F Wiles (1923-2005)
Certain areas of theology tend to be sacrosanct. Perhaps because
so many have for so long regarded them as key ways of thinking about the
person of Jesus, they are perceived as the only valid constructs
about the meaning of Jesus' life and death.
One such concept is that of incarnation or the "embodying" of
God the Father in the person of Jesus the Son on earth at a particular
time and place.
So it's hardly surprising that when Maurice Wiles (former Regius
Professor of Divinity at Oxford University) contributed to a book entitled
The Myth of God Incarnate in 1977 a storm of protest arose in the
Church of England.
Earlier, as dean of a Cambridge college, he had been
thought too conservative to be included in the group that produced
Soundings in 1962 and heralded intellectual change in English
Christianity. By the 1980s his all-embracing churchmanship was being
challenged by a generation of systematic theologians who owed more to Karl
Barth and who tended to draw the doctrinal boundaries more tightly.
Wiles was the son of a civil servant and excelled at
cricket and classics. His studies were deferred by the war. After Pearl
Harbor he was recruited to learn Japanese fast and work at code breaking
at the famous Bletchley Park in England. After World War II he was
ordained and continued a distinguished academic career.
The controversial book presented the theme in somewhat disparate and
indirect terms. But it nevertheless drew the clear conclusion that even
the sacrosanct doctrine of the incarnation can be called into question.
In fact, his contribution was a logical extension of his previous
thinking about the nature of the Trinity - another supposedly sacrosanct
doctrine. In 1957 and 1962, articles by him in a theological journal had
begun examining the background to this type of theology. He was critical
of the arguments proposed by various contemporary scholars for a so-called
orthodox understanding of the Trinitarian formula.
Central to Wiles' thesis was the argument that those who originally
came up with orthodox doctrines reached their conclusions through the very
same processes that we do today. If they could claim, as they did, that
they were recipients of guidance direct from God through the Holy Spirit,
then so can we.
Their frames of reference were different from ours and that affected
how they could conceive theological problems and offer solutions for them.
But they had nothing special about them which gave them any more ability
to discern the truth ("the voice of the Holy Spirit") in the fourth
century than we have in the 21st.
The shock with which Wiles' suggestion was greeted was, I think,
misplaced. To make a point: It has long-since proved necessary for a
majority of Christian thinkers to drop the teaching that the Bible is the
infallible source of all truth about God. This was once an essential
orthodoxy for anyone to call themselves Christian. Neither the heavens nor
the Church have fallen as a result.
Why then should the doctrine of the Trinity - or any other
supposedly immutable doctrine - be immune from similar investigation and
Our processes of reasoning are no different from those whose
"inspiration" gave us the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation
(though our multiple frames of reference are in some ways vastly
different). If these ancient teachings, born in an ancient culture, cease
to make sense for us today, why should we not "redesign" them? Why should
we not seek for ways of understanding God which harmonise with our
perceptions of the universe? Why should doctrines remain unchanged while
our knowledge of the world changes beyond recognition?
Throughout the history of the Church, its creeds have been regarded as
necessary tests of "faith". That is, if someone could assent to these
verbal formulae they were to be regarded as "orthodox" and therefore as
somehow able to access God's grace in ways not available to others. More
than that, they were regarded as somehow acceptable to God while
dissenters were not.
Wiles dealt with the development of Trinitarian formulae and creeds in
two stages. First he noted that it had been proposed that "God the Father"
must have suffered on the cross, since God and Jesus were both of the
Godhead. Since God cannot suffer, theologians of the second and third
centuries were forced by the incongruity to formulate teaching which
separated Jesus "the Son of God" from "God the Father".
But this tended to break down the concept that God somehow worked
through the person of Jesus in order to achieve mankind's liberation from
sin. Later theologians were as a result forced to propose the complete
unity of Father and Son, since God could not be two " persons" at the same
time and also be unity itself.
The resulting contradictions forced the Church into the profound
circumlocutions with which we still battle today. The Athanasian Creed is
one good example of Christian double-speak.
If we allow the "Holy Spirit" to be the bonding factor between the two
persons of the Trinity, thought Wiles, the contradictions are reduced, if
But Wiles went further. He proposed that the kind of word games which
these theologians played in order to achieve their obscure outcomes were
invalid because they assumed that one can know more about God than is
Wiles questions the projective methods used by theologians to create a
God in their own image. He is correct to do so. If anything has been
agreed by philosophers and others over the past millennium, it is that God
is the "Absolute" or the "Absolute Other". This places the deity beyond
any description. Even attributing personality to God is merely
metaphor. It is a human creation designed to help us in "relating" to God
(another metaphor). In the end, anything
we say about God is metaphorical.
From there it was a short step for Wiles to begin asking how we can use
language about God in a meaningful way. In a sense Wiles was backtracking
on questions which had been posed years earlier (by Feuerbach for
example). He and others had asked how it is possible to use human language
about an ineffable, absolute reality.
Wiles' answer was to propose that our language about God is
necessarily symbolic and metaphorical. In other words, we use
metaphors or symbols which allow us to imagine what is "beyond" (to use a
metaphor) the humdrum physical. Just because we know that we are not
describing the Absolute when we do this doesn't mean that we are
perpetuating a falsehood.
One analogy for this process is to note how poetry uses unusual
combinations of words to express the otherwise inexpressible - to give a
certain reality to subtleties and connections which lie beyond ordinary
language. Poetic constructs are not the same, for example, as prose
constructs - though both may have elements of the other in them. God-talk
(that is, theology) is no less valid than ordinary day-to-day talk or
scientific jargon when it does much the same sort of thing.
If our God-talk is symbolic and metaphorical then there's every reason
to think that we are able to - and indeed should - develop the ways in
which we think and talk about God in any age. It's also possible that
so-called "final solutions" to the puzzle of meaningful God-talk in the
past are now "wrong" for us. They are not wrong because they are false,
but because they no longer use poetic, metaphorical constructs which
relate to life as we now lead it.
Wiles argued that it can't be shown that there is a rational
progression from the constructs we find in the Bible to the full-blown
Trinitarian statement. Critics of Wiles suggest that his view is mistaken
and that all the elements for the Trinitarian doctrine are to be found in
the New Testament.
Others, like S W Sykes, argue that Wiles' approach assumes that
... propositions about the Trinity had simply replaced the
Scriptural narrative of God's dealings with humanity, as though, after the
Council of Nicaea, we had more knowledge of God than beforehand.
In other words, Sykes holds that there is a traceable progression of
doctrine-building from New Testament times into the fourth century, when
Christian doctrine was essentially frozen.
Wiles' argument has considerable strength in two respects, however:
1. The councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon both came to their conclusions
at least partly, if not primarily, in order to gain political rather than
theological consensus. The ruling powers of the day convened and
controlled them with the primary aim of gaining a degree of peace between
fractious, warring Church parties. It's not therefore surprising if the
theological "solution" is (and always has been) inadequate. Politics is
the art of the possible, not the science of describing what is.
2. As Wiles himself suggested (In Defence of Arius), the
reasoning about God which was proposed by Arius was then, as it is today,
at least as convincing as any other. Arius' opponent Athanasius won the
contest not by reason or good theology, but by force. A sword at one's
throat, or a State bailiff at one's door, have remarkable powers of
persuasion. Today we are Trinitarian rather than Arian (or, more probably,
a mixture of the two) because the Roman Emperor Constantine came down on
the side of Athanasius, not because the latter had grasped more than his
Arian opponents of the so-called "truth" about God .
In the same way that we can question the ancient formulae about the
Trinity, so can we now contest the absolute truth of the "incarnation",
suggested Wiles. However valid the latter construct is for many today - as
it has been for a majority over the centuries - it may no longer stand the
test of conveying to us an understanding of God in the 21st century.
Wiles is correct in his conclusions - and I for one think he is - then the
implications for the Church today are extensive.
First, we can understand
that those who pursue heretics from whatever "orthodoxy" they propound are
engaged in a rearguard action. They are defending the past regardless of
what the present is saying to them. They operate from a closed position, not
one open to new insights. Their net effect is to restate or reshuffle the
ancient doctrines in the hope that they will remain compelling.
the various inquisitions which have plagued. and still plague the life of
Christians and others, can only do what they do by defining as "wrong" those
who differ from them about orthodoxy . That is, they must logically proclaim
themselves as possessors of absolute truths.
Third, heresy hunters
inevitably must displace part of themselves. The secular, scientific,
rational world which has been constructed over the past three centuries is
inherently incompatible in many respects with the world which preceded it.
So orthodoxy requires a compartmentalised consciousness. Part relates to the
world of quantum physics, electric currents, motor cars and constantly
evolving paradigms; another part relates to miracles, resurrection and
spirits. Each retains its validity only when it is held apart from the
In short, it is not surprising that the Anglican orthodox react as
they do to Maurice Wiles. In some respects he was far from revolutionary. In
placing holy Christian constructs under the microscope has he has, however,
Wiles has made his contribution towards the radical revision of doctrines
required if secular humanity is ever to be persuaded about the importance of
Jesus of Nazareth to the contemporary world.