Paul DeHart’s Unspeakable Cults: An Essay in Christology is imaginative in its approach and realist in its engagement with fundamental problems posed by modern historical consciousness and claims about the divinity of Christ. Broadly, the problem DeHart tackles is that of the “Jesus of history” and “Christ of faith” posed over a century ago, but he poses it more precisely as a three-pronged problem of reconciling the fact, appearance, and truth of Jesus: (1) the doctrine of Christ is rooted in the “fact” of Jesus of Nazareth, but (2) also and almost as originally in the “appearance” or image of Christ as transmitted by early Christian groups, and (3) these finally present the “truth” of Jesus, that is, the metaphysical reality of divinity and humanity presented by Jesus (47-8). These Christological components are drawn from David Friedrich Strauss’ criticism of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s interpretation of the gospels. DeHart finds the subsequent neo-Protestant proposal to separate the transhistorical “principle” of Christianity from the historical (and therefore non-absolute) “person” of Christ inadequate, and instead rebuilds a doctrine of Christ from resources present in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, with attention to the modern challenge of historical consciousness.
What exactly is this challenge, though? The union of divine and human hypostases in Christ grants “absolute significance to a discrete event,” against which possibility modern historical consciousness claims that “all temporal events are essentially finite and relative” (2). The historical facts of Jesus of Nazareth’s life are retroactively interpreted through his portrayal by his early worshipers, but even more fundamentally, God’s unity with humanity conveyed by a two-natures Christology establishes a sharp line between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. This line is metaphysical in nature (98).
Given that the facts of Jesus’ life and person are disputable at best and could refer to an original historical person quite different from the one that Christians now worship as God incarnate, DeHart wants to show that even a non-conventional Jesus could satisfy the demands of a traditional incarnational theology. To do so he draws from the work of Morton Smith and Jonathan Z. Smith to present Jesus as magician. DeHart is not claiming that Jesus actually was a magician, but rather is creating a sort of Christological stress test with the purpose of demonstrating that even if Jesus were such a wonder worker, this fact could be reconciled with a traditional understanding of the incarnation. The factual Jesus of Nazareth is perceived by His disciples not merely as a wonder worker, but as a sign of “noumenal presence” and “transmundane dignity” (87).
Whether the factual Jesus of Nazareth was an ancient magician or some other historical person equally challenging to incorporate into theological tradition, he bore the divine nature the way that a sign bears meaning. DeHart proposes what he calls a “strong pneumatology” of culture that is revealed in the final chapter to be an ecclesiology of sorts. The incarnation of the divine Word is made “humanly meaningful” (104) by “’borrow[ing]’ from the reservoir of human personhood implicit within Jesus” (185). Upon Jesus’ ascension, the Spirit is a mediating “field of force” between the absent physical body of Jesus and His new “sign-body,” which joins together the Christ-event recognizable to orthodox Christianity (232-233).
At many points DeHart’s proposal seems to owe more to neo-Protestant Christological options than to the Thomism that he claims in his overcoming of historicist challenges. Most components of traditional incarnational Christology are developed in ways that are already available and even prominent within modernist traditions of theology. The balance of Schleiermacher scholarship over the last two decades has identified not an isolated “inwardness” in the psychology of Jesus of the sort that DeHart criticizes, but a constant attention to pneumatological meditation, sociability, and community formation as basic to Schleiermacher’s anthropology, Christology, and theology of redemption. Similarly DeHart reads Troeltsch’s Christ as purely a functional founder of the Christian cult, but the “strong pneumatology” he presents as an alternative is not so very far from Troeltsch’s own eschatological ecclesiology of the “Common Spirit” through which God binds the community of the faithful.
Unspeakable Cults is a novel approach to Christology, tapping into the possibilities of conceiving the divinity of Christ in terms of the Word of God as a semiotic reality that unfolds within historical communicative relationships. While seeking to overcome an originally historicist challenge, the book actually shows in the end (sometimes against his own assertions) that historicist developments in modern Protestant theology are not far removed from Thomist and other Catholic approaches to Christology. The ecumenical possibilities for understanding the incarnation and church as a continuous mission of divine semiosis make DeHart’s study an important contribution to theology.
Evan F. Kuehn is assistant professor of information literacy at North Park University, Chicago.
Date Of Review:
February 19, 2023
Paul J. DeHart is Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
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