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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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