If non-Western critics are right, American Christians have a skewed view of Jesus. Asian and African American theologians have consistently emphasized the suffering, compassion, and humiliation of Jesus—not just on the cross but in all stages of his earthly life and ministry. Most Americans, on the other hand, like our Jesus triumphant and our Christianity muscular.

Since the "muscular Christianity" movement of the 19th century, preachers from Billy Sunday to modern pulpiteers have favored a Jesus with (in Mark Driscoll's phrasing) "callused hands and big biceps." Sure, we acknowledge that Jesus suffered on the cross for our sins. But we struggle to express how Christ stands in solidarity with the destitute, diseased, and disenfranchised because we fixate on the glorified Lord and forget the suffering Savior.

Because of this, claims one Japanese theologian, "Christianity in the West has become an anomaly." But perhaps it's no wonder. Theological traditions in the Protestant West have plenty to say about Christus victor—the triumphant Christ—but little to say about Christus dolor—the grief-stricken Christ. Is the American theological tradition deficient in its view of Jesus?

Richard J. Mouw and Douglas A. Sweeney aim to answer this question in The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward a More Compassionate Christology (Baker Academic). Mouw (former president of Fuller Seminary) and Sweeney (a professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) have taken the criticisms of their non-European colleagues to heart. They have mined their own traditions (Sweeney's Lutheranism and Mouw's Calvinism) for resources that articulate a more compassionate understanding of Christ, who stands with the marginalized.

Reformation Resources

Mouw and Sweeney lead readers on a brisk walk through 19th-century American theologians that typify Reformed thinking during that era. Some of them, like Charles Hodge and Sojourner Truth, are familiar figures. Others are more obscure. Taken together, they demonstrate that the Reformation traditions can in fact speak meaningfully about God's association, through Christ, with the marginalized.

Reformed theology of the era tended to emphasize sin and conversion as the linchpins of Christian faith while deemphasizing other doctrines. A few theologians, though, were recovering the importance of the Incarnation. John Williamson Nevin, a Princeton seminarian and member of the German Reformed Church, championed the Incarnation as the "true measure and test" of Christianity. He insisted that through it, God identified with suffering humans and that he maintains this solidarity today, even after the resurrection and glorification of Christ. Explained the right way, the Incarnation helps us discuss God's companionship with the weak.

Article continues below

A generation later, Franz Pieper, a Prussian immigrant and later president of the Germanic Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, argued that because Jesus suffered, God himself also suffered. This did not please Calvinists. Reformed thinkers preferred to emphasize the distinction between Christ's two natures, to the point of suggesting that sometimes Jesus operated from his divine nature, and at other times operated from his human nature. Even so, Pieper faithfully recovered an important Lutheran conviction. Martin Luther had said that Christ's divine and human natures were so completely united in the Incarnation that "Mary suckles God with her breasts, bathes God, rocks him, and carries him; furthermore, that Pilate and Herod crucified and killed God." Pieper presented "a passionate God who truly makes himself available to finite, fallen sinners, drawing near to those who seek him in their distress."

Within the Reformed traditions were tools for constructing a more compassionate Christology. But these theoretical affirmations of a suffering Savior went only so far. They still needed to connect to the realm of actual suffering. As the authors say, Reformation formulas lacked "immersion in the realities of the human condition."

This is where African American perspectives provide an important correction. In what may be the book's most interesting section, the authors demonstrate the harmony between the formal theology of the Reformers and the lived theology of American slaves and their descendants. "The suffering Messiah that is latent in Lutheran and Reformed dogmatics," they write, "comes boldly to life in the hymns, sermons, and prayers of subjugated American slaves and their descendants." Sojourner Truth, for instance, was raised (and served) in a Dutch Reformed home where she learned scholastic Reformed theology. She was an heir to the Reformation and agreed with its core theological convictions.

In other words, Truth, along with other slaves and their descendants, held views of Christ, his nature, and the Atonement that Reformation giants like Luther and John Calvin would have shared. But they expanded the scope of the Reformed tradition by emphasizing the suffering of Jesus at every point in his life.

Article continues below

Faithful and Critical

The Suffering and Victorious Christ tackles complex themes and uses scholastic theological vocabulary, especially in the early chapters. Nevertheless, this is the best kind of academic book. The writing is clear and engaging, and it speaks both directly and indirectly to issues of importance to Christians outside the academy.

The authors model how to engage one's own tradition both faithfully and critically. Sweeney and Mouw believe critique should be humble and constructive. They recognize the limits of their own traditions, yet they "also think Japan needs Nicaea and that the African American churches need the Reformation."

Younger evangelicals are sensitive to the plight of the poor and eager to embrace a faith that serves the homeless, illegal immigrants, and those underserved by typical church or government programs. The authors share these concerns, but they are not willing to embrace a compassionate Christology at any cost. They acknowledge in a short interlude that the Roman Catholic tradition speaks of Christ's association with human suffering explicitly and movingly. But it does so in ways that violate Protestant doctrine. The key weakness, they argue, is an overemphasis on the "real presence" of Jesus in the suffering. Mother Teresa believed, for example, that to touch the bodies of the poor was literally to touch the body of Christ. The authors insist that Christ is physically risen, in the flesh, and reigns "at the right hand of God the Father Almighty." To serve the poor, then, is not literally to serve the Lord. Instead, they propose that "God will credit our service to the poor as an act of service to himself."

Some readers might be disappointed to discover that the book is not an introduction to Asian or African American Christology. Asian critiques of Western theology are ultimately a springboard into the questions the authors are asking of their own traditions. And the African American voices are presented mainly to show their harmony with Reformation thinking on the nature of Christ. That said, if you are interested in either Asian or African American sources, the appendix is thorough.

The 19th-century sources Mouw and Sweeney explore are from an age when "most theologians still assumed the responsibility of thinking with the church." The Suffering and Victorious Christ recovers that sense of responsibility. It is a deep and careful reflection on a serious subject. And the questions it seeks to answer are shaped by the experience of the saints in churches both at home and abroad.

Brandon J. O'Brien is editor at large for Leadership Journal. He is a coauthor of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (InterVarsity Press).

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

The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward A More Compassionate Christology
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward A More Compassionate Christology
Baker Academic
Release Date
October 15, 2013
Buy The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward A More Compassionate Christology from Amazon