Theology Gone Wyld: a book review

5202Rich Wyld is an Anglican priest with a PhD from Durham University in theology.¬† He is the brain behind the Theologygrams blog where he has created hundreds of ‘theology diagrams’ which describe the world of the Bible, theology, church history, ethics and life in the church. With Vin diagrams, pie charts, tables, graphs and just a bit of cheek, helps us visualize the world of theology.

Theologygrams: Theology explained in diagrams¬†(IVP, 2017, previously published in the UK by Darton, Longman & Todd) collects a number of Wyld’s reflections on the Old Testament, the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament, the Life of the Church and Theology. Wyld has a gift for being silly without being wholly irreverent. He describes this as “quite a silly book about some quite serious stuff” and says his “intention is never to mock or belittle God, theology, the Bible or the Church” (4). So this isn’t a book making fun of faith, though Wyld does give us a fair share of good-natured¬†ribbing.

Because it doesn’t seem fair to review a book of diagrams without sharing some of them, here are a few pictures previously published on Wyld’s blog and included in the book:

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This is a fun little book. A perfect stocking stuffer for a theology buff. Some diagrams are more serious and content heavy than others. Some are mostly silly with a side of theological reflection. I give this book four stars – ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

A Christianity Immersed in Empire: a book review

It is fashionable, in some theological circles, to speak of the Constantinian compromise. Constantine’s victory (and conversion?) in 312 CE issued in an era of religious freedom for Christians which they previously had not enjoyed. But it also started the ball rolling in terms of the centralizing of the power of the bishops, and eventually Rome in the West, and led to doctrinal compromises as the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic church sought to accommodate itself to the demands of Empire.

9781626981942Wes Howard-Brook does not doubt that this trajectory toward Empire replaced the spirituality and prophetic critique of Jesus in the life of the Church. His previous book,¬†Come Out My People!¬†( Orbis, 2010), was a reading of the biblical narrative which contrasted Jesus’ liberationist movement‚ÄĒthe ‘religion of Creation’ called the Kingdom of God‚ÄĒwith the religion of Empire‚ÄĒimperial readings of the Bible which wink at (state supported) violence and shave off Jesus’ radical, prophetic edge. ¬†However, Howard-Brook doesn’t envision this shift happening within Constantine’s lifetime or afterward but sees the genesis much earlier. In¬†Empire Baptized¬†(Orbis, 2016), he traces the shift toward Empire (and creation abstracting & denying spirituality) developed in the writings of Christian thinkers in the 2nd to 5th centuries and the ways their thought still hold sway today.

In his first chapter, Howard-Brook provides an overview of the Roman imperial context, ¬†its social and economic structures and religious life. In the next six chapters, he examines how the Christian movement developed along imperial lines, focusing his study on the cities of Alexandria and Carthage, Greek and Latin centers of Christian thought. Chapter two looks at these cities’ histories and their¬†key Christians in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Centuries.

In chapter three, Howard-Brook describes how the developing biblical hermeneutic of the Fathers, while rejecting Marcion and Gnostic readings, embraced a Neo-Platonism which abstracted physical life. This had the effect of weakening Jesus’ political and social critiques. Speaking of Origen, who held sway over the developing Biblical hermeneutic both East and West, Howard-Brook writes, “Origen¬†(and the church around him) proclaims a “gospel” about a “soul” whose fate was separate from the body. Could a Jewish man like Jesus even understand what it meant? With this claim, any Christian concern for the human body, for the physical creation, and for the whole social-economic structure of society is put aside in favor of the question of the “soul’s fate in the afterlife” (88).

The rest of the book traces how Christian writers like Tertullian, Clement, Origen, Cyprian, Athanasius, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine continued to abstract the Christian life from creation and physical life, while at the same time imbibing the cultural values of Empire (evidenced by a misogyny which paralleled Roman cultural values and unwillingness to challenge the status-quo).  Constantine does have a significant impact on the church, as bishops began to adopt ceremonies and raiments of the imperial court and revise their image of Christ along royal lines (i.e. icons of Christ as Lawgiver and Judge sitting on a jeweled throne) (198).

Howard-Brook does his homework and his book is thoroughly researched. Yet he¬†does not offer here, a sympathetic reading of the Church Fathers (their voices most often mediated through secondary sources). He frequently faults the Fathers for the way they catered toward elites and the how they adapted their theology to fit their own circumstance (such as Jerome’s preaching against riches while assigning a higher place in the afterlife to ‘the Christian scholar’, 247). ¬†Surprisingly, he does end up saying nice things about Augustine, the frequent whipping boy of all that is wrong in Western Theology. He describes him as a theologian who ‘took a path of moderation between the extremes promoted by others in his context’ (265), though of course, he goes on to fault him for his handling of the Donatists, his promotion of ‘state-sponsored violence,’ and Pelagius.

I enjoyed this book and I think Howard-Brook offers an important perspective on the development of Christian doctrine. Jesus did challenge the kingdoms of this Age in the way that later generations of Christians did not. There is a trajectory toward Empire, Neo-Platonism, and the status-quo in Church history. However, by profiling particular thinkers, through particular lenses, he is able to construct his narrative and parse the evidence in a certain way. He doesn’t highlight prophetic and counter voices to Empire throughout this period or pastoral aspects of his chief interlocutors. I wished at times he applied a more of a generous reading of the patristic period, though I appreciate the critique he levels and think it is substantive. I give this five stars. ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

Iconoclasm, Icons and the Image of God: a book review

We are bombarded by images daily.¬†They come to us through television, social media, and other online platforms (i.e. BuzzFeed slide shows about has-been celebrities‚ÄĒyou’ll never believe what they look like now!). The current format of our¬†image drivenness may be new, but images are not. Images shape our self understanding and our perceptions of the world. Each person is also an image. Enshrined in Christian theology is the idea of that humankind itself is made in the image of God.

9780830851201The Wheaton Theology Conference brings together, each year, an impressive array of scholars to probe a theological theme from different angles and academic disciplines.  The 2015 conference was entitled The Image of God in an Image Driven Age and explored the topic of theological anthropology through the lenses of Canon, Culture, Vision, and Witness. IVP Academic published essays delivered from the conference (March 2016), under the same title: The Image of God in an Image Driven Age with an introduction and epilogue from editors Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey Barbeau.

What I have appreciated about past publications from the conference is the breadth of scholarship represented. This is no exception. Featured in this volume are poets, theologians, an art historians, professors of English and literature, a historian, pastors and biblical scholars. It is also worth noting that while academic theology tends too often to be a white male discipline, seven of the sixteen contributors are female¬†and three of the contributors¬†to this volume are scholars of color, though the conference also had a presentation from theologian Willie James ¬†Jennings not replicated here (I’m not sure why his talk was omitted).

After ¬†an introduction from Felker Jones and Barbeau, two poems introduce this collection (one from Jill Pel√°ez Baumgaertner, and one from Brett Foster). The essays are divided into four sections, each considering the implications of the image of God from different angles. In part one, Catherine McDowell, William Dyrness and Craig Blomberg consider what the biblical material tells us about what it means that humankind is created in God’s image. ¬†McDowell surveys the way theologians past and present have understood image bearing‚ÄĒspiritually or mentally, corporeality, capacity for relationship¬†or royal representative (30-34). She¬†examines the concepts of¬†image and likeness in the Bible (particularly the Genesis ¬†passages) and the Ancient Near East arguing¬†that the concept of sonship is inherit in the idea of image bearing. Dyrness discusses the nature of image-bearing in a fallen world, where the trajectory of life and the trajectory of death are both at work in humankind. Blomberg extends the canonical lens by examining what light the New Testament sheds ¬† on the Image Dei. He argues that implicit in image bearing is showcasing God’s glory through holy living.

Timothy Gaines and Shawna Songer Gaines, Matthew Milliner and Christina Bieber Lake look the Image of God through the cultural lens. The Gaineses examine how sexual sin can distort our understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image, but conversely a biblical perspective of sexuality as ‘God’s good gift’ reveals God’s good intent for humanity and contributes to the construction of the self (16, 106). Milliner’s essay sings the praise of iconoclasm ¬†throughout the Christian tradition (in Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant guises). While humanity images its Creator, not all of human’s images are good or healthy, especially in our consumer, capitalist age. A healthy dose of Christian iconoclasm (in and through the Arts) showcases a way to resist the spirit of the age, “God’s people are called to resist our image-driven age because God loves the images‚ÄĒus‚ÄĒwho are caught up within it. He calls us to break free of all our counterfeit images and be restored to his own true image” (135). Lake takes on ride down Cormac McCarthy’s¬†dystopia,¬†The Road,¬†revealing how God’s image persists through darkness and despair. She encourages us to engage contemporary literature, not as God forsaken, but Christ haunted (152).

Part three explores vision, or “the Christian idea of Christ as the icon of God” and the implications for what that means for the church (17). Ian McFarland commends the Eastern Orthodox theology of the icon to Western Christians, encouraging us to see in human persons the possibility of an encounter with the Divine (172). Daniela C. Augustine continues to draw insight from the Christian East, exploring the concept of intercessory prayer as a way to make space and offering unconditional hospitality for the other (180). In this way the church itself becomes an icon of the Holy Trinity (186-188). ¬†Janet Soskice examines the implications of Image bearing for ethics, positing that the Creative God who spoke worlds into being also invites us towards creative address (we image God as we learn to speak.

Part four explores the implications of the Imago Dei for our Christian Witness. Soong Chan Rah describes the way the image of God has been racialized in the West, as Christians of color have been encouraged to conform to a white, evangelical image of God. His essay suggests a more diverse and richer picture of the image of God which showcases our mutual image bearing across racial and cultural lines. Felker Jones discusses how our theology of the Image of God helps us resist the commodification of human persons. Historian Phillip Jenkins describes a ‘storm of images’ showing us how our understanding of being made in God’s image is enriched by historical and global understandings.

The essays in this volume are brief but¬†suggestive, each could be unpacked in greater detail in monograph length treatments. However there is enough here to provoke serious reflection on what it means for us to be created in God’s image. I am glad that the organizers of this conference (and publication) made a serious effort to incorporate the arts into their presentation of the¬†Imago Dei.¬†This volume is all the richer for it. Milliners essay, in particular, discusses how Christians in the arts both image the world ¬†and destroy false images.

I give this book four stars and recommend it to anyone who interested in tracing out the implications of theological anthropology. Our humanity is stamped with the image of God which affects our self understanding, our hospitality of others, our ethics, our sexuality, our appreciation of the arts and our Christian witness.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

 

Reading Well for the Sake of Others: a ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ book review

¬†C. Christopher Smith¬†is the editor of¬†The Englewood Review of Books,¬†an online and print journal ¬†which ¬†showcasess valuable resources for the people of God. Another site Smith, curates is Thrifty Christian Reader, a website which catalogs quality sale books‚ÄĒmostly Kindle, mostly Christian‚ÄĒwhich explore culture, theology, sociology, justice, ecology, poetry and literature. His own books also promote the kind of thoughtful Christian engagement he highlights online. Notably,¬†Slow Church¬†(IVP, 2014), which he co-authored with John Pattison, is a prophetic challenge to the way churches are sometimes co-opted by the dominant cult of speed and efficiency. Smith and Pattison point us instead to honor the¬†terroir¬†of place, cultivate community, and ways for the church to be a faithful presence and witness to God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

44491For a church to transform a community¬†it is imperative we learn to read well. Earlier generations of Christians were sometimes called ‘the people of the Book.’ A good part of Smith’s influence has been about helping us to, again, be the people of the Book. In¬†Reading for the Common Good: How Books Can Help Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish,¬†Smith points out the crucial place reading (in community) has for shaping our identity and practice of God’s people.

In his introduction, Smith helps us to conceive of church as a ‘learning organization,’ with learning and action as central components of our identity. We can have a significant impact on our communities¬†as we understand our context and discern effective ways to act and then act(16). Learning and acting form a cycle which helps us live out the compassionate way of Jesus for our neighborhoods and communities (18-20). But this sort of reading is a communal, rather than individual activity.

Smith’s first couple of chapters orient us to the practice of reading. Chapter one points us away from our modern, technologically infused reading (where we read a lot but not deeply) towards ‘Slow Reading.’ The ancient practice of¬†lectio divina¬†and preaching which attends to the words of Scripture provides the church with counter-cultural habits of mind. Chapter two illustrates how reading and conversation help shape the¬†social imagination.¬†Smith observes:

The practices of reading and conversation are vital for the process of transforming our social imagination. Part of human experience is imaging how the world should function. The question is what stories are feeding and shaping the imagination? Reading renews and energizes our social imagination. For our churches, reading and embodying Scripture is the foremost source of renewal, but renewal comes from reading reflecting on and discussing a broad range of works in the life and teaching of Jesus (51-52).

The next six chapters explore the way reading shapes our social imagination and paves the way for communities to flourish. Chapter three explores how reading the Bible in communion with other believers helps shape us into “the image of Christ, the Word incarnate” (55). While the Bible remains central, reading other books communally (and in a cruciform way!) is also beneficial for making sense of the world and our place in it (59-61). Chapter four discusses the role of reading in helping communities and individuals understand their vocation. Chapters five and six discuss how churches can read with their neighbors and neighborhoods.¬†Churches can be (or support) libraries which preserve the shared memory of place and provide resources for the community. Churches can also become centers of education which promote literacy and understanding. The¬†telos¬†of this is a greater civic literacy and engagement in the community. Our reading also promotes a better understanding of our neighborhood place in the economic, environmental, educational and civic realms (103-107). Chapter seven discusses how reading connects us to our world, creation and other churches and chapter eight discusses how reading can support our faithful engagement in the realms of politics and economics.

Smith’s final chapter discusses ways to help congregations become reading congregations, with examples from Englewood Christian Church (the faith community that Smith is a part of). The book closes with two reading lists:¬†Recommended Reading for Going Deeper¬†and¬†Englewood Christian Church Reading List.¬†

Smith is an avid reader and this is a book about how reading well (in community) can help churches and neighborhoods flourish. So this book will make you want to read other books. Lots of them. Smith promotes helpful books throughout and he himself has been shaped by his reading of such luminaries as: Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, Peter Senge, Marva Dawn, Gerhard Lohfink, Mary Oliver, and more. I think it is impossible to read through this book without discovering new literary treasures (or at least places to dig). My wish list grew exponentially from reading this.

More significantly, this book touches a hunger I have for thoughtful engagement. I have been a part of churches which felt like the theological equivalent of a ‘food desert.’ Sometimes the ¬†reading theology (or biology, philosophy, or whatever) is criticized for being disconnected from ‘real life.’ Smith rejects the binary between academia and activism, thinking well and living well. His chapter on the social imaginary (with a generous nod to Charles Taylor) should be required reading for pastors and leaders. I give this five stars and highly recommend it. ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

Note: I received a copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.

 

The Fullness of Christ in the Early Church: a book review

One of the theology profs at my grad school used to say something like, “All the new heresies are the old heresies with fresh make up and a mini skirt.” Leaving aside his troubling gendered association of apostasy, his point is a good one: there is nothing new under the sun, there are simply variations of an old theme.

9780830851270This is demonstrated in The Earliest Christologies: Five images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age.¬†¬†James Papandrea, associate professor of church history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, ¬†explores the various¬†views of Christ in the second and third centuries (before Constantine and councils). Some thinkers in the area were Adoptionists, denying the divinity of Jesus; Others were Docetists, denying ¬†Christ’s humanity. The middle position was Logos Christology‚ÄĒaffirming Jesus Christ’s full ¬†divinity and humanity and paving the way for Nicea and Chalcedon.

Papandrea explores five images of Christ in the early church. He distinguishes two different types of adoptionists: Angel Adoptionists and Spirit Adoptionists. The Angel Adoptionists held that the human Jesus was rewarded by God for his perfect obedience and given an indwelling angel. This happened proactively at the moment of his conception because of God’s foreknowledge (25-26). ¬†Thus they accepted the Virgin Birth but neither the man (Jesus) or the indwelling angel (the Christ) were considered divine (27). They accepted the gospel of Matthew as canon and prominent teachers include the author of¬†The Shepherd of Hermas¬†and Lucian of Antioch (Arius’ teacher) (29-30). With this Christology, salvation is based on merit and human effort (31). Little is known about the actual lifestyle of the Angel Adoptionists (31).

Most adoptionists were Spirit Adoptionists, believing that Jesus became the Christ through the anointing of the Spirit at his Baptism (35). This gave Jesus power to perform miracles in his ministry; however the Spirit withdrew at Jesus’ passion (35). Thus the union of human to God was temporary, focused on the concept of anointing rather than indwelling (35-36). They likely used an edited form of¬†Matthew’s gospel, excising the birth narratives (39) ¬†The Spirit Adoptionists affirmed the preexistence of the Spirit, safegarding Jewish monotheism by removing Jesus from the realm of divinity (42). Jesus was just a man filled by the Spirit, and as such not unique (36). ¬†Adherents of Spirit Adoptionism included Theodutus the Elder, Theodutus the Younger and Paul of Samasota (36-37). As with the Angel Adoptionists, Spirit Adoptionists were ‘optimistic about human nature’ advocating strict ¬†adherence to the Jewish law (41). This manifested itself as¬†a strict asceticism among adherents, vegetarianism and the use of water at the Eucharist (43).

The Docetists were also (broadly) of two types: those that denied that Jesus had a body at all (Docetism and Docetic Gnosticism), ¬†and those that thought Jesus had a “ethereal” body which appeared human (Hybrid Gnosticsm. Hybrid Gnosticism (or quasi-docetism) ¬†developed somewhat later, possibly in conversation with the mainstream church and a concession that Jesus did seem to actually have a body (70) ¬†Both forms of gGnosticism¬†demeaned matter in favor of the ‘spiritual,’ though in practice it manifested itself differently. Those who thought that Jesus’ body was an illusion, denigrated their bodies as evil and practiced asceticism (64). The Hybrids were more hedonistic, though possibly no-more than Roman society at large (82-83). ¬†Neither type of docetist believe in Jesus humanity. Thus he has no birth, ¬†or resurrection. Jesus was simply the offspring of gods in a polytheistic¬†pantheon.

Papandrea presents Logos Christology as ‘the middle way’ between adoptionism and docetism:

Logos Christology, as the middle way between these alternatives, refused to allow either of Jesus Christ’s two natures to be diminished. Logos Christology embraces a full divinity that is preexistant and a true humanity with a real human body. This is a hristology of descent because the divine Logos starts out in the dine realm as equal to the Father and descends to humanity to take on our human condition (Phil 2:6-8). Furthermore Logos Christology refuses to separate Jesus from “the Christ” as though they were two separate entities, but rather consider the whole incarnate Jesus Christ as one person. (88-89).

Thus Logos Christology affirms Jesus humanity and that he is the divine Son of God,¬†his bodily resurrection, his virgin birth, his incarnation. The practical payoff of this view is a belief in the doctrine of grace, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, resurrection and the dignity of creation. Rather than legalism or a strict asceticism, Christians could have a more balanced approach to their bodies and matter (104).

Papandrea’s final chapter explores why Logos Christianity won, instead of these other alternatives. But he also show how these early heresies had a legacy. Adoptionism evolved into Arianism in the forth century (119). Docetic Gnosticism paved the way for modalism (120). In his final pages he observes the modern forms of Adoptionism and Doceticism (125-127). Modern day modalists and practical docetists in the church, continue to deny the dignity of embodied life. Adoptionism is seen in contemporary scholarship that draws a strong distinction between “the historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” (125). Old heresies remade for today.

Papandrea has produced an accessible guide to these early Christologies. It is an introductory overview, so could certainly be more detailed at points; yet Papandrea does give a good analysis of the controversies and the implications for sotierology and anthropology. This would be a good supplementary text for a systematic or historical theology course. It also has the advantage of describing the significance of these histories for today. As a pastoral leader, this book clarified my understanding of the roots of contemporary issues facing Christology in the church.  I give this four-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

What the H-E-Double-HockeyStick! a book review

Ever since Rob Bell’s¬†Love Wins,¬†evangelicals have rushed to the defense of the traditional doctrine of hell. Bell’s book was more suggestion than substance and raised the most ire among those who never read it, ¬†but there have also been a number of intelligent treatments on the fate of unbelievers and the nature of hell.¬†Four Views on Hell, Second Edition¬†showcases four options currently being discussed among evangelicals. Under the editorial eye of Preston Sprinkle (coauthor of Erasing Hell) with contributions from Denny Burk, John G. Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry and Jerry Walls, this book presents the case for hell as eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, universalism and purgatory.

9780310516460_5This new edition of¬†Four Views on Hell¬†reveal how the contours of the debate have changed since the publication of the first edition in 1992.¬†The original edition had two contributors arguing hell consists as ‘eternal conscious torment,’ ¬†one arguing for literal fire (John Walvoord) and metaphorical (William Crocket), one contributor arguing for annilationism (Clark Pinnock) and a Catholic contributor extols the virtues of purgatory (Zachary Hayes). In the current edition, the traditional doctrine on hell is represented by Burk. Burk doesn’t take eternal fire as a literal flame as Walvoord did (28), though he does emphasize the eternal aspects of hell’s duration. John Stackhouse takes up Pinnock’s mantle in arguing the terminal/conditionalist/annihilationist position. Parry provides the biblical, theological case for Christian universalism (a new tothis edition) having previously published ¬†The Evangelical Universalist¬†(under the pseudonym of Gregory McDonald). Jerry Walls gives a protestant case for purgatory for the faithful who die in Christ, arguing that purgatory is not about¬†offering satisfaction for sin (which Christ offered on our behalf) but is about sanctification.

Each of these contributors has their strengths. After sharing a brief parable illustrating the seriousness of sin being measured ‘by the value of the one sin against,’ Burke makes the biblical case for hell as eternal conscious torment (19) based on ten foundational passages drawn from both testaments. Stackhouse also makes a strong exegetical ¬†and theological case for annilationism, arguing that eternal punishment and ‘unquenchable fire’ indicate the certainty of implications rather than duration, and eternal life is a gift to those who are in Christ. Parry’s chapter emphasizes how Christ came to restore all things, and how having a sinner suffer eternal torment, or the eradication of a sinner doesn’t appear to embody that end. Parry places his case within a biblical theological frame, emphasing the scope and trajectory of redemption. Walls is the odd man out in that he affirms with Burk the the reality of eternal conscious torment for those who are in hell, and posits purgatory, for those who trust in Christ as their savior (though he does allow for a post-mordem conversion). The respondents each give strong critiques of one-another’s¬†views, citing their various interpretive strategies, ¬†their use of theology, and interpretive strategies.

I generally don’t find these ‘four views’ books to be exciting reading. ¬†Because of the way they are organized, a brief case with critical responses, by the time you get to last couple of chapters, you already have a pretty good idea of what the author will say before you read it. The effect is mitigated somewhat in this volume in that Parry’s and Wall’s chapters are by far the most interesting chapters in this volume. And Sprinkle has a fantastic concluding essay which highlights the relative strengths of each response.

The Christians with whom I hang around with most generally hold to the traditional view of hell, though I find the arguments for annihilationism to be fairly convincing. Sprinkle makes the case in his conclusion that annihilationism is the only view that logically precludes the possibility of Christian universalism, because if hell is eternal, that than there is the possibility of redemption (205). Certainly if Burke is right and Hell is wholly punitive, than the possibility remains unlikely. Parry’s case sets universalism with in Christocentric framework with a hopeful trajectory (Stackhouse calls the case for univeralism ‘ the triumph of hope over exegesis’, p.134). I am interested in exploring Parry’s argument further and will likely read his¬†Evangelical Universalist.¬†Because of the brevity of each chapter, no respondent in this volume makes as comprehensive of a case as they otherwise could have, and each overstates their case in places. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.

Union with Our Atoning Christ: a book review

Many recent treatments of the atonement questions the dominance of forensic model in evangelicalism. There are few cranky Reformed folks that are piping out the centrality of penal substitution, but many are hunting for other models (i.e.¬†Christus Victor, or Moral Influence, non-violent models, etc) or proposing a multi-metaphor, mosaic approach (see, for example, Scot Mcknight’s¬†A Community Called Atonement). ¬†Andrew Purves also questions the dominance of legal models, but he does so through a sustained engagement with three major theological voices from the Scottish Reformed tradition: John McLeod Campbell, Hugh Ross Mackintosh and T.F. Torrance.In¬†Exploring Christology & Atonement, Purves examines each thinker’s contribution to atonement theology and Christology. While these theologians are not exactly the same in approach (Torrance and Mackintosh had their criticisms of Campbell, and Mackintosh had been Torrance’s teacher), they represent a common trajectory. Each theologian sets the atonement within the context of the relations between Jesus, the incarnate Son, with the Father. The result is that union with Christ becomes the guiding idea for properly understanding God’s purpose for the Cross and its result.

9780830840779Purves is  one of my favorite pastoral theologians. His Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation and the shorter, more accessible The Crucifixion of Ministry explored ministry in the image of Christ, allowing the cruciform nature of ministry and what it means to minister in his name. Purves teaches Historical Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary [Edit: Purves is now Emeritus Faculty at Pittsburgh]. In his earlier volumes he showed the practical fruit of engaging biblical, historical and patristic theology. That goal is not far off in this volume either. Campbell, MacKintosh and Torrance were first-rate theologians (Campbell was not a professional theologian but a pastor). They were also men-of-faith mindful of the implications of their theology for ordinary believers.

In seven chapters, Purves walks through the thought of these theologians. His first three chapters explore Christology, setting the atonement within the context of Christ’s Union with God and his representative union with humanity, “The Magnificent exchange is to be thought of as Jesus Christ as he unfolds himself out in saving ministry by which he joins us to himself in his human nature and us to him. Union with Christ is embedded as one work within the magnificent exchange as by the Holy Spirit he binds us to himself in his human nature to share his benefits” (124).

In the next three chapters, Purves examines Campbell, MacKintosh and Torrance in turn, exploring how each move away from Jesus being merely a satisfaction for God’s wrath but the cross being the way in which God in his love unites us with Himself. ¬†These chapters are sympathetic-critical. Purves acknowledges aspects of their theology that are underdeveloped (such as, for example, Campbell’s pneumatology) but also gives them the benefit of the doubt, following the trajectory of where their theology leads.

Campbell’s emphasis is on how the incarnation in the atonement affects our union with God, “The atonement is not punishment for sin but rather a spiritual and moral access to the Father through Christ’s confession our sin and through union with Christ, having adopted us as ‘sons’ of God” (145). ¬†While Christ’s atonement is vicarious, and in some sense substitutionary (in our stead), this is not conceived as a primarily legal exchange but ‘morally’ or ‘spiritually’ (152-53). ¬†MacKintosh also moves us beyond the legal metaphors as he explores the nature of divine forgiveness. For MacKintosh, “The death of Jesus has significance for reconciliation only when considered in the light, and as expression, of His life” (183). The cross is the culmination of how he lived, Jesus already made our sins his own in his baptism and bore our transgressions throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus death reveals both God’s condemnation of sin and “God’s absolute revelation of love toward sinful¬†people” (183-184).

Torrance’s chapter shows how clearly he stands in the tradition ¬†of¬†Campbell and MacKintosh and reveals that he is more than simply Barth’s acolyte. Torrance explores the interconnection of Christology and atonement, expoloring the kingly, priestly and prophetic nature of Christ’s redemption (208). He grounds Jesus’ priestly ministry in the ontological relationship between Father and Son and Christ’s hypostatic union (216). ¬†In ¬†Christ’s atonement, God is the primarily actor in the atonement, both in the human and Divine dimensions of his person, (220-221). “The divine Logos united himself with our human nature, revealing himself within our humanity, but also within our humanity enabled us to receive his revelation personally in love and faith and understanding” (230).

The last chapter serves as a postscript exploring how each of these theologians were concerned with how their theology worked out practically and pastorally.

My awareness of each these theologians and their work ¬†is minimal. I have read a little Torrance, had MacKintosh’s book unread on my shelf, and had not heard of Campbell before picking this book up. As such, I probably didn’t get as much out of this book as I could have, but appreciate the window that Purves provided into the theologies of these three churchmen. I also appreciate their joint emphasis (and Purves’s) on union with Christ in the atonement and how the cross is more than just a satisfaction of God’s wrath but his means to make both his Love visible and accessible to us. I give this four stars

Note: I received this from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.