Sunday, December 14, 2008

Taking a Line IV - A Time to Keep Silence

Recently it happened that I found myself in two enjoyable and stimulating discussions of the person on Christ, particularly of his temptation. With hosts of others, and with the historic church, I am strongly inclined to hold that in the incarnation the essential deity of the Logos was undiminished (even though his glory was hidden). And further to hold that the Logos who became incarnate is impassible, ‘without body, parts or passions’; he has an immutable and fully impassioned divine nature. Such convictions make it tempting to gloss the Gospel narratives in the following way.

Take the case of Jesus’ embodiment. Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, sat on the side of Jacob’s well at Sychar. (John 4) Jesus is God. Jesus is weary. Is God weary? No, God is not weary, nor can he be. So maybe we should say: as God Jesus was not weary, but as man he was weary. Similarly, with the passion of Christ. In Mark’s gospel we have ‘And he said, “Abba, Father, all thing are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will”’. (Mark 14) Does Jesus, who is divine, have a will that is even fractionally at odds with the will of the Father?’ No, not possible. So should we say, perhaps, as God his will was entirely at one with that of his Father, for he has the same will as his Father, God’s will. But as man his will could deviate from that of his Father, and that (though for only one dense, intense, moment) on this occasion he had it in mind to deviate from the will of his Father? (We might then go on to discuss how it can be that such a deviation is possible in one who is without sin.) As God he was one with his Father; as man his will could deviate from that of his Father; it was not perfectly aligned.

Such a strategy, the ‘as man… God…..' strategy, as we might express it, has its attractions. It does justice to the doctrine of the person of Christ as two natured; a divine person, with a divine nature, taking on human nature, yet without sin. If you carry out this strategy you are in effect preserving or protecting the integrity of the natures. And so in this sense you are confessing a true Incarnation. There are attractions of other kinds: it’s a tidy, neat solution to those perplexities which inevitably come to mind as we read the gospels. It shows that we are being theological alert. It’s a piece of good theological housekeeping, perhaps, and if you are analytically minded it has an additional appeal.

But I wonder. Is this strategy not a bit too neat? Why should that be? Is this the direction that the New Testament, Paul especially, encourages us to go?

Let’s think first about the Gospels. The sufferings of Christ were real sufferings of body and mind, his emotions real emotions, his submission to his Father one in which the divine and the human wills of Christ concurred, though ‘concur’ is no doubt too weak a word. Yet the Gospels are remarkably restrained about how the saving sufferings of Christ are distributed, or not distributed, across his two-natured person, or even how Jesus’ two wills operated and cooperated. Although on one occasion Jesus notoriously distinguished what the Son knows from what the Father knows, he conveys the point in third-person language. (Is it clear, incidentally, that in the textual evidence for this, (Mark 13.32,), ‘the Son’ is ‘as the incarnate Son’? It is ‘the Son’ in contrast, simply to ‘the Father’. Could it be simply ‘as the Son’ ? It could hardly be, since the Son is God as the Father is God. Calvin thinks that Mark 10.40 is a sufficient precedent for interpreting this as a reference to the incarnate Son. )

Whatever help this is over the distribution question - and it certainly provides warrant for raising the distribution issue in the first place - we do not have an inkling what it was like to be the Incarnate Son. We possess no descriptions of his stream of consciousness, of what it was like to be Jesus “from the inside.” Jesus does not tell anyone. Nevertheless there is a strong emphasis on the unity of that consciousness; there is no intimation of a divine-human split-mindedness, nor any evidence of an oscillation between the two natures or the two wills, except in the Passion. Not even in the wilderness temptation. Reading the Gospels with this in mind there is a strong tendency to think that this unity of consciousness reflects a seamless unity of the divine and human in the person of Jesus. Unity of person, unity of consciousness.

Calvin seems to offer another approach to this when he says that in the incarnate Christ the divine nature was ’in a state of repose’ (or that he was concealed) whenever the human nature had to act separately in the discharge of the office of Mediator. The human nature of the Logos was revealed in action, the divine nature was concealed. Perhaps so. This may be consistent with the reserve of the Gospels, but is the church redeemed by a Saviour whose divine nature was resting or concealed once the Incarnation had occurred, and who only occasionally went into action? Does not the Incarnation reveal the character of the divine nature, not conceal it?

And what of Paul? He certainly writes about the two natures of Jesus in the same breath, as in Romans 1 or Philippians 2. But there is no attempt to explain the concurrence of the two natures, in the way in which say he explains the place of faith in justification, say, or the church as the body of Christ, or the fact of the resurrection of the body. The same is true of John, as when he says that he who was from the beginning was seen and handled. How could this be? John does not tell us. There are, it is true, too much-discussed texts, Acts 20.28 and I Cor. 2.8 which if taken literally imply that God has blood and that the Lord of glory can be crucified. Calvin, with others, takes these to be rhetorical, economical expressions, justified by the unity of the divine and human in the person of Christ.

Returning to the ‘as man….as God’ strategy, suppose that we are astute enough to say that as the eternal God, though fully impassioned, Christ cannot suffer, but as man, even man united to God, he (manifestly) can. This is tidy, but when we have carried out that strategy what have we learned about the passion of Christ, or his possession of a body that could get tired and needed sleep? What light does such a strategy throw on the relevant passages? Any at all?

Perhaps no light from anywhere can help us with these passages. Maybe there are occasions when our talking ought to stop. This strong language of Hilary of Poitiers (c.315-368) was on one occasion quoted by Calvin with approval.

The guilt of the heretics and blasphemers compels us to undertake what is unlawful, to scale arduous heights, to speak of the ineffable, and to trespass upon forbidden places. And since by faith alone we should fulfill what is commanded, namely, to adore the Father, to venerate the Son with Him, and to abound in the Holy Spirit, we are forced to raise our lowly words to subjects that cannot be described. By the guilt of another we are forced into guilt, so that what should have been restricted to the pious contemplation of our minds is now exposed to the dangers of human speech.

Such an attitude is uncomfortable to modern people. In the day of freedom of information laws and a news-hungry media and scientific advance, we want to know; we are entitled to know. There is a never-satisfied appetite for news and views, and not only among the ‘intellectuals’ or the literati. And, of course, the church picks this up. We have a right to know. We think that those without answers must be hiding something, that the absence of an answer is a refusal to come clean. But there’s a place for silence, for reserve, for active meditation, for ‘the pious contemplation of our minds’. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak, as the Preacher said. What better time for keeping silence than when we are confronted by the Incarnation?