John Hick on Credal Language

Posted by Vlad October - 16 - 2009 - Friday

John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, second edition, page 45.

The metaphorical language of the Bible communicates
naturally to all who inhabit or can imaginatively enter its universe of
discourse. We still have fathers and sons and, less universally, kings
and shepherds as part of our conceptual world; and with only a little
effort of the imagination we can appreciate the ancient habit of
thinking of one who is spiritually close to God, a faithful servant of
God, as a son of God. Such metaphors communicate successfully because
they were formed within the ordinary discourse of the time. But the
Chalcedonian formula is a philosophical artefact having whatever
meaning it is defined to have. Such formulae are impressive precisely
because their sole meaning is technical and known only to the learned.
Critical philosophical scrutiny of such conceptual constructions must,
however, always be in order. And in this case the possibility that has
to be considered is that the formula, which at first seems so firm and
definitive, is incapable of being explicated in any religiously
acceptable way.

Hick is certainly not beyond updating the metaphors of the Bible or
using theological language. He’s simply pointing out that the language
used in credal formulation, particularly that explicating the mystery
of the Incarnation (prosopon, persona, hypostasis, ousia, etc.)
was forced, technical language. It makes sense because it is so
defined, not because it has a ground in accessible truth, as does the
Bible’s own ‘creeds.’ The theologian is reminded that when one’s
theology becomes laden with arcane language or too easily takes
recourse in tradition, it’s time to revise the system.

3 Responses to “John Hick on Credal Language”

  1. Mike Felker says:

    I agree that theologians, including those who have formulated the creeds, have overstepped their bounds and gone beyond what the Scriptures articulate. But I don’t think that “hupostasis” is going too far, since Hebrews 1:3 speaks of such. So I think you’d agree that there is some sort of “hypstatic union” between the Father and Christ, especially when Christ is spoken of as the “Caracter” of the Father’s “Hupastasis.” (sorry if my English spellings of the Greek are off)

  2. Vlad says:

    I see your point, and I’ll leave the exegesis of Heb 1.3 to you, but the issue isn’t in the words in themselves; prosopon, ousia, hupostasis are all part of a natural and legitimate vocabulary. What Hick is saying is that the words are used in an unnatural way. Maybe that’s not a good way to put it. Better, perhaps, is saying that they become jargon.

    Maybe the Fathers used hupostasis fundamentally as Hebrews does, but it’s in a different context, juxtaposed with prosopon, itself bounded by the context. There is no “hypostatic union” in Heb 1.3. Now, I know what you mean by using the terms that way, and I know why you put it in quotation marks, because we share a background that makes it comprehensible. But it doesn’t remove the fact that it’s a theological construction, regardless if it’s a ‘correct’ one or not. It is so articulated precisely because the NT doesn’t.

  3. Patrick says:

    Hebrews 1:3 tells us exactly who Jesus is and what his relationship to God is. He is the “exact representation” of God’s “being.” The text does not say that Jesus and God are the “same being” (as Trinitarianism teaches) but, again, that Jesus is the exact “representation” or “copy” of God’s being. That is the scriptural doctrine/creed on the matter of God’s “hupastasis” and the Son’s relationship to it. –Patrick

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