Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter
by Stephen H. Webb
Oxford, 368 pages, $65
Could God be a material being? It may sound like a strange idea, yet it resonates with a great many theologians who reject “classical theism,” the broadly Platonist metaphysics of immaterial being that puts God beyond time and change, in favor of a conception of God that includes not only change but suffering and emotion. Making God a material being provides a simple, straightforward way to explain how such a God is possible. It is also a radical proposal that helps test the limits of this current theological trend and inadvertently clarifies why the older theological tradition has so strongly preferred classical theist metaphysics.
There are good as well as bad motives for radical proposals, and Stephen H. Webb, professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College, has a good one. Christian theologians need a metaphysics that makes it possible to say what Christians must say about Jesus Christ. Isn’t Jesus Christ a material being just like us? And isn’t he also eternal God, as the Nicene Creed teaches? Why not put two and two together and say that God is an eternally material being? That is the gist of Webb’s proposal for a “Christological metaphysics” that takes up the task of “rethinking matter Christologically.”
He calls it a “heavenly flesh Christology,” borrowing the name of a little-known doctrine advocated by some sixteenth-century Anabaptists, who taught that Christ’s material being did not originate from the earthly flesh of the virgin Mary but existed in a pre-incarnate form in heaven. But Webb’s proposal is actually more radical than his name for it suggests, as it has more in common with the thoroughgoing materialism of the Mormon view of God than with anything in Anabaptism.
In fact, most of Webb’s important claims are summed up in a “creedal-Mormon creed” that he presents as a basis for discussion between Mormons and “creedal Christians.” Other claims have to be gathered from brief statements scattered in various unpredictable places in this long and rather poorly organized book.
Put together, Webb’s proposal is that matter is not an imperfection or a weakness but an attribute of God; that there is a divine material which is the very substance of God; that it originates in the Father, who gives it to the Son by generating him in a specific body, which is his pre-incarnate form; that this body of Christ, or “heavenly flesh,” is the model after which we are made, which is to say that the whole of our humanity, body and soul, is made in the image of God; and that at a further remove all of creation is modeled after the pre-incarnate materiality of Jesus Christ and so bears some resemblance to the original divine material.
If Mormons accepted this proposal, it would go some way toward reining in their tendency toward polytheism and would bring them a step closer to orthodox trinitarian doctrine. It is doubtful, however, that it is really consistent with what Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, was teaching toward the end of his life. Smith set forth a conception of deification according to which God was once what we now are and we can become what God now is. Underlying this conception is his belief that the divine and the human share a materiality that establishes a fundamental continuity between God and the rest of us.
Webb finds this continuity attractive, as it gives us a God who changes and grows and feels like us, but he would like to show Mormons how to make it more deeply Christocentric, anchored in the unique, eternal flesh of Christ. Yet given Smith’s conception of deification, it is hard to see what could be unique about Christ’s, or anyone else’s, eternal flesh. Webb’s proposal thus narrows but certainly does not close the gap between Mormon materialist polytheism and orthodox trinitarianism.
Radical proposals have a cost. For creedal Christians the costs of Webb’s proposal begin with his replacing the concept of creation out of nothing with creation out of the substance of God. With this, Webb aims to follow one of the great roads not taken in the history of Christian metaphysics. To explain why, he retraces at some length the road that was taken when Christian theology accepted the deep connection in Greek thought between infinity and incomprehensibility, which were originally taken to be attributes of matter rather than of God.
In classical Greek thought, pure matter was infinite, which was not a good thing. To be infinite was to be limitless and so without form. And since form is the basis of all understanding—making it possible for us to perceive the physical or conceptual structure of a thing and thus grasp its essence—it follows that pure matter must be not only formless but an incomprehensible chaos.
Orthodox Christianity could not accept this notion of limitless, chaotic matter. To begin with, the early Church put a definite limit to matter in one direction by rejecting Aristotle’s notion of the eternity of matter. Matter is among the things God brought into being when he created the world out of nothing. Then, hesitantly at first but in the end decisively, the orthodox theological tradition transferred the attribute of limitless infinity to God, accepting the Neoplatonist contention that the highest divinity was above the ontological level of form and beyond any level of being that a finite mind can understand. God, not matter, was both infinite and incomprehensible.
The road not taken, which Webb advocates, is to retain the limitless eternity of matter but relocate it in God, and then to break the connection between infinity and incomprehensibility. And so an infinite divine materiality—matter that God never created because it has always existed—can be the ground of our likeness to God and our understanding of him. God’s material substance is something he has in common with us and therefore something we can comprehend. And Christ has yet more in common with us than God the Father does, because even before he came into the womb of Mary he had a particular material body.
So Webb urges us to jettison every form of negative theology, or apophaticism, and even the Thomistic strategy of analogical discourse about God, in favor of Duns Scotus’ metaphysics of univocal discourse, where being means the same whether we’re talking about God’s being or ours. For both God and his creation, to be is to be material. And a material God, even if infinite, has enough in common with us that he is not beyond our understanding.
A good many “creedal Christian” theologians will not find this kind of divine–human continuity attractive and will be unwilling to bear its cost—and this for a reason that Webb overlooks. As Plato pointed out long ago, a material being is not simple but composed of parts that are other than the whole. Hence a material God is dependent for his being on what is not identical with himself. The material he is composed of is not only necessary for his constitution but in an important sense prior to himself—more primordial than God. A materialist metaphysics leaves God fundamentally dependent on what is not God.
Creedal Christians have traditionally found such dependence a cost too high to pay. Hence the most sophisticated theologians rejecting classical theism today have ways of trying to avoid this dependence, often along lines suggested by Karl Barth, for whom the Trinity is an eternal history freely making room within itself for the history of creation. The danger such theologians must avoid is a collapse into Hegel’s metaphysics, where the divine can become what it concretely is only by getting involved in human history—so that God cannot be truly God without created beings. Any theology that wants to make God vulnerable to passion, emotionally responsive to the suffering of creation because he is affected by it, faces some such danger.
Like the Mormons, Webb is advocating a less sophisticated metaphysics that escapes worries about the looming shadow of Hegel, but only because it so gladly makes God’s identity inextricable from the material world. The divine–human continuity he likes makes God vulnerable to suffering and prone to emotion, because like us God is composed of stuff that is affected, for good or ill, by other stuff. This is a God you can bump into, and therefore a God you can hurt. If a suffering God is what you really want, Webb’s proposal is a straightforward, metaphysically low-flying way to get it.
Nicene Christianity has developed a robust way of affirming the suffering of a God who is not by nature material or time-bound. For Christ himself, as Gregory of Nazianzen put it in a formulation frequently echoed by Augustine, “remained what he was and took up what he was not.” That is to say, he remained eternal God, immaterial and unchanging, beyond suffering and death, even when he took flesh of the virgin and thereby made our materiality, suffering, and death his own, though they are not inherent in his divine nature.
Consequently, as Cyril of Alexandria insists in his reading of the Nicene Creed and as the Council of Chalcedon subsequently taught, the same one who is “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God” is also the one who was “made man” and “was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered, died, and was buried.” This is the inescapable and glorious mystery of the Incarnation, which the notion of a material God merely obscures: that the same one who is the immortal Son of God dies on a cross, that the impassible Word of God suffers under Pontius Pilate, and that this same one, who is also the immaterial God, takes flesh of the virgin Mary.
Thus God the Son freely makes all that is ours his own, while remaining eternally what he is: not only unchanging, immortal, and impassible, but immaterial. He does not need heavenly flesh to be Immanuel, the God who is with us and one of us.
Phillip Cary is professor of philosophy at Eastern University.