Westminster Seminary California
Book Review: God Incarnate by Crisp
Book Review: God Incarnate by Crisp

Oliver D. Crisp, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology. New York: T&T Clark, 2009, 200pp. $34.95. Paper.

In God Incarnate, Oliver Crisp continues his program of pursuing an analytic theological method in addressing questions of Christology. Crisp employs the analytic method in order to discover the logical interconnections of specific doctrinal points. He insists that reason is used as an instrument and as a handmaid to theology.

In chapter one, Crisp addresses the issue of a Christological methodology. He argues that Scripture has the highest authority as the norming norm, followed by the ecumenical creeds which have a binding authority. He surveys the modern Christological tendency to speak about “high” and “low” Christologies as well as Christologies “from below” or “from below.” Insightfully, Crisp notes that he does not find the concept of a “high” Christology helpful as unorthodox Christologies, such as those of the Docetic and Arian variety, can be counted as “high” Christologies. Thus, this distinction is found to be not particularly useful. On the whole, Crisp complains that it is often difficult to know exactly what each of these distinctions mean. Therefore, he pleads for theologians to make their assumptions explicit.

The election of Jesus Christ is the topic of the second chapter. In his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth famously argued that Jesus Christ is the “electing God” and the “elected man.” Crisp is careful to point out that there was also a lively discussion during the Post-Reformation period among the Reformed Orthodox on this very issue. Crisp first conducts a historical survey in order to show that there is not a monolithic and unanimous “Reformed view” of the relation between Christ and the doctrine of election. Using a twofold typology, Crisp notes that there were two Reformed construals for understanding the doctrine of election. The first, espoused by the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Confession, proposes that election is based on the sovereign good pleasure of God and that Christ’s work is the means whereby election is brought about. The second, espoused by the theologians at Samur, argues that the election of Christ, understood objectively, is the grounds for the election of humanity and not merely a consequence of the decree to elect. Next, Crisp examines the theology of Francis Turretin, a theologian who attacked the notion that Christ’s merit is the ground of election. Crisp then offers his own constructive proposal for understanding Christ and election. He suggests that the decree to elect is based on the good pleasure of triune divine will, and that the decree has two aspects: the election of Christ and the election of a particular number of humanity. The election of a particular number of humanity is subsequent to the election of Christ. Most importantly, Crisp is at pains to point out that due to the opera ad extra principle, all Persons of the Trinity are involved in the decree to elect. Thus, the Son is intimately involved in the cause and the foundation of election. Crisp is careful to point out that the cause of election is the divine will rather than the foreseen merits of Christ. To close this chapter, Crisp compares his proposal against Barth’s doctrine of election. He distances himself from Barth’s doctrine of Christ as the Reprobate One and the ambiguities of a perceived universalism in Barth’s doctrine of election.

In the third chapter, Crisp examines the pre-existence of Christ. Focusing specifically on Robert Jenson’s account of pre-existence, Crisp argues that the view offered by Jenson is incompatible with traditional views and deeply problematic. Jenson is suspicious of Greek metaphysics and he rejects the Aristotelian idea of time as a linear sequence and the Platonic notion of eternity as a-temporal. Due to this aversion, Jenson constructs his notion of Christ’s pre-existence without a dependence on Greek metaphysics. Instead of following the more traditional idea that God is a-temporal, Jenson suggests that God must be understood as temporally infinite. God exists in time by projecting his future backwards from his future to his past and present. One of Jenson’s moves is to deny that the Word is ever asarkos. Jenson also claims that Old Testament Israel is in some sense the pre-existent Christ. Crisp rejects much of Jenson’s account by stating that it is unclear and “perhaps downright inconsistent” (p. 67).

In the next two chapters Crisp investigates the relation between Christology and biology. In chapter four he addresses the issue of the “fittingness” of the Virgin Birth. Crisp notes that the Virgin Birth is not necessary for the Incarnation. That is, God could have brought about the Incarnation through natural generation. On this view, the Holy Spirit intervenes to assure Christ is born without original sin. However, Crisp thinks there is no theological reason to reject the Virgin Birth. The Virgin Birth is clearly set forth in Scripture and the ecumenical creeds of the church. In chapter five, Crisp examines the relationship between Christology and bioethics. Crisp posits that an orthodox Christology can provide theological answers to the question of when a person exists. Crisp suggests that at the Incarnation, there was no lag between conception and personhood. Due to the rejection of Apollinarianism, orthodox Christology insists that there is no time in which Christ did not have a human soul. Therefore, since the Word assumed a fully human nature at conception, this should help to give bioethicists a theological account of when human personhood begins. I think Crisp is right here. As all theology is necessarily practical and has ethical implications, there is no reason to not apply Chalcedonian Christology to bioethical issues.

In the sixth chapter the question of the impeccability of Christ is addressed. Crisp finds no reason to embrace the sinlessness view over the impeccable view. He argues that the adoption of the sinlessness view, a view which holds that Christ was without sin but was still able to sin, undermines an orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation. The motivation behind the sinlessness view is the attempt to take the temptations of Christ, and thus Christ’s true humanity, seriously. To provide a woefully inadequate summary of all the ground covered in this chapter, Crisp’s main argument against the sinlessness-only view is that the by virtue of the hypostatic union, Christ’s humanity is made incapable of sinning. Further, Crisp’s impeccable view can still account for the fact that Christ had a true capacity for being tempted.

Space prevents me from discussing chapter 7, which deals with materialist Christologies, and chapter 8, which deals with multiple incarnations, in detail.

My major critique of this work is that it seems that the analytic method is given to speculation and mild rationalism. In other words, at points, Crisp’s method is prone to consider abstract possibilities that have little bearing to the data of revelation. My worry is that analytic theology is prone to give priority to logical consistency rather than what is revealed in Scripture. I will cite one example. In the last chapter, Crisp entertains the question if it logically possible for there to be more than one incarnation. Rather that starting with the actuality of revelation, the question of the chapter is whether it is metaphysically possible for there to be more than one incarnation. Crisp answers in the affirmative by stating that it is not logically impossible for one divine person to assume more than one human nature. Although Crisp rightfully accepts the fact that there are good biblical and theological reasons for believing there is only one incarnation, this is just one example where the analytic method betrays a tendency towards speculation.

Despite these criticisms, in God Incarnate Crisp shows himself to be one of the brightest and most talented younger theologians working today in the field of Christology. His work is well-written and carefully argued. Crisp’s stated goal is to use analytic theology to develop a theological method which will shed light on the internal logic of certain doctrinal questions. In this task he succeeds.

Reviewed by Micah Throop, MAHT Candidate

1 / 9 / 2012