Monday, July 13, 2015

Review of Oliver Crisp's "Divinity and Humanity"

This is a review of Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge, 2007) and continues my summer series of serious books I am reading seriously. Advisory: This book--and thus my review--engages intricate and potentially arcane theological topics. 

Oliver Crisp teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a self-described proponent of “analytic theology,” which brings the tools of analytic philosophy to the practice of theology. Analytic philosophy seeks clarity of thought and language. So it’s no surprise that Crisp begins clearly and crisply (could not avoid that pun!) by describing the intent of Divinity and Humanity
"This book is a small contribution to the doctrine of the person of Christ" (ix) 
and that it will have three chapters expounding issues in Chalcedonian Christology and three that defend it against the same number of modifications. The six chapters address perichoresis as a christological category, the anhypostasia-enhypostasia distinction, whether Christ had a fallen nature, kenosis, and non-incarnational Christology.
      Divinity and Humanity is an intricate and, at times, quite difficult, collection of chapters. Therefore I’ve decided to eschew any attempt at a comprehensive review and critique. Instead I’ll offer a sketch of the total work with a few more specific reflections.
      The first chapter analyzes (let us never forget this is “analytical theology”) the distinction between two types of perichoresis: nature-perichoresis (NP here, which is applicable to Christology) and person-perichoresis (PP here, useful for Trinitarian formulations). For those unfamiliar with the term, perichoresis has the literal meaning in Greek of “dancing around.” It is therefore the co-inherence of two natures in Christ or of three persons in the Godhead, and tenders a way of maintaining the unity of Christ, though he is both human and divine (thus NP) or the unity of God, while being three persons in the Trinity (PP). Crisp assesses its helpfulness as a category for Christology and Trinity, and also does not take long before the reader (at least this one) realizes that NP will fare better in Crisp’s analysis. It seems to me that Crisp is trying to avoid the rather squishy way (if I may use a technical term here) that many theologians use perichoresis in the hopes of solving  problems with formulations of the Trinity and Christology.
      So Crisp wants to avoid theological (or philosophical) squishiness. And since he is an analytical theologian—who thus looks for clarity of language and analysis—I wondered about how univocally Crisp believes he can speak about God. Is there essentially a one-to-one correspondence between what we say about God and God’s true reality? Analytical tools may promise too much. My vote is that theological language is most often analogical (that any language about God’s reality is an analogy—i.e., God is not exactly a father, but God is like a human father in some ways). So here’s the kind of example from Crisp which provokes a question: “But the divine nature cannot be omnipresent and powerless without ceasing to be divine, because this entails that the divine nature is both omnipotent and limited in power, which is contradictory” (13-14). How do we know this contraction in human terms is also directly applicable to God?  Maybe such formulations are “too human—far too human” (to cite Karl Barth from Church Dogmatics IV/1, 186), and such analysis simply makes little sense. Can God both be described as omnipotent, but in that power decide to limit it? In private conversation, I know he is aware of the issues of univocal or analogical language (and the attendant theme of mystery), but I find quibbles in places with his willingness to stick to the power of human philosophical analysis where a certain ambiguity is left in the biblical witness.
      The second and third chapters address the human nature of Christ. Chapter Two is the longest of the book (at just under forty pages) and looks at “several longstanding theological problems for the Incarnation” (35) such as whether Christ had one will (monothelitism) or two (dyothelitism). Incidentally, one byproduct of such discussions in this book is that the reader quickly learns some unknown theological vocabulary and territory. Since I have an ongoing debate with a philosopher and friend about divine simplicity (that God is “simple,” or entirely unified, and thus without parts), I was particularly intrigued to read that we can look at Christologies according to their “parts.” Two-part Christologies assert a human body and the Word, while three-part ones present the Word, and a human nature with body and soul, distinct from the Word (41-2). At the end of a lengthy historical and analytical (but to me, too rarely biblical) tour, Crisp concludes “there is a strong case for dyothelitism” (49), where divine and human wills worked in perfect consonance
      The anhypostasia-enhypostasia distinction is the topic of Chapter Three. I’ll allow Ivor Davidson (in his article, “Theologizing the human Jesus,” IJST 3 (2001): 135) to offer the pertinent clarification: “the human nature of Jesus has not hypostasis of its own (it is ‘anhypostatic’), but subsists only and always as the human nature of the Son of God…. Negatively, the humanity of Jesus has not independent reality of its own; positively, it is hypostatized in union with, or in (en-hypostasis), the person of the Logos” (cited by Crisp, 74). A three-part Christology “entails that there are properties that the human nature of Christ exemplifies. It also means that the human nature of Christ is ‘part’ of the person of the Word, who assumes this human nature at the Incarnation” (89). Ultimately, Crisp leans toward a three-part Christology, which also makes the best sense to me in order to sustain the Chalcedonian declaration that Christ is fully human and fully divine.
      Chapter Four rejects Christ’s having taken on a fallen nature and represents a revision of what Crips first articulated in a 2004 article, “Did Christ have a Fallen Human Nature?” [IJST 6.3, 170-88]).  His answer is No, and, on the face of it, this contradicts key biblical texts such as John 1:14, which states “the word became flesh (sarx),” a word that consistently in the New Testament means fallen nature. (It also contradicts Barth’s work, which both he and I admire.) Crisp, who loves to use terms to make distinctions (another characteristic of analytic philosophers and theologians) presents a “fallenness” view (that Christ’s human nature has property of being fallen) in contrast to a “sinlessness” one (Christ’s nature was unfallen and therefore sinless). Crisp argues for the latter (91). There are several ins and outs to his argument, but the essence of it is quite simple: to be fallen means to be sinful (106). And, according to classical theology, in order to be the Redeemer, Christ was not sinful. Therefore this position is contradictory and incoherent (111-2). (In some ways, it would be entirely consistent to contend for the Immaculate Concept of Mary after this—since Jesus Christ’s humanity would have to be untainted by sin.) One other key point is that Crisp works at this topic through analyzing the meaning of original sin—he argues that humankind can have original corruption without original guilt (e.g., 104). As a critique on this chapter, I’ll cite David W. Congdon’s blog:
"Crisp misunderstands Barth and Torrance (among others) in their affirmation of the fallen human nature of Christ. The conflict rests, I believe, in radically different ontologies, such that Barth has an actualized-historicized account of what “nature” means, while Crisp works with a traditional, essentialist account. While this by no means exhausts the issues at stake, I believe this is where one must begin in order to unpack the christological ramifications."
Additionally, Crisp tends to generalize positions and then dissect these general arguments, but does not really engage in a point-by-point critique with his interlocutors. These are criticisms, yes, but let them not take away from a careful presentation of his theological conclusions.
      Chapter Five addresses the topic of divine kenosis, which builds from the Greek verb “to empty” (ekenosen) in Philippians 2:7 as a critical description of Christ’s work. Crisp decides to leave out the strong ontological approach to kenosis (that Christ was fully emptied of divinity) and therefore to deal with the weak ontological and functionalist ones (119-20). One of his key interlocutors on weak ontological kenotic Christology is Stephen Davis (and his book, Logic and the Nature of God), who presents the idea that omniscience is not an essential divine attribute and therefore Christ could have emptied himself of knowing all in the Incarnation (123ff.). In my view, Crisp’s most telling and essential (as it were) criticism on this view of the essence of Christ is this: “it is very difficult indeed to know where to draw the line demarcating contingent and essential divine properties” (132). Next he takes on functionalist kenosis. These argue that the second person did not abdicate divine attributes, but during the Incarnation, he did not exercise them (140). All have weaknesses, and he believes a kryptic Christology is most worthy of consideration (121), in which Christ’s divinity has an aspect of hiddenness, even while he retains his divine nature.
      The final chapter was to me the clearest. Here he takes on, and ultimately argues against, “non-incarnational” (read non-Chalcedonian) Christology. John Hick’s version is the exemplar, which presents six key claims: Jesus did not teach that he was God Incarnate, the Chalcedonian definition cannot be expressed adequately, the two-natures doctrine has led to justify enormous evil, Incarnation is better understood as a metaphor, Christians are best to focus on the life and teaching of Jesus, and the metaphorical approach to the Incarnation fits best with religious pluralism (155-6). To these points then: Crisp disputes Hick’s presentation of the consensus of historical-critical scholars that Jesus did not have a divine self-concept. Instead, as Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado (and others) have argued, Jesus was worshiped as God from the very beginning of the Christian movement (164-5). (Incidentally, Crisp regularly employs “Christ” in this chapter, which is a title, i.e., the Messiah or Israel’s King. This confused me because Jesus as Christ or Messiah is not really a component of his argument in this chapter.) The problems with the intelligibility of the Chalcedonian definition are what Hick calls a meaningless paradox, but Christian tradition has seen this as a mystery beyond human comprehension (169-70). The third claim (that two-natures doctrine leads to evil) takes Crisp just over a page to reject since the connection between the misuse of a doctrine and its truth or falsity are separate issues. As he puts in a footnote (171, n. 29)—but would have been better in the text because of its persuasive value—liberal theology also has many evils associated with it, e.g., liberal German theologians’ support for the First World War. Crisp criticizes Hick’s understanding of myth as expressing a truth that can also be fully translated into literal language (175ff.). I hardly need to mention that Crisp is not impressed with Hick’s concerns about a Christology that makes sense in a religious pluralistic world (178-81). In a word, Crisp doesn’t find too much to commend Hick’s Christology, saying that “Removal of the heart of the Incarnation from Christology is like removal of the heart from a living human being” (xii), and even more, Hick’s view “holds no terror for the Christian committed to incarnational Christology, for whom it is either a diverting but false report of who Christ is, or a dangerous heresy that should be resisted” (184).
      What about this text as an exemplar of analytical theology? In addition to my comments above, the essential question remains—Are the tools of analytical philosophy, formed to expunge metaphysical assertions from philosophy, appropriate for theology? Yes and no. Yes—they offer clarity where it obviously lacks in discussions about God, and it is astounding to see what results. No, when it attempts to find “clear and distinct” language where analogical language is more appropriate. As I mentioned above, Crisp is certainly aware of this problem, but in my view, he falls prey nonetheless. For example, his discussion of divine omnipotence strikes me as overly optimistic—optimistic that categories useful for philosophical analysis of earthly reality work for God’s nature.
      In conclusion, Crisp is brilliant and exceedingly well-read. One cannot help but learn in reading this book. I applaud all this. For what it’s worth, I also agree with many of his conclusions. Still, Crisp’s style is, appropriate to the analytical tradition, somewhat dry. It is not, however, entirely detached because he obviously cares about the subject-matter. Or better, the Subject, God. Indeed there is doxology rumbling below the surface of this book. Nonetheless, as one who appreciates and is certainly engaged by the style of Karl Barth—which often resembles a rousing sermon—I wanted a bit more of Crisp’s theological passion to rise to the surface. But maybe that’s not the book he wanted to write! What he did create is a careful, thoughtful, faithful, and serious theology. Simply put, if you want to learn about Christology, you should read it.

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