Keith Johnson’s Theology as Discipleship arose from his work in the classroom in which students sometimes asked concerning the value and relevance of theological study. His response is to “argue that the discipline of theology and a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ are integrally related because the practice of theology is one of the ways we participate in the life of the triune God” (12). His argument unfolds over seven chapters, beginning in the first with a historical narrative to explain how Christian theology became separated from Christian faith and the life of the church and discipleship; that is, it became subject to canons of thought and presuppositions alien to its own confession. In the early centuries of Christianity the context of theology was the church, and its practice was related to pastoral and devotional concerns, and faithful life in the world. The presupposed connection between theology and discipleship began slowly to change, however, during the medieval period when the discipline of theology became part of the university curriculum. This change accelerated in the modern era as the role of the university and what counted as academic learning evolved.
Theologians felt pressure to justify their conclusions according to the academic criteria that governed the university. This meant that rather than starting with faith—which might distort their ability to assess evidence rationally—they had to begin with universally accepted premises and employ the methods of critical reason. No longer could they appeal to the authority of the Bible or the church’s tradition to defend their claims (29).
This pressure intensified as modernity progressed, and Johnson notes a further shift that occurred with Schleiermacher, who argued that theologians should “demonstrate that the church’s practices are a ‘necessary element for the development of the human spirit,’” and that they should employ a genuinely deliberative character in their work (30, citing Schleiermacher, Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study, 10-11, 97). Theologians must now be scholars in addition to saints, and their work was not simply for the church but for the welfare of the modern state, and so they were accountable not only to the church but also to the university. The best theologians had always engaged other disciplines, seeking to draw them into the intellectual framework of Christian faith. Now the direction of engagement shifted: “Theologians interacted with these same disciplines not in order to reframe them in light of their faith but to secure theology’s place in the academy alongside every other discipline” (31).
Formerly, theologians had pursued theological training in order to acquire knowledge, habits and skills that would shape them into the pattern of Jesus Christ for the sake of their service to the church. … Now, with the discipline of theology housed primarily in the university, the primary goal of theological education was to provide students with the technical skills they needed to perform responsible critical enquiry so that the church’s faith and practice could be brought in line with the standards of critical reason (31-32).
Thus Johnson proposes that theology begin with its own distinctive confession—the lordship of Jesus Christ according to Romans 10:9—and work itself out from there in accordance with its own rationality and in dialogue with other disciplines. In Johnson’s view theology must be both faithful and academic; to require a division between these is to misunderstand the nature and practice of theological inquiry. The remainder of the book is his attempt to view the discipline in this light.
“The Person of Christ” in Kapic & McCormack (eds), Mapping Modern Theology, 149-173.
McCormack introduces his essay on the Person of Christ by noting that the doctrine of the person of Christ has to do with the ontological constitution of the mediator as divine and human. This duality of Jesus’ being has its roots in Scripture, and led to ancient debates culminating in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. Here the essential parameters of the doctrine were set: the union of two natures—divine and human—in the one person, Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Chalcedon did not fully settle the christological questions. The relation of the two natures to one another, and the identification of the Subject of the person’s activity continued to arise in the history of the church as matters of controversy. For example, in the seventh-century, the church debated whether, in fact, Jesus had two wills. The Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III, 681) concluded that he did, the human will functioning as any other human will, though always in agreement with the will of the Logos. The sacramental dispute between Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the Reformation period revolved around whether the attributes of the one nature may be applied to the other nature, or whether the attributes of each nature should more properly be attributed to the person of Christ. For example, may we say that Jesus’ humanity is omnipresent or that God can die? Or would we better apply these various attributes to the person of Jesus in his unique divine-human unity?
In the modern period, a growing awareness of human self-consciousness and development posed sharp questions to Chalcedon. Cyril of Alexandria had portrayed Jesus’ humanity as static, almost an inert instrument of the Logos who was the acting Subject of the man Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Constantinople III affirmed that each nature possessed its own mind and will. In 1848, then, David Friedrich Strauss argued that this must mean that Jesus was possessed of two personalities, one infinite and one finite. If this was so, it must inevitably mean that Jesus’ divine nature overwhelms his human nature with the result that his humanity differs from ours. Is Jesus fully and genuinely human? This modern concern is one that McCormack shares.
McCormack identifies the Friedrich Schleiermacher and Georg Hegel as the two men who set the agenda for modern christology. Schleiermacher conceived of God in classic terms of an absolute and omnipotent God standing outside the created order. Nevertheless God’s activity is directed toward the world as a continual causative power, guiding and sustaining the ‘system of nature’ as a whole. God’s whole creational and providential purpose finds its climax and goal in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is perfectly open to God and so possesses a perfect God-consciousness. So powerful is this God-consciousness that he is able to live a sinless life and so become the Redeemer who communicates the power of his own God-consciousness to others. But Schleiermacher is concerned about human development and so in his view, the divine essence unites itself to human nature in the person of Jesus only gradually. This allows room for personality development in the human Jesus, as McCormack notes:
It was only as Jesus’s “higher powers” (reason and will) developed that the uniting activity could produce that redemptive power that would emanate from him to those who came after. To be sure, the uniting activity was present in such a way that it kept him preserved from sin at every point—but always in a manner congruent with his stage of human development.
Because Jesus has a perfect passivity with respect to God’s uniting activity,
he is the replication in human form of the pure activity which God is—an incarnation of God by any other name. And he alone can be this. It is in him alone that the creation of human nature is made complete (in his pure receptivity to God). This is something that can only happen once. Therefore, Christ is utterly unique, and what takes place in him is final (in the sense of being unrepeatable) and universal in its significance.
Hegel, more a philosopher than a theologian, approaches the question very differently. Whereas Schleiermacher clings to classical theism, Hegel’s God is a being-in-becoming, a God who is realising his divine being in and through the processes of world history. God is not a being complete and external to the world. Rather, God is on a journey to become who he is; God requires another to become self-conscious. Thus, God posits another alongside himself, a finite creature, the world, and in the world, a particular finite and personal creature, who is yet identified with God himself: Jesus Christ. Now, God has another over against himself in whom he also recognises himself. This other—Jesus—is separate from God, the opposite of God, and indeed in his suffering and death experiences the very antithesis of all that God is. In Jesus Christ, then, God has created and embraced and experienced the extremity of human alienation, finitude and death, and has taken it into the very life of God, triumphing over it.
The God who identifies himself with the crucified Jesus by raising him from the dead is the God who is made known as Self-sacrificial love, a love that goes to any extreme to be reconciled with the object of his love. And in that all of this is revealed to those who follow Jesus, their knowledge of God is made to be the vehicle of God’s own Self-knowledge. God knows himself in and through their knowledge of him.
McCormack then goes onto discuss other forms modern christology has taken, including the kenotic christology of Gottfried Thomasius, the moral-historical christology “from below” of Albrecht Ritschl, and the “classical” yet post-metaphysical christology of Karl Barth. McCormack refers to all these christological models as the “basic paradigms” which shape the contours of almost all other modern christologies, including those of Moltmann and Pannenberg, the liberationists and feminists, Walter Kasper and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
McCormack’s essay is typically thorough, learned and well worth reading. Yet a significant question can be raised about his treatment of modern christology. McCormack argues that,
Modern Christology was born in a reaction not so much against the theological values that sought expression in and through those categories [of the Chalcedonian formula] as against the categories themselves. We make a huge mistake at the outset if we understand modern Christology as simply a repudiation of the dogma of the church. Initially, at least, it was anything but that. … The modern period saw a transformation in the categories employed to explain the basic values that came to expression in the formula, but no abandonment of those values.
McCormack identifies these values very simply in terms of the Chalcedonian formula: Jesus is both divine and human in one person. By limiting the theological values of Chalcedon and the broader ancient tradition in this fashion he can suggest that Schleiermacher, Hegel and Ritschl are, to some extent at least, “orthodox” in a Chalcedonian sense. He is, of course, certainly aware that this is a problematic suggestion and acknowledges with respect to Schleiermacher and Hegel,
For both, the triunity of God is the consequence of the divine act of relating to the world in Christ and through the church. The Trinity is an eschatological rather than a protological reality. And that means, as Schleiermacher put it, God is not differentiated in himself in independence of his union with Christ and with the church.
Surely this is a fatal departure from ancient theological values in which God is eternally the triune God, and Christ and the Spirit are eternal God. Why, then, has McCormack argued thus?
Fred Sanders argues the interesting thesis that the doctrine of the Trinity in modernity is “Romantic” in its orientation. Although Enlightenment rationalism found no place for the Trinity, the Romantic impulse in modern thought funded a reinterpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity according to:
a) History: In rationalism, reason is supra-historical, necessary truth which must be real in all possible worlds. Here Lessing’s “ugly ditch”—the idea that accidental truths of history can never become proofs of necessary truths of reason—dismissed the doctrine of the Trinity to the realm of the unthinkable. Many modern theologians have been influenced by Hegel, however, and seek to relate God and history by having the latter as the medium within which the divine being is realised. Smith identifies Moltmann, Pannenberg and Jenson as examples.
b) Experience: Romanticism insisted that truth may or even must be experiential and not simply rational. Schleiermacher grounded theology in experience, and some following him have sought to correlate the doctrine of God and human experience—something Schleiermacher did not do. Sanders’ argument is not as strong here as it was for his previous assertion. The key to this category of trinitarian thought is the collapse of the immanent Trinity into the economic Trinity (Rahner, LaCugna). Elizabeth Johnson and other liberationists use the economic Trinity to explicate human experience. As such, the doctrine does not arise out of human experience—as Schleiermacher also insisted.
c) Retrieval: As a response or reaction to the “thinness” of theology in Enlightenment thought, retrieval theologies hope to restore biblical and patristic priorities with robust and confident explications of faith.
Sanders ends by suggesting that the doctrine of the Trinity was never really lost (and hence did not need to be “rediscovered”) in modernity, except among those who accepted Enlightenment criticism as primary. Under that pressure modern theologians transposed the doctrine into categories of history and experience. This certainly opened opportunities for trinitarian reflection which hitherto had not been explored, but also in some ways distorted the doctrine.
My interest is twofold: first, the idea that modern theologians have appealed to Romantic categories of thought to explicate their doctrine of the Trinity; that is, they appealed to one mode of modern thought against another. Second, while Sanders hints that these modern explications have some value in theological reflection, he is concerned that the doctrine itself has been reinterpreted in unwarranted ways. Stephen Holmes has argued that point more polemically in his recent The Holy Trinity: “In brief, I argue that the explosion of theological work claiming to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity that we have witnessed in recent decades in fact misunderstands and distorts the traditional doctrine so badly that it is unrecognizable” (xv). More on Holmes’s argument later.
See Sanders, F., “The Trinity” in Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Kelly M. Kapic & Bruce L. McCormack (eds); Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012) 21-45.