Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ménégoz on the Christology of Hebrews

I am currently working my way through Eugène Ménégoz's La théologie de l’Épître aux Hébreux.  The following is my translation of his chapter on Christology.  The translation is not polished.  I did not bother transcribing all of the Greek, nor are the footnotes included.  Pages numbers are set in brackets [].  I will say up front that I do not agree with his christological interpretation of Hebrews.
Ménégoz, Eugène. “Le Christ.” Pages 77-101 in La théologie de l’Épître aux Hébreux. Paris: Fischbacher, 1894.
 The Christ

[77] At the center of the theology of the epistle to the Hebrews is found the person of Christ.  It penetrates all the religious conception of the author, it dominates all his system.  To better understand his doctrine, it is necessary, before anything, to have a clear idea of his Christology.
The author did not know Jesus. “The salvation,” he said, “announced at first by the Lord, has been confirmed by us who have heard” (2:3).  All he knows he holds from tradition.  And this tradition appears to have been oral tradition, because there is no trace in our epistle of a gospel writing.  Moreover, the author seems to have known only a rather summary knowledge of the life of Jesus.  He reports none of his words, he makes no mention of his miracles, he does not speak of his earthly activities.  The death of Christ is more interesting than his life.  However, we can conclude from the manner of which he speaks about this death, that he knows the life of Jesus in its great lines and that he supposed that it is known by his readers.
We find in the epistle only two facts on the earthly life of Jesus.  At 7:14 the author [78] observes, in passing, that Jesus was from the tribe of Judah.  And at 5:7, speaking of the suffering of Christ, he says that Jesus supplicated God “with great cries and tears” to deliver him from death.  It is probably an allusion to the scene of Gethsemane, perhaps also to the cries of Jesus in his agony; but as one sees, it is literally independent of our canonical passages.  It is to these two nearly incidental indications, which can be excised without injury for the rest of the writing, that the facts of the epistle on the earthly existence of Jesus can be reduced.  The life of Christ “in the flesh” (5:7) seems scarcely to have occupied the author.  In this respect he shared the views of Paul.
The epistle to the Hebrews teaches in the most formal manner the personal preexistence of Christ. This one occupies the first place in date and in rank in the world of superior spirits, of celestial beings.  He is their “firstborn” (1:6), and as such – by right of primogeniture – is the universal heir (1:2; cf. v. 4).
The author does not explain the metaphysical nature of the preexistent Christ. He calls him “the reflection of the glory of God, the imprint of his being” (1:3).  These metaphors strike the imagination, but they say nothing precise in thought.  Man also is made in [79] the image of God.  Christ is a degree superior to him; his resemblance to God is perfect.  He reflects God as a mirror reflects an image; he carries the imprint of God, as the wax the imprint of the stamp.  But these comparisons do not define the proper nature of Christ.  It is necessary to seek the theological sense in the general exposition of the epistle.
[80] What stands out clearly from the text, is that, on the one hand, the author classifies Christ in the order of celestial beings, without thinking to attribute to him the divine nature itself, and that, on the other hand, he endeavors to demonstrate that Christ occupies in the order of celestial beings the first rank.  God has chosen and anointed him “in preference to his companions” (1:9).  His name is above all other names (1:5).
According to our author, the celestial beings who surround the throne of God are designated by the generic term of angels.  These angels are the “spirits” (1:14; cf. v. 7).  God is their father (12:9).
It is not necessary to understand this name of “father” in the Gnostic sense of emanation.  The author of our epistle professes the most absolute monotheism.  His God is the God of the Old Testament, the unique God, sovereign, all-powerful, creator of heaven and of earth, the origin and goal of the universe.  He is “the one for whom and by whom are all things (2:10), “the one who has established all things (3:4), “the one by whose word the world was formed, so that what one sees is not originated from existing things” (11:3).  The superior spirits, as the rest of the universe, [81] go in the order of creation.  The terms of father, son, children are figurative expressions of character at the same time metaphysical and moral, not implying any idea of organic evolution, of pantheistic effluence.
These observations are applied also to Christ, the Son of God par excellence (1:2, 4, 5).  The terms of “Son” and of “Firstborn” does not express the idea of a divine emanation.  Our author says explicitly that Christ has “neither father, nor mother, nor ancestors” (7:3).  As Adam, he is the first of his species.  He does not have a father in the sense of generation.  God, his creator, is his father in the metaphorical sense; and it is in this sense that it is necessary to understand the citations of Psalm 2:7: “You are my son, today I have begotten you,” and that of 2 Samuel 7:14: “I will be your father and he will be my son” (1:5; cf. 5:5).
[82] In applying to Christ this word “today I have begotten you,” the author indicates that he assigns a date to the creation of the Son: “today.”  The metaphysical idea – difficult, if not impossible to realize by the thought – of an eternal generation is strange to him; and one would be wrong to take in this absolute sense the affirmation that the Son of God, just as Melchizedek, “does not have the beginning of his days” (7:3).  These words only complete the preceding idea: “without father, without mother, without ancestors,” and they signify that the life of Christ did not begin by birth; he was not born.  He is the immediate and primordial product of the creative power of God.  “Today I have begotten you,” means: today, I have called you into existence.  This “today,” in the thought of the our author, refers to a moment where the succession of “days and nights” did not exist; it is before the “beginning” of the first chapter of Genesis, before the creation of the heavens and the earth.
God created the Son “an eternal spirit” [83] (9:14); he gave him a “life without end” (7:3, 8), an “imperishable life” (7:16).  “His years will not end” (1:12).  He remains the same, “yesterday, today and eternally” (13:8).  His “throne remains from eternity to eternity” (1:8; cf. 7:28).
Given these attributes, the Son was the organ of the creation of the world (1:2).  The author relates to the Son these words of Psalm 102:26: “You anciently established the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands” (1:10).  This idea of a celestial being charged to realize the creative thought of God is a Philonic idea; it penetrated into Judaism under the influence of Greek philosophy.  God is conceived as a being too elevated and too pure to enter into immediate contact with matter.  He uses intermediary beings for the creation and preservation of the world.  The same idea gave birth to the rabbinic teaching according to which God had given the Law to Moses, not directly, as Exodus (ch. 20) and Deuteronomy (ch. 5) report it, but by the ministry of angels (2:2; cf. Galatians 3:19; Acts 7:53).  See also Deuteronomy 33:2 in the Septuagint version; et Josephus, Antiquities 15.5.3.
[84] It is also by the Son that God continues to sustain the world.  The Son, says our author, “bears all things by his powerful word” (1:3).  We know that in Philonism, the “word” is the sensible expression of the intimate nature of a person.  The powerful word of the Son is his powerful nature, the power of his metaphysical being.  Just as a minister acts in the name and by the delegation of his sovereign, likewise the Son acts with the full power of the Father in the work of creation and the preservation of the world.
With this double title and according to the conceptions of the era, the Son occupies vis-à-vis other creatures, even the more elevated ones, the rank of a god.  It is what expresses, in the thought of our author, these words of Deuteronomy: “All the angels of God must bow before you” (Deut 32:43, solely in the version of the Septuagint; cf. Ps 97:7), and this passage of Psalm 45 (Hebrew 44):6ff.: “Your throne, O God, remains from eternity to eternity, the scepter of your reign is a scepter of equity; you have loved justice and you have hated iniquity; it is why, O God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joy in preference to your companions” (1:8-9).
These last words prove to us that it is not a question here of the essential divinity of Christ, of his deity, of his homoousia with the Father.  God is one, in the absolute [85] sense; he is essentially distinct from the whole universe; he is outside of comparison.  The Son, on the contrary, is not only of his species, he has “companions” – “fellows” (as Osterwald and Martin translate), “colleagues” (according to the translation of Reuss and Segond), “peers” (according to Oltramare), “equals” (according to Stapfer).  These μέτοχοι are the superior spirits, among which Christ is classified as to the order of creation, but above which he is elevated by the dignity and the privileges which it pleased God to accord to him.
The psalmist, in the citation above, is supposed to give to the preexistent Christ the name of God.  One would be wrong to infer an identification of Christ and of God in the thought of our author.  Noting first of all that the name of God, applied to the Son, is found only incidentally in the citation, and that this has for a goal to prove, not the equality of the Father and the Son, but the superiority of the Son over the other celestial spirits.  In the course of his exposition, the author never gives to Christ the name of God.  According to the citation of Deuteronomy, it is the angels “of God” who must [86] bow before the Son.  There, the distinction of God and Son is clearly marked.  And in the citation of the psalmist, the Son is called God only in a derivative sense; he has above him his God: “O God, your God has anointed you.”  His God, it is Jehovah, who does him the favor of choosing him “in preference to his companions,” and with whom our author did not identify him.
In the language of this era, one can employ the name of θεός in a derivative sense, even as we do today for the adjective divine. The term had something of an elasticity that it lost later.  In the Old Testament, the name of God is several times applied to men: “I have said, “You are gods, you are sons of the Most High’” (Ps 82:6; cf. Exod 4:16; 7:1; 22:8-9).  Jesus Christ himself revealed the loose character of this expression (John 10:34-35).  Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Although there are beings called gods, whether in heaven, whether on the earth – as there is, in fact, a great number of gods and lords – nevertheless for us, there is only one God, the Father, from whom comes all things and for whom we are, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things and by whom we are” (1 Cor 8:5-6).  Philo also know this derivative sense: μὲν ἀληθεία θεὸς εἷς ἐστιν, οἱ δ᾿εν καταχρήσει λεγόμενοι πλείονες (de somn. 39).  [87] It is manifestly in this sense that it is necessary to understand the name of θεός applied to Christ in our citation; and one should not invoke this citation against our conception of the Christology of the epistle.
If the author had wished to teach the essential divinity of Christ, he would have made it with a perfect clarity; he was a rather good theologian and he handled rather well the pen for expressing clearly his thought.  But he thinks so little to identify Christ with God that, in his enumeration of the inhabitants of the “celestial Jerusalem”, he separates Jesus from God: “You have approached . . . of God, the judge of all, and of the spirits of the just made perfect, and of Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant” (12:23-24).  Noting also that in saying that Christ is seated “at the right hand of God” (1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), the author distinguishes perfectly the one who is seated on the throne, and the one who is seated to his side.  The exalted Christ is not God: he is next to God, to his right, at the place of honor.  There is, according to our author, no tendency to identify them. 
Moreover, the author places explicitly in the category of created beings, not only Christ and the superior spirits, but also Christ and men.  “The one who sanctifies,” he says “and those who are sanctified are all issued from the one God” [88] (2:11).  “It is why,” he adds, “Christ is not ashamed to call them his brothers.”  In support, some prophetic passages of the Old Testament follow: Ps 22 (LXX: 21):23; Isa 8:17ff.  And that one should well mark it, it does not concern here the incarnate Christ, but the preexistent Christ.
All the effort of the author, in the two first chapters, tends to prove, not the divinity of Christ, but his superiority over similar spirits.  This effort would have been useless and the argumentation would have been very awkward if [89] the author had believed in the real divinity of Christ; because in this case, it would have been sufficient for him to affirm this divinity, and the superiority over the angels would become obvious.
If we need more proof to support our interpretation, we will find it in the fact that the idea of an incarnation of the divinity is absolutely absent from our epistle; we will find no trace in it neither in the premises nor in the argumentation of our author.  It is not found in his premises, because according to his platonic conceptions, he would not, as we have seen, admit an immediate contact of God and matter.
Just as for the creation and preservation of the world, an intermediary being, a mediator, is needed for the incarnation and redemption (8:6; 9:15; 12:24).  In the exposition of our author, it is not God who is abased or is incarnated.  This idea, which in later theology has played a crucial role, is unknown to him.  In his notion of God, there are not hypostases or intra-divine persons, of whom once could be externalized and incarnated.  God, immutable in his majesty, presides at the incarnation of the Son, but he does not participate personally.  He has prepared for him, says our author, “a body” (10:15).  This body, clothed the Son [90] at the time of his incarnation.  It is a body “of flesh and of blood” as those of other men (2:14).  He has lived thus in “the flesh” (5:7); and death has torn this flesh as a veil (10:20).
One sees here the platonic premises of the Judeo-Alexandrian school.  According to Plato, the spirits preexist in the celestial regions and are incarnate in human bodies.  This incarnation is by way of natural generation.  Has the author of our epistle represented the mode of the generation of Christ as different from those of other men?  This is not likely.  In any case, there is in the epistle no indication to suggest that the author had believed in the miraculous conception of Jesus in the womb of a virgin.  If he had this belief, it is scarcely admissible that he would not have expressed it, given his tendency to exalt Christ and to place him above all the beings of creation.  A miraculous exception in favor of the Son would have been an argument too precious to be passed under silence.
[91] Historically speaking, the idea of the preexistence of Christ and that of his supernatural conception by the Holy Spirit are exclusive of one another.  According to the latter, Christ would not have existed before his conception; it is the union of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary that he is born.  According to the former, on the contrary, Christ was called into existence by the Creator before all other celestial spirits, and the Holy Spirit would have played no role in his incarnation.  One can seek to reconcile dogmatically these two notions; but on the terrain of history they are irreconcilable.  The authors of the New Testament, who teach one, do not teach the other.  We are then authorized to conclude that the author of our epistle, in teaching the incarnation of the preexistent Christ, does not profess the doctrine of the conception of Christ by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin.  He nevertheless does consider of the Son as a miraculous fact; because this is not one of the innumerable preexistent human souls who are incarnated – an incarnation which according to the platonic theories is the rule, the natural and daily fact – but a superior spirit, a unique being, the Firstborn, who was not, as human souls, naturally destined to be clothed with flesh and blood.
[92] The reason which, according to our author, determined the Son to be incarnated is the will of the Father.  Adopting the word of a Psalm, the Son says to the Father: “Here I am, O God, to do your will” (10:7; cf. Ps 40:7-9).  The incarnation of the Son was necessary, not only so that one can offer his body in sacrifice for sin – because without the shedding of blood there is no pardon (9:22) – but also so that he can sympathized with sinners in participating in their weakness, their sufferings, their temptation.  “He must be made like his brothers in all things in order that he may become compassionate” (2:17) . . . “because having suffered himself in trials, he can succor those who are tempted” (2:18) . . . “We do not have a great priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, because he experienced the same temptations as us, but without falling into sin (4:15; cf. 5:2).
These passages confirm also our conclusions relative to the nature of the Son of God.  If the author of our epistle had believed in the essential divinity of Christ, he would not have made the knowledge of the miseries of humanity depend on his incarnation.  God is omniscient; he knows the sentiments of men because without having the need to be incarnated.  It is precisely because he knows them that he has sent his Son into the world.  The firstborn of creatures, on the contrary, would be perfectly, in the [93] thought of our author, ignorant, before having personally experienced all the breadth and depth of the evils of humanity.
Surrounded by temptations, Christ always triumphed (4:15).  “He offered himself to God without spot” (9:14).  “For it is right for us to have a sovereign priest: holy, innocent, without spot” (7:26).  The holiness of Christ could not be affirmed with more clarity; it is supposed in the whole writing.  The author does not examine the question, if Christ could have sinned.  As he does not identify with God, he must admit the possibility of a fall.  However, given his superior nature and his original obedience, the Son of God is found in more favorable conditions to leave victoriously from the battle.
Despite his celestial nature and his exceptional gifts, the Son of God did not primitively have the fullness of perfection.  He must progress more, in order to attain the most elevated degree of glory and felicity.  It pleased God, says the author, to elevate him to perfection by suffering (2:10).
La τελείωις, in the language of the epistle to the Hebrews (7:11, 19, 28; 9:9, 11; 10:1, 14; 11:40; 12:2, 23; 6:1), is not moral perfection, but the term of an evolution, the plenitude of a fulfillment.  This perfection, the Son of God attained (5:9; cf. 2:10; 7:28; Phil 2:9).  If the author had believed in the deity of Christ, he would not have expressed it thus; because God, in the Israelite conception, is the absolute perfection.  The primitive state of the Son, on the contrary, was [94] susceptible to a development, to a progress, to a perfecting.
To arrive at perfection, the Son must undergo a formidable test: he must be abased, to be incarnate in humanity, to triumph over temptations, to be patient in suffering, to be submitted to the will of God until the torment of the cross.
Christ knew that a glorious recompense would crown his victorious battle.  “He suffered the cross,” says our author, “and he despised the ignominy, in view of the joy which was reserved for him” (12:2).  It is this perspective which sustained him.
[95] The author, note it well, does not say, and none of his interpreters would say, that Jesus had accepted the sufferings in the intention of gaining the celestial joys.  It is for the salvation of his brothers that he is sacrificed.  But what sustained him in the ignominy, in the sufferings, on the cross, is the perspective of the felicity [96] and of the glory to come.  All the faithful of the old covenant had been sustained in their ordeals by the faith in the divine promises (ch. 11).  Jesus likewise.  And he had not failed.  He fought valiantly until the end.  He became thus our model for faith, patience, perseverance. “Running with perseverance in the lists which are open before us, by regarding Jesus, the chief and consummator of our faith” (12:1-2).
[97] Suffering had exercised him, seasoned him. “He learned obedience by suffering” (5:8).  God came to his aid “by his grace” – 2:9; he heard him “because of his piety” – 5:7.
As one sees it, our author has taken seriously the [98] ordeals, the battles, the sufferings of Christ.  He considers as meritorious his obedience and his piety; he represents him as sustained by the grace of God and by the hope of a glorious future.  Christ incarnated was really like men “in all things except for sin” (4:15).
Superior to the angels in the transcendent world, Christ was superior, in humanity, to the greatest of the men of God, Moses (3:1-6).  Both Moses and Jesus received a calling from God; both were faithful in their mission (3:2).  But the mission of Jesus was superior to that of Moses, since Moses entered into the house of God (the people of Israel) as servant, while this house already existed; whereas the Son of God is the founder of a new house, namely the Christian [99] church (3:6).  But, in the last analysis, the two houses, ancient Israel and the Christian church, have God for the founder (3:4).  The subordination of the Son is clearly marked by these words.  In the order of created beings, Jesus is superior to Moses; but vis-à-vis God, there is an assimilation of Moses and of Jesus.  One sees with what care the author accents the sovereignty of God.  In this passage, God is called θεός in an absolute sense which excludes formally, by the conjunction δέ, the assimilation of Christ to God.
A last trait that the author mentions to exalt Christ in his humanity, is his superiority over the sovereign priest or great priest of Israel.  We will see in the next chapter that this parallel is all to the advantage of Christ, in whom our author sees the realization of the mysterious and prophetic type of the priest-king Melchizedek.
After having accomplished his redemptive work in allowing himself to be sacrificed on the cross, the Son of God was raised [100] from death (13:20).  He traversed the heavens (4:14; cf. 9:11), he entered into the celestial holy of holies (6:19; 9:24), he offered his precious blood in the temple which was not made by the hands of men (9:11), he sat down at the right hand of God (12:2; 1:3; 8:1), he was crowned with glory and honor (2:9), he remains “the same, yesterday, today, and eternally” (13:8), interceding without ceasing, as eternal high priest, for sinners who turn with faith to his holy ministry; and he abides in heaven, until God has placed all his enemies under his feet (10:13; cf. 1:13; 2:8).  Here, we find ourselves in eschatology, which will be the object of a special chapter of this work.
The Christology of our author is manifestly the attempt of a Philonian Christian seeking to render an account, with his philosophical premises, the mysterious personality of Christ.  His notion is substantially different from that of later orthodoxy.  It is closer to the doctrine of the Arians than that of Athanasius.  It must disappear from the Church with the belief in eons, and to make way for the teaching of the essential divinity of Christ.  Soon it will no longer be understood; [101] it is interpreted in the orthodox sense; and even today, there are theologians who understand it in the Christology of the council of Niceae.  It is an optical illusion.  We do not believe that a deep study of the texts can lead to conclusions other than that which we just described.

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