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Monday, December 18, 2006

Fr. Jonathan Baker on E.L. Mascall and the Incarnation

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Fr. Jonathan Baker, SSC writes the following article in New Directions.

Eric Lionel Mascall, priest, wit, philosopher and theologian died in 1993. In his address to the National Assembly of Forward in Faith in November 2002, Fr Aidan Nichols op numbered Mascall among those ‘separated doctors' of the Anglican Church ‘in whom the Church of Rome can recognize the overwhelming preponderance of the apostolic patrimony she has received.’ Mascall’s writings on Church, the Eucharist and the Sacraments, and his skilful exposition of orthodox Christology in Theology and the Gospel of Christ should make him required reading for all seeking a firm grounding in Christian doctrine. In both the Church and the academy, however, Mascall has slipped, with surprising speed, out of view: a consequence in part, no doubt, of his Anglo-Catholicism and conservatism. Rehabilitation is surely overdue.

The humanity of Jesus

One of Mascall’s last books was Whatever Happened to the Human Mind?, published in 1980, seven years after his retirement as Professor of Historical Theology at King’s College, London, and dedicated to the ‘priests and people of St Mary’s, Pimlico [Bourne Street],' who had given him 'both an altar and a home.' The book is a reply to Geoffrey Lampe’s God as Spirit; but the last section of the book stands somewhat apart from the rest, and is entitled Sexuality and God. In the introduction to this final part of his book, Mascall reminds us of the importance of the humanity of Jesus, ‘and this humanity, this human nature, this manhood is no fiction or phantom, no logical or psychological abstraction,' but rather ‘concrete and fleshly’ as our own.

While there is no contradiction between the universality of Jesus as Saviour of all humanity, and his particularity as one individual first-century Jew, yet, as with all humans, the humanity of Jesus is differentiated: and the most fundamental of all differentiations is that of sex: the distinction between male and female. ‘In order to be a normal human being,' writes Mascall, ‘it is necessary to be either male or female; it is, not only psychologically or practically, but physically impossible to be both.’

Next Mascall applies this to the Incarnation. God incarnate - God become human perfectly and completely - must be God who has become complete and perfect male, or complete and perfect female; and, in fact, God incarnate is a man. Now Mascall puts the question which is of such significance in the debate over the ordination of women (and which was also raised in ch.4 of Consecrated Women?) ‘Is there,' he asks, ‘any special significance in this? [Or] does the fact that what was assumed was human nature as male and not as female amount to anything more than the fact that if you spin a coin it will come down either heads or tails, since it cannot come down both at once?’

The place of Mary

Mascall turns first, in seeking to answer his own question, to the place of Mary in the mystery of the Incarnation. It is Mary’s involvement in the divine flesh-taking - and Mascall comments that ‘the incarnation itself waited for the courageous and obedient fat of Mary' - which guarantees the centrality of womanhood in the story of God’s redemption of mankind. The incarnation guarantees the dignity of women: Mascall recalls Aquinas' observation that one reason why it was fitting that Christ should take flesh from a woman was that it abolished any excuse for despising the female sex.

But Mascall is interested in more than establishing that, because of Mary’s involvement, the maleness of the incarnate Christ does not exclude women from the fullness of redemption. He wants to ask whether ‘not only the humanity of Jesus but also the sexual mode under which he assumed it reflects a real aspect of the eternal Word?' He adds that this will not be determined by a shaky logic based upon the masculinity of Jesus (‘Jesus is male, Jesus is God, therefore God is male’), but rather ‘upon the way in which God has revealed himself in the concrete historical revelation of Judaism, with its culmination in Christ and its expansion and explication in the worship, thought and witness of the Church down the ages.’

Drawing substantially on the work of Austin Farrer, Mascall answers his own question with a qualified ‘yes.’ Mascall recalls Farrer’s proposition that images have a ‘direct epistemological function' – that is, they do not rely on any secondary thought processes to be apprehended – to reflect on the images for God which are found in Scripture and the Tradition. Nearly all, including all the most obvious (King, Father, Shepherd, Husband) are clearly of a male character. Thus, Mascall observes, 'unless we are to reject the biblical revelation altogether, may we not be forced to conclude that, in however analogical a way and with whatever reservations about modus signifcandi, the notion of maleness is appropriate to God in a way that the notion of female-ness is not?'

Only one father

He refines this conclusion almost at once, however, by bringing in the French Oratorian Father of the Second Vatican Council, Louis Bouyer, who argues that the attribution of male epithets to God is not so much an assertion of masculinity as of fatherhood: a fatherhood which men can exercise only by proxy (unqualified fatherhood being alone the prerogative of the Father in heaven), while women are able to exercise motherhood totally, and in their own right.

What of the ministerial priesthood? Mascall characterizes Bouyer’s method as predominantly symbolic in character, depending as it does on a sense of biblical revelation and the sacramental economy as, in turn, resting upon a fundamentally symbolic understanding of creation, and of human nature in particular. Without locating the theology of the ordained ministry within such a symbolical scheme - without, in other words, having a strong sense that the ministerial priest and bishop participate in a distinctive way in the high priesthood of Christ by means of a particular sacramental sign - it is difficult to establish the relevance of Mascall’s line of argument in the debate over the ordination of women. But with such an understanding (which is surely consonant with the Tradition), it is not difficult to see how the pieces fall into place. Is the maleness of the Incarnation soteriologically significant? Eric Mascall’s is not the last word on the subject: but those who would say, ‘no,' must surely give his arguments the courtesy of a response. ND


9 Comments:

Blogger J. Gordon Anderson said...

Mascall is great! One of the best theology books I've read in recent years is "Christ, the Christian, and the Church." Now I am reading "Corpus Christi".

10:00 pm  
Blogger Brian Douglas said...

I think we need to be careful here that we do not overemphasise the particularity of Jesus at the expense of the universality of Christ. The doctrine of the incarnation was indeed central for Mascall as an act of God not of humans, but an act nonetheless performed by God through human agents and by means of material instruments (Mascall, 1953: 9). Mascall in discussing the incarnation, as in discussing the Eucharist, is clearly a moderate realist but he also distances himself from any extreme realism as the following quote suggests: “ … there is an ultra-realist metaphysical doctrine about universals, which, if it were true, would involve that the assumption of human nature by Christ ipso facto regenerated every member of the human race into the Church of God by one instantaneous act. But neither Christian tradition nor the facts of experience support so extreme a view. Whatever may be the correct metaphysical doctrine about universals and particulars as regards the lower creation, where man is concerned neither such an extreme realism nor the opposite extreme of nominalism, according to which the Incarnation would have had no effect upon anyone except Jesus himself, meets the case. Something real and decisive happened to the human race when the divine Word became flesh, but it was not something that removed it from the historical process or brought history to an end. Presumably one of the reasons for this is that many of the human beings whom Christ came to redeem had not even come into existence at the moment of the Incarnation; the concrete universal of humanity was not then, and is not yet, complete.” (Mascall, 1953: 11). Mascall is therefore rejecting both extreme realism and nominalism here and advocating that "Christ's human nature is both universal and particular" (Mascall, 1953: 41). The moderate realist philosophical position which Mascall is putting forward is as appropriate for the Eucharist as it is for the doctrine of the incarnation and the doctrine of the Trinity. This is confirmed by the distinction which Mascall makes between what he calls the order of nature and the order of grace. He argues that there is:

“ … an organic relation between the order of nature and the order of grace. Grace necessarily presupposes nature as the material in which it works, perfecting nature but not destroying it. But the two orders are distinct, and the sacraments belong to the order of grace, not the order of nature. They derive their order and efficacy … from the act by which God incarnate, entering into his world and, as it were, making himself part of it, died and rose again that it might be created afresh and be made more lovely and beautiful still.” (Mascall, 1953: 41).

The expression ‘organic relation’ between the order of nature and the order of grace suggests a moderate realism, since it is in the order of nature that the order of grace works. In the eucharistic context this means that it is through the bread and wine (elements of the order of nature) that the body and blood of Christ (the order of grace) are present. Nature is perfected not destroyed in this relationship, to the degree that the material becomes the efficacious means of grace. This is the language of moderate realism. Mascall seems to base this line of thinking on Hooker who argues that it is “by grace we are every one of us in Christ and in his Church, as by nature we are in those our first parents” (Hooker (edn. Keble, 1865, I, 625).

Mascall does not dismiss the order of nature but at the same time he is clear that they are distinct and sacraments belong to the order of grace. This means for Mascall that the extreme or immoderate realism caused by emphasising the order of nature is avoided. Nature is therefore perfected by this relationship but the sacraments (Eucharist, ordination) belong to the order of grace, not the order of nature. In any argument therefore about gender it is important to realise the efficacy depends on the order of grace and not the order of nature. I suggest this needs to be firmly in mind when we talk of the particularity of something like the gender of Jesus and make this determinate for any notion of universality.

12:14 am  
Anonymous William Tighe said...

Fr. Anderson,

If you are reading *Corpus Christi* I hope that you are reading the revised and much expanded Second Edition (1965) rather than the First Edition (1953), as the former has much to say, both about Lutheran and Reformed post-WWII theologians and about Vatican II, that is absent from the First Edition.

I would also strongly recommend Mascall's *The Recovery of Unity* (1958) and his short essay "Some Basic Considerations" in that rathe runeven collection of anti-WO essays, *Man, Woman and Priesthood* (1978).

12:51 am  
Blogger J. Gordon Anderson said...

Dr. Tighe,

Thanks for the tip. I checked my book and it turns out that it is a third impression of the 1953 edition, so I will have to look for a copy of the other version that you've recommended. The treat about this copy for me, though, is that it is autographed by Mascall and came with a Christmas card from Oxford stuck in it that he sent to the original owner!

I have another book by him that I am hoping to begin called "Via Media: An Essay on Theological Synthesis" that looks interesting.

2:41 am  
Blogger Joel said...

Nice iconostasis!

2:46 am  
Anonymous john scholasticus said...

'The place of Mary' seems to me an interesting topic. Monday a week ago I attended the Durham NT Seminar and the paper - by Andrew Louth - was on the so-called ProtoEvangelium of James. According to Father Louth full-scale veneration of Mary only really emerged in the 5th century, and there was inconclusive discussion about why this should have been so. One participant (not me)suggested Christian appropriation of Isis, Artemis, the Great Mother, etc., which I (with my well-known gnostic/pagan views) think must be right, but which is hardly orthodox Christianity. In any event, one seems to be dealing here with a relatively late phenomenon, though no doubt William Tighe knows far more about this than any of us do.

10:17 pm  
Anonymous William Tighe said...

Fr. Anderson,

Yes, *Via Media* is good, too, although it never "grabbed" me, unlike some of his other works. (His books of light verse, *Pi in the High* [1959] and *Compliments of the Season* [1985], are witty as well.) When I lived in England, Mascall gave me autographed copies of some of his later works, and I used to buy copies of his earlier books and brought some of them for his signature.

He was, of course, in deep distress at the end of his life and at out last meeting in August 1992 (six months before his death) he told me clearly, although not explicitly, that he would have to leave the Church of England if WO made it through the General Synod, but later on I heard from Graham Leonard through Aidan Nichols that Mascall concluded that he had become so "debilitated" that he lacked the capacity or self-confidence to decide what to do. Some years later I managed to track down the executor of Mascall's will, a priest of the Church of England who had been Mascall's confessor, but who, when I found him, had been (re)ordained in the RC Archdiocese of Southwark and was living in a retirement home for Catholic clergy, who told me the same story, but in greater detail.

12:59 am  
Anonymous john scholasticus said...

One of the problems of this blog (see your anguished lament about your non-appearance in the fatuous 'blog-of-blogs' competition) is a failure of courtesy. In practice, what this means is that too many people of too similar a persuasion are talking to themselves and to one another. Even T19 is (sometimes) superior in this respect. I make a slightly provocative but perfectly civil and in fact historically well-informed comment about veneration of Mary and comment comes there ... zilch. Work it out, Jeff.

8:24 pm  
Blogger Jeff said...

John, where have I failed to show courtesy on this blog and not welcome differing views and voices in the Church?

9:04 pm  

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