“The story of Jesus is the projection of the trinitarian life of God on the rubbish dump that we have made of the world”

I want to argue that the doctrine of the incarnation is such that the story of Jesus is not just the story of God’s involvement with his creatures but that it is actually the ‘story’ of God. There is one sense in which we must say that God has no life-story – and it is essential to my thesis to insist on this, as we shall see – but there is also a sense, the only sense, in which God has or is a life-story, and this is the story revealed in the incarnation and it is the story we also call the Trinity.

The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history, or enacted sacramentally in our history, so that it becomes story. I use the word ‘projected’ in the sense that we project a film onto a screen. If it is a smooth silver screen you see the film simply in itself. If the screen is twisted in some way, you get a systematically distorted image of the film. Now imagine a film projected not on a screen but on a rubbish dump. The story of Jesus – which in its full extent is the entire Bible – is the projection of the trinitarian life of God on the rubbish dump that we have made of the world. The historical mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal mission of the Son from the Father; the historical outpouring of the Spirit in virtue of the passion, death and ascension of Jesus is nothing but the eternal outpouring of the Spirit from the Father through the Son. Watching, so to say, the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity.

That the missions in time of Son and Spirit reflect the eternal relations is, of course, perfectly ordinary traditional teaching. What I am venturing to suggest is that they are not just reflection but sacrament – they contain the reality they signify. The mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son. That the Trinity looks like a story of (is a story of) rejection, torture and murder but also of reconciliation is because it is being projected on, lived out on, our rubbish tip; it is because of the sin of the world.

There is much to say both to try and justify this position and to bring out its implications, but just for the moment I want to look at its bearing on the question of the ‘pre-existent Christ’. It is a part of my thesis that there is no such thing as the pre-existent Christ.

The pre-existent Christ was invented, to the best of my knowledge, in the nineteenth century, as a way of distinguishing the eternal procession of the Son from the incarnation of the Son. It was affirmed by those who wanted to say that Jesus did not become Son of God in virtue of the incarnation. He was already Son of God before that. The pre-existent Christ marks the development from the ‘low’ christology of the virgin birth that you get in Matthew and Luke to the ‘high’ christology of John, with the pre-existent Word in the beginning with God. . . .

I wish to reject the notion from two points of view. In the first place, to speak of the pre-existent Christ is to imply that God has a life-story, a divine story, other than the story of the incarnation. It is to suppose that in some sense there was a Son of God existing from the eternal ages who at some point in his eternal career assumed a human nature and was made man. First the son of God pre-existed as just the Son of God and then later he was the Son of God made man. I think this only needs to be stated to be seen as incompatible at least with the traditional doctrine of God coming to us through Augustine and Aquinas. There can be no succession in the eternal God, no change. Eternity is not, of course, a very long time; it is not time at all. Eternity is not timeless in the sense that an instant is timeless – for an instant is timeless simply in being the limit of a stretch of time, just as a point has no length not because it is very very short but because it is the limit of a length. No: eternity is timeless because it totally transcends time. To be eternal is just to be God. God’s life is neither past nor present, nor even simultaneous with any event, any clock, any history. The picture of the Son of God ‘becoming’ at a certain point in the divine duration the incarnate Son of God, ‘coming down from heaven’, makes a perfectly good metaphor but could not be literally true. There was, from the point of view of God’s life, no such thing as a moment at which the eternal Son of God was not Jesus of Nazareth. There could not be any moments in God’s life. The eternal life of Jesus as such could not precede, follow or be simultaneous with his human life. There is no story of God ‘before’ the story of Jesus. This point would not, of course, be grasped by those for whom God is an inhabitant of the universe, subject to experience and to history. I am not, need I say, suggesting that it can be grasped intelligibly by anyone, but in the traditional view it is the mystery that we affirm when we speak of God.

From the point of view of God, then, sub specie eternitatis, no sense can be given to the idea that at some point in God’s life-story the Son became incarnate. But I also want to question the notion of the pre-existent Christ from another point of view.

From the point of view of time, of our history (which, of course, is the only point of view we can actually take), there was certainly a time when Jesus had not yet been born. Moses could have said with perfect truth ‘Jesus of Nazareth is not yet’ or ‘Jesus does not exist’ because, of course, the future does not exist; that is what makes it future. (There are people who imagine that the future somehow does exist, perhaps in the way that the past has a certain existence – in the sense that about the past there are fixed and settled true propositions. But these people are, in my view, mistaken. They are especially mistaken when they say, as they sometimes do, ‘the future already exists for God’, for to say that is to attribute a mistake to God, and a philosophical mistake at that.) So, yes, Moses could have truly said ‘Jesus does not exist’, he could also have said with truth ‘The Son of God does exist’, and he could have made both these statements at the same time.

Now this fact might be called the ‘pre-existence of Christ’, meaning that at an earlier time in our history (and there isn’t any time except in history) these propositions would both have been true – ‘Jesus does not exist’, ‘The Son of God does exist’ – thus apparently making a distinction between the existence of Jesus and the existence of the Son of God. But the phrase ‘pre-existent Christ’ seems to imply not just that in the time of Moses ‘The Son of God exists’ would be true, but also that the proposition ‘The Son of God exists now’ would be true. And this would be a mistake. Moses could certainly have said ‘It is true now that the Son of God exists’ but he could not have said truly ‘The Son of God exists now’. That proposition, which attributes temporal existence (‘now’) to the Son of God, is the one that became true when Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary. The simple truth is that apart from incarnation the Son of God exists at no time at all, at no ‘now’, but in eternity, in which he acts upon all time but is not himself ‘measured by it’, as Aquinas would say. ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’

So, like those who speak in what I regard as a muddled way about the ‘pre- existent Christ’, I too wish to adopt John’s high christology and say that it is not the incarnation that brings about the divine sonship of Jesus; but I suggest that the incarnation and the whole life of Jesus is the sacrament of divine sonship; it just is the divine sonship as story, as manifest in history.

I would be much happier in an odd way with the notion of a ‘pre-existent Jesus’ in the innocuous sense that, as I said, the entire Bible, spanning all history, is, all of it, the story of Jesus of Nazareth (‘Moses wrote of me’). But that merely tells us how to read the Bible; it does not make any claims about the relationship of divine and human in Jesus.

Herbert McCabe

This entry was posted in Herbert McCabe & Friends. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “The story of Jesus is the projection of the trinitarian life of God on the rubbish dump that we have made of the world”

  1. This is called to mind;

    “Now what I think the Mystery of Christ really means is that when God becomes incarnate in Jesus, he isn’t just doing a job on one person who happened to live in Palestine two thousand years ago. Rather, he’s manifesting in Jesus—making sacramentally present in Jesus—what he’s been doing all along in all persons and, for that matter, in all things. But it’s also more than that. The Incarnation isn’t just God coming into the world of time and place; it’s also God taking all times and places into himself so that they’ll all be present to him in his peacemaking, forgiving, reconciling power. Nobody is left out, you see.”

    — Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Christ… & Why We Don’t Get It

    Liked by 3 people

Comments are closed.