Book Review: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation

*Just thought I’d repost this book review I did of Christian Kettler’s book on the vicarious humanity of Christ. If you are interested in better understanding a central doctrine for Evangelical Calvinist thought, then Kettler’s book is sure to help you in this endeavor; and on that basis I highly commend Christian’s book to you.

The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011)  ISBN: 13: 978-1-61097-166-9, Paperback, 338 pp. Price: $29.60

by: Christian D. Kettler

To begin, I would like to say thank you to James Stock of Wipf and Stock Publishers for graciously sending me this review copy.

The author, Christian D. Kettler is currently Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. He earned his PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary under the watchful eyes of the late Drs. Geoffrey Bromiley and Ray Anderson. This particular book, under review, represents Kettler’s PhD dissertation (which was originally published in 1991 by University Press of America) which he submitted at Fuller Theological Seminary in the late 80s. Besides being supervised by Bromiley and Anderson for his doctorate, Kettler also served as Thomas F. Torrance’s teaching assistant in 1981 (when Torrance was at Fuller); it was during this time that Kettler was motivated to research what was a central doctrine for TF Torrance (p. v), that is, the vicarious humanity of Christ.

The book, by way of organization, is helpfully broken down into three parts. Part One is titled: The Problem of the Reality of Salvation in Contemporary Theology. This first part of the book is made up of five chapters: Chapter 1, Salvation as Immanence: Process Theology (John B. Cobb, Jr.) p. 15 & Liberation Theology (Leonardo Boff) p. 25. Chapter 2, Salvation as Eschatology (Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg) p. 41. Chapter 3, Salvation as Universalism (John Hick) p. 63. Chapter 4, Salvation as Humanization (Hans Küng) p. 73. And Chapter 5, The Humanity of God as Critique of Anthropocentric Theologies, p. 81. This section serves as a survey of various theologies, as the aforementioned table of contents illustrates, that will provide a context which Kettler will offer critique of later in the other sections of the book. In fact Kettler moves from this first section by appealing to Karl Barth’s Humanity of God, as offering a critique of what Kettler believes are actually anthropocentric modes of theology in the theologies of Cobb, Boff, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Hick, and Küng. Here is what Kettler writes in summary of this section, “The problem of their anthropocentric approach for the question of the reality of salvation is then critiqued through Karl Barth’s doctrine of the vicarious humanity of God, which becomes a bridge leading us into the main body of  our study, Part Two, ‘The Vicarious Humanity of Christ as the External Expression of the Eternal Humanity of God.’” (p. 6) This leads us to Kettler’s ‘Part Two’.

Part Two of Kettler’s work, as just noted, is entitled: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ as the External Expression of the Eternal Humanity of God. This section is made up of four chapters, and they are: Chapter 6, Vicarious Humanity as Theological Reality (T.F. Torrance) p. 121. Chapter 7, Vicarious Humanity as Epistemological and Hermeneutical Reality (John McLeod Campbell) p. 155. Chapter 8, Vicarious Humanity as Soteriological Reality: The Vicarious Repentance of Christ, p. 187. Chapter 9, Vicarious Humanity as Eschatological Reality: The Exalted Humanity of Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 205. This section of the volume serves as Kettler’s main body of engagement with the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ. He starts fittingly with Thomas Torrance’s doctrine here, since T. F. Torrance is known as one of the primary advocates for giving this doctrine prominence in his own dogmatic endeavor. Kettler writes as he opens his section on Torrance:

Thomas F. Torrance is one contemporary theologian who has repeatedly in his writings brought up the significance of the vicarious humanity of Christ for salvation. This is a humanity which becomes the basis for a renewed and restored humanity. Certainly such an approach holds promise to help us in our search for “the reality of salvation. (p. 121)

Kettler develops this theme, per the already mentioned break down of the chapter, through the various motifs that make up this theme or doctrine in the theologies of Thomas Torrance, John McLeod Campbell [another Scottish Theologian prior to Torrance’s time], an Anglican named R. C. Moberly, James B. Torrance [Thomas’ brother]; and then Kettler does exegetical work in the epistle to the Hebrews which yields more material for better understanding the scriptural basis for the theologies of the aforementioned theologians (p. 7). After this work is done, Kettler moves the reader to his Part Three.

The third section, or ‘Part Three’ is called: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ as the Locus of the Reality of Salvation in the World: Vicarious Humanity as Ecclesial Reality. This section is made up of two chapters, they are entitled: Chapter 10, Humanity Displaced: The Judge Judged in our Place (Karl Barth), p. 233. Chapter 11, Humanity Restored: Christ as the Last Adam and the Church as the Body of Christ, p. 263. Kettler offers a summary of this section:

[I]n Part Three, the locus of the vicarious humanity of Christ is found in the church, the body of Christ. But this is true only as the church becomes “displaced” by the humanity of “the Judge judged in our place” (Karl Barth) and “restored” as the church becomes “the Community of the last Adam.” The character of this community is not found in itself, but in God,  through the lordship of the Spirit (“the community of the Spirit”) and, then, through the fruit of concrete, often unspectacular, acts of faith, love and hope in the world (“the community of faith, hope, and love”). In all of this, Rashkolnikov’s question, the question of every atheist and agnostic, is never far behind: “And what does God do for you?” — the question of the reality of salvation. (p. 7)

You notice that Kettler mentions ‘Rashkolnikov’, that’s because he opens, in his preface, and closes in his epilogue with a question offered in Dostoyevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment. Kettler creatively uses Dostoyevsky’s writing to frame the general question that his study is seeking to answer; that is, ‘the reality of salvation’.

What this reviewer found worthy of commendation in Kettler’s book is that he provides a clear organizational scheme to his book. He offers careful and cogent analysis of the various theologies that implicate a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ. Furthermore, Kettler’s study is rather ground breaking; there has not been many works “published” (to my knowledge) that broach this doctrine, and seek to develop it as a vital doctrine that has dogmatic, ethical, and pastoral reference for the Christian church. Something that stood out to this reader was Kettler’s careful exegesis of the Christology offered in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is not often that one finds exegetical work done in a study that is primarily of dogmatic significance. So this reviewer found this a noteworthy move reflected in the research of Christian Kettler.

While this review has not found anything negligent in the efforts of Kettler, there is some room for improvement. The first thing of note (and this is something that Kettler had no control over at the time, of course not!), is that Kettler’s work is rather dated. And so the theologies he surveys in the beginning of the book may not have the relevance that some readers of dogmatic theology, today, might want. Secondly, having a sense of where ‘Barth’ studies are in their current form (in the 21st century context), this reviewer believes that some of Kettler’s analysis of Barth’s own thought might not prove as ground breaking or pertinent as it once may have in Kettler’s original context in the 1980s and 90s. Ultimately, the only real area for improvement that this reviewer found of note is something that Christian Kettler really had no control over; the material is somewhat dated. That said, there is not a lot of material available in this area of research, so Kettler’s work is a gem if your interests fall in the area of soteriology, Christology, and in particular, the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ.

I would highly recommend this book for researchers in this area, for academics and theologians, for the motivated seminary student, and for the thoughtful and persistent lay Christian. On a five star rating system, this reviewer gives Christian Kettler’s book a four and a half.

%d bloggers like this: