traditional Christian doctrine
became impossible

Picture of Don Cupitt and assessment below

including a short review of the base source for this argument, Don Cupitt's 1978 book The Debate about Christ.

Longstanding views of God suggest that God to be God must be:
  • All wise
  • All powerful
  • Never created, only creating
  • Unconstrained by space and time
  • Unchangable
  • Unbounded
  • Unconstrained
  • Beyond language and definition
  • Without structure
  • Without division
  • Never a sufferer
  • Beyond and other than all creatures
(adapted from Cupitt, 1978, 17)
By this view, if God decided to become human for a reason, then nothing can stop God. Then that God on earth to be God will not lack information nor make errors, not have temptation and sin, and be perfect in every way. At any point this arrival may perform any miracle in any way it chooses. Yet this would be only an appearance of humanity, and is rejected by all Christian defining authorities. He is defined by these authorities as without sin, and his miracles are given but evidentially constrained, but the temptation is real. In the biblical account, doctrine and belief, too, Jesus has to decide to do what is right, by which he has moral purpose. He makes decisions to do this and not that, which has consequences either way. The whole of the Jesus narrative is a set of choices with outcomes, a tragic tale where the apparent victory and reconciliation of the resurrection was not pre-ordained. The fact it has choices and outcomes makes it compelling. Yet God pre-knows everything and choices are not because they cannot have consequences unknown. So Jesus the Christ is not the same as God the pure in this sense. This is what Christian doctrine has had to tackle.
In 325 at the Council of Nicea the consubstantial view of Christ as God was arrived at:
[We believe in] One Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, Very God from Very God, begotten not made, Consubstantial with the Father, by Whom all things were made, both things in heaven and things in earth, Who for us men and for our salvation was made incarnate, and was made man... (quoted in Cupitt, 1978, 2)
  • The Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father
  • The Son is originated unlike the father, though this is beyond time.
  • However, the Son is Very God of Very God just like the Father
Earlier traditions emphasised that the Son was the Word of God who dwelt among us, first born of all creation before all ages. So the 325 agreement was a revision to tackle Arius and also overturned the Caesarean creed. In 351 there was a further definition that Jesus Christ was:
...coessential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same coessential with us according to the Manhood; like us, in all things, sin apart; ...acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division or separation, the difference of the natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved and concurring into One person... (quoted in Cupitt, 1978, 8)
In this Chalcedonian definition it is not a Union that takes place, but a particular person enjoys both properties. He is therefore not a human subject, because his individuality as such is not that of us but of Very God of Very God. So whilst Christ is fully human in all his attributes, he is not a man but man. It sees Christ the man on earth as fleshy and real, thus a moral choice making existence and a person, and the person has these divine-human properties without division, but not fused.
That it leaves the head in a spin is sometimes suggested as evidence of its uniqueness or mystery, the first which says it is illogical and the second that it is a cop out. It is constructed to go well beyond the religious and cultural experience and beliefs of the people who knew him and followed him in a spirit of worship. These agreed claims are a long way from the resultant theologies of the New Testament:
  • The New Testament never suggests Son of God means God
  • In the New Testament Son of God means pious obedience to God
  • It creates difficulty how when the Son of God was earthbound he was also Very God of Very God.
What happens from the resurrection traditions onwards is a process of building continuously through places and times and therefore cultures up to and through these Councils. Experience and writing framed experience in an additive process consistent with a stream of throught attached to one Church or another. The Jewish Church was destroyed, the Gnostic Church was heretical. An investigative, critical, learning by discrimination approach wasn't the method of this process not of the Councils. Changes towards orthodoxy like these in Councils were gained by being acquisitional regarding the past and not based on research into origins and using the critical method as we operate today. Added to this the Councils used:
  • Discussion and argument about intentions and tradition
  • Concern for authority of the unified (imperial) Church
  • Contentious argument
  • Intrigue and arm-twisting
  • Strong even violent controversy
  • Monks with private armies
  • Exile
  • Majority voting
They had to unify the man on the ground, with his somewhat retold but recognised clear sense of self-emptying compassion, with the figure of cosmic authority that the Church itself was keen to promote, it being the deposit of this supernatural figure. This humble and usually decisive person who spoke in parables is also the all powerful, all knowing God.
It's these lowly attributes which for later scholars begin to be the attributes of incarnation. This is not because these attributes (of divinity) are more true, though they are more clearly displayed, but because of the way modern people started to think. They applied historical research and critical understanding of texts. They started thinking for themselves for the purpose of disinterested understanding or in order to gain academic credibility.
They could see that Jesus the man acted and thought according to the beliefs of the time. He obviously was not all knowing, or if he was he was deceiving (which he cannot be morally, as this would make God not Good). So some part of God might have hidden something from the other part of God, but then there was a division between the God and the man. If Jesus is still found to be perfect, or nearly (and may not be - try animal rights), then this is a human-up reasoning of a kind of one upmanship (so he must be compared with Buddha, Gandhi etc.) where divinity is acquired not given. Perhaps earthly evidence is but a way to reassert what cannot be found through human evidence, to try to meet up with and match the acquisitional method used found by the Church Councils.
For the argument runs for their supporters that it doesn't matter whether they used arm-twisting or not, but because the Church was of one mind it is as if Christ himself spoke on the matter. This is a circular argument that exists only with with the highest view of the Church about itself and the status of it making a decision (if with guidance by the Holy Spirit, but this is of itself unimportant when unity occurs as a kind of absolutism is achieved), as must be. But then the whole Church was never unanimous, and never united, but then the Church itself defines how these definitions of unity are to be defined.
In essence then the doctrine of Christ must be defined by a human-divine organisation first, and by a way of thinking that underpins it. The modern mind accepts no such way of thinking, and the doctrine falls apart. Only through a postliberal device (a community is defined by its acting out a doctrine that it maintains but without need for objective reference) or the removal of the belief from all related human culture and only therefore a one way relationship to us (Barth) can this belief be in any sense maintained. In all sense traditional Christian belief is cut off from contemporary thought and method, and all theology around traditional belief is a dance around a tradition to maintain its appearance rather than the substance which was agreed by the Councils.
In a sense the maintenance of this belief in Christ requires a primary maintainance in the belief of the Church. Indeed so does it follow that it is the Church that maintains the belief in the Trinity, in this approach starting from the binity of Christ and God.
If people want to maintain the trinity (underpinned by the binity of Chalcedon) from this incarnation first approach, then it is not the trinity of old. It is a kind of human reconstructed trinity, or at least a loose one that Unitarians used to imply (though often denied!) when they still used the terms God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (here itself remained undiscussed) in some kind of discerning way. The implication of incarnation, perhaps, at the end of the first century was not the Trinity or the Chalcedonian definition, and if it implied it then it has since been lost again, except by those who retain a mind set and way of thinking wholly different from that which exists elsewhere. Such a Church is no longer related to the World.
The interesting approach of the Unitarians was mainly God first, that in their liberality it was God as God that undermined the trinity in the first place, then the Church picked up a liberal movement that started with the Christian bible's absence of the doctrine of the Trinity itself.
For many people, Jesus defines what God is. God could indeed be all mystery, but if God is a really good God then Jesus shows what a good God would be. It also gives God a sense of personality, and one that is approachable, as indeed Jesus called God "Abba" (though Jesus never described God as being like himself, nor would any Jew of that time).
The Council of Chaldecon in 451 never said this. It said that God was God and Jesus the human was human, and both were joined in the one person. Another view is that God became flesh, such as by Cyril of Alexandria, and so this allows a kind of reverse logic to take place, though one which undermines the breadth and unity of God, maintained by the Jews, Muslims, traditional Unitarians and Bahais!
There is a difference between the Unitarian approach and modern theological trends. Modern theology focussed on the status of Jesus with a demotion of God (for Jesus does the defining) whereas the Unitarian approach remained God centred, and if God became more mysterious and liberalised it wasn't because of changes in the status of Jesus, who was increasingly forgotten in terms of defining a status (he is already human and only human). So whereas the mainstream approach was tending towards a practical atheism, Unitarianism tended towards the pantheistic. Unitarianism retained the mystery of God, and became interfaith in implication, whereas others emphasised how to understand the work and status of Jesus and therefore the definition of God, for whom being interfaith was simply through a decline in the power and certainty of doctrine when efectively a more humanist method takes hold.


Base source:

Cupitt, D. (1978), The Debate about Christ, London, SCM Press, 1-20.


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

Cupitt's book book is of exceptional clarity and order, and puts all the arguments down clearly. It represents a time just two years before he was "Taking Leave of God" and also a time before his writing became more loose and attempted greater linguistic freedom (Cupitt has always tried to make himself readable beyond the academic community). Stating these points about Jesus they are inevitably for and against wider doctrine and a rewriting of a spiritual position or positions for Jesus. It relates to his further thinking of The Myth of God Incarnate (1977), and declares Cupitt's hand that he has moved to "an exceedingly high-and-dry view of God, and from Jesus' flesh to his words."

Cupitt has moved on since. Yet this material is well worth returning to again and again because it is a good book to marshall and address the arguments (though its language is Anglican and not inclusive). I find myself doing this in conversation with others and I like to readdress where I have been, and revise. In the 1980s was looking for a Jesucentric position on modernist grounds which simply could never be found. Cupitt has been valuable in my development, and I largely share his view of God. Whilst he may well have abandoned the detail represented in this book, it becoming irrelevant to the postmodern thrust of wider issues, I think it is important to return to such detail even if one assumes a more literary and creative reproducing view of Christ.

For me, Christ now fits into a gift theology. As a reflection back, though ethical issues of intention and planning come into the matter, the whole crucifixion-resurrection story can be seen as a gift metaphor, which we then do in spiritual practices like the eucharist where you give time and place and thought and receive a spiritual direction, and do this with others. Jesus, as an historical character, so much as we can know, has a world view so different from ours that he can be difficult to grasp, with his end time message and patterning himself on scriptural mythic-history, but the sense of community, healing for change, putting himself into action as well as speaking words, and immediacy of action seems to be transferable as a religious ethic.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful