Saturday, February 6, 2010

Is Christ known through his benefits?

Paul Hinlicky (whom some of you might known, I had a somewhat acrimonious controversy over Scripture and Tradition with last year on the LOGIA website in response to a piece I had written criticizing his views- full disclosure) has written a series of pieces on Lutheran Christology here:

In this piece, Hinlicky criticizes "Lutheran" theologians like Bultmann and Tillich for making Christology a function of soteriology. They do so on the basis of the young Melanchthon's statement in Loci Communes 1521: "Christ is known by his benefits." Hinlicky's alternative is to see the event of justification as a function of what one says about Christology.

A couple of things about this.

1. First things first. Bultmann and Tillich are Lutheran theologians? I guess they might have attended Lutheran Churches. Frankly, John Calvin was more in line with historic Lutheranism than these fellows. I mean, at least he believed in the Trinity, right?

2. Is making Christology a function of soteriology such a bad thing? My question would be, how else would one formulate a Christology?  In other words, the entire point of Christology is soteriology.  Unless we are willing to engage in abstract speculation about whether or not the Incarnation would have happened without the Fall (like Osiander, Irenaeus and Dun Scotus), then there is no point to the Incarnation other than rendering infinite satisfaction to the Father in the form of active and passive righteousness and deifying out nature by the power of his resurrection (here I follow the historic Lutheran position of the two greatest Lutheran theologians, Luther and Gerhard).

Secondly, Hinlicky makes a category mistake here. He confuses the reductiveness of their theological formulations for the starting point of their theological propositions. In other words, Bultmann and Tillich have weak and pathetic concepts of what Christ does for us so they have weak and pathetic concepts of Christ. For them, he basically doesn't have to really be God, because at the end of the day all he really does is change our existential self-understanding. This is simply a continuation of Schleiermacher's tradition, where again, all Jesus really needed to do was communicate his God-consciousness.

If your starting point is he saves us from "sin, death, the Devil, hell and the law" then we will not have a reductive Christology at all. In fact, this is the classical basis of the great Fathers of the Church's Christology. Read Athanasius' On the Incarnation of the Word. Christ, argues Athanasius, must be God, because he saves us from sin, death and the Devil. He must be God because he deifies us- by which he merely means that he facilitates the "corruptible putting on the incorruptible." We look to what Christ does, and therefore conclude who he is. He is a human being, who does what only God can do. Therefore he must be true God and true man in one person.

This way of doing Christology not only possesses catholicity, but as Johann Gerhard shows, goes back to beginning of creation, in that this is the starting point of Christology with the protoevangelium. Only a man would be the "seed of the woman." Only God could "crush the Serpent's head."

3. For these reason, I do not think we can escape saying that "Christ is know by his benefits."


  1. I have Dr Hinlicky's Paths Not Taken ... I find his writing in that book somewhat 'turgid.' One thing is for sure ... I'm still trying to figure out his type of Lutheranism, though.

  2. Jason- I'd be interested in hearing how it is. I've been meaning to read it. And yes, you are correct Hinlicky is very difficulty to figure out where he stands in the Lutheran spectrum. He talks like a child of Seminex frequently and says things like the Scriptures are merely authoritative because of the gospel, but then turns around and says that law and gospel are both authoritative. He says that Scripture cannot be understood apart from the tradition of the Church, but then says that Scripture should be used to criticize tradition, etc. He talks both like a gospel-reductionist of the Elertian variety and like a Finnish Luther scholar. I find most his writing unclear and contradictory. My father says its because he wants to have everything both ways. Perhaps this is what's going on.

  3. Dear Jack,

    I need to re-read Paths Not Taken. I don't regret buying the book, partly because it is like Prof. Mattes Justification in Contemporary Theology (which is one of my all time favourites - tour de force) except I don't see much Law-Gospel paradigm there.

  4. I guess there's not much of critique there except when he talks about the role of the Holy Spirit post-Luther. My impression is that he does not come from a specific identifiable Lutheran perspective. Please bear with me.