The Word Made Flesh

A Theology of the Incarnation

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Ian A. McFarland
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , September
     2019.
     260 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664262976.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Word Made Flesh, an imaginatively conceived and thought-provoking work, Ian McFarland develops and defends a “Chalcedonianism without reserve” as providing “the most adequate account of Christian convictions regarding Jesus” (3). What makes this doctrine exciting is its ability to affirm the dogmatic centrality of Jesus’ human nature as the locus of all thought and talk about God, without thereby compromising the equally indispensable confession that Jesus is truly divine as the second hypostasis of the trinity. McFarland’s eagerness to engage in fruitful dialogue with the whole arc of the ecclesial theological traditions, combined with the most up-to-date biblical scholarship, guarantees this book far reaching appeal. There is no question that this tightly argued, well-researched, and lucidly explained work should be afforded great authority in the ever-evolving debate regarding the proper reception of the Chalcedonian tradition.

The trajectory of the argument is largely determined by two precepts: (1) uncompromising adherence to the Chalcedonian distinction between nature and hypostasis, when applied to the person of Jesus, entails the premise that who one perceives when looking at this man is none other than the Word, the second hypostasis of the trinity, while what one perceives is nothing other than the flesh and blood of the son of Mary (8); (2) following Martin Luther, whoever wishes to formulate a sound doctrine of God should look to nothing but the humanity of Christ, where this humanity is fully determined by the temporal sequence extending from Christ’s birth at Christmas to his death on Good Friday (160).

The second presumption governing the argument of this book deserves attention. Given the resurrection of the archetypal human, a thorough-going commitment to the epistemic primacy of Christ would explode the expectation that an authentic human life must end in death, exposing what is perhaps the deepest truth of a Christian anthropology—that to be truly human is to become like God. For one reason or another, McFarland appears uncomfortable with an anthropology constructed upon revelation alone, electing instead to taper the revolutionary potential of the resurrection to comply with the standards of an empirically informed doctrine of humanity. This dependence upon natural reason is curious, especially because McFarland stipulates that a sound doctrine of God can be formulated from nothing but the humanity of Christ. Apparently, there is no such requirement for formulating a sound anthropology. From which it follows: McFarland’s project is not as Christocentric as it first appears. Another problem concerns how, granting that observers can perceive nothing but the flesh and blood of a first-century Palestinian, Jesus constitutes the climax of God’s self-revelation.

McFarland’s solution to this problem is simple yet profoundly creative. Supported by an impressive number of biblical proofs, McFarland develops a pneumatological response that conjoins the orthodox doctrines of Spirit-enabled activity and deification, arguing that in Jesus there exists a “new theandric-energy” such that, because Jesus’ will is uninterruptedly receptive to the biddings of the Spirit through whom he continually participates in the divine energies, he can be considered a reliable index of divinity (93–96). Though this response is persuasive, I nevertheless came away disappointed at the lack of sustained engagement with certain other passages of scripture that seemingly frustrate this pneumatic account by naming the Word as the primary agent responsible for divine revelation through Jesus (e.g., Matt 9:6; John 10:18), in addition to the absence of any rebuttal of other traditional approaches to the problem that likewise assign little to no active role to the Spirit (see Augustine’s Letter 137 to Volusianus).

McFarland proceeds to task the Spirit with additional work, citing the Spirit as the vehicle that mediates Christ’s post-mortem presence to the world through sermon, sacraments, and church-community, thereby blocking the inference that Jesus’ continued presence to the church constitutes a temporal extension of his incarnation. Relying upon the apostle Paul’s analogy describing Jesus as the head of the Church, his body, McFarland suggests that because the head is the “source and seat” of the body’s identity, the head and body must therefore be distinct (196). This is perhaps the weakest argument offered in the book. The “strict unilateral relationship of dependence” holding between a head and its body is also descriptive of the enhypostatic relationship between the Word and his assumed humanity. But just as this relationship establishes, rather than threatens, the idiomatic convertibility of the Word and his flesh, so too should this dependency relation guarantee the unquestioned convertibility of Christ and his church.

Jesus’ heavenly ascension and session at the Father’s right hand raises certain conceptual difficulties for McFarland’s peculiar reading of the Chalcedonian formula because the New Testament describes this doctrine through spatial and temporal categories incompatible with the claim that Jesus’ human life ended at Golgotha. At the same time, McFarland recognizes that any account of the ascension suggesting that Jesus’ humanity was transformed into divinity—as with Luther’s doctrine of the postmortem ubiquity of Christ—ceases to be an authentic human existence. His solution to this dilemma follows a similar strategy outlined by Thomas Aquinas when considering how God can grant humanity the beatific vision without divinizing the creature. Just as God can provide “an intellectual form corresponding to but not identical with the divine essence” that communicates divinity to finite creation, “so God is able to provide a ‘place’ for the incarnate Word that is God’s place . . . without the human body becoming divine” (178). The lesson communicated here, that the ascension does not extend Jesus’ incarnation precisely because it does not entail a post-mortem transformation of flesh, is well taken. Insofar as spatial and temporal circumscription are essential characteristics of humanity, McFarland’s proposal nevertheless fails to explain how Jesus can continue to live an authentic human existence despite no longer subsisting within space and time.

Whatever the significance of these challenges may be, they do nothing to take away from the fact that this is a work of the finest quality, one that will demand the attention of theologians and biblical critics alike for time to come. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Austin Story is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
March 29, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ian A. McFarland is Regius Professor of Divinity and a Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge.

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