Tag Archives: docetism

Race-ing Towards Nicea part 1: The Incarnation

*Editors Note*: This is a Re-Post of my contribution to our Preaching Chalcedon Tri-Blog event. I am turning this into a series

THE IMPURITY CODE:How Liberal & Evangelical Christians Both Can Affirm the Nicene-Chalcedonian Tradition

First, I would like to take the time to commend Amanda Mac for this intriguing conversation that has stirred up a lot of interest apparently. Optymystic Chad deserves commendation as well for his brave stance, for not many Christians are willing to challenge tradition, and in such a provocative manner, no less.

Honestly, I come to this conversation without a dog in this fight. As a young pup growing up, I was Baptist, and the only creed we recognized was the Lord’s Prayer.  Like many folks, I did not encounter the Nicene-Chalcedonian formulas until graduate school. Honestly, for some reason, there is something magical about the ancient Creeds. As a children’s pastor at a church I once worked for, after they recited the Apostle’s Creed, I felt more alive and ready to give my children’s sermon, without a moment’s hesitation.  Perhaps it was a reminder that I am part of something larger than myself, that there is a cloud of witnesses that transcends any community I partake in. So as a matter of transparency, I come from a non-creedal tradition, and this is my defense (sorta) of the Chalcedonian Formula. On to the questions!

Homoousios As Hegemony

He asks,

“Further, the language of Christ’s two natures, while taken for granted by Chalcedon, is a Greco-Roman construct. Homoousios vs. Homoiousios is not Biblical language. It is simply one culture’s way of framing the earlier Hebraic faith. I oppose Chalcedon because it gives the appearance of divine approval to an outsourcing of theology to a 4th and 5th century Greco-Roman group of people who admitted no agenda, but clearly had one.While claiming to affirm a certain level of mystery, Chalcedon only does so after it has already said more than it should have. ”

Then Chad also inquires,

“Further, why does Christ have to be both Divine and Human? Or more to the point, if scripture only approaches this teaching narratively, why do we insist on understanding it mathematically? Economically? Through a Roman lens? Is it not enough to understand Jesus as being fully human, yet paradoxically doing and saying things only God could say and do? Why not let many theories abound?”

Chad is not the first to make these charges against the Chalcedonian Council. Neither do his pre-cautions go unwarranted. For instance, in her work, The Black Christ, Christian theologian and womanist Kelly Brown Douglas, who herself affirms the Nicene-Chalcedonian tradition as an Episcopalian, says, “Black Christians tend not to consider it relevant to their own beliefs about Jesus” (p 112). She adds, “By ignoring Jesus’s ministry and focusing on his “being,” He is seen as someone to be worshipped, believed in, but not followed or imitated” (112-113). Seeing the face of Christ in the oppressed, specifically, black women is part of Brown Douglas’s Christology, but no where (at least from her viewpoint) can one see that in the N-C tradition.

The hegemonic nature of the Chalcedonian Promulgation also stands as a barrier for Christian bible scholar and feminist Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. She, too, finds it way too problematic that Graeco-Roman terms were used as a fixed formula for attributing imperial economic labels onto Christ’s life. She says,

“This Christological doctrine thereby inscribes into Christian orthodox self-understanding and identity the “mysterious economy” of kyriarchal relations and imperial domination. By associating fatherhood/masculinity with divinity and eternity and by firmly placing motherhood/femininity in the temporal realm of humanity, it introduces not only gender dualism, but also the dualism between church and world, religion and nature, heaven and earth.” (Jesus, Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet, page 22).

The Essential(isms) of The Faith

It would be impossible for Kelly Brown Douglas to speak for all persons of African descent at all times, and I doubt that she was doing that, but without qualifications, one finds themselves into Essentialism Land, that magical place where everyone knows who you are ‘cuz of what you look like. Brown Douglas forgot to mention that there is a significant population of Black Catholics who, like M. Shawn Copeland, who could attest to their black Christianity emphasizing the importance of the creeds. By the same measure, my apologies, Chad, but there is no such thing as THE Hebraic faith. Come on, friend, you know that Second Temple Judaisms thing? I would not say that one Jew is more “Hebraic” than another, for who am I, as a Gentile, to say such a thing. Is Philo somehow less Jewish because he wrote in Greek? Yes, the whole “Homoousios vs. Homoiousios” controversy is extra-biblical, but I don’t affirm that strict version of Sola Scriptura, and I doubt that you do either. Furthermore, to understand the Covenant Pentecostally, a believer has little choice but to affirm multi-lingualism. J. Kameron Carter understand Irenaeus’s writing to be pointing in this direction. In his Race: A Theological Account, Carter argues, ” In Christ, then, language is liberated from the fiction of purity and thus from every structure of dominance and slavery [.]” (30)  The notion of a pure biblical language, a pure race, a purely feminine/ masculine person comes unraveled in the covenantal Jewish flesh of Yeshua. There is no dualism or monism in Christ, but there is Reconciliation.

In order to understand Carter’s logic, one must go back to look at his theology of Israel, a theology that is anti-racist and anti-supercessionist. One cannot speak simply of Christ as purely human because Jesus’ humanity “constitutes a new intrahumanity.”  Christ’s existence is unique in that the Logos and Spirit are en-fleshed and in communion with the Father.  For Carter, “Christ’s flesh is mulatto flesh. […] The covenantal people of Israel witnesses to creation its own fruitful ‘contamination’  before YHWH as its life-giving limit” (30).  As Carter articulates so very well  Yeshua’s intrahuman fleshly existence , which supercedes space and time to receive the worship of Jews and Gentiles alike, is forever bound to impurity, therefore, the ethnic lines and classes set up by white supremacists and Social Darwinians alike are exposed for what they are: PURE FICTION.  Christ Yeshua is what it means for creation to exist in the presence of the Triune Creator, and no language can fully encapsulate that very miracle, but at the same time, every language and culture articulate it in their own unique way.

Goodbye, Every True Scotsman!!!

 

An Impure Orthopraxis

Amanda asks:

Should we preach Chalcedon today?  Is Chalcedon useful today?

I would answer, without a shadow of a doubt, yes, and more yes, but with a few qualifications.  As I alluded to in my response to Chad, one must understand Yeshua in light of what the formula says,

“but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ;
even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us”

I would argue that the Chalcedonian Formula is more of a Code, yes a Code. A Code is, for the most part according to Dictionary.com, a system of rules and regulations. It is an Impurity Code because it recognizes that the reconciling mission of the Savior is programmed into his very being: “recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” Once one understands the Chalcedonian Impurity Code in this manner, minus the anathema threats, it becomes a weapon against closed societies that regulate humanity according to “gender” and “race.”

I suggest that we listen to the wisdom of J. Kameron Carter in his theology of participation, where “Chalcedon is to be conceived as witnessing to a theology of covenantal participation in which the life of YHWH is throughly implicated in and suffuses the life of Israel. […] It is precisely this participatory transcendence, this ecstasy, by which God is God for us, that makes creation transcendent within itself in its ecstasy back to its Creator” (191).  In other words, Christ’s intrahumanity in reconciling creation to its Creator, makes all of creation more than just material. Corporeality is the reality in which God has been revealed, for the Transfiguration, as testified to by Moses and Elijah, reveals that all creatures have been placed under a new social rubric.  The mathematics of Chalcedon is quite simple, really: Christ + All=1/ All – Christ= 0.  Bodies, therefore, become the very vehicles by which God is magnified.  Just as Moses and Elijah stand witness to that blinding light on Mount Tabor representing the legal and prophetic word, so must one recognize that Christ is the hermeneutical key to our open creation.  Becoming involved in the logoi of the prophets is to become involved in the life of God.  Contrary to Kelly Brown Douglas’s claims, Yeshua is not a person to be followed, for we do not live in the 1st century, nor do I wish to “imitate” Yeshua the Messiah because the scriptural witness informs me that his death ends all sacrifices and what good does it do the oppressed to live a life ordained with suffering? Is not that the reason womanist theology had to distinguish itself from J. Deotis Roberts’ and James Cone’s Christology?   If Christianity is just another story like Harry Potter where the hero gives his life for others, I want a new religion.  Thus, it is important to realize that the early churches speculated that it was possible that Christ is the door to life in God, and therefore our agency is not our own, but Christ’s.  Yeshua the Messiah, as what Latin American Liberationists call The God-Poor, existing in solidarity with the oppressed empowers humanity to join in God’s redemptive love for the cosmos.

Do our congregations, which are steeped in a largely biblically-illiterate culture, just “know” that Christ is fully divine and fully human when we preach?

Ummm. Depends on who you talk to.  Sometimes there are congregation members who do their homework and read, and there are others that do not.

What would happen if we dropped the “shorthand” and began using the full sentence in our preaching?

I think people will start to walk out and leave. Long sermons are never popular, well, unless you grow up in the Black Baptist tradition. Sigh.

How do we guard against the tendency towards either Docetism or Nestorianism in our churches?

Pray.

Should evangelical churches, that are largely creedless, begin to re-examine and find ways to adopt these ancient statements in a post-modern context?

I would say this is the very last thing that evangelicals need to do if they want to reach out to a post-modern context.  So, no. They should first re-discover their own history before trying to explore historical Christianity.

To conclude, I will end with a passage from Scripture that is a short version of the Nicene-Chalcedonian Tradition:

“Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature” (2nd Peter 1:4)

 

 

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How Do We Preach Chalcedon in the 21st Century?

Have you ever heard any of the following preached from the pulpit?

  • And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52) – This refers to Jesus’ human side growing in wisdom.
  • At the temptation in the wilderness it was only Jesus’ humanity that was tempted, because God cannot be tempted.
  • At the crucifixion it was Jesus’ humanity that was killed, not his deity.
  • The miracles that Jesus performed were indicative of his divine nature, not his human.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon was convened to address the person of Christ.  There were two opposing camps: the Alexandrians, who emphasized Jesus’ divinity over his humanity (Docetism), and the Antiochians, who emphasized Jesus’ humanity over his divinity (Nestorianism).

Instead of creating a creedal statement that drew a line in the sand, the council provided a definition that created a box or paradigm.  So long as beliefs of the two opposing camps fell within the confines of the box, then both (the more moderate Alexandrians and moderate Antiochians) could be considered orthodox.

The Definition, in summary, affirms that Jesus is fully God and fully human, and that these two natures are united but also distinct in the person of Christ.  What makes this more of a paradigm than a line is that the statement in no way tries to define the divinity or humanity of Christ, nor does it try to explain how the two natures are in relationship with one another, other than that they are indeed in relationship and not collapsed into one nature.

Karl Barth uses the Chalcedonian Definition throughout his Church Dogmatics.  Sometimes he uses it in the classical sense, referring to the person of Jesus and his two natures.  Sometimes he uses it examine the work of Christ.  And, more radically, he takes the paradigm and applies it to the relationship between God and the Church in his discussion of vocation in IV.3.2.

Some have accused Barth of being either Antiochian or Alexandrian in his leanings.  But, if you read through the Dogmatics, what he actually does is alternate and explore the Chalcedonian Definition from both positions.  The problem, which is often the problem with Barth, is that he can take hundreds of pages to get to the other side of the dialectic.  (George Hunsinger, for example, has mapped out how in CD IV Barth flips between the two idioms and basically the entire IV.1 is “Alexandrian”, IV.2 is mostly Antiochian, and IV.3 is both.  No wonder people accuse Barth of being one or the other, when an entire volume is basically in one idiom).  On the other hand, Charles Waldrop suggests that, particularly in III.2 in which Barth looks at the humanity of Christ and tends towards an Antiochian position, it is an Antiochian position working within the framework of an overall Alexandrian Christology.

Barth, of course, takes a lot of license with the Chalcedonian Definition, and refuses to be constrained by the Greek metaphysical definitions of nature and person.  For example, instead of using ‘Natur’ to talk of the natures of Christ, he uses the German word ‘Wesen.’  Sarah Coakley argues that, in general, the West and East approached the Chalcedonian Definition differently, with the West looking at it very rigidly, tied directly to the Greek language.  The East, on the other hand, saw flexibility in the Definition, and found ways to use it liturgically and with fluidity.  (I argue, in a different venue, that that is indeed what Barth is doing in his use of Chalcedon, in that he approaches it with an Eastern flexibility).

The other problem is that Barth “shorthands.”  So, he will write “Jesus, Son of God,” but what he actually means is “The Son of God who is Jesus of Nazareth.”  Likewise, when he refers to “Jesus of Nazareth,” what he means is “Jesus of Nazareth who is the Son of God.”

Of course, this is also what the NT authors do. They may refer to Jesus of Nazareth, but that does not mean that they deny that he is also the Son of God, and vice versa.  And maybe that is where our problem lies in preaching.  We assume that when the author refers to one nature, they ignore or even deny the other nature.

 

So here are my questions to pose to all of you pastors, preachers and teachers:

Should we preach Chalcedon today?

Do our congregations, which are steeped in a largely biblically-illiterate culture, just “know” that Christ is fully divine and fully human when we preach?

Is Chalcedon useful today?

What would happen if we dropped the “shorthand” and began using the full sentence in our preaching?

How do we guard against the tendency towards either Docetism or Nestorianism in our churches?

Should evangelical churches, that are largely creedless, begin to re-examine and find ways to adopt these ancient statements in a post-modern context?

 

References:

Charles Waldrop, “Karl Barth’s Concept of the Divinity of Jesus Christ” Harvard Theological Review (1981): 241-263

George Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology: Its Basic Chalcedonian Character” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, pg 131-147.

Coakley, Sarah. “What Does Chalcedon Solve and What Does it Not? Some Reflections on the Status and Meaning of the Chalcedonian ‘Definition’”, in The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God. Pg 143-163.

 

 

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