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Made a little lower than the angels

20 December 2013

Robin Ward traces the development of a distinctively Anglican understanding of the incarnation


KING HENRY VIII is responsible for a great deal about the Church of England, one of the oddest consequences of which is to have given it an official doctrine about the incarnation that owes more than any other Christian Church to a fifth-century pope.

Henry began setting the doctrinal standard for his Church in the Ten Articles of 1536, by saying that, from then on, only the first four of the great councils of antiquity - Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon - were to be accepted as incontrovertible, and his daughter Elizabeth confirmed this in her Act of Settlement in 1559

So, whereas the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches see the doctrine of the person of Christ as defined by the work of seven great Councils, concluding in 787 with the vindication of the veneration of icons, and the smaller oriental Churches of the East started to go their own way after the second and third Councils, Anglicans attach a unique significance to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 as the culmination of Patristic doctrine.

This is important because the Council of Chalcedon chose to canonise as one of its principal authorities the letter written by Pope Leo of Rome to the Bishop of Constantinople, setting out the teaching of his Church on the incarnation.

This letter is the manifesto of two-nature Christology: "as the Word ceases not to be on an equality with the Father's glory, so the flesh does not forego the nature of our race."

Acclaimed by the bishops at Chalcedon with the slogan "Peter has spoken through Leo," the Pope secured agreement, in the face of fierce opposition, that the incarnate Christ is one person, but that his human nature is not confused or changed by this union with the Godhead, but remains like ours in every respect except sin.

This definition is the lodestone of Anglican Christology, because subsequent Anglican theologians who consider the question are nearly all drawn to think about the way in which Jesus is authentically human, and give a realistic account of how that might be.

RICHARD HOOKER gives an account of the doctrine of the incarnation in the fifth book of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, curiously enough after he has dealt with the decoration of parish churches, and the way in which the psalms ought to be said at mattins and evensong.

This is because he frames his account of the incarnation in sacramental terms; by virtue of its union with the Godhead, the human nature of Christ, although not present everywhere by virtue of its manhood, nevertheless possesses what Hooker calls "a presence of force and efficacy throughout all generations of men . . . infinite in possibility of application".

The boldness of this doctrine in Hooker gives a crucial significance to the consequences of the incarnation in history, and the reality of the Christmas mystery: "Sith God hath deified our nature, and not by turning it into himself, yet by making it his own inseparable habitation, we cannot now conceive how God should without man either exercise divine power, or receive the glory of divine praise. For man is in both an associate of Deity."

THIS emphasis on the deification of human nature accomplished by the incarnation, and the consequent exercise of divine power through that nature as its inseparable habitation in the person of Christ, receives a vivid restatement in the Bampton Lectures delivered by Henry Parry Liddon, then still a prebendary of Salisbury, in 1866, "The Divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ".

Liddon asserts with vigour the traditional teaching that "the knowledge infused into the Human Soul of Jesus was ordinarily and practically equivalent to omniscience." Apparent examples of ignorance or limitation recorded in the Gospel narratives are occasional and incidental, Liddon quoting Hooker to support this teaching when he says "As the parts, degrees, and offices of that mystical administration did require, which He voluntarily undertook, the beams of deity did in operation always accordingly restrain or enlarge themselves."

This explanation had once satisfied most theologians, who followed Thomas Aquinas in believing that Jesus enjoyed the direct vision of God in his human soul from the moment of his conception. But the Victorians were more interested in psychology, and to many of Liddon's contemporaries his thesis seemed unrealistic and hostile to a proper understanding of what it means to be human, capable of growth in wisdom and knowledge.

Liddon's lectures prompted an energetic reaction from the second generation of Oxford Tractarians, who felt that such a clear ascription of conscious infallibility to the human intellect of Christ was unjustified by scripture, and psychologically unconvincing.

Led by Charles Gore, and developed most notably by the great missionary Bishop of Zanzibar, Frank Weston, from 1880 to 1930 the Anglican doctrine of the incarnation was dominated by the so-called kenotic theory. For the kenotic theologians, the self-emptying of the Word mentioned in the Christological hymn of Philippians 2.5-11 (Have this mind among yourselves. . .) becomes the key to understanding how Jesus Christ might at once be truly Son of God, but also one living an authentic human life, in which psychological and intellectual limitation are as freely embraced as the constraints of the physical.

ANGLICAN theologians of kenosis reacted in particular against the legacy of Cyril of Alexandria, the accuser of Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus in 431, and the advocate of what they saw as a one-sided understanding of the incarnation that could give no convincing account of the historical Jesus.

First among the kenotic theologians was Gore, Liddon's erstwhile disciple, who tested the waters with his essay in the seminal liberal catholic manifesto Lux Mundi of 1889, and then developed it more fully in his own Bampton Lectures of 1891.

Here the Anglican refusal to take as authoritative the Christological definitions of the Councils that followed Chalcedon appeared opportune, in particular the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, which reinstated some key principles of Cyril's teaching. It condemned the writings of three theologians, most importantly, Theodoret of Cyrus, whose work had previously been accepted as a legitimate expression of the integrity and reality of the human nature of Christ, in the face of those who asserted that in the incarnation there was one person, and one subsistent reality - and thus one, not two, natures. Freed from this historical constraint, the theologians of kenosis could thrive.

The problem for the kenotic theologians was to demonstrate how the incarnation could be seen as real in anything but the most notional terms, if the Jesus of the Gospels was unaware of himself as a divine person.

Gore saw this danger, and placed great importance on the voluntary act whereby, in embracing the incarnation, the Son of God accepted the full consequences of human limitation and circumscription, particularly in abandoning conscious omniscience.

He explains this by saying: "The real incarnation involves a real self-impoverishment, a real self-emptying, a real self-limitation on the part of the eternal Word of God." But Gore was never able to resolve for himself whether this renunciation of divine privileges was a continuous act, or one that was made irrevocably in the act of Incarnation itself.

What is clear about Gore's teaching is the radical character he himself realised it presented in comparison with the whole development of Christological thought as represented by the position of Liddon.

In his Dissertations on the doctrine of the Incarnation, written in 1895, he goes as far as to say: "There is no doubt, I think, that the general teaching of the Catholic Church for many centuries about our Lord has removed Him very far from human sympathies, very much further than the Christ of the New Testament."

THIS was a view shared by Bishop Weston, who was widely considered to be the inspiration of the extreme Anglo-Catholic party in the Church, but who in his book The One Christ, published in 1914, takes as his target the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria as subsequently developed by Thomas Aquinas: "St Cyril and St Thomas fail us with regard to the manner of the union of the manhood with the divine Logos, just because they are so profoundly concerned to emphasise the main truth of his divinity."

For Weston, as indeed for Hooker, the fact of the incarnation means that the Son now and always will encounter creation through the medium of his humanity, and that the self-emptying accepted in the assumption of that humanity, although diminishing as the human consciousness evolves, is never laid aside.

Both Gore and Weston have an earnest Victorian moralism about them: earnest in their intellectual integrity, which perhaps made them too much in awe of the way in which the higher criticism of the Bible was being developed in their time; earnest in finding devotionally noble and attractive Jesus's voluntary renunciation of divine privilege. But the intense ethicism of their Christology suffers much the same fate as the rest of the British Victorian moral inheritance in the trauma of the First World War.

The kenotic theologians of the incarnation were hampered in their endeavour because their attempts to explain how God restrained himself in the incarnation so as to ensure the psychological reality of Christ's human nature could never quite account for the truth of the incarnation itself, God's assuming manhood and so transforming it.

The Anglo-Catholic theologian who has given most attention to them in recent years, Marilyn McCord Adams, identifies this failure as a pernicious one, in substituting psychological or moral explanations for what constitutes personhood for more fundamental metaphysical categories that are in fact meant to do this work.

So accounts of Jesus that call him God-like because of the quality of his religious consciousness, the moral tone evinced in his ministry or the example he provides are always vulnerable to historical reinterpretation of their context, whereas the terminology actually used by the Fathers of the ancient Councils is not.

One of the most original Anglican theologians to attempt to circumvent this problem was the remarkable Lionel Thornton CR. An expert close reader of the biblical text, well versed in typological exegesis, his philosophical account of the unity of Christ's person in the incarnation, and the integrity of his divine and human natures lent a new impetus to the definition of Chalcedon in a modern register.

For Thornton, "the human body is not less physical because it is taken up into a spiritual organism and has become an organ of spirit. Neither is the human organism less human because it is taken up into union with the eternal Logos and has become the organ of his deity. Just the reverse."

Thornton was somewhat hampered in his account by the more radical direction taken by those who shared with him his enthusiasm for the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, whose discarding of the concept of substance was and is problematic for the defenders of conciliar Christology.

But it showed a realistic way round the kenotic impasse, and hints at a return to the key insight of patristic thought about Christ first fully articulated by Athanasius in the fourth century: that the incarnation does not diminish the human nature assumed from Mary, but rather makes of it the integral organ of the Word.

Thornton concludes his own consideration of the self-emptying of the Son of God by reflecting on the figure of the child: the child as the figure of the disciple of Christ, without whose humility no one can enter the kingdom of heaven; the child who, in his birth at Bethlehem, reveals within the Godhead the true end of humankind.

The child taken up into Christ's arms signifies the return of man to the very site of his creation - to the place where, in his wisdom, the Father conceived the design of our common humanity, that secret place of filial being which is in the only-begotten Son.

It is perhaps the greatest failing of the kenotic school that in paying so much attention to the self-emptying of the incarnate Word, it was so little able to do so with the con- crete figure of the Christ-child in mind.

And it is perhaps significant that, as Thornton was writing to reintegrate the figure of the child into the structure of Anglican Christology, so, in a distant Norfolk village, the English were rediscovering their own Nazareth, and restoring the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, resulting in rich and unexpected spiritual fruits.

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