Grace and Truth

Written by Anthony Tyrrell Hanson Reviewed By Donald Macleod

This book stands in the tradition of earlier works by Baillie, Pittenger and Pannenberg, offering a doctrine of the incarnation which might serve, it is said, not as a replacement for Chalcedon, but as an alternative.

The most useful section is probably that which deals with Jesus Christ as grace and truth. Hanson argues from Exodus 34:6, 7 that the essential characteristics of God according to the Old Testament are ḥeseḏ and emeṯ and that this is the background to John 1:14, ‘We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth’. Christ is the glory of God precisely as he is full of grace and truth. This serves as the foundation for the central thesis that the divinity is revealed not in anything supernatural, but in the very humanness of Christ. In the light of Philippians 2:5–11, as interpreted by C. F. D. Moule (‘Further Reflections on Phil. 2:5–11’, in Apostolic History and the Gospel, ed. W. W. Gasque and R. P. Martin, Exeter, 1970, pp. 264–276) the form of God is revealed only in the form of a servant. Divinity is most clearly manifested in human self-giving. God’s nature is supremely revealed in the completely human death of Christ.

There is much to be learnt from Hanson’s treatment of this theme. But it will scarcely serve as a doctrine of the incarnation. For one thing, the selection of ḥeseḏ, ’emeṯ from the list of divine attributes in Exodus 34:6, 7 is surely arbitrary. Is it not also one of the differentia of deity that he will by no means clear the guilty? Must Christ not also, therefore, be the revelation of this? Again, it is all very well to say that the deity is revealed precisely in the humanness, but that humanness, as Moule points out elsewhere (‘The Manhood of Jesus in the New Testament’, in Christ, Faith and History, ed. S. W. Sykes and J. P. Clayton, London, 1972) is at certain points discontinuous with ours. It was sinless and it was supernaturally originated. Hence, the epithet ordinarycan be applied to it only with certain reservations. Yet again, when John says, ‘We beheld his glory,’ is he thinking of the day-to-day humanness of Christ or (as the tense of the verb etheasametha suggests) of one particular moment, probably the transfiguration, when he received from God the Father glory (2 Pet. 1:17)? With regard to Philippians 2:5–11, is it really the case that it is the form of a servant that reveals the very heart of God? Is it not rather the voluntary assumption of that form which is eloquent of divine love? To use the phraseology of another Pauline passage, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is revealed not in the fact of his poverty, but in the fact that he became poor (2 Cor. 8:9). It is only against the background of our Lord’s pre-existent, ontological unity with God the Father (which Hanson seems to deny) that his earthly life can be spoken of as revealing divine grace and faithfulness.

It is even less tenable to speak of ‘the ordinary human death of Christ’ as being, in isolation, a revelation of divinity. The death as a bald, uninterpreted fact scarcely exists for the New Testament; and in so far as it does it is conceived of as destructive of nascent Christian faith and hope, as the words of Luke 24:21 so poignantly indicate, ‘We hoped it was he who was to redeem Israel.’ The cross is revelatory of divine ḥeseḏ and emeṯonly when interpreted in the light of other great New Testament events—the resurrection, Pentecost and, not least, the incarnation itself. Then there is a meaningful word (logos) of the cross, namely, ‘Christ died for our sins.’ Evacuate it of this meaning, place it in any other context than that of the divine identity of the victim and the vicarious nature of his sufferings and, far from revealing the ḥeseḏ and emeṯ of God, the crucifixion, in the words of D. M. Baillie, ‘might well seem to be the final reductio ad absurdum of the belief that the world is governed by a gracious providence’ (God Was In Christ, London, 1948, p. 184).

Closely related to this is the problem of recognition, to which Hanson devotes a separate chapter. We ask men to recognize God in the human life of Jesus. But recognition presupposes prior knowledge. We can only recognize a person if we have seen him before or seen a picture or heard a description. Hanson rightly argues that the source of this prior knowledge, in a christological context, was the revelation of God given in the Old Testament. The essential features of God as delineated there are ḥeseḏ and emeṯ and we recognize God in Christ because he is the supreme revelation of these. It is very doubtful, however, whether these were the criteria underlying the New Testament conviction of our Lord’s deity. Is every person in whom there is grace and truth God? We may say, as Hanson does, that Christ embodies these supremely. But surely this is relative and open to revision! Conceivably another might come revealing them even more fully. And while the NT conviction of his deity is certainly tantamount to the assurance that he conforms to the OT portrait of God, this is hardly compatible with Hanson’s contention that it is in the pure naturalness of his humanity that the divinity is to be recognized. An exclusively human, non-supernatural Jesus would not have been recognized as the God of the OT or even as the Messiah of prophetic expectation. Apostolic certainty as to his deity is the result of two factors: the witness of the Father to the Son and the witness of the Son to himself. Both of these involve the insistence that he was differentiated by distinctively divine characteristics. The Father bears witness by such means as the miracles, wonders and signs (Acts 2:22) the voice from heaven at his baptism and transfiguration and the resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4). Our Lord’s testimony to himself likewise amounts to much more than the claim that he was full of grace and truth. He conceives of himself as rightly defineable only in terms of the most distinctive divine names, attributes, functions, and prerogatives. So far as the NT proclamation of the deity of Christ is inferential, then, it is an inference from the testimony of the Father and from the self-consciousness of the Son rather than from his being distinguished by grace and truth.

In what sense, however, was Jesus God? According to Hanson, the Word was supremely revealed in Jesus Christ. Presumably, then, he was also revealed (although not supremely) in others: and the pre-eminence of Jesus is again only a matter of degree. At any rate, on this view the unity between Jesus and the Word is not one of substance. It is not ontological. It is incorrect to say, with John, ‘The Word was God.’ We end up with an adoptionist Christology: ‘Jesus, we say, was a human person in whom the Word dwelt to a unique degree’ (p. 91). Quite inconsistently, however, Hanson affirms that Christ is a legitimate object of worship. How, having drunk so deeply at the foundation of OT revelation, can one go on to worship a human person?

Underlying this whole study is a basic negativism, aimed especially at the Christology of Chalcedon, which Hanson regards as incredible for two reasons. First, because it is heavily dependent on the Fourth Gospel, which, if we are intellectually honest we can no longer treat as historically accurate or as primary evidence for what Jesus taught; secondly, because this Christology cannot be reconciled with the real human personality of Jesus, which must be our basic assumption in any credible account of his significance.

What is the theological cost of adopting this position? First, the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ is rejected as mythological. Surely, however, this must prompt the question, How can we then speak of an incarnation? Who became incarnate? A non-entity?

Secondly, the divine personality of Christ is denied. If our basic assumption is that he was a real human personality and if, further, he was only one person, then clearly he was not a divine person. The question is relevant again: Who became incarnate? To answer, a human person, is absurd. The answer given by every variety of NT Christology is unequivocally: God the Son. In fact, the point of departure of all the NT writers is the exact opposite of Hanson’s. They begin with a pre-existent divine person who became human.

The real tragedy, however, is not that this book does not recognize the authority of the formula of Chalcedon, but that it recognizes no authority. It is theology without a canon. It has no recognizable principle of verification against which to test its own assertions. Its true god, before which it cringes in virtual terror, is ‘the full blast of German critical work on the Gospels’. We used to think, naïvely, that the function of biblical criticism was to deepen our understanding of the genesis and development of the Canon. Apparently, however, the animal has run amok and destroyed what it was intended to serve. The result is a book like this. It certainly will not itself stand the blast of German criticism—it is not reductionist enough for that. Nor will it bear comparison with apostolic Christology. It does not even accord with the author’s practice—he worships Jesus Christ.

One’s final impression? How complete the enslavement of the western church to the spirit of Strauss! With these assumptions it is hopeless to undertake Christology.

Donald Macleod

Principal of, and Professor of Systematic Theology at, Free Church College, Edinburgh