Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Crisp Christology

I must first declare an interest. Oliver Crisp is a former Ph.D student of mine, one from whom I never cease to learn, and he kindly invited me to read some of this material before its publication. I may therefore reasonably be expected to commend this book, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (London, T & T Clark, 2009), and this is what I shall do! This is the second collection of articles and papers that Oliver has written on Christological themes, the first being Divinity and Humanity, The Incarnation Reconsidered , (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Oliver has a project which he calls ‘analytic theology’ . This is the practice of theology using the rigorous standards of current analytic philosophy. (See Analytic Theology, New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology, edd. Oliver D Crisp and Micheal Rea, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009). Analytic theology is thus not a type of theology, as is Process or Openness theology, but a way of doing theology which relies upon the making of careful distinctions, the use of definitions, the awareness of logical possibilities which may or may not have been actively canvassed in the past, the use of argument and inference, a sensitivity to the presence of self-contradiction, an interest in metaphysical modality, and so on. With such an outlook, analytic theology has strong ties of method and temper to the scholastic methods of doing theology of the medieval period, and of Reformed Orthodoxy, and even (though Crisp does not make the connection), with rationalist philosophers such as Leibniz.

This is not to say that the method of analytic theology is rationalist. Far from it. For as Crisp and Michael Rea construe it, such theology (as Christian analytic theology) operates within self-consciously held limits: the limits of the Scriptural testimony, the ecumenical creeds, and the confessional traditions, both the documents themselves and the theologians who endorse them, of the more fragmented church. All of these, except Scripture of course, is defeasible, but to each is attached a descending order of value and importance: first Scripture, then the creeds, then the confessions, then the individual theologians, doctors of the church. This is Christian analytic theology; but there could in principle be, as Oliver notes, Mormon, or Muslim or Manichean analytic theology.

So the orientation is firmly in the faith seeking understanding tradition which pretty well originated with Augustine. But though traditional, the outlook is not stagnant, content with merely i-dotting and t-crossing a rigid traditionalism. Crisp has an eye to the opening up of that tradition to various logical possibilities of a hypothetical kind – for example, ways of construing the Election of Jesus Christ, or the idea of multiple Incarnations, or the consequences for Christology of a materialist account of the person – in order to pursue further the task of understanding the faith. I think he would also say that the traditions themselves are much more complex and multilayered than it is conventional to regard them. More than once he refers to the importance of the need of a theological retrieval of the tradition. So in a sense the work is speculative, at least at the edges, probing and testing the tradition. But Crisp also has an eye to liberal and more (as he would see them, irresponsible) speculative modes of theologizing which from time to time he scolds for their lack of rigour, their obscurity, and their hasty foreclosing of various options.

These standards and techniques are well in evidence in this book, as is Crisp's knowledge of, and respect for traditional modes of theologising. After all, if you are going to stay within the parameters of the tradition, you need to know something about it, and Oliver knows a good bit about it, especially but by no means exclusively about the Reformed tradition. The chapters (some of them previously published as articles and chapters) are as follows:

‘Christological Method’ - focussing on the widely-used distinction between Christiology from above and ‘from below’ and arguing for its very limited usefulness if it is not to be used in a question-begging way.

‘The Election of Jesus Christ’ – a nuanced and historically informed discussion jof the distinction between Christ as the ground of election and as the means for achieving of the ends of election, with a discussion of Barth’s view.

‘The Pre-Existence of Christ’ - the senses in which the Logos, and Christ, may or may not be said to have pre-existed the Incarnation, in which issues of God and time are explored.

‘The ‘Fittingness’ of the Virgin Birth’ – Did the Incarnation require the virgin birth? Crisp argues that, strictly speaking it was necessary but concurs with Anselm that the virgin birth was nonetheless ‘fitting’’, appropriate.

‘Christ and the Embryo’ – an exploration of the nature of the union of human and divine in the womb of Mary.

‘Was Christ Sinless or Impeccable?’ Distinguishing between the de facto sinlessness of Jesus and his impeccability, possession of the modal property of being unable to sin, Crisp argues in favour of impeccability, particularly in response to the objection that such impeccability can find no place for the reality of temptation.

‘Materialist Christology’ – supposing a material anthropology , in what sense may Christ be said to have a ‘rational soul’? Crisp argues that a good sense can be given to this even assuming such materialism.

‘Multiple Incarnations’ – Taking up Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of multiple incarnations the author explores the possibility of such incarnations and the conditions under which there might in fact be such.

To give a flavour of the complexity and interest of the book, I shall say a word or two about impeccability and modality, which Crisp considers in his chapter on Christ’s impeccability. He makes a distinction: a sinless person does not, as a matter of fact, ever sin, whereas an impeccable person cannot sin. To call Christ sinless raises the embarrassing possibility that God could sin, since Jesus Christ is God.(131) So Christ must be impeccable.

What of impeccabiity, then? Crisp thinks that impeccability nevertheless allows the possibility that Christ has the capacity to sin. And this is not the same, as he points out, as doing the thing which one has the capacity to do. But it is the same as possibly sinning: for A to have the capacity to sin entails that possibly A sins. A capacity which could never be exercised is surely not a capacity at all. On this account, if Christ has the capacity to sin, then there is a possible world in which he does sin. And this also, it seems to me, is embarrassing.

Perhaps one should argue: Christ’s human nature, being true, unglorified human nature, could sin, considered abstractly, but the Mediator, God incarnate, possessing a true human nature, could not sin. Part of the humbling of God the Son (the central feature of the Incarnation, on some accounts), consists in the Logos keeping his human nature from sinning. He so loves the nature that he has been given, so perfectly loves it, that he attends with divine power and grace to it to such a degree that ensures that this human nature can never sin. There is no possible world in which the incarnate Son sins.

The Incarnation involves a humbling, like that of a nurse or carer who, by her self-giving, guarantees that her charge can (say) never fall over, and as a perfect human father necessarily keeps his son from being harmed; a person who would, without such care, be harmed. Christ is charged with caring for his human nature by (inter alia) keeping it from sinning, and so necessarily he does not sin. My suggestion is, then, that the sinlessness/impeccablity of Christ’s human nature is a special case; not mere de facto sinlessness, and yet not per se impeccability either; rather, per consequentiam impeccability. Crisp alludes to something like this view earlier, on the same page, but for some reason he does not tie it in to his discussion of modality.

Anyone interested in these topics and in careful attention to the philosophical and dogmatic issues that they may raise will find the book to be immensely rewarding.

A version of this review will appear in the Journal of Reformed Theology