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Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth
Paperback: Abingdon Press, 2013
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Reviewed by Shaun C. Brown
In William Willimon’s latest book, Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth, Willimon presents the first volume in a series of books for popular audiences called Belief Matters. Willimon says, “In the Belief Matters series we will joyfully explore the riches of the faith, the adventure of Christian believing, the gift of Christian theology. We are going to dare to think like Christians” (ix). While Incarnation and the following volumes are addressed to popular audiences, Willimon insists that these volumes will not seek “to be lost in dumbing down Jesus” (ix), for Jesus spoke a challenging word to people. Willimon seeks in Incarnation to discus the mystery of Jesus Christ, the God who became fully human, or as he says, “In Christ, heaven and earth meet; God gets physical” (xi). Willimon calls Jesus’ salvific work in the Incarnation “the most important word Christians have to say to the world” (92).
Willimon speaks of Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), the one who makes God known to us. Christ not only reveals God, but also reconciles people to God. Christ took on flesh, as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed says, “for us . . . and our salvation” (55). To understand Jesus, contemporary people are largely reliant upon the Gospels and other New Testament writings, which Willimon notes do not simply report historical facts, but seek to lead people to faith.
Willimon situates Jesus within the people of Israel, and as the Son of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one through whom all things were made. Willimon also argues that the Incarnation is not out of character for the God of Israel, for as is seen in a variety of stories in the Old Testament, “This God shows up” (33). The Incarnation pertains not only to Jesus’ birth, but his entire embodied life, death, burial, and resurrection.
Willimon notes that we do not only understand Incarnation as something that took place two thousand years ago. Instead, we also experience Incarnation in the worshiping life of the church. “We wash with water in baptism; we ingest wine and bread in the Eucharist. . . . We dare to believe that God uses these thoroughly human activities—bathing, eating, and drinking—to come very close to us in all of God’s holy otherness” (61). The church is called to embody Jesus in its various ministries, from works of service to works of art.
Willimon throughout Incarnation writes in an accessible way, but introduces people to a variety of intellectual heavyweights, such as Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, John Wesley, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and N.T. Wright. Willimon not only presents an orthodox picture of Jesus, but also presents this picture in contrast to ancient (e.g., Arius, adoptionists, docetists) and contemporary (e.g., Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Bart Ehrman) heretical understandings of Jesus. Willimon emphasizes throughout Incarnation that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus, is not the god people expect. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The Incarnation is scandalous, for Jesus entered a world full of sin and evil, and even died a most humiliating death, in order to save creation.
While Incarnation is not an essential book for a scholars library or a possible college or seminary textbook, it could be a helpful volume for pastors or Sunday school teachers introducing Jesus to high school students, new Christians, or people interested in the Christian faith. William Willimon has set a high bar for later authors in the Belief Matters series.
Shaun C. Brown is the Associate Minister of Youth at Central Holston Christian Church in Bristol, TN, where he lives with his wife Sherri. This fall he will begin a doctoral program in theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.