Friday 26 October 2007

Paul Molnar: a reply to Ben Myers

A guest-post by Paul Molnar (I invited him to respond to my critique of his new book.)

I am grateful to Ben Myers for the attention he has given to my new book on Incarnation and Resurrection, but concerned that in his long discussion my views are not accurately presented. Let me try to clarify my position.

Contrary to what the review states, I do not hold that “we must think first of incarnation and only then of resurrection.” My thesis is, rather, that “incarnation and resurrection are so closely related that if one is compromised in the slightest way then so too is the other” (p. xi). I argue that Christ’s resurrection is the basis of our knowledge of his incarnation, not that his incarnation can be known in abstraction from it. I also argue that Christ’s incarnation is the reason why death could not hold him (Acts 2:24) so that it functions as the basis of his resurrection.

I am concerned to avoid all forms of adoptionism and Hegelianism. Living in a post-resurrection world, theology cannot proceed as though the incarnation had not taken place. Those who argue that God’s ousia is somehow constituted by the resurrection or that Jesus would not be the eternal Word unless he rose from the dead are in danger of contradicting the Nicene faith of the church.

Myers further claims that I adopt a Christology from above instead of a Christology from below. On the contrary, however, I simply claim that we must begin with the man Jesus as attested in Scripture who was and is both truly divine and truly human. As we know in light of his resurrection, he never existed at any time in history as merely divine or merely human, but always as both at the same time.

Nor do I hold that the resurrection is “one occurrence alongside others in a linear ‘history of salvation.’” On the contrary, as I state more than once (e.g., pp. 326ff.), the resurrection is an utterly unique event for which there is no analogy or precedent. Consequently it must be understood from and through itself alone. Resurrection faith begins and ends with Jesus Christ himself (risen bodily from the dead), not with our experiences of hope, nor with our apocalyptic notions, nor with any set of metaphysical ideas (whether actualistically or statically conceived).

Perhaps Myers has so much difficulty understanding my book because he holds views that seem very different from mine. Is he reading back into the NT an adoptionist perspective? Does he hold, contrary to the Nicene Creed, that there can have been no logos asarkos? Is it his view that Jesus only became the Word after the resurrection since his divinity was “constituted” by this historical event?

This thinking seems contrary to the heart of the NT faith as affirmed by Nicaea and Chalcedon. These ecumenical councils did not impose a classical metaphysics upon theology, but simply clarified the identity of Jesus Christ in light of Scriptural revelation.

One of the tell-tale signs of Myers’ idealized view of the resurrection is the fact that he believes that “the category of resurrection functions as metaphysical critique.” Since when was the resurrection a “category”? If, as I believe, the resurrection is indeed an act of God in raising Jesus bodily from the dead, then it could never be construed as a mere “category” that we could wield as the “ground of a proper theological ontology.” That ground has already been laid, and it is, in my view, identical only with the incarnate, risen and ascended Lord himself.

Note: Those of you who’ll be at AAR in San Diego might also like to come along on Sunday 18 November to the meeting of the Christian Theological Research Fellowship, where Beth Felker Jones will talk about Molnar’s book, and then Molnar will talk about Jones’ new book, Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection. This meeting will take place at 11:45 a.m. in GH-Madeleine A&B (session M18-15 = A18-134).


James F. McGrath said...

Just a couple of questions this response seems to raise. First, how is 'reading back an adoptionist interpretation' fundamentally different than 'reading back a Nicene interpretation' of the New Testament writings? Of course, one puts you in line with later orthodoxy, but it would seem that, for a historian or exegete, the appropriate course of action is to try both, and others, and see which, if any, fit the texts and make the most sense of their details.

Second, the statement that Jesus is depicted as 'God and man' in the New Testament is not one that arises straightforwardly from simply reading the text. It may be an appropriate theological development in relation to the text in light of questions that arose later, but even the Gospel of John presents Jesus as calling the Father "the only true God".

This is presumably why your approach was deemed a Christology from above. You seem to be starting with Nicea and Chalcedon rather than the New Testament.

Richard Beck said...

Thank you Ben and Paul for your exchange. As an academic outsider to your conversation it has been illuminating. Plus, it's encouraging to see sharp conversation handled so cordially.

That said, if it is not too irksome, could someone (you or another reader here) help me, as an intelligent non-theologian, to see what is at stake in the Nicene vs. adoptionist views of Christology?

Obviously, I'm aware of the theological stakes. But I'm wondering (and here my disciplinary bias is showing) if there is any functional or pragmatic effects that are at stake? That is, do these differing Christologies produce qualitatively different ecclesially embodied moral communities? If so, in what way?

I'm assuming there is a story here I'm missing that is told in doctoral studies about the moral and ecclesial perniciousness of adoptionist Christologies. Is there a story? If so, I'd like to know about it. I'm assuming it sets up the background warrants driving the conversation.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's not like this kind of response from Paul Molnar is the least bit surprising (or interesting, for that matter). What is truly at stake here is none other than 'What do we mean by "god" in the first place'. Ben is right: Resurrection not only becomes a category that comes to structure subsequent Christian thinking and ethics (by introducing the severest of divisions into the former mammalian drives named as 'flesh' and the newly participatory resurrected life constituted by the designation 'spirit'), but that also redefines and restructures what might be meant by 'god' in the first place. Such is the whole point of Philippians 2.5-11. By naively asserting the resurrection as the reduplication of the 'incarnation', Molnar misses the profound theological challenge made by the resurrection. In the end, Marcion and Hegel were exactly right: it's not the crucifixion that signifies the 'death of God' - it is the resurrection!

Halden said...

While this whole issue has been discussed at length in the comments of the review itself, I would just make a couple points in Ben's defense.

1. The charge of adoptionism is spurious and a distraction from the real issue under debate which is precisely a debate about metaphysics. Molnar's postulation of either a logos asarkos or adptionism is a false alternative. Those would be the alternatives only if we presuppse the 'incarnational' metaphysics that are advocated by Molnar. However, if those metaphysical assumptions are challenged, the only way to have an intelligent conversation about this issue is to engage the real question of metaphysics, which proponents of the self-styled "orthodox" view just don't seem willing to do.

2. The idea that Nicea and Chalcedon "did not impose a classical metaphysics upon theology, but simply clarified the identity of Jesus Christ in light of Scriptural revelation" is a gross over-simplification. Lewis Ayres' book Nicea and It's Legacy makes abundantly clear that the formulation of "the orthodox position" was not the monolithic answer that Molnar assumes. The creed is fundamentally negative and minimalist in the beliefs it excludes, it is not a full theological account of Christological and Trinitarian doctrine, let alone some magic bullet that could settle an argument such as this.

The idea that the creed posits a logos asarkos is pure fantasy, or at best and act of very particular interpretation of the ontological implications of the creed. And THAT is what the debate is about. The idea that this is just a conflict between the true Nicene's like Molnar and a bunch of non-sensical adoptionist wackos is just a cheap way of trying to hijack the definitions of the terms that will be used in debate. If anything this only illustrates more clearly how it is precisely metaphysical assumptions which are tacitly informing this debate for advocates of the "orthodox" position on the incarnation and the logos asarkos.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who thinks that the Nicene Creed can be upheld without the logos asarkos — or its semantic equivalent — is not thinking clearly.

Lewis Ayres, by the way, treads very lightly in his use of the term "metaphysics." He doesn't like its pejorative use to dismiss patristic theology, and in this respect he sets a good example for us all.

Halden said...

Prof. Hunsinger, again I must protest the way you frame the issue at hand. You continue to ignore the fact that metaphysical assumptions are at work in how we interpret the statement of the Creed that Christ was "eternally begotten of the Father". The question is the nature of the relationship between the "eternal begetting" and the historial career of Jesus. Positing a logos asarkos is an interpretive decision about how to ontologically fill out the claim that Christ was eternally begotten, it is not in any way identical with the claim of the Creed itself.

Likewise, your suggestion that those that disagree with you on this are using this boogeyman called "metaphysics" do "dismiss patristic theology" is both unfair and pattently false. In the first place the idea that there is some monolith called "patristic theology" which we must either accept or reject is silly. The patristic fathers, like theologians of all eras manifested an extreme diversity of perspectives none of which any of us simply conform to. Moreover, this issue, as I pointed out earier in relation to Barth is about the proper interpretation of such historical-theological forebears.

Also, my mention of Ayres' book had nothing to do with the issue regarding metaphysics, rather Ayres illustrates the diversity, ambiguity, and minimalistic nature of the "Nicene" position which is not the monolithic arbiter that you claim it to be.

derek said...

"Anyone who thinks that the Nicene Creed can be upheld without the logos asarkos — or its semantic equivalent — is not thinking clearly."

With all due respect professor Hunsinger, how does that comment help anything? It seems merely to beg the question.

Brandon Jones said...


I just wanted to thank you for your review and posting Molnar's response. The reviews and comments have been interesting and have given me much to think about.

I don't know if the discussion will ever extend on either side beyond "you're just reading a certain 'metaphysics' into the New Testament Gospels or Nicene Creed," but there is much value in meditating on what both sides aims to uphold.

Halden said...

Brandon, you make a good point and it goes to the heart of some of the frustrating aspects of this conversation. Personally, I would like to see the conversations on this topic move in a more strongly exegetical direction. Francis Watson's article "Divine Triune Identity" is one good example of this sort of conversing taking place, I think.

Ben Myers said...

Richard, sorry it has taken me so long to reply to your query: "what is at stake in the Nicene vs adoptionist views of Christology?" As some other comments have already indicated, the distinction isn't really between adoptionist and Nicene christologies — instead, what's really at stake is the question, "Who is God?" Which explains why there are (rightly) strong feelings on both sides of the debate! Perhaps another helpful way of framing the debate would be to say that these are two competing accounts of what Nicene fidelity should look like.

When Paul Molnar suggests that I'm mistaken to regard the resurrection as a "category", he highlights a very important point of difference. In my view, making a "category" of resurrection simply means allowing resurrection to be thinkable, and introducing it into the theological system in a way that allows it to do a certain work in relation to other concepts and categories. So just as Molnar allows categories like "eternity", "incarnation", "immanent Trinity" and "objectivity" to determine the fundamental structure of his theology, I'd like to allow "resurrection" to play a determinative role — since this is, of course, precisely the role it plays in the New Testament!

And I think an advantage of allowing "resurrection" to become a category of thought is that it establishes a crucial point of contact between dogmatics and exegesis. It means, for instance, that the interpretation of Galatians or 1 Corinthians really matters for the doctrine of God! And this "really matters" is exactly what I find to be absent from Molnar's theology.

Anonymous said...

What does it mean to say the resurrection constitutes the divinity of Christ? Is the resurrection what makes the man Jesus divine? If not why not?


Anonymous said...

Just expanding on Napman's question: if the resurrection constitutes Jesus' Sonship, does this mean there's no place for pre-existence?

Anonymous said...

Ten loosely structured (to coin a phrase) propositions.

1. The issue cannot be a theological "To be or not to be", i.e. ontology or no ontology. The question is what kind of theological ontology corresponds to revelation, God's self-disclosure in Christ, in the Bible.

2. Bruce McCormack posits the options as "essentialist" ontology (Molnar, Hunsinger, Hunsinger's reading of Barth) and "actualist ontology" (Jenson, McCormack, McCormack's reading of Barth).

3. The test case is the logos asarkos. Molnar and Hunsinger - and Paul Helm - insist on it. They are good Niceans - and good Calvinists. (By the way, it may be that the ecumenical road ahead must always return to the town in Turkey. But Reformed theologians, at least, cannot make the trip empty-handed, for example, over the issue of bishops as the esse of the church. Why, then, can we not affirm the Creed while arguing against a hegemonic ontology?)

4. Barth, however, rejects this venerable theologoumenon, as an instrinsic part of his revolutionary de- and re-construction of Calvin's doctrine of election. So I do not see how Barth can be in George Hunsinger's corner as he fights for the logos asarkos. If he is right, then Barth is wrong. But then perhaps Barth, like Luther's scripture, has a wax nose.

5. Hunsinger's point about the logical status of the logos asarkos certainly has a prima facie plausibility about it. As Paul Helm puts it: "as the cup is logically prior to the rim, but not temporally prior, so the logos asarkos is logically prior to the logos ensarkos, but not temporally prior."

6. "But not temporally prior"? Doesn't this assertion, on which Calvin and Barth, and therefore I suppose all concerned, agree, blow to smitherines any residual concern about "logical priority"? That, I think, is Barth's conclusion. Taking the logos asarkos in one hand, he disposes it with the other. For what "work" can "logical priority" possibly do except perhaps to help one live at peace with Aristotle - not something Barth would lose sleep over - while yet turning the Logos - the Son - into an abstraction.

7. To put it another way, what might the logos asarkos conceivably look like? Can it not only look like Jesus - who is the logos ensarkos? Is it not therefore an otiose category? If we must speak of a logos asarkos, it can only be as a gerundive: "the Logos is incarnandus in and for himself, in eternity" (McCormack).

8. Ben, I think, is right that the resurrection must be the determinative category in the structuring of a sound theology. Even if in an obvious (and therefore trivial?) sense Jesus was born and lived and died before he was raised, everything - and I mean everything - in the Bible - in the cosmos - turns on the resurrection of Jesus, including the creatio ex nihilo itself.

9. I don't want to drive a wedge between incarnation and resurrection. And I would certainly not want to separate the resurrection from the crucifixion. Indeed is not the cross the real furnace for reshaping an ontology of God, the risen One having a hole in his side and scars on his hands? The suggestion about referring to the "Christ event" might be helpful. But there is no doubt that the resurrection of Jesus as the event's apocalyptic Event requires radical metaphysical re-positioning in that we must think of reality as determined by the eschatological future revealed in the apocalyptic Event of c. 30 AD and made present through the Spirit of the risen and coming One.

10. Okay, perhaps I have collapsed the immanent Trinity into the economic Trinity. So sue me. But I'll be calling God as a witness.

Anonymous said...

Is Jesus was the Divine Incarnation before the "crucifixion", and even pre-existing before his appearance in Galilee, then what difference does the "crucifixion" really make?

The Divine being the eternal unexstinguishable Conscious Light of Reality.

Ben Myers said...

Kim, thanks for your brilliant contribution to this discussion. I couldn't agree more: and I especially love your 10th proposition!

Halden said...

Yes Kim, that was awesome. You should fatten those up and have Ben post them in your '10 Propositions' series!

Anonymous said...

I was browsing this title over at Amazon and noticed that among those praising the book was John Webster -- obviously that doesn't mean that he necessarily agrees with everything Molnar says -- does anyone know where he would weigh in on the issue?

T. Baylor said...


Dr. Webster was just at TEDS in Chicago giving lectures on God's "Perfection and Presence." There he argued for a priority of ontology and so I think he would tend to agree with Dr. Molnar and would probably be pretty hesitant to "collapse the immanent Trinity into the economic Trinity," as Kim said.

T. Baylor said...


You, of course, are arguing that your theological model adheres more closely to the NT. When you say this, do you mean it adheres to it as literature or as history. It seems to me that as history, when viewed from the standpoint of Christian origins, your model has more plausibility.

However, when viewed from the text as literature it would appear that Dr. Molnar would have the upperhand -- I am thinking particularly of those "into the world"-texts and therefore implying pre-existence (eg. in John 3:17,19).

Anonymous said...

Prof. Myers said he wants to "establish a crucial point of contact between dogmatics and exegesis." How does Professor Myers understand Philippians 2:5-7? What do these verses say about the Son of God prior to his incarnation? G.B. Caird says "The aoriest 'ekenosen' ('emptied') is probably to be construed as a constative, referring to a definite point in time. We are therefore left with the unanswered (and unanswerable) question of when, if the choice to assume the form of a slave is to have taken place in Jesus' human lifetime, this could have taken place. It is better to posit the act of choice before his human lifetime began." And how would he deal with John 8:56058 and 17:5?

Kim Fabricius asks, "Can Barth be in George Hunsinger's corner?" It wouldn't surprise me if he was. Set aside the question of election for a moment. After all, Barth held that Christ was both the electing God and the elected man. Another question needs to be raised. Did Barth believe in "the extra Calvinisticum"? Did he believe that the Son of God became incarnate man without ever leaving the throne of heaven, without abandoning his governance of the universe? T.F. Torrance held this position and argued that Reformed theologians had good patristic precedent for rejecting the "receptacle notion of space that demanded the enclosure or confinement of the Son of God in a human body." Torrance held that the Son of God could become human without being limited spacially to this incarnation. What did Barth think about this? Perhaps Prof. Hunsinger can tell us. I haven't read Barth as thoroughly as he.
Sincerely, Mark Koonz

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