|Maurice F Wiles (1923-2005)
Certain areas of theology tend to be sacrosanct. Perhaps because
so many have for so long regarded them as key ways of thinking about the
person of Jesus, they are perceived as the only valid constructs
about the meaning of Jesus' life and death.
One such concept is that of incarnation or the
"embodying" of God the Father in the person of Jesus the Son on earth at a
particular time and place.
So it's hardly surprising that when Maurice Wiles (former Regius
Professor of Divinity at Oxford University) contributed to a book entitled The
Myth of God Incarnate in 1977 a storm of protest arose in the Church
Earlier, as dean of a Cambridge college, he had been thought too
conservative to be included in the group that produced Soundings in 1962 and
heralded intellectual change in English Christianity. By the 1980s his
all-embracing churchmanship was being challenged by a generation of systematic
theologians who owed more to Karl Barth and who tended to draw the doctrinal boundaries
Wiles was the son of a civil servant and excelled at cricket and classics. His
studies were deferred by the war. After Pearl
Harbor he was recruited to learn Japanese fast and work at code breaking at
the famous Bletchley Park in England. After World War II he was ordained
and continued a distinguished academic career.
The controversial book presented the theme in somewhat disparate and indirect terms. But it
nevertheless drew the clear conclusion that even the sacrosanct doctrine of the incarnation can be
called into question.
In fact, his contribution was a logical extension of his previous thinking
about the nature of the Trinity - another supposedly sacrosanct doctrine.
In 1957 and 1962, articles by him in a theological journal had begun
examining the background to this type of theology. He was critical of the
arguments proposed by various contemporary scholars for a so-called orthodox
understanding of the Trinitarian formula.
Central to Wiles' thesis was the argument that those who originally
came up with orthodox doctrines reached their
conclusions through the very same processes that we do today. If they
could claim, as they did, that they were recipients of guidance direct
from God through the Holy Spirit, then so can we.
Their frames of
reference were different from ours and that affected how they could
conceive theological problems and offer solutions for them. But they had
nothing special about them which gave them any more ability to discern the
truth ("the voice of the Holy Spirit") in the fourth century than we have
in the 21st.
The shock with which Wiles' suggestion was greeted was, I think,
misplaced. To make a point: It has long-since proved necessary for a majority of Christian thinkers to drop
the teaching that the Bible is the infallible source of all truth about
God. This was once an essential orthodoxy for anyone to call themselves
Christian. Neither the heavens nor the Church have fallen as a result.
Why then should the doctrine of the Trinity - or any other
supposedly immutable doctrine - be immune from similar
investigation and possible dismissal?
Our processes of reasoning are no different from
those whose "inspiration" gave us the doctrines of the Trinity and the
Incarnation (though our multiple frames of reference are in some ways
vastly different). If these ancient teachings, born in an ancient culture,
cease to make sense for us today, why should we not
"redesign" them? Why should we not seek for ways of
understanding God which harmonise with our perceptions of the universe?
Why should doctrines remain unchanged while our knowledge of the world
changes beyond recognition?
Throughout the history of the Church, its creeds have been regarded as
necessary tests of "faith". That is, if someone could assent to
these verbal formulae they were to be regarded as "orthodox"
and therefore as somehow able to access God's grace in ways not available
to others. More than that, they were regarded as somehow acceptable to God
while dissenters were not.
Wiles dealt with the development of Trinitarian formulae and creeds in
two stages. First he noted that it had been
proposed that "God the Father" must have suffered on the cross,
since God and Jesus were both of the Godhead. Since God cannot suffer, theologians of the second and third centuries
were forced by the incongruity to formulate teaching
which separated Jesus "the Son of God" from "God the
But this tended to break down the concept that God somehow
worked through the person of Jesus in order to achieve mankind's
liberation from sin. Later theologians were as a result forced to propose the complete
unity of Father and Son, since God could not be two " persons"
at the same time and also be unity itself.
The resulting contradictions forced the Church into the profound
circumlocutions with which we still battle today. The Athanasian Creed is
one good example of Christian double-speak.
If we allow the "Holy Spirit" to be the
bonding factor between the two persons of the Trinity, thought Wiles, the
contradictions are reduced, if not eliminated.
But Wiles went further. He proposed that the kind of word games which these theologians played in order to
achieve their obscure outcomes were invalid because they assumed that one
can know more about God than is actually possible.
Wiles questions the projective methods used by theologians to create a
God in their own image. He is correct to do so. If anything has been
agreed by philosophers and others over the past millennium, it is that God
is the "Absolute" or the "Absolute Other". This places
the deity beyond any description. Even attributing personality to
God is merely metaphor. It is a human creation designed to help us in
"relating" to God (another metaphor). In the end, anything
we say about God is metaphorical.
From there it was a short step for Wiles to begin asking how we can use
language about God in a meaningful way. In a sense Wiles was backtracking
on questions which had been posed years earlier (by Feuerbach for example).
He and others had asked how it is possible to use human language
about an ineffable, absolute reality.
Wiles' answer was to propose that our language
about God is necessarily symbolic and metaphorical. In other words, we use
metaphors or symbols which allow us to imagine what is "beyond"
(to use a metaphor) the humdrum physical. Just because we know that we are
not describing the Absolute when we do this doesn't mean that we
are perpetuating a falsehood.
One analogy for this process is to note how poetry uses unusual
combinations of words to express the otherwise inexpressible - to give a
certain reality to subtleties
and connections which lie beyond ordinary language. Poetic constructs are
not the same, for example, as prose constructs - though both may have
elements of the other in them. God-talk (that is, theology) is no less valid
than ordinary day-to-day talk or scientific jargon when it does much
the same sort of thing.
If our God-talk is symbolic and metaphorical then there's every reason to think that we are able
to - and indeed should - develop the ways in which we think and talk about
God in any age. It's also possible that so-called "final solutions" to the
puzzle of meaningful God-talk in the past are now "wrong" for
us. They are not wrong because they are false, but because they no longer
use poetic, metaphorical constructs which relate to life as we now lead
Wiles argued that it can't be shown that there is a rational
progression from the constructs we find in the Bible to the full-blown
Trinitarian statement. Critics of Wiles suggest that his view is mistaken and that
all the elements for the Trinitarian doctrine are to be found in the New
Others, like S W Sykes, argue that Wiles' approach assumes that
... propositions about the Trinity had simply replaced the
Scriptural narrative of God's dealings with humanity, as though, after the
Council of Nicaea, we had more knowledge of God than beforehand.
In other words, Sykes holds that there is a traceable progression of
doctrine-building from New Testament times into the fourth century, when
Christian doctrine was essentially frozen.
Wiles' argument has considerable strength in two respects, however:
1. The councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon both came to their conclusions
at least partly, if not primarily, in order to gain political rather
than theological consensus. The ruling powers of the day convened and
controlled them with the primary aim of gaining a degree of peace between
fractious, warring Church parties. It's not therefore surprising if the
theological "solution" is (and always has been) inadequate.
Politics is the art of the possible, not the science of describing what
2. As Wiles himself suggested (In Defence of Arius), the
reasoning about God which was proposed by Arius was then, as it is today, at least
as convincing as any other. Arius' opponent Athanasius won the contest not by
reason or good theology, but by force. A sword at one's throat, or a State
bailiff at one's door, have remarkable powers of persuasion. Today we are Trinitarian rather
than Arian (or, more probably, a mixture of the two) because the Roman Emperor Constantine
came down on the side of Athanasius, not because the latter had grasped
more than his Arian opponents of the so-called "truth" about God
In the same way that we can question the ancient formulae about the
Trinity, so can we now contest the absolute truth of the
"incarnation", suggested Wiles. However valid the latter construct is for many
today - as it has been for a majority over the centuries - it may no
longer stand the test of conveying to us an understanding of God in the
If Wiles is correct in his conclusions - and I for one
think he is - then the implications for the Church today are extensive.
we can understand that those who pursue heretics from whatever
"orthodoxy" they propound are engaged in a rearguard action.
They are defending the past regardless of what the present is saying to
them. They operate from a closed position, not one open to new insights.
Their net effect is to restate or reshuffle the ancient doctrines in the
hope that they will remain compelling.
the various inquisitions which have plagued. and still plague the life of
Christians and others, can only do what they do by defining as
"wrong" those who differ from them about orthodoxy .
That is, they must logically proclaim themselves as possessors of absolute
Third, heresy hunters inevitably must displace part of
themselves. The secular, scientific, rational world which has been
constructed over the past three centuries is inherently incompatible in
many respects with the world which preceded it. So orthodoxy requires a
compartmentalised consciousness. Part relates to the world of quantum
physics, electric currents, motor cars and constantly evolving paradigms;
another part relates to miracles,
resurrection and spirits. Each retains its validity only when it is held
apart from the other.
short, it is not surprising that the Anglican orthodox react as they do to
Maurice Wiles. In some respects he was far from revolutionary. In placing
holy Christian constructs under the microscope has he has, however, Wiles
has made his contribution towards the radical revision of doctrines required if secular humanity is ever to be
persuaded about the importance of Jesus of Nazareth to the contemporary