “his” relation to the world) in conjunction with what he says about the person of Christ that’s the problem. Put another way, what Schleiermacher takes away with his doctrine of God, he does not quite give back with his christology.7 We'll see how when I try to wrap this up next time.

1 See G.W.H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (London: OUP, 1969), 1,500.

2 Bruce L. McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” in Mapping Modern Theology, Kapic, Kelly M. and Bruce L. McCormack, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 155.

3 Pannenberg, Jesus, God and Man, 287. He goes on to posit “mutual interpenetration of the natures as a way toward understanding the unity of Christ” as a way forward in this particular discussion, 296–307.

4 Ibid., 291.

5 See Karl Barth, CD IV/2 (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 58ff.

6 For some good examples of this sort of work using (primarily) exegetical and historical methods (focusing on the human activity—or vocation—of Jesus as signposts to his divine identity), see Richard Bauckham, God Crucified (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context (Holland, Mich.: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2005); Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1994); Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005); N.T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) and Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), to name a few.

7 He may come close, arguably, with his christocentric vision of revelation. See Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (§94), 387–88: Just as the natural world becomes “a revelation of God to us only so far as we bring that conception with us,” so too does the existence of God in humanity become revealed insofar “as we bring Christ with us in thought and relate to Him.” He is the only “other” in whom there is an existence of God “in the proper sense,” and as such we are not able to see a revelation of God anywhere unless we have first seen it in Christ, in whom the God-consciousness was “a perfect indwelling of the Supreme Being as His peculiar being and His inmost self.” And since it is only through the Redeemer, Christ Jesus, that God-consciousness comes to possess others, and since, further, it is only in reference to him that the world can be said to contain a revelation of God, we can say that he “alone mediates all existence of God in the world and all revelation of God through the world, in so far as He bears with Himself the whole new creation which contains and develops the potency of the God-consciousness.”

23 February 2013

More Than a Feeling: Restatement

 Now begins our fourth post in this series, picking up at Schleiermacher's revision of the hypostatic union:


Schleiermacher then proceeds to hope that the above criticisms have laid a sufficient foundation . . .
. . . for such a revision, which attempts so to define the mutual relations of the divine and the human in the Redeemer, that both the expressions, divine nature and the duality of natures in the same Person (which, to say the least, are exceedingly inconvenient) shall be altogether avoided.1
He goes on to frame his restatement of the doctrine thus: The Redeemer is like all men in the possession of the same human nature, but distinguished from all men through the absolute power of the God-consciousness that constituted a “real existence of God in him.” In him the human was the perfect organ for the reception and representation of the divine. Insofar as all of the Christ’s human activity depends upon “this existence of God in Him and represents it, the expression (that in the Redeemer God became man) is justified as true exclusively of Him.” Similarly, every moment of his life presents a new manifestation of the incarnation of God, “because always and everywhere all that is human in Him springs out of that divine.”

So ends Schleiermacher’s judgment of this most foundational element of the ecclesiastical formulae regarding the two natures of Christ. In short, it “had better be given up . . . because it is an imperfect solution of the problem . . . and harmful because the occasion of persistent misunderstandings” (ibid., 390).


Many criticisms and several affirmations and adjustments could be made from what has been presented in this series of posts thus far. It’s scope, however, is more narrow (not least in size)—that of christology. And further, we aim to respond to Schleiermacher’s critique of the creedal expression of the hypostatic union in his “§96 First Theorem.” What follows corresponds to the numbering in my last post, though not necessarily in the same order as presented there.

First, with respect to titles and other references to Jesus of Nazareth denoting his divinity, Schleiermacher’s wariness, based on socio-grammatical grounds, is quite right. James D. G. Dunn has summed it up well in his Christology in the Making (in his study on the “Son of God” in nascent Christianity, though the conclusions relate to every title, in that this reference to Jesus “has had both the historical depth and lasting power” of all the titles that have come to denote his divinity2):
They all denote one who is related to God (the divine) in some way—that is quite clear. But whether the relationship is of an individual who lived in close accord with God (specially favoured by God, specially pleasing to God), or of something much more (embodying deity in some way), that is not clear. Certainly ‘son of God’ as applied to Jesus would not necessarily have carried in and of itself the connotation of deity. . . . (ibid., 22)

In the earliest period of Christianity ‘Son of God’ was not an obvious vehicle of a christology of incarnation or pre-existence. . . . In other words, we have not yet discovered any pre-Christian or indeed primitive Christian talk of a Son of God descending to earth which could explain the appearance of such talk in the Fourth Gospel. To put it another way, the understanding of Jesus as Son of God apparently did not provide the starting point for a christology of pre-existence or incarnation. (ibid., 64)
On this first count, then, Schleiermacher anticipated a better reading of the Scriptures than what he had inherited.

Second, starting with the second part of his criticism first, Schleiermacher deems the word nature particularly misleading because it should only be applied to finite existence, and thus is totally inappropriate to God’s aseity and infinity. This argument misses the mark, since it doesn’t comport with the patristic understanding. The concept of “nature” and the concept of “being” were interchangeable by the time of the formulation of the christological creeds, and the former did not carry with it the denotation of finitude that Schleiermacher articulates.

His first part of the argument, however, that the word nature cannot be uniformly applied to both the human and the divine has some merit. The human and the divine are not on the same level of reality; but it is also the superiority of the infinite over all the finite that makes the doctrine of the hypostatic union so difficult to express. Put another way, in the ontological perspective of the Greek world in which the word nature was used and applied to both of Christ’s natures, a resolution to the problem of singular personhood in which these natures subsist cannot be expressed easily without confusion, which brings us to the next points.3

Brief mention must first be made of Schleiermacher’s fourth criticism, that the doctrine of the two wills of Christ adds to the incoherence and unhelpful nature of the creedal formulae. In so doing, he doesn’t move the conversation forward (uncritically relying as he does on his culture’s definition of person—with the addition of self-consciousness and the personality development it made possible).4 At any rate, it’s an extension of the real problem of ascribing two natures to one person, and to that end, he raises his most crucial insight—the question of the relation between nature and person, to which we will turn in the next post.

1 Schleiermacher, Christian Faith (§95), 397, and hereafter throughout the remainder of this paragraph.

2 James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 12.

3 On the best reading, Schleiermacher’s concern here is motivated by his desire to protect the transcendence and holiness of God over against all things creaturely, and so he rejects all attempts to apply words in the same manner to both God and man.

4 For an argument of its coherency in relation to the hypostatic union in the incarnation, see Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 153–62.

16 February 2013

More Than a Feeling: the Hypostatic Union

We're launching right into our third post in this series:

First Theorem (§96): the Hypostatic Union

The Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD) set the parameters for what Christians believe about the person of God’s Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. This symbol of faith lays out several affirmations revolving around what is true of him. It made no attempt, however, to resolve its “apparent contradictions,"1 that is, to explain how the affirmations can be understood all together. The challenge for subsequent Christians with respect to christology has been to work out in a theologically consistent way how the antinomies of the creed can simultaneously be true.2

The doctrine of the hypostatic union immediately comes to mind: how can the divine (usually construed in infinite terms) be a (finite) human being at the same time? Before engaging this most crucial creedal proposition, Schleiermacher notes his intent:
The task of the critical process is to hold the ecclesiastical formulae to strict agreement with the foregoing analysis of our Christian self-consciousness, in order, partly, to judge how far they agree with it at least in essentials, partly (with regard to individual points), to inquire how much of the current form of expression is to be retained, and how much, on the other hand, had better be given up, either because it is an imperfect solution of the problem or because it is an addition not in itself essential and harmful because the occasion of persistent misunderstandings.3
Never mind for the moment that it’s the ecclesiastical formulae that are weighed and found wanting in every instance. The method itself is laudable. “If theologians are to reflect at all, and are not merely to repeat the definitions of the past, they must be free to suggest language that is technically heterodox (not heretical!) but may in time become orthodox.”4

In Jesus Christ the Divine Nature and Human Nature
Were Combined in One Person

Schleiermacher launches into his criticisms after noting that while he’s in complete agreement with the sentiment laid out in the various creedal passages he lists, “there is almost nothing in the execution of this aim against which protest must not be raised, whether we regard the scientific character of the expression or its suitability for ecclesiastical use” (ibid., 391). Those protests may be summarized as follows:

First, in the Scriptures the name “Jesus Christ” (as does “Son of God”), which are often taken to allude to both the human and divine natures of the one person, actually refers only to the subject of the hypostatic union (qua man and thus “not of the divine element in it before the union,” p. 392).

Second, use of the term nature in reference to both the divine and the human is confusing to the point of being unhelpful. “For how can divine and human be thus brought together under any single conception, as if they could both be more exact determinations, coordinated to each other, of one and the same universal?” (ibid.). Moreover, divine and nature commonly refer to opposite conceptions: Nature denotes the contingent and manifold phenomenal world in contrast with the unconditional and the absolutely simple world of the divine. “Always we use [the word nature] solely of a limited existence, standing in opposition to something else . . . active and passive . . . revealed in a variety of appearances.” The term thus cannot be used in conjunction with God. To do so betrays a polytheistic “heathen influence” (p. 393).

Third, the creedal formulae also implies a relation between nature and person opposed to common usage: while several persons can indeed have the same nature, here the formulae insist that one person has two entirely different natures. Person denotes a unity of life, but nature indicates the content of a person’s unity-of-life modes of action (which vary depending on one’s life). How can there be a unity of life with a duality of natures, unless one gives way to the other, especially since one of those natures (the divine) has a large sphere and the other a small? The Ego is lost altogether in this construct. The outcome is either the melting of the two natures into a third, which is neither divine nor human, for the sake of maintaining the unity of the person (e.g., monophysitism); or the separation of the natures at the cost of neglecting the person (e.g., Nestorianism); or the subordination of one nature to the other (e.g., adoptionism or docetism).
The attempt to make clear this unity along with the duality naturally but seldom results in anything else than a demonstration of the possibility of a formula made up by combining indications out of which it is impossible to construct a figure. On the other hand, as soon as the same writer avoids this formula of two natures, he not seldom says something which one can follow, and of which the figure can be drawn. (pp. 393–94)
Fourth, the question of two wills is inevitably raised. If Jesus Christ had two wills, the unity of the person would be unreal (“even if we try to conserve it by saying that the two wills always will the same thing,” because that only leads to agreement, not unity, p. 394); and, further, since understanding (i.e., reason) and will cannot be conceived as independent, the question of the duality of the understanding is involved, which brings us back again to the division of the person of Christ (i.e., it’s rehashed Nestorianism, or worse, it creates a schizophrenic Christ who wills one way one second, and another way the next, or wills in two ways simultaneously). In short, it’s unthinkable that a divine reason, “which as omniscient sees everything at once, should think the same as a human reason, which only knows separate things one after the other and as a result of the other” (ibid.).

Fifth, the formulae itself does not harmonize with the creedal formulae on the Trinity, which abandoned the unity of person for the sake of unity of essence. And when we ask how the divine “nature” of Christ relates itself to the divine “essence,” no answer is possible. If the doctrine of Christ involves dual natures, then the question “inevitably arises . . . whether each of the three Persons, outside their participation in the Divine Essence, has also a nature of its own as well, or whether this is a peculiarity of the Second Person” (p. 395). Furthermore, if we apply the usage of the word person in the doctrine of Christ to the doctrine of the Trinity, “then the three Persons must have an independent anterior existence in themselves; and if each Person is also a nature, we come almost inevitably to three divine natures for the three divine Persons in the one Divine Essence” (in other words, tritheism. Ibid.).

Thus we see, argues Schleiermacher, that the doctrine of the hypostatic union carries us far away from religion into hair-splitting, speculation, and confusion. Its practical use in the church is of little value.

What's next: Schleiermacher's restatement of the hypostatic union as well as my (hopefully helpful) response to it.

1 Kelsey, Thinking . . ., 69.

2 Indeed, according to Wolfhart Pannenberg, the Definition accomplished “no theological solution for the controversies preceding Chalcedon. It only indicates the criteria that must be unconditionally observed in every Christological theory” (Jesus, God and Man [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968], 292).

3 Schleiermacher, Christian Faith (§95), 390.

4 B. A. Gerrish (vi of the Foreword), summarizing Schleiermacher’s thought in The Christian Faith (§25), 108–11.

10 February 2013

More Than a Feeling: Gefühl

We left off in the first post of this series noting that since Schleiermacher assumes familiarity with his argument up to the point of the First Theorem on the hypostatic union (§96) in his Christian Faith, it'd be helpful for us to unpack briefly two key aspects of his thought as they relate to his doctrine of Christ: (1) gefühl, the feeling of absolute dependence (god-consciousness); and (2) his definition of god (construed as relation). The order is important, as it is only through that moment of absolute dependence within our consciousness that we feel or intuit any relation to the unknown beyond the world (i.e., “god”) and can thus say anything about it.

The Feeling of Absolute Dependence1

Fully functioning adults process life—be it physical sensations or emotions—through the intellect. Responses to each are determined after we’ve thought about them. Because we have volition, we are responsible for our responses. Even if we do not think before we act, we still hold ourselves responsible for the action, simply because we’re always able to think before we act (certain involuntary reactions notwithstanding).

Schleiermacher points out that in Christ we see an example of this at the highest level (to the “nth degree,” we might say): not only are his emotions and physical sensations processed or
funneled through his utter dependence on god, so is his every thought. This ultimate level of being is gott-bewusstsein (god-consciousness), and it’s possible for everyone, now that we recognize its perfection in god’s Messiah, Jesus (this is, incidentally, part and parcel of what it means to be redeemed for Schleiermacher, as we shall soon see).

But if this process comes before thinking, where does it reside in our psychological makeup? According to Schleiermacher, given that everything is processed as either thought or action, there yet remains a moment before that transition is made to either thought or action. “Our immediate awareness occurs in the split second before we translate a stirring into a thought or an action."2 In other words, something happens in us before we think; it’s an immediate (as opposed to mediated) awareness referred to by Schleiermacher as “feeling” (understood in technical psychological terms3): “[Feeling] simply takes place in the subject, and thus, since it belongs altogether to the realm of receptivity, it is entirely an abiding-in-self; and in this sense it stands alone in antithesis to the to the other two—Knowing and Doing."4

Relation to God

In that moment of immediate awareness, we sense that things outside of us influence us, and we them. The dependency is reciprocal. But we also sense, in that moment, a non-objective “other” whose influence is one way (i.e., an other who cannot be observed, tested, manipulated or controlled by any conceivable experiment). The fact that we feel our dependence and freedom (but not absolute) in relation to other objects, leads us to a consciousness of absolute dependence upon an existence of pure activity:
The self-consciousness which accompanies all our activity, and therefore, since that is never zero, accompanies our whole existence, and negatives absolute freedom, is itself precisely a consciousness of absolute dependence; for it is the consciousness that the whole of our spontaneous activity comes from a source outside of us in just the same sense in which anything towards which we should have a feeling of absolute freedom must have proceeded entirely from ourselves. But without any feeling of freedom a feeling of absolute dependence would not be possible.5
In short, we are utterly dependent upon that “source outside of us,” of which we become aware through the fact of our feeling of freedom in relation to the world of objects. All the world's religions call this source “god.”
So in our immediate awareness in every moment of being stirred by something, before thought about what has stirred us, we sense a relationship with God who influences us but whom we do not influence in return. God’s influence is upon that immediate awareness that precedes every thought or action.”6
Importantly for Schleiermacher, this influence is universally open to all humans. What distinguishes us is how often we allow that awareness to become the funnel through which all our thoughts and actions derive. On one end of the continuum, there are those who never translate this awareness into thoughts or actions; on the other end, there is Jesus, whose life exemplified a perfect god-consciousness. In this, “Christ is just like us—except that he was able to do perfectly what we didn’t know we could do at all until we experienced redemption.”7

As we move into Schleiermacher’s discussion of the hypostatic union, it’s especially important to note clearly his theology-proper starting point: God is beyond our finite ability to be known, in any sense, as an object. God has no discernible properties, such as being located at a specific place, or time, of having a definite meaning, this way and not that way. If the true god could be known as an object, then we’d be able to exercise freedom in relation to it, and thus we would not be absolutely dependent upon it, and so the consciousness would not be the one, true god. He puts it as follows:
Any possibility of God being in any way given is entirely excluded, because anything that is outwardly given must be given as an object exposed to our counter influence, however slight this may be. The transference of the idea of God to any perceptible object, unless one is all the time conscious that it is a piece of purely arbitrary symbolism, is always a corruption, whether it be a temporary transference, i.e., a theophany, or a constitutive transference, in which God is represented as permanently a particular perceptible existence.8
Thus, knowing god is purely mystical in nature; language only points to that relation, that feeling, and is only “purely arbitrary symbolism” in that the person(s) giving it expression are bound by their historical and psychological situation, which expression gives the feeling its concreteness. This naturally leads us into Schleiermacher’s discussion of creedal christological affirmations, as they, too, are subject to the criticism he writes above with respect to speaking of the divine.

More anon . . .

1 I’m grateful to Catherine L. Kelsey’s discussion on this point in Thinking About Christ with Schleiermacher (Louisville: WJK Press, 2003), 71–74.

2 Ibid., 72.

3 Whether or not this technicality saves it from the morass of solipsism is another matter.

4 Schleiermacher, Christian Faith (§3), 5–12.

5 Ibid. (§4), 16. What Schleiermacher called "God-consciousness," Freud called “the feeling of infantile helplessness” and the “longing for the father aroused by it” in Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: Norton, 1989), 20–21. Based on Schleiermacher’s criterion, is it possible to discern which interpretation of the awareness is more plausible?

6 Kelsey, Thinking . . ., 72.

7 Ibid., 73.

8 Schleiermacher, Christian Faith (§4), 18. While the issues this raises with respect to “God-talk” are beyond the scope of this essay, nevertheless it should be taken into account when contemplating Schleiermacher’s christology.

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