Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology: A Review

Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology, by Edwin Christian van Driel. Pp. xii + 194. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 536916 8. £45.

It was the brilliant John Duns Scotus who recalled that ‘God is not in a genus’ (Deus non est in aliquo genere), reminding us that our knowledge of God is impossible in any general sense. Indeed, Christian theology is premised on belief in divine self-disclosure and, moreover, that such disclosure is an act of grace. Duns Scotus also supposed that creation’s purpose and destiny concerns ‘co-lovers’ participating in the Triune life. It was for such that the Word of God became flesh, unveiling for us the causa finalis of our humanity. That this is God’s way for us – even if sin had not come into the human scene – bespeaks the inner meaning of the grace which precedes sin and testifies to the gospel logic of the incarnation.

Supralapsarianism, the subject of Edwin Chr. van Driel’s book Incarnation Anyway (a reworked version of his doctoral dissertation completed at Yale University), is a doctrine whose beginnings reach back at least as far as the twelfth century, even if van Driel’s treatment is concerned with its less hypothetically-speculative nineteenth- and early twentieth-century articulations. The first part of his essay (pp. 9–124) attempts to chart and examine the ways in which supralapsarian christology has been articulated. It does so via a consideration of three forms that the doctrine assumed in its nineteenth-century revival, namely in Friedrich Schleiermacher (‘the first major supralapsarian theologian since the Middle Ages’ (p. 9)), in Isaak August Dorner and in Karl Barth (on whom the most ink is spilt), attempting in each case to attend to the three ways in which God is thought to relate to God’s other – in redemption (Schleiermacher), in creation (Dorner), and in eschatological consummation (Barth). While there are occasions when readers may feel that van Driel constrains his subjects’ thought with a rigid logic foreign to their projects, in each case he attempts to expose the inner logic, coherence and strength of each articulation while not neglecting to draw attention to any weaknesses.

Van Driel argues that the conceptual structures of Schleiermacher’s supralapsarianism is determined both negatively and positively by the notion of absolute dependence and the inferred forms of divine omnipotence. He notes that, for Schleiermacher, sin is not excluded from the scope of divine causality – that God is the author of sin calls for a different locus for sin in the divine decree. God ordains sin in order to make humanity receptive to redemption. This move means that human sin acquires determining and logical priority over the incarnation. Indeed, van Driel outlines how in Schleiermacher’s schema, ‘sin and redemption are essential parts of our relationship to Christ. We need Christ because of our sin, and only because of our sin. If there were another reason why we relate to Christ, God would not have to introduce sin in the divine decree. We are connected to Christ only through his redemptive activity. There is no space for a meaningful relationship with Christ that is not marked by this’ (p. 25). And again: for Schleiermacher, ‘human beings will not be receptive to the divine gifts in Christ unless these gifts address an evil in their lives’ (p. 126). Under van Driel’s examination, the identified ‘fault lines’ in Schleiermacher’s ordo salutis (especially his sympathy with a felix culpa account) widen as the essay proceeds.

For Dorner, the incarnation is the necessary fruit of the divine decision to create ethical persons and of the divine determination that such become ‘full personalities’, a reality only possible in ‘interpersonal interaction with the ethical’ (p. 49). Dorner premises his arguments on the notion that God is a lover of love – the amor amoris – whose passion is to aggrandize the life of love in his other. This twofold surrender (of God to human beings, and of humans to God) is embodied in religion, the divine contribution to which is revelation, the consummation of which is the incarnation. For Dorner, the incarnation is a basic implication of God’s decision to create: ‘Decisive for whether one takes the incarnation to be means or end is what one takes to be the divine motivation behind it. For Dorner, the motivation for incarnation is embedded in the motivation for creation’ (pp. 59–60). This move, van Driel suggests, sponsors an unsatisfactory stepping stone in Dorner’s doctrine of creation and highlights what van Driel considers to be the most troubling and deep-lying ambiguity in Dorner’s supralapsarian christology. He continues:

In [Dorner’s] proposal, it is the necessity of God’s creative act that sets everything else in motion. God’s ethical necessity is expressed in the act of creation; given the nature of the ethical necessity, creation will be brought to consummation; given the same ethical necessity, this will be done by way of incarnation. None of this follows, though, when the act of creation is a contingent act. Of course, it could still be argued that God leads creation to consummation, and that the incarnation is central to consummation. In such a scenario, the governing divine act would not be given with God’s nature, but would be the result of a free act of God’s will. And if creation were embedded in God’s will rather than God’s nature, it would be better to start one’s theological account thereof not at the beginning but at the end of God’s work: What goal had God in mind when God freely called creation into being? What motivated God to create? Systematically this means that the argument for supralapsarian incarnation should not be embedded in the doctrine of creation but in eschatology. (p. 62)

With that note, van Driel turns to Barth’s ‘argument from consummation’, that requisite feature of Barth’s doctrine of election upon which van Driel will construct his own proposals. Van Driel observes how Barth’s supralapsarian christology takes its shape in his actualism. God’s election of Jesus Christ is primal in order, self-giving in nature, gracious in its motivation, creative in its effect, all-inclusive in its scope and supralapsarian in character, and the latter in a twofold sense – in terms of both predestination and christology: ‘Divine predestination is not a first step in a divine response to sin and neither is the incarnation … God’s election of Christ’s human nature is thus the first action in the divine relating to what is not God’ (pp. 67, 68). Again: ‘At the heart of Barth’s supralapsarianism lies … his reading of the biblical narrative as a narrative of election. Election is an eschatological category; and the eschaton is the first in order of the divine decrees. Object and subject of these decrees is Jesus Christ – not the Son as λóγος ασαρκος the preincarnate Word, but the Son as Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. The incarnation stands thus at the very beginning of God’s relating to what is not God’ (p. 81). From here, van Driel turns to the question of the relationship between epistemology and sin: ‘That God unveils Godself by way of veiling is partly due to our sinfulness, but not wholly. The ontological and epistemic principles that govern divine revelation are not a result of sin, but given with the nature of Creator and creation. Incarnation, as the necessary means of divine self-disclosure, is therefore a supralapsarian event’ (p. 77).

Certainly Barth’s supralapsarian narrative recalls that creation forms the stage for covenant’s story – a story authored in the loving event called triune being, and whose meaning requires both soteriological and eschatological achievement – and that the creation which makes covenant possible does not exist for itself but for the gracious God upon whose will its future and being is contingent. However, according to his evaluation of Barth, van Driel identifies some adverse consequences of Barth’s account. He reserves most ink to attend to a concern regarding creational entropy, that ‘creation, in and by itself, will necessarily lapse into evil’ (p. 85) by ontological necessity. This elicits a helpful discussion by van Driel on time, eternity and history (pp. 111–17), and on the relationship between supralapsarianism and das Nichtige (pp. 118–24).

Building on Barth’s work (which van Driel finds to be the most satisfying of the three accents), van Driel turns in the second part (pp. 125–70) to expand on the notion of eschatological consummation, arguing that the logic of the incarnation is not contingent upon sin in any way (no felix culpa) but points to a divine will for (i) eschatological superabundance, (ii) the beatific vision, and (iii) divine friendship. The first of these attempts at a constructive argument is premised on the relation between the eschaton and the proton of creation, contending that the eschaton births an abundance and richness in intimacy with God and in human transformation which the proton did not know: ‘In Christ we gain more than we lost in Adam’ (p. 151). And because the notion of felix culpa makes such promise contingent upon sin (which by its very nature only alienates us from God), eschatological fulness (the embodiment of which happens in Christ) can only be understood in supralapsarian terms. Van Driel’s second supralapsarian argument directs us to the visio Dei. Here he extends his first argument and defends supralapsarianism on the basis that full enjoyment of the beatific vision for bodily beings requires sensory contact such as we are given sui generis in the incarnation, resurrection and ascension of the human God. Finally, van Driel arrives at the destination to which his entire essay seems directed, namely the notion of friendship with God and that of such a deep kind that the divine availability attested to in the logic of supralapsarian christology is the most compelling. Such friendship, van Driel avers, is not dependent finally on God’s desire to reconcile estranged humanity but rather in the very opposite truth: God’s desire to reconcile estranged humanity finds its origin in the divine will for friendship. The fullest expression of this will is undressed in the incarnation and best attested to in supralapsarian logic. Throughout, van Driel resists concerning himself with the hypothetical situation voiced by the medievals of whether the incarnation would have taken place had humanity not sinned, and concerns himself with ‘Christ as we have him’ (p. 164). He also exploits the tendency (as he sees it) in infralapsarianism to minimize the eschatological dimensions of creation and those inclinations to reduce creation to that which exists, falls and is then redeemed, in favour of an account which witnesses to the divine determination to bring creation to its goal in Jesus Christ apart from any dependency upon a creation-fall-redemption schema.

Against those who would defend some version of felix culpa (and here van Driel names Schleiermacher, Gregory, Milton and Barth), Incarnation Anyway challenges Supralapsarians to ‘explore the meaning of the incarnation, the presence of God among us, as an excellent good in and of itself, and not take refuge in a doctrine of sin to beef up incarnation’s meaning. We do not need the bad to enjoy Christ’ (p. 131). Again: ‘we do not have to preach sin before we can preach Christ; we can preach Christ as the offer of love and friendship with God; and it is thereafter, in the light of that offer of friendship and love, that human beings discover themselves as sinners’ (p. 166).

A final section (pp. 171–5) offers a very brief, but helpful, genealogy of supralapsarianism. Some readers may benefit by reading this section first.

Incarnation Anyway could have been a much better book than it is. Unfortunately, too frequently it reads somewhat like a collation of separate and uneven pieces, not a few of which seem largely unrelated to his subject. It is unclear, also, why van Driel reserves disproportionate space (pp. 90–101) in this forum to continuing his debate with Bruce McCormack. Or why he includes a discussion on ‘more-dimensional reality’ (pp. 167–69). As interesting as both conversations are, as they stand they contribute little to his overall thesis. More substantially, I remain incredulous of van Driel’s articulation of the distinction between incarnation as gift to human nature and that as gift to human persons. He suggests that for those who contend that the Word’s assumption of fallen flesh changes the ontological status of humanity from the inside out then the ‘logic of assumption’ does all the work, and Christ’s over-againstness of our human natures is undermined. While the distinction van Driel identifies remains valid, the inclination to separate them is unfortunate, the description and analysis offered for each is unclear, and the available resources for holding both together in the tradition (not least the Reformed tradition out of which the author speaks) is ignored, even if here the critique of Dorner and Barth finds some traction. Finally, this study most properly belongs to a larger project, as the Bibliographical Appendix indicates, and would have been strengthened significantly had its author attended more fully to the genesis and developments in supralapsarian thought in Rupert of Deutz, Robert Grosseteste, Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great and, perhaps especially, in John Duns Scotus and his theology of election. That said, van Driel’s essay remains a welcome and too-lonely contribution to a topic of great import, and leaves the reader eagerly anticipating more from his pen on this topic, especially in those areas where he offers his own constructive proposals.

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