From the archive: David L. Edwards reviews The Myth of God Incarnate

by
30 April 2018

The Very Revd Dr David L. Edwards OBE, Provost Emeritus of Southwark, who died on Wednesday of last week, aged 89, was for many years the the principal reviewer and leader-writer for the Church Times. In this article, published on 1 July 1977, he reviewed The Myth of God Incarnate, a book of controversial theological essays. An obituary will be published in this Friday’s Church Times.

WHAT do Christians nowadays mean when they recite the Nicene Creed and call Jesus “God from God, Light from Light” (in the Series Three version)? Or when they repeat some other traditional affirmation of faith “co-starring Jesus and God” (the inelegant phrase is Dr. Nineham’s)?

The divinity of Christ has often seemed the essence of Christianity; and, unless Christians are fairly clear about what they think of Christ today, they are not going to get very far by being keen on evangelism or involved in politics or efficient in reorganising the Church. So it is important to meet the challenge of the latest explosion of English radical theology, The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick and published today (SCM Press, £2.95). 

Worried men

Why have seven Christian scholars chosen a title so likely to scandalise the faithful and embarrass parish priests as it gets talked about? Is it because they hope that the man in the street will thereby become the man in the bookshop? No, it cannot be. All the contributors hold academic posts and draw academic salaries; and they would presumably not choose a title merely because it is catchpenny or catchpound.

The truth must be that they are worried. They seem convinced that most of their fellow-Christians have not faced the facts, and that most of their fellow-preachers have indulged in a conspiracy of silence.

Already there has been the suggestion (glad or angry, excited or weary according to taste): “another Honest to God.” But the book is in fact a collection of essays by seven theologians. If there is to be a comparison, it ought to be with collective works such as Essays and Reviews (1860), which aroused a great Victorian controversy. The contributors to that volume included a future Archbishop of Canterbury (Frederick Temple) but were denounced as “Seven against Christ.”

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These scholars who join the fray in the 1970s do not intend to be against Christ. Professor Hick has a splendid passage on page 172 beginning, “I see the Nazarene. . . .” He speaks of ‘‘the absolute claim of God, summoning us to give ourselves wholly to God and to be born again as his children.” He says that Jesus was “so totally conscious of God that we could catch something of that consciousness by spiritual contagion.” 

Provocative

Dr Dennis Nineham, Warden of Keble College, Oxford, is probably the most radical of the contributors. Indeed he rebukes his own editor for speaking of Jesus as being “totally conscious of God.” Such language is, the Warden reckons, too high a mark in the examination. Yet even Dr Nineham does speak of Christians as a group that views Jesus as “the lens through which all the demands and promises of God to them are focused” (page 200); and he includes himself in the group.

But all seven essayists have presumably agreed on their inflammatory title. To call a book The Myth of God Incarnate is as provocative as it would be to call a book this jubilee summer The Myth of the Queen’s Reign. (The contributors could go on to say that the Queen reigns in some sense and is good at it, but still they would have provoked).

The essayists who now call the Incarnation a “myth” are sure that Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, with a mother and a father in the normal way. They are also sure that he had a human mind, which meant being limited in knowledge and outlook. He was a man who lived in a particular time and place — the only way in which a man can live.

The records about Jesus are limited; B. H. Streeter once calculated that everything reported to have been said or done by him would have occupied three weeks. The records that have survived all show that his teaching was full of images and arguments then familiar and now remote. They are not enough to prove beliefs that he was sinless, or completely devoted to God, or invariably loving, as Mr Goulder observes (p. 53).

The Christians have also belonged to particular times and places. This has had at least three consequences. In the first place, the orthodoxy about Christ’s “person” uniting divine and human “natures” was worked out within the thought-forms of a particular period in Greek philosophy. That world of Neoplatonic metaphysics was as remote from the first followers of Jesus as it now is from us. A. D. Nock is quoted. “The Christian hope had its roots in Palestine; Christian theology and above all Christology have theirs in Alexandria.”

Secondly, the most famous pictures of Christ in history (in paint or mosaic or words or ritual) were set against a background which now seems very dated. For example, Christ was depicted as an emperor surrounded by the Byzantine court; Don Cupitt has an iconoclastic essay on this. Within the New Testament there is talk about Christ as the Divine Man descending from heaven to mediate between heaven and earth and to redeem a darkened mankind. Such talk is strange to us, but was already familiar to the pagan world to which it was first addressed.

Finally, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christians have evangelised the world as never before. Their gospel has been that Christ is the world’s only Saviour because the only Incarnation of God. They have presented Christianity as the true religion because the revelation in Christ was final. They have failed to appreciate the spiritual wealth in traditions such as India’s, venerable before Jesus was preached or born — whereas the fact is that the demands and promises of God have been focused to non-Christians in many non-Christian lenses.

Challenge

So the essayists challenge their readers to be frank about what it means to treat Jesus as a man of the first century AD; about what ought to be said in his honour in modern thoughts, phrases and pictures; and about his proper place in a world which has known many saviours and revealers.

They can use the word “myth” because the word has a theological meaning altogether more polite than its colloquial use. “Myth” is, Dr Wiles points out, a word less than 150 years old. Dr Hick uses it in the following sense. “A myth is a story which is told but which is not literally true, or an idea or image which is applied to someone or something but which does not literally apply, but which invites a particular attitude in its hearers” (p. 178).

The book can proceed to speak of “the myth of the Incarnation” because “Incarnation” is also a word with a technical theological meaning. The word need not refer to the general proposition that God was in the flesh or human life of Jesus Christ — to deny which is certainly to deny Christianity. It can refer to the much more specific series of orthodox decisions by the Councils of the Church in the age of the Fathers.

Thus to say that the Incarnation is “mythological” can be merely to say that these Councils and the Fathers behind them spoke in a way which cannot be ours unless we simply repeat their orthodoxy parrot-fashion. But it was not the biblical way either. Thus Maurice Wiles: “Incarnation, in its full and proper sense, is not something directly presented in scripture” (p.3).

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So defined, the book’s title and contents lose most of their offensiveness for those who are familiar and patient with theologians’ habits.

By driving some sharp questions home, the book would disturb dogmatic slumbers. If there be anyone willing to study contemporary theology who is unaware, the book will make him or her aware. However, such a reader might be regarded as a mythological creature, for it would appear impossible that anyone capable of understanding this book has not already come face to face with the main problems of twentieth-century theology. Thus the book has much the same value as would be possessed by seven economists’ essays written in 1977 to suggest that we really must do something about inflation.

Certainly the Church Times has in recent years carried many reviews of books where these questions were openly discussed; and such books constitute a section of the stock of any up-to-date theological bookseller. It is therefore disappointing that this book contains no essay where these recent attempts at restating Christology are treated with the scholarship they deserve. Instead, the essayists write sometimes as if they had just discovered the questions — like a passenger discovering the Pacific from the window of a jet.

Sometimes (as in Don Cupitt’s treatment of Bultmann on p. 141) they write as if a few flip generalisations should be enough to persuade the reader not to bother with earlier attempts. Even Professor Hick, whose own previous writing has been very valuable, does not indicate how widespread and how deep has been the discussion about Jesus Christ in relation to non-Christian religions.

Missing words

Nor does the book explore the significance of recent attempts at popular reinterpretations of Jesus. There is no full treatment of “liberation theology,” which always involves a special (debatable) Christology — although the literature on that movement is already substantial. There is no study of the pop Christology so conspicuous in the Western world —although Jesus Christ Superstar has been one of the most successful shows of the 1970s. And many other silences speak more loudly about the essayists than about their great subject.

One appreciates that space was limited. But space has been found for essays by two of Professor Hick’s colleagues at the University of Birmingham.

Michael Goulder contributes a largely speculative study of the alleged Samaritan origins of Christological beliefs previously thought to have a Gentile gnostic background. “Paul,” he tells us, “appropriated the idea of Jesus’ incarnation in the course of a dialectic with the Samaritan missionaries in Corinth and Ephesus between 50 and 55” (p. 79).

Frances Young’s two essays are equally learned and much more reliably historical, but for that very reason do not reach original conclusions.

What is most needed at this stage of the discussion is not yet more pleas that the questions need to be faced, but more careful consideration of the work of those who have actually faced them both at the academic and at the popular levels.

If this book had included an adequate treatment of contemporary theology or evangelism, it is unlikely that the editor would have written as he now does in his preface. There he sums up the main contrast as being between “a recognition that Jesus was ‘a man approved by God’ for a special role within the divine purpose” (quoting Acts 2.21) and “the later conception of him as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity living a human life.”

No! The main contrast, surely, has been between two more profoundly different groups. There are those who have taken the quotation from Acts as meaning no more than that Jesus was a prophet or leader not unlike Mohammed or Gandhi or Mao. And there are those who have been compelled by their own experience of his continuing power to say that his human life is the supreme expression of God’s own self, the embodiment of God’s own love — of course ‘‘limited by the receptive capacity of human nature” (Mascall, quoted on p. 5). In the first group are the Unitarians, the Jews, the Muslims and many Hindus, not to mention other theists who revere Jesus. In the second camp are the Christians.

If this book had explored the meaning of the uniqueness of Jesus in recent discussion, the essay by Frances Young would not have been left unrevised. She claims that “Jesus cannot be a real man and also unique in a sense different from that in which each one of us is a unique individual” (p 32), and she adds for good measure that “each man is potentially ‘God incarnate’” (p. 47). But recent discussion has only served to show once again that, among all the individuals in history, Jesus of Nazareth was and is solitary in his claims, in his character and in his work — work which now embraces nineteen centuries and all the continents.

To list other saviours and revealers is, in the end, to show that Jesus still stands alone. Every man ever born, and every woman too, may be potentially God incarnate. Or so Frances Young believes. It is theoretically possible, and her experience of Birmingham is enviable if it has suggested the theory to her. What we do know is that no one about whom we have any evidence has realised that potential in a way at all similar to the Man after whom Christianity is named.

While Christians have much to learn, they have no reason to forget that their Lord remains utterly unique. And they have no reason to cease to adore him as the Word, Image, Act or Son of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

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