Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Evangelicals are Really Closet Docetists

With the abovementioned title in mind, I'm thinking that I have to start employing a rating system for my blog posts. Posts such as this one may be rated TO - that is "Theologians Only". If some of my evangelical bloggers resent the idea that some readers will be exposed to alternative points of view, I could rate these types of posts PBR - that is, "Pastoral Brainwashing Recommended", so as to ensure that my ideas don't even get a hearing in the first place. Almost certainly, I will have to have to add a disclaimer something along the lines of "Warning: this post may contain theological themes that may be unsuitable for evangelical readers. Take cover ... and pray for my soul."

With that out of the way, I am able to tell you that I attended the second week of "Branches" tonight - a ten week program exploring Catholic practice and spirituality. Tonight's topic was "Who is Jesus?" and the speaker was Dr Robert Tilley of the Aquinas institute. The first thing I'll point out is that I don't really think that there was anything the Protestants, even conservative Protestants could have disagreed with in tonight's talk. This wasn't entirely unsurprising, given that the Nicean Creed is a common starting point (I guess depending upon the way you define "starting point") for both Catholic and Protestant Christology. Still, I'll be quite interested in seeing where the two roads eventually do diverge.

Even though tonight's talk was relatively uncontroversial, it got me thinking about one of my objections to evangelicalism. It occurred to me that one of my major gripes was and is in practice, I believe, that the Christ of evangelicalism is primarily spiritual and eschatological figure. By this, I mean that the focus of evangelicalism seemed so heavily focused upon the post-resurrection Christ that the pre-resurrection Christ hardly gets a look in. If I had to explain this, I would have to suggest that this is because evangelicals would like to see themselves as being "cruci-centric" - that is, that the Christian gospel is all about the Cross. What this means is that the evangelicals tend to focus rather heavily on the Pauline epistles, which talk about the implications of the Cross for the believer, while neglecting the earthly ministry of Jesus. It would seem, for many evangelicals, that Jesus' earthly ministry is merely a prelude to the main event, with no real significance of itself, and indeed, no contribution whatsoever to the salvific schema.

The problem with the above approach is that it risks seeing Jesus in purely divine terms - a heresy originated in the late first or early second century known as Docetism. Of course, evangelicals would assert that they believe that Jesus was fully human, but whether this intellectual assertion means anything in practice is fairly debatable. If you disagree with my assessment, I'd suggest you'd do well to look at writings on Jesus in the evangelical subculture. I would suggest that this trend is even true of evangelical theologians, who seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about the post-resurrection Christ compared to the pre-resurrection Christ.

I should point out that I think that the over-emphasis of Jesus' divinity by evangelicalism is probably an understandable reaction to attacks upon the divinity of Jesus originating in 19th century liberal scholarship. Indeed, to the extent that they reject the liberals' rejection of Jesus' divinity, I agree with them. However, I would suggest that evangelicals have tended to overcompensate to such and extent that we wouldn't know that the evangelical Jesus really was human except for the odd Easter and Christmas sermon.

I believe that evangelicals would experience a much more rich faith by spending more time focusing upon the humanity of Christ. It is only because of the incarnation that we are able to speak about the practice of discipleship, quite simply because Christ needs to be human for us to be able to speak of following in his footsteps. If we take the earthly ministry of Jesus out of the picture, we are left with the God of Mount Sinai - the cosmic judge and the transcendent law-giver, a being who seems to be removed from the muck of our every day lives. In short, without the humanity of Jesus we remain with the legalistic code of the Law, rather than the Law of Love, personified so clearly in our Exemplar for us to emulate.


michael jensen said...

Well, I think there is, you are right, an over-reaction to the rank Arianism of 19th C. liberalism. I think it is very helpful to be reminded of the humanity of Christ in this way.

But it isn't there, in my experience, to the degree you suggest. I think you caricature evangelical preaching on this point, actually. I have heard many many many sermons on the gospels, for example, and that to me is a good sign that whatever imbalance may have once been there is being corrected.

The key thing is to have BOTH natures of Christ, isn't it?

PS I went to uni with Robert Tilley!

michael jensen said...

But also, once again David, you do speak as if evangelicals don't have a rich experience of faith. How do you know we don't?

David Castor said...

Hey Michael - thanks for your comments.

I would probably agree with you that I've exaggerated my point somewhat, which is unbecoming when I am trying to point to what I perceive as an imbalanced approach when it comes to focussing on Christ's divinity over Christ's humanity. It would certainly be true that I've heard evangelical ministers focus (or at least refer) to Jesus' humanity outside of Easter and Christmas. Of course, I should point out that one can still preach from a passage in the gospel narratives without focussing on Jesus' humanity - the miracle stories would be an obvious place where this could happen.

I should point out that I didn't suggest that evangelicals didn't, or couldn't have a rich experience of faith, but merely that their faith experience would be somewhat more rich if they redressed the imbalance that I've described. I'd reiterate in this respect that I have known many evangelicals whom I have respected and have been edified in my own faith journey.

Just wondering, did you first know Robert Tilley pre or post conversion to Catholicism?

michael jensen said...

Pre. Tilley was a hyper-Calvinist in those days, as I remember (late 80s).

I reckon Jesus' miracles are as much about his humanity as about his divinity - because they show him to be Son of God in the OT royal sense. It is about his Sonship in the Davidic line.

Guess where I learnt this? At an evangelical college!! :-)