I would like to begin by thanking Matthew Wiley, who has taken the lead in organizing this symposium, as well as the four colleagues who have taken the time during this most unusual season of academic life to engage with my work. It is a privilege to be given the time and space to think through theological questions with others (especially when those others are as generous in their readings of my work as these four have been), and I am correspondingly grateful for this opportunity to do so.
Westminster John Knox, 2019
Moving through the specific responses seriatim, David Luy gives a very fair summary of my position and the theological concerns behind it. While he is sympathetic to these concerns, however, he is unpersuaded that they require a wholesale rejection of what he (following John Behr) terms a “partitive” Christology. His worry is that if the divine nature is (as I claim) utterly imperceptible in Jesus, then the basis upon which his divinity is confessed becomes unclear. Drawing from the fathers, he gives as an example of the visibility of the divine Jesus’ ability to impart incorruptible life. In response I can only say that I am at a loss to identify any episode in Scripture where we perceive Jesus imparting incorruptible life; nor can I imagine what it would look like for him to do so. To be sure, he certainly promises such life to his followers (see, e.g., John 6:54), but that is different from actually imparting it in a way that might be seen.
It seems to me that Luy’s worry here is that my position risks a kind of crypto-Nestorianism (my term, not his), in that it provides no empirical means for distinguishing a Jesus who is merely empowered by God (as any human being might be) from a Jesus who is God. For this reason, he implicitly endorses the position of Pope Leo I (which I explicitly reject in my book), according to which in Christ the divine nature “shines forth with miracles” (DH §294). Importantly, in so doing I do not deny that in his earthly ministry Jesus does things that only God has the power to do (e.g., forgive sins), and makes promises things that only God can keep (e.g., eternal life);My answer is that to deny that divinity is visible in Jesus is not to say that it is impossible to give reasons for faith in him. but I maintain that Jesus’ power as God to do such things remain a matter of faith, not sight. As far as the evidence of the senses go, Jesus might well be (as at least some of his less sympathetic contemporaries thought) a blasphemer, or someone who casts out demons by the prince of demons.Jesus’ response to this latter charge is compelling (Matt 12:25–29 and pars.), but not decisive, since, according to 2 Cor 11:4, even Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light.
Given the implications of my position (which he diagnoses quite accurately), Luy wonders how I could defend Jesus’ identity as a divine person apart from some manifestation of divinity that might be distinguished from the sort of divine (or demonic) power that might be given to any human being. My answer is that to deny that divinity is visible in Jesus is not to say that it is impossible to give reasons for faith in him (cf. 1 Pet 3:15): Jesus himself at various points highlights the ways in which the shape of his ministry comports with the words of the law and the prophets, and that is the line I would follow. Yet such reasons, however persuasive, do not amount to a demonstration of his divine identity, and (again) it seems to me integral to the character of belief in Jesus that there is no way of distinguishing Jesus, the Verbum incarnatum, from a homo assumptus empirically (i.e., on the basis of what we see him do during his earthly ministry). Indeed, it seems to me that if “naked deity” were visible in Jesus, then I would assert (following Paul) that “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).
Kirsten Sanders rightly sees that my reading of Chalcedon depends on a theological compatibilism that extends to all of God’s works ad extra, beginning with creation. If I understand her rightly, however, she wonders if the ability of created matter to disclose God in Jesus does not provide grounds for supposing that matter might be disclosive of God more generally. In response, I would certainly affirm that insofar as we are material creatures, we only experience grace through material mediation.In this context, I think Eugene Rogers’s judgment that the central role of the Holy Spirit, both in the incarnation and throughout the economy, is that of befriending matter is spot on. See Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2005). But I also follow David Kelsey in holding that grace, like being, may be spoken of in many ways, and that there is a distinction to be drawn between the grace of creation (whereby God brings creatures to life and holds them in being) and the grace of redemption (whereby God brings creatures into communion with the triune life).For Kelsey’s views, see David H. Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, 2 vols. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 1.144, 159; cf. 2.897–904. Both do indeed rest on theological compatibilism, in which God’s status as “Not other” (to use the language of Nicholas of Cusa) makes it possible for God to be the immediate ground of all creaturely being without robbing that being of its own integrity; but whereas God bestows the grace of creation invisibly, the grace of redemption is communicated when God condescends to become an other via revelation,In response, I would certainly affirm that insofar as we are material creatures, we only experience grace through material mediation. first in the Old Testament theophanies, and climactically in the incarnation. Thus, while Christians can certainly affirm with Calvin that the whole world is the theater of God’s glory, this perception is dependent on the knowledge that the world is a creation—and that knowledge comes only by way of the direct divine communication that constitutes the grace of redemption.
Sanders also suggests that my approach ought to reorient the character of theological discourse in significant ways. Here I am in agreement with her, though perhaps not in the way she would like. For I take the upshot of my interpretation of Chalcedon (as encapsulated Luther’s dictum that ‘whoever wishes to deliberate or speculate soundly about God should disregard absolutely everything except the humanity of Christ’)Ideo repeto iterumque monebo: quicunque velit salubriter de Deo cogitare aut speculari, prorsus omnia postponat praeter humanitatem Christi. Martin Luther, Letter to Spalatin (12 February 1519) in WA, Br. 1, 226. Cf. Kathryn Tanner’s equation of ‘what the Trinity is doing for us’ with ‘what is happening in the life of Christ,’ in Christ the Key (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 234. to the importance of making the concrete character of Jesus’ ministry—his association with tax collectors, demoniacs, lepers, and sinners—the measure for our talk about God. On these grounds, I would argue that Chalcedon is a charter for making Christology less speculative, in recognition that whatever Jesus may or may not have known about (e.g., the 1946 World Series or the Higgs boson), what is clear from the concrete movements of his human life as reported in the Gospels is his concern for the well-being of the “least of these.”
Luke Stamps’s initial concerns are similar to David Luy’s: that my denial of the possibility of perceiving anything divine in Jesus risks undermining the rationale for confessing him as God in the first place. Stamps points to Jesus’ miracles in this context, and I concede that Jesus does at times appeal to them in what appears to be an evidentiary way (John 10:38); at the same time, given that Jesus’ miracles have parallels among both the Old Testament prophets and his own followers, and given that Jesus himself maintains that the latter group in particular will do works greater than his (John 14:12),Stamps’s second set of worries are also similar Luys’s: doesn’t my account leave Christ empirically indistinguishable from any pneumatically empowered human being? the kind of evidentiary value they have cannot be equated with the disclosure of his divinity along the lines proposed by Leo the Great; rather, Jesus’ miracles seem to me more properly understood as part of a cumulative case that the sorts of words and deeds that he performs are consistent with the commitments (and thus the identity) of the God of Israel.The beatific vision, which Stamps also raises briefly, is another matter. This is not a question of seeing God under the conditions of time and space in which Jesus performed his first-century ministry in Palestine, but rather of a “seeing” that takes place in heaven and thus outside of space-time. Even so, the mechanisms by which such a seeing might be possible, given the ontological gap between creature and Creator, remain difficult to parse coherently. For an attempt to do so making use of the categories of Aristotelian epistemology, see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Supplement 92 (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947).
Stamps’s second set of worries are also similar Luys’s: doesn’t my account leave Christ empirically indistinguishable from any pneumatically empowered human being? That seems to me the only conclusion that can be drawn on the basis of the reaction Jesus elicited among his contemporaries, whose experience of him leads them to entertain a number of different conclusions regarding his identity (one of the prophets, John the Baptist redivivus, or, more negatively, someone possessed by a demon), all of which fall short of divinity. Nor do I think that anything Jesus did amounts to a conclusive demonstration that he is the eternal Son of God; that is why belief in him is a product of grace (see Matt 16:17; John 6:44). But I don’t think this conclusion entails a “functional kenoticism,” if by that is meant the belief that the Word divests himself of any of the properties of the divine nature in taking flesh. All it means is that such properties (omnipotence, omniscience, immensity, etc.) are not features of Jesus’ human nature: when teaching in the Capernaum synagogue, the divine Word is—according to his human nature—in the Capernaum synagogue and not everywhere, though remaining omnipresent according to his divine nature.
In pursuing the question of Jesus’ distinctiveness, Stamps turns to my use of the patristic claim that Jesus possesses “a new theadric energy” to explain how it is that we ascribe to Jesus the significance we do (viz., the one who can serve as a definitive creaturely referent for divine attributes like wisdom, mercy, justice, etc.). He asks “Could we not imagine another human nature, not assumed hypostatically by a divine person and thus constituting a distinct person, who receives the gift of theosis and thus participation in the divine energies, complete with the ability to do human things divinely?” The answer here is no, because only of a human being who is God can we without qualification identify his or her character (as disclosed in word and deed) as directly indicative of God’s character. In any other case, we will necessarily be uncertain whether a person’s actions reflect the work of the Holy Spirit or some other some other spirit (cf. 1 John 4:1). That is why we evaluate the actions of the even the greatest of saints against Christ.Stamps suggests that a person who had received theosis would not be a reliable index of the divine nature. As with the question of the beatific vision, here we need to distinguish between life time and space and life in eternity. No human being (even Jesus!) is fully divinized in this life. In heaven, when the saints achieve the status of non posse peccare, their actions will indeed reflect the divine will perfectly. Even here, however, they will do so only as members of the body whose head is Christ, so that here, too, Christ remains the measure.
Finally, Stamps raises the question of the extra Calvinisticum.For a more extended discussion of this question than appears in The Word Made Flesh, see Ian A. McFarland, “The Logic of Incarnation and the Problem of the Extra Calvinisticum,” in Schools of Faith: Essays on Theology, Ethics and Education in Honour of Iain R. Torrance, eds. David Fergusson and Bruce McCormack (London: T & T Clark), 59–68. As he notes, I object to the extra on the grounds that it undermines a central principle of Chalcedonian Christology: the absolute and unqualified convertibility of the terms “Jesus,” “Son of God,” “Word,” “son of Mary,” etc. Stamp concedes that this convertibility must be affirmed with respect to personal identity, but he also argues that the Chalcedonian distinction of natures requires that “the Son carries out divine activities that by their very nature extend beyond the constraints of his humanity.” I simply confess that I don’t see how those two commitments can go together without undermining the central Christian conviction that Jesus is Savior, such that “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11). Is there any point at which it is possible to say, “Here the Son acts, but Jesus, the Son of Mary, does not?” If there is, then the resulting “daylight” between Jesus and the Word means that our ultimate trust cannot finally be placed in Jesus. Moreover, if the Word cannot be identified with Jesus without the qualification of the etiam extra, then we cannot finally be certain that the good news Jesus proclaims is indeed God’s final word for us. I certainly don’t claim to be able to conceive what it means to say that Jesus was “in the beginning” with God, is omnipresent, etc. (and I am happy to concede that the classical Lutheran attempt to offer such an explanation by way of the category of the genus maiestaticum is a pretty egregious example of metaphysical overreach), but I maintain that the point must be affirmed for the sake of the gospel.I add here a caution that there are serious problems with conceiving what we mean by any of the so-called “metaphysical” divine attributes, even apart from the incarnation. To take the example of omnipresence, it does not entail the claim that God occupies every physical point in the universe, for God does not (apart from the incarnation!) subsist in space. But what then does it mean? Clearly, the point is to affirm that God is not absent from the world; but since we cannot conceive of absence in terms other than physical distance—which, again, cannot be applied to God—this does not help us very much. The only recourse is to say that we are applying the word “presence” to God analogically; it is probably the best we can do—but it isn’t much!
Though also appreciative of my concerns, Blair Smith, too, wonders whether or not my zeal to affirm the revelatory significance of Christ’s human nature does not end up slighting his divine nature. He pushes me particularly on the question of whether my position doesn’t slight the mature (“neo-“) Chalcedonianism of Maximus the Confessor by failing to give an adequate account of how Jesus illuminates the “what” no less than the “who” of divinity. As I concede in the last part of Chapter Three of The Word Made Flesh, my restricting the divinity visible in Jesus to the hypostasis of the Word while excluding the divine nature, I do indeed seem to leave no room for the idea that Jesus augments or even clarifies our understanding of the divine. In response, I invoke the same text from Maximus that Smith cites, Ambiguum 5, to argue that Maximus’s analysis of the “new theandric energy” operative in Christ can address this concern. Briefly,To say that God is omnipresent does not mean that God occupies every physical point in the universe, for God does not (apart from the incarnation!) subsist in space. I argue that because Jesus is none other than the Word, we can understand his humanly perfect participation in the divine energies (the upshot of what Maximus’s talk of “a new theandric energy” entails) as a reflecting God’s own character without qualification and thereby giving us genuine knowledge of the divine “what” (viz. that it is loving, gracious, merciful, just, etc.).
Smith, however, wants to come at this problem from a different direction, invoking the extra Calvinisticum. I’m not sure I follow his argument fully here, for I have no quarrel with the idea that Jesus is eternally born of the Father, is omnipotent, omnipresent, etc., according to his divine nature, or that follows from the Chalcedonian claim that the divine nature subsists in him “without confusion or change” (DH §302). But that is a different matter than whether or not it is appropriate to speak of the Word subsisting etiam extra carnem, such that these divine predicates cannot be applied without qualification to Jesus.
Be that as it may, although I’ve already summarized my reasons for my rejection of the extra in my response to Stamps, in light of Smith’s focus on the problem of the circumscription of the divine nature that seems to be entailed by my (Lutheran) position, here I would add that the spatial connotations of the language he and other defenders of Reformed orthodoxy use to defend the extra (viz., that since God “fills” creation, Jesus’ humanity can’t “contain” the Word) seem to me to suggest a spatialized vision of God (e.g., the sea of infinite extent that Augustine associates with his Manichean period), which, in turn, points to the fact that there are serious difficulties associated with trying to make sense any of the so-called “metaphysical” divine attributes, even apart from the incarnation. Let’s take omnipresence as an example. To say that God is omnipresent does not mean that God occupies every physical point in the universe, for God does not (apart from the incarnation!) subsist in space. But what then does it mean? Clearly, the point is to affirm that God is not absent from the world; but since we cannot conceive of absence in terms other than physical distance—which, again, cannot be applied to God—this does not help us very much. Our only recourse is to say that we are applying the word “presence” to God analogically; but while this is the best we can do, it isn’t much! In short (and returning to the specifically Christological concerns underlying the extra), I confess that I would feel much more worried my inability to explain what it means to confess with Cyril that Jesus fills all creation, if I had any clear conception of what it means to say that the Father fills all creation. But since the latter is no less conceptually impenetrable to me than the former, I don’t find the denial of the extra as problematic as my Reformed colleagues do.
I suspect that what I have written will not change anyone’s mind. I don’t mean this to slight the integrity of my interlocutors—far from it. For I do not think that any of them has misunderstood me. On the contrary, they have in every case interpreted my position accurately and, moreover, read it charitably; they simply contend that it contains deficits and/or leaves certain pressing issues unresolved in a way that prevents them from giving a full endorsement to my views. In response, I can (and have sought to) do no more than attempt to show why I don’t think the issues they identify are as theologically problematic as they believe (or at least that they are less problematic than the available alternatives). Moreover, their critiques serve as a helpful reminder that no theological position is without trade-offs, and the most helpful assessment of any theologian’s work is to make clear exactly what trade-offs are entailed by it. In this respect, my four interlocutors have given a better service to the theological guild than an uncritical embrace of my views could possibly have done.