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Lecture IV: Christ


‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.’ For us Christians these words of St. Paul give the central affirmation of our faith. But in themselves they are not enough. They do not necessarily express the uniqueness which we see in the manifestation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. They might be consistent with the recognition of God as working in him in a fuller degree, but after the same manner, as in other inspired men. I have tried to describe the uniqueness we believe in by saying that ‘in Jesus Christ we see God at work in the history of this world, personally incarnate for the purpose of rescuing His creation from the evil with which it has become infected’. This is intended to be a statement in language of to-day of what our fourth-century ancestors meant when they wrote ‘Very God of very God who… was made man’. We are now to treat this belief as a postulate, asking how it will fit in with the rest of our experience and help towards making sense of the whole. We must inquire how it fits into the biblical witness to God's redemptive activity, and how it affects the fitting of that witness into our thought about His creation.

Our starting point is the New Testament witness to the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. In my opening lecture last year I pointed out that for historical study the New Testament is primarily evidence of what the original Christians believed about our Lord. We have to ask what the truth about Him must have been, and be, if men with their ways of thinking and speaking wrote of Him as they did.

The first Christians were Palestinian Jews of the first century B.C. and A.D. Although they wrote in Greek, their ways of thinking were Hebraic and the background of their thought was the Old Testament. They believed that the Messiah promised by God to His people through His prophets had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that He had been crucified, had risen from the dead, had ascended into heaven, and had sent His Spirit to possess His followers until He should return as Judge at the end of the world. It looks as though to begin with they thought of Him as absent in heaven and sending down the Spirit to keep them in touch with Him; but before the end of the New Testament period they believed Him to be personally present with them, ‘unseen but ever near’. They were the true Israel, the inheritors of God's promises to His chosen people. And somehow or other, through His death and resurrection, the Messiah had brought them forgiveness of their sins and reconciliation to God. United to one another through their union with the risen and ascended Lord in the Spirit, they were a fellowship of forgiven sinners.

The gospels are evidence for the earthly life of Jesus as seen by men who had this belief and looked back on it from that point of view. They enable us to see that in their recognition of Him as Messiah they were accepting His own belief about Himself, though far from understanding all that it meant to Him. Before His coming, some Jews had looked for a ‘Son of David’ who should rally God's people, drive out the Roman invaders, and, from the centre of His kingdom at Jerusalem, rule the earth in God's name. Others looked for the intervention of a supernatural ‘Son of Man’ who should take up God's elect to reign in heaven and bring this earth to an end. Yet others thought that God would intervene Himself and be his own Messiah. Jesus was born as truly man in the Davidic line; He thought of Himself as the ‘Son of Man’, come on earth for the establishment of God's kingdom; but he interpreted messiahship as a call to exercise a saving ministry, to pass through suffering, death, resurrection and ascension to His work as Judge. Whether or no during His earthly ministry He thought of Himself as actually God the evidence is insufficient to determine. The conception of messiahship provided the means whereby on earth He could and did claim a unique status in relation to God and man. It may be that a genuine incarnation involved that in His human mind He claimed no more than this. The developed doctrine is not simply concerned with what He thought of Himself while on earth, or what His disciples thought of Him, but with what He was. The truth may be that He could not have been what He and they believed without having been more. The history of the doctrine of the Incarnation in the first four centuries is the history of the Church discovering that Jesus could not have been God's Messiah and done God's saving work without Himself being God.

That Jesus Christ was a unique figure in history, being God personally incarnate, is the belief that gives the Christian creed its specific character. It is the ground of the claim of Christianity to be the true religion for all mankind. Much confusion of thought, springing from false ideas of the nature of revelation, has been caused by failure to grasp this point. We are not to claim that the Bible is a collection of saving truths transmitted from God through men inspired to be His spokesmen, truths which must be accepted as substitutes for whatever we may have learned of God from other sources. We are not to claim that our religion is supreme because it comes to us from men who had a monopoly of insight into spiritual truths. The only claim we can rightly make—and, if we are to be true to our faith, it is the claim we must make—is that once for all in history, in Palestine some two thousand years ago, God did something which is of significance not only for all mankind but for His whole creation.

For Christians the understanding of the earthly life and work of Christ as the gospel is the supreme instance of the truth that God gives His revelation by doing things and inspiring men to see their significance. But if this be so, in this instance as elsewhere, however much men may be inspired, their seeing is coloured by the circumstances of their outlook. Our Lord's disciples, Palestinian Jews of the first century, became the first Christians by seeing in Jesus the promised Messiah. The explicit recognition of Him as God was the offspring of the marriage of Jewish religious with Greek philosophical insight in the minds of those who were the heirs of both cultures. Before we go on to that we must consider further what the acceptance of Him as Messiah meant when the Gospel first was preached.

That first preaching is found in the early chapters of the Book of Acts. In Chapter ii St. Peter is represented as preaching the first Christian sermon to a number of Jews in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. He makes three points: (i) The crucified, risen, ascended Jesus is the promised Messiah (vv. 22–36); (ii) He has fulfilled prophecy by the gift of the Holy Spirit to His disciples (vv. 14–21, 33); (iii) The most important effect of His work is the forgiveness of their sins (v. 38). The first of these points is our present subject in general; the second will be the subject of my next lecture; we must now pay particular attention to the third. It is not actually mentioned in the sermon itself, but in St. Peter's response to the question ‘What shall we do?’ it is put in the forefront of the benefits to be received by those who are baptized into the messianic community: ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins’. This is repeated in the second sermon that we hear of: ‘Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out’ (iii. 19). And again, when testifying before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin: ‘Peter and the other Apostles answered and said: The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins’ (v. 29–31). A fundamental characteristic of the Christian Church from its beginning was to be a fellowship of forgiven sinners. That this had been the central aim of Jesus in His messiahship, and that through His life, death, resurrection and ascension it had come to pass, is the answer of St. Peter and the Apostles to the question: ‘What think ye of Christ?’

This poses two questions. (i) Were they right about what had been Jesus' aim? (ii) Were they right in believing that He had achieved it?

(i) To accept as correct their understanding of Jesus' aim enables us to fit the gospel story into its historical context. It is not difficult to account for His rejection by the Jewish people as a whole: to the High Priests and the Sanhedrin, to the great bulk of Sadducees, Pharisees and Zealots He showed none of the expected signs of ‘restoring the Kingdom to Israel’.1 What needs to be explained is His acceptance by the little band for whom St. Peter spoke when he said: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’.2 When we read the Old Testament as the record of God seeking to make Himself known in the minds of men, we see Him seeking to teach His people that of all forms of evil their own sinfulness is the most serious, and that it is an evil of which they cannot cure themselves. We see the witness borne to this by the development of sacrificial worship in post-exilic Judaism. Looking back, we see the Old Testament as bringing God's people to the point of realizing that their fundamental need was rescue from their own sinfulness. But we also see that at the time only a few did as a matter of fact realize that this was what God was seeking to teach them. Among these few our Lord found those who had ears to hear, because He spoke to their condition.

During the past six or seven years I have been impressed by the fact that a number of older men, men of experience in various professions, have come forward to seek for ordination to the ministry of the Church impelled by a common motive. The world, they feel, is in a terrible mess. They want to do something to help. What they are doing at present, and efforts in other directions, good and valuable as they may be in themselves, appear to them to be superficial compared with ministering the gospel of Christ. That alone goes to the root of the trouble, men's need to be rescued from themselves. They may be few compared with those who put their faith in scientific research or economic organization. But they do exist now. And they did exist then. St. Paul was clearly one of them. From among such men came our Lord's disciples and the Christian Church.

Whether or no, both then and now, such men are right in their judgment is one of the basic questions on which depends the truth of the Christian faith. It is the kind of judgment which one cannot confirm by demonstrative proof. All one can do is to explain how one sees the matter and say ‘Cannot you see it for yourself?’ By way of such explanation I would urge two things.

First I suggest that as we consider the state of the world to-day, we ask ourselves what difference it would make to the problems we have to face if in the relations between nations, races and classes we could eliminate such factors as national, racial and class pride, ambition, envy and greed. Only a blind fanatic could maintain that this is all that is required. If all the doctors in the world became perfect exponents of the absolute virtues of Moral Rearmament there would still be need of medical research to discover the cause and cure of cancer. Similarly there are industrial, sociological, economic, political and other problems which can only be solved through study of them by those with the necessary technical training and skill. But can anyone doubt the difference it would make to their prospects of success if such factors as those which I have mentioned could be eliminated? Then, if we are honest with ourselves as we look into our own hearts, we cannot deny that in our own lives, and in our relations with our fellow men and women, there are working those same forces which wreak havoc on the larger scale. To deal with these is to go to the root of our troubles. So long as they are ignored and left to fester our civilization, for all our efforts, bears within it the seeds of its decay.

Let us, secondly, see how this judgment fits in with what we have learnt of the actual nature of the universe as God's creation. It is the process through which He is bringing into existence a community of persons whose goodness is to be the goodness of genuinely free beings. From this point of view, of all the kinds of evil which beset them, the most serious is that which corrupts their own innermost nature and hampers them in their efforts to deal with the others.3 The Christian gospel proclaims that in His redemptive activity God has gone straight to the heart of the problem and set in motion a creative process which is to work from the centre outwards.

If this, as we look back on it, is our interpretation of what God was doing when He came in Christ to reconcile the world unto Himself, would it not have appeared to our Lord's disciples, as they looked on it in the circumstances of their time, precisely as we find them bearing witness to it in the New Testament? Can we go further and find any answer to the question how it appeared to our Lord Himself?

This raises the difficult question of the nature of His human consciousness which we shall have to consider later. For the moment I must be content to point out that, according to what evidence we have, He thought of Himself as Messiah, He would not be the kind of Messiah most people expected, He called on would-be citizens of His kingdom to repent, He claimed to have authority to forgive sins, and He spoke of His impending passion and death as the means whereby that forgiveness should be made effectual.

(ii) The first Christian preachers urged their hearers to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of their sins. They invited them, that is, to join the fellowship of forgiven sinners. The whole of the New Testament is written out of the consciousness of belonging to this fellowship, written by men conscious that somehow or other through Christ they are reconciled to God. ‘I live’, says St. Paul, ‘yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’. ‘Heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.’ ‘Ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby ye cry Abba, Father.’ St. John expresses the same consciousness by the use of the phrase ‘eternal life’. To their testimony can be added that of countless men and women in all ages of the Church's history. One and all they ascribe their forgiveness and their reconciliation to the work of Christ.

Here we must carefully distinguish between two questions: (a) of their consciousness, and (b) of the objective fact of that of which they feel themselves to be conscious.4 Of their consciousness of being forgiven and reconciled there can be no doubt; but we cannot regard this as the specifically Christian element in our faith any more than we can ascribe the revelatory character of the Bible to the nature of the Hebrew consciousness. We must be prepared both to welcome whatever revelation of Himself God may give through men of other faiths, and to recognize as genuine the consciousness of being reconciled to God in men in whose minds it has no relation to the cross of Christ. The specifically Christian element in our faith is the belief that somehow or other, as objective fact, it is through what Christ has done that this forgiveness and reconciliation are available, ready and waiting for all who repent.

I am not going to argue for this belief here. I have said what I have to say in support of it elsewhere.5 In doing so, I have maintained that we can only justify the belief if we think of what was done as having been done by God Himself, God taking the necessary action to rescue His creation from evil in such a way as to set forward His central purpose of perfecting men in freedom. What I am maintaining here—in accordance with what I have been saying throughout these lectures about the nature of revelation—is that, if this be the truth of the matter, it would have appeared to our Lord and His disciples, thinking, speaking and writing in the forms of thought and language of their time and place, as we find it set down in the pages of the New Testament. To Him it appeared as God's work to be done, a work which could not be accomplished by words alone but must be wrought out in very deed by the way of the cross; to them it appeared as the fulfilment in Him of the promises of God.

The revelation of Himself which God gave in Christ required for its understanding a revision of existing ideas of godhead, of manhood and of unity. I have already spoken of the last of these;6 I must now say something about the others.

It seems to me that within the New Testament period Christians were already, in practice, adopting an attitude towards Christ which implied the recognition of Him as God. This went beyond, but was a development from the relationship which had grown up during His earthly life. To quote from Dr. Easton:

His closest disciples must have experienced in Him a sense of aloofness and of mystery. Dibelius has put it perfectly: ‘If we search for a term that will express this unique relation between the disciples and the Master, we probably should not speak of a mystic bond… we should rather use the word numinous, as Rudolf Otto does, because here an apprehension of the Divine is dominant, which releases awe and self-surrender as in an act of worship.’ And he goes on to say that, whatever criticism may teach about Mk. 10.32: ‘And Jesus was going before them and they were terrified, and they that followed were afraid’, this verse expresses profoundly a fact of history. ‘Here an intuitive apprehension of the truth struggles to find expression; it attempts to make men realize the zone of silence that lay between the Holy One and His disciples.… The movement that Jesus initiated had a personal significance, and discipleship had a personal emphasis. Even in Jesus' lifetime the disciples were personal believers.’

All of this is profoundly true. And, when it is remembered, the so-called ‘mythical’ sections in the tradition cease to be a problem. In so far as they picture a Divine Being walking in the midst of men, who partly pierce His imperfect disguise, these stories at the most simply heighten the impression that the Jesus of history actually produced.7

I think it is doubtful whether these first Christians thought out the theological implications of their religious belief and practice. But sooner or later this was bound to come, and the early attempts at it were well summarized by Dr. H. M. Gwatkin when he wrote: ‘“If He suffered”, said the Ebionites, “He was not divine”. “If He was divine”, answered the Docetists, “His sufferings were unreal”’.8 The discussions in which the Church was engaged up to the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 can best be understood if one thinks of them as Christians trying to fit the new evidence provided by Christ into their existing categories of godhead and manhood. It was generally presupposed that God, being eternally perfect, is eternally unchanging, is (to use the technical term) impassible, while men are subject to change and to suffering, are passible. If Christ had been one He could not at the same time have been the other. Hence adoptionist monarchians, following the Ebionites, thought of Him as a man who on account of His super-excellent virtue had been adopted by God to share in His divinity; modalistic monarchians followed the docetists in treating the gospels as the record of a theophany rather than an incarnation.

These discussions took place in the Hellenistic world where the Hebrew-Christian faith was being examined in the light of its inheritance of Greek philosophic thought. Here attempts had been made to solve the problem of creation by theories of intermediary beings, through whose interposition it might be possible to think of passible creation as derived from God without any derogation from His impassibility. Could the Christian problem be solved by thinking of Christ, under the title of Logos, as the archetypal intermediary?

On the fringes of the growing and learning church were various schools of gnostics. I remember as a young man, more than forty years ago, reading a statement in a textbook that the gnostics were men who put knowledge above faith. Now for some years I have come to see that that, in terms of our present-day ways of thinking and use of language,9 is the opposite of the truth. What the gnostics were trying to do was to fit the evidence provided by the Christians into a framework of myths based on a dualist metaphysic, myths accepted with the kind of faith that we should describe as fundamentalist. Meanwhile the Christians insisted that their responsibility was to bear true witness to what they believed to be the empirical facts, whether or no the philosophers and theologians could make them fit into any metaphysical scheme. Through Christ there had been opened up to them a new quality of life, life in union with God and one another in the fellowship of forgiven sinners. In view of what He had done for them, and what He was to them, they could not think of Him as anything less than God. Yet He who had done that and was this was the crucified, risen, ascended Jesus of Nazareth, the genuine humanity of whose earthly life was clear from the evidence of those who had known Him.

When at Nicaea the word homoousion (‘of one substance with the Father’) was adopted to express the Christian faith, it marked the end of the period in which Christ could be thought of as God's intermediary in His work of creation. The Hebrew doctrine of direct creation by God had triumphed over Greek and Hellenistic theories seeking to evade the antinomy involved in the idea of creation by postulating an intermediary or intermediaries who should link the world to God without linking God to the world. Henceforward there was no room in Christian thought for any being of intermediate status between Creator and created. How then could Jesus Christ be thought of as both God and man?

This was the problem which engaged the mind of the Church in the so-called christological discussions between Nicaea in 325 and Chalcedon in 451. Again, as with the doctrine of God, the result was the formulation of the faith in words which in terms of the categories of thought with which they were working, were a confession of contradictory beliefs. In this the Chalcedonian Definition is parallel to the Quicunque Vult.10


Once again we are brought face to face with the fundamental problem confronting all human thought. How are we to make sense of the universe of our experience? We have first to postulate its creation by God, and then to acknowledge the antinomy between the impassibility of God-in-Himself and the passibility of God-in-relation-to-creation. These technical terms of theology are best understood by seeing that their root meaning is preserved in the grammatical distinction between active and passive verbs. As God-in-Himself, the eternal Source of all being, God cannot be the subject of a verb in the passive voice, for there is nothing other than Himself by which He can be acted upon. But in creation He wills to bring into existence a universe to which He gives a relative independence. He can then be spoken of as the subject of verbs which express its relation to Him; when among His creatures there are persons whom He endows with freedom He can be said to be obeyed or disobeyed, loved or hated. In speaking of Him in the passive voice we assert a limitation of His impassibility. In creating the universe he creates the antinomy.

This was implicit in the monotheism that came to the Christians as their inheritance from Judaism. Jews did not raise the philosophical questions involved in their faith; and during the first four centuries of our era Christians had not grasped the fundamental issue. They had rightly acknowledged the truth of the Greek conception of the timeless eternity of God, and of the impassibility of God-in-Himself. But while occupied with the question whether they could think of Christ as God in the same sense as the Father, they had not faced the fact that the Hebrew-Christian doctrine of creation involves an antinomy in the conception of God which the Greeks avoided or evaded by theories which enabled them to contrast God as impassible simpliciter with creatures as passible. Because they took this contrast for granted they found themselves in difficulty in the fifth century when the christological question came to the fore. Nestorius rightly saw that the christology which ultimately found expression in the Definition of Chalcedon, was inconsistent with this conception of God.

I argued last year that the philosophical attempt to make sense of the universe drives us to this antinomy in our thought of God. It is not the product of obscurantist faith, but of thinking deeply enough to uncover the underlying mystery of our existence. So far this year I have been urging that in what they say of God as Creator the biblical writers bear witness to this same God who reveals Himself to us in the actual world of our experience. What I now want to add is that in their witness to Him as Redeemer we can recognize the working of one and the same God. We should not think of Christ as a combination of impassible God with passible man. The Creator, who in His creative activity accepts a certain limitation of His impassibility, for the purpose of its fulfilment accepts the further limitation incidental to His redemptive activity.

According to the Christian gospel this further limitation took the form of being, in the words of the Creed, ‘made man’. For the theologians of the fifth century to be a man was to be a hypostasis of human ousia, that is to say, an individual being characterized by the qualities which constitute human nature. Their problem was to explain how One who as God was a hypostasis of divine ousia characterized by the qualities of impassible divine nature could also be characterized by those of passible human nature. What they did was to adopt a formula according to which One who as God was a hypostasis of divine ousia assumed the characteristics of human nature without becoming a human hypostasis.

We to-day, when we want to define what we mean by human beings, do not try to do so in terms of ousia, nature and hypostasis. Our task is not to try to think in the categories of our forefathers, but to re-examine the evidence they had before them in accordance with our own way of thinking.11

Creation for us is a process in which a stream of energy is organized into different kinds of creatures. Human beings come into existence as the conscious subjects of experiences mediated through bodies distinct in space and time. To be a man is to be living as the conscious subject of such experiences. In our own experience of manhood we know ourselves to be very imperfect specimens of what a man might be. We are in process of being created into persons perfected in the possession and exercise of freedom.

The whole creative process is one in which in increasing measure, from the richness of His own being, God is communicating to His creatures the fullness of their created reality. Each of us comes into existence as the potentiality of a fully free individual person. To begin with we have little or no reality of this kind. We do not act as persons, but behave in accordance with inherited or environmental factors working in or on us. In order to become established in our reality as persons we have to accept the responsibilities attaching to the gift of individual freedom which God wills to give us. His making this gift depend on our willing to accept it is one element in the limitation of His impassibility involved in His will to create genuinely free persons. Throughout our earthly life our status in reality as individual persons is a matter of degree. In fifth-century terminology, we are not by nature hypostases but are in process of being hypostatized.

If, then, to be a man is to be the subject of experiences mediated through a body in space and time, what will it mean to say that in Jesus of Nazareth God was made man? It will mean that He entered upon the experience of living as the subject of such experiences. This could only be if it was done at some particular time and place in the history of this world. Christian belief is that that is what was done in Palestine not quite two thousand years ago.

As I have said so often, this is the kind of belief of which we can give no demonstrative proof. All we can do is to set down our interpretation of the evidence as we see it, asking: ‘Cannot you see it too?’ In this case the primary evidence is that of the witnesses to the earthly life of Christ whose testimony is set down in the Gospels. To this is added the evidence of those from St. Paul onwards who have borne witness to His continued power in their own lives and in the shaping of world history. I will content myself with quoting from two men of our own time. Father H. H. Kelly had not only himself spent some years in Japan, but through the Society of the Sacred Mission was in touch with the work of the Church throughout the world. I remember hearing him, when speaking of the gospel records of the earthly life of Christ, say that He was unique in that He had ‘burst the bounds of self’. He went on to explain this epigrammatic phrase as meaning that whereas all other characters in history made a limited appeal to men of particular racial, national, professional or cultural affinities, in the Christ of the gospels men and women of all races, tongues, colours and kindred found their ideal. To this I would add the following passage from Dr. Charles E. Raven:

Yet when, with the aid of the exact scrutiny of the documents, of full allowance for the characteristics of the narrative and the personal equation of the authors, of historical research and psychological analogy, we try to reduce this impression to a scheme of ethics, the attempt fails; the casket of moral theology only contains a selection of its dry bones, its life breaks out of the tomb. And if we try to produce a biography of the Teacher, the result is not more successful, as the countless ‘lives’ of Christ bear witness. Most of them have two qualities in common, their ingenuity and their inadequacy. They are composed with obvious scholarship, sympathy, earnestness; and yet vary indefinitely and often to the verge of contradiction. They set out to describe Jesus; they end by describing only a religious projection of their author. If they are the work of those rare students who have acquired knowledge without forfeiting imagination and freshness, like Dr. Glover or Dr. Schweitzer, they are often arresting and beautiful; but their subject will not, as our cousins say, ‘stay put’; their categories cannot enclose Him. No other character (except God!) could be described honestly in such divers fashion; no other character so obviously transcends his interpreters. Such criticism of them is necessarily subjective, and may be wholly mistaken; but if a personal confession is permitted it would be this. I have learnt much from many, indeed, from most ‘lives’ of Jesus, and envy the knowledge, sincerity, versatility and insight of their authors. Each of them helps me to appreciate elements in Him which might otherwise be lost. But none of them in the least satisfies me as doing full justice to Him; and when I try to balance one against another, I see merely their incompatibility. Yet when I study the New Testament carefully, trying not to shirk or explain away apparent contradictions, or to neglect any sound strand of evidence, the result, although it defeats my powers of analysis, satisfies my deepest intuitions. How the same Person could call the missionary Pharisee ‘a child of Gehenna’, and yet warn with the threat of the same Gehenna him who should call his brother ‘thou fool’; how He could at once cleanse the Temple and say ‘Do not stand up against the evil’; how He could both refuse and on another occasion promise thrones to His followers—these, like the problem of His teaching about the Second Coming or the meaning of the bitter cry upon the Cross, exercise the ingenuity of those who would make of Jesus a pacifist, or a ‘Die-hard’, a dreamer, or a Rotarian, a social reformer, a mystic, or an Apocalyptist. It is abundantly necessary so to attempt to classify and rationalize; each one of us must do it to the best of his ability, and each must help his fellows; but I confess that though there are times when I glimpse the meaning of Him and reach out to understanding of the paradox of goodness and severity, the systematizing of it all eludes the grasp. I can see and explain aspects; if I set them out they look contradictory: yet beneath the surface contrast they fill me with a sense of congruity and of completeness; if I cannot fully understand, at least I want to worship. That such confession is mere obscurantism will be the obvious verdict. So be it. Let the critic wrestle as I have tried to do with the problem. He may attain its solution: I can merely ‘follow after’, with mind lagging behind spirit.12

The more we Christians ponder over the records of that earthly life, the more we find ourselves driven to the conclusion that this was the life of no ordinary man, that it was the life of One for whom we can find no place in our thought short of acknowledging Him as God. In this we retrace in our minds the path which was followed by our fathers in the faith in the first four centuries of our era, reviewing in terms of our categories of thought the evidence which they assessed in theirs. On this I would make two further remarks.

The adoption of the word homoousion at Nicaea marked the realization by the Church of the philosophical implications of the faith originally expressed in the religious terms of thought and language natural to the Jews. In the New Testament early attempts to express the conviction that Jesus was no ordinary man but must be thought and spoken of as divine asserted His pre-existence. But when once the Greeks have raised the questions which did not trouble the Hebrews, it becomes impossible to think of the relation between time and eternity as such that a period of some thirty years in time can be inserted into an infinitely long period of the same sort of time called eternity. We may have to continue to picture it so in the imaginative language of religious devotion. But for strict theological thinking it is clearly an advance to have substituted the statement of a standing truth for an extension fore and aft of time into eternity. The revelation is given in a certain series of events which all take place in time, from Bethlehem to Olivet. These are open to human observation. When we say homoousion we pass on from talking about before and after, and simply say that in these events we recognize the human life of One who is, in the fullest sense of the word, God.

In their attempt to explain this belief in the fifth century theologians spoke of Christ as assuming the characteristics of human nature without a human hypostasis. They were not intending in any way to minimize the reality of His humanity. They were attempting, while safeguarding that, to express the conviction that He was no ordinary man, that there was and is an essential difference between Him and the rest of us. Here they had their finger on a real point, and in the terms of their thought and language probably found the best expression of it that they could. We to-day, if we want to express the same faith in our own terms, would not speak of Him as being without the kind of hypostasis which each one of us has. To what extent any one of us has such a hypostasis is a matter of degree: we are in process of hypostatization. We should state the difference between Him and us the other way round. To be human is to be the conscious subject of experiences mediated through a body in space and time. That is common to us and to Him. But whereas at the conception of each one of us there was an absolutely new beginning, the beginning of a process which, if all went well might ultimately issue in the existence of a human hypostasis, He was unique in that His conception was the entry upon the experience of human life of One who was and is fully hypostatized as a Person in the Blessed Trinity. To the Christian believer His was the only human life that has ever been lived which had at its centre a fully real hypostasis. The mistake we make is to take our own humanity as the standard and measure His manhood by ours. We ought rather to measure ours by His, for His humanity, so far from being less real than ours, was more so. Indeed, we shall find grounds for believing that we only become truly and fully human selves in so far as we find our selves in Him.13


God who limits His impassibility in creating limits it further in entering upon the experience of life as the conscious subject of experience mediated through a body in space and time. This is the Christian faith, the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is not mythology in the sense of being a story whose only value to the theologian and philosopher is as symbolizing truths in some other order of greater reality, whether that be thought of as impersonal forces, abstract ideas, or existentialist piety.14 It is sober fact, of the highest kind of reality attainable by our minds here on earth. I shall be arguing later that in the personal communion with God made open to us through that divine activity we reach our highest level of reality in living as well as in thinking.

‘What think ye of Christ?’ Answers to this question are attempts to account for certain actual events in the history of this world. Reflection upon them led our forefathers to say ‘Two natures in one Person’. It leads us to express what is essentially the same interpretation as God experiencing life under human conditions. We may be able to dispel some of their difficulties by seeing that creation involves divine passibility and that our humanity is not by nature hypostatized. But it would be foolish to imagine that for us the doctrine has now no difficulties. What we have done is to transfer them into the sphere of consciousness. If anything, they are sharpened. In the Chalcedonian formula consciousness is treated as one of the qualities of a nature. It is asserted that in Christ were united divine nature with divine consciousness and human nature with human consciousness. In their acceptance of the formula the Fathers were like the Jews whose faith in God as Creator was untroubled by questions of its effect on His impassibility. When such questions have been raised they must be faced. We cannot evade them by saying that we must confine our thought either within the religious categories of the Hebrews or the ontological categories of fifth- or thirteenth-century Christian theologians.

I have argued that to be human is to be living as the conscious subject of experiences mediated through a particular body at a particular time and place. I have represented Christian faith as the belief that in Jesus Christ we see God experiencing life in this way. How can this be compatible with the thought of Him as God omniscient and omnipotent? Once again we have to acknowledge mystery. Where there is evidence that our categories cannot assimilate we have to choose between denying the evidence and revising the categories. Where we cannot deny the evidence or see just how the categories should be revised, we have to suspend judgment, that is, in other words, acknowledge mystery. In this case the evidence is that our Lord was subject to these limitations15 and that, nevertheless, we cannot account for what He was and did by thinking of Him as anything less than God.

Theologians are familiar with attempts to deal with this problem by the use of the word kenosis. This is the Greek noun corresponding to the verb used by St. Paul in Philippians ii. 7, which, literally translated, could mean that He ‘emptied Himself’. I am attracted by the suggestion that the use of the verb in this passage may have been suggested to St. Paul by a recollection of the Hebrew of Isaiah liii. 12: ‘He hath poured out his soul unto death’.16 The mystery now before us is essentially one and the same with that which throughout we have found confronting us in all our attempts to make sense of the universe of our experience. Given the reality in some sense of the time-process, we are driven to the postulate of a Creator who is personal in His activity. This produces the antinomy between God-in-Himself and God-in-relation to creation. It is this same antinomy which reappears between Christ as God-in-Himself and as God-incarnate. We are face to face with the fundamental questions: Can the time process be real? Can the Eternal create? Can the Eternal live a human life? Who are we to say that He cannot, to deny the evidence that He does the one and has done the other? I have suggested that it throws some light on the mystery if we seek for our ultimate explanation in terms of God's personal will.17 To connect Philippians ii. 6 with Isaiah liii. 12 keeps us moving within this frame of reference.

There is one thing more to be said. When we think of Christ as limiting His impassibility to the extent of living as the conscious subject of human experience we must beware of the mistake of measuring His humanity by ours. We must not, for example, think of His knowledge of the Father's will as subject to limitations due to our imperfection and sinfulness. Do we realize how much the faith of which He spoke as necessary to the working of miracles may depend upon the possession of a knowledge we have not got, knowledge arising from such utter dedication of Himself to the one end of finding and doing the Father's will, from such perfect communion with the Father in the Spirit, that he can know it to be the Father's will that this person at this time shall be healed of his disease, that He Himself shall not be drowned in a storm on the Sea of Galilee before He has accomplished His work at Jerusalem? If we are to think of Him as thinking within the limits bounding human consciousness, we must be careful to remember that throughout His growth from infancy to manhood His mind was a human mind characterized by the perfection relevant to each stage of growth and continuously in communion with the Father in the Spirit.

Other questions abound. If our Lord was perfect in His manhood at each stage of growth, if He had, in the colloquial sense of the words, no ‘lower nature’, how, it may be asked, could He really know what it is to be tempted? This question too easily takes for granted that all temptation comes from what St. James calls one's own lusts.18 No doubt some do. But not necessarily all. It argues no such lustfulness that a man who has a piece of work to do, the preparation of a lecture or a sermon, for example, should feel the attraction of a novel in an armchair. In a world infected with evil temptation comes from without as well as from within. The sharpness of our Lord's rebuke to St. Peter in St. Matthew xvi. 23 suggests that He was as aware of the attractiveness of less exacting ideas of messiahship as is any lecturer of that of novels and armchairs. If at first sight the evidence that Jesus Christ was ‘tempted like as we are, yet without sin’ seems inconsistent with our a priori notion of what is possible, further reflection may lead us to revise the notion in the light of the evidence and conclude that in such a world as this the conflict between duty and pleasure is an essential element in the experience of human life.

We come now to the crux of this lecture. I have maintained that God gives His revelation by doing things and inspiring men to see the significance of what He does, that the Bible is in a special sense revelatory because it bears witness to His redemptive activity which is the key to our understanding of the whole. I have shown how our grasping of the significance of God's action is a process with a history in which in each age men's understanding is conditioned by the outlook of their time and place. I have been arguing that our understanding of the Bible as revelatory depends upon our recognition of Jesus Christ as God personally at work in the history of this world, that to know what is truly of God in the Old Testament, in other teachings ancient and modern, and in successive expositions of Christian faith, we have to ask how far they are consistent with God's revelation of Himself in Christ. What of the criterion itself? If in Jesus Christ God was genuinely ‘made man’, lived, thought and taught as the subject of the experiences mediated through a body born of the Jews in Palestine not quite two thousand years ago, must we not regard His teaching as conditioned by the outlook of His time and place and racial origin? Must we not me asking, as we read His recorded sayings, ‘What must the truth have been and be if one who thought and spoke as He did put it like that?’

I have already in part answered this question by doing this very thing, by suggesting that our belief in Jesus as God incarnate may have appeared in His mind as no more than a conviction of messiahship. For the rest, I would say that the true answer to the question is that He answers it Himself. The more we ponder over His sayings, the more completely, in doing so, we treat them as directly relevant to the particular situations He was in, as expressing the reaction to them of one with the mind of a Palestinian Jew of that age, the more we find ourselves driven with Fr. Kelly and Dr. Raven to acknowledge One who has ‘burst the bounds of self’.

In saying this we must be careful not to interpret that phrase in such a way as to minimize the reality of our Lord's manhood. If to be human is to be living as the subject of experiences mediated through a body in a particular time and place, we must not think of the sayings of Jesus as ex cathedra utterances of a spectator of all time and all existence. On the other hand, we have no experience enabling us to know the extent to which perfect self-dedication to the finding and doing of God's will, in a life of unbroken communion with God in the unity of the Spirit, would enable a man to deal with his own particular circumstances in such a way as to reveal principles of universal relevance.

I have described the history of Christian thought as the history of the growth of our understanding of the revelation of God in Christ. I have pointed out that this history has both a negative and a positive side, the discovery and stripping off of mis-colourings and the deepening grasp of what is truly implied. We can now see that this process is concerned with what Jesus both did and said. The more we are enabled by critical and historical study to see the meaning of His sayings in direct relation to the particular circumstances of His earthly life, the more clear becomes their relevance by analogy to very different events in other times and places. It is not necessary to think that at the time when the words were spoken these implications were consciously present in His mind. Of His words, no less than of His deeds, it may be said: ‘Christ gave His life, it is for Christians to discern the doctrine.’

Appended Note

I have said nothing in this lecture about our Lord's birth from a virgin or His bodily resurrection, both of which form part of what is in general believed among Christians. This has been deliberate. I have aimed at concentrating attention on what I hold to be the central core of Christian belief about Jesus, that He has shown Himself to be such that we cannot think of Him as anything less than God living a human life. This conviction is drawn from that part of His revelation of Himself which is open to our inspection, between His birth and His burial. I have argued that if it be true, it implies a certain difference between Him and us: that whereas for each one of us our conception is the absolute beginning of a potential new hypostasis, for Him it was the entry upon the experience of human life by the eternal second Hypostasis in the Blessed Trinity. I shall be arguing later that there is a similar difference in respect of resurrection.19

There is a certain amount of evidence to the effect that the body of His earthly life was conceived without the agency of a human father, and after His burial was mysteriously transformed to be the organ of His risen and ascended ministry. This evidence has been collected, tabulated, sifted and discussed to such an extent that no further progress is likely to be made by that kind of so-called historical investigation. To my mind it is as good as one can reasonably expect historical evidence to be, and one who holds the belief about our Lord which I have been advocating is justified in accepting it at its face value, as I do.

If it be asked whether the doctrine of the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ are necessary to that of the incarnation, we must be careful to keep apart two distinct questions: (a) whether objectively this was necessary in order that God should be made man; and (b) whether subjectively it is necessary that a man should hold these beliefs about His conception and resurrection in order to believe that He was God incarnate.

(a) The only possible answer to this question is that we do not know. To be able to prescribe the conditions necessary for God to enter upon the experience of life as man we should require exhaustive knowledge in detail of what it means to be God and of what it means to be man.

(b) The only possible answer to this question is ‘No’. There are men who combine a genuine belief in Jesus Christ as God incarnate in the fullest sense of the words with a disbelief in the traditional account of the peculiar circumstances of His birth and resurrection. When men are actually doing a thing, it is no good laying that it cannot be done.

What we need here is a sense of proportion, to realize that questions about the mode of God's entry upon and passing from His earthly life are secondary to belief in the fact of His having lived it. When in this way we think of these doctrines as concerned with God's entry upon and passing from the experience of life as man on earth we cease to be surprised that they are the points at which we find mystery. We are confronting another aspect of what throughout we have found to be the fundamental mystery of human thought, the relation of the temporal to the eternal. We try to make sense of the things of this world and have to postulate its eternal Creator. We try to make sense of the events of Christ's life and have to postulate its being the life in space and time of eternal God. In both cases it is at what, for want of any better phrase, I may call the points of contact between time and eternity that omnia abeunt in mysterium.

  • 1.

    Acts i. 6.

  • 2.

    St. Matt. xvi. 16.

  • 3.

    Vol. I, p. 204.

  • 4.

    On this distinction see L. S. Thornton: The Common Life in the Body of Christ (London, n.d.), pp. 82–4.

  • 5.

    In The Doctrine of the Atonement. See especially p. 83.

  • 6.

    Above, Lecture II, pp. 38 ff.

  • 7.

    B. S. Easton: The Gospel before the Gospels (New York, 1928), p. 161.

  • 8.

    Studies of Arianism (Cambridge, 1906), p. 6.

  • 9.

    See Vol. I, pp. 8, 9.

  • 10.

    See above, p. 40.

  • 11.

    The following paragraphs summarize conclusions arrived at in Vol. I, Lectures VI–VIII.

  • 12.

    The Creator Spirit (London, 1927), pp. 234–6.

  • 13.

    Below, Lecture DC, p. 198.

  • 14.

    Vol. I, pp. 218 ff.

  • 15.

    E.g., St. Mark vi. 5; xiii. 32; St. Luke ii. 52.

  • 16.

    See, e.g., L. S. Thornton: The Dominion of Christ (London, 1952), p. 95.

  • 17.

    Vol. I, p. 223.

  • 18.

    St. James i. 14.

  • 19.

    Below, Lecture DC, p. 196.