The Father’s Will: Christ’s Crucifixion and the Goodness of God
?by nicholas e. lombardo, o.p.
?oxford, 288 pages, $99
Sound Christian theology,” writes Nicholas Lombardo, “must keep a clear distance between God’s will and the moral evil of Christ’s crucifixion.” This is easier said than done. How is it possible to affirm, as Christians traditionally have done, that the violent death of Jesus is central to God’s eternal plan for human salvation and, simultaneously, that God is not responsible for the murderous anger of Jesus’s opponents, the savage brutality of the Roman guards, or the greedy betrayal of Judas Iscariot? Must we conclude, as some recent critics have, that to insist on the necessity of the cross for human salvation is “to make God a divine sadist and a divine child abuser”? Lombardo thinks not, and in his new book, The Father’s Will: Christ’s Crucifixion and the Goodness of God, he provides a bold and creative defense of both the necessity of the cross and the goodness of God.
Lombardo’s primary goal is to provide a theological evaluation of three traditional understandings of the role of Christ’s death in human salvation. But he begins by laying out the tools for that task. In the first section of the book, Lombardo draws on recent discussions in analytic philosophy to bring added clarity to the language of will, intention, and the possibility of “double effect reasoning.” He does not think that these can serve as the foundation for a positive theological construction of the meaning of Christ’s death. His claims are more modest. Assuming that God is incapable of moral evil, Lombardo uses philosophy to lend greater precision to discussions of God’s will and intentions and of the human will of Jesus.
In the second section, “New Testament Evidence,” Lombardo engages with critical biblical scholarship in an effort to establish basic positive criteria that must be present in any valid understanding of the cross. Regarding Jesus’s historical attitude toward his own death, Lombardo makes a compelling case that Jesus expected to die and that he regarded his death as central to his ministry. He also claims that, whatever one’s position on disputed biblical passages, we can agree at least that, according to the witness of the New Testament, God “hands over” Christ to be crucified and that Christ’s death is necessary for the salvation of the world. On these matters, Scripture speaks unequivocally, and, for Lombardo, this means that any theological understanding of the cross that somehow undermines these claims must be found wanting.
The third and final section of the book is where this philosophical and biblical groundwork pays off. Here, Lombardo evaluates three influential understandings of the role of the cross in salvation: Anselm’s satisfaction theory, Abelard’s moral-influence theory, and the patristic motif of the devil’s ransom. Of the three, only the devil’s-ransom interpretation meets Lombardo’s criteria. Anselm, despite all his best efforts, ultimately fails in his effort to preserve the moral goodness of God, and Abelard cannot account for the necessity of the cross. However, the patristic understanding of Christ’s death as a ransom that frees humanity from its subjection to evil and death succeeds on both counts. Lombardo does not think that this solidifies the devil’s-ransom theory as the one and only true understanding of the cross, but he does think that it should incline us to give the theory a more sympathetic hearing.
All readers will benefit from Lombardo’s broad learning, multidisciplinary approach, and clear reasoning, but not all will agree with him on every count. I, for one, remain unconvinced that the devil’s ransom held as central a place in early Christian thought as Lombardo thinks it did, and I continue to wonder what role the Law plays in the necessity of Christ’s death. Nevertheless, for anyone wanting a thorough analysis of this thorny question, I can think of no better book than The Father’s Will. It may not silence all the critics of the cross, but it will undoubtedly give Christians greater confidence in their message of a crucified Christ and a good and loving God.
Jonathan Bailes is a Ph.D. student in historical theology at ?Boston College.
The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fulfilling God’s Kingdom on Earth?
by dallas willard and ?gary black?
harperone, 352 pages, $25.99
The late Dallas Willard lived a life rooted in reality. In his long career as a philosopher at the University of Southern California, he earned a reputation for being perhaps the foremost scholar on Edmund Husserl, whose direct realism argues, counter to the constructivism of Immanuel Kant, that there is indeed an objective reality that is at least partially knowable via the mind. That word reality peppers Willard’s popular work, too, including the posthumously published The Divine Conspiracy Continued, which moves his focus from personal spiritual formation to what one might call “the real world” of work. As always for Willard, God is the most important part of reality, and Jesus offers not unobtainable idealism but actual wisdom for dealing with life here and now.
It is a fitting farewell for a man whom many consider a gentle giant of reform in Evangelicalism. In The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988), Willard helped to reintroduce Evangelicals to ancient practices, including fasting, solitude, and confession, that he feared were being treated as mere “historical curiosities.” In his widely acclaimed The Divine Conspiracy (1998), Willard rather boldly sought “to gain a fresh hearing for Jesus, especially among those who believe they already understand him,” emphasizing Christ as a brilliant teacher, not only a sacrificial savior.
In the sequel, Willard, with coauthor Gary Black, engages the ideas of the common good and moral leadership, arguing against the notion that leadership skills can be effectively compartmentalized apart from personal character. Good leaders are good people, and good people are not formed apart from the resurrected Christ. The authors exhort businessmen and politicians to recognize “stronger hands” than just Adam Smith’s invisible one. Professionals—especially doctors, lawyers, and pastors—are encouraged to take seriously the vows they actually profess. Scholars are urged not to shrink from engaging moral knowledge broadly and, specifically, a genius named Jesus.
Like much of Willard’s work, The Divine Conspiracy Continued offers its analysis at a rather general level with limited case studies, but there is a certain profundity in its earnest simplicity. Yes, it really would make a difference if Christian professionals took their own words seriously regardless of what peers did—and what does it say of our own spiritual states if we find that suggestion naive?
Black, who engaged closely with Willard during the final months of his life, makes a fine collaborator. Black’s own The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith provides a systematic analysis of Willard’s rather unsystematic theology, which emphasized character development over intellectual assent to a detailed vision of doctrinal perfection. Willard is presented as a bridge figure drawing both mainstream Evangelicals and progressive post-Evangelicals to what Black calls “God’s amazing castle of wonders” marked by positive and present “good news”—not just the hell-escaping “opposite of ‘bad news’” they once knew.
John Murdock writes from Texas.
America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation?
by grant wacker?
belknap, 448 pages, $27.95
Unlike many accounts of Billy Graham’s life and ministry, Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation does not construct a heroic fable, nor does he deconstruct the evangelist as a lumbering proselytizer. Rather, we read of “a lanky farm kid from North Carolina” who is a uniquely charismatic and humble human being, dedicated to sharing the Gospel with anyone who will listen.
Wacker’s analysis of Graham’s strengths and weaknesses is thorough and fair. He does not shy away from theological disputes or personal shortcomings, and he rightly acknowledges that the evangelist’s great skill has been “to set traditional theological claims in a setting of national and world crises.”
Graham did so by blazing an entrepreneurial trail rooted in conservative Protestant theology, while refusing to rest on self-congratulatory affirmations. In 1951, he denounced his own community’s deplorable approach to civil rights, chastising the “Southern Baptist Convention for their discriminatory admission policy in Baptist schools.” Six years later he would share the stage with Martin Luther King Jr. at a crusade in New York City. Sadly, the two leaders’ effort to bridge cultural divides never created the conditions to reconcile what Graham called “one of America’s lethal sins,” but their shared vision was ahead of its time.
In triumph and defeat, Graham pursued that vision by building political, social, and cultural bridges—with rock stars, movie stars, presidents, kings, queens, and popes—always in an attempt to communicate the power of Jesus Christ’s life and mission. Of course, he has had his critics. As Wacker points out, “some members of the journalistic and academic elite regarded Graham as regressive” in his approach to issues of racial and social justice. But his enduring ability to convene with and persuade politicians and public figures of all kinds is a testimony to Graham’s belief that “the gospel transcended—or at least ought to transcend—partisan politics.” This belief has been the foundation of an iconic life that America’s Pastor captures so well.
Robert L. Kehoe III writes from Madison, Wisconsin.
Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and Prayer?
by rowan williams?
eerdmans, 92 pages, $10
A frustrating blessing of the mysteries of faith is that we can never wrap our minds around them completely. As familiar as they may seem, there are always new angles from which to see them. In this book based on a series of lectures delivered in Canterbury Cathedral, Rowan Williams takes the four identity markers of the Christian community and helps us do just that.
Williams suggests that we approach the whole Bible as a story God wants to tell us, a story of his own action and of his people’s response to him, and that we ask where we fit into that story. Some will interpret those responses and the way in which we should respond today more conservatively than he, but all should be able to appreciate his calls to read the Bible in light of its entire canon and in light of Christ, its center and key.
I was most struck by his exposition of the priesthood of all believers. Williams defines a priest as “somebody who by offering sacrifice to God recreates a shattered relationship” between God and humanity. All Christians are ordained by their baptism to see broken and disordered situations and to bring into them “the power of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in order to rebuild something.”
This means showing hospitality to others as Christ has shown us hospitality in the Eucharist. It also means that growth in prayer means growth in letting Jesus pray to the Father through you. Hence, Williams writes, “Christians pray because they have to, because the Spirit is surging up inside them. Prayer, in other words, is more like sneezing—there comes a point where you can’t not do it. The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. But because of this there will be moments when . . . it can feel dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about.”
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in theology at ?Boston College.
Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist?
by karen swallow prior
?nelson, 320 pages, $24.99
Hannah More’s life was a long and varied one, peopled with figures such as Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, and Edmund Burke, all of whom counted her a friend and peer. And yet she has since endured the dual damnation of being footnoted by specialists and forgotten by everyone else. In Fierce Convictions, the first biography of More since 2004, Liberty University’s Karen Swallow Prior sets out to restore More’s reputation.
This book looks gaunt by the standards of today’s obese single-volume biographies, but Prior neatly packages a story of how one woman sought to expand “the moral imagination through her words.” She admits readily that More was an undisciplined writer who worked “quickly and impatiently” but suggests that her words had broader and more immediate results even than those of Edmund Burke.
More grew up near Bristol in an Anglican family. Her father was a schoolmaster and, with his wife Mary, had five daughters, of which Hannah was the fourth. Hannah’s was a precocious childhood; she repeated catechism before age four and was given to sermonizing her family from a “play pulpit.” At age sixteen, she started teaching at the School for Young Ladies, founded and run by her sisters.
Later, she moved to London, where, as a “rustic but witty ingénue,” she began writing plays and mingling with Dr. Johnson and the bluestocking circle. Though long out of print now, More’s plays and poems were immensely popular when they were written, selling out theaters and earning the plaudits of King George III. The majority of her dramas were of a moral bent. Most controversial were the Sacred Dramas, a series of plays depicting biblical events, which were met with hostility from the literary elite and strict religionists alike.
More’s activism grew out of her increasing weariness with literary stardom and with the London scene altogether. After moving to a rural cottage, she soon applied her talents to such causes as abolishing slavery and reforming British education. Her faith held her reformist convictions in place. “When I turn my thoughts upon the world there are but three things there which deeply interest me: the state of the church—the religious progress of the king—and the abolition of slavery.”
More’s efforts to end the slave trade in the British Empire are central to Fierce Convictions. Though credit for the end of slavery in Britain is left mostly at the feet of her friend William Wilberforce, the woman whose early life was spent in slave-rich Bristol was “the mastermind behind . . . the abolitionist movement’s most effective campaigns to sway public opinion.”
The effort took decades, weathering fierce economic opposition, the French Revolution, and the parliamentary process. Though accused of radicalism, More always favored a moderate approach, acting as a mediator “in the nexus between two worlds at odds.”
Hannah More died within weeks of slavery’s abolition and four years before Queen Victoria’s coronation. She left £30,000 in earnings from her writing (then unprecedented for a woman), which were given to charities. Orphaned African girls were named after her. Her reputation declined, owing in part to the souring of attitudes toward the Victorians, of which she was deemed to be the first partly because of overly idealistic biographies published after her death. This book attempts to pull More back to earth from the heavens.
Fierce Convictions can only really repel the cynical and the sorrowful, those who hasten to point out the perpetuation of myriad slaveries in our time. Hannah More’s faith was without bottom, to be sure, but faith, for good and ill, has increasing outlets and sources. Today’s reformer froths with convictions to no one’s surprise. More’s better example is in her practicality, in her patience and charity, in her willingness to stand in the nexus between worlds at odds, from which we now have countless to choose.
Chris R. Morgan writes from ?New Jersey.