Dr Greg Boyd has been writing a fair amount on divine transcendence over at his blog ReKnew: “Rethinking Transcendence,” “Crucifying Transcendence,” and “The Starting Point for ‘Knowing God.’” Following Harnack and Moltmann, Boyd posits conflict between Hellenistic and Hebraic conceptions of divinity. Whereas the Hellenistic conception “is arrived at by moving away from the contingent world,” the Hebraic conception is received by revelation, “as God moves toward, interacts with, and eventually unites himself to the contingent world in the person of Jesus Christ.” It’s a matter of starting points. If we begin our theological reflection with the incarnate Jesus Christ, “the One in whom God united himself to the world of contingent becoming,” it simply will not occur to us to think of transcendence as “the negation of contingency and becoming.”
To be more specific, if we resolve that all our reflections about God are to be anchored in the one in whom God became a man, would it ever occur to us to think that God’s essence is above time and devoid of becoming? If our thinking about God never veers from the one who was tortured and crucified at the hands of wicked agents, would it ever occur to us to imagine that God’s essence can’t be affected by anything outside of God? If our thinking about God remains steadfastly focused on the one who suffered a hellish death on the cross, would it ever occur to us to think that God’s essence never suffers? And if all our thinking is oriented around the crucified Christ, would it ever occur to us to imagine a God whose essence had no “before“ or “after” and whose essence had no potential to change, or to be affected? (“Crucifying Transcendence”)
The logic seems to be unimpeachable yet only apparently so. It is no doubt true that if we focus our vision exclusively on the suffering and dying Jesus of Nazareth, we will probably never discern or infer the divine immutability and impassibility … but neither will we achieve a patristic understanding of Incarnation and Holy Trinity! These doctrines presuppose the apprehension of noncontrastive transcendence that was worked out by the Church Fathers and medieval Doctors and articulated in the innovative teaching on the creatio ex nihilo. Boyd asks us to re-think divine transcendence through “the One in whom God united himself to the world of contingent becoming,” but what does that mean? What is a “God”? What is a “world of becoming,” and what is God’s relationship to it? How is it possible for “him” to unite himself to it without destroying it? One cannot begin to address these questions without engaging in, or at least presupposing, a goodly amount of metaphysical reflection. The necessary metaphysics cannot be gleaned from a surface reading of the Bible. We can all agree with the proposition that Christian theology properly begins and ends with God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and yet question the various inferences drawn by Boyd regarding the nature of divinity.
Boyd’s summons to return to a first-century understanding of divinity, now commonplace in Protestant and evangelical theology, fails to grasp the critical need to distinguish God and the world. The Christian theologians of the first through fifth centuries did not have the luxury of remaining within a “Hebraic” paradigm of deity. They needed to proclaim the God of Israel and his Christ to pagans who believed either in a pantheon of deities or in some kind of Platonic One from whom all other beings have emanated. Remaining at the level of the primitive Jewish grammar was simply not a missionary option. Before the Church could formulate her foundational doctrines of Trinity and Christology, she first needed to clarify her understanding of divine Creation and differentiate it from both Jewish and, more pressingly, pagan construals (see Paul Blowers, Drama of the Divine Economy; Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology; and Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason). Only when the radical, noncontrastive difference between Creator and cosmos is clearly discerned does it become possible to meaningfully articulate the trinitarian mystery of the Godhead or the inexpressible union between the transcendent Deity and the man Jesus of Nazareth or the nature of theosis and salvation. “The Christian understanding of God and the world,” writes Sokolowski, “is not an inert background for more controversial issues; it enters into their formulation and helps determine how they must be decided” (p. 34). We might even say that heresies are heretical because they obscure the properly Christian sense of God and the world. Hence the theological necessity of the creatio ex nihilo: it enables the Church to proclaim the living God as Creator and Savior and prevents her from importing into divinity the temporal and material structures of the world.
Boyd maintains that theological reflection must be steadfastly focused on the suffering and dying Jesus—sound theological counsel … if we have already metaphysically distinguished God and the world through the creatio ex nihilo. But if we have not done so, then simply gazing at the Cross only reveals a dead Nazarene. It certainly does not lead us to the remarkable Nicene/Chalcedonian confession that Jesus Christ is consubstantial with the Father, true God and true Man, “acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ.”
“If all our thinking is oriented around the crucified Christ,” asks Boyd, “would it ever occur to us to imagine a God whose essence had no ‘before’ or ‘after’ and whose essence had no potential to change, or to be affected?” As we are hopefully beginning to see, the answer to this question is by no means obvious.