God Crucified – my assessment

Posted: September 2, 2012 by J in Bible, Book review, Theology
Tags: , ,

What can we say about God Crucified?

1. This book is a thing of beauty. Writing with crystal clarity, drawing on a wide acquaintance with primary and scholarly literature, Bauckham makes his points with force and yet at the same time, with elegance. It’s a pleasure to read. Compared to, say, O’Donovan or Gunton or Dunn, Bauckham is in a different literary league.

2. As a piece of scholarship, this is a tour de force. Bauckham takes an exegetical approach to the theological questions he treats, and in doing so, gives us all a model of how exegesis should and can be done. He employs biblical theology and intertextual studies, historical theology (or the history of dogma) and second temple/early Christian studies, in the service of that exegesis. This guy operates confidently in all these spheres, it’s very impressive. He also just knows his Bible well. Really, really well – and makes effective use of it. The result is little short of breathtaking. I can only wish our evangelical scholars could operate at this level: generally their offerings are far more two-dimensional. Bauckham is very, very persuasive, due in part to his methodological power.

God Crucified catapulted straight into my top ten list of theological works, from the first time I read it.

3. Bauckham’s decisive methodological move is to adopt the category ‘identity’ over against the common ones of ‘function’ and ‘nature’. This strikes me as a welcome return to biblical categories. And in practice, it improves  the clarity of his Christological discussion. Not surprising really, that Scripture teachings make more sense when discussed in Scriptural categories!

4. What’s at stake in this study? Two main things. First our Christology. Bauckham cuts through a lot of traditional assumptions about the development of the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. Far from being a Nicene achievement,  this high Christology was foundational to NT Christianity. Nice.

Second, our doctrine of God. Bauckham has been deeply influenced by c.20th theologies of the cross such as that of Moltmann, whose ideas he is channelling. In this view, God himself suffers at the cross, and shows this suffering to be core to his identity. This meets head-on the traditional Christian view of God as impassible, not susceptible to suffering of any kind. The two views of God are radically different.

While Bauckham does not spell out the dogmatic implications of his study, he does hammer away determinedly at the basic insight: Jesus is included in the identity of God in both his humiliation and his exaltation. I.e., Jesus’ suffering definitively reveals the very identity of God. No point emerges more clearly from the study than this one.

However, Bauckham’s study leaves us to do the wrestling with the implications for our systematic theology. What it boils down to is the question: is God impassible, or is he the crucified God? I suspect it matters quite a bit which answer you give. There is no doubt which side of the argument Bauckham takes, and his book adds quite a bit of muscle to the ‘theology of the cross’ team.

5. What does Bauckham have to say about the dominant traditional view, then, in which God is impassible? He only hints at an answer to this: in the Nicene tradition the categories of thought had changed from the NT’s concept of  ‘identity’ to the Greeks’ concept of ‘essence’. While this allowed the Nicenes to preserve the doctrine of Christ’s divinity (homoousia), it did not help them ask the question, ‘What does Jesus reveal about God?’ And it is by asking this question that God’s revelation in Christ can be allowed to say new or surprising things to us. The implication is that Greek thought-categories have long hindered the church from appreciating what has been revealed about God, in Christ.

This is really a devastating critique of 1500 years of dogmatic history. If it is true, it is a matter of serious concern, and a stunning call to repentance in our theological tradition.

6. I would love to read a rebuttal of Bauckham’s thesis. From where this reviewer stands, his argument seems very compelling, largely because of the methodological strength of his study. I can’t see any weak links in the exegesis. In fact, Bauckham seems to demonstrate his thesis over and over again in various NT texts. This exegetical approach to theology makes his work accessible and persuasive for evangelicals like me.

In conclusion, I would strongly encourage evangelicals to read this book, even if only for its stunning exegetical work. Bauckham has a lot to teach us, and not least about how to read Scripture.

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