So right now i’m reading James Torrance’s Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. In it he has one particular insight that serves as a reminder why all good theology, to use Paul Zahl’s phrase, is Christology.
Torrance points out that “our doctrine of God reflects our understanding of humanity and, conversely, our understanding of the human being reflects our view of God (37).” This implications of this fairly apparent insight are significant for how we do theology. It also serves as a critique of most (if not all) protestant theologies.
It seems to me that liberal theology (at least in the pre-WW sense) had such an (overly)optimistic anthropology that there was little room or need for God to be any more than a cosmic companion on our way to perfection. In fact, the atonement was scandalous to the modern mind because of its implication of our deep, deep problem. As Torrance points out, this view, championed initially by Harnack and now by John Hick, has no need of being Trinitarian, and is quite happy to be unitarian. Just God and enlightened man were needed in this equation. No need for atonement, salvation, etc.
Conversely, i think that much conservative theology is so concerned with “defending God’s glory” that they end up disrespecting the humanity that was created in His image. While i wouldn’t want to claim that it is wrong to have a high view of God, i would say that much conservative theology allows their conceptions of God to be formed not by the Suffering Servant but by medieval Lordship. Moreover, strong forms of determinism seem to fight against the notion of saying anything good at all about humanity, especially in their fallen state, and even in the redeemed souls and bodies of Kingdom people. Thus, while conservatives are very good at proclaiming Christ as the way to salvation, his condescension to take on real humanity can be vexing. This mindset is betrayed comically by how Jesus’ hair isn’t allowed to be swayed by the wind. In more theological circles it reveals itself in escapist eschatologies, and in the refusal to take seriously the ontological implications of the atonement/salvation in our theological anthropologies. Practically it can be discerned in our aversion to the “social gospel.”
It seems to me that while we can never completely escape the dialectical nature of our understanding of God and humanity, our only hope is to focus our theological endeavors on Jesus Christ. Only He reveals the true nature not only of God, but of humanity. He thus stands over and above the overly optimistic views of liberal theology and the drudgery of most conservative theology. Jesus’ person and work critiques both the liberal theologians’ “enlightened man,” as well as a picture of God as a cosmic equal. At the same time, Jesus called for, and expected, that a relationship with Him and His Father would lead to a radical change in one’s life. Jesus reveals a God of redemption, not one who tells us to merely affirm that we are just “sinners saved by grace” who have to wait with folded hands to see personal or societal change. If Jesus and those who followed Him do not have such a low view of humanity, then neither should we.
May we walk in the narrow middle way, carved out for us by our incarnate Lord, submitting neither to a naive optimism nor a worthless worm anthropology. Further, may we conceive of God as one who is not merely a cosmic hand-wringer, nor as a God who is so high above us that he can be of no real help here, but one whose Lordship is found in His servanthood.