Book Reviews

Christ the Heart of Creation

Review by
Jordan Daniel Wood
August 4, 2019

When I first met him, he had just given a talk on St. Teresa of Avila, I think. I waver because I had brought along my 18-month old daughter and, well, she wasn’t as interested in the subject matter as I’d hoped. I introduced myself with a sort of hackneyed fan-boy opening line, overtired infant in arms. “Dr. Williams,” I muttered, “thank you for your talk [whatever it was about]. Just wanted to say that your book on Dostoevsky remains one of the most theologically influential on my thinking.” He (rightfully) ignored this advance and advanced himself toward my daughter: “And who’s this little one?” Then he furrowed his brows, which proved notable even by my daughter’s high standards for attentiveness.

This is the Rowan Williams many of us have come to know and cherish: an uncommon concoction of erudition, wit, wisdom, prayer, and intellect. His latest work, Christ the Heart of Creation, offers nothing less. I’d drawn up a lengthy list of Williams’s astonish­ingly wide-ranging corpus (I failed to mention to him that day, for instance, that his work Lost Icons informs the way I parent my children), but you likely already know what value lies in the man’s work. So I restrict myself to this bit of adulation: for my part, Williams is perhaps the most formidable theologian writing in English today. That I find myself in significant disagreement with him on several crucial christological points doesn’t detract from that sentiment in the slightest—indeed it tempts me into trepidation. Rather it’s precisely because I regard Williams as representative of the best Christian theology currently on offer that it seems especially salutary to labor over where I think he’s wrong and why.

In the next section I try to summarize Williams’s proposals, noting points of agreement along the way. The third section registers some criticisms. I conclude with some pointed questions of my own.

II

In characteristic fashion Williams’s argument is at once a constructive proposal and a historical narrative. It’s a historically crafted constructive proposal and a constructively crafted narration of christological thought across the centuries. That’s as it should be, it seems to me. The deep riches of Christian wisdom unfold within and through its historical, living, and thinking tradition(s). That same tradition invites fresh reflection precisely because significant portions of its own makeup comprise highly refined “byzantine” or “scholastic” contemplation. And so Williams glides with ease from moments of sharp syllogism to narrating the flow and development of thought on the mystery of Christ. This also means—a truly praiseworthy trait of this study—that Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, proves magnanimously indifferent to deep party-divisions within Christian tradition: Aquinas plays the great christological synthesizer in this tale, late antique Byzantine theologians his rightful predecessors, Calvin his (perhaps unwitting) successor, Bonhoeffer a premiere theorizer and political practitioner in modern times—all while the Jesuit Erich Przywara and Anglican divine Austin Farrer provide the essential philosophical framework for seeing the God-world relation and its proper disclosure in Christ. One might even get the sense, rare nowadays, that it’s speculation of the truth itself that describes Williams’s principal task here.

I present Williams’s project from two vantages. First I list and describe (almost analytically) his basic theses. Then I review the argument through the story he tells.

Three formal theses. The first and maybe most expansive proposal of the book is that christology is always (or ought to be) an exercise that clarifies the grammar of how we speak about and live within the mystery of Christ. There you have the book’s two constitutive components: sustained reflection on how we should and shouldn’t talk about Jesus (Introduction & secs.1.1-2.1), then the way this reflection informs and is informed by a responsible, ethical way of life (sec. 2.2). Christology grants us not only explanation but “a world to live in” (xi).

Williams’s second formal claim is that thinking about Christ must involve thinking about the God-world relation itself. Christology, we might say, cannot do without metaphysics (and the reverse). This is because in “both creation and incarnation, God has elected to live within the created order without ceasing to be what God eternally is” (107). Williams is quite right that this has been so throughout most of Christian history. There you’ll find that christology and metaphysics effect “mutual illumination”: not only will you encounter the same questions, but clarity about one will necessarily entail revisiting the other (xiii).

Last and most programmatic: classical christolog­ical doctrine both unveils and depends on a metaphysical non-rivalry between infinite and finite agencies. “God’s action cannot be added to the action of some other agent to make a more effective force. And this also means that God’s action is never in competition with any particular activity inside the universe” (xii, emphasis his). That divinity and humanity retain their full integrity in Christ—unconfused, unchanged, undivided, inseparable—verifies and crystalizes for us the fact that God need not suppress anything creaturely in order to be immanent to his creation. Nor does creation need to condition God to secure its relative integrity against the claims of the infinite. In Christ God “refuses, we might say, to be our rival at any imaginable level” (166—the proximate context here is Calvin’s doctrine of Christ’s merits, but the point recurs: cf. xii, 11, 221, passim). It’s exactly because we shouldn’t conceive infinite agency and being as yet another instance of finite agency that we must refrain from adding them together, as if (Farrer’s insight) “more of one means less of the other” (11; cf. 227). And so the title emblazons the essential thesis: “This is the sense in which Jesus Christ is at the heart of creation…as the one in whom the movement or energy of filial love and understand­ing is fully active in and as finite substance and energy” (223). The Creator can enact and self-identify as a creature just because “Creator” and “creature” do not vie for the same metaphysical territory: God acts in and as that man Jesus of Nazareth, and doesn’t for all that deplete his divinity.

So far I find myself in complete agreement. Indeed I unequivocally support the first thesis, though I say little more about it. Williams’s discussion of Bonhoeffer’s christological ethics—especially when it insists that ideology of any sort, radical or conservative, which would reserve for itself some exemption from our concrete complicity in socio-political sin “becomes a strictly Christological error” (206)—is arrestingly insightful. But these are formal theses. As such the differences don’t emerge until you consider the material content of Williams’s christology, particularly with respect to the final two theses. I will below, and there my disagreement emerges.

The story’s argument. First, though, Williams’s overarching narrative and the argument it makes. This story’s plot comprises roughly six Acts (this is my sequence and numbering, not the book’s). In Act I we have the New Testament’s highly compressed and often odd lan­guage surrounding the figure of Jesus. Williams’s really cogent here, particularly when he describes the way Paul’s theology of the Body of Christ moves “well beyond what is normally ascribable to a human individual,” and so proves already generative of christological specu­lation and development (48). Only a casual and false reading of patristic christological controversy imagines that it’s somehow foreign to the earliest Christian kerygma.

In Act II we see how Christ-talk develops steadily (though not easily) over the patristic and medieval eras around “the central issue of the relation of Creator to creation” (117). Chalcedon, to name one defining moment, awkwardly reasserted the full divinity and full humanity in the one Christ. Thus it merely reasserted the inseparability of thinking the God-world relation from thinking the mystery of Christ. Further refinements to the concept of “hypostasis” among Byzantine thinkers such as Leontius of Byzantium and Maximus Confessor provided a crucial “bridge” to the medieval synthesis achieved most brilliantly by Thomas Aquinas (83; cf. 37, 116, 122).

Aquinas is Act III. He perfects the christological results of the Byzantines. Not only, Williams alleges, was his christology closer to Cyril’s and John Damascene’s “than any of his Western predecessors” (116)—which might be news to readers of Eriugena or Hugh of St. Victor!—but Aquinas’s synthesis “can reasonably be thought of as an achievement of both Western and Eastern thought” (122). Williams thinks so for two reasons. First, the main burden of the many counterfactual questions Aquinas raises and addresses (esp. in ST III) is to demonstrate that “the union of divine and human in Jesus is in no way the fusion of two comparable metaphysical subjects” (26). That the Father rather than the Son might have been incarnate, for instance, shows just how unconditioned the Son’s identity is by the event of the Incarnation. And yet, second, the Word’s historical Incarnation demands that there is “nothing that can be said of Jesus of Nazareth that is not in a strict sense spoken ‘about’ the Word of God, considered as the final ground or condition of the historical identity of Jesus” (30-1). So while the Word’s personal esse is what and who it is from all eternity, it is this very same esse that alone makes the man Jesus to exist and to bear the unique character of the Son’s eternal filiation (34-5). Just here emerges Williams’s asymmetrical christology: the life of Jesus cannot be adequately grasped without reference to the fundamental ground and principle of its subsistence in the divine Word, but that same life “contributes nothing extra to that identifying esse” (35; cf. 89-90). If there is no Jesus without the Word—and that in a “unique” act of God the Word (36)—there could very well be the Word without Jesus. This, Williams claims, is basically what the late Byzantine thinkers meant by their doctrine that Christ’s humanity subsists only in his person, i.e. is “enhypostasized” in the Word’s own hypostasis. I return to this misleading claim below.

Acts IV and V ring radically orthodox. In the former the story takes a bad turn: late medievals—Scotus and especially Ockham—weaken Aquinas’s delicate synthesis to the extent that they separate God and world at every point, making every relation “extrinsic” in the extreme (123; esp. 127-141). They overemphasize God-world (and so Word-Jesus) disjunction at the expense of Aquinas’s tensively-poised asymmetry. Then the next Act narrates a mixed reaction among the Reformers. Luther overreacts to the late medieval cleavage between Christ’s humanity and divinity, all but asserting their “simple identity.” For Luther it’s right to say of Jesus, “There goes God down the street!” and “The man Christ created the world and is almighty!” (138, n. 22). Calvin corrects Luther’s pendulum swing by urging that (in Williams’s terms) “there can be no simple identity between divinity and embodied humanity; the unity that we affirm is a unity of action and of person.” The very core of the extra Calvinisticum declares just this: “there is no sense in which the embodied humanity can exhaust the single divine agency of the Word” (152, his emphasis). Thus Calvin “recovers” Aquinas’s asymmetrical christology, which confesses the utter dependence of Christ’s humanity upon his person while denying any hint of some mutual conditioning between the Word’s eternal, divine life and his earthly, temporal one—an unhealthy obsession, say, with the communicatio idiomatum (hence Osiander’s “error” of attributing to Christ’s glorified humanity divine omnipresence, which Calvinists deny).

The dénouement, Act VI, shows how Calvin’s distinctive emphasis on Christ’s “solidarity” with humanity—unto the depths of hell in all its emotional duress—forms an immediate connection to Bonhoeffer’s intuition that the metaphysical non-rivalry Chalcedon commends ultimately issues in the ethical call for the Church to define itself as being-for-the-world (not simply over-and-against it)—a call to radical and self-sacrificing solidarity (Stellvertretung) on behalf of the world in the manner of Christ.1

So much for the narrative and its central constructive proposals. One might quibble with this narration, of course. Williams himself admits that the history of dogma is “rarely if ever a smooth story of advance towards consensual resolution” (127). But I want instead to address more substantive matters of disagreement, above all this business about “asymmetry.”

III

What troubles me most about Williams’s christology is how keen it is to deny “exhaustive identity” between the Word of God and Jesus of Nazareth (159-60). His asymmetrical framework means precisely to forestall any attempt to perceive in Chalcedon’s “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten”—”a single hypostasis and a single person”—a simple Word-Jesus identity, still less some kind of symmetrical, mutually reciprocal relation between Christ’s natures. And so for Williams:

the agenda for the theology of the centuries immediately following Chalcedon was unmistakeably the clarification of the vocabulary and assumptions of the definition, so as to underline the asymmetry of the relation between the single hypostasis and the divinity and the single hypostasis and the humanity, and to avoid anything which might suggest that either hypostasis or essence could exist in a purely abstract way…. In fact we are already well on the way in these discussion [sic] to the recognition by medievals like Aquinas that the single esse of the incarnate Word could intelligibly be discussed from two significantly different points of view; and the working through of the asymmetry between Christ’s sharing of the divine essence and his sharing of human nature brought more clearly to light some of the ways in which the classical Christological model both reflected and illuminated fundamental convictions about the asymmetrical relation of creative and created act. (88, my emphasis)

The Chalcedonian Definition unsettles Williams’s schema because, while there’s quite a bit of identity (“one and the same Christ,” “a single hypostasis”) and even symmetry (“the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity,” “consubstantial with the Father…consubstantial with us”), there’s precious little that might be described as “asymmetrical.” This aspect had to be developed. Theologians became increasingly aware of the need to speak about Christ “from two significantly different points of view.” This amounts to the two “perspectives” delineated with utmost clarity in Aquinas: there’s the divine Word who is what and who he is from eternity, and then there’s the human Jesus who is what and who he is from a moment in time, though only because he subsists in that eternal Word’s own person (115-16).

That last elicits the doctrine of “enhypostatization,” which holds that Christ’s human nature has neither subsistence nor natural activity outside of the Word’s hypostasis. It is and is what it is only in his hypostasis—his humanity is “enhypostasized.”2 Crucial here—and what Williams misses—is that distinguishing a hypostasis as such from the nature(s) it “enhypos­tasizes” permits us to discern two remarkable implications of Chalcedon’s portrait of Christ: [1] even if they’re concretely inseparable, a hypostasis and its nature(s) are not simply reducible to one another—they bear different principles or “logics.”[2] A “hypos­tasis” says that and who is, a “nature” says what (it is and how that kind of thing acts). This distinction also shows that [3] an “enhypostatic” nature (or accident) designates that nature’s mode of existing—not what it is or even how it naturally acts (i.e. its natural powers), but where it is determinately real and who is the agent of its natural powers. These two features of Neochalcedonian christology yield a basic but significant insight: when it comes to “one and the same Christ,” the person is the mode of real union between the two natures. As Maximus says:

For [one rightly] confesses with the Fathers that the unconfused [natures] from which Christ is composed remained on account of the difference preserved. Apart from the one hypostasis, these realities that differ from each other in their natural principle could never exist, and you could never in any way know them separately [from the hypostasis].[4]

In Christ, who is the very subsistence of the Word from the Father, divine and human nature subsist. Apart from him they do not exist at all.[5] But since the hypostasis is the natures’ sole subsistence (divinity subsists in all three Persons, of course, only as Father, Son, Spirit), it is also the sole and sufficient way they are one. In fact, they can be an identical reality in the Word’s hypostasis exactly because the logic of hypostasis as such contains no essential content that might otherwise require that these two infinitely different natures (and modes) remain as really distinct as they are abstractly distinct. A hypostasis is hospitable to nature because a hypostasis has no natural content in itself. You could list every imaginable property of my (human) nature along with every accident attributable to me at any point in my life—and you would not list me, my very person.[6] Identify every predicable characteristic of me; you still have not identified the one thus identified—the irreducibly singular one who bears these identifying characteristics. So too with Christ. Even if we could identify and speak the properties of his divine and human natures (and the accidents variously inhering in the latter), we would not then speak his person, the one who possesses and is both natures at once. The marks that identify are not themselves the one identified. For that, we typically reserve a proper name: “Jesus” (cf. Php 2.9-11).

And so a good deal of my issues with Williams’s christology derive, I think, from the way he often elides the logics of hypostasis and nature. Consider again the italicized part of the quote above: post-Chalcedonian christology had to establish “the asymmetry of the relation between the single hypostasis and the divinity and the single hypostasis and the humanity.” I can see an asymmetry between “divinity” and “humanity” abstractly conceived. The former causes the latter, not the reverse; the former is eternal, the latter bound by time; indeed the former is unconditioned and infinite in agency, the latter conditioned and finite in its action; and so ever on. But notice: humanity and divinity are not the only two terms on each side of the relation here. Is not the “hypostasis” that appears in both terms the very same? Presum­ably so, lest we revert to Nestorianism. But if they refer to the same hypostasis, how could they form part of what is compared and contrasted between each term in order to establish an asymmetrical relation? Isn’t it rather that this very hypostatic identity in which alone each nature subsists and thus subsists as one and the same—isn’t it this very identity that allows for any comparison at all? Isn’t the Word the same Word on both “sides” of the asymmetrical relation? Surely. But then he is not himself an asymmetrical relation. He is the identical relation that grounds whatever asymmetrical relation we abstract from his concrete oneness, his subsistence, his unity, himself.

Again, Williams worries over what seems to be the natural way to take Chalcedon:

There is indeed…a problem in Chalcedon’s language to the extent that it implies that there is a single hypostasis which relates in the same way to two sets of attributes—which is the implication of saying, as the formula does, that Christ is of one essence (homoousios) with the Father as regards his divinity and of one essence with us as regards his humanity. The difficulty is that, taken at face value, this would mean either that the hypostasis somehow pre-exists both ‘natures’ or at least is independent of them in some sense, or that two abstract sets of attributes somehow come together to be unified in one agent. (86-7, his emphasis)

Williams’s failure to distinguish sufficiently the logics of hypostasis and natures lures him into a false alternative: surely we cannot say the Son relates to his natures in the same way, lest we posit either the preexistence of the hypostasis-subject as such before it relates to its natures, or we envisage the hypostatic union as a conjunction of two abstract natures. But why can’t the Word relate to his two natures in the same way—namely as their concrete subsistence and most fundamental personal mode—as him? And this certainly needn’t require preexistence. After all, neither my soul nor my body are the whole of me, Jordan. And yet I am both of them at once, and they would not be at all were they not I. Therefore their logical and metaphysical distinction from me (“independent in some sense,” we might say) does not imply my actual preexistence of them, nor theirs of me.[7] Nor does any of this imply a conjunction of abstract predicates. It implies only this: that precisely because a hypostasis bears a logic different from (any) nature, it cannot and need not relate to (any) nature naturally. No amount of comparison between natures as such, then, could ever describe a hypostasis’s relation to its nature(s). A hypostasis is its nature(s) in a mysteriously immediate way, unlike the way a particular nature is its nature (e.g. the way my soul is “soul,” that is, as naturally identical to other instances of the same genus). I do not need any sort of natural mediation to be the concrete identity that is my heart, brain, toe, emotions, soul, thoughts, etc. (They relate to each other that way, but I don’t). That Christ’s divine nature is eternal while his humanity is temporal, for example, says precisely nothing about how their one hypostasis relates to either—for he is both.

Jesus Christ is no more God than man. He is no less man than God. And that’s because he is “neither naked man,” writes Maximus, “nor naked God,” but is “double-natured” and essentially both at once.[8] Asymmetrical christology only works if you neglect the immediacy of hypostatic identity and weigh, as it were, one abstract nature against the other and then mistake logical and abstract priority for real, hypostatic priority. Divinity “preexists” time in its eternity; therefore Christ’s divinity comes “before” his humanity, which is in time and thus arrives “after” the divinity he “already” possesses. But this is abstract and imprecise. Since hypostatic identity does not relate to nature as natures relate to one another, we must rather say: one and the same Christ, Son, Word, Only-Begotten, is the “before” and the “after” of both his natures.[9]

It’s unfortunate, then, that Williams’s principal strategy amounts to observing the many ways divinity is what it is quite apart from humanity (or the infinite apart from the finite), and to conclude from this that we ought not to identify the Word (divinity) and Jesus (humanity) too exhaustively. If there is anything about “being God” that necessarily includes something “outside” (Calvin’s extra) of or beyond reference to Jesus of Nazareth—eternity, infinite agency, omnipresence, aseity, simplicity, etc.—then Williams declares the case closed: obviously the incarnate life of Jesus cannot simply equate to “being God.” But Williams’s case thus depends throughout on an entirely abstract idea of “being God”—abstract even in the infinite concreteness of the tri-hypostatic life of the one God. When Williams summons Calvin to critique Robert Jenson, for instance, he puts it this way:

Even if we follow Jenson’s complex model of Jesus’s realized human sonship as something we must ‘project’ forwards and backwards on to the horizon of God’s life, we still have a question about whether the filial form of divinity is inextricably part of what it is to be God rather than something decided upon by God; and on this issue, Jenson seems to be with the majority view in classical Christology, allowing for some sort of formal extra, even if absolutely nothing can be said of it (except, presumably, that it is whatever is the necessary condition for Jesus being Jesus, for Jesus being the particular human individual he was/is). (160)

Here’s how I understand this argument: if the “filial form of divinity”—that is, the Son—is an essential “part of what it means to be God,” then God is already the Son in eternity, as it were, before the Son becomes Jesus in time; since therefore the Son was the Son in some sense “prior” to when he becomes Jesus, Jesus (i.e. the Word’s incarnate life) is not absolutely necessary to the Son’s identity. Since Jenson presumably concedes that eternal filiation (i.e. the Son) is necessary for God to be God, then this undermines Jenson’s signature thesis that the man Jesus is exhaustively identical to the divine Son.[10]

Again, Williams’s critique is doubly malformed and thus unconvincing.

First, being the Son is not essential for what it means to be God, since neither Father nor Spirit are Son and yet they are God. More precisely, as soon as we affirm that the Son is “inextricably part” of being God, we’ve moved beyond conceiving “God” in the abstract; but then the moment we move beyond this abstraction into the determinateness of Son (and Father and Spirit), we are indeed identifying the very one, the Son, who alone became incarnate: “Before Abraham was, I Am” (Jn 8.58). Conceiving the Son as inherent to divinity moves our contem­plation in just the opposite direction of Williams’s conclusion. If we think “God” as determinately Son (and Father and Spirit), we already distinguish the divine Person from the divine essence as such. And so this extra turns out not to be outside of the Son’s person at all. The “filial form of divinity” is just him, the Son, the one Lord Jesus Christ—the very same on both sides of the (asymmetrical) relation.

Second and what immediately follows: only a groundless abstraction can weaken the Son-Jesus identity so as to make one (eternal filiation) the “condition” or “ground” of the other (“for Jesus being Jesus,” as he says). Or if we insist on speaking this way, we should rather say that the Son is the ground of himself.[11] Then we see once again that it’s the very identity (Son) of the terms (divinity and humanity) that is the real condition for the possibility for their distinction at all. If we deny or even just imagine that we must weaken this identity to secure difference, we’re either reverting to abstraction in order to qualify something real (the person who is just as much man as he is God)—which is never persuasive—or we’ve really just been conceiving “Son” and “Jesus” as two separate subjects all along. And that, of course, is precisely what Williams does not want to do.

Asymmetrical christology, Williams’s included,[12] constantly worries that God’s becoming a creature will give the impression that God and world reciprocally condition each other. Conditioned things are finite things. Mutual conditioning would transgress the basic non-rivalry between God and creation Williams seeks: it would make both finite agents pressing on and forming one another. This explains Williams’s naughty list: Luther (101-3), Osiander (143-4), Eberhard Jüngel (158), Robert Jenson (158-60), Bruce McCormack (175-7), etc.[13] Each in various ways and to different degrees risks adducing “simple identity” from the Incarnation.

Against this tendency toward identity Williams argues for a before-and-after picture of the Word-Jesus relation (and so also of the God-relation), where “one reality is informed and defined by another which is real at a completely different ontological level” (120), so that the “Word is identified quite independently of Jesus” since there is nothing “but a wholly one-sided relation between Word and Jesus” (77)—an amazing claim. This twin vantage, asym­metrical christology ends up denying (with Calvin and against Luther) that Christ’s two natures and their respective modes “interpenetrate” each other, a claim directly opposed to Gregory of Nazianzus and to the whole of Maximus’s christology (154-5, 163-4).[14]

Williams best articulates his central concerns in this passage:

If we say that the eternal Word is as he/it is in virtue of the quality of the incarnate life, and that the Word’s self-emptying is simply the Word’s acceptance of this, the question we are left with is whether the incarnate life, ‘imprinting’ itself on God’s eternity, modifies or adds to that life. Are the filial quality of the incarnate life, its compassionate selflessness, its devotion to the Father’s will shaped by temporal contingency and then ‘received’ in Heaven? Clearly there can be no simple ‘then’ about it: the Word timelessly relin­quishes all that is not Jesus in its/his self-defining action. But can we then say nothing about the eternal Sonship of the Word or indeed the eternal act by which the Father is Father in begetting the Son? Because if we do want to affirm this, we are allowing that the divine life is in some vital way the absolute condition of the incarnate; if not, we are left with both a ‘Father’ and a ‘Son’ existing in eternity somehow logically prior to the determination created in the incarnate life of Jesus—and who therefore may be thought to have no intrinsic relation between them as better and begotten. (179)

Consider two (by now familiar) steps of Williams’s argument here.

First, if we can speak of the Son’s relation to the Father in eternity without reference to his incarnate life as Jesus, then this implies that the Son’s eternal, intra-trinitarian identity must be the “absolute condition” for whatever comes after—e.g. his human life. This is another version of the before-after way of framing the infinite-finite relation; indeed it’s their juxtaposition.

Second, if we do not think it possible to speak with integrity of the eternal Son without reference to the conditions of his incarnate life among us, then we’re committed to saying that Christ’s humanity somehow “modifies” or conditions his divinity. This effectively denies that the divinity is “the absolute condition” of the Incarnation itself. Specifically, it would place divinity—what “being God” means eternally—in a reciprocal relation with its own effect (the created life of Jesus), which reciprocal relation undermines the very logic of creation/causality.

But what if both are true exactly because Jesus is identical to the Son? What if, I mean, the identity of the God-man entails both that we can speak of him abstractly as eternal “Word” (just as we can speak of him abstractly as a mere man—as many in fact did!) and that even speaking abstractly of him, to the degree this is really about the Son in his determinate­ness, is not in truth something other than speaking of him always in relation to the Incarnation?

Look again at the way Williams articulates his concerns here about identity. Three things puzzle me. First, he appears to elide person and nature by referring simply to “the eternal Word” “as it/he is”—as he is qua person or qua divine? This then, second, generates a recurrent false alternative: either the Son is complete in eternity or he is completed in time. If he is complete already in eternity, in the “divine life,” then we admit his eternal identity in the Trinity is “the absolute condition” of his incarnate life—and this would contradict a “simple” Word-Jesus identity. But if he is completed in time, this would seem to imagine a preexisting “Son” who is logically prior to his own determination in the Incarnation but must await, as it were, that event in order to be the Son he is (so that this event and not the Father is the determinative relation in the Son’s identity).

But this, third, is a familiar false alternative based on a familiar mistake, evidenced by what Williams does not say here. The Son as such, his person, is no more conditioned in himself by eternity than he is by time (otherwise “being eternal” would make Father and Spirit into the Son). And this is precisely why he can be both at once without contradic­tion: the same filial relation which the Son is, is both eternal (divine) and historical (human). If he is the “absolute condition” (divine) he is also the absolute conditioned (human). For you will find nothing in Jesus of Nazareth that is not concretely the Son—otherwise that thing wouldn’t subsist at all—including Jesus’ creation from nothing and his birth from the Virgin.[15]

Just here I sense Williams’s own furtive metaphysical rivalry: either the Son himself is the divine Son or the Son is Jesus—but not both at once. And this is, I think, the final rivalry to be overcome christologically. The Son is free to be both Creator and creature—and thus their concrete identity—precisely because his personal identity doesn’t even depend on the contrast between finite and infinite agencies and their respective modalities. More: we can only abstract about those modalities at all because he is both. And so we come upon a most remarkable contemplation: the very fact that we can misapprehend the truth of who he is by beginning with a false juxtaposition is itself a sign that his kenosis is more real than our abstractions. He is so identical to God that we might suppose his real identity simply must lie “outside” his humanity; he is so identical to man that we might regard him as mere man, “accursed by God” (Isa 53.4). We couldn’t properly misapprehend him were he not really identical to both in the most serious, positive, concrete, absolute way. Our very misappre­hension of him proves that he’s more than our misapprehension. It even proves the depths of his love.

Creation and incarnation must finally obey the laws of asymmetry, Williams thinks. In both cases we must be able to say: “God would be God without the world” (222). This might be the direst abstraction in the book. But if Christ’s identity as the (hypostatic) identity of (natural) identity and (natural) difference reveals anything, it’s that a God without his flesh or his world “is a conventional abstraction,” as Bulgakov knew.[16] Nothing is more essential or stable or unstoppable or concrete than hypostatic love. It is precisely divine love that “humanizes God.”[17]

IV

Williams’s entire frame for conceiving “incarnation” seems to be that the divine Word became human. But that’s not the whole truth of Incarnation. The truth is that the divine Word became divine-human. Not, “What does it mean that God became man?” but, “What does it mean that God became the God-man”? Not, “How do we go from eternal Word to temporal Jesus?” but, “How do we go from eternal Word to temporal-eternal Jesus, who is the very Word?” Conceiving Incarnation as if it were simply another instance, however unique, of the way a transcendent “agency” interacts with or encompasses or “activates” or “is signified by” an immanent “agency” already misconceives the heart of Incarnation.

Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that procedure. Indeed it’s difficult to see how it could have developed otherwise in the course of Christian reflection on the mystery of Christ. The problem lies instead in taking such great and uncritical confi­dence in the determinate content of that picture of things—of two “agencies” that are both distinct and yet free of competing for the same logical or metaphysical “space”—that you begin to think that the best we can do is affirm negations. They are not rivals; they are not two instances of some kind; they are not to be juxtaposed; they are not identical; they are “non-dual non-identical” (227).[18] And that’s true. But it’s also inadequate to the mystery’s own content.

Neoplatonic metaphysics would happily agree that the One and the Many are “non-dual non-identical” (a decent summary of En. VI.4-5, as it happens). But “Christ crucified” becomes “foolishness” to the world (1 Cor 1-2) only when this is taken to affirm that “God was crucified,” and is crucified still today. There’s little scandal in pure negation; there’s plenty in the affirmation that “God dies.” For Williams this affirmation “depends on admitting that the two natures through or in which different things are true of the Word remain unaltered by its relation” (140). This is once again a half-truth. Affirming “God dies” doesn’t depend simply on keeping the natures intact during the dying; it depends on the identity of the one who dies. Is that man there, hanging on the tree—is he exhaustively God or not?

To the extent that Williams’s operative and determinative thought-picture is one of “two agencies” and not, as in Christ, two agencies that are positively one and mutually interpenetrating in one agent, his picture furtively imports the very premise he wishes to deny throughout: that infinite and finite agencies are not to be conceived as two finite agencies that must impinge upon one another to be united. But is not the very denial of their identity and bi-lateral penetration itself a result of the stipulation that their modal distinction must finally preclude their real sameness? And isn’t this stipulation an admission of at least modal rivalry in the realm of the real? Doesn’t asymmetry in fact require rivalry to be intelligible at all? Isn’t the greatest affirmation of metaphysical non-rivalry exactly the confession that Christ is the concrete identity of both modes in himself—not just that he is not not both? Perhaps the last and greatest metaphysical rivalry as yet unexposed is that in order for the Word to be God, he must not be who he is as human. Must we say that the Word’s divinity is revealed in Christ by the very fact that the Word could have done without Christ?

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[1] Here I must quote this remarkable line from Williams: “The irony in the Church’s very being is that it is there to make a universal and comprehensive claim that has nothing to do with any aspirations to be a universal and comprehensive system of control” (202).

[2] For a magisterial but unfortunately neglected study of this doctrine (its absence from Williams’s book isn’t unique), see Benjamin Gleede, The Development of the Term ἐνυπόστατος from Origen to John of Damascus (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

[3] Cf. Leontius of Byzantium, CNE PG 86, 1277D; Epil. 8, PG 86, 1945AB—and Maximus Confessor, Opusc 16, PG 91, 205BC; Opusc 23, PG 91, 264AB; Ep 15, PG 91, 553D; Ep 19, PG 91, 344; Amb 2.2, passim. 

[4] Maximus, Ep 12; PG 91, 484b; my translation.

[5] This leads Maximus to the stunning claim that (anticipated, as far as I know, only by the anonymous Neochalcedonian treatise De sectis VII.2, PG 86, 1241B) the divine nature itself is anhypostasis, “without hypostasis”; cf. Opusc 13.7. 

[6] Cf. Maximus, Amb 17.5.

[7] Cp. Maximus, Ep 15, 552C; and Leontius of Byzantium, CNE 4, PG 86, 1285D-1288A.

[8] Maximus, Amb 5.3 and 18; cf. Ep 19, PG 91, 344.

[9] This is what Neochalcedonians meant when they called Christ a “composite hypostasis” (synthetos hypostasis)—namely that the one, whole hypostasis is his own parts in a way typical part-whole schemas can’t account for (since their relations usually depend on comparing specific qualities or properties, i.e. comparing the essence of one thing with another to determine whether they can be united and make one higher, synthetic nature, as body and soul make “human”). Williams misunderstands this idea to refer solely to the human life that is Jesus, “a finite set of phenomena” (37; cf. 109, 119). But the “parts” of which, in which, and which Christ’s hypostasis is are not confined to his human, temporal life: one of those parts is his divinity. This just rehearses Williams’s systematic error, namely neglecting the peculiar logic of person: the “non-composed” hypostasis of the Word (=divine) is not somehow other than the “composite” hypostasis that is Christ—he is who he is as both parts; see Maximus, Ep 13, PG 91, 296-304; and esp. Ep 15, PG 91, 556A (my translation): “So in this way He is mediator, according to hypostasis, for those parts from which He is composed: He comprises the interval of the extremes in Himself [ἵνα ᾗ καθ’ ὑπόστασιν μεσίτης τοῖς ἐξ ὧν συνετέθη μέρεσι· τὴν τῶν ἄκρων ἐν αὐτῷ συνάπτων διάστασιν].”

[10] For a handy summary of his general outlook, see Robert W. Jenson, “Jesus in the TrinityPro ecclesia 8.3 (Summer 1999): 308-18. 

[11] Cyril of Alexandria, Thes., PG 75, 281C; Maximus, Amb 42.11—This is arguably the necessary way of reading even the narrative logic of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: The very same person—the “one Lord Jesus Christ” who is the “Only-Begotten Son”—was “begotten not made” (οὐ ποιηθέντα /non factum) and “was made man” (ἀνανθρωπήσαντα/homo factus est). On the way this narrative logic drives Cyril’s christology, see R.A. Norris, “Christological Models in Cyril of Alexandria,” Journal of Theological Studies 38.2 (1987): 341-67. 

[12] He is by no means an anomaly, and simply represents what seems to be the majority view in modern theology. Florovsky, for instance, explicitly embraces this view, which is taken up and applied to Maximus by Bathrellos; see Georges Florovsky, Collected Works, vol. 9: The Byzantine Fathers of the Sixth to the Eighth Century. Edited by Richard S. Haugh and translated by Raymond Miller, Annie-Marie Döllinger-Labriolle, and Helmut Wilhelm Schmiedel (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsantstalt, 1987), 231; Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor (Oxford: OUP, 2004), 115. And of course adherents of the analogia entis are expressly committed to some form of asymmetry governing christology; e.g. Erich Przywara, Analogia Entis: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Translated by John R. Betz and David Bentley Hart (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014 [1962]) 399, 532-6, and Williams discussion of him (226-41).

[13] As noted, Williams also sees Scotus and especially Ockham as wrong in overemphasizing “separation” in Christ, so he does poise asymmetry as a good old Anglican (Catholic) via media.

[14] Gregory of Nazianzus, Ep 101, SC 208, 48: “Just as the natures are mixed, so also the names pass reciprocally (perichorouson) into each other by the principle of natural co-affinity”; cf. Or 29.19).—Maximus constructs his entire christo-metaphysics around what’s known as the tantum-quantum principle (Williams doesn’t discuss this), which claims that in Christ creation becomes God “to the same degree” that God became man; e.g. Amb 7.22: “[the deified person] places himself wholly in God alone, forming and configuring God alone throughout his entire being, so that he himself by grace is and is called God, just as God by His condescension is and is called man for the sake of man [καὶ τὸν Θεὸν εἶναι συγκαταβάσει καὶ καλεῖσθαι δι’ αὐτὸν ἄνθρωπον], and also so that the power of this reciprocal disposition might be shown forth herein, a power that divinizes man through his love for God, and humanizes God through His love for man. And by this beautiful exchange, it renders God man by reason of the divinization of man [διἀ τὴν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου θέωσιν], and man God by reason of the Incarnation of God [διὰ τὴν τοῦ Θεοῦ ἐνανθρώπησιν]. For the Logos of God and God wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment [ἐνσωματώσεως]”; see too Amb 3.5, 5.14, 10.9, 60.4, QThal 22.4, schol. 3.

[15] Maximus, Amb 5.13, modified: “Thus, ‘though He was beyond being, He came into being,’ fashioning within nature a principle of generation and a different mode of birth [γενέσεως ἀρχὴν καὶ γεννήσεως ἑτέραν [Wis 7:5] τῇ φύσει δημιουργήσας], for He was conceived having become the seed of His own flesh, and He was born having become the seal of the virginity of the one who bore Him, showing that with respect to her mutually contradictory things truly exist together. For she herself is both virgin and mother, innovating nature by a coincidence of opposites, since virginity and childbearing are opposites, and no one would have imagined from nature their combination [ὧν ἐκ φύσεως οὐκ ἄν τις ἐπινοηθήσεται σύμβασις].”

[16] Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God. Translated by Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008 [1933]), 121.

[17] Maximus, Amb 7.22; cf. Amb 5.4.

[18] Williams’s love for the negative sits especially uneasily when he says the Son’s eternal relation to the Father is one of “non-duality and non-identity” (227-8; cf. 244). But surely we must affirm that the Father-Son relation is just as much one of duality and identity. The Son is so hypostatically distinct from the Father that he and not the Father was crucified. The Son is so essentially identical to the Father that “God died.” Negation’s not enough here, and it’s not enough for the mystery of Christ either.

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Jordan Daniel Wood
Jordan Daniel Wood is a Catholic scholar and theologian. He is a visiting assistant professor of theology at Providence College, and he specializes in Maximus the Confessor.