Thursday, February 19, 2015

Christ the One and Only, A Review

In thinking about world religions, one is forced to recognize the tensions inherent in confessing a particularistic faith in the marketplace of ideas. This tension is especially true for many in western evangelicalism, and the current work—edited by Sung Wook Chung—is an attempt to grapple with the uniqueness of Christ in a pluralistic milieu. Since the thesis of this work is to illustrate Christ’s uniqueness in relation to world religions (x-xi), the essays that most illustrate this thesis will be reviewed.

Elias Dantas offers the initial essay entitled “The Incarnation of Christ and its Implications to the Ministry and Mission of the Church” where the topic under consideration concerns the incarnation and its implications for our modern world. Dantas rightly stresses the importance of this doctrine and is correct to place so much emphasis upon the virgin birth: it is, after all, a part of the historic Christian faith. He then goes on to offer seven assessments, each one indeed dire and problematic—though some more than others. For example, he asserts that the denial of the virgin birth leads to the denial of all miracles and into liberalism (4), and this does not follow. One could affirm the mythic nature of Christ’s birth and passionately affirm the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ (c.f. Pannenberg, Jesus—God and Man, 141-150). One would be hard pressed to place someone like Pannenberg in the liberal category on par with one who denies miracles! While Dantas’ passion is well placed and his emphasis is certainly noteworthy, he is quick to castigate those with whom he disagrees and he seems most interested in reflecting a highly dogmatic point of view instead of the intended ecumenical nature of the project as a whole—especially when he quotes almost exclusively male and Reformed voices.

Clark Pinnock takes us next through “The Uniqueness of the Life and Teachings of Jesus” and by means of introduction, he points to a gap in the Apostle’s Creed where there is nothing said about the life of the Messiah. Intending to fill this gap, Pinnock surveys the various controversies in the Gospels surrounding Christ’s birth, charges of illegitimacy, ministry, place in society and some of his theological contributions. Pinnock tells us that Jesus uniquely emphasized the Kingdom of God and coupled this with his emphasis on justice, on “a God who gives priority to the ethical above the cultic” (30). Pinnock offers us a compelling glimpse into the mystery of Christ as he related to a world that was both ‘other’ and ‘one another.’ This Jesus “embodied what he had announced” (33) and thus his life was unique compared to the religious leaders of his day.

Beginning with the historical context of Scripture, Graham Tomlin surveys Scripture’s early reflections on the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross and especially St. Paul and Corinthians. The uniqueness of the cross is not in the manner of death, but in how the early Christians applied meaning to the death of the Messiah, which makes the meaning of Jesus’ death significant and confounding. Much of Tomlin’s essay centers on Luther and Blaise Pascal (who is a surprising addition). He places Pascal alongside St. Paul and shows how both of these theologians had to react to the various worldviews of their day, and this is applicable to the modern Church, as she must grapple with the question of those not in Christ and those who seek a more pluralistic inclusion of other religions. The final simple comparison between Muhammad and Jesus is compelling: “both knew the struggle of being a persecuted and misunderstood prophet…” (61), and yet Jesus chose the path of nonresistance, making him distinct from Muhammad—thus the similarities seem to end where Golgotha begins. Tomlin’s historical assessments are certainly helpful and necessary, but one is left wondering where the ancient church fathers and mothers fit into his framework, as he jumps from Paul over them straight to Luther.

All of Christian orthodoxy depends upon the resurrection of Jesus. So contends Gabriel Fackre, and his essay is intended as a grand theological narrative sweep across the entirety of Scripture. Those who share a love of storytelling and cinema will be delighted by this unique structure. He starts with the stories of creation and fall, moves through the patriarchs of the Old Testament, and lands upon Jesus of Nazareth, who is the intersection of history. What makes Fackre’s contribution unique is the structure he utilizes, namely the great themes of systematic theology: creation, incarnation, and the last things to name a few. This is not unlike the structure of a film: acts one through three, culminating in the grand finale of the last things. Those familiar with these grand topics will not doubt enjoy the novel arrangement and Fackre’s presentation, though he breaks no new theological ground and does not quite address the central topic of Christ’s uniqueness in resurrection. For instance, resurrection was not an uncommon belief in the world of Jesus, and exploring ancient concepts such as reincarnation and karma could have helped explore this needed issue.

The sensitive topic of Jewish/Christian relations is the subject of Ellen Charry’s work and her words are hard-hitting and frustrating. For instance, “Paul had to pervert scriptural texts” (148) in his attempt to bring the Gentiles into Christ. This is frustrating because the scholarly debate between Paul and his Jewish background is extraordinarily complex from a historical point of view and Charry shows little awareness of the complexities of this. To describe Paul’s interpretiv
e methods in terms of ‘perversion’ is unfortunately distracting. Paul’s method of interpretation, though idiosyncratic, does not seem to be far from the Jewish mainstream (c.f. Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul). Paul is certainly not above criticism, however well deserved, but Charry’s essay often takes the form of harsh criticism of Christianity, and the tone and rhetoric are indeed a shock compared to the rest of the volume. While one cannot ignore the one problem of Jewish/Christian relations, Charry answers the ‘uniqueness of Christ’ question in purely negative terms (i.e. Christians aren’t Jews) and appears to interpret Paul in the least attractive light possible. She does not mention the recent proposals of the New Perspective and their works could help alleviate some apprehension regarding Christianity and Judaism, especially as regards the law. The work of James D.G. Dunn could have been of further assistance but no NPP proponent is considered. A further problem is that Charry cites few historical sources to bolster many of her historical claims, most of which are not substantiated or annotated. In short, this essay is more polemic than is necessary, making it stand out negatively in comparison to the other essays.

The spread of Islam in the modern world demands an essay like Ng Kam Weng’s. He highlights the similar views of Jesus found both in Islam and Christianity (i.e. both view Jesus as a prophet), and surveys the vast data found in the Quran regarding Jesus and his role in history: while Jesus is important, he is thoroughly subordinate in Muhammad (196), pushing Jesus away from such high Christology texts such as John 1:1 and 14. No prophet is ever said to be “in the form of God” (c.f. Phil. 2:6) and one wonders where the writings of Paul fit into Islam’s conception of Christ’s identity with the Father. The singular strength of this chapter is Weng’s charity towards the faith of Islam.

KK Yeo’s essay is remarkable in its tackling of the theme love as a means to connect Confucius (ren) and Paul (agape). Concise, intimate and genuine, Yeo’s work is a breathe of sincere ecumenical air. While an evangelical, he is dedicated to teaching the “law of Christ” as mutual bearing of one another’s burdens, seizing upon Galatians 6:2 (though more could be mentioned, c.f. Eph. 5:2, 21). Love is a term that has gone largely untouched in this volume and Yeo states unequivocally that “to be human is to be bound to God” (218), pushing both concepts together in a way that does not minimize the differences. What makes this applicable is that Yeo concludes on the practicality of his findings, finding that the love of neighbor is a key ethical grounding.

The editor Sung Wook Chung has the final word, and he further presses the “points of contact” (233) between Buddhism and Christianity. After discussing their differences—the doctrine of creation, where Christians affirm an actual creation, whereas Buddhism affirms an eternal universe—Chung points to four main similarities, with one of them being suffering. This is a key Christian concept as well, as the suffering of Christ on the cross will attest, and this has practical implications. Suffering is an unfortunate reality in our world and thus both faiths are in some sense yoked together in this reality. This finds its application in that we seek the similarities among one another, and do this in love and reverence for Christ.

In summation, Pinnock, Sung Wook Chung, and Yeo offer essays that sparkle with verve, creativity, and clarity. However, there is no engagement with patristic sources and liberation or feminist theologies, thus the uniqueness of Christ is not fully explored from an ecumenical perspective. It rightly affirms the uniqueness of Christ yet does not fully exhibit a consistent ecumenical spirit in part because of unnecessarily polemic arguments (Dantas/Charry). The volume also lacks a Scripture and subject index, making navigation difficult. Ultimately, although the volume has some marvelous essays, it contains too many caveats for a whole-hearted endorsement.


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