St Mary's In-Depth Theology Course

A Drop-in Course as an Aid to Theological Discussion

Theology Course 11:
The Impact of The Myth of God Incarnate (1977)

Regarding The Myth of God Incarnate (1977) as one of the Anglican controversies is perhaps a little inaccurate as its editor and key contributor, John Hick, was a Presbyterian, and it had ecumenically drawn authors, including the Methodist Frances Young alongside Don Cupitt, Michael Goulder, Leslie Houlden, Dennis Nineham and Maurice Wiles. Nevertheless it was launched at a press conference from St. Paul's Cathedral and was the next big controversy after Honest to God (1963), and Maurice Wiles was the Chair of the Doctrine Commission that had produced Christian Believing (Church of England, Doctrine Commission 1976) - which itself had disappointed a few of so called 'orthodox' leanings. There are ten essays within, and at the time Don Cupitt was a University Lecturer in Divinity and Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Michael Goulder was a Staff Tutor in Theology in the Department of Extramural Studies at Birmingham University, John Hick was H. G. Wood Professor of Theology at Birmingham University, Leslie Houlden was Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Dennis Nineham was Warden of Keble College, Oxford, Maurice Wiles was Regius Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford and Frances Young was Lecturer in New Testament Studies at Birmingham University. So much was Birmingham based.
The book's purpose was in effect given in the first chapter by Maurice Wiles, in that Christianity with incarnation either has a looser meaning that we affirm faith within the material world or has a narrower meaning as:

...a faith whose central tenet affirms the incarnation of God in the particular individual Jesus of Nazareth. Incarnational faith in this sense need not be tied to the specific categories of the Chalcedonian Definition, but it does affirm that Jesus of Nazareth is unique in the precise sense that, while being fully man, it is true of him, and of him alone, that he is also fully God, the Second Person of the co-equal Trinity. The question that I shall be asking in this chapter is whether incarnational faith in this second, more precise sense is in fact essential to Christianity. Could there be a Christianity without (in this sense) incarnation? (Wiles, M., 'Christianity without Incarnation?' in Hick, 1977, 1)
John Hick himself said the book's purpose had the collective authors' hopes that their ground-clearing of the issues would:

release talk about God and Jesus from confusions, thereby freeing people to serve God in the Christian path with integrity.
Yet in the follow-up book Incarnation and Myth (1979), Maurice Wiles, its editor, admitted that the Myth of God Incarnate was a "messy" book, as he himself remained sceptical of incarnation. In both books he hoped that Jesus as symbolising and expressing God's action in the world replaced notions of being Jesus identified with God.
The core debate within the book around the narrower meaning was this: that there is a substance narrow-incarnation that guarantees Jesus as God the Son, but that this is extra-biblical, even though this doctrine can underpin functional appearances of divinity from Jesus in what he did; whereas there is a functional-only narrow-incarnation that identifies Jesus as supremely or definitively expressing God in his actions and mission and even as a personality. The authors therefore attempt, in general, to separate substance from action, or separate out Greek philosophical categories from those we might more easily recognise today. There is some attempt to get back to the New Testament, despite its own Greek construction, and in some cases a Jewish Jesus pointing away from himself to God.
Thus the substance argument is rendered as mythical in a weak or negative sense, whereas the functional argument is rendered as mythical in a strong or positive sense.
It boils down to how you regard revelation (if at all). Revelation has to be not just biblical, but the reception of the doctrine over time and through culture and geography. The substance argument is seen as relative as soon as there is this shift in space or time, as Hick states in his chapter, Jesus and the World Religions:

But we should never forget that if the Christian gospel had moved east, into India, instead of west, into the Roman Empire, Jesus' eligious significance would probably have been expressed by hailing him within Hindu culture as divine Avatar and Mahayana Buddhism that was then developing in India as a Bodhissatva, one who has attained to oneness with Ultimate Reality but remains in the human world out of compassion for mankind and to show others the way of life. (1977, 176)
But note how he ends this piece:

These would have been the appropriate expressions, within these cultures, of the same spiritual reality. (1977, 176)
This actually suggests a strong view of substance incarnation via the transferability of cultural concepts! There is a same spiritual reality that only needs appropriate expression. That is not the same as saying that Greek philosophical concepts added to an essential functionalism of Jesus expressing God. It is to say culturally it did the best it can, and another culture does the best it can, behind which lies an actuality of God in Jesus.
Against this, John Robinson is wrong, I think, regarding both these statements as relative in Truth is Two Eyed (1979, 103) because Hick here claims an objective essence - unless, for Robinson, we privilege Greek culture as the one and only route for Christian revelation. What do we make, for example, of the Buddhist and Taoist leaning concepts of the Nestorian Church in China? (Palmer, 2001).
Yet these authors in The Myth of God Incarnate (1977) make a distinction between myth to reject, substance, and myth to accept, generally, of function.
Interestingly I had this book with me at the pub on Tuesday 15 September. My friends, all secular, taking hold of it and looking quickly at chunks of text at the back and front, decided that it could not have been written by Christians (despite the list of their jobs above!). To them the word 'myth' meant lie or deception. I said myth means something not historically located but has a truth that comes around again and again. I pointed out that one friend there who studied history (and English) as an undergraduate even regards history as itself "made up". Indeed there are narrative and postmodern as text based historiographies - not all history is empiricist; some is sociological (research plus causality) and some psychological (personality aspects), and the French added geographical and cultural within the Annales school, and there is Marxist, and quantitative and anthropological, and even then there is gender and the postcolonial (Green, Troup, 1999). Yet my friends assumed theology as expressing belief makes claim to hard fact, and myth undermines fact, and the 'history man' even said what about the ordinary people who pay and expect support from such writers as these? So the view here was dismissal: not that my friends themselves believed in Christ as God, which they don't, but that Christians do and should and that's the beginning and end of it.
Indeed a book came out rapidly called The Truth of God Incarnate edited by Michael Green. John A. T. Robinson at the time regarded it as worse than The Myth of God Incarnate, but for which Robinson wanted only the stronger and more positive meaning of myth.
There were predictions and reactions.
Before reading the book, the Bishop of Lincoln (from 1974 to 1987), Simon Wilton Phipps, gave a public reaction. It was interesting how he put some aspects:

This is not, I fancy, a book that the general public will read. It is not even a book, quite probably, that many clergy will actually read. If, therefore, we havent read it, let us be a bit careful about how we discuss it!

It is my guess, from at least reading some of the first reviews, that this book will seem to threaten much of what we conceive to be the basis of our Christian belief, i.e., what Clifford Longley in The Times calls "the unique uniqueness' of Jesus Christ. But let us remember that this is by no means the first time that a book has done this sort of thing to Christian beliefs... And in the 19th century there were a number of controversies, fired off by books, which set a lot of Christian cats among other lots of Christian pigeons. And only a decade ago Honest to God did the same. And yet Christian experience and Christian witness and the Christian community have not been blown off the face of the earth.

...I think too many of us Christians are bad at living with 'dialectic. Dialectic' means something like this: you say "X" That causes me, in response, to say "Y". As a result of the discussion which follows, we are both led to discover "Z", an aspect of the truth we would never have discovered if, in the first place, you hadn't started off the discussion in a rather provocative way...
Actually, as a comment to this, dialectical thought need not imply synthesis. It can bring out truths through opposites simply by facing off one view from another and in the inability to synthesise (as with Karl Barth's dialectics) - and this point is important to those who clash function against substance. The bishop goes on:

But if infinite Truth is infinite Truth, there must be infinite new aspects of it to be discovered and explored and received. If we enter openly and adventurously and enthusiastically into the process of dialectic, we learn more of the Truth, rather than feeling and fearing that new insights are whittling more and more of it away. The people who wrote this book are people of real integrity. They may not be unerring in their view of things. But neither are we because no human beings ever can be unerring. We always do well to be open to the insights of others, so that they may throw light on our own.
So the bishop is saying let's have some space for some fresh thinking, but don't worry as it won't lead anywhere against what we've got, it will only add more. Well that's being quite optimistic, but then his job is perhaps to reassure rather than to deal in truths.
The Sunday Telegraph at the time of the publishing of the book reported about demands for Dr Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, to pronounce on the book, linking it to Don Cupitt's earlier television programme (and book) called Who Was Jesus?

Dr. Coggan did not receive an advance copy of the book and is reading it this weekend.

If he decides to make a statement he has the ideal opportunity this week during the meeting in London of the General Synod, the Church's parliament.

The pressure began in April this year when Dr. Coggan received a heavy mail from the public protesting at the B.B.C. television programme "Who was Jesus? " It was compiled by the Rev. Don Cupitt, Dean of Emanuel College, Cambridge, a contributor to last weeks' book "The Myth of God Incarnate".

Historic faith

In the view of its critics the overall effect of the programme was to question and undermine orthodox views of Christ as Divine Son of God and and to deny his bodily resurrection.

The same month, the 2,000 delegates to the National Evangelical Anglican Congress unanimously passed a resolution calling on the archbishops "in the light of current theological speculation and scepticism to confirm publicly that the Church of England still stands by its historic faith in the Christ of the scriptures and the creeds".

Press reports last week about "The Myth of God Incarnate" brought more sackfuls of mail to Lambeth Palace seeking such reassurance.
So the right wing press was doing its usual thing: a bit of knockabout to undermine a few institutions and then demanding that figures of authority pronounce to restore essentially the system of authority from a bunch of dispersed experts. We can call this trying to assert bureaucratic or pyramidal authority over systemic or technically dispersed authority.
Later on the mentioned Don Cupitt responded to both The Myth of God Incarnate and Who Was Jesus? by a 1979 follow up book The Debate about Christ, a book of invaluable detail as it looks at the interface between the biblical from a critical perspective and the doctrinal regarding claims about Christ.
Ten years after that David L. Edwards produced a book Tradition and Truth: The Challenge of England's Radical Theologians 1962 to 1989, where John Hick provided, in a response to Edwards, his definitions of metaphor and myth that seemed to be a core criticism of many of the book - that it was confused about the meaning of myth. Hick says in response to Edwards: speak of 'the myth of God incarnate' is to suggest that the divine incarnation is a metaphorical or mythical idea. As a metaphor it is (we Christians believe) a true metaphor: Jesus really was so open to God that God as Spirit was working in and through him for the salvation of those who have been influenced by him. But the mythic character of this truth means that it does not preclude God having also acted in other ways, in and through other lives and other events, for human salvation within other streams of history. (Response of John Hick in Edwards, 1989, 309-310)
This is rhetoric to separate metaphor and myth, but actually both are about myth. Thus 'metaphor' is given as true, as a functional metaphor incidentally, but as 'myth' it is not true exclusively, though of course many a Christian will claim that this core metaphor also has to be true exclusively. Such a view of myth being open and leaky allows a plural view of religions and salvation. Indeed Hick in 1987 co-wrote The Myth of Christian Uniqueness. It is also noted from Hick's response to Edwards (1989) that John Hick regards salvation as working within history - and we have seen that some theologians have regarded history as problematic and see salvation working out of texts rather than history, even if texts are written in places and at times. Again, historiography tells us that history is not straightforward. In the book itself Hick says (1977, 178) that the myth is to invite an attitude in its hearers.

For to say, without explanation, that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was also God is as devoid of meaning as to say that this circle drawn on paper with a pencil is also a square. (178)
Attempts to explain have failed, the Chalcedonian formula only restates and so:

It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that the real point and value of the incarnational doctrine is not indicative but expressive, not to assert a metaphysical fact but to express and evaluation and to evoke an attitude.
With this, Hick is dismissing the substance view. But Hick goes much further regarding an approach of attitude, which is loose and non-exclusive and indeed, arguably, becomes individualist and subjective.
Edwards points out that myth is being applied to incarnation, and can be because incarnation has a broad, technical meaning with a history within Christianity, and also because, as Maurice Wiles pointed out in the book (1977, 3) that incarnation is not a biblical concept. Edwards thinks that because the book tackles such matters well known to theologians, then it ought to lack impact, and yet the contributors write as if they have just discovered these issues for the first time. Yet he also, as a reviewer, likens the book more to the contributions book Essays and Reviews (1861) than to Honest to God (1963).
The fact is that myth is such a complex field that, as we have seen with Hick, not all contributors were consistent. Frances Young (along with Leslie Houlden) was perhaps the most 'orthodox' of the contributors. For her the Trinity preserves mystery, and that's important, and the paradoxes of the transcendent and immanent should be maintained. Jesus as a unique focus should allow for a pluralism in Christology. (14-47). Human language and the human mind is too limited to deal with the whole of God and so it is bound to be mysterious. She criticises Michael Goulder's speculations of a functional New Testament view added to by a Pauline and Samaritan influence of substance (64-86), and she offers a more complex history of escalation of the status of Christ in a setting where the supernatural was a normal means to express what was seen as God's messiah and envoy (87-119). On this Edwards finds her more reliable because she reaches unoriginal conclusions (unlike Michael Goulder). She holds to the stronger view of myth: myth because of the complexity in historical theology.
In Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued (1979) Frances Young could see 'God in Jesus' and 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself without having to spell out a literal incarnation. God is disclosed to her as a 'suffering God' and although God can be disclosed elsewhere and at other times, which questions uniqueness, Jesus was for her the supreme disclosure to open her eyes to God now, providing her a unique focus on God. So she has in this book her view of myth is a weaker view of incarnation but boosted it in terms of her own outlook. Nevertheless, later on she found traditional Christian language more appropriate to the research she was doing, including for her book The Making of the Creeds in 1991, itself a follow up to a much older book by Alan Richardson called Creeds in the Making (1935).
Incarnation and Myth (1979) was derived from conference papers delivered in 1978. There was a broader spread of contributors. Even the more traditionalist position realised that God as all powerful, all transcending, cannot be quite the same as a man walking the earth. Trinitarian theology is supposed to do the job of making sense of that utter difference, and the point is recognised that trinitarian theology is not developed in the Bible itself. Paul does not consider Christ's pre-existence but God's saving work through Christ where Jesus was in the closest relationship to God. On page 41 Nicholas Lash of a more conserving view does not say that Jesus is God but that Jesus is the word of God incarnate. Jesus never claims to be God the Son but is shown in a close and sufficient relationship with God. This book thus pushes metaphor, then, to its most 'literal' interpretations as well as the more radical, with use of notions of substance and paradox. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin regarded Don Cupitt's notion that God cannot suffer or intervene and that Jesus as an example of the God filled life is basically Hindu.
So whilst even the more orthodox cannot say glib and simple equations of God equals Jesus, as often heard in more evangelical circles, there was a stress in the follow up volume towards sufficiency, decisiveness, of God intervening in history, and thus there was a break here between the more radical theologians of the first book and them and their respondents in the second.
So of these radical theologians, Dennis Nineham was the one who pointed out the limitations of history and what little can be said of Jesus: for example if he was totally conscious of God. Nineham turned the matter around, so that for Christians Jesus becomes a lens through which to see God. It sidesteps doing history about a man, and focuses on the community of what Christians saw instead. Modern historical methods, Nineham writes, render assured historical claims redundant, and on pages 188-9 (1977) remarks on the calculation of B. H. Streeter that there is only actually three weeks worth of apparent historical material about Jesus to go on. Nineham raises such historically incomplete questions about Jesus and wonders about the totality of his ethics as represented in the gospels, that therefore brings into question the labels applied to Jesus.
Don Cupitt provided one full chapter, making a link between H. P. Liddon, as if the last orthodox theologian, and Charles Gore, who could not keep the theological synthesis going - though, Cupitt says, Gore did believe in the Incarnation. Gore realised that Jesus cannot both be ignorant, like a human, and omniscient, like a God (page 136). The chapter puzzles me, because in between Liddon and Gore came the Essays and Reviews theologians who were far more radical than Gore. Gore basically introduces a more liberal Catholicism than had been seen in the Oxford Movement, and to some extent Gore is trying to stitch back what the Essays and Reviews people had pulled apart. The chapter goes on to demonstrate that Jesus himself did not synthesise man and divinity but kept them in disjunction, that it was the dialactic of Jesus's speech (and which cannot be synthesised!). However, Cupitt also produces a final comment against Nineham's critical history approach that, whilst the historical point is acknowledged, what is important is the religious value, and the contingent claim that Jesus expressed a command to repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand, thus expressing the possibility of a history-transcending truth - and such brings together humankind and the doctrine of Christ (as Cupitt then understood such).
Don Cupitt will be tackled more next time. His contribution to The Myth of God Incarnate was before he 'took leave of God' but after much work including his contribution to Christ, Faith and History (1972) regarding 'One Jesus, Many Christs', where he was still able to say that Jesus pointed to the one monotheistic God, and in Who Was Jesus? (1977) he also showed this coming Kingdom of God centred figure among a dissecting of Jesus and Christian doctrines. It is only after Incarnation and Myth (in which he said attempts to prolong incarnational theology are too costly, and yet he discusses the language of Jesus as God), does Cupitt make Jesus become so plural and present-within-writing that very little can be said about Jesus other than one fiction after another.
Maurice Wiles is really the driving individual behind discussions about myth. He had written The Remaking of Christian Doctrine (1974) three years before contributing to The Myth of God Incarnate. In that book of his own he noted how some theologians who struggle with theistic concepts seem to be almost glib in their handling of the history of Jesus, whereas those who struggle with historical details are over confident regarding theistic belief. He was confident in neither, and one could not use God as a means to underwrite the historicism of Jesus and developments producing the apparently correct beliefs in Jesus. The whole pattern of belief can be true, and a unique incarnation of Jesus is not needed for the whole pattern to be true: the pattern is that Jesus is central to an understanding of the world that is depending on God for its existence, for God cares about suffering and has a purpose for the world (1974, 117-118). We do not experience the eternal essence of the Trinity, nor how jobs are divided within, only its external impact, and the old philosophical notions of Trinity are of ancient metaphysics. The generations of believers reasoned themselves from Christ events and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Trinity, but the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be taught with final authority by any teacher claimed Wiles in 1974. The notion of God acting, he was to write in 1972, cannot be regarded as other than a previous pre-modern thought form, and so only in creation did God act - and God is a giver of purpose and is always at work, never acting nor not acting and thus is not deistic. Nothing can be immune from critical inquiry, he thought.
So he took all this perspective into The Myth of God Incarnate. In that book contribution, Jesus is as evolutionary a product as the rest of us, and a person of his time, place and heredity. The issue is the continued meaning of more orthodox rhetoric regarding the status of Christ, looking for intellectual and religious coherence about the status of Christ and the role of myth. In the first chapter of the 1977 book he analyses incarnation, in that abandoning the metaphysics of incarnation is to lead on to a discussion of myth (1-10). In his second chapter myth gets a thorough relevant analysis, including something of its own less than 150 year history using the work of David Friedrich Strauss and reaction to it, namely his Life of Jesus of 1835 showing unconsciously developed myths and then Strauss's New Life of Jesus of 1864 involving more conscious development of myth (148-166). After Strauss comes Rudolph Bultmann and then a range of modern theologians tackling myth and incarnation as well as other Christian doctrines. Wiles himself notes that myth as a timeless truth might have a historical anchor (163) which of course is crucial for those who see the difference between functional incarnation with a historic root of action and substance incarnation.
Yes Wiles shows how far this can go in reference to Lloyd Geering on the resurrection (160). Resurrection should not even be a myth about our personal continuation after death, but that for Geering (then) our earthly life is lifted up for judgment (Geering, 1971, 215 as quoted in 1977, 160), and for Wiles there is that possibility of going further that the myth more simply means expressive of a sense of hope, as in a creation myth, though he thought this an inappropriate use of the resurrection myth (though this raises the breadth of reach of myths as such).
Leslie Holden's is the least radical chapter, in that all it concerns is the problem of words and expression regarding the centrality of the experience of Jesus.
So, to conclude. Here was an untidy book, but was likely to be so given the complexity of myth as a subject and its common misunderstandings. The issue is this: does a functional view of incarnation sufficiently preserve and protect the claimed and traditional uniqueness of Jesus as the Christ? Because if it does not then it is because of the problem of 'how do you know' (because history is inadequate) and if revelation underpins function why is a substance incarnation underpinning so difficult? If it cannot then it underpins nothing. If the world is naturalistic and culture important then, other than having an absolutism of Greek concepts and terms, there is no uniqueness of Jesus, indeed even the claims about him become problematic. My own view is that trying to make Jesus supreme above all others lacks data on Jesus and all others, so beyond some imposed and doctrinal mechanics of God preserving Jesus's status, Jesus himself passes into the relativity of all history, persons and religion. This is what the book exposed as probable, using myth, which is why it had the reaction it had, and why subsequent developments might see this book as being as far as Jesus-confessional theology can go before it gives up the confession. And, indeed, Michael Goulder gave up the confession, and many years after so did Don Cupitt.
Another person who gave up the confession, but not a belief in God, is Daphne Hampson, and she subscribes to what she calls the Western religious tradition, and she wrote After Christianity (1996). She discusses these theologians trying to hang on to Christ-centredness within modern meanings, and looks briefly at their material (1996, focus at 38-39) and asks whether it is 'Christology' to say that within Christianity Jesus Christ is the one to whom Christians look at as having been a God filled person, when beyond the tradition there can be so many. She asks that if Jesus was qualitatively different, how is he one of us, and if he is one of us, how is he different (40)? For Hampson, sitting in a tradition going back to Jesus is not good enough when it means no more than being within a community (42). Is she right that a Christology needs uniqueness (43)?

Main Points


Church of England, Doctrine Commission (1976), Christian Believing: the Nature of the Christian faith and its Expression in Holy Scripture and Creeds: a Report by the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England, London: S.P.C.K.

Church of England, Lincoln Diocese (1977), Lincoln Diocese Leaflet, Vol. 4, Number 8, August 1977, Lincoln: Church of England Lincoln Diocese.

Cupitt, D., Armstrong, P. (1977), Who was Jesus? London: British Broadcasting Corporation.

Cupitt, D. (1979), The Debate about Christ, London: SCM Press.

Edwards, D. L (1989), Tradition and Truth: The Challenge of England's radical theologians 1962 to 1989, London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Geering, L. (1971), Resurrection - a Symbol of Hope, London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Goulder, Michael D. (ed.) (1979), Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued, London : SCM Press.

Green A., Troup, K. (eds.) (1999), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Green M. (1977), The Truth of God Incarnate, London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Goodwin, C. W., Jowett, B., Pattison, M., Powell, B., Temple, F., Williams, R., Wilson, H. B. (1861, first published 1860), Essays and Reviews, 8th edition, London : J. W. Parker.

Hampson, D. (1996), After Christianity, London SCM Press.

Hick, J. (ed.) (1977, second edition 1993), The Myth of God Incarnate, London: SCM Press.

Hick, J., Knitter, P. F. (eds.), The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, London: SCM Press and Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Palmer, M. (2001), The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Tradition of Taoist Christianity, London: Piatkus.

Richardson, A. (1935, second edition 1941), Creeds in the Making : A Short Introduction to the History of Christian Doctrine, London: Student Christian Movement Press.

Robinson, J. A. T. (1963, 1994 imprint), Honest to God, London: SCM Press.

Robinson, J. A. T. (1979), Truth is Two Eyed, London: SCM Press.

Sunday Telegraph (fragment, date not shown), 'Dr. Coggan Challenged to Explain Jesus Book', John Capon, Ecclesiastical Correspondent, London, page 1.

Sykes, S. W., Clayton J. P. (eds.) (1972), Christ, Faith and History, Cambridge Studies in Christology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wiles, M. (1974), The Remaking of Christian Doctrine, London: SCM Press.

Young, F. M. (1991), The Making of the Creeds, London: SCM Press.

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Adrian Worsfold