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An outstanding and innovative exposition of the ethics of Jesus
on November 22, 2012
Today American evangelical churches are in serious moral difficulty. We are in dire need of spiritual and ethical repentance and renewal. In this book, Dr. Glen Stassen, Louis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA, calls Christians to this needed repentance and renewal through his ethics of incarnational discipleship within the context of our modern secular age.
A "thick Jesus" means that Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior was a historically situated, flesh-and-blood person who walked the dusty roads of Palestine, a Jew thoroughly immersed in the Hebraic tradition, especially that of the prophet Isaiah. He lived, taught, and worked within the historical, physical, social, spiritual, and political, realities of his time and place. In this Jesus revealed God's character and provided norms for guiding our lives today. Like Jesus, our ethics must be historical, social, spiritual, and political. They must be embedded in the "thick" realities, struggles, and particularities of earthly life, not in the "thin" conceptualities of platonic idealism or sectarian perfectionism. Stassen wants us followers of Jesus to "enter into" the world and be deeply (thickly) engaged in all its flawed messiness in this "age of interaction."
Toward this end, Stassen offers his Trinitarian paradigm of incarnational discipleship: (1) the holistic sovereignty of God and Lordship of Christ, (2) God revealed thickly, historically in Jesus Christ, and (3) the Holy Spirit, independent of all powers and authorities, reminding us of Jesus and calling us to repentance from ideological entanglements (p. 17). Grasping the narrative character of human cognition, Stassen emphasizes "historical drama" in Jesus and in our living out of the Christian life. He believes that the true test for the validity of an ethic is its historical fruit-how it performs in the "crucible" of history. In this regard, the great German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer plays a prominent role. Stassen is a leading Bonhoeffer scholar.
Seeking an integrative and holistic approach to ethics and life, Stassen draws on diverse sources: Nancey Murphy's conception of scientific research programs (based on the philosophy of Imre Lakatos), Charles Taylor's analysis of modern individualism and secularism, his own background in scientific procedures and methods, the existentialist novels of Albert Camus, as well as careful analysis of biblical texts. Drawing on Bonhoeffer, Stassen offers an intriguing "incarnational" theory of the cross (atonement) that, so far as I know, is new.
Finally, Stassen reiterates his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, giving it a central place in his ethics. For him, the Sermon is not idealistic perfectionism but concrete realism. He presents his "fourteen triads" for interpreting the Sermon and summarizes his ten "transforming initiatives" for just peacemaking, which is one of Stassen's central concerns as a Christian living in today's conflicted world. Stassen is on a mission to see Christians live out their faith in a morally credible way in the real world. He wants to see Christian churches pass the moral test of history. His passion for this is evident in the book.
Stassen is a man of remarkable character and vision, extremely knowledgeable, widely read, a brilliant and accomplished scholar and thinker. Yet he remains a profoundly personable and humble man. And he puts feet on his faith. He is not content to stay in his office writing books or hobnobbing with his fellow professors. At age 76, he is an activist involved in the rough and tumble problems of the world such as peacemaking in the Middle East. In the book he tells of his extensive work in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The book is dense in places, and Stassen's sense of urgency sometimes leads him to try to put too much meaning into too few words. Also, if you are not familiar with some concepts, such as Nancey Murphy's theory of scientific validation, you may find parts of the book a little hard to understand. It also would have been nice if Stassen had placed Jesus and ourselves more realistically in the ecological contexts in which all earthly life is located. But, overall it is an excellent and easy read. Stassen's message comes through loud and clear.
All Christians (and a lot of non-Christians) ought to read this book. And it is, or ought to be, required reading for all students and scholars in Christian ethics. When all is said and done, Stassen wants only one thing-that all of us who name Jesus as Lord follow him realistically, incarnationally and in so doing bring glory to God. As his final sentence asks: "Will you join me in the apostolic witness to a thicker Jesus-in the tradition of incarnational discipleship?" (p. 221).