Reading Through Principles of Christian Theology part 8: Chapters 12-13

macquarrieWhether he intended it this way or not, MacQuarrie’s two chapters on Jesus Christ are at the physical center of Principles of Christian Theology–which is completely appropriate. Call it providence, however you understand that term.

Creation, Providence, Reconciliation

MacQuarrie spent a substantial amount of time in the preceding chapters discussing the way that the ongoing creation (as opposed to the initial act of creation mythological described in the opening chapters of Genesis) is inseparable from God’s providence and plan for the world. When Jesus Christ enters the picture, it becomes clear that both creation and providence are inseparable from reconciliation, the process by which Holy Being reorients a sinful, idolatrous, and alienated world to Itself. Thus we must remember that reconciliation does not begin or end with the incarnation; in fact, MacQuarrie agrees with Justin Martyr that “the Logos had always been in the world, that the providential acts described in the Old Testament are to be ascribed to the agency of the Logos and furthermore that in this same Logos ‘every race of men were partakers'” (269). This being said, Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation, the ultimate miracle, the ultimate manifestation of the Second Person of the Trinity.

Jesus and Christ

MacQuarrie is a well-known follower of Rudolf Bultmann, but he’s coming along far enough in the twentieth century to disbelieve in the notion that we can somehow separate the “historical Jesus” from the “Christ of faith.” The Gospels are, after all, the only real accounts we have of the life of Jesus, and because they were written with the intention of encouraging faith, there’s no way to separate the polemic from the biography. What matters about the historical Jesus is that there was one and that His life had certain beats that almost all scholars agree on (He was a carpenter living at a certain period of time and who died by crucifixion, basically); on these bare historical facts hangs “the question of whether the Christian way of life is a factical possibility, and therefore to be taken seriously, or is merely an idealized possibility and perhaps just a fanciful escape from the harsh realities of historical existence” (278). In other words, the historical existence of Jesus keeps Christ from being a mere myth or legend–but the myth makes Him more than a mere historical figure.

Because he does not believe it’s possible to separate the Christ of faith from the historical Jesus, when MacQuarrie goes through various events in the Christ narrative (nativity, baptism, temptation, transfiguration, passion, resurrection, ascension), he mostly does not treat them as historic events. The exceptions are the passion and the baptism, although even here he is less interested in the historical facts than with the theological implications. In particular, he flatly denies the ascension as an historical occurrence–what matters to him is that it is of whole cloth with the passion, theologically speaking.

MacQuarrie veers into liberalism here in a way that makes me uncomfortable, but he maintains the moderation that I’ve noted elsewhere in these write-ups. He does not, for example, suggest that the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is that Christ’s “spirit” lives on in the Church (an assertion made from the pulpit, on Easter Sunday no less, that made me stop attending a church); but neither does he explicitly affirm it as an historical occurrence. He’s creating a big-tent Christianity here, giving his readers enough room to maneuver. That likely means that other readers, more liberal than I, are nevertheless made uncomfortable by what he says, and I can appreciate that sort of broadness (even if it does not ease my discomfort).

Who Do You Say I Am?

MacQuarrie notes that there are a variety of titles assigned to Christ in the New Testament, and that many of them are vaguely contradictory. The two that he thinks best describes Christ in His existential-ontological nature are Lord and Word, both of which have their origins in both Hebrew and Greek thought. Lord suggests a stance that human beings must take toward Christ (the existential), whereas Word suggests Christ’s status as Holy Being (the ontological). We must hold on to these two titles simultaneously, however, or risk falsifying Christ’s identity.

The hypostatic union–Christ is fully God and fully man–is a similar, though not identical, dichotomy, both sides of which we must affirm. But the hypostatic union raises a problem in that it talks about Christ as having two natures, whereas the existentialists claim that human nature is not a static thing. Thus MacQuarrie reinterprets the word nature as meaning becoming, not being as such. Returning to the notion that the Second Person of the Trinity is Expressive Being, he says that “It is through expressive Being that God emerges from his hiddenness and comes to light” (299). And this gradual emergence is focused on a particular being, Jesus Christ.

What Do You Say I Do?

The question of what Christ does is not really separable from the question of who Christ is. But MacQuarrie divides the two questions up because of an unfortunate tendency in existentialist theology, to ignore the ontological questions about Christ in favor of the existential questions. By recognizing that these are two distinct questions that nevertheless cannot be answered one severed from the other, MacQuarrie hopes to restore the tension within the unity, as he does with so many other doctrines in this book.

The central doctrine involving the work of Christ is, of course, the atonement, or the reconciliation. But the Church has a wide range of options for understanding what the atonement even is. MacQuarrie cautions against tying the atonement too strongly to Christ’s death at the expense of His life–in fact, the whole of Christ’s existence was an act of reconciliation, and reconciliation was ongoing even before the incarnation. (Creation is providence is reconciliation, after all.) He also dislikes penal substitution (Christ died to satisfy God’s wrath) as a model for the atonement because, while it can be supported by certain biblical passages (which can also be read other ways), it is an offense to reason.

MacQuarrie prefers what he calls the “classic” view of the atonement (the “Christus Victor” view that Richard Beck and I talked about in last week’s Christian Humanist Profiles). Here Christ dies not to satisfy God’s blood-lust but to defeat the powers of evil; thus the resurrection is as important as the crucifixion, something that’s not necessarily true for penal substitution. In MacQuarrie’s understanding of evil, Christus Victor means that Christ’s death conquers idolatry; in His submission to the will of God, Christ is our example, but He is never only an example, as some liberal theologians would have it. Reconciliation is an act of God, albeit one that we must take a particular attitude toward if it is to be reconciliation.

But even Christus Victor has its problems, the biggest of which is expressed in an unpleasant question: “After two thousand years, are the results of this victory particularly apparent? We talked of a ‘finished work,’ but in many ways it would seem far from finished, for men are apparently just as much enslaved as ever” (321). Thus we need to add another conception of the atonement to Christus Victor. MacQuarrie suggests we think of it as the turning point, the point in history in which “there was this decisive turning to the Father” (322). The atonement is thus a great act of submission, particularly if Christ wasn’t entirely aware of what was going to happen to Him when He went to Jerusalem. We see such a submission in the scene on the Mount of Olives.

2 thoughts on “Reading Through Principles of Christian Theology part 8: Chapters 12-13

  1. Thank you.  A very good read.  I certainly wish you would have more printed posts as you did the first years of your blog.

  2. I appreciate your account of Macquarrie’s “big tent.”  I suppose, if nothing else, this reminds me that I’ve never been one to stretch the tent to encompass everyone’s already-settled positions but to ask people to stand differently in the tent, to propose a third way that doesn’t leave (what I take to be) the worst ideas intact but proposes other ways to interpret the symbols and narratives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *