The Pattern of Sound Words: Some Brief Thoughts on the Semantics of Orthodoxy

One of the reasons why I believe the consensual tradition of Christian orthodoxy deserves so much deference is that its theological language has been time-tested. It has been tested in the laboratory of Christian history and Christian experience. It has passed through the crucible of ecclesiastical conflict and has been vindicated by lay Christian consensus across time and space. The challenges of translation and contextualization still remain, but the semantic categories passed down to us have survived for a reason.

Calvin once mused about a scenario in which no extra-biblical language would be needed in order to communicate what Scripture clearly teaches about the nature and works of the Triune God. But, as Calvin rightly conceded, Christian theologians must employ extra-biblical terminology, not because the language of Scripture is insufficient, but because it is so often distorted.

This is also why I am so wary of newer categories that have little to no precedent in the Christian tradition. The historical categories of Trinitarian orthodoxy–hypostasis and ousia, procession and mission, inseparable operations and appropriation–have been tested and tried–biblically, theologically, philosophically, and pastorally.  They have, as a result, a kind of sturdiness and reliability that can’t be found in the newer categories of so many recent evangelical treatments of the Trinity–like the granite walls of Yosemite compared to loose shale. The newer terms–relationship, role, functional subordination, eternal relations of authority and submission–are, at best provisional, and must undergo a significant probationary period in order to test their biblical and theological utility. In some cases, their incommensurabilty and inconsistency with the traditional ways Christians have interpreted Scripture and the Triune mystery at its heart are more than apparent.

So for my part, its better to tread the old paths of orthodox terminology, with all of their careful and intricate beauty and rationality, than to begin afresh with newer and less tried alternatives.

Andrew Fuller on the Incomprehensible Trinity

A helpful reminder from 18th century Baptist pastor and theologian, Andrew Fuller:

A subject so great and so much above our comprehension as this is requires to be treated with trembling. Everything that we can think or say, concerning the ever blessed God, requires the greatest modesty, fear, and reverence. Were I to hear two persons engaged in a warm contest upon the subject, I should fear for them both. One might in the main be right, and the other in the wrong; but if many words were used, they might both be expected to incur the reproof of the Almighty: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (Letters on Systematic Divinity)

The Extra Cyrillicum: In the Bosom of the Virgin, Filling All Creation

The doctrine known as the extra Calvinisticum states that the Son of God is not limited to nor circumscribed by his human nature. Even “after” the incarnation, the eternal Son still continues to exist as God, upholding the universe by the Word of his power, along with the Father and the Spirit. The doctrine emerged out the Reformation controversies over the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The Lutherans maintained that the Son’s human nature became ubiquitous by virtue of its union with the divine nature and could therefore be present “in, with, and under” the elements of the Eucharist (a misapplication of the ancient doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, or communication of attributes). The logic of the Lutherans seemed to be that wherever the divinity of Christ is, there also is the humanity of Christ. The Calvinists, on the other hand, maintained that the incarnation does not introduce a change or mutation to either the human or the divine nature of Christ; instead, since both natures retain their integrity, the Son must continue to exist in his divinity, even apart from his human nature. The Lutherans lampooned this view, labeling it Calvin’s extra, meaning, “outside of”–as if Christ’s divinity was sort of spilling out of him in a spatial sense (for more on the extra, see Paul Helm’s essay on it here).

But the Calvinists had the upper hand in this debate–in terms of both Scripture and the Christian tradition. On the latter, David Willis has argued convincingly that the Calvinist view is so well attested in the tradition that the doctrine is more properly termed the extra Catholicum or the extra Patristicum, rather than the extra Calvinisticum.

One of the most common objections to the extra is that it runs the risk of Nestorianism. If Christ has a divine life, so to speak, outside of his incarnate experience, then doesn’t this entail that he is functioning effectively as two persons, one divine and one human? Gerald Hawthorne, for example, argues that the early church fathers implicitly taught this view, namely, that Christ has a kind of “dual existence” as God and as man. According to Hawthorne, this view either risks Nestorianism or else a kind of “de facto Docet[ism], failing to estimate fully the humanity in which divinity made itself visible.”


Ironically, Hawthorne cites Cyril of Alexandria as an example of this view. I say “ironically,” because Cyril was, of course, the chief anti-Nestorian in the lead up to the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus (431), which denounced the two-persons heresy. So if Cyril himself affirms the extra, then it seems highly unlikely that it actually risks the error of Nestorianism. Here is the relevant portion on the issue from Cyril’s Third Epistle to Nestorius:

And we do not say that the flesh was changed into the Godhead, or again that the ineffable nature of God the Word was perverted into that of the flesh, for He is immutable and unalterable, ever abiding the same, according to the Scriptures; but while visible as a babe in swaddling clothes and yet in the bosom of the Virgin who bare him, He was filling all creation as God, and was enthroned with Him who begat Him. For the divinity is immeasurable and without magnitude, nor does it admit of circumspection.

The Word is united to flesh and so Christ is one person, but this does not mean that his divinity is contracted, so to speak, to his human nature. He remains the Word even in his incarnate state. Thus, because he has two natures, there is nothing improper in ascribing to him, as a single person, attributes and activities distinctive of his two natures: nursing at Mary’s breast, while at the same time filling all creation. So perhaps we could, with some justification, even speak of the doctrine as the extra Cyrillicum.

O Radix

If you don’t know about Malcolm Guite’s excellent little book of sonnets on the church year, Sounding the Seasons, you should remedy that. Guite is an Anglican poet-priest who has a knack for making the sturdy, permanent truths of the Christian faith as lively and relevant as they really are.

Guite opens with an extended selection of sonnets on Advent, including seven that match the great “O Antiphons” of the final seven days of Advent. Here is today’s sonnet, “O Radix,” celebrating the Root of Jesse:

All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all.
We knew the virtues once of every weed,
But, severed from the roots of ritual,
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual.
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root,
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshipped in the sacred grove,
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.

Incarnation Anyway?

A couple of years ago I read through Edwin Chr. van Driel’s important work, Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology. In it, van Driel explores the question, would God have become incarnate even if there were no sin from which to rescue humanity? Or, to state the question differently, in the eternal plan of God, is God’s decree to become incarnate in Christ logically anterior to his decree to permit the fall (supralapsarian)?

Van Driel admits that in the Western traditions, the answer to this question is (for the most part) decidedly, no. Calvin is representative on this point:

One such [vague] speculation is that Christ would still have become man even if no means of redeeming mankind had been needed…But since all Scripture proclaims that to become our Redeemer he was clothed with flesh, it is too presumptuous to imagine another reason or another end. We well know why Christ was promised from the beginning: to restore the fallen world to succor lost men….In short, the only reason given in Scripture that the Son of God willed to take our flesh, and accepted this commandment from the Father, is that he would be a sacrifice to appease the Father on our behalf (Institutes 2.12.4).

But van Driel suggests that this line of reasoning begs the question in some important respects. Is it actually the case that Scripture gives us no reasons for the incarnation other than those tied to Christ’s work of sin-bearing atonement? For example, does Scripture not also speak of the incarnation in creational and eschatological terms that transcend (without occluding) the incarnation’s redemptive rationale?

But what would a scriptural case for the “incarnation-anyway” position look like? What Scriptures have proponents of this view marshaled as evidence for their position? Many supporters of the position have pointed to the sweeping Christological claims of Ephesians and Colossians with regard to Christ’s place in God’s creational agenda. Ephesians 1:10 maintains that God’s purpose in Christ was “a plan for the fullness of time to unite (anakephalaioo; recapitulate) all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Likewise, Colossians 1:16 speaks of Christ—not just the Son of God as such, but the incarnate Christ—as the one through whom and for whom all things were created. So it appears that the incarnation has a creational, not merely a redemptive, dimension.

Van Driel also makes three interrelated theological arguments in favor of the incarnation-anyway position. He suggests that there are a number of goods that we would not have apart from the incarnation:

  • The superabundance of the eschaton. The eschaton (the final state) is not merely a return to the proton (the first state). It transcends Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden because it involves an eternal, permanently sinless, face-to-face encounter with God in the face of Christ.
  • The vision of God. Relatedly, when we are transformed in the eschaton, we will experience the beatific vision. But how so? First John explains that the glorified saints will be like Christ, because they will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). Our experience of God will not merely be one of intellectual contemplation, but we will see our God in his incarnate state. As embodied creatures, we will know God in an embodied way.
  • Divine friendship. As van Driel argues, “for friends, presence is what counts.” God is not content to remain at a distance, but he makes himself “maximally available” to his creatures. This he accomplishes finally and fully through the incarnation.

So we have these superadded gifts only in light of the incarnation. But do we really want to say that these eschatological goods are entirely contingent upon the presence of sin? Was the fall, then, actually a felix culpa, a happy fault, that was necessary in order for God to bring about these final purposes for his creation? This view is problematic for van Driel, because it seems to make God’s good purposes dependent upon evil. Instead, van Driel maintains that these creational purposes were intended by God all along, with the added necessity of redemption entering into the picture posterior to the decree to permit the fall (I use the word “posterior” rather than “after” because we must remember that the decree of God is eternal; it is not as if the fall took God by surprise and only then did he determine to send a Savior; the decree to permit the fall and provide redemption was willed “before the foundation of the world” no less than the decree to create. So we are not dealing with a temporal but a logical priority here).

So what are we to make of this case for the incarnation-anyway position? I admit that I find many of these biblical and theological arguments quite compelling. The New Testament, especially Paul’s cosmic Christology, does seem to teach what Myk Habets has referred to as the primacy of Christ–that the incarnate Christ is preeminent in all of God’s purposes, for creation and consummation no less than redemption. But it should be noted that the overwhelming majority of texts that speak of the incarnation do situate it in terms of God’s redemptive work. And there may be other problems for the incarnation-anyway position that I need to think through more carefully. But at the moment I am inclined to think that incarnation has primacy in the eternal decree of God. So perhaps–wonder of wonders–God in his infinite love determined to be Immanuel, God with us, all along.

“An Invasion of God”


Everything in Christianity centers on the incarnation of the Son of God, an invasion of God among men and women in time, bringing and working out a salvation not only understandable by them in their own historical and human life and existence, but historically and concretely accessible to them on earth and in time, in the midst of their frailty, contingency, relativity, and sin.

-T. F. Torrance

In other words,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

-1 John 1:1-4

What Kind of Incarnation? Mapping the Contemporary Options

He had not lost His former being, but He had become what He was not before; He had not abdicated His own position, yet He had taken ours.

-Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate 3.16

Advent is well under way and Christmas is nearly upon us. So Christians around the world are giving special attention to the glorious mystery at the heart of our faith: the Incarnation of the Son of God for the salvation of the world. But what does it mean for God to become incarnate? How can a single individual be both God and man?

Even among those who agree upon the basic grammar of Christology enshrined in the Chalcedonian Definition–namely, that Christ is one person in two distinct but inseparable natures–there is often confusion and disagreement about what kind of incarnation we are talking about. What would it even mean for God to become incarnate? In what follows, I briefly map out some of the major options provided by contemporary theologians and philosophers in answer to this question (these two books have been especially helpful to me in thinking through these issues).

Kenosis vs. Krypsis

Many Christians assume that in order for God to become incarnate, he must surrender something–if not the possession of his divine attributes, at least the exercise of certain divine attributes (such as omnipotence or omniscience). After all, how can Christ be genuinely human, if at the same time he possesses all knowledge and all power? How can he be temporally and spatially located, if at the same time he is timelessly eternal and omnipresent?  It must be the case, on this reasoning, that the Son divested himself of certain divine attributes in order to become incarnate. This so-called kenotic theory of the incarnation–which takes its name from Phil. 2:7, he “emptied” (ekenosen) himself–remains popular among many Christians and has witnessed a revival of interest among academic theologians in recent years.

But the kenotic model is a relatively recent theory of the incarnation, with roots in 19th century German Lutheranism. Older interpretations of Philippians 2 understood the Son’s self-emptying, not as an actual divestiture of deity, but as a refusal to demand that his deity be recognized, if it should interfere with the divine purpose to save. It was, as Oliver Crisp has suggested, not so much an actual, metaphysical kenosis as it was a divine krypsis: a veiling of the Son’s forma Dei (form of God) under the guise of the forma servi (form of a servant). This understanding is consistent with the oft-cited Patristic formula that the Son of God became what he was not, without ceasing to be what he was (e.g., see the Hilary quote above). It is also consistent with the so-called extra Calvinisticum: the notion that the Son of God is not limited to nor circumscribed by his human nature, even in his incarnate state, but instead continues to live out, so to speak, his immutable divine life along with the Father and the Spirit.

Transformational vs. Relational Models

Closely related to this first pair of options is a second set of categories, namely, what Jonathan Hill has termed transformational vs. relational models of the incarnation. In the transformationalist approach, as one might guess, the Son is transformed into a human being either by becoming a human body or a human soul. The most problematic version of transformationalism can be found in the heresy of Apollinarianism, which maintained that the Son simply replaced the human soul in Jesus Christ. But kenotic models can also be seen as a subset of the transformationalist approach, since, in kenoticism, the Son has restricted himself, as it were, to the constraints of an ordinary human life.

In contrast, relational models understand the incarnation in terms of the Son acquiring a particular relation to a particular human nature. This human nature is complete (body and soul) and would have constituted a distinct human person had it not been assumed by the Son. But since it is assumed by the Son from the moment of conception is does not constitute a distinct human person (anhypostasia) but is given its personhood in the hypostasis of the Son (enhypostasia). On the relational account, then, the Son need not surrender anything, nor undergo any kind of transformation in terms of his divine life, in order to assume a discrete human nature.

Abstractism vs. Concretism

The final set of categories tracks closely with the previous two. This final typology concerns the question, what kind of human nature did Christ assume? Did he assume a concrete human nature–complete with both body and soul–as the relational model suggests? Or instead did he merely assume a set of abstract properties that are common to human nature?  In other words, did he assume a human nature, viewed as a concrete particular, or did he assume human nature, viewed as an abstract universal? Alvin Plantinga appears to be the first to suggest this terminology (abstract vs. concrete human nature) but the positions go back much further (perhaps even to Chalcedon, as Plantinga suggests). As the tradition of the undivided church continued to clarify and expound upon Chalcedon, it became apparent that the orthodox position demanded something much closer to concretism, since the sixth ecumenical council affirmed that Christ has not only two natures but also two wills and two energies.


These sets of categories are obviously related. The first factor in each is related to the others. In other words, kenoticism, transformationalism, and abstractism can be understood as distinct ways of describing the same basic approach to the incarnation. Likewise, krypsis, relationalism, and concretism appear to hang together as a coherent model of the incarnation. If we were to state these contemporary options in terms of ancient Christological heresies, we might say that the first approach is eager to avoid Nestorianism (the two persons heresy) but perhaps skirts too closely to Apollinarianism (an incomplete incarnation). The second approach would run in the other direction: keen to avoid Apollinarianism but running the risk of Nestorianism. For my own part, I think the second approach–the kryptic-relational-concretist model–is the most consistent with both Scripture and the Christian tradition; can successfully avoid the charges of Nestorianism; and is superior to the first model in terms of broader dogmatic considerations. But that is an argument for another day!

A Model to Imitate


I’m reading through von Balthasar’s seminal work on the theology of Maximus the Confessor. As the translator Brian Daley points out, this is a unique work, “combining historical interpretation with constructive argument” (11). Daley explains that von Balthasar intends “not to be a detached observer of Maximus in his own milieu” but to be both a critic and “an advocate, an impassioned promoter of the synthetic view of God and creation that he perceives in this seventh-century scholastic and monk, precisely because he sees there many elements of the theological synthesis he hopes to offer to his own world” (16).

In other words, von Balthasar is engaged in theological retrieval–not merely historical investigation as an end in itself, nor even merely historical theology as an detached enterprise–but retrieval for the sake of renewal, as Timothy George puts it. That’s a model worth following.

And as von Balthasar seeks to demonstrate, Maximus is one of the great luminaries of the shared Christian past worthy of imitation. As he introduces the life and theology of Maximus, von Balthasar reaches an almost poetic crescendo:

We search, with our lanterns, for models to imitate, but we do not like to look for them in the distant past. Here is one who seems extraordinarily contemporary: a spiritual world-traveler, who continued to work quietly while the waves of the Persian armies and the still more threatening waves of Islam drove him ever further from home and while ecclesiastical and political integralism captured him, put him on trial, attempted to seduce him, condemned him, and banished him, until–at the southern end of what was to be Holy Russia–he died a martyr (27-28).

In a destabilized world and in uncertain times, we need sturdy, reliable models from the past, not to dust off as ancient artifacts to be admired, but as living conversation partners (think, communio sanctorum), who inspire faithful obedience in our own time and place. Retrieval for the sake of renewal. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ needs this now more than ever.

David Bentley Hart on Analytic Philosophy

Speaking of the analytic philosophical tradition, here’s part of David Bentley Hart’s take(down):

I should probably note here that, in the analytic tradition of Anglo-American philosophy, the issue [of God as Being or Reality] tends to be complicated on the one hand by the methods and conceptual rules generally preferred by analytic thinkers, and on the other by the lack of historical perspective that those methods and rules often encourage. The analytic tradition is pervaded by the mythology of “pure” philosophical discourse, a propositional logic that somehow floats above the historical and cultural contingency of ideas and words, and that somehow can be applied to every epoch of philosophy without any proper attention to what the language and conceptual schemes of earlier thinkers meant in their own times and places. This is a pernicious error under the best of conditions, but it has worked arguably the greatest mischief in the realm of ontology, often as a result of principles that, truth be told, are almost entirely arbitrary.

The Experience of God, p. 123

Thoughts? Reactions?

Vanhoozer, Taylor, and the Prospects of Analytic Theology

I missed this back in May, but Kevin Vanhoozer has an insightful review of Charles Taylor’s latest book, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, over at the Gospel Coalition website. Vanhoozer explains that Taylor is a “post-analytic” philosopher in that he has come to reject the reductionism of the analytic philosophical tradition. Specifically, Taylor has come to believe that the “designative” theory of language associated with analytic philosophy–namely, that language merely designates or labels objects in the world–is an insufficient account of humanity’s use of language. Language does not merely map out the objective world; it also communicates “the significance that things have for us.”

Anyway, enough of this review of a review. What stood out to me in Vanhoozer’s post was his conclusion, where he applies Taylor’s insights to theological formulation and in particular to analytic theology:

Taylor thinks that contemporary analytic philosophy is still indebted in various ways to Cartesian philosophy and to the goal of using language to set forth an accurate description of the natural world and of seeing meaning as “something down-to-earth, and nonmysterious” (117). Is the task of Christian theology simply to designate the realities to which it refers in unambiguous propositions? Should we not follow the way the biblical words and themes and genres go, to trace them out and preserve them and penetrate them better? Put differently: to what extent is the canon a sine qua non of Christian consciousness, the mind of Christ?

Just when you thought it safe to go into the water of analytic theology, we must now ponder the value, and perhaps the necessity, of post-analytic theology.

I’ve expressed appreciation for analytic theology in the past, and I still think some interesting work is being done in this emerging field. But Vanhoozer, via Taylor, puts his finger on some questions I have been mulling about the movement for the past couple of years.

Part of what drew me to analytic theology several years back was Oliver Crisp’s use of it to explicate and defend classic Christology. I still think that work is incredibly helpful, but the pressing question I’ve been asking lately is, how is language functioning in these kinds of examinations and defenses of Christian doctrine? Does it signify what God is actually like in some kind of rigorous, precise, and objective way? Or does it simply give us the grammar to speak about and reflect upon God in ways that are faithful and fitting to the biblical economy?

The latter seems more likely to me now. This doesn’t mean doctrine is merely a function of the community or that it has no objective referent. But it does mean that we need a healthy dose of apophaticism in our theologizing. Theology should never have as its goal the desire to render its great Object non-mysterious.