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Afterword: The Breadth of Christology: The Beautiful Work of Christ

Abstract and Keywords

The best accounts of Christ’s works, such as those of Aquinas and Von Balthasar, show that Christ’s works are directed in three ways. His works are directed (1) toward God, (2) toward fulfilling human potential, and (3) toward defeating the devil. Soteriologies which neglect one of these aspects inevitably undermine either Christ’s historical humanity or his divinity. Soteriological ‘mono-tony’ leads toward an analogous ‘monotonal’ quality in the assessment of the person and nature of Christ and a loss of theological equilibrium. This equilibirum is best achieved through a dynamic tension. The Afterword outlines the dynamic tensions within the book. The editor discusses key concepts in the chapters, tying them together to create a thought-provoking narrative thread. The chapter draws attention to the quality of the scholarship and explores key insights. It is an exciting time for the study of Christology and this volume would not have been achievable half a century ago.

Keywords: Christ, divine nature, Christology, Thomas Aquinas, soteriology

This great volume contains many dynamic tensions. One concerns the centrality of Christology to systematic theology. For Robert Woźniak, Christology is the necessary prism through which all theological topics are best viewed. The Chalcedonian formula dogmatically instructs us how to read God’s immanence and God’s transcendence. For John Webster, conversely, thus to foreground Christology risks allowing the economic Trinity to upstage the transcendent Trinity. God’s freedom to create must not be granted priority over his freedom to be, lest the sovereignty of God be compromised and God enmeshed in history. A third partner in this lively and fruitful disputation is Bruce McCormack, who seems to conclude his chapter on kenotic Christology by indicating that kenosis will make no sense in its application to Christ until kenosis belongs to our conception of the Trinity. There is, McCormack proposes, an eternal ‘self-emptying’ by the Logos, because ‘the being of the triune God is so completely oriented towards’ incarnational kenosis ‘that the identity of the Logos as the second “person” of the Trinity is formed by it’. The transcendent Trinity, with its incalculable ontological priority, and the Incarnation, with its inevitable epistemic priority for human beings are doctrinally inseparable: only the love between the Three Persons ‘in the Theology’ can explain how, ‘in the Economy’, ‘an act of obedience is not necessarily foreign to God himself’ (Von Balthasar 1990: 81–2). The chapters by Woźniak, Webster, and McCormack are necessary reading for understanding what is at stake in the most important debate in contemporary systematic theology.

(p. 629) The Person versus the Work of Christ?

This handbook has a comprehensiveness which could not have been achieved sixty years ago, when explicitly inter-confessional theology was in its infancy. Today, when many would say that the ecumenical movement has run its course, this volume owes something of its range and completeness to its ecumenical character. This ecumenical character itself springs nonetheless from the fact that the authors do not focus on ecumenicity, saving their attention for the One to whom it is due. The authors you have just read have kept their eyes upon the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord, when they are not, of course, contemplating the immanent Trinity.

Having been assigned by his editor a chapter on ‘the works of Christ in patristic theology’, Norman Russell performed his task with exceptional scholarship, and thus observed that ‘the distinction between the person of Christ and the work of Christ is a comparatively modern one, going back to the scholastic mindset of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers’. No patristic author articulated a distinction between the person and work of Christ. By scholastic times, such a distinction is implicit, in, for instance, Thomas Aquinas’ division of the Tertia Pars into Questions 1–26, which probe the ontological constitution of the two natures and the divine Person who unites them, and Questions 27–59, his little ‘bios’ of Christ, in which he runs through the whole of Jesus’ historical life as narrated in the Gospels. Thomas leaves the distinction between the person and work of Christ implicit, and thus he distinguishes the two without partitioning them. In an excess of conceptual clarity the distinction metastasized into a partition whose sole purpose was to provide for tug-of-war between Catholics and Protestants.

In living with this excess of analysis, Catholics and Protestants came to differ about the works of Christ. This contestation seemed to set the ‘person’ of Christ against his ‘works’. Perhaps this contestation goes all the way back to Martin Luther himself. According to Brian Lugioyo, Luther’s watchword was ‘Crux sola est nostra theologia’ (WA 5: 176) . ‘It was the revealed, incarnate God—which the late mediaeval theologians had discarded—that became his starting point. Theology could not begin with the divinity of Christ; it had to begin with his humanity.’ Perhaps the dynamic tensions exhibited amongst Woźniak, Webster, and McCormack in this volume has its onset with Luther’s watchword. Few of the disagreements in this book are confessional.

The objection of post-Reformation Protestant theology to Catholic or ‘ontological’ Christologies is that it is all over bar the shouting at the ‘Incarnation’ event. The ‘historicity’, or Jesus’ ministry as a whole, is thereby lost, some Protestants think. The counter-objection of the Catholics is that the soteriological or ‘functional’ Christologies of the Protestants so compress the significance of Christ’s life into the Passion that the full historicity is dispensed into an event between Father and Son. Classical Protestant objections to the Catholic Christological focus on the being of Christ simultaneously contain a rejection of a key aspect of Catholic and Orthodox soteriology, that is, (p. 630) deification. One of the great gains made by Michael Gorman’s chapter in this volume is its demonstration that, as Christians understand it, not only the death, and not only one kind of work, but the whole breadth of Jesus’ life is salvific.

The ancient Catholic–Protestant confessional dispute is not simply about whether to prize the works above the person or vice versa. For no one would prize works which they did not think fit the reality of the case. The dispute has been, rather, about what kind of soteriology actually fits the kind of person Jesus was, a soteriology of substitution or a soteriology of deification. The partitioning and contestation between the ‘person’ and ‘work’ of Christ came about because of a partitioning and contestation between various of his works. And this partitioning amongst Christ’s works itself became a scotoma, which blocked from our view the wholeness and thus the beauty of Christ. The Protestant who offered to remove the mote of ‘Incarnationalism’ from the Catholic’s eye was blinded by the plank of a substitutionary doctrine of atonement which steered him toward Nestorianism; the Catholic who kindly attempted to remove the speck of ‘Incarnationalism’ from the Protestant’s eye was blinkered by a deificatory soteriology which inclined her toward monophysitism. There is no one-sidedness about Christ’s works which does not flow from shortsightedness about his person.

This is because Christ does who he is. This is part and parcel of his uniqueness, that is, of his being God the Son. Though only blessed with one nature, human beings have much more trouble being at one with themselves than Christ did. This may surprise students of modern Christological research, which presents Jesus Christ as gamely struggling to wield in unison a divine and a human nature. The unwieldiness is of course not in Christ but in the minds of modern Christologists who, starting by dividing his work from his person, have turned Christ’s life into an endless balancing act between the two natures. This is not to say the ancients had it all down pat. But at least the patristic conception of Christ’s humanity as the ‘instrument’ of his divinity integrated the humanity into soteriology without making ‘becoming human’ the end and goal, rather than the means, of the Trinity’s work in the Incarnation.

As creatures, human beings cannot fully be ourselves because we cannot fully be. We are not fully and entirely who we are, as God is. When, as Venard notes in his chapter here, the Synoptic Jesus asks, ‘Who do you say I am?’, he deftly tucks into his question a reminder of the answer: ‘I am that I am’, of Exodus 3:14. Rowan Williams in this book quite rightly does his best to sidestep his editorial instruction to write about Christ-figures in modern literature: if there is one thing which nineteenth- and early twentieth-century people needed to learn it was that they cannot (very easily) be Christ-figures. They had to be instructed by their novelists to stop looking down the well of history and seeing their own face at the bottom, not the face of Christ. The God-man is who he is, and we will not be fully ourselves until we have become the ‘deified rational animals’ (Norman Russell) who populate Paradise. As for now, our personae are, not just fractured, which comes with being human creatures, but also somewhat warped, which comes with being fallen. The unfallen angels are fractured (they are not, pace Calvin, identical to their functions), but unwarped.

(p. 631) Jesus is fully himself, fully at one with all his works and the role that he plays in human salvation, because his mission or sending by the Father is his begetting by the Father. As Anatolios reminds us in his chapter, the first move toward subordinationism is imagining that ‘there was when he was not’, that the Father elected to beget Christ at some moment in a special supernatural pre-temporality. Because Christ is God, it is of Christ’s nature and character to be. Christ’s begetting is his mission or sending, because there is and can be no division between his plenary being and his functional role in the theology and in the economy. His ontological begetting and his inner Trinitarian role are one and the same. His extra-Trinitarian role is an extension of who he is in eternity. The human persona of Jesus is the means to the accomplishment of this role. In order to save us, he adopts exactly what has gone wrong with humanity, a persona which partially disguises who he is.

It is no fault in creatures to say that we are given and take up roles and projects, rather than being ontologically identical with them. It is simply what it is to be a creature, one’s being not identical to one’s nature and character. They would be like that without Adam’s fall into sin and death. All that the Fall, and with it ‘original death’, adds to this disparity, on the one hand, is, since our acting time is finite, a desperation and anxiety about the search for a fitting role, and on the other, the use of roles to lie and deceive. Acting is not in itself untruthful or hypocritical, but it is used manipulatively by concupiscent, fallen creatures. Jesus Christ, the perfect actor of his begotten role, especially scorns hypocrisy and observes that Satan has always lied, because he is ‘ontologically untruthful’ (John 8:44). The admixture of untruth into our assumption of roles is the mark of our enslavement to demonic structures. The finitude of postlapsarian human life is God’s rightful punishment of sin, the deception is demonic.

This is why we find acting and drama so gripping: a rational creature whose nature or character is not identical to his being has constantly to project himself into roles which do not quite equate to his existential reality. And when we add fallenness into the mix, we add the uncertainty about whether other human beings are projecting truthfully or with an aim to deceive. With our projecting roles constantly running ahead of our limping existence (for we are not quite ourselves, cannot quite say, ‘I am that I am’ with conviction), acting is what we ourselves do all the time. And thus we find the observation of actor playing a role magnetically fascinating: it is to see our anthropological dilemma, as existentially-dependent role-playing animals played out on the instant-video screen.

To take a well-known example, the man Clint Eastwood plays the movie-actor ‘Clint Eastwood’: he does not so much play ‘Dirty Harry’ in one movie and ‘Walt Kowalski’ in another as play ‘Clint Eastwood’ through all the personae in his movie repertoire. He plays ‘Clint Eastwood’ even or especially when he is defeating our expectations, and turning the character upside down into a ‘Christ figure’ (as Robert Barron shows in his chapter). Every movie star has his own filmography, in which the biography of the character he plays is concretized in numerous personae, from young hero or starlet to older man or woman, and this growth and maturation in the actor belongs to the movie itself, and is not extrinsic to it. So the human being plays an invented self, an ‘Eastwood’, for instance, or a ‘Cruise’ or ‘Weaver’, by means of a string of concrete and specific persona. (p. 632) Dirty Harry or Walt Kowalski is the means by which the human being Clint Eastwood plays his ‘Eastwood’ role in the cop movies and in Gran Torino. The persona is integrally connected to the body of the actor: Javier Bardem ‘has the face’ for playing villains. Because it is thus bound to the actor’s physicality, to his or her features and physique, the human being Clint Eastwood ages over time, and gave his role of ‘Clint Eastwood’ the persona of Dirty Harry as a young man, and the face of Walt Kowalski as he entered old age. Dirty Harry and Walt Kowalski are not personalities: they are instruments for one concrete, specific enactment of the ‘Clint Eastwood’ role. They are personae, not personalities.

Movies would not be fascinating to us if what they have to show us were unrealistic and unlifelike: over the course of our lives all human persons adopt and play a single ‘character’ by means of various personae (mother, plumber, professor, dog-lover). Jesus Christ adopts no roles: he is what he does. The work of Christ is simply the expression of his person. But he does adopt or assume a human persona (or what the early patristics called a ‘flesh’) whose specific, concrete humanity is the instrument or means of his soteriological work. Every acting persona is some kind of stereotype, and the New Adam is the acme of all the human personae through which roles are concretized. As the New Adam he recapitulates the human project as a whole.

This is not to say that Jesus’ persona is a ‘human personality’. It doesn’t work to ascribe a human personality to Christ, alongside the person of the Logos. As McCormack notes in this handbook, describing Strauss’ objections to a ‘two-personality’ Chalcedonian Christ: ‘to speak of two natures in one person is to imply the existence of a single self-consciousness in the one God-human. For what else could the term “person” mean? But a single self-consciousness cannot emerge out of the union of two such radically different “personalities”. For either would be canceled out by the other.’ Chalcedonian Christology works only with a single person, the agent of the Logos, at work: that agent is begotten by the Father for all time, and for all time plays the role of the one sent; he assumes a human persona in order to be sent ‘into a far country’, into the economy of salvation. A persona is in a sense a disguise, and this is not far from saying that he is disguised in flesh, so long as we recognize that this particular disguise reveals who he is: where do you hide a leaf? In a tree. Jesus has a human persona, not a human personality, and it is the physical expression of the being of the second person of the Trinity in a way that a human personality could not be.

As Dirty Harry memorably observes, ‘a man has to know his limitations’. God knows the limitations and the multivalent structure of the nature God created. The God-man must do his work, carry out his calling, within a nature which is structured between three poles. Three poles to be found in all reality are the actual, the potential, and the privative, or so Aristotle is known to have believed. In one aspect of his works, Christ draws out humanity’s potential for deification. He enacts a human character who is fully alive to his own mystery and knows himself. In a second aspect of his works, Christ directly addresses the actuality of the human situation, by offering atoning sacrifice to God the Father. In a third aspect of his work, he withdraws humanity from the state of privation in which it currently languishes, enslaved to the lie and to hypocritical (p. 633) personae. In his work of theosis, Christ deals with human potential in terms of what it positively lacks, in order to fulfill it; in his work of conquest of sin, death, and the devil, Christ deals with human privation, its need for liberation from evil. In his sacrificial or substitutionary works, those works offered to the Father, Christ makes actual capital out of his death, by paying the redemptive price to the Father.

Russell notes in his chapter that some patristic theologians differed amongst themselves as to whether, by the shedding of his blood, a ransom is being paid to the Father (so Nazianzus) or the devil (thus Nyssa). Some of the Fathers do not conceive of the aspect of the work Christ gives the devil as ‘ransoming’. Whatever their emphases, all the Church Fathers at least mention all three corners of Christ’s work, the manward, the Godward, and the devilward. For that reason alone, they need to tell us a good deal about ‘what’ Jesus did in the course of his historical Incarnation: they cannot content themselves with the ‘that’ of the Incarnation’, in the way in which, according to Ziegler in this volume, Rudolf Bultmann was to do in the twentieth century.

This handbook contains several outstanding essays touching upon the modern schism between the ‘Jesus of History’ and the ‘Christ of Faith’. This schism was not only brought about by the rise of modern historical criticism: it was caused by the failure to get hold of what role Christ is playing through his human persona. The ‘Jesus of History’ has always been projected as some kind of moral teacher, but, effectively, as one who has little to say—barring the mad proclamation that the world is about to end (which it apparently did not do in his lifetime). The crucifixion makes a mess of the ‘Jesus of History’: this gentle moral teacher makes more sense if he does not die on the Cross (as Schweitzer saw already in 1900). The ‘Christ of Faith’, on the other hand, is really the resurrected Christ, absent but present in and through the Church (Bockmuehl). The ‘Christ of Faith’ is in that sense a haloed icon which we might have good reason to be somewhat ‘phobic’ about (pace Nichols): he wears a golden halo and yet his voice is disembodied and he bears no wounds. Or as Ziegler has it, with respect to Martin Kähler, ‘The question of how “diaphanous” the earthly man Jesus can become and still be Christologically relevant remains.’

Both the proponents of the ‘Jesus of History’ and of the ‘Christ of Faith’ take a pass when it comes to the Passion and death of Christ. They do not see the divinity as manifested through the agony of the crucifixion, as Alison Milbank describes the mediaevals as having done in her strikingly beautiful chapter. The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are both equally what Schweitzer called ‘a puzzle and an enigma’ in the sense that we cannot see what this fellow is for, what work he performs. He is, so to say, a ‘nowhere man’ with no instrumentality, no flesh and blood.

In his chapter, Richard Bauckham proposes that the ‘Jesus of Testimony’ mediates between the two enigmatic figures, reconciling ‘History’ and ‘Faith’. In modern times, ‘History’ and ‘Faith’ are stand-ins for what ancient Christologies (Daley, Louth) called the ‘human nature’ and the ‘divine nature’. Mark Elliott shows how post-Reformation Christologies, both Catholic and Protestant, struggled to hold the two together in a single view. Whereas, as Brian Daley shows, Nestorius was vulnerable to the accusation that his Christ has no unitary substance but merely presents a unitary Gestalt in (p. 634) his two natures, our moderns often sought in vain even to achieve this Nestorian nadir. Bauckham’s ‘Jesus of Testimony’ is the Jesus presented to our vision by the Church: he is upheld to us by the Church to touch and see. Philip Ziegler’s wonderful, clear chapter reminds us that Bultmann was not a blinkered anti-historicist. He insisted upon the historical ‘that’ but denied that the historical what, the flow and length, the content, of Jesus’ life matters Christologically. By affirming that the only Christ we know anything about is kerygmatic all the way down, Bultmann maintained, in his own way, that the only Christ whom Christians can know and believe in is the Christ of the Gospel. For Bultmann, the Christ of the Gospel is present through his absence, visibly invisible. As Ziegler states, the great Lutheran exegete was happy to put ‘Jesus’ in inverted commas.

So what is the difference between Bauckham’s ‘Jesus of Testimony’ and Bultmann’s ‘Christ of Faith’? Are not both equally absent in history but present in the Church? The difference between the two is that we are reliant upon others, going back through the chain of witnesses, for our knowledge of the ‘Jesus of Testimony’, whereas Bultmann’s ‘Christ of Faith’ knows no mediators. Raymond Gawronski points out herein that Christology is all about ‘knowing’ Christ and that what it means to know Christ has differed from one epoch to another. For Bauckham, knowing Christ is making an historiographically reasonable act of trust in many named witnesses; for Bultmann, Christ is made known to us by an event of faith, not by the bare that of his historical humanity, not by the one Bultmann is content to call ‘Jesus’. Like Kant, Bultmann had an aversion for dependency.

The two brilliant and complementary pieces by Reynolds, about the Islamic Christ, and by Gathercole, about the Gnostic Christ, both indicate that for Christians there is no credible Christ who is not the Christ of the Church’s historical, apostolic, and evidential testimony. The Gnostic Christ is, on Gathercole’s showing, the very first ‘Jesus of History’, the first ‘Jesus’ constructed outside of, and against, the Church’s testimony. There are tendencies both in the Islamic and the Gnostic ‘Christ’ to duck the Passion and to claim that the death of Jesus is a fiction. This is not solely in order to avoid those tiresome resurrection accounts, along with their tedious tendency to make us wonder what bouncing back from death to life implies about who Christ is. For Gnostics and Muslims, Christ can perform his role and work without dying. It is not central to the human persona he adopts. In these legendary accounts of Jesus’ identity, it is not easy to say what Jesus’ work or function is. He comes to teach, but not to teach himself. This ‘Jesus’ is not ‘who he is’.

Neither the ‘Jesus of History’ nor the ‘Christ of Faith’ enters human history in a ‘deathward’ direction: the ‘work’ of the former is to teach, and of the latter to represent the eschatological triumph over death. Neither of these two possible personae has the role or project of ‘being toward death’: neither of these figures comes in order to reach into death with the entirety of his being. And so, just as neither the Islamic Christ nor the Gnostic Christ is fully divine, so also he is not fully human. To be human after the Fall is to know the deaths of one’s friends, one’s loved ones, and to die oneself, in absolute helplessness. For an historical, postlapsarian human being to be saved by Christ’s work is to be saved from death by death:

(p. 635) if God wished to ‘experience’ (zein peira, cf. Hebrews, 2.18; 4.15) the human condition ‘from within’, so as to re-direct it from inside it, and thus save it, he would have to place the … stress on that point where sinful, mortal man finds himself ‘at his wit’s end’ …. this must be where man has lost himself in death without … finding God …. God has … to place the emphasis on … being ‘at one’s wit’s end’ … to bind together the fractured extremities of the idea of man. And this is what we actually find in the identity that holds good between the Crucified and the Risen One.

(Von Balthasar 1990: 13)

In keeping with the nature of the reality into which the actual historical Jesus Christ came to do his work, soteriologies are of three kinds. In the manward soteriology, which addresses the fulfillment of human potential, Christ’s humanity must make its way deathward, because it is by means of his shed body and blood that he divinizes his followers. In the Godward soteriology, which addresses God’s actuality, Christ becomes incarnate in the persona of the historical man Jesus in order to offer his death to the Father. In the devilward soteriology, which addresses the privations which currently enmesh humanity, Jesus Christ deceives the deceiver with his human persona.

The terms ‘manward’ and ‘Godward’ correspond to what Rik van Nieuenhove in his chapter terms ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ views of atonement. I prefer to call ‘actual’ or ‘Godward’ what Nieuenhove, in keeping with many commentators, calls ‘objective’, because the ‘repercussions of salvation for the relation between creation and God’ is a repercussion in actuality, whereas ‘the transformative effect on the Christian believer’ of Christ’s work is, in my opinion, not so much ‘subjective’ (it strikes me as quite objective) but rather, in the domain of potentiality rather than actuality. It is in and through the mediation of his work that we see Christ for who he is. All three works respond not only to the question, cur Deus homo?, but also to the question cur Deus mortem? The unifying thread of the three labors is that all orient the human persona of Jesus to death.

Potentiality, Privation, Actuality: Ransom, Theosis, Satisfaction

Deification is the original ‘manward’ theory: the work of Christ goes ‘toward’ human beings. The dramatic vector of Christ’s deeds is aimed toward humanity. From its origins in Paul and Irenaeus’ words about anakephalaiosis, or the recapitulation of humanity in Christ, to its late, cut-price variants, this theory orients Christ’s work toward the human. There is a spectrum of manward conceptions of atonement, running from Cyrilline theosis to moral exemplarism. It is not always easy to see where a theory stands on the spectrum. Abelard’s theory is said to go beyond moral exemplarism and yield deification if you look hard enough. Exemplarism, or envisaging Jesus as an exemplar of ethical (p. 636) principle, is a much diminished, moralizing version of the original ‘manward’ soteriology of the patristics and mediaevals, both Western and Eastern. So what Philip Ziegler’s chapter ascribes to Schleiermacher, and to thinkers of the caliber of Ernst Renan, that is, conceiving Jesus’ work as being an inspiring religious-moral teacher, is a kind of ‘manward’ theory.

In the exemplarism of Kant, as succinctly elucidated in this volume by Kevin Hector, ‘doing the moral exemplar’, performing the role of exemplar, is not so much done by Christ, not acted out by Christ, as it is detected by us in him. On Kant’s analysis, as ‘plausibly’ reconstructed by Hector, we commit ourselves to Christ out of respect for his moral perfection. Kant seems to render Christ as the passive exponent of moral perfection. We read the moral example off his passive, not to say, lifeless, effigy. Jesus here ceases to be an icon, in the classical sense of a medium and instrument of grace, and becomes a naturalistic portrait. Here ‘deification’ has been thoroughly stripped out of the ‘exemplar’ theory: humanity is not so much acted upon by Christ (the original meaning of the exemplar theory): rather, on its own volition, humanity takes Christ as its own role model.

As befits the exponent of the rising bourgeoisie of the late eighteenth century, Kant had an aversion to dependency. He would not have us dependent on Christ, or caused or led by him to more virtuous living, because, as he saw it, that would deprive us of our freedom. Hector cites Kant as calling Christ ‘an example to be emulated’. The rather bohemian Schleiermacher had no such problems with dependence. His Christ is wholly dependent upon God, indeed, his God-consciousness is measured by the degree of his dependency upon God, and found to be infinite. Schleiermacher’s Christ ‘is’ God to the extent that he is immeasurably dependent upon God. He is the one in whom freedom with respect to God and receptivity with respect to God are not in conflict. He is a ‘new Adam’ in the sense that this degree of God-consciousness is a new start in human history. His work is then to transmit his receptivity to God, or to make us ‘receptive to his receptivity’ (so Hector). Schleiermacher’s Jesus is thus a causative agent: ‘There is’, Hector says, ‘a transitive property at work here’. No lifeless effigy, Schleiermacher’s Jesus must live and minister in order thus to influence us toward being receptive to God’s love. But need he die in order to provoke such dependency and receptivity? In Schleiermacher’s anthropological Christology, Christ’s work does not address the human ‘issue’ of death. Suffering, down to the suffering of the Passion, by arousal of love, might assist in making us ‘receptive to his receptivity’ to God. But, taken not as a psychological fact, but as an ontological reality, not the Passion, but Christ’s death itself plays no role in Schleiermacher’s conception of his work.

In his favor, one may say that, by ascribing absolute dependency to Christ, Schleiermacher reopened the question of whether the incarnate Jesus experienced ‘faith’. Joseph Wawrykow tackles in his chapter the fact that many moderns feel that the Christ of the Summa Theologiae is not fully human because Thomas Aquinas refuses to ascribe the virtue of ‘faith’ to him. Wawrykow notes, very astutely, that it is a matter of achieving the virtue of faith, not of ‘having faith’ in a subjective sense. I wonder if, when Thomas is criticized on this matter, they have in mind the distinction Hector articulates, (p. 637) between Kant’s Christ as non-dependent, and Schleiermacher’s Christ as dependent all the way through. When people criticize Thomas’ Christ for his rising above the need for faith in the permanent possession of the beatific vision, are they actually, and merely, siding with Schleiermacher as against Kant? Those who stand against Thomas on this matter are in Schleiermacher’s corner when it comes to dependency as a quality without which we are not fully human. And yet, because his human persona has no intrinsic deathward thrust in his vocational task, Schleiermacher’s Christ is ultimately not fully man, not one like us. For us, the way in which we approach death is what makes and shapes our human persona; for Schleiermacher’s Jesus, not so much. Schleiermacher’s Jesus does not know the limitation of death from within, or master it.

In its origins as a conception of Christ’s work as theosis, the ‘manward’ soteriology has two poles: Christ as God acts upon human beings to divinize them; ‘God became man so that man could become God’, as Athanasius put it. In the classical ‘manward’ soteriology, and sacramentology, of Eastern and Western mediaevals, the work of Christ is to deify human beings by joining his own divinized humanity to ours. His humanity is the ‘instrument’ or means of our deification.

The ‘manward’ soteriology loses its import when detached from Christ’s other works. It ceases to show us his person, and becomes the work of a splendid human being, and one whose perfection is, ironically, inimitable. Kant shrank from the conception of human dependency on God, avoiding through his rather disembodied conception of Christ as an ‘Idea’ or moral archetype the very thought of God’s healing touch in Christ. And yet, if we sidestep Christ’s work as healer, Pharmakos, Christ ceases to act as a cause upon us. African Christologies today do right to accentuate the patristic image of Jesus as Pharmakos of human bodies and souls (Stinton).

Moreover, since as a moralist, Kant continues to consider Christ as perfect, his perfection ceases to be imitable. We will not think of him as acting as a cause unless, in addition to conceiving his work as fulfilling our human potential (for morality and even for godliness), we conceive of human nature as led to actuality by the God-man who is always already fully actual. God became man in order to fulfill our potential; God became man because only God could actually do so.

Christ also performs a work which is directed to God. Here the work he does on behalf of humanity is presented, not to human beings, but to God the Father. Anselmian-reparative, sacrificial, and legal-penal conceptions of the atonement are ‘Godward’: the Father accepts the Son’s offering of his sinless life on behalf of sinful humanity. Here again, as with the manward soteriology, there are two poles: this time the dramatic vector moves between the God-man and the Father. As with the manward soteriologies, so with the Godward, there is a spectrum of conceptions, this time running from the Orthodox-Catholic conception of Christ’s offering to the Father as a sacrificial satisfaction of the requirements of divine goodness to the Protestant notion of a ‘substitution’ of Christ for humanity. Going valiantly out to bat for the substitution conception, which, he says, only makes sense when we take the reality of the Fall and original sin into account, Randall Zachman states that, for Calvin, ‘Christ reconciles God to us by offering our flesh as the price of satisfaction (p. 638) to God’s justice, and by paying the penalty we owed …. the offering of our flesh to God in the death of Christ wipes out our sin in an act of expiation …. the death of Christ clearly offers our flesh to God in a way that appeases God’s righteous wrath and makes it possible for God to love us, where before God could only hate us.’ In very ably describing the constraints and the freedoms enjoyed by the Catholic Christologist, Gilbert Narcisse notes that substitutionary atonement is an idea which was originally stressed by Protestants, and slowly made its way back to influence Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

The most famous Godward soteriology is that exhibited in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. However annoying Christians find the argument, many are familiar with it. Written, as David Hogg acutely notes, with the intention to evangelize, Anselm’s little book may well have been scripted with the intent of persuading Muslims that the persona of Jesus in the Gospels, as the human nature of the incarnate Son of God, makes more sense than the persona of Jesus as an Islamic prophet. Anselm set aside one kind of patristic devilward view of Christ’s work, within which, as Anselm represents it, the devil had acquired ‘rights’ over humanity, and justice could be restored only by the reparation to the devil of his due. Anselm notices two problems with the way some Fathers had portrayed ‘devilward’ atonement. First, that, in justice, nothing is owed to the devil: ‘though man deserved to be tormented by the devil, yet the devil tormented him unjustly’. Second, that it leaves God out of the frame: ‘the devil is said to torment men justly, because God in justice permits this, and man in justice suffers it’. Anselm replaces a ‘devilward’ theory of atonement with a conception in which the God-man makes satisfaction to God through his death. He claims it is just that God ordered an innocent man to die in satisfaction because Christ voluntarily undertook this death in obedience. For Anselm, satisfaction for sin is necessary because sin infringes God’s honor:

For if Divine wisdom were not to insist upon these things … there would be, in the very universe which God ought to control, an unseemliness springing from the violation of the beauty of arrangement, and God would appear to be deficient in his management. And these two things are not only unfitting, but consequently impossible; so that satisfaction or punishment must needs follow every sin.

(Anselm 1973: I.VII, VIII–IX, and I.XVI, my italics)

In both of these conceptions, that is, the ‘manward’ and the ‘Godward’, the scope of the action is constrained. In the manward conception of Christ’s work as deification, God in Jesus acts upon human beings; in the Godward conception of Christ’s work as satisfaction, God in Jesus offers the sacrifice of his own body and blood to the Father. There is a sense in which the action could be eternal, or, in any case, extra-historical or a-temporal: God acts upon ‘Man’ or the God-man sacrifices to God, in one perfect, a-temporal moment in which an essential transaction always already occurs. But this is to say that the action occurs nowhere, and never, or not at any one time, not ‘under Pontius Pilate’. Taken by themselves, both the Godward and the manward depictions of Christ’s work are ‘binary’ or ‘dualistic’, resolving into a struggle between two great actors (p. 639) who have fallen out with one another. Hegel’s soteriology, as finely described by Hector, comes down to the resolution of contradiction within God. Taken by themselves, both manward and Godward portrayals of Jesus Christ’s role tend toward seeing it as the resolution of contradiction between two opposite poles. This is because there are only two poles in sight!

The temptation of a ‘two poles’ soteriology is toward conceiving the work of Christ as resolving a contradiction between contraries, and of doing so by eliminating one contrary. Judaism is an obvious culprit, which can be eliminated by Christ’s contradiction-resolving work. We find an inclination toward anti-Semitic soteriologies from Luther to Hegel:

Luther’s static dialectic between Law and Gospel (Old Testament and New), continues in a sense the ancient static dialectic of Gnosis, and of Marcion, while Hegel’s early writings take us back, via Luther, to this primordially gnostic Anti-Judaism: the Cross … is the ‘tearing apart’ of Judaism … It is no longer, then, the Cross of Jesus but a ‘dialectical situation’ (with Marcion, located between the true God and the world-ruler) in which one can only suffer.

(Von Balthasar 1990: 62–3)

Gregory Glazov’s contribution to this volume is a gem in itself, and essential to understanding the objective meaning of atonement. There are, as Glazov claims, parallels between Jewish suffering and the suffering of Christ which run so deep that to deprecate one is to diminish the other: this is possible because Christ’s work really happens in history and in time, not in theory and in some ‘bad eternity’. The tendency toward Manicheanism, and thus to the demonization of Judaism, is a liability of any strictly ‘two pole’ soteriology.

In Godward and manward soteriologies as conceived without a ‘third’ (the devil), there is a lack of dramatic realism just because there are only two actors on stage. Moreover, there is here, a lack of historical realism. Conceived in a rigidly binary way, as purely manward or as purely Godward, Christ’s work seems choreographed, a balletic pas de deux, not a realistic, enfleshed, historical narrative. As in pre-Sophoclean tragedy, with just two actors on stage in any scene, or classical Westerns, where the action is driven by the strife of the ‘contraries’ of a white-hatted and a black-hatted gunman, the action is relatively more ritualized and proportionately less realistic. It’s a ritual dance or competition, not yet a drama. Aristotle, the first Westerner to articulate the conception of nature as privation, potentiality, and actuality was a great realist. In describing the origins and history of Greek drama, Aristotle asserted with obvious legitimacy that Sophoclean realism brought Greek tragedy to fruition. Before the third character was brought on stage, Greek actors wore costumes. But they did not yet fully adopt a persona, did not really pour a role into the depiction of one human being’s fate. Only with the third actor on stage does Greek drama rise to the heights at which it can address the deep human mystery of fallenness and death. Only with the third actor on stage does Greek drama prefigure the Christian mystery.

(p. 640) When Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes that, unlike ‘what happened in the Temptations, the entire Passion proceeds without reference to the Devil. The whole story of the Passion passes him by, played out, as it is, between the Father and the Son. What matters in it is the bearing away of the sins of the world (John 1, 29). By that event, the enemy power is “disarmed” (Colossians 2,15) without the appearance of struggle against it’ (Von Balthasar 1990: 106–7), it sounds very much as if he, too, wants to reduce Christ’s work to a ‘binary’ form, in which the action is ‘played out … between the Father and the Son’. But one can read this statement otherwise: Christ performs his ‘devilward’ work, on this analysis, during the course of his life and teaching ministry, but not in his Passion and death. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ notwithstanding (it portrays the devil as watching in the crowd throughout the spectacle), the canonical Gospels do not place the devil in the Passion and death of Christ. Rather, the ‘devilward’ work of Christ occurs during his life and ministry. If one removes that ‘devilward’ work from one’s soteriology, then one will have less reason to take the whole historical life of Jesus as soteriologically significant. He does not need his human persona.

If one only has potentiality to be fulfilled and actuality to fulfill it, one’s narrative lacks realism and becomes circular. It is by the introduction of a third pole, which extends the dynamism of the action between three agents that a story achieves dramatic realism. For Aristotle, the third pole which intervenes between potentiality and actuality is privation, the absence of the form. The contrary of actuality is not potentiality, but privation. Potentiality is driven to seek actuality by the positive absence of the Form for which it yearns; that is, it is driven by privation. In American English, ‘I want’ means only ‘I crave’, whereas in the Queen’s English it continues to connote ‘I lack’: ‘wanting’ is still used to mean ‘lacking’. A privation is a positive lack of a form, a ‘wanting’ of a form in both senses.

Considered without a third angle, Christ’s work as deification can seem like a parade of great deeds, epiphanies in which he manifests and communicates his divinity. No one deed adds anything to the others. Humanity does not appear urgently to want, in both senses, to escape death. And, considered without a ‘Privator’ (that is without an active agent of privation, the devil, who wishes intently to thwart human salvation), Christ’s work as ‘transaction’ between Father and Son on the Cross, is an eternally done-deal. In both cases, one has to pile on rhetorical or affective weight to make the whole life of Christ yield a dramatic impetus.

The third kind of soteriology is ‘devilward’. Christ comes to defeat the devil, to eliminate the liar’s dominion over humanity, and so to rescue humankind from its limitation to death. There’s no drama in illuminating and deifying men unless they are in darkness and want immortality. One could say that here the devil has the role of ‘privation’, since Christian tradition follows Augustine in considering evil as privation. Thomas states that ‘the disorder of sin, and evil generally, is not a simple negation, but the absence of something that ought to be there’ and that ‘Evil is nothing more than the lack of an appropriate good’ (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II, q.75, a.1 and q.78, a.1). ‘Original sin is the lack of original justice’ (ST, q.82, a.1): this is the state into which the devil has lured and entrapped humanity, one in which the soul is neither directed whole-heartedly (p. 641) toward God, its true good, nor in harmony with its bodily faculties. Postlapsarian humanity is actively trapped in this state of psychosomatic and theological privation by the devil. The devil represents positive privation. That is why there are ‘devilward’ soteriologies. Without an advertent third, devilward, element, soteriologies easily drift into Manicheanism, either by envisaging an elite corps of humanity retrieving their deity by beaming out of an evil world, or by making the Father exact a demonically punitive reparation from the Son. Soteriology needs a notion of ‘privation’ so as to avoid the triumph of the devil, in Manicheanism.

Thomas gives ‘rescu[ing] man from thraldom’ to the devil as a strand in the ex post facto, i.e., historical or material ‘necessity’ of the Incarnation for human restoration (ST III, q.1, a.2). He mentions the devil at least 71 times in qq. 1–59 of the Tertia Pars. One feature of the patristic conception of the defeat of the devil upon which modern scholars have poured scorn is the idea that it involved a deceit. As Norman Russell observes, the metaphors of Christ’s humanity as a ‘mouse-trap’ and even the beautiful fish-hook by which the devil was cunningly trapped induce especial revulsion in well-bred writers. And yet, if the devil knows perfectly well that the Incarnation and redemption is in progress, this history looks like ritualized pantomime. In the realistic drama of Sophocles, and any realistic story, it takes the length of the performance for the protagonist to attain certain knowledge of disaster. If the devil has certain knowledge from the outset that Christ is not only human but also divine, then he knows the game is up the moment it commences, and it may as well not be played. It’s when Sauron knows the ring is destroyed that the conflict which he generated is well and truly done. Whose role is concealed behind the persona of Jesus? The devil wants to know, as the Gospel temptation scenes indicate.

The biblical objection to the idea that the devil was deceived until the end is posed in the third objection to Thomas’ question ‘whether it was congruous that Christ should have been born of an Espoused Virgin?’ That is, his partisans, the demons cried, ‘What have we to do with thee, Jesus of Nazareth? Art thou come to destroy us? I know … thou art the Holy One of God’ (Mark 1:23–4). Plus, it looks like the devil had to know, ‘by his natural cunning’ (ST III, q.29, a.1, obj.3). Thomas answers that the marriage of Mary and Joseph fit the circumstances ‘for the sake of the new-born child: lest the devil should plot serious hurt against him. Hence, Ignatius says that she was espoused that the manner of His Birth might be hidden form the devil.’ Gilbert Narcisse has observed that, when Thomas asks whether the events of the Incarnation were congruous, he is asking whether they are beautiful (Narcisse 1997). Thomas thinks the marriage was congruous, or beautiful. But, given that incongruity or just seeming pointless to a given historian is a motive for discounting the reality of an event, Thomas seems also to be inquiring whether it really happened this way. Taking all the facts into account, including the devil’s malevolent intentions, it seems historically plausible to Thomas that Mary and Joseph would have married before the baby was born, to conceal the virgin conception of the God-man from the devil (ST III, q.29, a.1, rep.). Taking the devil seriously pushes Thomas back into an exploration of Jesus’ entire historical life, from conception on. Faith in the ‘Jesus of Testimony’, (p. 642) which Thomas had in spades, is not the end but the beginning of historical exploration of the life of Christ.

Answering the objections about the devil’s knowledge, Thomas claims that it ‘makes no difficulty’ that when the time was right, that is ‘afterwards’, when ‘the time had already come for Christ to make known his power against the devil, and to suffer persecution aroused by him’ ‘that … the devil after a fashion knew that he was the Son of God’ (ST III, q.29, a.1, rep.obj.3; my italics). Something which may have happened later does not affect the interpretation of this earlier event. The question comes up again with the temptation. Why on earth, the objector argues, did the devil ask Christ if he was the Son of God: surely the demons knew already? Thomas’ answer, drawn from Augustine, Hilary, and Ambrose, is psychologically realistic: the demons ‘formed a certain conjecture that Christ was the Son of God’ from his miracles, but because they could also see human weakness in him ‘they did not know for certain’ (ST III, q.41, a.1, rep.obj.1). Fallen minds can know and blurt out the truth and simultaneously deny it to ourselves. Considering the objection to the miracles, that they would have divulged the ‘secret’ to the demons, and foreshortened the action (provoking the devil to incite the crucifixion before it was fully prepared), Thomas argues that the demonic ‘confessions’ exhibited, not ‘certainty’ but ‘a sort of conjectural suspicion that he was the Son of God’. I Corinthians 2:7–8 settles the scriptural debate: ‘none of the princes of this world knew it, if they had known they would never have crucified the Lord of glory’ (ST III, q.44, rep.obj.2). The demons’ propensity to denial assists the soteriological intent of the Incarnation: ‘Christ came to undo the works of the devil, not by mighty deeds but rather by submitting to him and his cohorts, so as to conquer the devil by righteousness, not by might’ (ST III, q.41, a.1, rep.obj.2). Christ robbed hypocrisy of its power by being fully himself in that very human persona which disguised his identity from the devil.

The devil is to lose his power to make humans into liars like himself. Unless we retain the sense that the devil was provoked unknowingly into inciting the crucifixion of the God-man, we lose the recognition that this was a disaster for the devil. And then we lose our insight into the rescue from deprivation of the vision of God. Thomas sets the scene for his realistic psychological portrayal of the devil’s stupidity in his treatise on angels, where he argues that supernatural things can be obscure to demons (ST I, q.58, a.5, rep.). With his Aristotelian belief in the metaphysical and therefore physical, or temporal, priority of the final cause, Thomas fully accepts the chronological requirements of the deification theory: his Christ is ‘full of grace’, able to merit for us, and so intrinsically good to go with causing deification in us from the instant of conception. The accounts given in this book by Rik van Nieuenhove and Joseph Wawrykow of how Christ goes about this cannot be bettered (so I will not try here!). Thomas adds, ‘there were on our side some obstacles, whereby we were hindered from securing the effect of his preceding merits; consequently, in order to remove such hindrances, it was necessary for Christ to suffer’ (ST III, q.48, a.1, rep.obj.2).

The time span between birth and Passion was required in order to lure the devil into loss of his stolen goods. Deprived of the freedom to see God, humanity could not achieve the good proper to it. The Passion of Christ is required as our ransom price. We (p. 643) are ransomed from privation of the vision of God which the Old Testament patriarchs had been promised, ‘congruously merited’ and for which they longed (ST III, q.2, a.11 rep.; q.14, a.1, rep.), that is, from ‘slavery’ to the devil. The price of releasing the deprived goods is paid not to the thief but to the Father (ST III, q.48, a.3, rep. and rep.obj.2).

Thomas’ account of Christ’s work is certainly not the only possible one, but it is a model account. It shows us the historical ‘Jesus of Testimony’, reflecting upon every aspect of Jesus’ life from conception to death and resurrection, because every aspect of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is involved in Christ’s works, as Thomas conceived it. He integrates the work into the person and thus reflects the beauty of Christ. Thomas Aquinas is not the only ‘nose to tail’ soteriology, but it is an exemplary one because, within it, Jesus uses every facet of his human and divine natures with which to save us. And it does justice not only to the question, cur Deus homo? but also cur Deus mortem?

Thomas brushes aside Anselm’s notion that God’s justice necessarily required this satisfaction: ‘God has no one above him, for he is himself the supreme and common good of the entire universe. If then he forgives sin … he violates no one’s rights. The man who waives satisfaction and forgives an offence done to himself acts mercifully, not unjustly’ (ST III, q.47, a.2). Thomas can respect God’s joyous anarchism, and not subject him to necessities arising from his own justice and honor, because he does not see the atonement as effected by the interplay of two contraries (justice and injustice). He speaks of humanity as ‘contracting a twofold obligation’, a double bondage due to sin. One ‘obligation’ is humanity’s bondage to the devil, and the other is ‘the debt of punishment according to divine justice’. Both obligations are forms of ‘slavery’, that is, in Aristotelian terms, of privation of the goal of human nature, the beatific vision. By speaking of a ‘double’ obligation, Thomas maintains both what is true in the idea that humanity is enslaved to the devil, and in Anselm’s view, that payment must ultimately be ‘Godward’ because God is running the show, and is the ‘Form’ which humanity wants (ST III, q.48, a.4).

Anselm’s God-man satisfies by offering God a death of infinite value (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, II.XIV). Although living at a time when the crucifix and painted depictions of the crucifixion had begun to displace the icon of the descent into hell as foci of Western Christian spirituality, Anselm still makes the death of Christ the ‘satisfaction’ offered to God. Abelard shifts the frame to the crucifixion. For him, the work of Christ is ‘manward’: Christ’s death is a pure manifestation of the love of God, and its exemplification of the love of God draws humanity into filial love of God. Even more than Anselm, Abelard lacks the notion of ‘privation’: humanity is led to God, but not from peril of loss. Nonetheless, Abelard captures the moment of Christ’s crucifixion, as exemplary or formative for those configured to it. Thomas follows Anselm in claiming that Christ pays a penal satisfaction to the Father: ‘he was satisfying by his suffering’, Thomas writes, and ‘God’s severity is thus manifested; he was unwilling to remit sin without punishment’ (ST III, q.46, a.6 and q.47, a.3, rep.obj.1). That is not so far from Calvin as Zachman describes him here.

Aquinas concurs with Anselm that it was not unjust that God command an innocent man to suffer, since Christ himself wills the suffering (ST III, q.47, a.3, rep.obj.1 and 2). But, like Abelard, he shifts the frame from the death of Christ to the Passion. When (p. 644) Thomas says that ‘It was not the death of Christ that was the cause of our salvation by way of merit, but only his Passion’ (ST III, q.50, a.6) he

reveals a radically different point of view from that of patristic tradition … For them … what saves us is the incarnation active in our flesh, and then even including death, which had become its inescapable end. For the Fathers from Irenaeus to Athanasius and … especially the Cappadocians from Saint Cyril to Saint Maximus, it is not the subjective sufferings of Christ that constituted the decisive element in His passion, but the objective fact that these sufferings led to his death. It is this death … that was assumed by the Master of Life and had to be overcome for us …. this is what Saint Thomas says at the conclusion of the question …. And yet the transfer of emphasis is undeniable: from the objective event to its subjectivity in the consciousness of Christ.

(Bouyer 1978: 361–2)

Once Thomas had brought the consciousness of the God-man into the frame it was inevitable that the Passion, with its subjective undergoing and ‘endorsement’ of suffering, should become a key element of the work of Christ. For Thomas, it is not only the death of Christ, but equally that Christ ‘suffered out of his love for his Father’ (ST III, q.47, a.2, rep.obj.1) that speaks for the world’s redemption. Because Thomas locates the redeeming power of the atonement in Christ’s exemplary, sacrificial love, which illustrates the goodness of God, that is, in a conscious act of obedient love for the Father, he is able to depict it not as a transaction, but as an ‘economic’ interaction, in which God’s gift of the life of Christ is paid out to God and yet humanity receives its fruits.

Heading Deathward

Thomas’ Christology presents us with the whole Christ, his attention to Christ’s historical works only matched by his articulation of the three dimensions of the ontology of the Incarnation—human nature, divine nature, hypostatic union of the two in the person of the Logos. The only lacuna in his soteriology is the death of Christ. It’s not a lacuna in a mediaeval Christological soteriology to focus on the Passion rather than the death of Christ, as Thomas does. But for moderns to follow him is to fail to face up to and push back against the psychologizing of Christ’s person and work which has been an egregious feature of modern Christology.

Thomas’ highlighting of the dying of Christ, of his suffering of death is the theological equivalent of what happens in late mediaeval art: what Alison Milbank here calls an ‘increasing realism of representation’. It can, as Milbank says, ‘be the catalyst for a truly dynamic communication of idioms, in which the two natures are paradoxically juxtaposed. Following Augustine, the Middle Ages loved to dwell on the deformity of Christ’s body on the Cross, but in the greatest art, this ugliness of the suffering servant (p. 645) can become beautiful, calling the viewer into the Passion mystery.’ Thomas’ focus on the Passion at the expense of the death of Christ did not tend toward subjectivism in the sacramental cosmos which he inhabited, but rather toward the elevation of the ‘ugliness of the suffering servant’ in the beauty of the elevated host in the Corpus Christi liturgy.

But it is difficult to maintain the objectivity of a passion-based soteriology unless the sacramental system of the Church is embedded in a sacramental view of the world. As Nieuenhove would have it, in his chapter about late mediaeval atonement theory, William of Ockham’s ‘rejection of divine ideas implies the demise of the mediaeval sacramental worldview in which creation is a pointer towards God and makes him present’. Once ‘the world has lost its inner intelligibility (the rejection of divine ideas embedded in creation) and its sacramental character’ highlighting the Passion of Jesus may tend toward a subjectivization of Christology. Zachman is right to say that once one takes the horror of sin seriously, one can scarcely exaggerate the horror Christ must undergo in order to expiate for it. Nonetheless, once Christ’s sacrifice ceases to be integrated into a sacramental worldview (thus, all modern Western Christians) or an ecclesial sacramental system (thus, all Protestant Christians with Luther’s rejection of ‘the sacrifice of the mass’), the bloody self-sacrifice of the Son to the Father can hardly fail to seem barbaric.

So then we know that this man suffered crucifixion, but we cannot imagine how that crucifixion could be ‘for us’. It is barred to non-Gnostics and non-Muslims to imagine that, somehow, Jesus Christ did not suffer all that much. But what for? Many Romantics have dealt with the question by projecting their suffering onto Jesus, and feeling thereby that he identifies with them (since they identify so far with him as to equate him with themselves). Thus as Calvin Stapert says of Beethoven’s oratorio Christus am Ölberge, ‘Beethoven saw parallels between Christ’s suffering and his own. That he was consciously seeking such parallels is implicit in a remark in the Heiligenstadt Testament: “The unfortunate may console themselves to find a similar case to theirs” (Beethoven 1802).’ Thus subjectivized, Christ’s Passion becomes a case of suffering, quite like our own. We need not mock Beethoven and his many fellow Romantics for conceiving Christ through the lens of their own experience: people still need a transcendent object in relation to which to make sense of their life experience.

A world which is unable to conceive of sacramental sacrifice as a meaningful practice will not be iconophobic but rather unable to conceive or imagine an icon. Thus, there are in modern literature, according to Rowan Williams, no simple and direct ‘Christ-figures’, but rather, ‘parodic’ figures such as Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin. It is indeed difficult to see how someone who causes so much damage and destruction could be, in simple terms, a Christ-figure. As Williams says, ‘Myshkin’s helplessness and passivity are rather like his physical appearance—he looks like an icon; and the tempting plausibility of an identification with Christ is thus reinforced. But it is his lack of hinterland or interiority that makes him passive and vulnerable; it is a kind of deficit in “narratable” human identity.’

In the nineteenth century, Goethe had a sacramental, analogical conception of the cosmos and did not believe in Christ; Dostoevsky had no such sacramentology and did believe in Christ (Von Balthasar 1991). Such are the paradoxes of modern Christian faith. (p. 646) The hard reality of sacrifice is that its precondition is a corpse. Recall Robert Barron’s reflection on the bloody slaughter house in Babette’s kitchen, the necessary precondition of Babette’s Feast. To recover the meaning of the work of Christ in a post-sacramental world, without making that work into a projection of our own subjective Gethsemanes, and simultaneously to find in Christ’s work the transcendent object which draws out the meaning of our entire life experience, we must understand the goal of Christ’s works as giving meaning to death, by becoming a dead body, that most meaningless thing, that thing which signifies nothing. In the parlance of actors, to ‘corpse’ is to forget the script on stage and fall silent.

In the instrument of the persona of the man Jesus, Christ ‘corpsed’, falling into the silence of death. In a non-sacramental universe, everything is essentially meaningless: the only way in which to give that universe meaning is to become the thing in that universe which is most parodically divested of meaning, a human corpse. The human corpse is the most meaningless thing in the world because a person should be significant. A dead tree is very sad, and a dead animal can be the source of great grief. But a dead person is itself a contradiction in terms, since there is that in every person which cries out for immortality. Through the instrument of his embodied persona, Christ becomes a lifeless corpse, embodying the end of all ‘mortals’. By assuming death into his stereotypical persona, the New Adam takes death into his life-project.

The fervent, unsystematic Luther surely saw this at times, as did his contemporary Holbein, when he painted ‘the cadaver of Christ, lying horizontally, putrid blue’ (Von Balthasar 1991: 193). Dostoevsky perhaps saw this too when he ascribed to the hero of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, a comprehension of ‘Execution, epilepsy, the Holy Saturday picture: the three states of absolute isolation in which he unselfconsiously lives (there is never a word … about the “perfection” of this habitual abandonment … and indifference)’ (Von Balthasar 1991: 198). The modern Christ, like his fictional icons, lacks a ‘narratable human identity’ because the core of his identity enters absurdity and meaninglessness. Only God can do this, in and through an embodied human persona. We do not recover sacramentality by reinventing an artistically ‘beautiful’ sacramental universe and somehow fitting Christ into it. We let Christ rewrite the story through his death. He is not thereby ‘unwriting’ or erasing the history of the relations between God and creatures, or overwriting it with something else, though he does ‘make all things new’. The sacrifice that God is, at the heart of his Trinitarian being in love, is expressed through the embodied persona of the ‘corpsed’ Jesus Christ (McCormack).

The word ‘sacrament’ ceased to have much meaning for moderns: but ‘solidarity’ replaced it. Solidarity is to personalist theology what sacramentality was to the cosmic theology of the mediaevals. We think of Christ as offering his sacrificial death in ‘solidarity’ with all human beings, with all sinners. The claim that Christ enters death in substitutional solidarity with all humanity has raised hackles. In this volume, Gavin D’Costa accuses both Karl Barth and Hans Urs Von Balthasar of universalism because they make such a claim. Ascribing to Barth and Von Balthasar the idea that ‘Resurrection Overcomes Sin in the End’ D’Costa opines that they teach that

(p. 647) Christ’s unique atoning death actually wins the salvation of all (usually stated as a hope); and all will come to know him ‘somehow’. This kind of ‘universalism’ is found in … Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Reform giant, Karl Barth, despite both holding a very high Christology …. Both are associated with very negative views on other religions, while interestingly both hold to versions of universalism. In this outcome they are bedfellows with Hick …. Von Balthasar and Barth have been criticized for not respecting human freedom adequately, for lacking biblical grounding, and Von Balthasar, for going against the Magisterium.

Since D’Costa accuses Von Balthasar of ‘universalism’, which is a heresy for Catholics, and likewise of ‘going against the Magisterium’ it is at least worth noting, as Narcisse observes, in his wise chapter about Catholic Christological norms, that the debate between proponents of Von Balthasar’s substitutionary soteriology and Thomistic opponents ‘has taken place without any significant intervention from the Catholic Magisterium. It is a beautiful example, not necessarily of unity as the accounts are very different, but of an inter-confessional theological liberty.’

Since D’Costa gives no argument why we should discount Von Balthasar’s explicit statements that universal salvation is a hope not a certainty, we cannot analyze, present, or counter an argument which he does not give. We may simply note that, for Von Balthasar, Christ’s entrance into death, and isolation from God, means that Christ has taken death. He has death covered, has power over it, judging henceforth who goes there and who goes not:

the desire to conclude from this that all human beings, before and after Christ, are henceforth saved, that Christ by his experience of Hell has emptied Hell, so that all fear of damnation is now without object, is a surrender to the opposite extreme. … precisely here the distinction between Hades and Hell acquires its theological significance. In rising from the dead, Christ leaves behind him Hades, that is, the state in which humanity is cut off from access to God. But, by virtue of his deepest Trinitarian experience, he takes ‘Hell’ with him, as the expression of his power to dispose, as judge, the everlasting salvation or the everlasting loss of man.

(Von Balthasar 1990: 177)

Christ rises from the dead as Judge of the living and the dead. Those old icons of Christ reigning triumphant from the Cross remain at the center. While Christ ‘becomes death’ in the persona of Jesus, still, that persona is the expression of his sending by the Father, into a ‘Far Country’ indeed, which sending in turn is identical to his begetting as Son: the fire of divinity is made to burn at the heart of death and it does not burn out or die (Exod. 3). As Von Balthasar writes, ‘Inasmuch as the Son travels across the chaos in virtue of the mission received from the Father, he is, objectively speaking, whilst in the midst of the darkness of what is contrary to God, in “paradise”, and the image of triumph may well express this …. it is, as Thomas Aquinas underlines, a “taking possession” ’ (Von Balthasar 1990: 175). This volume would not comprehensively represent the dynamic tensions within early twenty-first-century Christology if it exhibited no (p. 648) signs of flyting between those who think Von Balthasar shows the way forward out of the dilemmas of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Christology, and those who think that Christian theology does not have to answer Kant, Hegel, and their heirs and should rise above these local and recent disturbances.

Since the Fall, all human beings have been required to cap off their lives with death. And this, precisely, we human beings, whose existence never quite fills out our many roles, cannot do: with our being limping steadily behind our projection of roles for ourselves, we cannot reach forward into death and make something meaningful and personally human with it. Since the Fall, our lives have become a being toward death, and we cannot make sense out of that. We cannot make meaning out of death. But, as rational persons, as signifying animals, what we do is to make meaning out of our actions. A meaningless action unmakes us as persons, if it is supposed, as our final act, to cap it all off. As creaturely persons, whose existence is not up to any of our roles, we have to make and construct meaning. We have to write our life into a story through our assumption of roles in the persona of our steadily aging body. But no human life is a story. The narrative arc falters and dies away: there is no rhyme and pattern, too much and too little repetition to become a rounded story. Only He who Is, whose existence is his very nature and character, can, through his embodied persona, reach into death and be himself, that is, be God in the place of death. Only in God is death beautiful.

Suggested Reading


Anselm (1973), The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion, trans. B. Ward (London: Penguin).Find this resource:

    Aquinas, T. (1981), Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics).Find this resource:

      Bouyer, L. (1978), The Eternal Son: A Theology of the Word of God and Christology (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Press).Find this resource:

        Narcisse, G. (1997), Les raisons de Dieu. Argument de convenance et esthétique théologique selon saint Thomas d’Aquin et Hans Urs von Balthasar (Fribourg: Éditions universitaires).Find this resource:

          Torrell, J.-P. (1999), Le Christ en ses mystères. La Vie et l’oeuvre de Jésus selon Saint Thomas d’Aquin, vol. 2 (Paris: Desclée).Find this resource:

            Von Balthasar, H. U. (1990), Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).Find this resource:

              Von Balthasar, H. U. (1991), The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 5: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).Find this resource: