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Debating the Incarnation

by Trevor Beeson

Trevor Beeson  is the Century European Correspondent. This article appeared in the Christian Century August 31-September 7, 1977. P. 740. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Questions directly related to Christian doctrine rarely hit the headlines in Britain these days, and there has been no public theological debate since the furor created by Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God in 1963. But the publication of a volume titled The Myth of God Incarnate earlier this summer sparked off another controversy that is attracting a good deal of attention in the media and creating a certain amount of hysteria in the churches.

The moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly has called for the resignation of the volume’s seven contributors. The Church Times described the book as “a notably unconvincing contribution to the cause of unbelief.” The Greek Orthodox archbishop in London issued a letter accusing the authors of “falling prey to an opposition of a demonic character,” while the archbishops of Canterbury and York managed to prevent an emergency debate in the July session of the Church of England’s General Synod by suggesting that time was needed for the book to be read.

I

The book itself (published in London by the SCM Press and scheduled for publication in the U.S. in September by Westminster Press) consists of ten essays by a group of professional theologians. The editor, John Hick, is professor of theology at Birmingham University and the only non-Anglican in the group. Maurice Wiles is Regius professor of divinity at Oxford University and was until recently chairman of the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission. Dennis Nineham, a former professor of divinity at Cambridge University, is warden of Keble College, Oxford. Don Cupitt is dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Michael Goulder and Frances Young are teaching at Birmingham University, and Leslie Houlden has recently moved from Ripon College, Oxford, to King’s College, London.

The general position of these writers, whose contributions vary considerably in approach and quality, is that Jesus made no claim of divinity for himself and that the doctrine of the incarnation was developed during the early centuries of the Christian era as an attempt to express the uniqueness of Jesus in the mythological language and thought forms of the Greek culture of the time.While recognizing the validity of the patristic theologians’ work, which culminated in the classical christological definitions of Nicea and Chalcedon, the British theologians question whether these definitions are intelligible in the 20th century, and go on to suggest that some concept other than incarnation might better express the divine significance of Jesus today.

Unlike Honest to God, The Myth of God Incarnate is in no sense a popular work intended for the theologically uneducated. On the contrary, it consists mainly of technical theological studies and is unlikely to provide much illumination for the majority of those tempted by the widespread publicity to invest in a copy. Michael Goulder, for example, offers a learned essay on Samaritan Christology; Maurice Wiles contributes a careful study of the place of myth in theology. Dennis Nineham, the radical New Testament scholar, seems to agree with his colleagues’ analysis of the development of incarnational theology but doubts whether the New Testament will provide an adequate basis even for the modest alternatives they themselves have suggested. John Hick, especially concerned with Jesus and the other great world religions, argues:

The Nicene definition of God-the-Son incarnate is only one way of conceptualizing the lordship of Jesus, the way taken by the Graeco-Roman world of which we are the heirs, and in the new age of world ecumenism which we are entering it is proper for Christians to become conscious of both the optional and the mythological character of this traditional language.

II

Much of the outcry against the book is undoubtedly due to the considerable gap that now exists between the world of professional theologians and the world of church leaders and their flocks. There are few surprises in it for anyone who is at all familiar with the work of Karl Rahner, Hans Küng and other European theologians, and it is a measure of the continuing insularity of British theology that the present controversy has been delayed until 1977. The title has also proved highly provocative, for while the writers are using the word “myth” in its various technical senses of something that conveys a deep truth in a nonhistoric form, this word means in everyday speech something that is not true in any sense. Moral theologians might usefully consider the status of a book title which, while faithfully summarizing the contents of a volume and encouraging massive sales, nonetheless conveys a false impression to those who do not get much further than the cover or the garbled newspaper reports.

There is an additional problem inasmuch as the essays are more concerned to demonstrate the inadequacy of the traditional statements about the incarnation than to provide acceptable 20th century alternatives. Hence the somewhat negative stance of the book and the fear that its radical authors are simply seeking to undermine the basis of Christian faith. They themselves recognize this problem but see their work chiefly in terms of clearing the ground: “Our hope is to release talk about God and Jesus from confusions, thereby freeing people to serve God in the Christian path with greater integrity.” It might fairly be added that alternatives to the classical creeds of Christendom are hardly likely to emerge overnight.

Whatever form these alternatives take, they will presumably have to express clearly the Christian belief that Jesus stands in a unique relationship to God and to the human believer. Wherein lies his uniqueness? John Hick suggests:

He is the one in following whom we have found ourselves in God’s presence and have found God’s meaning for our lives. He is our sufficient model of true humanity in a perfect relationship to God. And he is so far above us in the “direction” of God that he stands between ourselves and the Ultimate as a mediator of salvation.

III

Frances Young -- an emerging theologian whose contribution deserves the most careful examination -- offers the following personal testimony:

I find myself able to say: “I see God in Jesus,” and “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and other such traditional statements without necessarily having to spell it out in terms of a literal incarnation. I find salvation in Christ, because in him God is disclosed to me as a “suffering God.” God is not only disclosed in him, nor is revelation confined to “biblical times”; but Jesus is the supreme disclosure which opens my eyes to God in the present, and while remaining a man who lived in a particular historical situation, he will always be the unique focus of my perception of and response to God.

There seems to be plenty of material here for useful debate, and it is to be hoped that those who are afraid of the authors’ approaches or who disagree with their conclusions will keep their heads sufficiently to enable a constructive discussion to take place. There are few signs of such dialogue at the moment, but a group of conservative theologians is publishing a reply titled the Truth of God Incarnate later this year. All of which seems to suggest a return to christological pluriformity -- for which there is an important precedent in the New Testament itself.


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