In Him Was Life

The Person and Work of Christ

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Trevor Hart
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     2019.
     427 pages.
     $59.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481310154.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Trevor Hart notes that Christianity contains a variety of approaches to understanding a single historical focus: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hart accounts for the variety in these approaches by pointing to the array of scriptural metaphors employed to work out the meaning of “Jesus Christ died to save sinners” and to the social and historical contexts in which theologians worked to proclaim Christ. Hart’s book In Him Was Life: The Person and Work of Christ analyzes a number of different attempts to understand the central claim that Jesus Christ saves people. The book consists of a collection of theological works from throughout Hart’s career (many of them published previously) reworked to form a cohesive whole. What holds the various chapters together is the book’s central concern for “the ways in which accounts of Christ’s person and of his so-called work are related to one another” (9). Hart’s major claims have to do with the centrality of Christology to Christian thought and the potential that increased attention to Christology has for resolving theological controversies.

Each chapter of the book (with some few exceptions) consists of a close reading of a particular theologian to analyze the way in which Christ’s person and work is developed in their thought. Hart brings several convictions to this analysis, which shape the development of the chapters. First, Hart argues that metaphors never bear a perfect correspondence to reality. Every metaphor is only a representation of reality (4). This includes the variety of scriptural metaphors used to work out what Christ’s redemption is and does.

Recognizing the gap between metaphor and reality creates space for Hart to provide a precise analysis of different theologians, resulting in fresh interpretations of well-known theologians. For instance, in the first part of the book Hart explores early Christian Christologies as found in Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Athanasius. Hart analyzes each theologian separately to determine how the particular historical and social contexts in which they worked shaped their particular understanding of concepts such as divinization (the Christian teaching that humans participate in God or are made gods). This analysis is made possible by Hart’s conviction that the language used is not identical to the reality of Christ, so that each theologian may understand terms differently. Rather than critiquing these theologians together as hellenizers for including Greek philosophical concepts in their thought, Hart reads each individually to determine whether Greek thought was encroaching on biblical and Christian themes. While more critical of Clement than Irenaeus or Athanasius, Hart argues that these early thinkers did not use unbiblical models of soteriology (an account of how a person is saved) to drive their thought (111). Hart’s interpretation cuts against standard readings of the Eastern fathers, which accuse them of forsaking scripture for Hellenic thought.

Second, Hart contends that no scriptural metaphor of redemption is sufficient on its own. These metaphors are insufficient because God and the redemption worked in Christ are too large to be contained within a single image. For this reason, the collective whole of scriptural metaphors is required to flesh out the message of redemption (167–68). Hart therefore examines a wide variety of redemptive themes, focusing on metaphors of punishment and satisfaction in the second part of the book. In this section Hart situates Reformed theologians in a tradition influenced by Anselm’s thought and Tertullian’s use of satisfaction to describe Christ’s work of redemption. Hart concludes that, when penal models are placed in the social context of law and punishment derived from the courts of ancient Rome, notions of Christ’s “satisfaction” for sin are not penal models of divine punishment but models of biblical sacrifice: Christ makes an offering people could not make rather than suffering a punishment that they deserved (119). This is but one model of redemption, and it is incomplete when not placed alongside other metaphors such as illumination.

Third, Hart argues that the universality of the Christian message arises from particularity, and especially from the particularity of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather than giving a concrete image to universal notions of truth and beauty, Jesus is a particular human individual. In Jesus sameness and difference, universal and particular are found in an enriching interplay (279–80). This conviction is central to several arguments in the book’s third and final section, which takes up 20th- and 21st-century questions. For instance, Hart takes seriously the charge of feminist theologians that the maleness of Jesus is problematic for a universal Savior. His response is to appeal to the interplay between sameness and difference to frame Jesus as a particular human being different from any other, yet derive universality from the unique life of this one, singular person (257–90).

The book’s collection of essays remains focused on key ideas, such as those sketched out above. This unity is achieved by the consistent themes of Hart’s research across his career. However, the final section drifts away from the central theme of Christ’s person and work in places. When considering imagination, for instance, the particular life of Jesus of Nazareth recedes into the background (309–36). Hart uses Christology to aim for ambitious goals, such as rethinking the relation of Greek philosophy and patristic Christology. Less convincing is Hart’s attempt to resolve the debate over grace between Protestants and Roman Catholics by approaching grace from the person of Jesus Christ (152–54). These are minor quibbles; each chapter of the book is engaging, and while not every problem is resolved, Hart’s christological approach pays dividends throughout the book.

As a whole, Hart demonstrates the centrality of Christ through the diversity of doctrinal metaphors that unfold the work of redemption. The book’s arguments benefit from Hart’s attention to details and effective use of fine distinctions. Those looking for a fresh approach to the relationship of theology to Hellenic thought, the place of Christ in Reformed theologians, how Christ may address contemporary concerns about particularity, divine absence, imagination, and similar questions will find much of value in this volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Moldenhauer is assistant professor of theology at Concordia University Wisconsin.

Date of Review: 
November 2, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Trevor Hart is rector of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, St Andrews. Previously, he was professor of divinity and director of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts in the University of St Andrews.

Categories: 

Keywords: 

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.