Proposing an Alternative to the Predicament

Part 1 of Peter Bannister’s review is here.

Sketching an alternative proposal

What options then may be open to readers who share Clayton’s and Knapp’s concern for a dynamic Christology, but who want to retain a more traditional theological framework?

Here I can of course only offer the briefest of sketches, but you might call my tentative proposal ‘semi-adoptionist’, for want of a better term, drawing on Philip Clayton’s former Doktorvater Wolfhart Pannenberg. What if we retain the pre-incarnate Logos – it is absolutely the Second Person of the Trinity who takes flesh -, but radicalize the kenosis of Philippians 2 by taking seriously the free acceptance by the Logos of subjection to physical and mental developmental processes (from conception to Cross) including all they entails in the light of our limited but real scientific knowledge of human physicality. Jesus as divine Son is united to the Father ontologically throughout his earthly life, but is not necessarily consciously aware of it; the Logos rather ‘starts again from zero’ in accepting the limitations imposed by inherited human DNA, neurological structure, cognitive development, development and obedience to his earthly parents (Luke 2:51-52), having to learn a human religious tradition in its particularity, and the unavoidable reality of spending around one-third of his life snoring (yes, Jesus slept as well as wept!).

In this scenario Jesus is not ‘adopted’ at Baptism or Resurrection in the sense of crossing a threshold between a ‘non-divine’ and a divine nature, but certainly attains to a new intensification of his Sonship in a ‘functional’ sense. He is anointed with the Spirit at Baptism, raised through the Spirit at Easter and exalted as Kyrios  at his Ascension by virtue of having defeated the Powers in his self-emptying death on the Cross.  Appropriating The Predicament’s language of emergence theory, these are real events in Jesus’s life where a new ‘emergent level’ is reached. In this scheme there is therefore authentic becoming without the radical discontinuity suggested by all-out adoptionism. At the same time this ‘becoming’ is not restricted to the humanity of Jesus; as long as we regard Christ as one person and not two and remember that his indwelling by the Spirit, his earthly life is simultaneously the experience of a human being and the life of humanity experienced by God.

To use Irenaeus’s framework of seeing Jesus’s life as a recapitulation of what it is to be a human being, I would like to suggest that the mission of his earthly existence is in some way to become in time, through a life of self-giving love and perfect obedience to the Father, the Son that he is from all eternity.

As to how it is possible to keep the notion of the eternal Son while admitting real development in Jesus’s life, I would suggest that the idea of ‘Sonship’ has two aspects which, while obviously related, are conceptually separable. This was already explored by Pannenberg in Jesus, God and Man when trying make sense of Paul’s affirmation on the one hand of Christ’s pre-existence found in expressions such as ‘God sent his Son’ (Galatians 4:4) and formulations such as Romans 1:3, where Jesus is ‘designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead’, which has sometimes been interpreted in adoptionist fashion.  Pannenberg’s position is that while adoptionist language is undoubtedly Biblical, ‘the idea of Jesus’ adoption by God says too little’ and that – quoting Paul Althaus – ‘Jesus was what he is before he knew about it’.

One aspect of the Divine Sonship is filiation, i.e. the Son as the ‘only-begotten’ of John 1:18, a status which obviously cannot be ‘renounced’ kenotically. If we are using the title ‘Son’ in this way, it seems wholly reasonable to assert that Jesus was God’s ‘Son’ even in Mary’s womb. However, once the word ‘Sonship’ is used in its second sense, invested with real content in terms of the outworking of Jesus’s character rather than merely denoting filiation, things look different; if what we talking about is Jesus’s path of self-emptying love, this inevitably requires the trajectory of a life lived. It simply can’t happen by magic.

Being a composer, let me conclude with a musical analogy. Imagine the Son’s eternal Divine nature ‘vertically’ in terms of harmony, as a chord you could strike on a piano or a guitar. Now take those same notes into the world of ‘melody’ where things happen in time, i.e. horizontally, and play them in succession from the bottom up. But don’t dampen the strings of the guitar, and leave the piano pedal down. What happens is that you arrive at the same chord. In our temporally-structured world of earthly existence, it is such a ‘melodic’ unfolding which is the only means of the ‘composing-out’ of Jesus’s Sonship (Auskomponierung in the German technical jargon of which music theorists are just as fond as systematic theologians). Something really happens. But the notes are the same as those of the chord, and the listener’s experience is enriched by the melody. Not only enriched, but hopefully inspired for her own melodic journey through life.

The project represented by The Predicament of Belief  is surely an excellent and important one; Steven Knapp and Philip Clayton deserve our congratulations and gratitude for the considerable service that they have rendered both to the academy and the Church in undertaking it. But I think that I am not misinterpreting the intentions of the authors themselves in saying that their book is best taken as a starting-point and not as a final destination.


To be continued.



Doubly trained in music and systematic/philosophical theology, Peter Bannister is Associate Artistic Director and Composer-in-Association of SOLI DEO GLORIA Inc., a Chicago-based organization devoted to furthering sacred music in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He also co-directs the American Church in Paris’s participation in the John Templeton Foundation’s ‘Scientists in Congregations Ministry Initiative’, and is the author of the Music and Theology blog ‘Da stand das Meer’.

Considering Clayton’s Conundrum

Guest post by Peter Bannister

 The Predicament of Belief  by Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp is a first-rate book – both highly thought-provoking and courageous. Philip Clayton has consistently shown himself to be one of the Church’s most creative thinkers and is perhaps unequalled in offering imaginative tools for re-invigorating our approach to Christian faith ‘after Google’. For catalyzing and hosting constructive debate with a combination of intellectual vigour and graciousness there simply seems to be no-one better on the horizon of the contemporary theological landscape. So I’m a fan.

The first philosophical chapters of The Predicament of Belief, making a powerful case for the rationality of believing in a personal, benevolent Ultimate Reality, are ones with which I find myself agreeing without reservation. I start getting nervous when the authors’ ‘Christian minimalist’ position is taken as more than a pragmatic expression of what can be adduced without stepping beyond rational justifiability. When minimalism becomes a preferred option in the search not merely for human consensus but for truth about Ultimate Reality, my theological nerve-endings start jangling.

Adoptionism – the only solution ?

Here I would particularly like to focus on Christology. I’m torn between admiration for the authors’ brave attempt at a minimal ‘core Christian proposal’ that can function as a rallying-point for the contemporary Church and ambivalence towards their constructive suggestion. Is it a) the only viable truth-claim available in the present climate or b) a simple working hypothesis whose interest lies in its usefulness for stemming the decline in American mainline Protestantism, an attractive proposition to those alienated by traditional dogma? While I agree that sensitivity to those suspicious of doctrine in general is highly desirable, I find The Predicament overly pessimistic about rationally justifying anything approaching an orthodox theological viewpoint: their assumption that such a position cannot stand in the 21st century seems a little hasty. Especially as my experience is that the ‘spiritual but not religious’ constituency which minimalism hopes to attract is just as resistant to the ‘left-brain’ logical argumentation represented by The Predicament as to an insistence on literal adherence to ancient creeds.

In the book, adoptionism is presented as an option ‘that does not include the claim that the same person who became the man Jesus already existed in divine form before Jesus was born’.  Instead, ‘after Jesus’s death, God somehow took this individual’s subjectivity into the divine subjectivity, commingling them in such a way that they came to dwell within each other and even to become identical to each other.’ This supposedly offers a way out of the ‘dichotomy that either Jesus continues as the identical person within the godhead or Jesus is a merely human model for others to emulate.’ This ‘may be attractive to those contemporary Christians who can’t quite believe (even if they have no way of definitively denying) the complicated assertions of classical Trinitarian thought, but who nevertheless find themselves believing in Jesus’ continuing personal presence’.

Towards the end of his concise Emergent Village presentation of the book  (around the 30 minute mark on the HBC podcast), PC puts his theological hands up and admits that his preference goes to ‘adoptionist’ Christology because the alternative of an eternal preexistent Logos is not persuasive now that static Greek metaphysics have landed in the trash can of history. Not unless you believe in a ‘three bears with three chairs’ Trinity (don’t worry, you’ll understand if you listen to the audio…).

The pre-existent Logos: an obsolete accessory ?Continue Reading …