Chapter 3 (“Sharing the horrors: Christ as horror-defeater”) of Marilyn McCord Adams’ Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology is a wonderful chapter that has me equally excited and skeptical, apprehensive and suspicious. Here she begins to answer the questions she posed at the conclusion of the previous chapter, namely:
“If our fundamental problem is our vulnerability to horrors, and if salvation is the defeat of and our healing from the dysfunctional effects of horrors and the eventual removal of this vulnerability from the cosmos, who and what must Jesus be and what must Jesus’ relationship be to God and to us if Jesus is the one in whom this salvation-as-horror-defeat is achieved?”
We have a “soteriological job description” (i.e., Stage 1-3 horror-defeat), but what are the qualifications to be this horror-defeater? Adams agrees “it takes a God-man to do the job,” and she aims to work out the identity of this horror-defeater consistent with the Chalcedonian Creed (451 BCE) and a conviction she shares with Gregory Nazianzen (4th century Archbishop) that “what is not assumed cannot be restored.” As she argued in the previous chapter, because divine being is the only incommensurate good sufficient to accomplish this horror-defeating work, Jesus must be divine being. But because human embodied existence is the context to be assumed and in which its healing defeat must be accomplished as horror-defeat, Jesus must be human being.
Adams summarizes two different answers to the question ‘Who/What must Jesus be to be our savior?’ before offering her own qualified diagnosis. I want to quickly review these two approaches in this post (Part 4) and her own offering in Part 5.
The first sort of answer she calls perfectionist Christologies. These attribute to Christ’s human nature “maximal supernatural upgrades in grace and knowledge” which essentially insulate Christ from any genuine participation in the very vulnerability which is the arena in which (Adams argues) our horror-defeat must transpire. She explains—
“These thinkers begin with distinctive systematic presumptions… Some harbored a presumption against Incarnation, vigorously voiced by non-Christian (Jewish and Muslim) monotheists and reinforced by a Platonizing appreciation of the metaphysical “size-gap” between creatures and God. In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm in effect concedes that Incarnation is prima facie metaphysically indecent (why would a being a greater than which cannot be conceived unite itself with what is ‘almost nothing’?) and therefore something God would undertake only if the fulfillment of Divine purposes made is conditionally necessary to do so. Given the fact of Incarnation, non-Antiochene patristics and early medieval theologians transmuted the presumption against Incarnation into a presumption of perfection, that, other things being equal, the human nature God made God’s own would have to be as perfect as it is possible for a human nature to be.”
Essentially this perfectionist tradition merely adds normal human functioning and growth “into a soul already equipped – ab initio and permanently – with as much supernatural knowledge of God and creatures as a human soul is capable of….” This approach, Adams feels, actually disqualifies Jesus from being our horror-defeater, for the job is to defeat horrors not just insulated ‘inside’ a human nature but ‘with’ or ‘by means of’ that nature, i.e., in terms of the capacities and vulnerabilities definitive of that nature. This is the human side of the qualifications. But there’s also a divine side of the job description (Part 5) which limits how much and in what ways he identifies with us.
Turn-of-the-century British Christology
She also briefly reviews the ways British theologians (Charles Gore, Frank Weston, Peter Forsyth, William Temple) departed from this perfectionist approach. She agrees with the basic direction in which they move (because by her account they took Jesus’s embodied, social context and human development seriously) but disagree with them where “they share the conviction that sin is the main soteriological problem, and that One Who saves us from sin must be sinless.” Thus British Christologians have a “soteriological plot [that] tends to be moralistic and moralizing,” while her approach will not require Jesus to be impeccable or sinless. Stay tuned for Part 5!
“Broadly speaking, turn-of-the-century British liberal theologians deplored the a priori character of such patristic and medieval Christology, with its tendency to make the metaphysical “gap” and the presumption of perfection decisive. On the contrary, Christology should begin with Holy Scripture, and with then-contemporary higher critical exegesis of it which treated the Bible as a historical document.”
What this meant in practice was that Scripture’s portrait of Christ was not infallible, historical inaccuracies abounded, the text couldn’t be trusted, and for some that miracles were impossible, etc. Though they denounced the philosophical presuppositions of the perfectionist Christologies which in their view failed to take the real humanity of Christ seriously, they had philosophical presumptions of their own that disqualify their view in Adams’ mind. And we’ll get to Adams’ arrangement of these concerns next.