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Showing posts with label Alan Spence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alan Spence. Show all posts

Sunday, 29 June 2014

"The Socinian Challenge to Nicea" by Alan Spence: food for Christadelphian thought

Christology is the discipline within theology which seeks to understand and explain the person of Christ. In his book Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed (2008, T&T Clark), Dr. Alan Spence gives an introduction to historical christology.

Spence begins by describing the paradox which gave rise to the discipline of christology: that Jesus, a human being in history, was considered worthy of divine honour by Christians "from around the time the first churches came into being" (p. 5). Spence explains that the church sought to explain coherently why Jesus is worthy of this status while preserving his true humanity, which was seen as vital to his redemptive work.

He takes us through the subsequent christological developments and controversies which led to the crystallization of orthodoxy in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (4th century) and later the Chalcedonian Definition (5th century). These classical christological formulations remained unchallenged until the 16th century. Even the most prominent theologians of the Protestant Reformation, such as Calvin and Luther, raised no objections to orthodox christology. Others, however, "offered a far more radical critique of established theology" (p. 78). Following the execution of the Spanish anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus, anti-Trinitarians sought refuge in Poland and became known as Socinians after their eminent theologian Faustus Socinus.

Spence's chapter on Socinian christology, entitled "The Socinian Challenge to Nicea", is highly relevant to Christadelphians because Socinians are the truest known forebears of Christadelphian christology down through the ages.1 The Socinians held that Jesus was merely human by nature. Spence points to the Racovian Catechism, first published in 1605, as the definitive presentation of Socinian theology (including christology).

Spence's discussion of Socinian christology features the same measured approach found throughout his book. While he does not think Socinian christology can account for the biblical testimony concerning Christ's incarnation and pre-existence, he does not shy away from identifying strengths in their arguments or weaknesses in the arguments of their orthodox opponents.

Spence notes with interest the controversy that erupted between Socinians concerning whether or not Christ should be offered divine honour in worship. A dispute which arose in 1574 led to the condemnation of the teachings of a leading Socinian theologian, Francis David, who "argued publicly that Christ could not with propriety be addressed in prayer since he was not God by nature" (p. 81). While the Racovian Catechism firmly supported the appropriateness of addressing Christ in prayer, Spence asks whether Socinians "have provided an explanation of Christ's being which can properly account for the worship that they believe is his due" (p. 82). He expresses sympathy for Francis David, whose "argument that it was inappropriate to offer prayers and worship to a Christ who was not truly God appears to be far more logical than that of his fellow Socinians" (p. 82). This could serve as a discussion point for Christadelphians, among whom I have perceived a certain ambiguity about the propriety of offering worship and prayer to Christ.

The Racovian Catechism describes the position of classical christology that Christ had a divine and a human nature as "repugnant to right reason and Holy Scripture." Spence says this suggests "the Socinian methodological principle that theology ought to be determined by the examination of Scripture and the application of right reason” (p. 83). This entailed taking the post-Reformation watchword sola scriptura to such an extent that "no authority should be granted to the voice of tradition" and indeed that the creeds and other historical formulae of the Church "were deemed to have no value or place in theological construction other than as the false position of an adversary" (p. 83).

Spence makes an important observation concerning the Socinians' sola scriptura approach:

“Now the laudable idea that the text should be allowed to speak for itself can sometimes be a cover for a certain sleight of hand that is so deceptive that even its practitioners often fail to recognize it.” (p. 83)

He gives a fictional, illustrative example which is worth quoting in full:
“A Unitarian evangelist passes a copy of the Racovian Catechism to a seventeenth-century friend who worships in an English village church. She encourages him to read the book, and carefully look up all the relevant texts, so that hi view of Christ might be shaped directly by the Scriptures and not by the liturgy, hymnology or recited creeds of his local worshipping community. He is attracted by the eminent reasonableness of the proposal and looks forward to studying a theology that is unencumbered by ancient church dogma and tradition and determined only by Scriptures. But the book that he has just been given as a guide is itself a well-developed interpretive theory of what the Bible actually means. It has been formed by 50 years of vigorous intellectual discussion within the Socinian community and refined through sharp debate with Protestant and Catholic theologians. The young Anglican’s reading of the relevant scriptural passages at the book’s recommendation will be mediated by what is in effect a carefully honed Socinian theology. There is, of course, always some form of mediation taking place whenever the Scriptures are studied in that there is always some interpretive framework, conscious or unconscious, that is being brought to the text and which plays a part in shaping our understanding. The mediation described in the story above is a ‘closed’ mediation in that it does not allow or suggest other mediating voices and disguises its own mediating function. And this is the congenital difficulty with any theology which purports to be wholly shaped by Scripture – it fails to acknowledge the mediating traditions that have determined its own construction and it often struggles to listen with any attentiveness to what other Christians might have discovered about the truth of the Bible. And these failures are, one could say, the besetting weaknesses of all sectarian theology.” (pp. 83-84)
Besides being very incisive, this illustration closely parallels Christadelphian evangelistic methodology using literature such as The Great Salvation or Bible Basics.

He notes that the Socinians have bequeathed a heritage to modern christology, namely “a propensity to discard all past christological achievement or dogma and to begin the whole project anew with scant regard to the work of others” (p. 85). One detects the same propensity in the writings of John Thomas, the founder of Christadelphians.

Spence also discusses the Socinian appeal to the idea of 'reasonableness'. Spence acknowledges some merit in the Socinians' critique of self-contradictory and even nonsensical statements from orthodox theologians. However, he challenges the Socinian claim that the concept of a person who is truly both divine and human is repugnant to right reason. He very astutely points out that
“Christians have historically believed the incarnation to be a unique, foundational event. They have used it to reinterpret both their understanding of the manner of God’s being and their assessment of what it is to be truly human. The person of Christ, as one who is both fully human and fully divine, is in this sense the Church’s key hermeneutical principle. In a context where Christ is considered as the central interpretive reality, there is no weight to the argument that he does not satisfy some pre-existing criterion of what it means to be a person. The task of the Church is rather to submit to Christ as he is made known by the Spirit through the witness of the Scriptures and to bring its understanding about existence, the future, meaning and personhood into some sort of conformity to its mature reflection on the reality of Jesus.” (p. 86)
Spence's observation can be brought to bear with equal force upon Christadelphian dismissals of orthodox christology as illogical. Those making such arguments have not properly appreciated the uniqueness and definitiveness of the Christ-event.

In concluding this chapter, Spence writes that the Socinians posed theological questions which many of their contemporaries were ill-equipped to answer. However, in Spence's view, "In their critique of the orthodox understanding of Christ [the Socinians] were unable to provide a coherent alternative christology to that of Nicea" (p. 88).

In his conclusion to the book, Spence criticizes two extremes: on the one hand, “the hubris of the theologian who would begin theology completely afresh without regard for the tradition of the Church” and on the other hand, “those who, looking only to antiquity, would close their minds to the insights gained from modern theological discussion” (p. 155). He instead advocates a humble approach which includes "a willingness to recognize the significant accomplishments of both the ancient and the more recent and to build on them with both care and responsibility” (p. 155).

In building an ecumenical christology for today, he declares, "We must insist with the Socinians that Jesus was a man wholly dependent on the Holy Spirit in every aspect of his life but deny that this precludes him from being the eternal Son of God made flesh” (p. 159). This does not require that we repudiate classical, Nicene-Chalcedonian christology because “The tradition has within itself the theological resources to integrate these two perspectives in a coherent way.”

I think Spence's measured critique of Socinian christology provides Christadelphians with a good deal of food for thought.

1 (Earlier heterodox christologies such as Ebionitism and Arianism are less compatible with Christadelphian doctrine since the former apparently denied the virgin birth and the latter affirmed Christ's personal pre-existence).