Monday, September 11, 2006

The Metaphor of God Incarnate by John Hick

I have always found John Hick an invigorating author: the first book of his I read was Evil and the God of Love, published in 1966. The author of an article on Hick in Wikipedia writes, (,
“This was the first of Hick's books to have a dramatic and controversial impact on evangelical Christendom, chiefly for its concluding that there can be no such thing as Hell (as traditionally defined)…..Aside from evangelicals and Catholics, most leading theologians have not found a way to defeat Hick's argument.”

The Myth of God Incarnate & Metaphor of God Incarnate

Little that Hick has written since has endeared him to Biblical and Dogmatic fundamentalists. Perhaps the biggest outcry followed the publication of a collection of essays in 1977, The Myth of God Incarnate. Hick comments on the uproar in the first chapter of a later book, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, first published in 1993 and recently re-issued with two new chapters. Looking back at the storm produced by the Myth book, Hick writes:

“what strikes me most now…is how strongly and even frenetically polemical it was….[A]t the Anglican Synod [i.e. of the Church of England] the authors of the book were likened to ‘German Christians’ who supported Hitler; the Church Times’ headline was ‘Seven Against Christ’”.

What immediately struck me as I re-read this passage after many years were the parallels between the Reception of the Myth book and Essays and Reviews, published in 1851. Basil Willey, a delightful and neglected author, wrote of the reaction to the publication of Essays:
The book [Essays & Reviews] "slipped unobtrusively from the press, yet within a year of its publication the orthodox English world was convulsed with indignation and panic. The Protestant religion, as by law established, had weathered the Gunpowder Plot and the Popish Plot [reintroduction of R.C. hierarchy in Britain]; it had survived the Reform Bill [1832], the Tracts for Times [catholic revival in Oxford], the Hampden case ... [Regius professor, attacked by Newman and other ultra conservatives; censured, but later made Bishop of Hereford whereat the whole clamor began again] ... and the Gorham controversy [XXXIX Articles, Baptismal regeneration]; but here was something still more alarming - a conspiracy of clergymen to blow up the church from within. Cries of horror, grief and pain rang from the press and the pulpit; the Bishops protested; the Court of Arches and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council came into action. The authors of the book were denounced as 'Septem Contra Christum', the seven extinguishers of the seven lamps of the Apocalypse'". (Nineteenth Century Studies , 137).

Trinitarian & Christological Issues

Central to the furor in 1851 and again in 1977, anyway from the Anglican perspective, was the issue of the Incarnation. John Barton, writing about biblical studies in the 19th century C. of E., writes, “When controversy broke out it was usually because the doctrine of the Incarnation seemed threatened, or because clergy were not expected to question doctrine". (Biblical Interpretation p. 59).

In the Preface to this new edition of The Metaphor of God Incarnate, Hick says, “This book was first published twelve years ago. Since then the focus of much theological discussion has moved from christology to the doctrine of the Trinity. This is partly because theology always does go the rounds of traditional topics – creation, sin, incarnation, atonement, Trinity, church, heaven and hell.” (xi). As I typed this I wondered about the lower case of all the topics but the trinity and was amused when the spell check tried to make me change christology and atonement to upper case for the first letter. More seriously, I wondered about Hick’s claim that the doctrine of the Trinity has become central. Perhaps this is clear to someone deep in an academic environment; I have to confess that I no longer regularly read the Princeton Theological Review, The Journal of Theological Studies or The Expository Times, and it is in such Journals that the change would be clear. In the more general reading I do, and in pastoral contacts I still find that the issue of the incarnation is a center of focus. Indeed, having made the point of a shift in emphasis, Hick himself justifies re-issuing a book on Christology and continues:

“[T]here would have been no occasion for this expansion from the unitary God of Judaism to the Trinity of Christianity without the more basic belief in the deity (as well as the humanity) of Jesus. For this reason the idea of Jesus as God incarnate remains basic and foundational, and without it the concept of the Trinity evaporates’. (ibid.).

Chronologically, the drive to define the manner of Jesus’ relationship to God came first, producing several 2nd and 3rd century explanations that were unacceptable, and therefore ‘heretical”: most well known are various forms of Monarchianism, often called Patripassionism and some forms of Modalism, exemplified in the teaching of Sabellius (or what we might assume to be his teaching from rather scattered fragments). The best known and frequently execrated effort was that of Arius whose teaching led, among other factors, to the Council of Nicaea. In spite of frequent confusion, it needs to be emphasized that the issue was not Christological but Trinitarian. Some way, they felt, had to be found to put into words how Jesus was related to God. But Hick is surely right that without the already well established tradition of treating Jesus in some way or other and in some degree or other as divine, the Trinitarian discussion would not have been necessary.
The abstruseness of the Trinitarian debates is suggested to me by a wonderful Punch cartoon of the 1950s. It depicts a lovely perpendicular village church in a clearly still very rural setting. The Vicar, looking very like those who appear in Masterpiece Theatre productions, – bald pate with circlet of hair and small oval spectacles, – is leaning out of the pulpit surveying the gathered farm hands, wagging a finger and saying, “I know what you’re thinking. Patripassionism!”.

Centrality of Biblical Interpretation

Surrounded by ideologues wearing bracelets inscribed WWJD (or is it “have said”?), one is reminded that lying further back behind the Trinitarian discussions and the Christological controversies is the issue of the status of written holy books. And this, of course, is not only a matter of the Judaeo-Christian collection. Among the many conservative reactions to the Myth of God Incarnate in the 1960s was a passionate denial of modern biblical scholarship. Typical is the following, found on line under one of the many entries under the Myth book:

“Hick appears to follow somewhat conservative scholarship with respect to New Testament dating. But, what about the charge that none of the writers (presumably of the Gospels) were (sic.) eyewitnesses? Though Mark and Luke were not, Matthew and John were. External evidence dated from the late second century claiming John, the son of Zebedee and one of the twelve, authored both the Fourth Gospel and the three epistles of John is virtually unanimous. Paul D. Adams, The Mystery Of God Incarnate.

The attempt to re-establish the Fourth Gospel as the earliest and most reliable of the four gospels is repeated in each generation by the most conservative scholars (and occasionally by more main stream ones like Farmer and John Robinson), but it is a dead duck. One can only respond in some memorable words of the late Senator Moynihan: “One is entitled to one’s own opinion, but not to one’s own facts”.

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