A Review of The Word Made Flesh by Ian McFarland (WJK, 2019): Part 1
This book is one of the most engaging theology books I’ve read in years. And I mean engaging in a very broad sense. The book is theologically stimulating. It is clearly written. It is creative and even humorous. All the while, McFarland keeps a careful eye on his purpose, drawing the reader into a conversation with church tradition, exegesis, and scientific literature, in order to dogmatically honor, while seeking to understand, Christ as the Word made flesh.
Ian McFarland is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Theology at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. The Word Made Flesh follows his recent volume on creation, From Nothing.
The problem that McFarland’s book addresses is stated at the outset: “Although in the majority tradition Jesus’ full humanity is formally affirmed, it is not viewed as integral to his identity, since it is only where his humanity is overshadowed by the power of his divinity that God is revealed” (p. 3). McFarland tries to offer a “Chalcedonianism without reserve” in response to this problem. In theological reflection and confession, Christ’s divinity and humanity must not be mixed. This conviction is set out in two theses about how humans “perceive” the person (hypostasis) of Jesus:
- When we perceive Jesus of Nazareth, we perceive no one other than God, the Son, the second person of the Trinity.
- When we perceive Jesus of Nazareth, we perceive nothing other than created substance, and thus nothing that is divine.
As McFarland goes onto explain, maintaining these distinctions (not separations!) is essential for maintaining God’s “Not Otherness”—that God is not one “other” creature, being, etc. among beings, but is utterly different. At the same time, by maintaining this distinction, we gain clarity on creaturely existence, such that “the existence of the world and the human beings within it depends on the incarnation rather than the other way around: the truth is not that God had to become flesh to save the world, but that the world’s creation and consummation alike are rooted in God’s will to be made flesh” (p. 11).
“The truth is not that God had to become flesh to save the world, but that the world’s creation and consummation alike are rooted in God’s will to be made flesh.” –Ian McFarland @wjkbooks #TheologyForumTweet
But how do we maintain these two theses with any sort of intelligibility? McFarland echoes the work of his Doctor Mother, Kathryn Tanner, to remind us that God’s interaction with humanity is noncompetitive. “For the burden of the Christian claim that the Word became flesh is that God can draw infinitely near to the creature, even to the extent of rendering the creature’s life inseparable from God’s own, and yet the life of the creature is not thereby overwhelmed, but rather affirmed precisely in its createdness” (p. 9). This burden is taken up in the first section, “The Great Divide,” which will be the focus of my next post about this book.
In short, McFarland has set out to do what Martin Luther suggested: “Whoever wishes to deliberate or speculate soundly about God should disregard everything absolutely except the humanity of Christ.” How he goes about doing so will unfold in upcoming posts. Keep checking back.