God's Action in Christ
Wiles (Maurice)
Source: Wiles, Maurice - God's Action in the World, Chapter 7
Paper - Abstract

Paper StatisticsBooks / Papers Citing this PaperNotes Citing this PaperColour-ConventionsDisclaimer

Full Text (Excluding Footnotes)

  1. One of the many difficulties in the study of christology is the variety of issues involved — biblical exegesis, history of doctrine, philosophical problems. Even a full length treatment of the subject hardly provides the scope, and few scholars have the competence, to deal adequately with all these basic constituents of the question. To treat of it, therefore, in a single chapter in this book is to run the risk — perhaps indeed to ensure in advance succumbing to the risk — of superficiality. Yet to deal with christology as a distinct subject among others within theology and to devote a whole book or a whole course of lectures exclusively to it has its own dangers. For whatever form our christology may take, it can hardly exclude the affirmation that for the Christian the life of Christ is the supreme example of God's action in the world. Yet with so many other items on the agenda, many discussions of christology treat the idea of God's action as if it were a comparatively straightforward concept and regard the heart of the problem as how to expound the special character of that action in the case of Christ. But what I have said so far has shown, I hope, even if it has achieved nothing else, that the idea of divine action is itself a highly problematic concept, that cannot be clarified without careful consideration of a wide range of issues, such as creation, evil, providence, grace and freedom. And this broader issue of God's action in the world has not received the degree of attention it deserves as a directly theological problem. To remedy that lack is the central concern of this book. So in what I have to say about Christ, I do not propose to take up - let alone, pretend to solve — all the varied problems involved in the study of christology. My aim is the more limited one of exploring the two-way interaction that there needs to be between the of questions of how we are to understand the figure of Christ and how we are to understand God's action in the world.
  2. In the last two chapters I brought under review the traditional understanding of both historical and personal providence. The New Testament presentation of Jesus sees him unhesitatingly in terms of providence of both kinds. He is the climax of a long historical process. He is born in the fullness of time (Gal. 4.4), and brings to fulfilment things that had been pointing forward to him in every part of scripture (Luke 24.44). Furthermore all that happens to him as an individual follows a similar providential pattern. The early moves of his opponents against him were ineffective ‘because his hour was not yet come' (John 7.30; 8.20); and everything that did happen, including his final arrest and death, was in accordance with ‘the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God' (Acts 2.22-23). Such language raises no new or special problem. The .issues are not different from the ones I considered in those earlier chapters just because they are applied to Jesus. I suggested then that such language is best understood as a form of retrospective interpretation of experience. Approached in that way in the case of Jesus, the language that I have quoted will be understood as the early Christians' way of making cosmic and personal sense of the life of Jesus and its significance for the world and for them. It can, I believe, be accommodated without too much difficulty into the revised, retrospective view of providence that I have been proposing.
  3. But with the central doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ it is a different story. If the difficulties that I have been raising about particular divine actions and about miracle are valid, it is not easy to see how these central affirmations can be exempted from their challenge. Yet that is what many Christians, seeking to do justice both to critical and to traditional insights, are inclined to do at the present time. And it is not hard to see why. ‘The incarnation is,' in John Macquarrie's phrase, ‘the supreme providential act or miracle of history.’ And that supremacy has normally been understood to imply not merely that the person of Christ and the events in his life are of central importance for the life of faith but that they are distinct in kind. It has never been easy to spell out precise the nature of that distinctness. It is tempting, therefore, to see in the reinterpretation of other claimants to be cases of divine intervention or miracle along the lines that I have been suggesting an opportunity for clarifying the distinctness of the incarnation and the resurrection. May not they be seen as unique cases of special divine action, of a kind which in the past has mistakenly been claimed to be the pattern of God's acting on a much wider scale? But such a view has awkward implications which are vividly expressed by Leslie Houlden in review of a recent book on divine revelation, when he writes:
      The isolation of incarnation and resurrection as prime and crucial instances of direct divine action, while it may seem a concession to modernity, effectively falsifies the role they formerly played. Once peaks in a landscape full of hills, all seen as such instances, they now stand out like naked pillars of rock in a plain.
  4. It distances Jesus from the rest of history in the kind of way that led Marcion to see him as the emissary of some higher God, other than the creator.
  5. For reasons of this sort, theological as opposed to popular reaction to the idea of treating incarnation and resurrection as such radical exceptions to the normal pattern of God's dealing with the world has been generally unfavourable. And this negative reaction is shared by critics and upholders of the traditional doctrines alike. It is perhaps not surprising to find Michael Goulder speaking of ‘the implausibility of a theology which allows that the world has been going for four billion years and posits only two actions of God, one 1982 and one 1952 years ago'. But David Brown reacts in a very similar way, if with a diametrically opposed solution to the problem raised. ‘Unless,' he writes,
      one is prepared to endorse an interventionist view of God (that over and above his general ordering of the world there are certain specific actions which he performs within our historical, temporal framework), then the very idea of an Incarnation will inevitably seem such a startling exception to the uniform pattern of God's relation to the world as to be, quite literally, incredible.
  6. It is worth noting that his opposition to any understanding of the incarnation as ‘a unique exception to the normal pattern of divine activity' is, not based simply on its incredibility. He declares a little later on that his principal reason for rejecting such a view is a religious one, namely that it would mean that 'Christ's experience would have no analogy to our own and thus he of no clear relevance to us'.
  7. So the case against treating incarnation and resurrection as divine acts of an altogether unique kind seems to me a very strong one. David Brown's acceptance of that case leads to a strengthening of his conviction that a wholeheartedly interventionist account of God is what we ought to adopt generally. The wide range of theological considerations, which have formed the main substance of this book so far, hold me back from taking that route. The alternative road that I propose to follow is, therefore, to ask whether there are ways in which the convictions traditionally embodied in the doctrines of incarnation and resurrection can be preserved by the opposite move of seeking to bring them within the pattern of understanding God's action that we have developed so far.
  8. The two doctrines are not on all fours with one another. Brian Hebblethwaite shares David Brown's conviction about the validity and necessity of traditional incarnational doctrine, but is strongly opposed to any idea of divine intervention. He regards it as ‘not unreasonable to suppose that even the Incarnation is achieved without breaking the structures of the natural world', but he goes on to describe the resurrection as ‘a different kettle of fish'. We need therefore to deal with them separately.
  9. The basic witness of the New Testament writers is to the decisive nature of God's action in and through Jesus. The God who had spoken in fragmentary and varied fashion through the prophets had spoken a final word through his Son (Heb. 1.1-2); in Christ God had been reconciling the world to himself (II Cor. 5.18). Later christological doctrine is the reflective judgment of the church as to what must be true about the person of Jesus, if that conviction is valid. The classical form of the resultant doctrine was the two-nature christology formally affirmed at the Council of Chalcedon. Its ascription of a full human nature to Christ, against the general tendency of some influential earlier theology and against the explicit affirmation of some of the more attractive forms of Christian heresy, is significant. It rules out certain ways of understanding the specialness of God's action. It was not through a person whose constitution was so unique that his humanity was apparent rather than real. It was not, of course, intended to exclude the miraculous as an important aspect of God's action in Christ. After all Christians believed that God could and did do miracles through the agency of ordinary men and women. Moreover the miracles of Jesus were sufficiently distinctive in their eyes for Leo's Tome (which was officially endorsed by the Council of Chalcedon at the same time as the promulgation of the two-nature christology) to speak of the divine nature of Christ as the agent of his miracles while the human nature was the recipient of his sufferings, albeit each nature acting in conjunction with the other. But that way of speaking has generally been regarded as highly unsatisfactory and too divisive of the unity1 of Christ. The divine and the human do not act separately. However precisely God's action in Christ is to be understood, it is in and through a full human nature. In the later language of primary and secondary causation2, God's special action towards the world in Christ is not a matter of the suspension of secondary causation3. The specialness of the divine act is not achieved by eliminating the human. The action of God in Christ comes through the acts of the human Jesus.
  10. If that was the thrust of the early church's considered teaching, maintained against the main swim of both the intellectual and the devotional tide, it is even more definitely the emphasis of most contemporary christological writing. The full humanity of Jesus is widely seen as involving the recognition that he, like every other human person, was a product of the evolutionary4 process, one whose particular characteristics were substantially affected by his heredity and environment with all the attendant limitations of psychology and knowledge. It implies also ascribing to him that same genuine freedom which is constitutive of our existence as human persons. Affirmations of that kind are to be found in the writings of many who seek to maintain a highly traditional understanding of the incarnation as well as of people who advocate some substantial revision of it.
  11. What account of God's action in Christ can be given that will be congruent with such an understanding of him as a human person? Many of those who have had the courage to attempt some answer to that question have very sensibly taken as their starting-point the experience of God's action in the lives of other men and women, God's prophets and God's saints. From there they have gone on to attempt some extension of their understanding of the interaction of God's grace and human freedom in such cases which might do justice to the specialness of God's action in Christ. Many excellent books on christology have been written along these lines. But one problem seems always to remain. Is the perfection of human response, that in the case of Jesus is claimed to go along with God's grace towards him, a full and adequate description of what we intend in speaking of the incarnation? If it is, then the incarnation raises no new problem for our analysis of God's action in the world; it will simply constitute a particular case within whatever is the appropriate understanding of God's grace in human life more generally.
  12. But many Christians feel that such an approach does not do justice to the special nature of God's action in Christ. Three attitudes may be distinguished. Some, like Professor Lampe in his Bampton lectures, would claim that it is all that can properly said without undermining the authentic humanity of Jesus, while acknowledging that it is not identical with what the early church thought itself able to affirm in terms of hypostatic union. Others, while pursuing their reflections along the same lines, argue that it must ultimately lead to a conclusion fully in line with the traditional dogmatic teaching. Thus Donald Baillie claims that the attempt to understand the person of Christ in terms of the ‘paradox of grace' gives rise in the end to the confession ‘that while the life lived by Jesus was wholly human, that which was incarnate in Him was of the essence of God, the very Son of the Father, very God of very God'. Although he comes out of a very different philosophical and confessional background, the heart of Karl Rahner’s christology is very similar. In what is offered as an elucidation of the meaning of the hypostatic union, he says that Jesus 'is a man who just like us receives in his spiritual, human and finite subjectivity the self-communication of God in grace which we assert of all men'; the distinction, as the continuation of the sentence quoted puts it, is that the case of Jesus is ‘the climax of development in which the world comes to itself absolutely and comes to the immediacy of God absolutely'. But in both these cases, critics have objected that for all the orthodoxy of the language and of their intentions, the accounts that they give fall short of what incarnational doctrine is designed to affirm. So we may distinguish a third group, who, while, not wishing to repudiate the descriptive account of God's action in Christ that we have given, want to insist very strongly that beyond that and as its ground we need to assert the life of Jesus ‘quite literally be the human life and death of God himself in one of the modes of his own eternal being'.
  13. The differences between these three attitudes are not absolute, as the difficulty of assessing the christologies of Donald Baillie and Karl Rahner bears witness. But it is not germane to our purpose here to decide between them. For despite the radical differences in their accounts of who Jesus is, none them speaks of any different kind of action of God in relation to the world. It was after all Brian Hebblethwaite, whom I have here taken as representative of the strongest affirmation of Incarnation, whom I quoted earlier in support of the view that the idea of incarnation did not involve any breaking of the structures of the natural world. Whether or not we finally decide that there are good reasons for speaking of the life of Jesus as also ‘the life ... of God himself in one of the modes of his own eternal being', it would seem that as long as we are determined to continue affirming the genuine humanity of Jesus, there is no difference in kind as far as God's action in the world is concerned between the case of Jesus and the case of other human persons. In both cases the sense in which the actions done are God's actions, the sense in which they may be said to embody particular divine initiatives, has to be compatible with the sense in which they are also full and free human actions. How that leads us to speak about Jesus and his actions will therefore be intimately related to what we say about the operation of God's grace elsewhere.
  14. We cannot develop that in detail now. But it is perhaps worth giving one example of its implications, if we accept the account of God's grace that I developed in the last chapter. There I gave special attention to the question of election and God's call. I suggested that talk of God's call of Paul before his birth was not to be understood literally as implying some particular act of antenatal preparation or even foreknowledge on the part of God. It was rather a retrospective way of affirming how completely the service of God through mission to the Gentiles had been determinative of Paul's active life. In the case of Jesus, then, it would be appropriate to understand in a similar way talk of his pre-existence or of his being sent into the world or of the Spirit's overshadowing agency in the arrangement of his birth. These would be seen, not as particular divine acts ensuring the birth of the particular person, Jesus, but rather as a retrospective way of expressing the totality of his commitment to and fulfilment of the will of God for the world.
  15. But my present purpose is simply to claim that it seems possible — indeed, one may even say necessary — to incorporate any acceptable interpretation of the special action of God in Jesus within the overall account I have been giving of God's more general action in providence and grace. But what of resurrection? Is that, in Brian Hebblethwaite's uncharacteristically colloquial phrase, ‘another kettle of fish'? Certainly he is not the only one to think so. Anthony Hanson, in his book Grace and Truth, gives a thoughtful exposition of the incarnation as God's supreme revelation in the completely human which, he insists, does not involve any acknowledgment of miracle or of the superhuman as a necessary element within it – with one exception. And that is the resurrection, which in his view is essential to that revelation and has to be acknowledged as a superhuman event. There are many who would agree with him. But if he is right in what he claims, the whole line of argument that I have been developing would be undermined. Michael Goulder's two special actions in the whole of human history might be reduced to one. But one action of so distinctively different a kind would be sufficient to call in question the claim that the absence of divine intervention in relation to so many evils and disasters in the world is because such direct action is logically incompatible with the kind of world that God has chosen to create. Is there then any way understanding the resurrection which does not have such drastic implications?
    Certainly there are theologians who believe that such an understanding is possible. Hans Kung, in his widely read work, On Being a Christian, asserts roundly that ‘the raising of Jesus is not a miracle violating the laws of nature ... not a supernatural intervention which can be located and dated in space and time'. But if it is not, how is it to be understood? The question needs to be tackled both historically and theologically. What those two approaches lead us to say may not be identical, but they must be consistent. Here, as in the case of the incarnation, the problems are complex and I shall not begin to address the full range of issues. I shall be restricting myself to one question: is there a way of understanding the resurrection of Jesus consistent with the more general account of God's relation with the world that I have been outlining, which can also meet the proper demands of responsible historical and theological reflection?
  16. I begin with the empty tomb and the physical aspect of the resurrection, of which the empty tomb is certainly the symbol though not the proof. Most scholars are agreed that within the development of the tradition, it is the appearances that are primary and the empty tomb that is secondary. But to be a secondary feature of a tradition does not necessarily involve being a false or untrustworthy element within it. On that issue scholarly opinion is clearly divided. My own judgment, not surprising in the face of such a division of opinion, is that the evidence is indecisive. Historically the issue has to be left wide open. Theological reflection begins with the universally agreed insistence that in speaking of the resurrection of Jesus, we are speaking of something more than the resuscitation of a corpse5; we are speaking of a transformation to a new kind of life, not of a return to human existence as we know it. Nevertheless, though a physical resurrection is certainly not to be seen as the whole story, it may be (and usually has been) claimed to be an essential element within the whole. But it is not easy to see why it should he regarded as theologically necessary. Whatever Christians may properly mean by their hope for the resurrection of the body, it cannot reasonably be understood to involve continuity of our existing bodily substance. And in view of that fact, it is hard to see how such bodily continuity6 could be a theological necessity in the case of Jesus' resurrection. That argument is not only used by Hans Kung to support his non-miraculous understanding of resurrection, but has also helped to convince a much more conservative scholar like David Brown that the ' Empty Tomb is not even a necessary condition for the truth of the Resurrection' since the survival of death7 is not related to what happens to the body of the person who has died.
  17. But even if there is no need historically or theologically to affirm any special divine intervention in relation to the body of Jesus, that by itself does not amount to showing that it is possible to provide an adequate account of the resurrection which does not involve any special divine action or intervention. We have acknowledged that the primary form of the resurrection tradition is that which speaks of the appearances of Jesus. Moreover those appearances are presented as the cause rather than the product of the emerging Christian church and its distinctive resurrection faith. Historically the tradition is a strong one and it is not easy to give an alternative account of the emergence of the church and of its faith. But historical reflection by itself cannot determine the nature of such appearances or visions. A wider range of considerations has to be brought into play before we can judge whether we ought to envisage them as special acts of God.
  18. When we turn to the theological tradition, we meet with a similar picture. There too the resurrection is seen as the basis not the product of faith. But care needs to be exercised in interpreting that epigrammatic claim. Before the resurrection there already existed firm faith in God, a God who in the conviction of many could raise the dead; and some had already responded to Jesus as the decisive proclaimer of God's kingdom. The resurrection is to be seen, perhaps, not so much as the basis but rather as the coping-stone of a distinctively Christian conformation of belief. It seems to me no clearer theologically than historically that this final coping-stone, faith in the vindication of Jesus and the conviction that Jesus lives in the presence of God, could only have derived from some special action of God in the form of supernaturally given appearances of Jesus.
  19. In his big book, Jesus, Schillebeeckx attempts a detailed account of how such faith might validly have arisen without ascribing a unique and supernatural character to the ‘appearances' of Jesus. His account has many difficulties, as he would be the first to admit. ‘As to the way in which the divine source of that assurance took a historical form,' he writes, ‘discussion on exegetical grounds could be endless.’ But equally serious difficulties attend more traditional accounts, when they are prepared to spell themselves out in similar detail. David Brown is right when he suggests that what for him ‘is sufficient to tip the balance towards endorsement of the objectivity of the 'disciples' experience' will appear ‘highly doubtful unless one has already accepted a theistic, as distinct from a deistic, interpretation of God's activity in the world'. But it is precisely his interventionist account (he explicitly identifies ‘theistic' with ‘interventionist' and ‘deistic' with ‘non-interventionist’) that I have been arguing throughout this book is both implausible and full of difficulty for a reasoned Christian faith. So for me the balance tips the other way. I do not wish to underestimate the difficulties in my own position, either when it comes to giving a historical account of what followed the death of Jesus or to giving a theological justification of my faith in God as supremely revealed in Christ. But I do not believe that the difficulties in either of those spheres are as great as the difficulties that would arise were I to bring into those accounts the category of some distinctively different form of divine action.
  20. In conclusion it is worth recalling what I have and what I have not been attempting to do in this chapter. It has not been my aim to expound or to defend a particular doctrine either of the incarnation or of the resurrection. I approached my task with a rough sketch of how we might most appropriately understand the idea of God's action in the world already in mind. That picture had been built up from wide-ranging experience of life and of traditional Christian teaching about creation, providence and grace. I had argued in earlier chapters that we can make best sense of this whole complex of experience and of ideas if we think of the whole continuing creation of the world as God's one act, an act in which he allows radical freedom to his human creation. The nature of such a creation, I have suggested, is incompatible with the assertion of further particular divinely initiated acts within the developing history of the world. God's act, like many human acts, is complex. I have argued that particular parts of it can rightly be spoken of as specially significant aspects of the divine activity, but not as specific, identifiable acts of God. That way of looking at it, I have hinted (though this has yet to be more fully developed in the final chapter), not only makes for a more intelligible but in the long run also for a more religious account. But one obvious objection has been hanging over the whole enterprise. However attractive on other grounds, does not the Christian understanding of Jesus and of his resurrection simply rule it out ab initio? My aim in this chapter has been to meet that objection. I have not, of course, attempted to do so by making the absurd claim that incarnation and resurrection have never been intended or understood in ways which would have that effect. But our understanding of incarnation and resurrection cannot in any event be unchanging, any more than can our understanding of any other aspect of Christian doctrine. What I have tried to argue is that there are ways of understanding both doctrines that are consistent with my more general account of God's action in the world and which, however revisionary, do not simply deny their central concerns, but may even help some of those concerns to find more adequate expression. That — and no more than that — is what I have tried to do. But if the case is sound, it would be an important contribution to the perennial search for a reasoned and vital faith.


Hard Copy filed in "Various - Papers on Religion Boxes (Heythrop)".

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - Dec 2020. Please address any comments on this page to theo@theotodman.com. File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page