Reading through Principles of Christian Theology, part 9: Chapters 14-15

Series Index

Principles of Christian Theology by John Macquarrie

Operation Spirit

Having run through a theology of Christ and Christ’s work, Macquarrie turns to the Spirit in chapter 14.  Since he’s talked about the Father as the ineffable God and the Son as the expressive God, Macquarrie writes of the Spirit as Being drawing out the possibilities in Creation (328).  As listeners to the podcast know, I’m terrible with systematic theology and nowhere worse than on doctrines of the Trinity, but I have to confess that once again I’m concerned that Macquarrie doesn’t do enough to distinguish the persons of the Trinity.  I realize that too much distinction ventures into tri-theism at the expense of unity, but Macquarrie’s account, stressing as it does the incomparability of Being, tends to treat the three terms as modes of encountering one reality.  But again, I’m terrible at Trinitarian theology.

Back to the chapter at hand: Macquarrie goes to some trouble to distance himself from Charismatic and Pentecostal expressions of Holy Spirit, emphasizing that the Spirit does indeed inspire the faithful to super-natural heights but that those heights should be ethical, not ecstatic (329).  In other words, the work of the Spirit, for Macquarrie, manifests in deeds of self-giving and transcendence of selfishness, not in inexplicable healing, exorcisms, speaking in tongues, and other things that would potentially embarrass the modern sensibility.

Strangely enough, Macquarrie comes to something like a defense of the filioque clause in the Western version of the Nicene Creed, saying that those who confess that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son have good and theologically valid reasons to do so but that the clause should not be binding on folks from churches who say that the Spirit proceeds only from the Father (330).  The main concern is that whatever one says about the Spirit one must say in conjunction with valid predicates about the Son (331).  Again the Pentecostal anxiety seems to be raising its head as Macquarrie insists that, though Spirit is a mode of Being that is immanent (333–and he does use the noun “mode,” if the Trinity-police are reading), one ought not to require beliefs that are excessively mythological of modern Christians.

Salvation in the Age of Existentialism

Macquarrie combines his discussion of the Spirit with his material on salvation into one chapter, a move that I’ve not thought enough about to have a real position on.  Once again the project seems to be translation: Macquarrie wants to render the vocabularies and symbols and narratives of the Christian faith in such a way that modern folks can call themselves believing Christians without ceasing to be modern.  Thus historical anathemas soften up a bit, as they did with filioque, and Macquarrie sings a brief praise of Pelagianism insofar as it emphasizes ethical responsibility, even if ultimately it diminishes the initiative of Being too much to be truly helpful (335).  The combination of variables upon which Macquarrie eventually settles is divine initiative and human commitment to the call of Being (336).

The nature/grace binary is of special interest in this chapter, and Macquarrie wants to side with Thomas Aquinas against certain interpretations of Calvin and say that grace does not ultimately replace nature or defeat nature but bring nature to its latent perfection (339).  Thus repentance, for Macquarrie, is not an event that occurs in one moment in a person’s life and then moves on to something that’s not repentance but instead a disposition of openness to Being that lasts a lifetime (340).  In fact, Macquarrie once again trots out his strange notion of total depravity (I don’t think it means what he thinks it means) and says that, since people can be aware of the evil in the world and thus desire something better than what one sees in the world, the depravity must not be total (338).

As a side note, the way I understand Calvin (I don’t have my copy of the Institutes home with me this summer, so I’m not going to cite chapter and verse here–you should feel free to correct me), total depravity does not mean an utter nullification of goodness, which persists in the mode of existence even in the most evil beings.  Rather, total depravity is a response to certain doctrines that locate evil in the flesh but not in the mind.  Total depravity holds that the mind as well as the flesh are corrupted and cannot be ultimate authorities for leading human beings to salvation–both the flesh and the mind must be subject to the Bible and to the Church’s tradition of communal confession and correction.  Thus the totality of the depravity is a matter of ubiquitous corruption, not an annihilation of all goodness.  For what it’s worth, if I understand Calvin correctly, this is one of the places where I agree with him.

But I should get back to Macquarrie.

Justification, in Macquarrie’s existentialist scheme, is being-accepted-by-Being (342).  Like most divine realities, salvation is a disposition into which one grows, not simply an assertion that one speaks or thinks.  And keeping with Macquarrie’s suspicion of too-neat boundaries between theological terms, justification does not simply happen and then end but takes form in the processes that Christians traditionally call sanctification (343).  So once again one of Macquarrie’s most satisfying ideas takes shape around the existentialist framework which he builds early in the book: salvation is not something that once happened nor something that ceases “counting” when a person becomes weak or angry, or even when a person actively wills harm to neighbor.  Instead (and of course I hear echoes of Dante here), salvation is a journey, one which sometimes ascends towards Being and sometimes wipes out the work towards that realization, but never ceases over the course of a mortal’s life.

For these reasons, and because he never stops being a liberal Protestant, Macquarrie cautions against both exclusive faith, that makes the journey towards more-realized Being the property only of Christians, and a contentless faith-for-faith’s-sake, which ignores the particularities of one’s own faith in favor of an abstraction (345).  My sense is that Macquarrie’s version of religious pluralism owes more to Hegel than to Dante, but at least he does want Christians to stay Christians.  And that’s something.

This Is the Way the World Ends

Macquarrie nods at the end of the salvation chapter to a central idea in his schema of world-salvation: whatever the eschaton is, it relies on human cooperation with God (348).  Macquarrie once again distances himself from trends in American Christianity when he says that a truly modern theology of the end cannot take the form of the rather embarrassing end-times systems of fundamentalist Protestants (352).  On the other hand, he also does not want to go fully down the road of Rudolph Bultmann, who for Macquarrie not only makes eschatology (the doctrine of the end of things) too individualistic and too confident in our own world’s status as already the way things are going to end (354).  Instead Macquarrie attempts to articulate an eschatology that does not require that the world end in the course of time (355) yet gives the world a definite destiny, something towards which the work of Being in the world strives (357).

Thus Macquaarrie’s eschatology is an end to the world that never really ends.  After all, to reach one sort of prefection would mean that the world could reach for another (359).  And instead of a moment, after the last moment, when there are no more moments, Macquarrie describes the end of things as the gathering-up of all moments into one time (360), something that could allow the world to continue as the world instead of ending worldhood and thus Dasein.  Along with a doctrine of the end that leaves the world persisting temporally (he does acknowledge the problem that astronomical life cycles, one of which will end our planet if unchecked, presents a definite intellectual problem for this theory), he notes that a truly Christian eschatology will be universalist, since the distinction between the righteous and the wicked upon which traditional pictures of the last judgment rely dissolves when salvation is entirely a continuous process and could thus continue post-mortem (361).

When it comes to the traditional doctrine of the resurrection of the body, Macquarrie once again vacillates.  Salvation always must involve bodies, since human beings’ existence involves bodies, but Macquarrie does not directly affirm that at some moment, at the discretion of Being, all those who have ceased to exist will once again exist, which necessarily involve bodies (362).  To be fair, he never does deny the resurrection of the body, but that seems strange given the place of the resurrected body both in St. Paul and in the Church’s creeds.

When it comes to the afterlife, Macquarrie flatly denies that Hell is a form of divine punishment (367), noting that such a doctrine would make God worse, morally, than the modern prison system, which at least pretends that it’s trying to rehabilitate the criminal.  Instead, he allegorizes Hell as the working-out of sin itself and locates it not after death but as a phase of some beings’ existence here and now.  Likewise purgatory, for Macquarrie, is a state in this world of being purified of one’s narrow-scope desires in favor of more universal longing for Being to be realized in all things.

I hope I’ve given a sense in this section of my own frustration with Macquarrie: there are definitely passages of this book that help me to pose questions theologically that would not have occurred to me otherwise, and even some of the answers he proposes, when he’s dealing with ethics in this time between times, strike me as solid places to start.  But in his rush to dismiss everything he deems “mythological” so as not to offend the modern (North Atlantic coastal, let’s be honest) mindset, I fear that he has discarded some of the classic confessions of faith that genuinely stand to resist some of the worst tendencies of modernity.  To put things differently, I wonder whether Macquarrie hasn’t decided to be among the crowds laughing at the Madman, not realizing that a God who is essentially Being and only incidentally Jesus Christ might not be able to hold up those cathedrals much longer.

But I suppose I should let you good folks have a crack at this, so have at it!

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