Divinity and Humanity: the Incarnation Reconsidered. By Oliver D. Crisp


(Current Issues in Theology) Pp. vii, 187 , Cambridge University Press , 2007 , £15.99 .

When Christians speak about the incarnation, they know that they speak of a mystery. While not without precedent in earlier eras, several modern theologians have come to view the classical description of the incarnation (the Word of God and human nature joined together in a personal union) as not only mysterious, but such an enigma as to be unhelpful and outdated. Those who accept this critique of classical Christology but continue to see religious significance in Jesus of Nazareth often opt to interpret the language of the incarnation in moral terms, perhaps as an expression of Jesus' especially close relationship to God. Contributing to the trend away from creedal descriptions of the incarnation has been the use of imprecise formulations that obscure what the classical doctrines actually claim. In order to help bring clarity, Oliver Crisp has written a concise and analytic examination of some of the thorniest debates in modern systematic Christology.

Crisp, currently a Lecturer in Theology at the University of Bristol, has qualified himself in the field of philosophical theology through his acclaimed study of Jonathan Edwards and the metaphysics of sin (Ashgate, 2003). He brings the same analytic precision to his work in Divinity and Humanity. The first three chapters of the book expound issues that arise in Christology as understood within a broad Chalcedonian framework; the final three chapters are devoted to the defense of such a framework. In the first chapter, Crisp explores the applicability of the language of perichoresis (interpenetration) to the unity between Christ's two natures. He does this as an alternative to move away from the more traditional notion of the communicatio idiomatum (communication of properties) in which the disputes between the Lutheran and Reformed theological traditions have been mired. In the following chapter, Crisp examines the question of unique status of the human nature of Christ. His discussion includes important forays into various philosophical accounts of the meaning of the terms ‘person’ and ‘nature.’ Next, Crisp discusses the use of the terms ‘anhypostasia’ and ‘enhypostasia’ in order to describe the human nature of Christ (Christ's human nature has no ‘personal existence’ independent of the Son of God but has its existence only ‘in the person’ of the Son). The second section of the book begins with a chapter in which he examines the claim that Christ had a ‘fallen’ human nature. He concludes that any notion of Christ's fallen human nature implies that Christ was also morally culpable and is therefore unsuitable to accomplish salvation. In chapter five, Crisp presents the ‘kenotic’ revision of classical Christology that is especially popular among contemporary philosophical theologians (that the Son of God surrendered some or all of his divine attributes in the incarnation). In the end, Crisp finds this view to compromise God's immutability, favouring instead the classical construal of Christ's ‘kenosis’ as the addition of the human nature to the divine Word. In the sixth and final chapter, Crisp examines non-incarnationalist Christologies, using that of John Hick as a representative, in order to challenge the claims that the doctrine of the incarnation should be abandoned and that modern Christians ought to find the importance of Christ in his moral example.

While the text's analytic precision is unquestioned, perhaps its weakness lies in the area of historical exposition. This may leave the reader wondering if Crisp's particular interaction with various theologians is based on an accurate construal of their position. For example, one thinks of his treatment of Karl Barth. As a major figure on the landscape of Crisp's theme, Crisp's somewhat critical assessment of Barth's Christology is confined to a quite narrow selection of Barth's corpus. For example, Crisp neglects Barth's defense of the anhypostasis and enhypostatic character of Christ's human essence in the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics (CD IV.2, 49–50, 52–53), which may have been used to support Crisp's own defense of the terms. As well, this same section of Barth draws out a problematic aspect of Crisp's own construal of the relationship between the divine and human in Christ. Crisp argues that God's presence in Christ differs from the rest of humanity only in degree, rather than in kind (pp. 23–26). This causes tension with Crisp's affirmation of the anhypostatic and enhypostatic character of Christ's human nature, which seems to at least imply a unique mode of relationship to God's presence. For Barth, the import of the anhypostatic and enhypostatic character of Christ's humanity is to underscore the fact that while Christ's humanity is the same as ours in its constituent properties, the way in which Christ's human nature is related to God is unique: Christ's humanity is the humanity of God. As it stands, Crisp's position bears a resemblance to the position of Nestorius (as Cyril describes it), in which the ‘residence’ of God in Christ is described as consisting in a greater degree of God's residence in the saints (‘Third Letter to Nestorius,’ 4). According to Cyril, such a view compromises the uniqueness of Christ among other creatures, something Crisp does not appear to want to endorse. Despite this, Crisp's analysis of common Christological terms is generally quite helpful and his text is a welcome contribution to the literature. His prose is reminiscent of the best analytic philosophers (such as Alvin Plantinga) in his ability to blend a touch of humour and playfulness to rigorous logical analysis. This makes the book suitable for the audience to which the series is aimed: senior undergraduate and graduate students of Christian doctrine.