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 ?

For PC, the preexistent Logos simply has to go. But what takes its place? I find myself having mixed sentiments towards his constructive proposal. I can certainly understand his argument and agree as far as the utility of a Spirit Christology is concerned. I also very much find myself drawn to his view (shared by many of the participants in the Claremont discussion) that the resource of process thought makes a better bridge between theology and contemporary science than Greek metaphysical discourse. And I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which Philip Clayton has taken a position that can’t be accommodated within an orthodox Christian framework given some judicious alterations in vocabulary.

It should be admitted

  1.  that his welcome affirmation of the post-Resurrection unity of Jesus and God has bigger practical implications for the Church today than the issue of the pre-incarnate Logos and that
  2.  it is historically undeniable that adoptionism was certainly a valid option within the very earliest Christian period. For those on the fringes of Christian belief who looking for an entry-point to Christian theology, an adoptionist Christology can perhaps be of value.

However, it must be said that Philip Clayton’s solution of his conundrum is not without cost, and that the price (exegetical, theological and ecumenical) is maybe higher than either The Predicament of Belief or the Emergent Village Theological Conversation seem to suggest.

Conclusion – Part 1: 

Firstly, an adoptionist position arguably leads to problems with Scripture which are difficult to solve even with a black belt in exegetical judo.

Secondly, the theological price. Get rid of the preexistent Logos and you also kiss farewell to the Immanent Trinity, Trinitarian theology of creation and Trinitarian theological anthropology. Hasta la vista to the Cappadocian Fathers – and Eastern Christian tradition more generally (as well as Celtic Christianity in the West), for which the threeness of God is as just as much theological bedrock as the Divine Unity. Philosophically, if God is not eternally Triune, then grounding otherness ontologically becomes impossible unless you go the route of ontologizing the God-world relationship (which creates other problems). If the Son is not eternal, then logically neither is the Father.

 Thirdly, the view that belief in the eternal Logos is just Greek metaphysical mumbo-jumbo has been challenged by recent research on Philo (identified in The Predicament as the conduit for Logos theology), not only by Christian scholars such as Larry Hurtado and Margaret Barker but also within Jewish studies on the part of Alan F Segal and more recently Daniel Boyarin. If their thesis of the pre-Christian incorporation of the Logos and other mediating concepts within a Jewish framework of salvation history is correct, then the notion that the Logos is a static concept derived purely from Hellenistic sources becomes questionable. If Judaism at the time of early Christianity proved capable of translating the Logos into its own conceptualities, thereby seriously tweaking the Greek concept, this raises the possibility that a creative theological appropriation of the Logos idea may equally be a way forward for us today. It’s not automatically a theological albatross.

 Fourthly, an overtly ‘adoptionist’ position risks alienating some theological constituencies (I’m thinking particularly of Social Trinitarians, admirers of Stanley Hauerwas, and ‘post-conservatives’ drawn to the work of figures such as Roger Olson or NT Wright) which might otherwise be attracted to this conversation and would certainly be welcome contributors to it. If PC wants a Big Tent approach, then prodding the roof with a sharp object may not be advisable. As even superstar theologians such as Hans Küng in the 1970s and more recently Elizabeth A Johnson have discovered to their cost, embracing an adoptionist Christology is not necessarily a way to win friends and influence people in certain circles: there are simply too many people out there willing to hit the ‘THIS IS HERESY!!!!’ button, and life is too short to have to deal with them.


in part 2: an alternative proposal. 

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’.