Review by Mac Stewart
The practice of “receptive ecumenism,” or the willingness to learn from other faith traditions, sometimes suffers from a reluctance about dogmatic commitments that makes traditionalist Christians of all sorts rather uneasy. At its best, though, it can be a genuine outworking of a solid ecclesiological principle sketched out at the highest levels (from John Paul II to Rowan Williams), namely, that in God’s providence the untold wealth contained in Christ’s Gospel has been brought to light precisely through the historical (and, we pray, ultimately provisional) retreat of the various ecclesial communions into their own respective enclosures.
The Incarnation: Rediscovering Kenotic Christology
By Robert A. Stackpole
The Chartwell Press, pp. 748, $38
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This is certainly the spirit that animates this new book by Robert Stackpole, a Roman Catholic theologian and former Anglican priest. Stackpole clearly has no interest in dwelling on the inadequacies of his former tradition. Rather, his explicit intention with this book is to identify a strand of theological reflection among Anglicans of the last few centuries that he takes to be a uniquely fruitful approach to the heart of the Christian mystery.
He claims the tradition of Kenotic Christology, presented in its most paradigmatic form by Charles Gore and Frank Weston (among others), is not only coherent and orthodox but should in fact be the preferred understanding of the Incarnation by Christians of all traditions.
His method is largely to allow the principle proponents of this strand of theological reflection to speak for themselves, and so the book will serve as a useful “anthology” of key passages from a wide range of Anglican authors on the topic. “Kenotic Theory,” as Stackpole ably shows, comes in a wide variety of iterations, but the basic claim he wants to endorse is that in the Incarnation, the eternal Son or Word “in some way reduces the scope or operation of his divine attributes in order to dwell among us in human form.” The incarnate life “truly affects the divine nature” such that the divine Son “has added to his store of experience an experience of all the conditions and limitations of an authentically human life.”
The sharp edge of the theory, therefore, is its qualification of at least two classical Christological commitments: the impassibility (inability to suffer) of the divine nature even in the Incarnate One, and the relative omniscience of the Son even in his human nature. But Stackpole wants to argue that, while these qualifications by early 20th-century theologians were partially motivated by certain tenuous claims of 19th-century biblical scholarship (e.g., that Jesus mistakenly believed in Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch), the theory that they produce is nevertheless worthy of serious consideration by orthodox Christians inasmuch as it may actually provide a better and ultimately more compelling account of the depths of divine compassion in the Incarnation. He worries that a standard account of “Two Nature Christology” cannot avoid presenting the divine Son as an “impassible spectator” in his divine mind or consciousness to the sufferings of the human nature in Christ, and that the only way genuinely to secure the truth that God suffers alongside us in Christ is to affirm that God takes that suffering into the divine nature itself.
Stackpole’s mastery of this strand of theology is thorough and impressive, and I heartily endorse his efforts to address substantive dogmatic matters in an ecumenical key. I wonder, though, whether this particular strand of Anglican theology is indeed one of its lasting treasures. It is striking that among the more contemporary theologians whose advocacy of classical Christology Stackpole wants to critique are not only traditionalist Thomists like Eric Mascall but also more creatively speculative thinkers like Marilyn McCord Adams and Kathryn Tanner.
I wonder, too, whether Stackpole’s own account of the classical view is entirely sufficient. He worries that two-nature Christology keeps God at a distance from Christ’s actual suffering, and therefore from our actual suffering. But the point of the classical view is that it is precisely God who is hypostatically united to the man Jesus Christ, neither a thing among other things that in any way lives “alongside” him nor a being subject to passivity of any kind. And it is precisely for this reason that God can take to himself the particular human suffering of Christ and make of it the fountain of divinizing grace. His bliss free of any attenuation imposed from without, God can take the initiative to transform miserable humanity from within.
Still, this is a generous and thoughtful book, and will press readers to think deeply about the self-emptying love of the Incarnate One with the help of a venerable strand of Anglican theology.
Fr. Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.