Dr. John R. W. Stott has perceptively reviewed the volume The Myth of God Incarnate (Nov. 4). Stott lays bare the heart of the issue when he treats language and outlines the use of myth by the contributors to the book.
I don’t want to duplicate Stott’s work. But I would like to call attention to the major implications of the alleged mythical origin of the historic doctrine of the incarnation.
The seven writers know how their theses will affect the Christian community, and through it the world as well. This is especially true of the writers of the five essays in Part II, “Testing the Development.” The contributors think that the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Symbol are irrelevant to our age and thus dispensable.
The writers also agree that all formulations of religious faith are culturally conditioned, and therefore reflect local and transitory elements of a given civilization. Certainly no one would deny that in any formulation of motifs of metaphysical subjects, including those of religion, current idiom, prevalent modes of expression, and conventional points of emphasis will play a part. The essential question is, whether cultural conditioning will corrupt the truth of such formulations. To this question, editor John Hick would answer yes.
This involves the larger issue of whether either the early church or the church of the fourth and fifth centuries was concerned with the propositional truth of the doctrines that it professed. Would the essential demands of the early church with respect to, say, the experiences of its members of new life through faith in Jesus Christ have been met by a non-metaphysical Jesus? Would their need for a basis for faith have been met by a minimal Jesus who merely “embodies a full response of man to God, [and] also expresses and embodies the way of God toward men” (p. 8)?
By asserting that we possess no reliable data concerning the claims of our Lord during his life (a strand that weaves in and out through the volume), the writers surrender all belief in Jesus’ self-awareness of preexistence and deity. The Johannine and Pauline statements at this point are set aside as being constructs of indigenous gnostic and eschatological myths, mingled perhaps with Hellenistic divinizatior motifs.
The same agnostic attitude toward the Gospel narratives leads the writers, especiaily Frances Young and Leslie Houlden, to attribute the rise of incarnation-doctrine to a Weltanschauung in which supernatural modes of expression were a major means for the conveying parabolically high value judgments upon persons whose moral and spiritual impact had been felt in a special measure in their times.
The contributors toThe Myth of God IncarnateSay nothing that is new. What makes it important is that the critical-historical method has been used on a specific doctrine.
Along with the supposed mythological source and understanding of the incarnation, the authors relegate the Christian view of creation, the fall, and redemption to historically relative concepts. Where historical verifiability is beyond reach (i.e. by the scientific model), the only alternative permitted is the mythological model.
Much is made of the necessity, particularly in the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era, for what is termed “Christianizing” of political and social conditions. This tendency, it is alleged, accorded to Jesus (Christ) the qualities that also made necessary the assertion of preexistence and empirical incarnation. Houlden sees this process as responsible for the distortion of the “real” image of Jesus, as well as for the envisioning of the Father as an old man.
The panelists think that they have, by the application of the critical-historical method, shown that Jesus was just a man. They identify him with a group of religious geniuses of history. If he was more intensively conscious of God and more passionately devoted to a life of obedience to God, yet he was in no sense qualitatively different from Gautama The Buddha or Gandhi.
This line of thinking displaces any view of the essential uniqueness of Christianity. John Hick’s chapter “Jesus and the World Religions” repudiates Christian evangelism. He thinks that the Christian church should abandon the policy of securing converts to Christianity. Hick envisions a Jesus who is “a man of universal destiny,” an insider in all “major religious and also secular traditions” of the world.
Several factors from this book should engage the attention of evangelicals. One of these is the lack of any sense of loss upon the part of the writers at what they have surrendered. In place of this there appears something of a feeling of relief that supernaturalism, which has always disturbed the secular mind, has now been rejected.
The contributors also think that mainline churches which have, informally at least, adopted the program suggested in the volume, are now doing very well. The prospects for doing better are seen as good, providing the church will thoroughly “outgrow its theological fundamentalism, its literal interpretation of the idea of incarnation …” (p. 183).
I wonder whether the pitiable showing of many segments of mainline Protestantism in decline of membership (in relation to the growing population), in dwindling of church attendance, and in the drying up of funds and candidates for missionary endeavor, justifies such optimism. It may also be noteworthy that one of the writers, Maurice Wiles, is Chairman of the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England.
The volume says nothing that is new and that has not been expressed by some theologian or other at some time. What makes it significant is that so much of the conventional wisdom of the critical-historical method has been brought to bear upon a specific doctrine.
Of greater concern is the question that arises in the mind of the evangelical reader. If the writers of the volume should prove to be wrong, what will they have to say when they face in judgment the One whom they have so systematically downgraded?
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