The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation

Ian A. McFarland, The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2019. 259 pages, $35.00. Paperback.

The doctrine of the Incarnation has begun to receive attention – serious, searching attention – again from divinity school professors. For years, the topic wouldn’t be touched in a serious manner because scholars were captive (whether in liberal or evangelical settings) far too often to the hellenization thesis and (knowingly or not) a variant of so-called “doctrinal criticism.” Yet two years ago, Rowan Williams released Christ the Heart of Creation (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), and this past year Ian McFarland released The Word Made Flesh. We now have serious studies in the doctrine of the incarnation that are worthy of patient study and careful engagement, for they alert us more fully to exegetical argument and to the wide-ranging resources of the Christian tradition (in this case to Maximus the Confessor but also to Martin Luther as readers of the gospels in their canonical setting).

This volume is not a mere textbook surveying the topics. It is a constructive argument regarding a particular thesis: “It is my contention in this book that a thoroughgoing commitment to Christology developed in these terms—a Chalcedonianism without reserve—continues to provide the most adequate account of Christian convictions regarding Jesus” (3). What does it mean to be Chalcedonian in unreserved fashion? McFarland argues that the creedal definition has not had its fullest impact with respect to the humanity of the incarnate Son. “In other words, although in the majority tradition Jesus’ full humanity is formally affirmed, it is not viewed as integral to his identity, since it is only where his humanity is overshadowed by the power of his divinity that God is revealed” (3). “Therefore (and as paradoxical as it may seem), it is a central thesis of this book that an orthodox account of Jesus’ divinity necessarily includes the affirmation that nothing divine can be perceived in him” (9).

Perception will be crucial to tracing his argument. In perceiving Jesus, we “perceive no one other than God the Son,” though we also “perceive nothing other than created substance” (8). Distinguishing who and what becomes tremendously important, with the terms hypostasis and nature serving key roles here (72-78). He advances the thesis in three parts of the book.

Part one of the book addresses “The Great Divide” by considering “the life of the Creator” (chapter 1) and then “the being of creatures” (chapter 2). Chapter one offers a wide ranging survey of the doctrine of God: from invisibility to transcendence to the various perfections of God. Chapter two turns to affirm the dependence and diverse being of creatures, affirming “that although God does not stand over against creatures …, creatures do stand over against God” (50). While God is both far and near, McFarland lingers patiently over the fact that God’s presence (his providential and sustaining presence) remains “invisible to and unknown by it” (60). In this sense, divine transcendence demands divine invisibility. We ought to ask of McFarland, however, what we make of those intensifications of divine presence that might be call theophanies?

Part two turns to “The Bridge,” analyzing the affirmations “one and the same” (chapter 3), “perfect in divinity” (chapter 4), “and also perfect in humanity” (chapter 5). The problem to be addressed is defined: “It appears to follow that the unavoidable consequence of God seeking to effect genuine communion with creatures would be the dissolution of creaturely existence. The claim that it need not be so is the burden of the doctrine of the incarnation” (67). More specifically, “the Chalcedonian distinction between nature and hypostasis provides a means of addressing this problem: in taking flesh the hypostasis of the Word can be perceived by virtue of assuming a created and visible human nature (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3; cf. 1 John 1:1), even though God’s nature remains as transcendent (and thus as intrinsically imperceptible) as ever” (88). I might wonder how he’d engage a bit more thoroughly with Cyril of Alexandria’s arguments in his anti-Nestorian writings regarding the impact of the divine nature upon the humanity of Christ; does McFarland deem such an account to “dissolve” the humanity of Christ? He also works through the narrative of the Son’s saving action in chapter five, including a helpful exposition of the Word’s kenosis or self-emptying (140-141) and a narrative manifestation of that self-emptying by exegetically reflecting on three episodes in his prophetic ministry where he “rules and saves by emptying himself of pretension, exercising authority in response to those in need” (150, see also 142-150). He speaks of the descent to the grave in more patristic fashion as focused on the full experience of death, rather than as on a harrowing of hell (151 fn. 44).

Part three speaks of the works of this incarnate Son, what is called “The Crossing.” Chapter 6 considers the theme of Christus Victor by considering resurrection, ascension, and reign, while chapter 7 turns to the presence of Jesus now. Luther and Maximus the Confessor are the heroes of these two chapters, respectively. “[T]he good news of the embodiment of God in Jesus is not that it should be repeated, but that it should be inverted; not that God should live in other human beings as God did in Jesus only, but that human beings should live in God” (212). Christ is uniquely the redeemer from sin; hence the singularity of his works. However, McFarland argues that his work cannot be limited to a single event or moment within his life (217). In many ways he sounds a cry like that of John Calvin who said “from the time he took the form of a servant he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us” (Inst. II.xvi.5). I might add also that McFarland helpfully responds to some liberationist approaches that seek to dislocate language of forgiveness owing to political concerns (191 fn. 8); without suggesting that culpability and guilt are experienced in homogenous ways, McFarland nonetheless catches the global and consistent word of the gospel to address the sins of all and also the range of ways in which we all are implicated in the evil pangs of a fallen world (in admittedly variegated ways in diverse settings).

The proposal is Chalcedonian, expounding and employing the distinction of person and nature to make radical claims regarding the singular revelation found in the Incarnation of the Son of God. Shall we pursue it without reserve? Surely not, as any account of this scale will raise questions and invite disagreements. I limit myself here to suggesting three points as especially helpful.

First, McFarland’s book – like the recent publication of Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation – helpfully shows that the doctrine of God helps to frame our perception of the scandal of the incarnation. In particular, divine transcendence persists in this new epoch and just so raises the question as to how Jesus is himself divine. Put otherwise, the logic of Chalcedonian Christology only makes sense with an operative notion of divine transcendence.

Second, in the midst of his exegetical work on the divinity of the incarnate Son, McFarland shows why we ought to hesitate to identify the God of Israel (revealed by the name yhwh) with one of the persons of the Trinity alone (104-105). In other words, that the Father or  the Son are each yhwh is not the same as saying that yhwh is the Father or the Son (as if not also the other triune persons). We might extend his argument here to say that making such personal differentiation (say, identifying the God of the Israelites as the Father specifically) raises significant questions about divine immutability.

Third, McFarland’s seventh chapter helpfully points to biblical material necessitating language of the church as Christ’s body while also avoiding some of the recent hyper-Lutheran variants (as in Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, 2:213-214). Any theology which seeks to honor the biblical data and the Augustinian tradition of the totus Christus must navigate these waters. The last century has been one for overexuberance in identifying Christ with human social community, whether in the wider social forms of Ritschlian liberalism or the more churchly dress of la nouvelle théologie , and these lush accounts have led to overreactions with an unnecessarily contrastive and even iconoclastic response as in Karl Barth and some in the Reformed world. I might add that it has been a century when confessional Reformed authors have often failed to engage in such discussions as productively as might be wished (though recent writings from both Michael Horton and John Webster do signal signs of change here). McFarland’s argument, from a Lutheran perspective, serves as a useful prompt in this regard, and I think he avoids some of the excessive restraint in Webster without lapsing into the lush identification of Christ and church in Jenson.

In conclusion, then, Ian McFarland offers a thin, readable volume that helps draw attention to crucial questions and mysteries regarding the Incarnation. In so doing, he offers something of a full dogmatics in outline, by ranging from the doctrine of God all the way through the topics of creation, incarnation, salvation, church, sacraments, and end times. While his is a Lutheran and mainline perspective, he ranges ecumenically through the centuries and across the varied church traditions and sometimes argues in ways surprising for a Lutheran (and, frankly, more amenable to a Reformed reading). It’s really quite something to read a constructive Lutheran Christology that pushes back on kenoticist accounts; given that many modern Reformed authors have been seduced by what was a more historically Lutheran temptation, it’s perhaps a welcome read for those in the Reformed world. Alongside the work of Williams, then, it will be a helpful volume for those desiring a more advanced work in Christology. It also – as is typical for books by McFarland – models an exegetically engaged approach to systematic theology. Even when this reviewer finds himself differing at points, it is refreshing to be differing over exegetical analyses and judgments about canonical synthesis or prioritization. For both its material and its model, then, advanced readers will benefit greatly from a patient and critical study of this book.

Michael Allen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando