E.L. Mascall’s Christ, the Christian, and the Church Book Review

Christ, the Christian, and the Church: A Study of the Incarnation and Its Consequences. By E. L. Mascall. Pp. xvii + 257. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017. ISBN 978 1 68307 019 1. Paper $24.95.

Introduction

The reprinting of Eric Lionel Mascall’s brilliant synthesis is a welcome gift to Anglicans and broader Christian theology today. First published in 1946, this precious gem has been repolished for a fresh generation of Christians today to discover the timeless distinctives of Anglican theology, especially as they apply to the supreme mystery at the center of Christian faith: the Incarnation of God. In an age so bewildered by individualism and so disenchanted with institutions, Mascall’s work introduces the treasury of ancient Christian faith for rediscovering the joys of incorporation into Christ and into one another.

Chapter by Chapter Summary

The book is roughly broken into three thematic sections which correspond to its title: chapters 1-4 establish an orthodox conception of Christology, chapters 5-6 discuss the individual Christian’s union with Christ, chapters 7-8 discuss the irreducibly corporate nature of this union by which a believer’s union with Christ necessarily implies union with a larger body who share this union (the Church). Chapters 9-13 then elaborate on the sacramental, contemplative, and theological implications of the intimate matrix demonstrated between Incarnation, individuality, and incorporation, or, in Mascall’s words, Christ, the Christian, and the Church.

Mascall opens the book with an impressive tour de force of Christological orthodoxy. Chapter 1 sets the stage for many themes pervading the whole work by outlining a basic metaphysics of the Incarnation in keeping with the Nicene and Chalcedonian tradition, elaborated in the very useful terminology developed by Aquinas, and brimming with evangelical impulse. Mascall establishes that the Incarnation must be fundamentally understood as the personal (hypostatic) assumption by the eternal Word of a concrete human nature, which means that Christ is most aptly described as [1] a single divine person who [2] consists of two natures, divine and human, [3] the divine nature being only logically distinct from his person, not actually distinct like the human nature assumed (p. 20). This terse taxonomy swiftly avoids numerous heresies (Arianism, Nestorianism, Apollinarianism, to name a few) while also maintaining the qualitative Creator/creature distinction according to which the Incarnation, in Mascall’s favored phrase of the Athanasian creed, takes place “not by the conversion of Godhead into flesh but by the taking up of manhood into God” (p. 15). That is, the Incarnation does not mean that God was deprived, but that humanity was enriched.

Chapter 2 compares this orthodox (and Thomistic) conception with some modern kenotic Christologies en vogue during Mascall’s day (including authors such as Gore, Weston, and Relton). Mascall concludes that these modern attempts to counter extreme kenoticism with psychological explanations of the Christ’s finite human experience fail to pass the standards of orthodoxy since they make the fundamental mistake of replacing ontology with psychology. Mascall goes on in Chapter 3 to propose from Aquinas’ theory of infused knowledge a way of simultaneously accounting for both the finite progression of normal human knowledge in Christ and the infinite possession of omniscience in Christ since the subject of his human nature is a divine hypostasis. Because this theory does not confuse ontology with psychology or the infinite with the finite, it is at least a defensible way forward in taking the meat of kenotic Christologies while spitting out the reductive bone of heretical implications. Chapter 4 concludes Mascall’s reflections on Christology by asserting that Incarnation and Atonement are not mutually exclusive but rather interpenetrating aspects of God’s singular intervening union with humanity in the person of Christ: that is, Incarnation is already an atoning event, while Atonement is the raison d’être of the Incarnation.

Chapters 5 and 6 move from Christ to the Christian by suggesting that, while the Incarnation testifies to Christ’s union with us (Christus pro nobis), incorporation into Christ’s very body testifies to our union with Christ (Christus in nobis, Christ in us, “the hope of glory”). Through baptism, the believer is actually united to the human nature of Christ in such a way that his death becomes our death to sin, and his resurrection and ascension become the defining center of our mode of being in benevolent relation with God. Incorporation into Christ involves a real participation in his human nature that, despite being progressively realized in the moral realm and perhaps not immediately psychologically manifest, is a true ontological reality, since the righteousness of Christ cannot be a mere forensic imputation without also being a real impartation by which grace supernaturally perfects human nature (p. 82, 86-87). Sanctification is thus all about learning to become who we already are, en Christo. The result of incorporation into Christ is the recreation of our humanity by a three-fold unity (p. 92-93) in which we are carried up by the Spirit to participate in the human nature of Christ, which is in turn hypostatically united to the divine person of the Logos, who is in turn perichoretically united to God the Father. The staggering implications of this is that Christians are given a creaturely appropriate participation in the eternal Son’s filial relation with the eternal Father, and this in turn raises us into a share of God’s own mode of eternity, which itself stands as a basis for understanding how eschatology can be both “now” and “not yet,” since it is “not yet” from the historical perspective of our earthly existence, but it is nevertheless truly “now” in our creaturely mode of participation in the divine nature (p. 105).

In Chapters 7 and 8, Mascall asserts one of his central theses, namely, that what is true individually of the Christian, who is a true member of Christ by ontological union with his human nature, is equally true corporately of the Church, which is the Body of Christ by the same union. That is, if we are truly members of Christ, we are no less truly members of one another, in him. Mascall explains this in terms of the “mystical body” by which, per the famous words of Augustine, Christ renders himself incomplete apart from union with us, since we are his true body (the totus Christus, p. 120). Mascall asserts that the individual and corporate renovation involved by insertion of fallen humanity into the healed human nature of Christ brings with it a 3-fold restoration of unity: humans with God, humans with themselves, and humans with fellow-humans. These restorations, in turn, signal that the renovation of humanity by Christ in the Church involves the cosmic renovation of the world at large, including grace for the unbelieving and subhuman created order. As Mascall eloquently puts, “The Resurrection of the Body will thus be the Resurrection of the Mystical Body, the Resurrection of the Church…Thus the Resurrection of the Body is not only the Resurrection of the Mystical Body; it is also the Resurrection of the World” (p. 148).

Chapter 9, which begins the final part of the book, also signals something of a centerpiece of the whole work, namely, what could be called a Christology of ecclesiological worship. Since the life of the Christian and the being of the Church consists in incorporation into Christ’s human nature, and since Christ clothed in his human nature forever sits in filial adoration of the Father, our worship ontologically consists in participating in Christ’s own self-offering to the Father. Literally, Christ’s worship is our worship. At the center of this participatory doxology is the Eucharist, which is both an evangelical feast on the ascended humanity of Christ and a catholic re-presentation (not repetition) of the sacrifice of Calvary. Through the Eucharist, Christ’s sacramental body (the host) unites his natural body (the human nature) to his mystical body (the Church) so that the latter may feed on, and be perfected by, the blessings of the former. This Eucharist is the tangible manner in which Christians and the Church in time and space become partakers of the divine nature and experience here and now all the blessings of Christ’s future parousia and wedding feast in the life of the world to come.

In Chapters 10 and 11, Mascall underscores that although the Eucharist allows for a raising up of our human contingencies into the timelessness of God, it has a decisive historical referent since it is a sacrament, a visible sign of an invisible reality. In this case, the concrete referent of the Eucharist is Christ’s self-offering at Calvary, in which, as is figured in the bread and the wine, his body was separated from his blood in a sacrificial offering of obedience to the Father for the redemption of the human race. It is the blessings of this particular offering that are dispensed to believers at the Supper, who are made participants of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice by the joining of their humanity to his. Mascall elaborates on these points and more in magnificent detail with special reference to Anglican formularies and dense scholastic taxonomies.

At the end of the book (Chapters 12 and 13), Mascall considers the implications of a sacramental understanding of the relationship between Christ, the Christian, and the Church for the practices of prayer and theology. Mascall asserts that Christian prayer, although intensely personal and even supernaturalized and immediate in its mystical form, is always necessarily corporate because whatever its psychological manifestation it is always ontologically constituted by participating in Christ’s own human prayer before the Father and consequently is always prayer in Christ’s Body, the Church. And like prayer in the mystical body, theology, the science of knowing God and all things in relation to God (pace Aquinas), is necessarily a corporate and liturgical act, because it has as its supreme object of study the self-disclosure of God in Jesus Christ, who has purposed to reveal the Father in no other way than by becoming one with humanity in his own Body, the Church. To be sure, these are extremely refreshing reminders that count as a profound antidote to individualism both in the prayer closet and in the academy.

Review and Critique

There are several significant merits to Mascall’s work that simply cannot be missed. It is extremely refreshing to find a theologian of the twentieth century who so tactfully (yet unapologetically) possessed the theological nerve to speak out against some rising forms of Liberalism during his day which, in Mascall’s view, were engendering theological trends that were distorting orthodox Christian confession (see esp. Ch. 2, 3, and 13). In connection with his insistence against “the attempt to insert Christianity into an intellectual framework derived from some contemporary understanding of reality” (p. 245), Mascall’s work is pervaded by the desire to think through theology as a proper science in its own right in the sense that it is “intimately in touch with reality…not merely of what people used to say about God…but of God himself” (p. 229). That is, theology cannot be reduced to the history of religious ideas or the philosophy of religion, for that would be a category mistake which, in Sarah Coakley’s entertaining term, deforms theology (talk about God) into “theologology” (talk about what others have said about God). It is along similar lines that Mascall repeatedly insists against reducing theology to psychological concepts, for that would amount to an attempt to “discuss the problems of one science in the categories of another” (p. 40) with the result that theology is disfigured so as to force-fit it into the Procrustean bed of some alien thought-form that simply cannot contain the metaphysical weight of the content to which theology claims to bear witness.

In contrast to this psychological reduction, Mascall’s theological vision was somewhat prophetic and quite ahead of its time in that it is strikingly similar to what is now widely accepted as a norm in systematic theology, namely, a non-competitive understanding of the relationship between divine and human agency (c.f. Kathryn Tanner’s God and Creation in Christian Theology). According to this commendable way of thinking, God and humanity do not exist along the same ontological continuum, for that would be to reduce God to a kind of “superhuman”; rather, there is a qualitative (not merely quantitative) difference between the Creator and his creation. This has become a happy distinctive of Anglican theology in the last century, finding prodigious expression in Austin Farrer’s Finite and Infinite and, more recently, in Rowan William’s justly celebrated work Christ the Heart of Creation. Mascall stands firmly within this tradition, arguing in his own book (with a strong Thomistic accent) for a classical conception of God in order to avoid crude notions of the Incarnation (all too pervasive in modern minds) that imagine it to consist in God being sucked into a bottle called “humanity,” as if the divine were a genie being stuffed into a creaturely lamp. This is the context in which Mascall constantly urges for us to return to the language of the Athanasian creed, which clarifies that the Word became incarnate “not by the conversion of Godhead into flesh, but by the taking up of manhood into God” (p. 15, and throughout). That is, the Incarnation, far from breaking down the qualitative Creator/creature distinction, reasserts it by enriching the one with the life of the Other. God becomes true man without ceasing to be true God. Moreover, God remains incarnate forever in Jesus Christ in order to eternally establish for us a participation in his own communion with the Father. And the upshot of this deeply Chalcedonian way of thinking in conjunction with the ongoing priestly activity of Christ, as Mascall so impressively shows, is that it breaks down all sorts of false dichotomies, e.g., the Second Eve as both the Virgin and the Church (p. 132), the Eucharist as both an ascended meal and a re-presenting of sacrifice (p. 171), the Eucharist as heavenly living offering and sacrifice of death (p. 181), the strengthening of both the individual and the Church in the sacrament (p. 194), the mutual inclusivity of personal sanctification and the liturgical life of the Church (p. 205), and mystical prayer with liturgical prayer (p. 209).

Despite these remarkable strengths, there are three particular points of Mascall’s book that could be considered weaknesses by some. Firstly, while Mascall makes impressive use of Thomistic theology and scholastic sources, this emphasis at times makes his argument heavily lean toward distinctives of Roman Catholic theology that are not shared by all Anglicans, inasmuch as Anglicans are, to a real extent, inheritors of the theology of the Reformation. An example of this is Mascall’s proposal in Chapter 3 of Aquinas’s theory of “infused knowledge” to account for the supra-human knowledge in Christ. Although Mascall executes this discussion with considerable balance, it may not be obvious to those trained in the theology of the Reformation (rather than the Middle Ages) how it is that Christ qua human can be said to have a kind of immediate knowledge that is normally possessed qua divine without transgressing the limits of Christ’s finite humanity. To be fair, this is exactly the balance that Mascall sets out to strike, and individual readers will have to determine to what degree his thesis succeeds. The main point to note is that Mascall’s thought-forms are clearly more Thomist than Reformed, and this may prove difficult for Anglicans today who come from a Protestant background.

A second point closely related to this, and more critically stated, is that at several moments throughout the book Mascall is critical of Reformation theology in a way that is either uninformed or severely overstated. It is simply untrue that “the Reformers…do not believe in a real communication of the life of God to the human soul” with regard to justification (p. 81) or that “according to their [Protestant Eucharistic] doctrine this life does not vivify. Like justification…this life remains external to us” (p. 113, quoting from Mersch). If Calvin may be taken as indicative of Reformation theology, it was he who famously stated in quite Catholic fashion that “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore, to share in what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and dwell within us…for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him” (Inst. 3.1.1). Calvin clarifies of Christ’s human nature in union with our humanity in the Eucharist that “he made the flesh itself vivifying, and hence this flesh gives life to all who partake of it” (Of True Participation in the Body and Blood of Christ). Mascall’s reductive comments seem dependent on the older scholarship of E. Mersch, whose statements should be critically checked against accurate understandings of what Reformation theologians actually teach regarding justification and the Eucharist.

A third and final brief note concerns Mascall’s recurrent statement that “Christ took his natural Body from the very race which had fallen” (p. 166-167) while also fervently insisting that “we cannot indeed admit that, in his human nature, he is either morally peccable or intellectually mistaken, for his human nature is not fallen like ours but is perfect” (p. 55). This leaves little (if any) room at the theological table for fallen-nature views of Christ’s humanity, such as those of the schools of Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance. These views might be an especially important option if one takes seriously Mascall’s central thesis, namely, that by taking our actual human nature as it exists east of Eden to himself in his blessed Incarnation, the eternal hypostasis of the Word has recreated our fallen human nature by union with himself in order that he may bless us with the benefits of that healing in his own resurrection and ascension on our behalf to the Father. How else can Christ do this unless his nature, which he takes from our fallen race, is not immediately perfect but is perfected by the very act of assumption? It may be the case that a “fallen-nature” and an “unfallen-nature” view of Christ’s humanity, seen from this perspective, are not mutually exclusive options, but that rather the meat of both can be taken while spitting out the bone (for a recent example of such a proposal, see Oliver Crisp’s recent article in IJST, “On the Vicarious Humanity of Christ”).

Conclusion

It is not without absolutely clear warrant that this brilliant volume has been reproduced for the next generation of Anglicans. Mascall represents the best aspects of Anglican identity: rooted catholicism, theological realism, liturgical zeal, evangelical fervor, pastoral warmth, and a desire to avoid all false dichotomies for the sake of enshrining the essentials of mere Christianity. This book will be especially, though not exclusively, beneficial for a particular audience of North American Anglicans today wishing to root their evangelical trot down the Canterbury trail deeply within a classic tradition of faith in Jesus that has so many riches to deliver from its forerunners.


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Preston Hill is a PhD Candidate in Theology at St Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews. He is researching Christ’s descent into hell in the theology of John Calvin. Before this, he completed an MLitt degree in Analytic and Exegetical Theology (summa cum laude) under Alan Torrance and N T Wright at the University of St Andrews. Preston is discerning a call to ordination in the ACNA. Preston and his wife Chesney currently live in Scotland and are practicing Anglicans.


'E.L. Mascall’s Christ, the Christian, and the Church Book Review' have 4 comments

  1. January 24, 2020 @ 9:37 am Rev. Dennis Washburn

    Thank you for a thoughtful summary and review.

    Reply

    • January 28, 2020 @ 4:46 am Preston Hill

      Thank you for reading, I’m honored you enjoyed it.

      Reply

      • March 9, 2020 @ 5:38 pm Stephen Whipple

        Hello Preston, and greetings from MBI in Chicago. I’m studying with Dr. Johnson currently and planning to write on Christ’s descent into hell. Dr. Johnson encouraged to contact you. I’ve read your “3 Reasons…” article and hope to gather more resources. Would you be willing to suggest some reading to me?

        Reply


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