April 11, 2017

Tan on Edwards' Christology

Chapter 9 of Idealism and Christian Theology is "Jonathan Edwards Dynamic Idealism and Cosmic Christology" by Seng-Kong Tan. The article addresses the relevance of Edwards' idealism to his accounts of the two central mysteries of the Christian faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation. Whereas most of the articles in this volume are primarily philosophical and deal with Christian theological commitments only at a rather basic level, this essay dives deep into the theology. Anyone not steeped in the history of these doctrines is likely to find it difficult to follow. I found it quite challenging myself, and will here only attempt to summarize the picture of Edwards' Christology presented by Tan.

Orthodox Christology involves a sort of two-stage model. As the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed has it, Christ was "begotten of the Father before all worlds" but, at a particular, identifiable point in history, "came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man." Thus our Christology must address two distinct points: the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was eternally begotten of the Father, and subsequently became incarnate forming (as the tradition has it) a hypostatic union with a complete human nature, so that there was one individual person who was at once divine and human.

Tan argues that Edwards' accounts of both stages are intimately connected to his idealism. Edwards, according to Tan, adopts two Augustinian analogies: he speaks of the Son as the divine intellect and the Spirit as the divine will, and he also speaks of the Spirit as identified with the mutual love between the Father and the Son. The relevance of idealism here is that the Son and the Spirit are, like everything in Edwards' system, identified as ideas. The Son is 'begotten' through the Father's self-contemplation. As on the Thomistic picture, God is thought to know all possible creatures by knowing Godself (to know what creatures are possible is to know what God can create). This idea that God has of Godself is the Son, begotten in an eternal act of self-contemplation. The Holy Spirit is the act or operation of mutual love between the Father and the Son which arises necessarily and eternally from the act of self-contemplation whereby the Son is begotten. Thus the Son is intellect, knowledge, contemplation, while the Spirit is act or will (178).

For Edwards (according to Tan), creation is a Trinitarian act of the continual communication of ideas. These ideas are ultimately to be found in the Logos, the Son, and communicated by the Spirit. This amounts to a continuous creation. (I'm not totally clear on what's meant by 'communication' here—in fact I've had some confusion about that in some previous chapters as well.) A feature of Edwards' particular brand of continuous creation that is important to the understanding of the Incarnation is that the identity of objects over time is effectively a matter of divine fiat (183). It apparently follows from this that a created human nature can be united with the Logos by mere fiat, without any fancy metaphysics (185). Edwards has more to say about the kind of communion or indwelling that exists between Christ's human nature and the Logos but curiously it seems that, at least on Tan's telling, this isn't really required for hypostatic union, since unity/identity are in general created by arbitrary divine fiat. On the other hand, as Tan is at pains to emphasize (183-4), the fiat is not arbitrary in the sense of capricious, but only in the sense of being a free choice shaped only by divine wisdom, so Edwards may think it would have been somehow unfitting for God to decree such unity in the absence of communication or indwelling.

(Cross-posted at The Prosblogion.)

Posted by Kenny at April 11, 2017 12:42 PM
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