Having covered the general topic in my earlier post, I’m going to pull a few additional topics from a book by Jesuit scholar Gerald O’Collins: Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus (OUP, 2d ed., 2009). As a Mormon writing for a largely Mormon set of readers, I’m naturally drawn to topics that complement or contrast with LDS Christological views.
With the second century an inevitable shift of Christian language began setting in: from the first-order, pre-philosophical language of the Gospels, of the New Testament generally, and of the liturgy, there came a change to the second-order, somewhat “philosophical” language of doctrinal debate. In this move from narrative to theological Christology, apparent or real differences of meaning between particular biblical texts fuelled a great deal of sharp and even fierce discussion. (p. 165)
Mormonism has not developed a philosophical or technical language to clarify particular concepts or doctrines. We continue to use the “pre-philosophical language” of the New Testament and have never really moved from narrative approaches to more systematic thinking about doctrine in general or Christology in particular. We tend to either gloss over differences in meaning between various biblical texts or simply choose the most convenient text and ignore the others.
How could the Word of God, a divine being by nature eternal, incorruptible, and incorporeal, appear in a mortal, human body? (p. 168)
That is one of the central questions of Christology. For Mormons, Incarnation is not a uniquely Christological event or mystery — in the Mormon view, we are all incarnated beings, having (like the pre-existent Jesus) existed as corporeal spirits before somehow being implanted or incarnated in mortal bodies. For Mormons, incarnation is nothing special; we talk about it in such casual terms that we just take it for granted. For other Christians, the Incarnation (of the Word of God into the man Jesus) is a central mystery of the faith.
Against Penal Substitution
Despite some improvements … the way Aquinas adjusted Anselm’s theory of satisfaction helped open the door to a monstrous version of redemption: Christ as the penal substitute propitiating the divine anger. (p. 211; extended discussion at p. 216)
There are several theories about what the Atonement of Jesus Christ is and what exactly it does in securing salvation for humankind. Mormon explanations import language and concepts from all of them at various times, generally leaning toward the penal substitution model. O’Collins calls the penal substitution view “monstrous.”
Any talk of placating the anger of God through the suffereing of Christ as a penal substitute seems incompatible, above all, with the central message of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, better called the parable of the merciful father (Luke 15:11-32). (p. 304)
The Atonement is rooted in the love of God, not divine anger, and the result of the Atonement is a change in those estranged from God (we humans), not a change in God. God doesn’t need to change. He isn’t angry. Mormon commentators need to re-think their reflexive reliance on the penal substitution approach to the Atonement.
One persistent objection to the incarnation of the Son of God claims that it is religously and morally unacceptable. Like J. J. Rousseau and others, John Hick has dismissed faith in the incarnation as being non-egalitarian: it extends an unfair advantage to those who know about and believe in the incarnation. Christians are thus alleged to enjoy a crucial opportunity, a head start in salvation, not extended to others. Apropos of those who have never had a chance of learning about the incarnate Son of God or have learned about him in a distorted fashion, Evans cites Kierkegaard to articulate the difficulty: “it seems unjust to allow accidents of history and geography to decide the eternal destiny of an individual.” (p. 247)
It seems fair to include a topic where Mormonism scores well. Lots of modern Christian commentators wring their hands over “the problem of other faiths” or the seemingly unfair plight of the millions of humans who lived and died without hearing a word about Jesus Christ: what of their salvation? The Mormon gospel takes a broader view of the availability of Christian salvation to the whole human family. Furthermore, rather than merely speculating on the topic, the LDS Church puts it into practice by devoting huge amounts of time and money to building a network of temples throughout the world and performing ordinance work for the dead to (within the Mormon gospel view) extend salvation to all mankind, regardless of “accidents of history or geography.”
A concluding thought: The Church badly needs a successor volume to James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. But who would write it?