This is a review of Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge, 2007) and continues my summer series of serious books I am reading seriously. Advisory: This book--and thus my review--engages intricate and potentially arcane theological topics.
"Crisp misunderstands Barth and Torrance (among others) in their affirmation of the fallen human nature of Christ. The conflict rests, I believe, in radically different ontologies, such that Barth has an actualized-historicized account of what “nature” means, while Crisp works with a traditional, essentialist account. While this by no means exhausts the issues at stake, I believe this is where one must begin in order to unpack the christological ramifications."
Additionally, Crisp tends to generalize positions and then dissect these general arguments, but does not really engage in a point-by-point critique with his interlocutors. These are criticisms, yes, but let them not take away from a careful presentation of his theological conclusions.
Chapter Five addresses the topic of divine kenosis, which builds from the Greek verb “to empty” (ekenosen) in Philippians 2:7 as a critical description of Christ’s work. Crisp decides to leave out the strong ontological approach to kenosis (that Christ was fully emptied of divinity) and therefore to deal with the weak ontological and functionalist ones (119-20). One of his key interlocutors on weak ontological kenotic Christology is Stephen Davis (and his book, Logic and the Nature of God), who presents the idea that omniscience is not an essential divine attribute and therefore Christ could have emptied himself of knowing all in the Incarnation (123ff.). In my view, Crisp’s most telling and essential (as it were) criticism on this view of the essence of Christ is this: “it is very difficult indeed to know where to draw the line demarcating contingent and essential divine properties” (132). Next he takes on functionalist kenosis. These argue that the second person did not abdicate divine attributes, but during the Incarnation, he did not exercise them (140). All have weaknesses, and he believes a kryptic Christology is most worthy of consideration (121), in which Christ’s divinity has an aspect of hiddenness, even while he retains his divine nature.
The final chapter was to me the clearest. Here he takes on, and ultimately argues against, “non-incarnational” (read non-Chalcedonian) Christology. John Hick’s version is the exemplar, which presents six key claims: Jesus did not teach that he was God Incarnate, the Chalcedonian definition cannot be expressed adequately, the two-natures doctrine has led to justify enormous evil, Incarnation is better understood as a metaphor, Christians are best to focus on the life and teaching of Jesus, and the metaphorical approach to the Incarnation fits best with religious pluralism (155-6). To these points then: Crisp disputes Hick’s presentation of the consensus of historical-critical scholars that Jesus did not have a divine self-concept. Instead, as Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado (and others) have argued, Jesus was worshiped as God from the very beginning of the Christian movement (164-5). (Incidentally, Crisp regularly employs “Christ” in this chapter, which is a title, i.e., the Messiah or Israel’s King. This confused me because Jesus as Christ or Messiah is not really a component of his argument in this chapter.) The problems with the intelligibility of the Chalcedonian definition are what Hick calls a meaningless paradox, but Christian tradition has seen this as a mystery beyond human comprehension (169-70). The third claim (that two-natures doctrine leads to evil) takes Crisp just over a page to reject since the connection between the misuse of a doctrine and its truth or falsity are separate issues. As he puts in a footnote (171, n. 29)—but would have been better in the text because of its persuasive value—liberal theology also has many evils associated with it, e.g., liberal German theologians’ support for the First World War. Crisp criticizes Hick’s understanding of myth as expressing a truth that can also be fully translated into literal language (175ff.). I hardly need to mention that Crisp is not impressed with Hick’s concerns about a Christology that makes sense in a religious pluralistic world (178-81). In a word, Crisp doesn’t find too much to commend Hick’s Christology, saying that “Removal of the heart of the Incarnation from Christology is like removal of the heart from a living human being” (xii), and even more, Hick’s view “holds no terror for the Christian committed to incarnational Christology, for whom it is either a diverting but false report of who Christ is, or a dangerous heresy that should be resisted” (184).
What about this text as an exemplar of analytical theology? In addition to my comments above, the essential question remains—Are the tools of analytical philosophy, formed to expunge metaphysical assertions from philosophy, appropriate for theology? Yes and no. Yes—they offer clarity where it obviously lacks in discussions about God, and it is astounding to see what results. No, when it attempts to find “clear and distinct” language where analogical language is more appropriate. As I mentioned above, Crisp is certainly aware of this problem, but in my view, he falls prey nonetheless. For example, his discussion of divine omnipotence strikes me as overly optimistic—optimistic that categories useful for philosophical analysis of earthly reality work for God’s nature.
In conclusion, Crisp is brilliant and exceedingly well-read. One cannot help but learn in reading this book. I applaud all this. For what it’s worth, I also agree with many of his conclusions. Still, Crisp’s style is, appropriate to the analytical tradition, somewhat dry. It is not, however, entirely detached because he obviously cares about the subject-matter. Or better, the Subject, God. Indeed there is doxology rumbling below the surface of this book. Nonetheless, as one who appreciates and is certainly engaged by the style of Karl Barth—which often resembles a rousing sermon—I wanted a bit more of Crisp’s theological passion to rise to the surface. But maybe that’s not the book he wanted to write! What he did create is a careful, thoughtful, faithful, and serious theology. Simply put, if you want to learn about Christology, you should read it.