Christology Based On Agape

Christ and the Christian, by Nels F. S. Ferré (Harper, 1958, 253 pp., $3.75), is reviewed by Gordon H. Clark, Professor of Philosophy, Butler University, Indiana.

Taking the concept of Agape as the basic principle of theology, Dr. Ferré in this book proceeds to construct the implied Christology. Doubtless a review should indicate some of the Christological results and comment on the adequacy of the method.

In several places Dr. Ferré speaks with approbation of the creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon. “Nicea settled the question of the full deity of Jesus” (p. 42). “Chalcedon, furthermore, settled the question of the unity of Jesus’ personality” (p. 45). “The Sixth Ecumenical Council settled the question of the permanence of the two natures within one personality” (p. 46). He even says, “Mary can rightly be called the Mother of God” (p. 194). But this language is misleading, for other paragraphs make it quite clear that he is not using these words in their traditional significance. The phrase ‘Jesus is God,’ he brands as a “crass statement” (p. 38), although he admits that “there seems to be a strand in the New Testament that pulls toward this position.” He emphatically denies that the person or ego whom we name Jesus is the second Person of the Trinity. Again, “we do not speak of finality in Jesus, for growth is eternal (p. 77), and “out of two natures comes one genuine personality, neither simply God nor simply man …” (p. 78). “Any theology which insists that God was fully present [in Jesus] from birth may in upholding one truth, the primacy of God’s coming throughout the whole event of Incarnation, deny the other, the need for real growth in grace and wisdom” (p. 101). “If the Virgin Birth in any way endows Jesus with a predetermined sinlessness or, even more, with some initial presence of God which sets him off essentially from normal human beings, then the Son of God never took on our human nature” (p. 104). “The ego [of Jesus] was therefore neither human nor divine …” (p. 108). “Jesus in the most natural and indirect instances seems to have been humbly conscious of sin before God” (p. 111). “When, however, did this hypostatic union take place? We cannot tell … although it seems likely that it occurred before his baptism” (pp. 114–115). This, I take it, means that the Incarnation was an event that took place, not at Jesus’ birth, but at a time just preceding his public ministry. At any rate, the term Incarnation in this book does not bear its usual Christian meaning. The exact significance of the crucial terms is, however, not too clear. Although one can quickly see what Dr. Ferré opposes, namely, historic Christianity, the exposition of his own views is rather perplexing. He and his wife “have read aloud every word of the book in the attempt to make it as easy reading as possible” (p. 15), and in this attempt they were successful; but the fluency and poetry of the language have resulted in ambiguity of expression and obscurity of thought.

Article continues below

Minor examples of figurative language and the numerous cases of undefined terminology are too trivial to consider. Major obscurity is found in the theological method of constructing a Christology on the basis of Agape. The rejection of other methods is clear enough, even though the reasons given are not always convincing.

That the question of objective fact (pp. 30–31) rules out both personal experience and the experience of the Church may be granted; but the rejection of history, i.e., the rejection of the Bible (the only historical source), on the ground that this is too simple a solution of the problem of method, is not so well argued. The mere fact that we today read the Bible with minds educated by centuries of theological discussion, while warning against sources of possible blindness and misinterpretation, is not a sufficient reason for substituting some other court of ultimate appeal. A second reason for not starting with the Bible is that it does not present a single system of thought. It contains, as Dr. Ferré avers, many types of Christology, and therefore we must have some other principle by which to choose from among them. This reason for rejecting the Bible as the starting point would be a good reason, if it were true. But attempts to charge the Bible with inconsistency have always seemed to this reviewer to be cases of misconstruction. Dr. Ferré several times uses the question, “Why callest thou me good?” to show that Jesus did not claim deity. Yet, surely, this is to insist on an interpretation, a naive interpretation, that is by no means necessary.

However, if the Bible is to be rejected, it still does not follow that Agape is to be chosen as the guiding principle of theology. Dr. Ferré’s subjective preference for Agape need not be shared by others. Beyond the question of subjectivity, however, lies the question of conceptual adequacy, which question in fact becomes two questions: Is Agape clearly defined? and, Do Dr. Ferré’s conclusions in Christology follow from this concept?

Article continues below

Suppose Agape is precisely defined as “indiscriminate kindness to all” (p. 57). If this explicit statement really is the precise definition, then Dr. Ferré will find difficulty in deducing his Christology. If, on the other hand, the details of his Christology are deducible from Agape, its definition has been omitted. A reviewer, however, must work with what is actually stated.

Dr. Ferré supports this explicit definition of Agape with the verse concerning God’s sending sun and rain on the just and unjust alike. Yet why this theme should be designated as the central motif of the Gospels when (1) we cannot depend on any fanciful ipsissima verba (p. 57), and (2) Jesus himself was inconsistent (p. 60), and (3) the disciples did not understand him (p. 60), and (4) Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees, which Dr. Ferré does not believe to be an “authentic report in detail,” remains “a problem within the major conclusive context of Jesus’ living and teaching Agape” (p. 83), and when (5) “we cannot know the historic Jesus” (p. 58),—why, under these circumstances, should Agape be specially connected with Jesus or with Christianity?

Now, aside from such a doubtful connection with the Bible (a connection logically useless if Agape is the basic principle), should we conclude Agape to be indiscriminate kindness to all, we may say that God sends sun and rain upon all nations alike, but we cannot show that the gospel of grace, the creed of Chalcedon, or, say the insights of Dr. Ferré himself, have been vouchsafed to all peoples indiscriminately. Even with the rejection of the doctrine of hell—and it is the Jesus of the Gospels who talks more about hell than Paul or any other New Testament personage—and the assertion of universal salvation (pp. 246–247), it still remains evident that some people suffer more calamity than others. This Agape therefore not only is unbiblical, but fails to square with human experience, and indeed precludes any intelligible view of the problem of evil.

Finally, the definition of Agape does not in good logic require the Christology that the author derives from it. Extensive documentation would be tedious, but over and over again there are series of unsupported assertions in no necessary way attached to Agape. Why, for example, does Agape, so defined, require the Incarnation to occur nearly 30 years after Jesus’ birth? Why does Agape, so defined, require time and change to be attributes of God (pp. 237–238)? And why does Agape, so defined, require “the persons of the Trinity [to be] operational capacities in God”? (p. 205). Or, for that matter, why does Agape imply that “we can never become God”? (p. 205). These are serious questions which the reviewer thinks Dr. Ferré has not answered.

Article continues below


Theological Environment

American Literature and Christian Doctrine, by Randall Stewart (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1958, 149 pp., $3.50), is reviewed by Henry W. Coray, Author of Son of Tears.

This is the ambitious and fascinating product of the chairman of the English Department of Vanderbilt University. Professor Stewart has tried to show, succinctly, how the writings of the great American authors are interstratified with and colored by their theology—specifically, their view of man.

The high priests of reason, illustrated by deists Paine, Jefferson, and Franklin, set forth man as completely self-sufficient in his efforts to think his way through the sweet mysteries of life. Closely akin to this school would be advocates of “exaggerated individualism,” rosy Pollyannists like Emerson and Whitman who delighted in deifying the creature and identifying him with the Creator.

Realistic writers of the nineteenth century, Melville, Hawthorne, and James, move much nearer to biblical anthropology, Mr. Stewart feels; for they turn the searchlight on the subtle, shadowy evils that lurk in the corners of the heart. But then the pendulum swings back to the camp of “naturalism” once more and our early twentieth century novelists, spearheaded by Theodore Dreiser, dramatize man as the victim of scientific determinism, a mere pawn of heredity and/or environment. He is therefore relieved of moral responsibility. In this reviewer’s judgment, “The Amoralists” is the most penetrating chapter in the book, and classic in its own right.

Mr. Stewart sees a healthy reaction to naturalism in the flow of good books from the desks of Miss Cather, T. S. Eliot (an Anglican in the American stream!), Faulkner, and Robert Penn Warren. “They have taken the Christian view that man is a battleground. For man embodies both good and evil. God and the devil are still active in the world, and man’s spiritual victories are won with God’s help, and in Hell’s despite” (p. 149).

It may not be out of place to suggest that the distinguished author of American Literature and Christian Doctrine would appear to reflect the influence of neo-orthodoxy. “The term Original Sin doesn’t refer primarily to overt acts, as such acts are ordinarily understood. It means basic human nature, fallible, imperfect human nature; it means the state of being human; it means that we live in an imperfect, non-ideal world” (p. 80). One might ask, “Wasn’t Adam human before the Fall? And won’t the redeemed in Heaven still be human?” The professor’s definition of Original Sin is a watered-down version of the biblical concept so admirably summarized by the Westminster divines: “The sinfulness of the estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.”

Article continues below


Baptist Distinctives

What is the Church? A Symposium of Baptist Thought, by Duke K. McCall (Broadman Press, 1958, $3) is reviewed by Harold Lindsell, Dean of Fuller Theological Seminary.

The subtitle of this volume is somewhat inaccurate, for the book is by no means a symposium of Baptist thought. It is a symposium of the thinking of a few Baptists with whom many Baptists would sharply disagree. Almost all the contributors are graduates of, or connected with, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Louisville. One contributor is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist and is teaching at Southeastern Seminary in North Carolina. Another is an American Baptist (Torbet). Curiously there is no real representation from southern institutions like New Orleans and Southwestern. Dr. Torbet’s representation is nominal since his subject, “The Beginnings of Baptist Churches,” shows no integral connection to the title of the volume.

The book itself is nonetheless provocative, and worthy of careful study. Obvious subjects for discussion include “The Nature of the Church,” “The Origin of the Church,” “The Ministry in the New Testament Churches,” “The Doctrine of Baptism in the New Testament,” “The New Testament Significance of the Lord’s Supper,” “Discipline in the Church” and “The Interpretation of Christian Stewardship.” A sound and moderate view of Baptist distinctives is reproduced. Thus, for example, the usual delineation of believer’s baptism, the symbolic idea of the Lord’s Table and Baptism, the distinction between the church universal and the churches as separate and complete organisms are made clear.

It is the impression of this reviewer that the crux of the book lies in the chapter entitled “The Landmark Movement in the Southern Baptist Convention.” While nothing in the volume explicitly asserts this, the reviewer thinks the book primarily speaks to Southern Baptists and that it is designed for internal consumption as it relates to their peculiar problems. No “Landmark movement” is found among Baptists elsewhere. Yet the total thrust of the book seems to be aimed against the views peculiar to Landmarkism—views which may threaten to become the focus for disruption of the Southern Convention in the future. Landmarkism claims that certain churches have “the sole right to baptize and ordain, the baptisms and orders of other bodies being null and void.” This leads naturally to the repudiation of baptisms performed by others than Landmarkism (alien immersion problem). Landmarkism further stresses “storehouse tithing” which the writer of the chapter in this book repudiates, and “closed” communion.

Article continues below

While the views enunciated in this volume are generally compatible with the ideas of the reviewer, it is likely that these views will be subjected to great criticism by many Southern Baptists. One gets the feeling that tensions are mounting, and that who will line up on which side, (and how many) is a moot question. Does this suggest signs of cleavage in the more or less monolithic structure of the Southern Baptist Convention? The polemic atmosphere this book will help to generate in the future is going to be interesting. It may not be completely unrelated, in fact, to the thrust of the ecumenical movement, and indeed may be a straw in the wind pointing the direction in which one segment of Southern Baptist thought is heading.



Why Believe?, by A. Rendle Short (IVF, London, 96 pp., 3s), Basic Christianity, by J. R. W. Stott (IVF, London, 144 pp., 3s–6d), and The Lord from Heaven, by Leon Morris (IVF, London, 112 pp., 4s), are reviewed by Frank Houghton, Bishop of St. Marks, Warwicks.

“Christians,” says Professor Rendle Short, “must be prepared to explain why they believe in God, why they think so much of Jesus Christ, and what they mean by sin. Again, if the Bible is to be treated as authoritative, it must clearly be vindicated.… It is to explain such basic Christian beliefs that this book has been written.” Virtually the same wording might have served for the preface of Mr. Stott’s book, Basic Christianity. In conducting missions in many universities, he has discovered that young men and women are prepared to listen to a balanced, carefully reasoned account of fundamental Christian beliefs regarding the fact of Christ, the fact of sin, and the atoning work of Christ. These facts present their own challenge, but Mr. Stott’s final chapters on “Man’s response” add point to the appeal, and one longs that a book like this, so scriptural, logical, and relevant to modern life, be put into the hands of thinking people who have never seriously faced the issues involved.

Article continues below

It is no surprise to find that 54,000 copies of Dr. Short’s little book have been published. The approach of this obviously powerful mind is all the more significant because his wide learning is coupled with deep reverence and humility, as well as occasional flashes of dry humour. And, like Mr. Stott, after building up his case, he demands a verdict. God, he says, does not advance “such proofs as will dragoon our minds, and make it intellectually impossible for us to do other than believe.” He quotes from Browning:

God, stooping, shows sufficient of His light

For us in the dark to rise by. And I rise.

The first move is His. He has revealed himself in Christ. The second move is ours.

The third of these slim volumes is addressed to a different audience, for unlike the other two its aim is not primarily evangelistic. It is, however, intended for the general reader rather than the theologian, and especially for convinced Christians who need to discover how strong are the foundations on which their faith in Jesus Christ should rest. What do we really mean when we speak of Jesus as both true God and true man? We are shown again that his own claims lead inevitably to the old dilemma, that he is “aut Deus aut non bonus homo.” His followers saw him as “a man approved of God” (Acts 2:22), as “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), and yet as “the Lord,” entitled to the name that is above every name, the ineffable name of Jehovah. As we follow Dr. Morris through his careful shifting of the evidence in the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles, we recognize the fundamental agreement of all the New Testament writers concerning the person of Christ who is very God and very man.


How To Live

No Escape from Life, by John Sutherland Bonnell (Harper, 1958, 210 pp., $3.75) is reviewed by Heinrich B. Eiler, Minister of the United Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana.

Pastoral counseling by definition may be termed a ministry of aid to those confronted by the fact that there is no escape from life to those whose attempts to escape have ended in futility. Thirty years of such a ministry provide Dr. Bonnell with more than a title for a book.

Article continues below

The pattern of each chapter in the book is largely the same. Personal cases are used to give concreteness to the subject discussed. Cases are from Bonnell’s own ministry. There is a development of the subject by definition, analysis, and criticism. Subjects treated are: life’s demands and pressures, anxiety, attempted escape from life through either alcohol or suicide, and the problem of oneself. In our age these are timely subjects. The purpose of the author in writing this book seems to be from his statement: “I wish that someone would give a course in how to live.” Retrospect showed him that in his years of counseling he could be classed as both a pupil and a teacher. It is in just such capacities that Dr. Bonnell has prepared this work.

Occasionally, the author in his use of Scripture illustrates a particular danger that faces the pastoral counselor, namely, that of a psychological type of exegesis. By this is meant the adapting of a passage removed entirely from context to a particular psychological need. It also may be expressed in seeing passages or persons of Scripture primarily in terms psychological, e.g., David’s schizophrenic tendencies (p. 23), or Paul’s (p. 24). The author’s precision of definition and expression in describing matters pertaining to the psychological aspect of the problems and subjects discussed is not matched by similar precision theologically. For instance he says, “the Bible is the most … optimistic book in the world. It never despairs of man” (p. 78). This, of course, requires an accounting in the face of biblical doctrines of sin, grace and redemption. But that is lacking.

At points the author clearly states the biblical doctrine that human nature changes only through the gracious operation of God in the heart. And the distinction between regeneration and conversion, so often obscured, is also noted. Yet in general, Bonnell seems to lose precision of expression, and becomes hazy and vague.

The chapters on anxiety and suicide are worthwhile reading, the former because of the prevalence of anxiety today, and the latter because of its quality. It is to be feared, however, that for a course on how to live, this book leaves something to be desired. On the other hand, the reading will stimulate interest in the problems discussed, and will provide some degree of analysis.


Antidote To Anxiety

Faith for Personal Crises, by Carl Michalson (Scribners, 1958, 179 pp., $3.50) is reviewed by Paul R. Pulliam, Minister of First United Presbyterian Church, Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Article continues below

Man is hounded by crucial situations, says Dr. Michalson, and theology is shirking its duty if it fails to tell us how we can cope with these crises. What is a crucial situation? It is one which inescapably confronts all men, forcing them to some response—the kind of response which determines their whole direction of life. Dr. Michalson’s method is to begin with a life situation and work back toward a solution. To this end he divides men into three main types: the rebellious, the recessive, and the resigned. How these types will react to different crises and how the Christian faith heals a crisis is, in general, the plan of each chapter. Specifically, the book discusses the crises of guilt, doubt, vocation, marriage, suffering, and death.

As we are faced with any of these situations they become crucial to the degree that anxiety is present. In small doses anxiety is the spur that hustles us on to achievements. But when anxiety pushes out of proportion to the apparent danger, it becomes a rock that breaks us in two. The Christian faith, however, provides us with an antidote to anxiety. Recurring throughout the book is the theme that to meet life man must know who he is and who God is. The fact that we are created in God’s image tells us who we are and that we are to live responsible lives before God. This is the knowledge that unifies and heals.

Take the matter of guilt for example. There are two critical ways of bearing guilt: by blaming others for our faults, or by hating ourselves. “The Christian answer to the crisis of guilt is to show that the burden of guilt is unbearable simply because man is not meant to bear it himself. Only Jesus Christ is the sin-bearer. Because of him there is now no condemnation” (p. 51). Or take the problem of doubt. Where doubt is a bona fide intellectual doubt, the answer is simply to doubt our doubts. But how can we handle the situation where doubts spring from an emotional need to doubt? Here doubt becomes a passion that can only be resolved by the opposite passion—faith. To the doubter, therefore, must come the story of who God is and who we are. As a joke elicits spontaneous laughter from the morose, so will this knowledge elicit faith from the heart of the doubter (p. 92).

The treatment of vocation is good. Here again the same theme prevails. “Wholeness of meaning comes when a man understands who he is, the image of God, responsible to His being and the beneficiary of His mercies” (p. 113). When a man understands this he will see the democracy of all work. He will also feel deliverance from the moral burden which much work places upon us. (At this point the argument tends to weaken into a teleological ethic allowing the end to justify the means, cf. p. 110.) In the chapter on suffering he points out that suffering which arises as a result of discipleship does not produce a crisis. Crisis arises only when suffering seems so irrational that we cry, “Why did this happen?” The answer given is that we need to know God does not intend suffering. Rather it is the work of Satan. Death is similarly treated.

Article continues below

While the book has so much that is helpful—including a masterful style and effective illustrations—it seems to me that it is liable to one serious criticism. Michalson’s acceptance of modern critical theories of Scripture and his rejection of the Bible as it stands (pp. 55, 82) mean that he also rejects the Bible view of man’s problem. Man’s sin, his lost condition, and God’s judgment are not treated as objective matters. Therefore, the cure of anxiety can only stem from sympathetic analysis and inspired insight rather than miraculous regeneration.


Speculative Syncretism

The First Christian: A Study of St. Paul and Christian Origins, by A. Powell Davies (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, New York, 1958, 275 pp., $4.50), is reviewed by John H. Skilton, Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Dr. Davies, the late minister of All Souls’ Unitarian Church, Washington, D. C., credits Paul with a remarkable gift of syncretism, with a constructive, originative genius which fused elements of various origins, and founded a church. In his thinking Paul was the first Christian, and the reconstruction which he gives of early Christian history is of the naturalistic type. His epistemology is a very confident rationalism, and he never seems to question his own conclusions, however bizarre they may appear. As one may suppose of a Unitarian, there is a lack of any adequate consideration of the merits of the conservative approach to Christian origins and to conservative works at all in the field.

Even though the reader may take in its plain meaning Paul’s own testimony that he preached a gospel which was the same as that of the other apostles and was in accordance with the Old Testament Scriptures, and even though he does not credit the apostle with the kind of originative activity Davies supposes that he performed, he will nevertheless credit the author with facile powers of syncretism and speculation.

Article continues below


Bridging The Gulf

The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, by R. V. G. Tasker (Eerdmans, 1958, 192 pp., $3), is reviewed by Wick Broomall, Author of The Holy Spirit.

The author of this excellent little commentary is also the general editor of the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, to which the volume under review belongs. This series of commentaries is designed to bridge the gulf between the very scholarly commentary and the very popular commentary. This design is impeccably carried out in Dr. Tasker’s contribution.

Introductory questions receive adequate attention—but abstruse problems are carefully by-passed. The aim is to edify rather than entangle and perplex. Every verse is dealt with either by itself or in conjunction with some other verse. Variant readings are proposed where the textual evidence warrants their consideration and adoption. Modern translations (especially the AV, RV, and RSV) are often cited, and preference is shown, with adequate reasons, for the better translation in each case. Quotations from other commentators add a commendable flavor to the judicious comments of the author.

Dr. Tasker accepts, without mental reservations, the Pauline authorship of II Corinthians. He defends, with irrefragable logic, the unity of this epistle. On grounds of external and internal evidence, he shows that the modern ideas of interpolations and misarrangements imputed to this epistle are precariously indefensible.

As professor of New Testament exegesis at King’s College, University of London, since 1936, Dr. Tasker is adequately equipped to deal with the intricate historical and exegetical problems with which this epistle abounds. Trite as it may sound, Dr. Tasker’s commentary is multum in parvo. It just about reaches the summa cum laude of sound and edifying interpretation; its flaws are almost nonexistent.


Pictorial History

The Way, the Truth and the Life, by Ralph Pallen Coleman and Elizabeth Morton (John C. Winston Co., Philadelphia, 1958, 121 pp.), is reviewed by Marian J. Caine, Editorial Assistant of CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

This is a pictorial history of the Bible for children. Writer Elizabeth Morton has interpreted simply and briefly the colored illustrations which Ralph Coleman, native of Philadelphia, gives to familiar Old and New Testament stories.

The pictures are reproductions of works which have previously appeared on religious calendars and in popular denominational journals. In general appearance, the book is attractively bound, neat, and colorful.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.