The Person of Jesus Christ:
Problems with Philosophical Christology
By: Gregory S. Neal

“The essence of genius is to know what to overlook.”  --William James


In reading John Macquarrie on “The Person of Jesus Christ,” the difficulty may not be in knowing what to overlook but, rather, what not to overlook. His arguments are often complex and difficult, leading in many different directions before coming toward tentative conclusions.  What makes his theology even more difficult is the often-hidden implications of his conclusions – both in what he says, and in what he fails to say. Additionally, while it is not the stated purpose of philosophic-theology to confuse and infuriate its readers, its task of deconstructing (“demythologizing”) the theological structures within which the Christian Faith has been couched is often more painful than this reader would like to admit. Still, the articulation of the Faith in “modern” terms, for “modern” people, can be properly understood as both important and good for the continued growth and reflection of that very Faith. It was in this frame of mind that I approached Macquarrie on the subject of Jesus Christ.  Much of his task I found both insightful and acceptable, and even his methodology – not altogether foreign to me – struck me as appropriate to his goal. His conclusions, on the other hand, leave something to be desired.  They imply that the Jesus of History – the human being who walked the streets of this earth and taught many great things, much of which is now beyond retrieval – is not only not the “Christ of Faith,” but also that this Jesus, in being fully human, was not also fully divine until the time of the crucifixion.

While Macquarrie understands the Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith as being related, nevertheless they are not depicted as being identical. The community of faith, and its writings which proclaim the Christ of Faith, looks back at the Jesus of History through the “interpretive lenses” of the crucifixion and resurrection.  The Christ of the Gospels is an interpretation of the Historical Jesus in as much as he was the individual within whom Christ found his origination – not just in an existential manner, but ontologically through his self-giving. I have no fundamental argument with this basic idea. It is in and through the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection (however one may wish to construe each event), that the Jesus of History is shown to be important to the church, today. It is this person, acting within history, that becomes the temporal focus and phenomenological starting point of all Christology. Macquarrie takes a different tact from my own on these starting points, but at least we have a similar beginning.

Building from the “bottom up,” from the Jesus of History toward the Christ of Faith, is Macquarrie's aim.  Indeed, “it could not be otherwise in a theology which seeks to apply the existential method seriously and consistently” (p. 309).  While I agree that a “Christology from Below” is appropriate for Macquarrie’s approach, what Macquarrie finds through this “building up” process is open to debate. Essentially, the Christology which he formulates is a type of “adoptionistic incarnationism.”  His initial claims concerning his reconstruction as not being traditional adoptionism are noted and accepted: Macquarrie is not asserting that Jesus was simply a human being who was “adopted” by God as God’s Son at his conception, birth, or baptism – but, then, Jesus is also not to be understood as the traditional incarnation of God.  Macquarrie is clear on this matter, stating unequivocally that adoptionism and incarnationism are inseparable “sides of the same coin.”

. . . adoptionism, where considered in depth, cannot fail to complete itself in incarnationism, precisely as happened in the New Testament.  For how could a man be raised to deity unless God had already descended in humility into him? (p. 310)

Regarding this view, there are many problems and questions. Among them, still open for debate is the claim that “incarnational Christology” can be seen developing within the New Testament.  While John Knox, in The Humanity and Divinity of Christ, does establish a good argument for developmental Christology – especially between the time of the Pauline epistles and the Gospels – the contention that major differences exist between Markian Christology and the rest of the Synoptic tradition are fairly difficult to support given the short amount of time between the writing of Mark and Matthew/Luke-Acts (no more than 15 years, depending on your school of thought).  The surface differences, apparent adoptionism in Mark as opposed to incarnationism in Matthew and Luke-Acts, are more easily understood as stemming from the purpose for authorship to be found in each Gospel, especially Mark, which is interested in the teachings of Jesus, not in His birth or, even, his resurrection. From Paul to John we do find an apparent shift, and one which is made even more pronounced if you assume that all of Paul's theology and christology can be found within the apostle’s extant letters (something I very much doubt, as does E.P. Sanders, Victor Paul Furnish, and Joseph B. Tyson, given the occasional nature of all of the letters, except Romans, as pastoral correspondences).  NewTestament criticism aside – or, perhaps, even accepting developmental Christology as fact – I find Macqaurrie's heretical tendencies to be of greater importance, interest, and difficulty. The idea of adoptionistic incarnationism contains within it many problems, two of the most interesting being a hint of Arianism and a tendency toward monophysitism.

We must first begin by looking at Macquarrie's redefinitions of human and divine “nature.” For Macquarrie, human nature is the drive, the tendency toward “becoming” or developing; the goal of this “becoming” is the limit of existence, or death.  In this way, Macquarrie speaks of human existence as always being in direct relation to death.  Divine nature is conceived of as being ontological “becoming,” pure “expressing,” or existential “letting be.” The divine nature was expressed by God in the creation of the universe, including the creation all of life-kind. This act of “letting be,” or creation, is the very act by which God, “expressive Being,” not only fashions all that has existence (inanimate as well as animate objects), but is also the act by which it can be said that Being “emptied” itself into creation.  This point from Macquarrie’s argument I have termed: general incarnation, for it is here that the expression of creation – which eventually results in the birth of Jesus – is found. This also points to the theological meaning of the virgin birth: in Macquarrie’s formulation of the doctrine he does not intend any reference to a biological birth or conception event but, rather, as a metaphysical ground for describing God’s act in creating, in initiating, in “letting be” all that is, including most especially the human Jesus.  The general incarnation should be held in tension with the specific incarnation which, as I will show, relates directly to Jesus Christ, his death and his divinity. The expression of the divine is, relative to creation, a dynamic interrelation with a developmental goal.  The same is true for human nature, which develops toward goals, the ultimate of which is death.

Another aspect worthy of note, not so much a redefinition as a clarification, is that of sin and sinlessness. Macquarrie states that sin is a lack of order relative to, or separate from, God. Sinlessness is the act of overcoming the disorder between God and humanity, establishing perfect unity of will and purpose.

Macquarrie's Christology is Arian in so far as it attempts to elevate Jesus’ humanity over and against his divinity and his praxis over and against his nature. According to Macquarrie, Jesus is a human being who develops into divinity by virtue of His constant and growing moral unity with God.  In other words, Jesus is understood has having developed toward “Christhood” through the discovery and acceptance of his goal – his own death, which corrects the disorder between creation and God – producing his sinlessness. This moment of sinlessness in Christ’s total “self-giving,” when unity between God and human is achieved, occurs on the cross at death.  For Macquarrie it is also here, at the death of Jesus, that the “incarnation,” specific to Jesus, occurs.

This is Macquarrie's moment of monophysitism, for at the end of Jesus’ life his selfhood is replaced by Christhood as the Human Jesus becomes the Christ of Faith. By relocating the specific incarnation of Jesus from the beginning of the “Christ event” to the end, Macquarrie makes adoptionism complete within incarnationism: the Jesus of history becomes the Christ of Faith at the penultimate moment of human becoming: his death. In other words, the point in human existence where the ultimate, absolute goal is reached (death), is also the point at which God and the human Jesus meet.

My objection to this Christology is contained within its Arianistic and monophysitic tendencies.  While Macquarrie does not attempt to say that primordial Being is greater than expressive Being – an impossible thought for Macquarrie, since both are one-in-the-same – or that Christ looses all of His human traits following the specific incarnation during death upon the cross, his assertion that the historical Jesus had only one nature at a time – human during his life, followed by divine at his death – presents problems relative to such doctrinal statements as the Consubstantial Humanity and Divinity of Jesus as formulated by the Council of Chalcedon.  If the incarnation of the divine Logos in human flesh came at anytime other than conception, a difficulty is established regarding the two natures of the one person, Jesus.  Was Jesus, as Macquarrie seems to indicate, a human striving for and eventually attaining divinity, or was he consubstantially fully human and fully divine during his entire life … from conception, through birth, during his growing up years, in his adult ministry and throughout his death, resurrection, and ascension? The dichotomy remains, even if Macquarrie attempts to claim that it does not. The tension has to remain, in the final equation, because of the very “nature” of the problem with which we are faced in the question of soteriology:  who saves (or, who can save): Jesus as God or Jesus as a human? In my opinion, the orthodox Christian interpretation is, indeed, the correct one: Jesus, fully human and fully divine, “two natures in one person,” saves. Only such an entity can sav fallen creation and fallen human beings: one who both shares our condition, but also has the ability to correct it.

A Christology which builds from the human Jesus to the Christ of faith can discover, it seems to me, that God the divine Logos emptied himself into creation in, by, and through a baby boy, Jesus of Nazareth. Such a Christology can discover that, as we ascend from the human Jesus to search for the divine Jesus, we find the divine Jesus descending to be with us through the human Jesus. The warrants for such a claim can be found in relation to the Christological and Soteriological affirmations of the Church which reach out to us from across the centuries.  We are often quick to jettison the historic theological interpretations and affirmations, however we do so at our own peril. The mythological, theological, and metaphysical structures conveyed within such historic doctrinal affirmations need not be a barrier to our oh-so “modern” sensibilities if they are properly approached and applied. As Walter Lowe says, there is an undeniable link between Christology and Soteriology.  Christology should serve to determine Soteriology, as affirmed by Macquarrie, but this Christology needs to have a firm footing in the traditions from which it springs, and which still effects us today. (Hodgson and King, pp. 222, 245-247) Christology needs to be, above all else, firmly rooted in Trinitarian models; ie, in the Godhead.  This is one striking problem with Macquarrie for, with all of his talk about primordial and expressive Being, the exact relationship between the human Jesus and “God the second time” is quite ambiguous.  Be it in relation to the pre-existence of Christ or the specific incarnation of Jesus, Macquarrie has little to say about the second person of the Trinity's activity in his Christology.  For Macquarrie, the principle question remains: was Jesus a member of the Godhead prior to his birth, or was he only blended into expressive Being at his death, as if the cross were some kind of ontological La Machine? Macquarrie’s answer is lacking in Soteriological orthodoxy.

Macquarrie's Christology can be saved by pulling the incarnation back, from the cross, to its catholic position in the conception of Jesus. The dynamic relationship of God’s nature with creation need not be compromised in this: Jesus Christ the divine and the human is in search of himself, turning to his Father, pre-figuring the loving, self-giving nature of our salvation. Macquarrie's Soteriology is sound in this, as well as in his return to the classic view of atonement.  For Macquarrie, the atonement is understood as the turning away of fallen humanity from the dominion of evil, idolatry, and self-love toward the self-giving source of all being: God.  The atonement is localized within time, upon the cross, and it is made ever-present today within the Church through the Sacramental Real Presence of Christ in a mysterious way that both Macquarrie and Walter Lowe refuse to try and define.  Nevertheless, even though it is a mystery, it is a truth which is actualized in the lives of millions of disciples, across the centuries, from the crucifixion, death, and resurrection, through to today.  This is what the Christ, the expressive Being, the Son of God, brings to creation in and through the incarnation.  This incarnation elevated the created order in humankind and gave to us an opportunity to experience a restored relationship to God, the source of our being.

Page References From:

Macquarrie, John. Principles of Christian Theology. New York: SCM Press, (1987)

Knox, John. The Humanity and Divinity of Christ: A Study of Pattern in Christology. Cambridge University Press, (1967)

King, Robert H.  & Hodgson, Peter C. (eds) Readings in Christian Theology.  (1985)

© 1989, Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

This paper was written in 1989 for a Course in Systematic Theology
which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.