Wednesday, July 19, 2006

...the Word became flesh...

...he assumes sinful flesh, human existence in repudiation of and rebellion against its ordering by God to find fulfillment in fellowship with God. The Word assumes the full extent of human alienation, taking the place of humanity, existing under the divine condemnation. But his relation to the human alienation which he assumes is not such that he is swallowed up by it. He does not identify with humanity under the curse of sin in such a way that he is himself sinner. He exists at a certain remove from sinful humanity even as he assumes it. It remains utterly foreign, indeed, utterly hateful to him, because it is disoriented, abased, unrighteous, and under God’s condemnation. He adopts the condemned human situation without reserve, but with a peculiar distance from our own performance of our humanness. By not following our path, by refusing complicity with the monstrousness of sin, he is and does what we are not and do not do: he is human. In his very estrangement from us as the bearer rather than the perpetrator of sin, he takes our place and heals our corruption. That the Word became flesh means that he takes to himself the accursed situation of humanity in sin. But he takes it to himself; he does not evacuate himself into our situation. The flesh which the Word becomes is the flesh which the Word becomes, and the flesh which the Word becomes. In his utter proximity he is utterly distant from the misery of humanity in sin; and only so is he redeemer.

- John Webster, Word and Church, 140-41.


michael jensen said...

Ought quotes without comment count as a genuine blog entry?


David, it only SEEMS to be docetism...

(geddit geddit?)

byron smith said...

Ought questions without answer count as a genuine blog comment?

byron smith said...

David, how does he (almost) equate finitude with sin? I would have thought he avoids any necessary link between being human and being sinful: he is and does what we are not and do not do: he is human. Love to hear you further on this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Gunton (The Actuality of the Atonement) I came across a guy called Edward Irving (I'd never heard of him; should I have?) who gives a similar account of the incarnation. But Irving stresses that Christ's taking on 'sinful flesh' means that Christ becomes a real part of the world dominated throughout by the powers of sin, evil and death. In other words, his incarnation puts him with us in our situation, not merely in an 'identical' position to us (if you see the distinction I'm trying to make): the Word freely came to share in the burden of a fallen world’s infirmity and sin. It is the aspect of solidary that seems to be missing from Webster.

To exist 'at a certain remove from sinful humanity' is perhaps trying to express the idea that he is also our judge - which he is, precisely in and through his faithful obdience to God, parables, etc. Fair enough.

But his also being 'on our side' or 'one of us' qua sinners seems important if he is to be our representative. If Christ does not become one of us and actually identify with sinners (rather than merely standing in judgment over us from 'among' us), then how can he be the representative of fallen humanity? So, Irving writes: ‘as unfallen creation stood represented in unfallen Adam, so fallen creation stood represented in Christ’.

In the back of my mind here is John McLeod Campbell’s idea that Jesus, as a member of fallen humanity and as our representative, offers the perfect confession of penitence to the Father, and in this sense offers the sacrifice that God demands: a broken and contrite heart. The possibility of confessing such a model of the atonement seems struck down by Webster's account of the incarnation. His Christ takes on the 'stuff' of sinful flesh but does not really enter into the nexus of sinful humanity.

Perhaps I'm misrepresenting Webster - I probably shouldn't comment without reading it myself. Or perhaps I should not be so sympathetic with McLeod Campbell. Or perhaps both...!

byron smith said...

Thanks Matt, I originally started to post this quote thinking I quite liked it, but as I was typing it out, it began to grate against me a bit. He is so keen to stress distinction that I too wondered if he'd lost the connection with which he begins. So I ended up putting it up without comment to see what others thought.

David W. Congdon said...

Let me offer my hearty support for Webster, whom I think offers a very solid account of solidarity but never at the expense of Jesus' uniquely divine identity. Webster is a theologian who argues against positions without naming them explicitly. In this case, he argues against those who see Jesus as the one who "climbs into the pit with us" but who seems impotent and incapable of bringing us out of the pit. Webster wants to affirm that Christ assumes our sinful humanity, but that he is never dissolved into it and always remains the judge of sin even while he becomes the one who is judged. Webster writes,

"He adopts the condemned human situation without reserve, but with a peculiar distance from our own performance of our humanness."

Solidarity with distinction, assumption with distance, in the pit but capable of rescuing us.

He adopts the condemned human situation without reserve, but with a peculiar distance from our own performance of our humanness.

St Barnabas Broadway (Barneys) said...

Gregory of Nazianzus famously wrote,
If it was half of Adam that fell, then half might be assumed and saved. But if it was the whole of Adam that fell, it is united to the whole of hom who was begotten, and gains complete salvation.
Irenaeus agrees:
the Word of God made flesh had entered into communion with us... For he who was to destroy sin and redeem man from guilt had to enter into the very condition of man, who had been dragged into slavery and was held by death, in order that death might be slain by man, and man should go forth from the bondage of death.
Unfortunately, Barth almost swallows up the humanness of Christ in his divinity; Edward Irving, on the other hand, focusses on the former.
That Christ took on our fallen nature is most manifest, because there is no other in existence to take.

All of which raises the question about Rahner's assertion, that Christ is 'what we get' when God is made flesh. Like Barth, Rahner begins his anthropology with Christ, and only then moves to Adam and Eve. Perhaps, however, this is to deny the post-lapsarian reality of Jesus' pre-resurrection body, and to allow a theology to overrule the biblical narrative.

byron smith said...

Thanks Mike - I'm glad I inspired a second post from you. I hereby retract my earlier rudeness.

Since you've mentioned Barth, here's one from KB:
He exists in the place where we are, in all the remoteness not merely of the creature from the Creator, but of the sinful creature from the Holy Creator. Otherwise His action would not be a revealing, a reconciling action. He would always be for us an alien word. He would not find us or touch us. For we live in that remoteness.
CD I/2, 155.

Almost Docetic? Interestingly, Barth does frame this whole discussion in terms of 'place' (as does Webster). God standing in a human place is still Docetism. Not that I'm the one charging KB with that...