Christmas sermons: variations on a theme

Christmas is approaching. For those who are called to preach with Christmas, it means a time of (sometimes desperately) searching for creativity. How do you tell the very well-known story of Christ’s birth this time again? One option is of course to larder one’s sermon with all kinds of moving stories and anecdotes. That would not be my choice. On the contrary, in this post I will argue for a moment of reflection on the motivation for the Incarnation. Why did Christ came to us? Why was he born in Bethlehem?

The answer seems maybe obvious. The standard answer many of us would be inclined to give goes something like this: Christ had to come in order to save us. Take a look of your own Christmas sermons or those of others and you will find out that this is the basic scheme of nearly all of these sermons. That is, the motivation for the Incarnation is explained in terms of our fallen condition. In other words, this is an infralapsarian scheme. Last year I offered an example of such a sermon, from Karl Barth. No one will deny its truth and its worth in telling the story of Christmas. But is it the whole story? Asking this question means – in theological terms – asking whether Christ became man exclusively because of our sins. Would he have become man if the Fall had not occurred? Put differently (and less speculatively): can we offer other motives for the Incarnation, independent from our sinful condition? This is, of course, a supralapsarian take on the Incarnation. In the remainder of this post, I will offer two examples of this supralapsarian variation of the story of the Incarnation. Of course, these are offered by way of example, in order to point a direction, instead of fleshing out arguments.

mccordadamsIn her book Christ and Horrors. The Coherence of Christology (2006), the late Marilyn McCord Adams (1943-2017) defends the thesis that Christ’s mission is not so much saving us from our sins, but rescue us from horrors. Christ as our horror-defeater. Note that the motivation for the Incarnation here is indeed sin-independent, since McCord Adams holds that ‘horrors cannot have its origin in misused created freedom’ and that ‘humans were radically vulnerable to horrors fron the beginning, even in Eden’ (p. 36 – italics original). A Christmas sermon along these lines will posit Christ’s birth as a participation in our horrors. Moreover, it will not explain his participation in our horrors in terms of sharing our guilt, but in terms of sharing our situation by which we are ‘overpowered’. You might even want to go as far McCord Adams by suggesting that this is what God, as our Creator responsible for our vulnerability to horrors, owes us… Note, that McCord Adams’s proposal is indeed sin-indepent, but it is still ‘problem-driven’, the problem now being our vulnerability to horrors… Although I admire McCord Adams ingenious book, I am not completely convinced.

So, is there another variation available? Yes, I think so. Let’s consider a proposal from Edwin Chr. van Driel in his Incarnation Anyway. Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology (2008). In this monograph he develops incarnationanywaythree arguments for a supralapsarian Christology, in conversation with Schleiermacher, Dorner, and Barth. One of his arguments is the Argument from Divine Friendship. My rendition here does not justice to the richness of his thoughts. However, it will hopefully serve to see the supralapsarian logic at work. ‘Friendship’, Van Driel says, ‘is motivated by a delight in and a love for the other’. Of course, he explains, friendships can be in danger, be under pressure, and so on. Friends, real friends, will look of course for reconciliation. However, that means that the wish for reconciliation is prompted by a deeper motivation: the longing for friendship, for community, for mutual love. That is what is at stake in the Incarnation. God is not merely solving ‘our problem’. His goal is friendship with us. This might sound rather familiar to you. Yet it could lead be translated into a rather different Christmas sermon. To illustrate what I have in mind, I can suffice with pointing to a sermon of Samuel Wells, which offers an eloquent illustration. Wells very convincingly points out that the heart of God’s reaching out for us can not be captured (only) in the word ‘for (God did this for me)’, but rather in the word ‘with’ (God wants to be ‘with us’). If you look for inspiration for your Christmas sermon along these supralapsarian lines, you might watch this video. Anyway, my Christmas sermon of this year will follow the trail set out by Van Driel en Wells.


Review ‘The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh’ by Robert J. Stamps

Robert J. Stamps, The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh (Wipf and Stock 2013); $ 39,- ($ 31,20 [web price])

In his book The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh, Robert J. Stamps engages with the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. It was his doctoral dissertation at the University of Nottingham, coStamp - Word made Fleshmpleted in 1986. It remained unpublished until 2007, when it was included in the Rutherford Studies in Contemporary Theology. And finally, in 2013 it was released in the USA by Wipf and Stock. The delayed date of publication seems not completely coïncidental, as the sacramental theology of T.F. Torrance didn’t catch much attention until the first decade of the 21th century. George Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecumenism (2008), preceded by his important essay ‘The Dimension of Depth’ (2001), is dedicated to the memory of T.F. Torrance and Hunsinger’s sacramental theology is deeply influenced by Torrance. Paul Molnar wrote about the same subject in 2005, in an essay (‘The Eucharist and the Mind of Christ. Some Trinitarian Implications of T.F. Torrance’s Sacramental Theology’) and, to mention just one more example, Myk Habets devotes several pages to the same topic as part of his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (2009). These and other recent publications are not mentioned in Stamps’ book, as its conception predates these books and articles.

Stamps starts his study with an outline of ‘the theological and cosmological framework’ for Torrance’s eucharistic theology. This first chapter functions as a very concise introduction of Thomas Torrance’s view on theology in relation with (modern) science and its epistemological implications. Not surprisingly then, we find in this chapter much interaction between the positions of Torrance and Barth. Stamps does a good job in his exposition of Torrance’s emphasis on God’s self-revelation, his aversion of dualism, and so forth.

The second chapter starts with a brief ‘rationale’ for the subsequent outline of the discussion of Torrance’s sacramental theology. Stamps chooses here for a revision of Calvin’s approach in the Institutes (IV,XVII,1): Signification; Substance of Matter; Effect or Action. In my view this approach is not completely satisfactory. Of course, especially in his early writings, Torrance often refers to Calvin’s sacramental theology and he employed Calvin’s outline himself, ‘though with considerable difficulty’ (60). However, as Stamps rightly remarks, Torrance offers an incisive reinterpretation of the material. Stamps consciously indicates these reinterpretations in the subsequent chapters. But they don’t become structurally visible in this way. And that’s a pity. To be fair, the strength of Stamp’s approach is that the points of divergence can be marked, step by step.

Chapter 3 ‘Sacramental Matter and Action: the Objective Christological Ground and Potential for the Sacrament’ maps the interconnections between Torrance’s christology and sacramental theology. The key to this is found in his most comprehensive treatment of eucharistic theology: “The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’. His christological emphasis on the homo-ousios is the key for the interpretation of his sacramental theology. That has deep epistemological implications: ‘for God cannot be known in the revelatory ‘sacramental relation’, either in word or formal sacrament, except from the integrity of his incarnation.” (99). Moreover: “the worship of Christ is the ground for the Church’s worhsip. We can also understand why the Eucharist in his theology, answering as it does the worship of Christ, should be central to the life of a reconstituted, new humanity.” (109). It is this position that makes Torrance’s contribution unique, pointing to, what George Hunsinger rightly called, the ‘dimension of depth’.

While chapter 3 is the heart of the book, in my opinion, chapter 4 is less convincing: ‘Sacramental Effect: the Subjectification of the Objective Christological Reality’. The subtitle indicates the problem already. According to Stamps “Calvin dealt with sacramental action and effect together in his outline, whereas Torrance’s sacramental theology separates the effect from the action” (144). I don’t think so. In Conflict and Agreement (1960) he makes the distinction between the ‘action of Christ’ and ‘its effect in our reception of it’. But, as Stamps rightly says, “[t]his does nog designate two distinct actions” (ibid.). But then he adds “but [it designates, AT] the difference between Christ’s formal action and its subjectification within the Church” (ibid.). To be sure, Stamps is a very careful ‘exegete’ of Torrance. For a few lines later he writes that Torrance elsewhere (in his shorter article ‘The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’ in The Liturgical Review (1976) “treats these two aspects of our sacramental communion specifically as the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Therefore, we shall discuss Sacramental Effect under these two headings” (145). Unfortunately, he seems to be unaware of the tension between the title of this chapter and the subheadings. The chapter offers for that matter brief comparisons with Luther’s and Calvin’s sacramental theologies (partly in the footnotes) that are right on target.

The last chapter is called: “An Appraisal of Torrance’s Eucharistic Theology with Open Questions”. Stamps refers in the beginning of this chapter to an personal interview he had with Thomas Torrance.

“When asked in 1985 what he would change if his earlier works on the Eucharist could be rewritten, Torrance stated that he would like to alter their context, i.e. not to discuss the issues so much from the perspective of the Reformation, as from that of the Eastern Fathers.” (240-241)

In the light of this quote, it becomes even more puzzling why Stamps chose to make Calvin’s approach leading for the outline of Torrance’s sacramental theology. He gives the answer by arguing that – in the end – Torrance’s eucharistic theology “finally ought not to be judged by what it aspires to be, but by what it actually is, a Eucharist [sic!] in the Reformed tradition operating from a highly developed christology richly informed by patristic sources” (244). Stamps notes in T.F. Torrance (lecturing)passing that (especially the early) Torrance is in some respects heavily indebted to Karl Barth (“an ‘actualist conception of God’s Word” (250)), but in the end, his analysis of Torrance’s sacramental theology boils down to the dilemma: either Calvin or Eastern Orthodoxy. That seems to me a serious flaw in his analysis. Torrance’s sacramental theology certainly isn’t purely Barthian, but can’t be properly understood by omitting the Barthian ‘overtones’ in the thought of Tom Torrance.

This is not to deny that Stamps offers in his book a thorough study of the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. As indicated, its strenght lies in the ‘exegetical’ reading of all the relevant texts of Torrance’s work. Its weakness is its systematic presentation and evaluation. But for sure: anyone who is on his way to study Torrance on the sacraments, will have to read this book and will definitely find it useful.

I would like to thank Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing the review copy!

Comments on Vermigli’s Commentaries

At his blog Paul Helm announces a couple of posts about Peter Martyr Vermigli. More specifically, he will write about Vermigli’s  and Calvin’s attitude to Aristotle’s ethics. I look forward to these posts. I seized the opportunity to open up my copy of Volume Four of the Peter Martyr Library: ‘Philosophical Works’. The title is a bit pretentious, because this volume offers an anthology of various passages from Vermigli’s commentaries. However, this was the way in which Vermigli’s Loci Communes (posthumously) were edited. There is a wealth of theological and philosophical reasoning, scattered over his writings, including the commentaries.Loci Communes In contrast to Calvin, who aimed in his commentaries at ‘brevitas’, Vermigli took ample space to elaborate on interesting issues mentioned in the biblical text. His excursus on the resurrection in his commentary on 2 Kings 4 is a very convincing example of this phenomenon. In this Volume it extends to nearly 100 pages. In this light we can easily understand Calvin’s aiming for brevity… Nevertheless, Vermigli was certainly the better philosopher of the two!

The lecture of this Volume reminded me of an earlier post, in which I speculated about Vermigli’s stance towards (synchronic) contingency. Well, in the section about Providence, a passage from his commentary on 1 Samuël 10:2, we find the answer. Vermigli starts the discussion by making two distinctions.

“There is one necessity that is absolute (simplex) and another that is conditional (ex hypothesi). When we say that God is wise or just, we understand it to be a simple and absolute necessity. Other things are conditionally necessary, such as this subject of debate in the schools: Whatever is, is necessary while it exists.” (192).

This is the first distinction. There is another to follow:

“Moreover, things may be considered in two ways, first a they are in actuality, in which case they have the nature of necessity since they are no longer indefinite. For instance, to write or not to write is hypothetical. But if you are in the act of writing, it is no longer contingent but necessary. Hence we say that sensory knowledge is certain, because the objects themselves cannot be otherwise. Secondly, things may be considered as they lie hidden in their causes; but since causes may sometimes produce effects and sometimes not, there is no necessary power of acting in them.” (192).

At this point Vermigli starts a discussion about God’s eternity in relation to his causal action and whether this action of His make things necessary or not. In the sentence which is written bold, Vermigli offers the clue to his conception of necessity and contingency. APeter Martyr Vermigliccording to him, time alters the modal status of things. What was contingent, becomes necessary. That’s basically the Aristotelian (and Thomistic) view of diachronic contingency. Synchronic contingency denies the (possibility of the) modal change implied in this view. Time doesn’t affect the contingency of a certain state of affairs. So, Vermigli can be dispatched of my list of ‘suspects’ of Reformers who were important in the transmission of the Scotian concept of synchronic contingency to the reformed scholastic tradition. All the same, I look forward to the posts of Paul Helm about Calvin’s and Vermigli’s attitude to the ethics of Aristotle.

One more thing: this Volume of the Vermigli Library was edited and translated by Joseph C. McLelland. He dedicated the Volume “to Thomas F. Torrance, Doktorvater and friend, who introduced me to Peter Martyr”. McLelland wrote his dissertation about Vermigli’s eucharistic theology. It reminds me, once more, of the fabulous intuition of Thomas Torrance. Although he occasionally cites Vermigli in his books (f.ex. Kingdom and Church), to the best of my knowledge he never refers to him while speaking about the incarnational union with Christ, which was very important to Torrance. But Vermigli comes quite close to this conception in certain passages (letters and commentaries). Did Torrance read those passages? I’m not sure. But he might…

Vermigli, Incarnation and our Resurrection

The sixteenth century was filled with intense debate about the eucharist. By the 1550’s the divisions between Roman Catholics, Lutherans and the Swiss Reformation were largely defined by the difference in opion about the eucharist. The religious dialogues in the late 1530’s and the early 1540’s hadn’t resulted in mutual agreement about the eucharistic doctrine, despite intense efforts from Bucer, Melanchton and Calvin, among others. Neither the doctrine of justification, nor the doctrine of predestination, were the principal stumbling block. However, the eucharist was.

In the 1550’s a second round of the eucharistic debate started. Hence, it’s called the ‘second eucharistic controversy’ (the debate between Luther and Zwingli being the first). It became an intense discussion between Lutheran and Reformed theologians. The Lutheran Joachim Westphal ignited the debate. The discussion between Westphal and Calvin caught the eye, but there were far more theologians involved. It was the ‘trending topíc’ in their correspondence.

Peter Martyr’s letter to John Calvin (Strasbourg, 8 March 1555; Calvini Opera 15, p.492-497) is a fine example of this kind of correspondence. In this long letter Vermigli appears to be an highly original theologian. He proposes his thoughts to Calvin about the communion we have ‘with Christ’s body and the substance of his nature’ (cum corpore Christi, atque substantia ipsius naturae). First of all, he says, we have a very general communion with Christ, because he shares in our fles and blood, ‘by the benefit of his incarnation’ (beneficio incarnationis eius). But because this kind of communion is very general and feeble, there must be another one. In that second kind of communion share the elect, in whom faith is incited, by which they not only are reconciled to God, but also share in the restoring power of the Holy Spirit, by which also our bodies, flesh, blood and nature are ‘made capable for immortality’ (immortalitatis capacia fiunt). In this way, Vermigli says, we become more and more ‘like Christ, as I may say so’ (Christoformia, ut ita dixerim). 

According to Vermigli then, there are two kinds of communion with Christ: one is natural, the other spiritual. But, he continues, ‘in between these two (communions) there is a middle one’ (inter has duas mediam esse). This ‘mediating’ communion he calls the communion with the Head, Christ himself. This communion is prior, ‘at least in nature, be it perhaps not in time’ (saltem natura, licet fortasse non tempore). I suspect that what Vermigli is after, broadly corresponds with what Calvin calls the mystical union with Christ. It’s the spiritual bond with Christ through faith. Vermigli then draws a comparison between the human body and the communion with Christ. The point he wants to make, seems to be this: the spiritual bond (mystical union) with Christ opens up the way for another communion with Christ, by which our nature becomes renewed from within. We’re made fit for immortality!

What’s so special about this? Vermigli clearly agrees with Calvin (and many others) about the location of Christ’s body: He is in heaven. But, he seeks a way to prevent that the communion with Him would become mere spiritual. The key to his thinking is Christ’s incarnation. The incarnation is the guarantee for, both the natural and the spiritual communion. But this last way of communion is also a bodily communion. It’s the sharing in the resurrection of Christ in which we share by the Word of God and the sacraments, received by faith. There we are: the sacraments as preparation for our resurrection!

Did Christ assume a fallen human nature?

The theology of T.F. Torrance is a catholic theology in the true sense. Not only has he been in conversation with theologians from East and West, from the Early Church to the contemporary leading theologians, but he is also catholic in the sense that in general his theological convictions are in agreement with the great doctrines of the Ecumenical Councils. In that light it is the more remarkable that on a few, though not unimportant, doctrines he is in disagreement with the mainstream theological tradition. One such point is his conviction that Christ assumed a fallen human nature, whereas the standard doctrine maintains that Christ assumed an unfallen human nature. Torrance, of course, had good reasons for believing that his adjustment of the doctrine was necessary. In fact, one of Torrance’s core motives is his resistance against a logic of reconciliation in terms of ‘external relations’. Sin goes deeper than that; it’s a matter of ontology. Our very nature is deeply affected by sin. Therefore, Christ’s redemptive work must be conceived ontologically as well. He assumes not merely our human nature, but our fallen nature, corrupted by sin. By doing that, from birth to resurrection and ascension, he heals our fallen nature.

I’m very sympathetic to Torrance’s theological intentions. However, there are a few problems with his point of view. To make clear what I mean, I will have to appeal to soms logical distinctions. Despite his being acquainted with the latest developments in  science, Torrance didn’t make use of contemporary developments in semantics and logic. I will raise a few questions that emerge in applying modal logic to Torrance’s proposal. That doesn’t mean that these problems are insuperable. To eliminate these problems, however, some additional work has to be made. That, at any rate, is what I’m saying.

Let us think about the conception of Christ’s human nature as a fallen nature. The way Christ’s human nature should be understood, is of course a matter of great complexity and intense debate. But what is ‘a human nature’? Roughly it is something like this: ‘a human nature is the set of properties which are essential for being human’. The qualification ‘essential’ is important in this respect. My ‘sitting in a chair’ is not the kind of (accidental and contingent) property that is essential. What we mean by ‘essential’ is not even a universal property, but  stronger than that: a property which the person or thing in question has in every possible world. If we apply this to the way Torrance views Christ’s human nature, it raises several questions. Does he mean bij ‘fallen nature’, that ‘being fallen’ is an essential property? That however seems very implausible, because it would make the Fall necessary, instead of contingent. Torrance certainly couldn’t have wanted to claim that. Or could perhaps the distinction of Thomas V. Morris between ‘kind-essence’ and ‘individual essence’ help here? If we, on the other hand, interpret the ‘fallenness’ of Christ’s human nature as an accidental property, we run into new questions as well. How are we to understand that a nature consists not only of essential, but also (partly) of accidential properties? Moreover, it seems that Torrance needs more than an accidental property for his claim that Christ heals our nature by assuming it, because it would make the healing accidental as well. That is in congruence with the mainstream christian tradition, but does it sufficiently express what Torrance wanted to claim: a kind of ontological healing?

In short, the way Torrance speaks of Christ’s assumption of a fallen human nature raises several questions in the sphere of (modal) logic and ontology. But then, there is more to ask. For example, how does the ‘healing’ work? Torrance, for example, speaks of ‘sanctifying’ and ‘perfecting’ our nature (Theology in Reconstruction, 248). Somewhat more specific, he says that Christ is in the position to ‘transfer what is his to our human nature in him’ (ibid., 246). In another passage, he focuses on our willing, saying that Christ ‘laid hold upon our wayward human will, made it his very own, and bent it back into obedience to, and in oneness with, the holy will of God’ (ibid., 157). Despite the vivid imagery, new questions arise. Is it correct to speak of human nature , not only as having a will, but as willing (cf. an intriguing post on Out of Bounds last month)? Moreover, even if we grant that Christ somehow ontologically bent our human will back, into obedience to God’s will, why don’t we see much more fruit in humanity, in the past and present? How can we account for that?

Once more, I’m very sympathetic with Torrance’s intentions. But for the moment I’m not quite sure whether it is possible to give a satisfying explanation of his particular way of construing Christ’s redemptive work.