Thursday, May 31, 2012

Herman Bavinck and R. S. Thomas: can an idea bleed?


As a reader I'm usually a cover to cover man rather than an occasional dipper. But my approach is a bit different when it comes to poetry. As a case in point, I tend to flick through R. S. Thomas' Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, (Bloodaxe, 2004), and read a poem here and there that grabs my attention. It's a bit random I suppose, and there might be some benefit in working through the collection one at a time, but there we are. Thomas was a theologically liberal Church in Wales clergyman. (See here for my review of his biography The Man Who Went into the West). Thomas' poems often give expression to his struggles with the orthodox Christian faith. The other day I came across one entitled Agnus Dei,

No longer the Lamb
but the idea of it.
Can an idea bleed?
Or on what altar
does one sacrifice an idea?

It gave its life
for the world? No
it is we give our life
for the idea that nourishes 
itself on the dust in our veins.

God is love. Where
there is no love, no God?
There is only the gap between
word and deed we try
narrowing with an idea.

In this offering R. S. Thomas perfectly encapsulates the problem with liberal theology. The historical foundations of the Gospel in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have been exchanged for the idea of Christ as some kind of cosmic expression of God's love. It is not that the Lamb of God gave his life for the world. An idea cannot bleed. Rather, it is we who nourish the idea of love. And that idea is projected onto God. He owes his existence to us. 

This struck me as I'm currently reading Herman Bavinck's treatment of Christ's Humiliation in The Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ. After setting out the biblical materials on Christ's sacrifice, the theologian begins to reflect on the doctrine of Christ's work. He gives attention to attempts on the part of modern theology to modify the historic teaching of the church on Christ's sacrificial death. In modern theology, "The idea that God becomes man in a specific person and subsequently suffers for others is unthinkable." (P. 351). The death of Jesus is reinterpreted as a symbol of the suffering and dying  of God in and through the world. Bavinck summarises the views of Hartmann to the effect that, "God cannot save me, but I must save God. God can only be saved through me. Actual existence is the incarnation of the deity; the cosmic process is the story of God's passion and at the same time the way to the redemption of the One crucified in the flesh." (P. 351-352). 

The liberal account of Christ's person and work totally inverts the message of the Bible and the historic teaching of the Church. The Creator/creature distinction is rendered void. The singularity of the ensfleshment of God in Christ is compromised as the whole of existence becomes the incarnation of the deity. The historical Jesus is decoupled from an idealised 'Christ of faith'. It is we who save God, not he who saves us. 

Bavinck, however maintains that "the historical Jesus and the apostolic Christ cannot be separated" (p. 272). And that, "One cannot honour Jesus without accepting him as the Christ, the Son of the living God... [T]hroughout all centuries the [church] has confessed the crucified and risen Christ as its Lord and its God." (P. 273-274). As such Jesus is the unique mediator between God and men,
He is not a third party who, coming from without, intervenes between God and us but is himself the Son of God , the reflection of his glory and the exact imprint of his very being, a partaker in God's essence, in the attributes of his nature, and at the same time the Son of Man, head of all humanity, Lord of the church. He does not stand between two parties he is those two parties in his own person. (P. 362)
Jesus is no bloodless idea, the projection of human thoughts about God. He is the God-Man who took human flesh, bled and died to save us from sin. His death was an act of vicarious satisfaction, "Christ put himself in our place, has borne the punishment of our sin, satisfied God's justice, and so secured salvation for us." (P. 398).

Agnus Dei. Behold the Lamb who redeemed us to God by his blood!

William Williams Pantycelyn was a better poet of redemption that R. S. Thomas, 

THERE is a path of pardon
In His blood;
There is a sure salvation
In His blood.
The law’s full consummation,
A Father’s approbation—
Hear Zion’s acclamation!
In His blood—
Atonement and redemption
In His blood!
William Williams, (1801-76)
tr. by William Vernon Higham (1926-)

1 comment:

Leslie Wolf said...

This is a powerful post. I am going to read it again carefully.