Man Before God

von speyr the chalcedonian

Recently, I read an interested passage in Adrienne von Speyr’s book, Man Before God, which is a book one could use to approach her theological anthropology.  I was very interested, however, not just in what she says about the human person in light of the encounter with the Word.  Instead, I was pleased to see her healthy Chalcedonianism. 

In the english translation, von Speyr writes, God the Son

“himself is the Word of the Father from all eternity, and he understands his own unlimited meaning.  But as man, in terms of his human nature, he has to learn his own eternal word and find the right expression” (von Speyr, Man Before God, pg. 67). 

In other words, as God, the Son understands himself perfectly, but as man, he learns to understand and articulate himself as the eternal Word.

“Smile” was my reaction.  You’ll find something similar in many professionally-trained theologians of the Chalcedonian strains of Christology, but you would normally not expect it from a lay person not formally educated in classic Christology. 

Here’s why this is important: the knowledge of Jesus Christ, that is, his knowledge of himself not our knowledge of him, is a hotly debated topic in contemporary Christology.  The question is often put like this: if Jesus is truly human, how is it possible that his human mind could understand himself as fully God?  Put too simply, Christologies from above (of course Jesus has perfect knowledge of himself as fully God) part ways with Christologies from below (of course Jesus does not nor cannot have perfect knowledge of himself as fully God). 

The problem with those characterizations is that they are not yet Chalcedonian. The Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 makes the major compromising Christological breakthrough with this statement:

“Following the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach and confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; ‘like us in all things but sin.’ He was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his divinity and in these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the virgin Mary, the Mother of God.

“We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation (in duabus naturis inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter). The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis.”

There is much here in this text.  Look at that phrase “the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together.”  In other words, the human nature and the divine nature of the Son preserve their character proper to their nature as they are united.  The human nature stays characteristically human and the divine nature stays characteristically divine. This idea, of course, gets developed rightly(!) by the next ecumenical council. (shhhh, I’m a neo-Chalcedonian).

A proper Christology will preserve the two natures of the incarnate Son.  Thus, we should say that the human mind of the incarnate Son maintains its limitations in understanding himself as the eternal Word and that the divine mind of the Son maintains its unlimitedness in understanding himself as the eternal Word.

Or we could just say it exactly like Adrienne von Speyr: God the Son “himself is the Word of the Father from all eternity, and he understands his own unlimited meaning.  But as man, in terms of his human nature, he has to learn his own eternal word and find the right expression.”

Happily, von Speyr does not stop with this point.  She continues.  In the next section, she says that to understand properly that even though we can discern a type of separation in the knowledge of the different natures,

“He is ‘I’ as man and as God, and in this ‘I’ there can be no discrepancy between them, … he is active word of the Father, the incarnate, only begotten Son in the entire depth and uniqueness of this word” (von Speyr, Man Before God, pg. 67). 

He is one Person with one “I” and this “I” is the divine “I” of the divine Son who has become incarnate.

Happy feast of the Incarnation (sometimes called the Feast of the Annunciation)!

new translation - man before god

Man Before God by Adrienne von SpeyrThanks to the translation of David Schindler Jr. and Nicholas J. Healy, we have a new translation of Adrienne von Speyr's short work the way of sanctification, Der Mensch vor Gott.  The book, Man Before God, published by Ignatius Press provides a one-volume summary of her theological anthropology, i.e. how she views the human person in light of his encounter with God.  

Readers of Hans Urs von Balthasar will see in her book similar themes from his work Heart of the World.  If I allow myself any time to reflect upon my existence as a man before God, I begin to know deeply my finitude, my limitations, and my nothingness.  Yet, since God has become man, I am now able to find within my finitude a way toward the infinite.  I stand before God as a finite man longing for the infinite, but Jesus Christ, who has taken on my position of finitude, stands before God as the perfect man who is perfectly infinite.  

If you read this book, you must know that her title has a double meaning: it means Man (as in a human person) before God, but it also means The Man (Jesus Christ as the perfect man [Der Mensch]) before God.