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.”


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