“As the voice, so the vision of God is the end of the creature; no one looks on the Lord and lives.”
—Katherine SondereggerKatherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God vol. 1. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 18.
“Whoever wishes to deliberate or speculate soundly about God should disregard absolutely everything except the humanity of Christ.”
—Martin LutherWA Br. 1:226.
In 599, Gregory the Great was alerted that the Bishop of Marseille had been destroying religious images in his diocese. In his letter to Serenus, Gregory rebukes this bishop and in so doing lays out something of an operative theory of the function of religious images. The images that adorned the walls of churches, he writes, should not have been destroyed but ought to have remained.
The logic?—in his words, “For a picture is displayed in churches on this account, in order that those who do not know letters may at least read by seeing on the walls what they are unable to read in books.”Celia Chazelle “Pictures, Books, and the Illiterate: Pope Gregory I’s Letters to Serenus of Marseilles,” Word & Image 6:2 (1990): 138–53. 139. In his second letter, he adds, “for it is one thing to adore a picture, another through a picture’s story to learn what must be adored.”Chazelle, “Pictures, Books, and the Illiterate,” 139.
It is impossible to overstate the influence of this letter among art historians. Sadly, in theological discourse it has sunk to the bottom like a stone. Gregory’s concern, however, and what prompted his letter was not a casual interest in whether images were useful. Rather, it was a question about violating the second commandment.
That God is invisible is so granted as to be axiomatic for Christian theologians. God is One and simple and has no form, ergo God is invisible. As Katherine Sonderegger writes: “The Oneness presented to us on Horeb is marked out by its contrast with the visible, formed, and figured: the negative correlate to Oneness is the idol, the similitude fashioned out of the likeness of creatures.”Sonderegger, Systematic Theology vol. 1, 24. As invisibility has become a correlate of divine simplicity and unicity, it is no surprise that the question of religious images in Protestantism is often settled with a resounding “Never!”WLC Q.109. The question of how the affirmation of icons at the Second Council of Nicaea and the Council of Trent was not retained with Westminster for me remains. And yet Ian McFarland’s book The Word Made Flesh cracks the question right back open. McFarland’s argument, in brief, is that the Chalcedonian consensus finds its true affirmation in the period post-451CE where the language of “hypostasis” was further refined to mean “who” and not “what.” In Justinian’s words, the hypostasis “[discloses] the natures from which Christ exists and in which he is known.”Justinian quoted in Justinian, and Kenneth Paul Wesche. On the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 180.
The upshot of McFarland’s argument, however, is not simply further refinement of history of doctrine. He cares that we understand the who/what distinction because there is no God hiding behind the back of Jesus, Wizard of Oz style, pulling levers and hitting buttons in order to execute his miraculous deeds. (This, by the way, is his concern with Cyril’s Tome of Leo, which states that the divine “shines forth with miracles” and human “succumbs to injuries.”DH 294. It is not so much that McFarland “takes issue” with the Tome of Leo, as that he recognizes it for what it is- a document in situ, as all documents and arguments are. This is how theology works.) Jesus is divine, in his human particularity, even as the particularities are not deified.
There are a few objections that I anticipate with this argument, and two places where I’d like to push McFarland’ s argument a bit further. The first objection I anticipate is on the question of “seeing” God. McFarland has placed before us a puzzle of sorts, and a puzzle that I find conservative Protestants particularly bothered by. Now certainly we only see God “according to the human nature,” yet we truly do see him and not another (pp. 78–79). This is a nested affirmation of the claim that Jesus is God and not another. It says not more than this; there is no violation of the divine nature remaining fundamentally invisible and uncircumscribable. And yet “seeing God” becomes, for a time, a real possibility.
At this point, McFarland’s argument is quite transparent, if you’ll forgive the pun. Insfoar as the post-Chalcedonian commitments render Jesus the self-same divine word, “who” we see is none other than God. What we see, however, is the human nature and not the divine nature, which cannot be seen. With these two affirmations granted, what we are left with might feel like nothing more than a parlor trick, a sleight of hand. “You see God!”—well, yes, in a manner of speaking. But this leads us to the second objection—when God is seen, is anything actually revealed? McFarland also anticipates this objection:
It is certainly possible to stipulate that Jesus’ hypostasis is divine; but when combined with an insistence that all that actually is or can be seen in Jesus is a particular instantiation of a human nature ontologically indistinguishable from that of any other human being, then it becomes difficult to see what difference the incarnation makes for our understanding of God…it thereby becomes hard to see how our knowledge of Jesus enables us to say anything substantively about the nature of God (p. 89).
McFarland again: “we seem to be in the odd situation of having to conclude that Jesus, though none other than God, contributes nothing to our knowledge of God’s attributes, properties, or characteristics, since these all pertain precisely to the divine nature that ‘no one has ever seen or can see” (p. 89). At this point, the objections I have raised (God cannot be seen, and even if the “divine person” is seen, nothing of divinity is revealed) seem quite strong. Both kinds of objections—the first, that the argument is too radical since God cannot be seen; the second, that the argument is too anemic because it says nothing much at all—rely on a fundamental misunderstanding of the relation of God and matter.
It is this logic of Chalcedon that McFarland is arguing throughout this book. It seems to me that this retrieval of the logic of Chalcedon, especially in its post-Chalcedonian form is “hot right now”; or maybe I am terribly self-centered. But there is Aaron Riches, with his clear reconstruction of an anti-Nestorian ChristologyAll of these are articulating the logic of Chalcedon, which is that of the burning bush. in Ecce Homo; there is Brian Daley with his tremendous God Visible; there is Rowan Williams in Christ the Heart of Creation with his deployment of Austin Farrer and Eric Przywara alongside a discussion of Aquinas together with Leontius, Maximus, and John of Damascus.
All of these are articulating the logic of Chalcedon, which is that of the burning bush. The bush that, as Katherine Sonderegger writes, betrays a logic of compatiblism throughout the Scriptures. This bush that burns but is not consumed is God come to matter, taking its form and yet not destroying it. This is God’s transcendent otherness whose distinction does not prevent communion, who as John of Damascus writes, is “distant not by space but by nature.” The point is that God’s otherness does not prevent identification but renders communion possible. God differs differently, and so can become “like us in every way.” Union with God is possible only because “finitude and infinity are ‘exclusive.’”Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 4. Divine indwelling does not destroy the creature away but somehow makes her more fully alive. Sonderegger again: “Such compatibilism is not merely like the doctrine of creation, its formal structure or relations; such compatibilism just is the doctrine of creation.”Sonderegger, [post-annotation]Sonderegger, Systematic Theology vol. 1, 108.
It is on this question of God’s relation to matter that I’d like to push McFarland’s point a bit further. If I read it right, McFarland’s argument ought to reorient our understanding of the world and also of our theological engagements with it. God comes as matter and the world is not consumed or destroyed. As with the bush, so with the creature—it is set alight. One of the orienting questions in Christian theology is of the relation between God and the world—general versus special revelation, original sin or “original blessing,” pantheism and panentheism or one of their many other variations all are caught up in this larger frame. McFarland suggests we can only answer this question in a Christological key—but also that we can only answer it by seeing. Of course, many do not find this a compelling account, and I fear this is due to a lingering distaste for matter itself. This thread of concern about nature and especially about bodies is a perennial issue in Christian theology. Indeed it was concern about the ability of a woman to “bear Christ” that was at the heart of the Nestorian controversy! Grace does not float free of matter but lands there, befriends it, renovates it from within. We like to speculate, to inquire, to argue and form objections and distinctions. And yet we are invited to touch, to taste, to see and so to become one in the body with the risen Lord.
And this is the second place where I’d like to push McFarland a bit further. In a very pointed way, his argument ought to reorient our theological discourse as well. When it comes to Christology, many kinds of questions are on the table, but not all of them are equally fruitful. There are many questions we must answer (was Jesus the divine Son?), and there are those we would like to have answered (what kind of knowledge did he have, or what was the nature of his power?). Finally, there are questions we are curious about (did Jesus have all knowledge of all languages and all future scientific discoveries? Did he have first-person knowledge of what it was to eat a hamburger?). In this way, theological ruminations about the “who” quickly become reflections on the “what” or the “how”: indeed,The logic of the world itself is seen in Christ. It should make mystics of us all. I expect some of these in this forum. As such, the grammar of our Christology can slip into speculation, parsing out distinctions that betray a Chalcedonian logic. Even the best answer you can get to such questions is less reliable than sight.
A quick interruption here: McFarland does attempt to answer one of these “how” questions in a Chalcedonian vein, with his repurposing of “inscription” for incarnation. In an extended illustration, he draws an analogy of an author placing themselves in a novel to explain how Christ’s omniscience functioned in his incarnate life. Just as an author has knowledge of all possible events, and is equally the source of all characters in the novel, an author who chooses to place themselves in the novel would relinquish such powers for the duration of the story, simply because such powers are not consistent with what it is to be a character in a story. Imagine if it were this simple! (Reader, perhaps it is).This discussion of inscription is in McFarland pp. 80–82.
McFarland writes clear, precise prose that is not technical but also not easy. It would be a waste to miss the poetry. We are led from creation, out of nothing—toward Christ not something, but some One—toward, I suspect, the life to come, which is to say, to everything. In the end I cannot argue this logic or answer all of the questions that it raises. Either you see him, or you don’t. We can ask more questions, or we can remove our shoes and kneel. The logic of the world itself is seen in Christ. It should make mystics of us all.