Title: Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter
Author: Stephen H. Webb
Publisher: Oxford University Press
On a blustery April afternoon in 1844, Joseph Smith stood before a congregation of thousands and fought the wind. (Or did he simply channel it?) We’re still fighting that wind today. It shuffles the scattered notes of the men who scribbled the funeral sermon Smith preached at the top of his lungs. In the midst of creaking tree branches, sentence fragments and misspellings, Willard Richards seemed to catch hold of something crucial Smith was claiming, caught hold enough to put the gist of it in Smith’s journal:
“If men do not comprehend the character of God they do not comprehend themselves.“1
Smith had his finger on the pulse of the deepest questions of theology. At least since Genesis (“let us create man in our own image”) humans have wrestled with two fundamental questions well-phrased by Catholic theologian Stephen Webb:
“First, what features of human nature—mind, body, soul, gender—best reflect God’s nature? Second, what features of God best provide the source of the image in which we are created?” (177, see also 148, 192, 274).
Webb seeks answers to these and other questions in his amazing new book, Jesus Christ, Eternal God. I’m impressed, exhausted, and definitely taxed. Basically, the book is a fairly long, very technical, hair-splitting extension of Joseph Smith’s declaration that if we don’t comprehend the nature of God, we don’t comprehend ourselves.2 In fact, Webb draws heavily on Joseph Smith’s thought, along with other Christian thinkers throughout history, to present a “heavenly flesh Christology” in which matter itself is listed as one of God’s eternal perfections. An audacious project. He enlists history as a guide to the future.
Flashback to the year 399 CE. Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria sparks a riot in Egypt by circulating an official letter teaching that God is incorporeal. Desert monks angrily swarm the city to defend their belief that humans are created in God’s image, a human form. The pragmatic bishop withdraws the letter when his life is threatened, but he’ll best the monks in the end as they square off over God’s material or immaterial nature. “How,” he asks a monk called Aphou, “could an Ethiopian be in the image of God, or a leper, a cripple, or a blind man?” But such defects wouldn’t be found in the archetype, Aphou reasons, offering a striking analogy: “As the living flesh of the king is to the wood…of his statue, so is the living and ‘incomprehensible light’ of God’s glory, Christ, to our flesh.” Our bodies are like “dull, rotten wood compared to the beauty of Christ” but there is still continuity there. The Nicene Creed and Chalcedon would do away with Aphou’s counter-arguments, though, rendering the desert monks’ anthropomorphic views of God obsolete to this very day (91).3 But the transition was painful for some, including the elderly monk Sarapion. He received the new instruction that God is boundless, incomprehensible, invisible, and certainly not in the likeness of a mere human. As his instructor offered a prayer following the lesson, Sarapion became confused, “for he sensed that the human image of God which he used to draw before him as he prayed was now gone from his heart” and he began to weep, falling to the ground and crying out, “They’ve taken my God away from me. I have no one to hold on to, and I don’t know whom to adore or to address” (92).
While Mormons typically chalk such events up to the “apostasy,” Webb says these big, bad theologians actually had good reason for rejecting what they saw as pagan remnants of belief which the monks so cherished, including their false attribution of a human shape to God. Xenophanes of Colophon used various culturally-bound descriptions of God to do away with anthropomorphism. Ethiopians believed in a flat-nosed black god while the god of the Thracians had red hair and blue eyes, he argued. “If horses or oxen or lions…could draw with their hands,” he added, “and accomplish such works as men, horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen” (75). Case closed: anthropomorphism is born of gullibility and conceit. For political and theological expediency, centuries of theology would find ways to render Hebrew scripture’s depictions of God’s figure as figurative (76-81). So argues Webb in chapters 3 and 4.
But not every theologian then or now is satisfied with an immaterial God. As the back-and-forths between Theophilus, Aphou, Xenophanes and others suggest, Webb believes that “doctrines have conditions as well as historical contexts” which help determine their shape. Webb argues that the old “teaching of immateriality was a wise choice guided by divine providence” because it was rightfully working against various pagan and Gnostic heresies. But as the conditions change, so too can the doctrine (20). In chapter 2 Webb lays out the metaphysical arguments available to Christians on the nature of matter—Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, Neoplatonism, etc. The Greek assumption that matter is eternal bothered Christian thinkers because it challenged God’s sovereignty. So Christians adopted two strategies. First, that God created the world ex nihilo (from nothing). Second, they argued that God is infinite. Webb believes this had the dual result of making God and matter less comprehensible (4). Speaking of comprehension, a word of warning: Webb’s technical explorations get a little bogged down at times. Non-specialists like me will struggle as he outlines the thought of two contemporary theologians—Colin Gunton and David Bentley Hart and argues against them at length, for instance. What is important to keep in mind is that Platonic metaphysics—once serving as the foundation of belief in an immaterial God—fell out of fashion. So what do we do with God in light of scientific advances like quantum mechanics, let alone organic evolution? Can we still say God is “immaterial” if the reasons that belief came about to start with are now rejected? Webb says we shouldn’t (10).
Webb isn’t alone in recognizing the need to reconceptualize the Trinity, but metaphysics is a bit out of style in current theological discussion. It isn’t on the radar of biblical fundamentalists, while liberal theologians are more focused on issues like social justice. For them, historical groundings and metaphysical considerations are largely irrelevant. Some even seem to be doing away with Jesus altogether.4 Webb knows he is swimming upstream here. He knows some metaphysical meanderings seem downright irrelevant (152, 213, 220, etc.). He’s also aware that specificity is often the parent of heresy (116). But he forges ahead anyway because he holds the conviction that beliefs about matter, well, matter: “So what is matter, and why does it matter to Christianity?” This is the utterly ambitious question posed at the outset of Webb’s thoroughly complex project (3).
In good apophatic style (defining what is by arguing what isn’t), Webb opens the book by describing and rejecting a trinity of alternative positions on matter and spirit: immaterialism, emergent materialism, and pantheism. If Classical theism pitted spirit against matter, it seems Webb wants “a materialistic interpretation of the spiritual” so spirit and matter can actually interact (12). Theologians must “rethink the concept of God’s nature as well as the nature of matter” (252). Metaphysics, by nature, goes beyond what we can empirically know, but Webb, like the ancients, is “guided by the conviction that the knower must coincide with the known” (273). And if Jesus was embodied like us, then Jesus is a gateway for us to know God. Webb lays his metaphysical cards on the table by describing his controlling assumption: “I believe that any Christian metaphysics should begin and end in Christology, so that my metaphysical approach to matter will depend upon a prior investigation into the nature of Jesus Christ” (13).
Ultimately, Webb grounds his metaphysics on the biblical account of Jesus Christ’s incarnation. Christ’s human nature, for Webb, is “soteriologically decisive” for humans, something all Christians heartily agree with. He hopes Western theologians will continue to pay more attention to Eastern Orthodoxy’s focus on divinization, the idea that Christ’s resurrected body, its glorified state, represents our eventual destination. But he takes it a step further in arguing that Christ’s body is also “metaphysically crucial” with this provocative suggestion disguised as a question: “Was [Jesus’s] flesh the origin of matter as well as its end?” (58).
To make such a suggestion he needs to call in some backup, because he’s essentially arguing against centuries of mainstream creedal thought on the nature of God. In chapters 5-8 Webb draws deeply on an “obscure branch” of his own Catholic tradition he calls “heavenly flesh Christology.” Severus, Eutyches, and other lesser-known theologians come to his aid. Most interesting is his countering of Thomas Aquinas’s classical theism with the writings of Karl Barth, a discussion too interesting to describe here. All sorts of fascinating questions are raised throughout these chapters including the nature of the virgin birth and ancient beliefs about conception, the relationship of the Eucharist to the flesh of Jesus, the historicity of the Transfiguration and its implications for the disciples (it introduced a change in them rather than in the nature of Jesus), and the nature of resurrected bodies. Heads will spin. Multiple readings will be required (not merely because the index is practically useless, simply listing names but no concepts. Seriously?! And how about a glossary? A timeline? Any additional apparatus?).
Then comes chapter 9, “Godbodied,” a chapter which Webb says “might be the most controversial” of the book, and with good cause (5). He turns to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of all places for help (243-270). He actually takes Mormonism seriously, regretting that creedal Christians rarely do. In fact, Mormon rejection of certain elements of the creeds are the theological reasons behind Pastor Jeffress’ recent observations that Mormons belong to a “cult.” If anything, Webb’s whole book puts the lie to such arbitrary distinctions on the grounds that Christians from time immemorial have espoused various heresies that would unduly deny them the label of “Christian” as well. Mormons have plenty of heretical Christian brothers and sisters down through the centuries. Besides, “the Christian faith has always grown through intellectual clashes and vigorous disputes” with various “heretics—those close enough to traditional Christianity to really get underneath the skin of its foundational beliefs” (243). For Webb, Mormons are the salutary heretics, and Mormonism is “the most imaginative” and “most exciting conversational partner for traditional Christians for the twenty-first century” (243). The dialog will be difficult, perhaps most of all because Mormons tend to eschew systematic theology (244), but Webb is aware of enough “Mormon scholars, intellectuals, writers, scientists, philosophers and yes, theologians willing and eager” to discuss the matter of matter. He explores Mormon texts including the Book of Moses and various sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, and offers two pages of exegesis on the King Follett discourse (255-7, although there is no footnote explaining what version he’s using). He interacts with Robert Millett, Truman Madsen, and David Paulsen (who offers blurb of praise on the book’s back cover) and other Mormons on matters like cosmology, embodiment, preexistence, and exaltation.5
Surely creedal Christians will be especially uncomfortable with this chapter, but it is the true embodiment of Webb’s overall method: searching through various theologies to hammer out distinctions, propose alternatives, and become more aware of theological problems and potential solutions. Still, when Webb argues against creation ex nihilo (57, 77-8, 97, etc.) and describes some atonement theories as misrepresenting God’s plan as an ad hoc solution (148), or posits that Christ existed pre-mortally with a body of flesh, he’s likely to be dismissed or ignored. Moreover, Mormons won’t escape un-ruffled, either, because Webb isn’t proposing to simply replace traditional creeds with Mormon theology. They’ll resist when he denies the flesh and bone embodiment of God the Father and the nature of the Holy Spirit as being a “personage” (269-270, etc.), and when he questions the concept of eternal intelligences as spirit children of God (268-9). He sees the LDS doctrinal future as being open to change (272), but as an outsider he understandably doesn’t offer much advice on how Mormons could integrate his insights in any official capacity. He wonders if some Mormon thinkers are sometimes too eager to speak majestically of humankind’s eternity “instead of the eternity of the one human who matters, and that is Jesus Christ” (259). Still, as he argued recently in a column at First Things, if Mormons can be thought heretics in regards to Christ, it ought to be for affirming Christ’s divinity without knowing quite where to stop. Superchristians, heretics, but Christian nonetheless (244).
In all of this Webb risks “pleasing no one while annoying everyone,” but he offers his heavenly flesh Christology regardless of the consequences (269). While tracing the history of theology about matter and spirit he rhetorically advances his Christology using a series of carefully placed “if so” and “what if” propositions throughout the book (examples on 103, 105, 108, 173, 196, 222, 257, among many others). These culminate in his explicit outlining of a heavenly flesh Christology at the conclusion of chapter 9 and throughout chapter 10, to follow up his “first approximation” in chapter one. As you’ve guessed by now (if you made it this far) it isn’t something that can be easily explained or summed up, but here’s the condensed version:
“God the Father is material (in a way we cannot completely imagine or understand) without being fully corporeal, God the Son is anthropomorphically corporeal (and thus material in a way that is different from the Father), and God the Holy Spirit is the love they share—and it is this love that dynamically directs matter toward corporeal form” (269).
For Webb, Jesus Christ is the bridge between the somehow-differently-material God the Father and the material human race, and the example of our initial design and future perfected state. If the ancient Gnostics taught about the evil of matter, and the contemporary secularists teach the potential mastering of matter by the hands of humankind, Webb urges Christians (including Mormons) to emphasize the spirit of matter and matter of spirit as originally founded in the flesh of Jesus Christ (273). Webb is absolutely correct that contemporary science (especially physics and biology) are crucial considerations in contemporary theological discussions. He spends a little time confronting evolutionary psychology (84) and transhumanism (176), but he spends much more time with the Mormons! This is because he is more focused on the coherence of conceptual, rather than evidential, Christology, and more interested in grounding his theology in Jesus Christ. If his proposals can’t ultimately be embraced on a wide-scale (and it would probably take a miracle for that to happen!), Webb still takes some consolation: “At the very least, if I am wrong about everything I say here, I want to claim that I have good company” (6). I hope his company extends from the companions of the past who he quotes throughout the book to embrace current theologians across the Christian spectrum and beyond. Jesus Christ, Eternal God is an impressive combination of history, philosophy, and theology. It’s been called “ground-breaking.” As his historical analysis shows, Webb’s heavenly flesh Christology may be “ground-breaking” in the sense of resurrection—the continuation of something old with the addition of something remarkably new.
*For an idea of how possibly under-representative my review really is, check out Webb’s Table of Contents and other info at OUP’s site here.
1. Thanks to WVS, we can easily compare the respective versions at boap.org. The “comprehend” line from Richards’s notes is prominently included in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), “Chapter 2: God the Eternal Father,” 36–44.
2. In context it seems Smith was discussing God’s nature as much as God’s character here.
3. Unfortunately, Webb doesn’t engage in the nascent discussions about the implications of human disability for what it means for humans to be created in the image of God. See my review of Molly C. Haslam’s work here.
4. Catholic theologian Ilia Delio would likely object to my characterization, but in my view she re-defines “Christ” so as to completely disconnect the idea from its historical foundation and embodiment in general. She suggests that “To live in the mystery of Christ is not necessarily to speak about Christ but to live in the grace of surrender, the poverty of being, and openness of heart.” The concept of Christ is dying, but will emerge again, evolving, but the physical, resurrected body of Jesus which the disciples claimed to handle and see disappears into a new age grab-bag faith citing books like Eat, Pray, Love and worldwide ecumenical humanist movements. See Delio, The Emergent Christ: Exploring the Meaning of Catholic in an Evolutionary Universe (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011), 147; also 85-6, 116-7, 120, 143-4.
5. Webb also follows a brief side-road to clarify some of the claims made by historian John Brooke in regards to the hermetic/alchemist roots of Mormonism. See pp. 259-261. This whole chapter was published as ”Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints,” BYU Studies vol. 50 no. 3 (2011). A .pdf download is available for a mere two bucks. A full review of the Mormon chapter is possibly forthcoming.