Chapter 3: The God of the Christians by G.W.H. Lampe
G..W.H. Lampe is Ely Professor of divinity and Fellow of Gonville and Caius college.
‘Father hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us day by day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.’ Like the Hebrew prophets and wise men whose belief he inherited, Jesus, so far as we know, never addressed himself to the kind of question that asks who, or what, God is, or what we mean when we use the word ‘God’. The Gospels contain no attempt to explain that word. They do not seem to be interested in what is now our major theological problem. Instead, they speak about what God does and what we may hope and trust that he will do, God’s existence being taken for granted. The words I have quoted, St Luke’s version of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, are an example of the way in which very early tradition reported Jesus to have spoken about God.
Later Christian thought has been less reticent about the being, as opposed to the activity, of God. The first of the Thirty-Nine Articles is a comparatively simple assertion: ‘There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts or passions; of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.’ The so-called Creed of St. Athanasius (not properly a creed, having no direct connection with St. Athanasius; otherwise well-named) offers a much more elaborate definition. ‘The Catholic Faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. . . . For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; so are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion to say, There be three Gods or three Lords. The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding . . . . And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another: but the whole three Persons are co-eternal together, and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.’ Clearly, the thinking which produced this kind of theological statement is very different indeed from that which finds expression in the Lord’s Prayer (though it is worth noticing that the context of both is, up to a point, similar: ‘When you pray, say "Father."’; ‘the Catholic Faith is that we worship one God . . .’).
Now, in making this contrast between two quite different kinds of language about God I am not suggesting that the elaborate dogmatic formulation is worthless: still less that it is ridiculous. On the contrary, the meaning of doctrinal statements such as the creeds and other historical professions of belief, the circumstances which evoked them, and the philosophical presuppositions which helped to determine the character of their assertions are all matters of the greatest interest and importance. It would be altogether superficial (it would, in fact, be anachronistic) to say ‘Jesus never asked anyone to believe a creed’ (that, as a matter of fact, although often said, is scarcely true -- see Mark 12.28). ‘The Church got to work on the simple faith of Jesus in the God of Israel, and built it up into a crazy structure of unverifiable metaphysical assertions. Let us ignore all these artificial constructions and get back to the simplicity of the "Our Father".’ Of course, no one could deny that in the process of theological elaboration something has certainly happened to the God of Jesus. The God of Christian theology is by no means the same. But this does not necessarily mean that the process of reflection upon the God of Jesus, in the light of different philosophies and within the framework of different cultures, through which the Christian God, or rather the varying Christian ideas of God, have taken shape, has been a mere waste of time or that we can afford to ignore it. I want to say something about the way in which reflection upon Jesus’ own faith in God led to the historic formulations of orthodox Christianity, and why these doctrinal constructions are important, both because of what they positively affirm and because we cannot revise or replace them unless we understand what they were intended to do.
In trying to do this I must put in one or two preliminary warnings. The whole process of the development of Christian thought has been hampered by the simultaneous growth of certain major errors. One of these is the tendency to think that truths about God have been revealed to men ‘neat’, as it were. I mean, communicated from a divine source by Jesus Christ as God, through inspired prophets and wise men, apostles, teachers, the writers of the books of the Bible, councils of church leaders, popes, and so on, in such a way that the message has been transmitted in human language, clothed in the external forms of human thought, given, indeed, in the characteristic language and thought-forms of particular nations and cultures, but at the same time in such a way that its essential content has been unaffected by the human mind’s fallibility, ignorance and feebleness of apprehension. It is not just, as it is often said to be, that revelation is given in things that happen and does not consist of propositions. I think that this is a true statement about revelation; and it is also partly true that when Christians speak of ‘faith’ they mean primarily ‘faith in’ or ‘trust in’ someone: in God, who is personal, in Jesus Christ. There is a very important difference between personal faith or trust, and ‘the Faith’ as a body of propositions. So it is worth noticing that the Apostles’ Creed begins, ‘I believe in God’ and continues, ‘And in Jesus Christ’. There is a very significant difference between this affirmation of personal trust and the statement of the Athanasian Creed that ‘the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man’. Yet too much can be made of this distinction. To believe or trust in someone necessarily involves having certain beliefs about him, beliefs which can be expressed in propositions. So, too, events, in which we may find revealed to us something or someone in whom we are impelled to put our trust, are revelatory only in so far as we react to them in certain special ways. My point is simply that there is no form of revelation which is not given and received in and through the human reason, imagination and emotions. You can never isolate an activity of God in such a way as to be able to demonstrate that it is God’s activity and nothing else: so as to point to it and say ‘Here, plainly and unmistakably, God is at work. Here is something which is explicable only by reference to God.’ The mistaken hope that something like this can, after all, be done has caused much confusion and misunderstanding in respect of miracles. The fact that it cannot be done creates some of those difficulties for Christian belief which were discussed in Mr. Baelz’s lecture. But the divine cannot be isolated for identification and examination.
A most central affirmation of Christian belief is the divinity of Jesus. This does not mean that Jesus is not a man; Christians are generally glad to say, ‘Jesus is God’; they are not willing to speak of ‘the God Jesus’. Nor does it mean that in some respects he is divine and in other respects he is human, though theologians have sometimes talked as if that were the case: as though Jesus played a double role, appearing on the stage now as God, now as man, switching over from the one to the other. Divinity, whatever precisely we may mean by it, is mediated in and through this man’s humanity. One may express it as a further dimension in which his human character is set, or as a peculiar perspective in which that human character is seen. It has to do with a quality, discernible in that human character, which confronts us with a claim to our worship: in response to which it is not absurd, as it would be in the case of other men, to exclaim ‘My Lord and my God’. It is like this with revelation. It cannot be isolated and examined apart from the human reasoning and imagination through which it is mediated. It is very easy, and quite false, to interpret the person of Jesus docetically: that is, to suppose that he is God walking about this earth got up to look like a man but not in fact truly human at all. It is equally easy and false to take a docetic view of revelation: to suppose that the content of the scriptures, for example, is, just simply, the thoughts of God, the human writers contributing no more than a pen for God to write them down with; or to imagine that a person or a group of people or an institution can, as it were, throw a switch from time to time and become a transmitter of revelation from an external divine source: a group of bishops, for instance, when assembled in council, or a pope when defining a dogma ex cathedra. It is not that revelation is a meaningless concept, nor that in fact no revelation is ever given; but rather that however we may experience it, in the ‘givenness’ of truth, of the insights of great art, of poetry and of worship, it can never be authenticated as revelation by any criteria external to itself. It cannot be demonstrated to be revelation to those to whom it has not already authenticated itself: those to whom it is not already revelation. Nor is it exempt from misunderstanding and distortion through the fallibility and inadequacy of human understanding. There can, therefore, be no infallible understanding of the truth, nor any presentation of it which is guaranteed inerrant. No doctrinal statement or moral judgment of any kind is privileged in this respect. Scripture, tradition, creeds, councils, fathers, magisterium of the Church: none of them possesses guaranteed infallibility. Nor, I think, would the sayings of Jesus, even if they were recorded by the evangelists verbatim, exactly as spoken. We have to live in all respects by faith and not by certainty. And I interpret the New Testament as showing that this was also true of Jesus himself. That wonderful, deep, unbroken fellowship with God which stands out in the Gospels as the root-principle of his life is the perfect expression of faith, which trusts absolutely, but which does not know what all the answers will be.
The mistaken belief that we can have access to divinely guaranteed revelation, communicated to us by some infallible authority, is the root cause of another major error which accompanied the process of Christian theological reflection. This is the tendency for orthodoxy to replace faith, and consequently for the conviction to arise that it is by professing ‘the faith’ as a system of beliefs, rather than by trusting in God, that men come to be acceptable to him. So the Athanasian Creed begins: ‘Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.’ It then sets out the Catholic Faith in a series of theological affirmations, and it ends: ‘This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.’ There is a very important contrast between this statement and the answer which Paul and Silas gave when they were asked the question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Their answer was, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.’ There is a great difference, too, between Thomas’s cry of adoration, ‘My Lord and my God’, and the Christological definition in the Thirty-Nine Articles: ‘The Son which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, of her substance, so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and the Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man.’ But this difference, I repeat, does not imply that it was a mistake to formulate an elaborate doctrinal definition such as the one I have just quoted. The mistake consists in supposing that formulations of this kind are either directly revealed by God or composed out of divinely guaranteed statements in creeds or scripture, and that they are therefore perfect, inerrant and unchangeable: and therefore that man’s salvation turns on whether or not he assents to them. Assent to theological systems is not the faith by which we are justified. The history of the Church shows us all too plainly the dreadful consequences of this identification of a static orthodoxy with faith in God through Jesus Christ. Yet it tells us equally clearly that even supposedly infallible definitions have never been able permanently to act like a sort of straitjacket on the living and developing faith of Christian people. Ecclesia semper reformanda (The Church is always to be reformed): and the need for the Church to be continually reformed and renewed extends to the nature of its actual belief in God. For genuine belief cannot be static. It has to live and grow and change, both in content and in expression.
The traditional formulations of doctrine, then, are not irreformable. Nor, on the other hand, should we be wise if we were simply to tear them up: not even if our object were to try to go back, anachronistically, to the God of Jesus. Christian theology is an attempt to follow up, as it were, the ongoing process of development of the faith by which, as a matter of ascertainable fact, Christian people do actually live. Their outlook, way of life, special concerns, worship and prayer constitute the raw material for the Christian theologian. He tries to analyze all this and to give a rational account of it. At no time can he expect his account to be complete and exhaustive. At best it will always be inadequate, since it is an attempt to speak about an experience of the transcendent, and to offer a rational interpretation of what is necessarily mysterious, elusive, and in the last resort scarcely expressible. All that the theologian says is therefore highly tentative and provisional. St. Augustine recognized that in discoursing at length about the ineffability of the Trinity he was trying only to make people understand that nothing can be said about it at all. He also explained that the Trinitarian formula, ‘three Persons’, had been arrived at, not because of its value as a positive assertion but simply in order to avoid having nothing to say at all. The same sort of attitude has to be taken towards most theological affirmations. They resemble to some extent the models used in other fields of inquiry. They are valuable so long as they help to interpret our experience as Christian people and to indicate the direction in which we ought to look if we want to understand something of the nature of our belief.
They must, on the other hand, be subject to modification; and circumstances may arise in which models which were once of the greatest value may cease to be helpful and have to be discarded altogether. In principle, I think, this applies to all doctrinal formulations, including such basic articles as that of the Trinity (that the one God is in three Persons), or the Incarnation (that the eternal Son of God was made man). It is worth bearing in mind that the most orthodox Christian theology has always recognized, in one sense, that its assertions have this provisional and partial character. For it has maintained that God is indefinable and incomprehensible, beyond all the categories of thought. God can be spoken of only in negative terms; we can say only what God is not, using predicates which begin in Greek with the prefix a, and in English with ‘in-’ and ‘un-’. We cannot even venture to say that God is: for God transcends being itself. Anything positive that we may say about God is not to be understood univocally; we can use only the language of analogy, and it is within a bracket, as it were, which is governed by a negative sign that all theology is enclosed.
Of course, it is not at all easy to determine who should pronounce on whether a theological model has outlived its usefulness or is showing signs of obsolescence, or by what criteria the matter should be decided. There have been times when such decisions have been made by large sections of the Christian community -- whole churches -- collectively, under the influence of leading thinkers. One such occasion was when the sixteenth-century reformers replaced unsatisfactory definitions of divine grace: models and analogies which seemed misleading because they offered an inadequate or untrue expression and interpretation of the Christian experience of God’s gracious approach to man; they did not clearly indicate that by ‘grace’ is meant ‘God being gracious’. More often the process of revision and renewal seems to be more gradual. Some individuals find it necessary to modify or discard the ancient confessions of belief, while the Church as a whole continues to be able to assert them in their original form and in the sense in which they were first drawn up; or, the majority may gradually abandon them while certain individuals continue to find them useful and to cherish them. Situations of this sort are very often to be met with at the present time. They create an appearance of confusion and uncertainty, and many people, especially those who observe the situation of the churches from the outside, find this uncertainty and confusion shocking or ridiculous. As for Christians, it certainly puts a strain on their tolerance and charity; for the scrapping and replacing of models may be a painless affair in other fields of inquiry, where no ultimate commitment is engaged and no personal security is involved: where, in fact, no one specially minds. But formulations of belief do matter profoundly. People really care about what these statements are trying to say; and it is very hard for someone who finds a traditional pattern meaningful and satisfying to recognize that fellow-Christians who may have ceased to find it helpful are not being perverse and have not lost their faith. Especially is this so, as long as there remains a certain hangover from the not so distant past when orthodoxy was virtuous, doubt was appalling, and heresy was morally wicked, if, then, without being repelled by the wide range of disagreement and uncertainty among Christian people, we ask questions about their idea of God, we shall expect to receive diverse answers. We shall also discover that both consciously and unconsciously they have been continually modifying, developing and revising their idea of God all down the centuries, and are still doing so now.
I have spent a lot of time laboring this very obvious point, because although it is obvious it is important. Now we can look at what Christians were doing when they modified and developed Israel’s idea of God and the way in which, according to their own tradition, Jesus himself had spoken about God, Of course, to do this properly would be to produce a detailed history of Christian thought during the nineteen centuries in which theology has been grappling with the problem of relating the God of Jesus to the God in Jesus. All I can try to do now is to remind you that the process of reflection upon the God of Jesus, by which I mean upon the good news announced by Jesus, that the kingdom of God is at hand, was begun and carried on by people whose thinking was determined by the fact that they belonged to a particular community. This society existed, among other things, in order to ‘follow’ or ‘imitate’ Jesus. And its members believed that they were called to do this because, as a group and as individuals, they were potentially capable of sharing in that special and central characteristic of the life of Jesus: his free, confident and intimate relationship with God -- sonship. They spoke of, and to, God as our Father’, believing that their confidence to approach God as sons and not as slaves was derived from, and made possible through, the peculiar intimacy with which they believed Jesus to have spoken of God as ‘my Father’, and addressed him by the familiar and homely children’s word, ‘Abba’. They believed that they, as a group, could ‘have the mind of Christ’, that is, an attitude of trust, dependence and obedience towards God, prompted by an inspiration which they called the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Christ: an attitude which expressed itself towards other people in selfless, disinterested, Christ-like love. They knew themselves to be called to live in the Spirit of Christ. They believed this to be possible for them because, through their conviction that he had been raised from death, they did not simply look back in memory to Jesus, a dead preacher. They looked to him as the Lord, the present Lord, the savior who had reconciled them to God, and the present, living, sovereign source of the inspiration and power which was transforming their outlook and reproducing his character in themselves. St. Paul’s startling way of describing this Christian experience was to speak of being ‘in Christ’. It involved emancipation from self-centered preoccupation of all kinds, freedom from the tyranny of legalistic and pharisaical religion and morality, forgiveness, a new relation of sonship towards God, consecration to membership of a people called to serve his purposes for the world.
The good news preached by Jesus therefore became necessarily, good news about Jesus himself. For the faith of the community arose from, and was centered upon, the conviction that in the life of Jesus, and especially in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God was at work, decisively and uniquely. This is the basic conviction which determined the lines on which Christians developed their idea of God. The divinity of Jesus Christ -- this is still the central affirmation of Christian faith. But this can be expressed in many different ways, using a variety of images and analogies. For myself, I understand the affirmation of Christ’s divinity to mean that I Jesus lived in a unique closeness to God, in an unbroken assurance of sonship, and with a total response of trust in God’s Fatherhood; that this fact requires us to believe that he reflects God to us -- God who is love -- as fully and completely as God can be mirrored in human terms; that in his words and deeds God addresses us and encounters us; that the New Testament’s picture of Jesus is the primary reference point for our attempts to say what we mean by the word ‘God’; and that in our experience of meeting Christian people that picture is confirmed, in so far as we recognize in them the character, or Spirit, of Jesus: the distinctive notes of sonship and brotherhood.
But, as I said, this sort of belief can be expressed and understood in various ways; and this was already being done in the period of the New Testament itself. Jesus is called ‘Son of God’, sometimes in the sense of a man chosen and called to be a servant or agent of God and a special recipient of God’s love and favor. So, in the Old Testament, the people of Israel is called ‘son of God’, and so is the king who represents and personifies the nation. Sometimes, to lay more emphasis on the uniqueness of this ‘sonship’ of Jesus, his birth and infancy, which would seem in fact to have been ordinary and obscure (his home and family were so ordinary that his fellow-townsmen would not accept him as a preacher in their synagogue), were pictured as having been miraculous and attended by wonders and glory. They were imagined as having literally fulfilled certain Old Testament texts in a way which showed that the scriptures, rightly understood, pointed to Jesus. Another way of speaking of his unique sonship was to say that Jesus had been predestined in the eternal purposes of God; in God’s mysterious counsels Jesus had been designated from the beginning to do God’s saving work. And, by a significant transference of the idea of predestination to another category of explanation, Jesus was sometimes thought of as actually pre~existent: not merely as having existed, as it were, in the foreknowledge and intention of God, but as a divine or heavenly being who had existed in another dimension before his human birth.
According to this interpretation he is the Son of God in another, very different, and as we should say more mythological sense: a Son who was with God and who was sent into the world, who, as the Nicene Creed says, ‘came down from heaven and was incarnate . . . and was made man’. Along this line of interpretation we are approaching the great change in thought from ‘Son of God’ to ‘God the Son’, which was to come later. It is a form of explanation which made use of the ancient concept of God’s Wisdom, pictured almost as a distinct personal entity, God’s agent in the creation of the world and his intermediary towards his rational creatures, who enters into the souls of men and makes them the friends of God. As St Paul said, ‘Christ the wisdom of God and the power of God’. In another closely related picture, Christ is the Word of God, God’s address to man, the communication of God’s thought, the mode of God’s approach to his world, and, in accordance with the language of contemporary philosophy, the embodiment of that divine reason which permeates the cosmos, or the intermediary divine link between God and his creatures, the mode in which the transcendent God becomes immanent in the rational creation.
These are only some among the many pictures which Christians were already using in the first century to express their belief that God encountered men through the acts and words of Jesus; that in the end it was not merely possible but necessary to say that Jesus is God, not only that he is the image or mirror of God; and that Christians may and should pray to God through him (which means, to pray to God as made known in Jesus) and even pray to Jesus as God. They believed that the God of Israel had fulfilled his promises at this point in time; that his presence had drawn near to men; that through the man Jesus the love of God had reached out to men, accepting them as sons (through no merit of their own), transforming them into new people; that therefore it was right and proper to ascribe the work of Jesus to God, to see in his person ‘God with us’. Indeed, it was only at this point in history, so the early Christians believed, that it had become possible to discern the true significance of the purposes and promises of the God of Israel. In the light of this disclosure the hopes and aspirations of the ancient prophets took on a new significance. Men saw in the work of Jesus a realization of the prophets’ vision of God’s judgment and mercy; and in the light of this the thought of the prophets was seen to have pointed beyond the events of their own day and to have been fulfilled in Jesus: so that without Jesus it would have remained incomplete and been, as it were, left hanging in the air. So the Old Testament was read as a book about Jesus, though written before the event.
The Christians went further than this. They believed that it was only in and through Jesus that any true understanding and experience could be gained of God’s attitude towards man and of the relationship into which God wished to bring men towards himself. Through his works in nature, as St. Paul said, it is possible to apprehend God’s ‘eternal power and deity’. He meant that it is possible to read off from the world around us the truth that nature is not the ultimate reality. To worship nature is idolatry; and idolatry means that in the last resort man is at best worshipping himself, or some ideal projection of himself, for this is the highest object of worship that the natural order affords. So idolatry debases man and degrades him. But although nature itself should encourage man to discern power and deity which transcend it, it is only through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that man can be reconciled to God and become a son of God. All that Christians wanted to say about God thus had its central point of reference in Jesus. It was focused on him for he is the image, or reflection, of the invisible God. He discloses the nature of God. He is like God; God is like him; he is God for us; he is God.
It was along a line of thought such as this (though I realize that I am grossly over-simplifying a complex and subtle process of reflection on the part of the Christian community) that the dominant problem for theology in the early centuries came to be how to assert that Jesus is our Lord, and hence, since Lordship implies worship and it is idolatry to worship man, how to assert his deity. It was an exceedingly difficult problem because it had to be solved without denying the Hebrew monotheism which had been the faith of Jesus himself, without denying the historical truth of his life and death, and so without turning him into a divine being who was not really man at all, but God, or a god, dressed up in a human body. And it could not be solved, once Christianity had spread into the main stream of Greco-Roman thought, without taking full account of, and, to a considerable extent, coming to terms with, the basic presuppositions of Hellenistic theology. This last aspect of the problem was important. Christian faith believed in ‘God with us’: God not merely reflected through, but mediated in, a human life with all the limitations of genuine manhood; God incarnate and entering into the human condition, even to the point of suffering and death. In the mainstream of Christian thought this descent, as it were, of the divine to share in our human existence was conceived in substantial rather than dynamic terms. To say that Jesus is a man so totally possessed by the Spirit of God that all his activity bears the stamp of divinity seemed inadequate. It suggested that God’s Word had come to Jesus, and God’s Spirit had moved him, in the same kind of way, though to an almost incomparably higher degree, in which the word of God came to the prophets and God’s Spirit inspired them. Orthodox Christians did not want to say that Jesus was like an inspired prophet or saint, even a saint always and in all respects led and motivated by the grace of God. This would seem to detract from the uniqueness which they felt bound to ascribe to him. It would also make it difficult to say what they wanted to say about the salvation of man, If man needed to be set free from his self-centeredness, liberated from demonic forces that held him prisoner, brought into a right relationship to God as a son to a Father, and, which is the same thing, saved from sin, then only God could meet his need. It was difficult to believe that a man, even if he were in the fullest possible sense a man of God, could save man. I am inclined to think that Christians tended to be misled by the anthropomorphic ideas of God with which, quite rightly up to a point, they often operated; and that they found it unnecessarily difficult to think of salvation being effected by the personal Spirit of God reaching out to men in judgment, mercy, forgiveness and love through the medium of a human personality. In the fifth century Christian orthodoxy formally rejected something rather like this interpretation of the divinity of Jesus, labeling it the Nestorian heresy; but I think it has much to teach us. However, the main stream of theology preferred to think of Jesus Christ as a divine person, one who was not the bearer of God’s Word but was, ontologically, the Word or Son, one who was God concretely manifested.
But the essence of the Hellenistic idea of God is that deity is by nature all that men by nature cannot be: God is uncompounded, absolutely simple, hence static (a state identified with perfection), unchanging, subject to no variation, eternal, impassible, unmoved. How, then, could entry into the human condition, and, more especially, suffering, be predicated of one who is God? Besides this paramount philosophical difficulty there was also to some extent a further source of perplexity. Christians have always found it hard, especially, perhaps, in popular devotion, to believe that Jesus really reflects and mediates the reality of God at the point where St. John made the paradox so plain that Jesus was ‘glorified’: in the humility of his self-giving love; in the nakedness and helplessness of the Cross. It has always seemed much easier to think of that sordidness and humiliation not as a revelation of the true and actual glory of God, but as a disguise in which the glory of God was temporarily concealed. For Christians have been very ready to assume that the best way to picture God is as an infinitely magnified Caesar. You may remember that the words of the first of the Anglican Articles, which I quoted at the beginning of this lecture, list three attributes of God: power, wisdom, goodness. Love is not among them; and it is significant that power comes first, if one starts with this imperial image of God it is hard to identify the man of Nazareth, who had nowhere to lay his head, with God.
So the early Church was torn between its conviction that Jesus was God and its reluctance to say that God could be Jesus. It sought a solution of the problem by way of personifying the concepts of God’s Word and God’s Wisdom, identifying, as I said just now, Word and Wisdom with a pre-existent Son of God, and asserting that it was this divine being, this personal projection or offspring of the mind and purpose of God who took human nature and lived and died and rose from death. It was not until nearly four centuries had passed that Christians as a whole were prepared to believe, and to express their belief in the Nicene Creed, that the Son or Word of God is none other than absolute and ultimate God: not an intermediary divine being; not God at one remove; not God at a lower level of divine being. But when this belief had been formulated it was no longer possible to fend off the scandal of the incarnation and the crucifixion by saying, in effect, that these things had happened to the Son of God, and that that is a different matter from happening to God. Of course, once the fender had been removed by the Nicene declaration that the Son of God is of the same substance or essence as the Father, the same problem was transferred to the question of the person of Christ. If in Jesus Christ we encounter one who is divine in the fullest sense -- if he is the Son or Word of God who is of one and the same essence as God the Father -- if he is ‘God the Son’ -- then can we also see in him one who is truly human, of one and the same essence as ourselves in respect of his manhood, as the council of Chalcedon expressed it? That council tried to answer the problem in the terms in which fifth-century Christians asked it. It spoke of two complete and perfect natures, divine and human, concurring in the one Person of God the Son. Today the question would not be asked in the same terms, and the ancient answer, framed in the concepts of contemporary philosophy, is of little direct help to us. But Christians still want to say ‘what the old creeds, definitions and articles of religion were striving in their own way to assert. They, I think it must be admitted, tended in some respects to produce confusion. They started from the Conviction that God’s creative love, his gracious dealing with his creatures, his purpose to bring men into true sonship towards himself whatever it might cost to win them over from complacent, hard-hearted, self-love, and his willingness to pay, himself, whatever it might cost -- that all this was focused in the real, historical and human Jesus. They believed that in this person and at this point in history the God who is never far from each one of us is disclosed in such a way as to evoke our response of trust and faith. And in order to give an intelligible account of that conviction Christians were led by their inheritance of Hebraic and Hellenistic theology to speak of Jesus as the Second Person, incarnate, of the triune God -- triune, because they also wished to affirm that the new quality of life within the Christian brotherhood, life in which the character of Jesus was in a measure reproduced, was itself an operation of God with them and possessing them: the Holy Spirit. But, having constructed this theology in order to interpret the data of Christian history and experience, they tended to let the metaphysic take charge: to develop, as it were, a momentum of its own. And so, instead of the metaphysic fitting and interpreting the facts (by which I mean what was known of the historical Jesus), the facts were sometimes distorted in order to fit the metaphysic. Thus, when Jesus had been identified with God the Son, of one substance with the Father, it became hard to take seriously those parts of the Gospels which recorded that he had experienced temptation, ignorance, conflict of desire with duty, and so on. Also, the process of abstract theological construction tended to be carried forward, again by its own momentum, to a point where abstraction led to meaninglessness. Having set out to assert distinctions within the unity of God in order to account for their beliefs about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, theologians then found it necessary to emphasize that they were still thinking in strictly monotheistic terms, not in the tritheistic fashion which has often characterized popular devotion with its half-concealed idea of what the late Bishop Pike used to call a ‘committee God’. So they asserted that in the operation of each Person there is an act of the whole Trinity; that the Persons are distinguishable only in respect of their individual modes of subsistence: that the Son is God qua begotten, or God in the mode of filiation; that the Holy Spirit is God qua proceeding, or God in the mode of procession. I gave you some examples of this type of abstract theologizing earlier on from the Athanasian Creed. I do not want to suggest that these concepts are ridiculous, but I do not myself find them meaningful and I do not think they throw any real light on what Christians believe, as a matter of conviction, about God.
But behind all these tendencies towards theological confusion there remains the fact that Christians continue to want to affirm what it was that the sometimes arid and abstract formulations were basically trying to say. And in the complex and sometimes tedious process of controversy, and attempts to pin down the incomprehensible and define the indefinable, we can discern a vigorous and constantly renewed effort to interpret the meaning of an overwhelmingly strong and transforming faith. To make that faith one’s own has always been a very different matter from assenting to the ill-grounded abstractions of some Christian theologies. What it means can be best conveyed in those ancient images of turning from darkness to light, of death and resurrection, of new birth and re-creation. It is symbolically dramatized in sacraments: in self-abandonment to nothingness and to a figurative extinction, and then a rising to new life in the Spirit of Jesus, in baptism; in communion in the life of Jesus which was surrendered to destruction and dereliction in obedience to the will of God, and raised from death to be the life of his people, in the Lord’s Supper. This faith learns of the love of God from Jesus and discovers from him that it evokes self-sacrifice for the sake of God’s world and for one’s individual neighbor. It discovers also in Jesus a call to a life of daily dying in order to receive life: the way of the Cross. The Christians’ God is encountered in the active business of caring and concern, in the practical working out of obedience to God’s kingdom, with its immense social and individual implications, and in the worship and prayer which is at once a focal point in the life of sonship to God and also an aid to the realization of sonship and brotherhood in daily living.