Review: Sinless Flesh

Sinless Flesh: A Critique of Karl Barth’s Fallen Christ, Rafael Nogueira Bello. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020.

Summary: Drawing upon the doctrines of inseparable operations, grace of union and habitual grace, and original sin, argues against the contention of Barth and Torrance that the Son of God assumed fallen human flesh in the Incarnation.

You probably never discussed this question in Sunday school: was the human nature assumed by the Son of God sinless or fallen? We may have discussed this in seminary, but if so, it made no impression on me. Nevertheless, it distinguishes two giants of the twentieth century, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance from most theologians in church history including Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin.

The author of this monograph argues that Barth and Torrance get it wrong. He doesn’t see this as heresy because both affirm the orthodox convictions that Christ was without sin and the relation of the two natures in one person. However, he would argue that this proposal has impact upon trinitarian relation, weakens the orthodox understanding of the hypostatic union of the two natures, and reflects a flawed understanding of original since with implications as to how Christ can act as the second Adam on our behalf.

Bello draws upon three doctrines to highlight the deficiencies in the idea of the Son of man assuming a fallen nature or what is considered non assumptus. First, the doctrine of inseparable operations is the idea that all three persons of the Trinity act as one. The assumption of a fallen nature would require separate operations of the Spirit to perfect what is effected by the Father and Son. Likewise in orthodox theology, the grace of union precedes habitual grace in the life of the incarnate Son. This is reversed in Barth and Torrance involves a growth in grace before the grace of union but raises questions about the hypostatic union of these natures if one grows into union with the other. Finally, the non assumptus view reflects a defective view of original sin. If, as is held in post-Calvin Reformed theology, original sin includes original guilt (that all of us sinned in Adam and are therefore guilty with him, then assuming a fallen nature means assuming Adam’s guilt and raises the question of whether Christ can act as the second Adam through whom we are made righteous (Romans 5:19).

Bello makes a strong case if one accepts the logical inferences drawn in his theological discussion. My hunch is that Barth and Torrance would not accept these inferences. At the beginning of this monograph, Bello quotes Gregory of Nazianzus, who in another context stated, “that which He has not assumed He has not healed.” He sees Barth and Torrance applying this idea to the fallen human nature. I fail to be convinced by Bello’s argument that a Son who had assumed a sinless human nature could “learn obedience” and be like us in all ways except for sin. It seems that one who bears Adam’s guilt without recapitulating Adam’s sin but rather bear’s humanity’s sin and Adamic guilt is truly the second Adam whose obedience makes the many righteous.

What my challenge is, being new to this discussion, is thinking through his argument. Does non-assumptus necessarily compromise inseparable operations? Does non-assumptus jeopardize our understanding of the hypostatic union of the two natures. Does original sin imply original guilt (which Calvin did not affirm)? And even so, does this call into question Christ’s fitness to serve as the second Adam? Bello makes a careful and rigorous argument deserving careful consideration. It both made me think, but also reflect on how what we believe about one thing has implications for other matters. I am also grateful for the irenic spirit of Bello’s argument. Difference is not always heresy, and one’s perception of a real weakness in the thought of another does not, for this scholar, diminish his respect for the substantial contribution of Barth and Torrance to the theological enterprise. All in all, this is a fine monograph and I look forward to further theological writing from this scholar!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Surprised by Paradox

surprised by paradox

Surprised by ParadoxJen Pollock Michel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: In a world where things are often defined in either-or terms and a quest for certainty, Michel proposes there are many things, beginning with basic biblical realities that are both-and, inviting our continuing curiosity.

Whether it is schism in the church, political divides, or just a good old marital conflict, the parties often have defined things sharply in either-or terms, one way or another. Jen Pollock Michel explains how she began to look for a third way, and to write this book. A family member had been lying to her, repeatedly. She described her dilemma to her counselor.

“…I needed light for groping my way out of this tunnel with two exits: should I suffer lying or sever the relationship?

‘What if there’s a third way?’ she asked gently. Her language sounded like a struck bell, especially because ‘third way’ language was something my spiritual director often used with me. It was as if here was yet another invitation to find a sure-footed way on some undiscovered path–to find and where I had previously imagined only either and or. Here was an invitation to ‘lean not on my own understanding’ and find wisdom in the way of paradox” (pp. 22-23).

She discovered that paradox ran through the pages of scripture, that Christian orthodoxy is full of and, beginning with the incarnation, this idea that the Son of God came to earth, fully God, and also fully human. If paradox is at the heart of the nature of the Lord we trust and follow, might we look for God in the and, rather than insisting on answers to either-or questions. This paradox also suggests that we find the spiritual in the material, the living God in the stuff of everyday life. It also suggests that to conform to God’s ideal for our lives, is to live fully the “one wild and precious life” that is ours, expressing in our own uniqueness, the image of God in our lives.

She goes on to explore three other paradoxes. There is the paradox of the kingdom, which is already here and not fully come, where the least are the greatest, where we both give lavishly and enjoy lavishly what we are given, and where strength takes the form of vulnerability whose crowning hour is the cross. Grace confronts us with other paradoxes. Treasured, yet not for any personal excellency. Finding favor when the wrath we deserved falls upon his favored Son. Michel writes, “We don’t get grace because we change our lives–but our lives are indelibly changed because we get grace. Finally there is lament, the raw, unvarnished plea to God of people in pain that God has not shielded them from, that is a paradoxical kind of faith. It takes God seriously enough to become angry, to speak with blunt honesty rather than pretty pieties when what has happened in one’s life doesn’t square with our understanding of who God is.

Michel is a compelling author, one who can relate the depths of theology to teaching her daughter to drive, and her need for grace. She weaves scripture, teaching of the theological “greats,” contemporary realities, images, and personal stories into a narrative that sings and helps us examine with fresh eyes what we thought we knew down pat, helping us by asking, “did you notice this and this?”

A friend once observed that when we try to get rid of the tensions in our faith, or our lives by getting rid of one side of the tension to focus on the other, we make life simpler, but also smaller and more confined. Jen Pollock Michel invites us to live with paradoxes, and to celebrate the ands of God. She proposes that this opens us up to mystery, to surprise, and to the depth of the riches of knowing our God and what it means to live in the and of his purposes, to experience how grace transforms our work, and how our laments in all their perplexity may be among the most robust acts of faith. What might this “third way” mean as Christians are present to a world mired in “either-or?”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Incarnate

Incarnate

Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, Michael Frost. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Frost explores what it means to be incarnational people in an “excarnational” world, one marked by increasing focus on disembodied, virtual experience, and disconnection from physical community.

We are becoming a culture that increasingly disengages from embodied experience, that objectifies others and encounters the world via a computer or smartphone screen. This has significant implications for the church, which is also shaped by this “excarnate” culture. Michael Frost explores this “excarnate” world we are increasingly fashioning for ourselves, how excarnate life has unhelpfully shaped Christians and the Christian community, and what it we can learn from Jesus about becoming truly incarnational people.

He explores the fascination of this culture with zombies, and the morally ambiguous state of being the walking dead. All this stems from a mind-body dualism that detaches what we think and experience mentally from what we do through our bodies. It explains how people can embrace immoral behavior and not think it affects anything about their spirituality.

True Christian faith is different in that the central figure was an embodied Messiah who calls people to follow and for whom believing and behaving walk hand in hand. Because we are desiring creatures (drawing on the work of James K. A. Smith) the central matter in discipleship is not merely believing certain things but the ordering of desires and our behaviors along the lines of our beliefs. We become what we worship, for better or worse. Mission then, which is a big focus for Frost, becomes a move beyond click activism to embodied presence. The challenge is not growing bigger churches, but Christians living out faith in all the dimensions of “silos” of life–economics, agriculture, education, science and technology, communications, arts, politics, and family life. This is aided by living as “placed” people, who settle down in a physical community and become part of its life for a long time.

The concluding chapters focus on the missional, communal, and spiritual practices that nourish an incarnational life. At the same time, Frost includes some important warnings about the difference between healthy and unhealthy religion, using the Jim Jones cult as an object lesson, because in fact at the start they were pursuing an incarnational ministry, first in Indianapolis and then San Francisco. What is chilling is how often unhealthy ministries are organized around “taking a stand” rather than training people to think for themselves, inviting us to be humble about what we think we know, focuses on what we are for, and stays in tune with reality. The epilogue concludes with the rhythms of life of a community, the value of liturgies and embodied practices of life together.

Frost provides an insightful glimpse into contemporary culture and the ways it leads to disembodied, excarnate expression in the church. It even made me stop and muse about blogging on books rather than simply getting together with some friends over beverages and good food to talk about what we are discovering. Actually, I do that as well, and so don’t feel so bad about sharing the riches online. But I do find myself wondering about online community supplanting the particular place and space and people I live among. He also challenges the kind of click activism that makes you think you’ve done something simply because of what you’ve done online. And yet these tools have aided recent political revolutions that have resulted in embodied change. It seems the challenge is how to use these tools incarnationally rather than to eschew them altogether, and how to lay them aside when we need to do so.

Thanks, Michael Frost, for this reminder that we are incarnation people and the difference this can make in an excarnate world.

The Mess

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Own work

[W]ho, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8, NRSV)

During this Advent season, I’ve thought a good deal about the central wonder of Christmas, that the one Christians believe to be “very God” was “born in human likeness”, which is really to say, he was born as fully human as you and me.

I wonder if we have ever thought about how messy this all was. To begin with, we have a baby developing over nine months in a bath of amniotic fluid in Mary’s womb. Then there is water breaking, and the passage of the baby and the placenta through the birth canal. Amazing, yes, but messy. And then there is infancy — nursing and changing — yes, Jesus didn’t come toilet-trained.

It is amazing to me that the son of God would so thoroughly participate in our mess. We are messy people, and not just in our infancy. We are physically messy and smelly and bathing only temporarily covers that. And it could be argued that we are pretty good at making a mess of the world around us. And we do this all the way until we make our exit from this world, often a messy affair as well.

I’m staggered that God would indeed get intimately mixed up in all the mess of human bodily existence. He didn’t stay aloof in some ethereal, spiritual realm, far removed from our mess. He got right into it, even to the point of death by one of the cruelest means humans have devised, the cross.

The real question Christmas poses is “why?” Why does God the son let go of all the prerogatives of deity to wade into our mess? What is this (messy) baby in the manger really all about?

The only thing that really makes sense to me is the conclusion one of the early fathers of the church, Athanasius, wrote in On the Incarnation:

He became what we are that he might make us what he is.

More prosaically, you might say, he entered our mess to clean us up and make us like him. And why would he do that? To become what he is, at least in character, though not in essence, is not just about reclaiming what was lost but about restoring us to relationship. Jesus became a child in a human family so that we could be children of God, part of a heavenly family.

The real gifts of Christmas are not those brought by the Magi nor found under the tree, but rather the child in manger. And the questions this day poses to us are, will we believe he is indeed gift for us and receive the gift that is him? Will we let him into our mess? Will we not simply welcome him into our family but accept his welcome into his?

This is Christmas.

Review: Dwell–Life with God for the World

dwellDwell: Life with God for the World, Barry D. Jones. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: A focus on mission and a focus on spiritual formation are often divorced from one another. This book argues for a missional spirituality rooted in the incarnation of Jesus, his dwelling among us to restore broken shalom that is revealed in spiritual practices that herald the vision of the kingdom that is both present and to come.

If I were to draw a Venn diagram (remember Venn diagrams?) of the group of people who are missional, and the group of people who care deeply about spiritual formation, I would probably draw one with two circles with only a small area of overlap. And sadly, we sometimes have people who live at one of two extremes, either rabidly engaged in mission but lacking in spiritual depth and self-understanding, or people whose spirituality has seemed to turn in on itself, with little or no concern for the world.

Barry Jones believes that the key to a life that brings mission and spiritual formation together is the incarnation of Jesus, his dwelling among us both in a vibrant relationship with the Father and for a mission to restore the broken shalom of the world. He organizes his discussion of missional spirituality around the incarnation of Jesus into three parts: vision, practice, and context.

Chapters one through four focus on gaining a vision of God’s intention in the world. Chapter one begins with the biblical narrative, contending that the concluding vision of the new heaven and earth shapes a spirituality that is creation affirming, people affirming, body affirming, intimately connected to God, and God’s just reign. Chapter two centers on the breaking of God’s shalom by human rebellion and contends that the most appropriate response is a sacred discontent that looks beyond ourselves to God to address the world’s condition. The next chapter explores our deep thirst, a longing for God fulfilled in the outpouring of the Spirit of God through Christ giving us living water and making us as the church, the dwelling place or temple of God on the earth. Finally, in chapter four (which I think should have preceded chapter three) he explores how Jesus incarnation reveals God’s vision for the world as boundary breaker, shalom maker, people keeper and wounded healer.

In the next five chapters, he explores how various spiritual practices flesh out living the vision of God in the world. Chapter five focuses on a “grammar” of the spiritual disciplines, a substructure that governs the appropriate engagement of disciplines in a missional spirituality that includes attentiveness, receptivity, embodiment, community and rhythm. Then in succeeding chapters he focuses on four practices among others that sustain our life in God for the world. These are prayer, worship (the work of the people), sabbath rest, and feasting and fasting. He has some challenging remarks in the chapter on sabbath about engaging relationships and disengaging from our technology. And he observes that feasting as well as fasting are spiritual disciplines that reflect our incarnate life as we long as we long for the world to come.

The final part, on context, consists of just one chapter, which was somewhat surprising. It would seem that much more might be said about this. His focus is first of all on what he sees as a post-Christian western world in which he believes our call is to live question posing lives of faithfulness sustained by our practices and centered around vibrant, parish-like communities that take seriously the physical place in which they are located.

I appreciated the grounding of missional spirituality in the doctrine of the incarnation. The dangers of over-spiritualizing both mission and formation find their corrective in the God who truly has dwelt with us in human flesh and continues to dwell among us and in us through his Spirit. Jones’ ideas about the embodiment inherent in the practices, the incarnational presence of the church and particularly the concern for “placed” parish missional life are helpful contributions to developing a missional spirituality. I hope the author will continue to flesh out these ideas, perhaps thinking and writing more about the third category of context and how congregations may live out an embodied spirituality and missional presence in their local contexts.

Review: The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science

The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science
The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science by Christopher C. Knight
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the challenges for anyone who is a theist is how to explain God’s interaction with the physical world. Of particular concern is explaining the “miraculous” or the “supernatural.” Classically, God’s interaction with the world has been described in terms of “general” and “special” providence. General providence is his work in and through the “laws of nature” established in his creative work. Special providence refers to his “interventions” in the miraculous, and perhaps also to God’s work through intercessory prayer.

These kinds of “breaking in” events are problematic to scientists committed to the regularity of the natural order. For some who retain a belief in God, the response has been to maintain some sort of theistic naturalism, which often seems to incorporate miracles into God’s creation instructions. The difficulty is that this is hard to distinguish from deism, the idea of a clockwork universe that God has wound up and set running.

Christopher C. Knight explores this landscape and seeks to provide a different framework that would see the miraculous as a “breaking out” or “breaking through” a fallen creation where God is working within to restore and fulfill his purposes. Key to his thinking is the Incarnation and an understanding of that which draws heavily on Eastern Orthodox theology, particularly its understanding of the logos, in and through whom creation came to exist and is sustained. God is a continuing “primary cause” of all that occurs in nature even if scientists may only have access to “secondary” causes. Because of the fall, sometimes God’s activity consists in breaking out or through the grime of the fall to restore and fulfill his purposes, supremely in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus.

This seems to me to be an intriguing proposal but one about which I have some questions. In taking this stance, Knight identifies his position of “incarnational naturalism” with panentheism, the idea that all that exists is in God (rather than pantheism, which says that all is God). While panentheism seems an attractive alternative to classical theism which emphasizes the distinction or transcendence of God vis a vis the creation, I think it means giving up some essential and distinctively Christian truths. If all the creation is in God, then in some sense evil is as well. And if God is identified with this then salvation is not a Holy God acting on behalf of a fallen world in redemption but rather God and the world striving together to attain God’s creation purposes. Furthermore, I am concerned with the reality that panentheism may collapse into eastern pantheism or into some form of universalism, which I do detect at points in Knight’s writing, particularly in his pyschological-referential account of revelatory events which seems to put other revelatory experiences on a par with Christian revelation. [I will note that for me this account was the most difficult to understand part of the book.]

What I found of value was that, classically we have spoken of God being both transcendent and immanent, but often seem to be at a loss to reconcile how God is immanent with the laws of nature. I would argue that one needn’t resort to panentheism to argue for the incarnational naturalism Knight contends for. The presence of the Logos in his creation that reaches fulfillment in Jesus, the God-man is fully consonant with the biblical narrative and an understanding of God who is both transcendent and immanent.

The book is closely written and assumes a certain familiarity with historical theology both Eastern and Western. Chapter 15, titled “A New Understanding” serves as a good recapitulation and summary of his argument that was helpful to me in pulling it all together. Before his “Afterword” he includes a chapter on intercessory prayer within the model he proposes.

While I take issue with the panentheism this author proposes, I believe his efforts to draw upon Eastern Orthodox thought, his thinking about the incarnation, and his effort to propose a “non-interventionist” explanation for miracles needs to be considered in the ongoing dialogue about faith and science and is a worthy addition to Fortress Press’s “Faith and the Sciences” series.

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Review: The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of Incarnation

The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of Incarnation by Graham ColeCole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Christmas could be called the Feast of the Incarnation. It is indeed the time of celebrating the incarnation of the Son of God–of God truly with us in human flesh. And so it was appropriate to read this during the Days of Christmas and I was richly rewarded.

What Cole sets out to do is outline a biblical theology of the Incarnation. That is, he seeks to uncover the development of the theme of Incarnation from Genesis to Revelation. Along the way, he explores the idea of the creation as God’s palace-temple where he walks with creatures who are priest-kings with him. He explores the “theophanies” of the Old Testament, categorizing the language used of God as “anthropomorphic” (describing God with human features), “anthropopathic” (describing God with human emotions), and “anthropopraxic” (describing God in terms of human actions like walking). He considers the appearances of the “angel of the Lord” and would associate with those who consider these as possible pre-incarnate appearances of the Son of God.

He also explores the Messianic passages of scripture and would argue that while they support the idea of the incarnation, cannot be conclusively argued to foretell this. He reminds us of Paul at this point and that the appearing of God in human flesh in Christ was indeed “mystery”. He also brings in material on “the theory of theories” by Nicholas Wolterstorff to suggest that all the OT material reflects the reality of the Incarnation that we only fully understand in the New.

He then explores the gospel and epistolic material on Incarnation and how these draw on Old Testament materials. He asks with Anselm of Canterbury the question of “why did God become Man?”, answering this from the biblical materials. He concludes with consideration of Revelation and the closing of the circle–a new creation with the Incarnate Lamb ruling a kingdom of priests renewing the garden city of the New Jerusalem. He also reflects on the significance of the Incarnation with some wonderful concluding reflections on the wonder of the Incarnation.

Along the way, he engages some of the speculative questions that have arisen around the doctrine of the incarnation, including whether the Son would have appeared in human flesh even without the fall (a tentative yes), and whether Christ’s human nature was fallen or unfallen (he joins most theologians in history in arguing unfallen).

This is part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series and lives up to the vision of this series as providing scholarly monographs that at the same time serve the leadership of churches in providing a readable account, in this case, of the theology of the Incarnation.

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