Edwin Chr. van Driel, Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), xi + 194 pp. $74.00

Reviewed by David W. Congdon (October 06, 2010)

The debate between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism is often treated as a matter of only historical interest. The perceived esotericism of the words and their connection to speculative flights of scholastic fancy have led many to believe that these positions are irrelevant to contemporary constructive theology. It is therefore much to Edwin van Driel’s credit that he demonstrates the significance of this debate for theological work today. The question raised by these two positions is whether “the incarnation is contingent upon sin” (4). Does the divine will to become incarnate logically precede or follow the will to allow sin? The majority report throughout Christian history has been the infralapsarian thesis that incarnation follows sin. That is, God would not have become incarnate had humanity not fallen into sin. Van Driel presents a case for the minority view that God would have become incarnate regardless.The book, which began as his 2006 dissertation at Yale University, is “a constructive and not a historical study” (171). Though he spends the majority of the time exegeting the supralapsarian positions of Schleiermacher, Isaak Dorner, and Karl Barth, this is clearly for the purpose of setting up his own theological position and not for exploring the history of the debate. Each of these theologians presents a different argument for supralapsarian christology: Schleiermacher grounds his in redemption, Dorner in creation, and Barth in eschatological consummation. Van Driel finds each position, considered individually, hampered by ambiguities and inconsistencies, though he appropriates elements from each for his own constructive position.

Van Driel begins by looking at Schleiermacher’s theology, which is “a reflection upon the experience of redemption and absolute dependence” (10). He examines this theology in terms of its (a) ontological framework and (b) christological basis and content. The claim he makes in this chapter is that there is an unacknowledged conflict within and between these two aspects—ontology and christology—in Schleiermacher’s theology. The ontological problem is due to a tension between two “ontological profiles.” The first (what van Driel calls omnipotence I) restricts creaturely freedom in such a way that while human beings have a “freedom of spontaneity,” this freedom occurs within the scope of God’s causal power. The divine causality encompasses and grounds the entirety of finite reality. The second (omnipotence II) is a restriction on divine freedom such that “God cannot do otherwise than what God does” (13). The divine will is exhaustively realized in the actual world; there are no alternative possibilities for finite reality. This latter ontological profile precludes any discussion of counterfactual possibilities or God’s motivation for doing this versus that.

Within this ontological framework, Schleiermacher develops his christology as the necessary outworking of the original divine decree. The appearance of Christ as the ideal (Urbild) of humankind is the necessary completion of creation, not an addition to creation that responds to the appearance of sin. Because of omnipotence II, divine causality cannot, by definition, be in response to any creaturely activity. God’s causal agency is absolute and thus nonreciprocal. This is what makes Schleiermacher’s christology supralapsarian. Logically, however, this also means that God ordained sin along with its redemption in Christ (24). More importantly for his overall thesis, van Driel claims that this foreordination of both sin and redemption instrumentalizes Christ and makes him only relatively and quantitatively distinct from the rest of humankind. The dialectic of sin and redemption are the means toward a final goal that has no need for Christ: viz., God’s impartation of the divine to all reality. The significance of Jesus Christ “is radically noneschatological” (26). Or as van Driel puts it later, “the eschaton is the consummation of Christ’s redeeming influence, but without need for Christ’s abiding presence” (59). In the end, the central problem from van Driel’s perspective is that Schleiermacher’s ontology precludes the possibility for alternative realities, and yet his christology does not logically make Jesus the only possible redeemer. Schleiermacher even makes counterfactual statements in this regard (28). Van Driel’s proposed solution is to dispense with omnipotence II, and he finds assistance in this task from analytic philosophy of religion (14n24).

Van Driel next takes up Dorner’s complex supralapsarian christology, grounded primarily in creation. This chapter is one of the most interesting due to the unfortunate neglect of Dorner in contemporary theology. If van Driel’s book helps to reintroduce Dorner into the current theological conversation, that would likely be its greatest contribution. Dorner’s theological system depends on his distinction between the natural or physical and the ethical, which he views in ontological rather than moral terms (as we find in the Ritschlian approach). The concept of “the ethical” refers to the “absolute highest and rationally necessary thought” and is thus “identical with God” (37). The ethical is distinguished from the physical by being the unity of necessity and freedom, of being and will. God can only be this unity as the Trinity, and creation is “the ethical and necessary product” of this trinitarian God. This unity of freedom and necessity allows Dorner, unlike Schleiermacher, to affirm alternative possibilities and divine motives in his discussion of God. Nevertheless, like Schleiermacher, the act of creation for Dorner—and its corresponding consummation—is strictly necessary as the product of God’s ethical nature (cf. 40-41, 51).

Dorner’s supralapsarianism is creational in nature because religion is “not primarily about sin, atonement, and reconciliation,” but instead concerns the “consummation of humanity’s essential nature” (45). The incarnation is, for the most part, not the means toward a greater end, but is itself the goal of creation and the fulfillment of humanity’s being as an ethical creature existing in a reciprocal relationship with God. The problem van Driel finds with Dorner’s approach lies in the fact that he is not consistent in his understanding of the incarnation. There are three questions that Dorner does not sufficiently address: (a) is the incarnation ontological or interpersonal?; (b) is the incarnation a means or an end?; and (c) is God’s motive for becoming incarnate (viz. love) necessary or contingent? While Dorner is inconsistent or ambiguous on these points, van Driel argues for viewing the incarnation as an interpersonal eschatological end grounded in God’s contingent love (as God’s will rather than nature).

Chapters four and five both deal with Barth’s theology, and together constitute over a third of the book’s length. The first deals with Barth’s “supralapsarian narrative” and the second with his “supralapsarian ontology.” Van Driel distinguishes the two because unlike Schleiermacher and Dorner, Barth’s ontology is controlled by the biblical narrative of Jesus Christ’s life-history. The fourth chapter thus expounds Barth’s “narrative,” by which van Driel means Barth’s doctrine of election. Here he does a fine job of rehearsing Barth’s exegetical arguments for his understanding of Jesus Christ as both the subject and object of election. Many of the ideas and issues that he will critique at the end of the next chapter are raised here in this survey of Barth’s theology. Two key points are (a) that “election is an eschatological category,” which means that “the eschaton precedes everything else” (78); and (b) that election involves “an ontological connection” between Christ and all other human beings (72).

The fifth chapter on Barth’s ontology is the longest in the book and the most complex. The first half deals with the subject of election, and the second half with the object of election and rejection. For readers familiar with recent debates in Barth studies, the first half will feel the most familiar in terms of content. This is because van Driel here continues his debate with Bruce McCormack regarding the relation between election and triunity that van Driel began in 2007 with an article in the Scottish Journal of Theology. Though the article originally came out of this dissertation, he has revised this section for publication to include a response to McCormack’s reply to his article. Van Driel’s position remains essentially unchanged: he insists that “Barth’s doctrine of election has no ontological consequences for the notions of immanent Trinity, Logos asarkos, or God-in-Godself” (103). The processions and the missions are two separate moments in the eternal life of God, he argues, because the Son cannot be the subject of his own generation. The problem, according to van Driel, is that Barth’s statement that “Jesus Christ is the subject of election” is ambiguous (101); it therefore should be read in the light of ostensibly clearer statements. Interestingly, this places Barth interpretation in the same problematic situation as biblical interpretation. When the Reformers claimed that “Scripture interprets itself,” they said that the clearer passages should interpret the more obscure ones. But who decides what is clear and what is obscure? Finally, it is also worth noting that van Driel’s argument in this section parallels his argument against Schleiemacher’s “omnipotence II” mentioned above. McCormack’s position is opposed to counterfactual speculation, and by opposing McCormack, van Driel remains consistent in his affirmation of speaking about counterfactual possibilities with regard to God.

The more interesting part of this chapter comes in van Driel’s discussion of election’s object. Of all the material in the book, I found this section the most enlightening and significant. Van Driel makes three main claims. First, in a brilliant section, he notes that while Barth replaces the categories of substance with that of history, the logic of history functions in precisely the same way and for the same purposes as the traditional metaphysical substance ontology. For Barth, “history is ontology,” van Driel states (108). Barth’s view of Christ’s life-history functions according to what van Driel will later identify as the “logic of assumption,” which abstracts from the personal, concrete reality of human historicity by positing a general humanum in Christ. This is a crucially important insight. Second, van Driel spends a good deal of time critiquing Barth’s conception of time and eternity, especially when it comes to the eschaton. According to Barth, the eschaton is not the continuation of temporal life, but is rather “a preservation of the life lived” (113). This conflicts, van Driel claims, with Barth’s conception of the resurrection, which “implies a continuance of temporal existence” (114). “Why,” he asks, “is creation only an intermezzo and not the continued active partner over against God?” (118).

The third and final critique concerns the true focus of God’s saving work, which Barth himself says is not sin but ratherdas Nichtige (“nothingness”). The problems here are manifold and resist easy summary. The heart of the critique is that Barth makes God’s rejection a creative act that produces a “third kind of being,” viz.das Nichtige(118). This power of evil then continually threatens creation, such that God’s saving work “is therefore to safeguard threatened creation from the abyss of das Nichtige” (120). The whole doctrine of “nothingness” that Barth develops finally rests upon a presupposed axiom: “all of what is not God necessarily lapses into evil unless God incorporates it into God’s own being. . . Creational life itself is governed by entropy” (122). Though Barth does not explicitly develop this thesis, van Driel argues cogently that this is the assumption controlling Barth’s supralapsarianism. Barth’s position is eschatological in orientation because the primary need is “for creation to receive a share in God’s life” (122).

In chapter six, van Driel reviews the three key “conceptual structures” that appeared in his analysis of Schleiermacher, Dorner, and Barth. By elucidating these structures, he both shows where these three supralapsarian positions differ from each other and sets up his own constructive position to follow in chapter seven. The first and most important concept is the felix culpa, that is, the notion that the fall into sin was a “happy fault” because “it triggered greater gain than would otherwise be received” (127). While thefelix culpa is essential to infralapsarianism, Schleiermacher and Barth both make it central to their supralapsarian theologies, which leads them to make the fall necessary to creation. The problem with this first conceptual structure is that “the good needs the bad in principle,” but this “devalues the excellence of the good.” It fails to realize that the presence of God is “an excellent good in and of itself” (131). The second structure concerns Dorner’s theology and the fact that he makes the incarnation to be a “necessary implication” of God’s act of creation (133). But this conflicts with the ethical and interpersonal conception of the divine-human relationship that Dorner articulates (rightly, according to van Driel). The problem here is that Dorner and others ground the incarnation in some aspect of creation. The solution, van Driel argues, is to ground it instead in God’s character. The third conceptual structure is the relation between christology and pneumatology, and this is where van Driel explicates the “logic of assumption” that begins to make an appearance in his critique of Barth noted above. Here he argues for an “ontological over-againstness between the divine and the human” (141). Instead of a substance ontology (even when construed as history), we need a more robust pneumatology.

All of this sets up van Driel’s constructive supralapsarian position in the final chapter. Like Barth, his is rooted in eschatological consummation. But, drawing upon Dorner, his position is ethical, interpersonal, and contingent in nature—rather than ontological and necessary. Moreover, where Barth’s eschatology is rooted in the divine decision of election, van Driel’s is rooted in the embodied life of the resurrection. He presents three arguments for supralapsarian christology: (a) an argument from “eschatological superabundance” (150), in which what we gain in Christ cannot be contingent upon sin (contra the felix culpa); (b) an argument from the vision of God, according to which if the beatific vision—i.e., what we gain in Christ—is supralapsarian, then the incarnation is as well, because full intimacy with God requires sensory bodily contact; and (c) an argument from divine friendship, in which God’s relation to humanity is motivated “by a delight in and a love for the other” (160). God desires to be in an intimate relationship with humanity, regardless of humanity’s sinful rejection of God. The last argument is finally the crucial one. Friendship is a non-necessary, contingent, embodied relation between two persons. It brings in the category of divine motivation and reciprocity missing from Schleiermacher, emphasizes the ethical and interpersonal aspects in Dorner without the need of an ontology, and stresses the eschatological dimension in Barth without making the eschaton the mere preservation of a past life.

Van Driel’s book is a rich and provocative exploration of supralapsarian christology. There is much here worth lingering over. The question, however, is whether his proposal ought to be adopted. On a purely logical level, his model seems to be as satisfactory as the next. And certainly his proposal has much to commend it. He strongly rejects the instrumentalizing of Christ that is common to almost the entire Christian tradition. He offers a robust “eschatological imagination” (164). And he also avoids the speculative nature of traditional supralapsarianism, which tended to frame the problem in terms of the question: would God have become incarnate had humans not sinned? For all these benefits, though, it is impossible to overlook the fact that van Driel’s position is explicitly designed to avoid the cross. Supralapsarianism, for him, is opposed to atheologia crucis. He says as much in his discussion of divine friendship:

Jesus calls his disciples friends in the context of a conversation about his imminent death: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). But while the death is motivated by friendship, the friendship is not motivated by death. Jesus becomes his disciples’ savior because he is their friend; not the other way around . . . If the incarnation only happened as a function of God’s reconciling action, there would be no need for a continued bodily existence of Christ after crucifixion and death. (161)

The hole in van Driel’s position looms large: Why did Jesus die? Is the cross necessary in any sense? In light of his arguments, this reviewer must conclude with: no, the cross is not necessary. Jesus death could be simply an accident of his controversial preaching and the sinfulness of humankind. Van Driel’s christology has no apparent connection to a doctrine of the atonement, in large part because such a doctrine does not seem necessary. Or if it is necessary, then it needs to be completely rethought, which could be very insightful if he were to explore such a project. If he is right—as I believe he is—to reject the substance ontology that makes Jesus the bearer of a general humanum, then atonement could be conceived as the contingent encounter between each individual and the living Christ (as the crucified one) in the eschatological consummation. That is at least an interesting possibility worth exploring.

As it stands, however, van Driel’s position suggests that God’s desire for friendship and love for humanity precedes (and could logically even preclude) any concern about sin and reconciliation. He even suggests that a gospel of sin and redemption is problematic because “in a time such as ours . . . the sense of sin is minimal” (166). “In my proposal,” he says, “we do not have to preach sin before we can preach Christ; we can preach Christ as the offer of love and friendship with God; and it is thereafter, in the light of that offer of friendship and love, that human beings discover themselves as sinners” (166). While this ordering is correct—and quite Barthian—what does it mean to then discover oneself as a sinner? Does that mean we come to see the significance of the cross of Christ? Or is it rather that we see ourselves as unfaithful friends of God who need, by God’s grace, to return to a right relationship? These questions remain unanswered in van Driel’s otherwise thorough explanation. While he makes an impressive case for a supralapsarian incarnation, one has to wonder if the sharp separation between christology and atonement exchanges biblical fidelity for logical soundness.

Incarnation Anyway is an important book that brings a whole set of ideas and concepts back into the contemporary theological conversation. Van Driel does this in clear, concise prose that is easy to follow and compelling. As a surprise bonus, the book concludes with a bibliographical genealogy of supralapsarianism that may be the most helpful five pages in the entire book. All in all, whether his proposal finds wider acceptance or not, this is a book that professors, students, and ministers will all benefit from reading and engaging.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.