Incarnation & Bioethics: the vindication of finitude

I am reading a really fine collection of essays by Brent Waters, This Mortal Flesh: Incarnation and Bioethics. Waters’ project is straightforward, and ambitious: “to employ and explicate the doctrine of the incarnation in examining a range of selected bioethical issues.” In other words, he wants to investigate what it might look like to allow the doctrine of the incarnation to impact and even (heaven forbid) shape our thinking about mortal life, finitude, embodiment, and the counter-narratives of posthumanism.

In taking on and redeeming human flesh, Christ vindicates our embodied-ness; it is a counter-argument to the narratives of posthumanism in which finitude is simply a barrier to be overcome and mastered. With our imaginations shaped by the incarnation, we are free to embrace createdness (our finitude) and, as Barth said, to praise God for it as his good gift to us (CD, III.4). Take the following excerpts from chapter 6 on late modern medicine and posthumanism for example:

[W]hat Christians believe about the Word made flesh presumably shapes their normative convictions regarding the purpose and practice of medicine. Moreover, it is a timely doctrine to revisit, given medicine’s growing predilection for turning its attention away from the care of patients in favor of transforming them into beings capable of transcending their embodied, and therefore finite, limitations (p. 115).

And how would the Incarnation (birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ) shape a Christian imagination regarding this shift?

It is the risen and exalted Christ through which the good and the eternal delineates and redeems the necessary and the temporal. It is this eschatological hope the enables Christians to consent to finite limitations, for through the gift of the Spirit they have received the freedom to obey the constraints of their finitude, because these limitations have already been vindicated, redeemed, and taken up into the eternal life of God (p. 128).

I am impressed by just how theological Waters is committed to be throughout these pieces on biotechnology, reproductive medicine, genomics, stem cell research, cloning, mortality, and euthanasia. I am presently teaching a course in theological bioethics, and Mortal Flesh is proving an excellent resource for my students as we work to craft a theological imagination able to reason well about bioethical issues.

Coming back to Torrance: a review of Incarnation

I was reading around in preparation for teaching on Christology last week and ended up spending time in T.F. Torrance’s collected lectures published as Incarnation:The Person and Life of Christ (Paternoster). Every time I come back to Torrance I am reminded just how significant a theologian he was.  His work is shot through with careful attention to the Scriptures, passion for the Gospel, and fluid clarity characteristic of a seasoned lecturer.

Take the following passage on Christ’s assumption of fallen flesh:

When the Word became flesh, he became all that we are in our opposition to God in our bondage under law – that is the amazing act of gracious condescension in the incarnation, that God the Son should assume our flesh, should enter a human existence under divine judgement, enter in the situation where the psalmist cried Eli, Eli lama sabachthani, so that the Word or Son of God himself gave out the same cry when overwhelmed with the divine judgement upon our flesh (61).

Incarnation comprises Torrance’s lectures on Christology and Soteriology delivered in his classes on Christian dogmatics at New College during the years 1952-1978. Torrance had gathered his notes during the years 2001 and 2002, but before they could be edited for publication he suffered the stroke that brough both his scholarly career to an end and the process of bringing these lectures to print. Thankfully for the editorial work of Robert Walker we, together with Torrance’s students who heard them first hand, can benefit from his immense learning, insight, and strength of faith.

The volume makes at least two contributions. First, it offers the most systematic and complete presentation of Torrance’s thought available. While he had hoped to do so, he had never produced a dogmatics. Second, it provides a fine introduction to Torrance’s theology that will surely open the way for readers to mine the depths of earlier publications. If you have read any of Torrance’s other works, then you know that for all its liveliness and depth, it is not light going; it is challenging – immensely rewarding to be sure – but challenging. One hopes these published lectures would give readers encouragement to engage Torrance’s other works, which undoubtedly will reward.

If they are anything like me, readers of Torrance’s lectures just may find a sense of home, a resonance with the Gospel long-proclaimed in the Church but rarely heard clearly resounding in the academy.

The stark actuality of Christ’s humanity, his flesh and blood and bone, guarantees to us that we have God among us. If that humanity were in any sense unreal, God would be unreal for us in him. The full measure of Christ’s humanity is the full measure of God’s reality for us, God’s actuality to us, in fact the measure of God’s love for us. If Christ is not man, then God has not reached us, but has stopped short of our humanity – then God does not love us to the uttermost, for his love has stopped short of coming all the way to where we are, and becoming one of us in order to save us. But Christ’s humanity means that God’s love is now flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, really one of us and with us (185).

Amen indeed.

Book Review: Desiring the Kingdom

For those of you who have been following, I have offered some interaction with Jamie Smith’s new volume Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation in previous posts (here, here and here). After these superficial looks, I do something closer to a robust book review here. I think Smith makes some important points, and deals with some strands of scholarship often ignored in evangelicalism, and for that reason alone I think his volume is a worthwhile engagement. Furthermore, in my own ideological moorings of spiritual formation, Smith raises language, concepts and issues that either need to be dealt with, accepted or engaged.

Importantly, as we look at Smith’s work, it should be kept in mind that this is only the first volume in a trilogy, therefore some of our interaction will simply be highlighting issues he has yet to address. In this volume, Smith seeks to primarily address the issues of Christian education, casting a new vision of what that entails, but hopes to secondarily (what he calls “collateral impact”) address church practices and orientation towards formation. In his words,

In short, the goal is to push down through worldview to worship as the matrix from which a Christian worldview is born – and to consider what that means for the task of Christian education and the shape of Christian worship. This doesn’t require rejecting worldview-talk, only situating it in relation to Christian practices, particularly the practices of Christian worship” (11).

The critique of worldview discussion is navigated by his employment of a counter-anthropology. Continue reading

A Question of Personhood

I have been thinking about the issues of personhood a lot these days – mostly through Jonathan Edwards – and how one’s understanding of what a person is, and what “human” entails, often does a lot of work in one’s theology. In an attempt to feed my inquiry, Oxford was kind enough to send me Lucian Turcescu’s Gregory of Nyssa and the Concept of Divine Persons. I would like to use some of Turcescu’s reflections on Gregory to talk a bit more broadly about the concept of personhood and how it functions theologically. Taking a look at Gregory of Nyssa will hopefully prove instructive as more and more theologians scan the horizon of Cappadocian theology for answers concerning trinitarian personhood and theology.

To begin, Turcescu offers a broad definition of a person: “A person is ‘an indivisible, unique and therefore non-replicable unity in human existence.'” He, furthermore, suggests that prior to the Cappadocian work on the Trinity there was not a notion of “person” in circulation. Therefore, it is a mistake to assume modern beliefs about willing personal agents and apply that wholesale as a starting assumption. Starting with God for instance, Turcescu suggests that it would be tautological to speak of free will in God for the Cappadocians. Continue reading

Reading Visual Art as Theological Text

What would it mean to read visual art as theological text?

I have been increasingly interested in the intersection between aesthetic and conceptual The Beauty of the Crosstheology, and given that interest I was supremely delighted with Richard Viladesau’s two volumes The Beauty of the Cross and The Triumph of the Cross (many thanks to Oxford University Press for review copies).

The books are, on Viladesau’s own confession, a project in systematic theology that explore the ‘historical themes, ideas and images that are the necessary background to a contemporary theology of the cross’ (viii). Beginning with earliest Christian visual representations of the cross in the catacombs up through the hymns and art of the Counter Reformation, Viladesau correlates different theological paradigms of interpretation of the cross with artistic styles that illustrate or parallel theological attitudes.triumph_of_cross

Throughout the two volumes Viladesau’s analysis moves smoothly both ways: looking for how the theological attitudes and convictions of a given period influenced the artistic representations of the cross and how the affective and communicative images of a time impacted explicit systematic thought.

An example with several images might be helpful (one I use to introduce students to the importance of considering visual representations of the cross).

Where is the Victorious Christ?

In one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ, a 5th century ivory casket panel now in the British museum (at right), Jesus is depicted both carrying and cross and crucified. Continue reading

What Makes an Evangelical? Reconsidering Bebbington’s Rule

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David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989) was a compelling account of the history of the evangelical movement in the modern era. In it he traces the development of evangelical Christianity and marks out what has been for some time a widely accepted version of its distinguishing marks: conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism.

Yet, Bebbington’s quadrilateral rule has not been without its detractors, and his contention that evangelical Christianity arose in the eighteenth century era of Whitefield and Wesley has been questioned by a growing number of historians – that it was not so novel as Bebbington asserts.  In this book, The Advent of Evangelicalism, Bebbington’s definition receives close analysis and critical engagement from various church historians and theologians such as Timothy George, Paul Helm, and Timothy Larson (to name only a few, this is a thick collection. Many thanks to B&H for the review Copy).

Underlying all the essays here – including Bebbington’s own response to them – is a fundamental (and I think relevant) question: “to what extent does evangelicalism of modern/postmodern times represent continuity and discontinuity with the preceding Christian story” (p. 14). Continue reading

Divine Teaching: Part 3

McIntosh moves into the second part of his volume by grounding his theological endeavor in salvation. He maps the options by posing either the order of knowing or the order of being. He then offers his rationale for beginning with salvation:

Christians believe that the place where our way of knowing and God’s way of being most intimately encounter one another, so that our knowing is transformed, is in Jesus by the Holy Spirit. This is so, first, in the sense that our human way of knowing is, in Christ, taken up into a particular divine way of being, and second, in the sense that as people encounter Jesus in various ways, their forms of knowing are transformed” (59).

Moving in this fashion allows McIntosh to dive into Christology through some low-flying biblical exegesis and discussion, noting that, “the act of salvation becomes the lens by which everything else is perceived and understood” (65). Something I’ve meant to say earlier, which just occurs to me as I’m reading through this section, is how excellent a volume this really is. McIntosh is truly gifted with conceptual clarity, the ability to use graphs, charts and diagrams, not to mention analogies and metaphors, to actually clarify, instead of using them as I do, where I merely muddy the water of even the clearest of issues! Continue reading