Reading Through Principles of Christian Theology part 6: Chapters 8-9

Part One of Principles of Christian Theology dealt with philosophical theology–that is, with talk about theology in generalmacquarrie (albeit talk done from within a particular theological tradition). Part Two will deal with the specifically Christian revelation. Instead of philosophical theology, we’re now doing what some theologians call dogmatic theology, though MacQuarrie prefers the term “symbolic theology.”

What Is Symbolic Theology?

MacQuarrie’s earlier analysis of symbol should remind us that he does not use the term symbolic in the sense of “merely symbolic.” Instead, the symbols of the Christian faith “are the concrete ways in which Being (God) accomplishes its self-giving and self-manifestation” (178). They are important, even indispensable, for doing Christian theology, and in fact it’s probably accurate to say that to abandon the historic symbols of Christianity is to abandon Christianity itself. It’s also worth noting that the doctrines and rituals and ideas that have built up around Christianity over the centuries means that we cannot simply return to the New Testament or to the early church. Like it or not, these symbols are part of our faith.

MacQuarrie identifies five types of symbols found in the Bible and the Christian tradition. There’s myth, though the Bible actually does not have very many myths qua myths (beyond the Garden of Eden). Even so, “mythological ideas are all-pervasive both in the Bible and in subsequent theology” (179)–it’s just that they’re rarely explicitly formulated the way they are, say, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. More common are analogies, which differ from myths in that the person using them does so consciously. Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son is an analogy, for example, because neither Christ nor His audience is likely to imagine that it is an historically true story, and because it does not have the heavy structural quality of a myth.

Christianity differs from most other religions in the amount of history that it relies on. The Christian revelation is one that takes place in the middle of human history rather than in some long-lost mythic past. But the sort of history included in the Bible is not modern, scientific history–it’s a history that has already been interpreted for us. In fact, though MacQuarrie does not say this directly, it probably makes more sense to think of New Testament history in terms of Herodotus or Thucydides. It’s not that the events it narrates are not true or did not happen; it’s that they’re being narrated for a purpose other than the objective presentation of historical facts.

The fourth kind of symbol is dogma, which “has its basis in the revelation; it is proposed by the Church, as expressing the mind of the community on a particular issue; and it has a conceptual and propositional form” (180-181). Dogmas are interpretations of the other symbols, but they are never completed once and for all. Every generation must reinterpret these interpretations, without, of course, merely discarding or accepting what has already been said. Finally we come to practical symbols, which are ethical matters.

If philosophical theology is about description, symbolic theology is about interpretation, albeit interpretation of a very particular kind. Our task as theologians is to translate the classic symbols of Christianity into language that contemporary people understand. This means that, on the one hand, our contemporary language interprets those symbols. But at the same time, the “concrete symbols” of Christianity “will from their side enrich and vivify the relatively abstruse language of existence and being” (184). A Christian existentialism, I suspect, is easier to understand than a purely atheist one (if such a thing really exists).

Symbolic interpretation is existential-ontological, which suggests two poles that cannot be neglected. On the one hand, it must be attached to our actual concrete existences; but we cannot ignore the divine side of the equation. MacQuarrie’s age–and, even more so, ours–is so hostile to metaphysics that it risks turning the ontology of the Christian faith into mere existential reflection. In other words, we are in danger of removing God from theology and turning it into a set of ethics or human impressions.

The Trinity

MacQuarrie begins his symbolic theology not with the experience of human beings but with God, and the Christian God in particular. This means beginning with the doctrine of the Trinity, which, though it was developed relatively late in the history of Christian thought, sums up all of Christian doctrine rather neatly. The problem is that the Trinity is such a complex and difficult subject–and so central to the Christian faith–that one risks heresy or at least error when one talks about it. Thus MacQuarrie is careful, and I will try to also be careful.

The classical, Athanasian formulation of the Trinity (the Godhead is one substance in three persons) is so difficult to comprehend that it’s easy for us to forget that it was initially conceived as a way of clarifying God’s nature. In particular, it guards against overly simplistic depictions of God; the God it describes “is a God who embraces diversity in unity, who is both transcendent and immanent; who is dynamic and yet has stability” (192). MacQuarrie wishes to maintain these distinctives, but he finds the Athanasian formulation out of date because it uses the categories of ancient philosophy–categories that no longer make much sense to modern people.

The use of the word substance suggests, as MacQuarrie has already said, that God is best conceived of not as a being but as Being itself, and particularly as Holy Being. (He quotes Thomas Aquinas, who, if he is to be believed, says much the same thing.) But the word person is even more problematic, because in classical philosophy it does not mean what we typically take it to mean today: “a conscious center of experience” (193). Its original meaning is difficult to discern, and MacQuarrie prefers to leave that ambiguity intact, suggesting that we may be talking about “modes of Being” rather than persons as we think of persons. (Modalism, also called Sabellianism, happens to be an historic Christian heresy; MacQuarrie demonstrates that he is no Sabellian by pointing out that he’s not talking about temporal modes.)

MacQuarrie affirms the three traditional persons of the Trinity, though I suspect he’d be nervous about using that word person; elsewhere he says that God is “not less than personal” but that God’s Being goes beyond personality. Since God is Holy Being in his theology, he talks about the Father as “primordial Being,” “the ultimate act or energy of letting-be” (199). The Son, meanwhile, because of His role in creation, is “expressive Being.” The existence of the second and third persons+ of the Trinity demonstrates the degree to which the Being of God is a risky thing because it involves moving beyond the merely static and into the dynamic world of things. It is the Son and the Spirit who accomplish this risk; the Spirit, in particular, is tasked with unifying beings with Being–humans with God.

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