Book Reviews

Fully Human in Christ

Speidell, Todd H. Fully Human in Christ: The Incarnation as the End of Christian Ethics (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016) 152 pp. $22.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Tyler J. Frick (October 15, 2020)

Much has been written on T.F. Torrance’s significance as a dogmatic, scientific, and even historical theologian, but very little work has sought to read his theology as a significant resource for Christian social ethics. In Fully Human in Christ: The Incarnation as the End of Christian Ethics, Todd H. Speidell seeks to rectify what he perceives as an oversight in Christian ethical discussions and presents Torrance as a resource worthy of consideration for Christian ethicists. Those who know Torrance’s theology well will appreciate the ways in which Speidell uncovers the ethical significance of many of Torrance’s central dogmatic motivations in a manner that faithfully reflects the governing assumptions central to Torrance’s theological project. The book consists of six chapters and two appendices that were originally published as separate essays. The essays argue for a conception of Christian moral reflection that both challenges and functions as an alternative to conventional treatments of social ethics as a discipline independent of theology and to theologies Speidell sees as conditioned by the prevailing conventions and norms of contemporary culture at the expense of the gospel.

The first chapter establishes the framework definitive for the rest of the volume, commending T.F. Torrance’s theology as a viable resource for those engaged in the field of Christian ethics. To highlight the significance of Torrance as an interlocutor for social ethics, Speidell addresses a pair of criticisms registered by David Fergusson and John Webster: that Torrance’s understanding of Jesus’ vicarious humanity eclipses the significance of human agency, and that Torrance’s theology is plagued by a public moral deficit that renders his theology unsuitable for ethical considerations. Speidell addresses the first criticism by demonstrating that the vicarious humanity of Jesus is not a doctrine that neglects the significance of human moral action, but is only intended to ensure that autonomous moral striving is suspended in order to rightly esteem the gracious character of reconciling action. Once the suspension of autonomous moral striving is rightly discerned, one can recognize the way in which the vicarious humanity of Jesus both elicits and demands a faithful human response on the part of humankind as a whole. Speidell addresses the second criticism by highlighting how the comprehensive nature of Jesus’ salvific action engenders an ethic that is filial rather than political in orientation, thus providing an ethical vision that frames human action in a personal manner rather than in a potentially legalistic or politicized manner. The comprehensive character of Jesus’ reconciling action and the way in which his reconciling action engenders an ethic that pursues reconciliation in concrete human relationships are themes that pervade the rest of the volume.

Chapters two and three reflect on the significance of the vicarious humanity of Christ militating against anthropocentric conceptions of human morality aimed toward self-justification as well as achieving full reconciliation between God and human beings. As Speidell notes, “In his humanity Christ both reveals God to us and reconciles us to God and one another” (53). Humankind’s obedient response to the salvific action of Jesus should not be conceived as merely a potential reality contingent on the obedient action of human agents, but rather as an already abiding and constitutive reality for humankind as a whole. Speidell sees this Christologically conditioned account of human agency as highlighting the enabling ground for ethically responsible human action in the world. Since Christ has achieved reconciliation between God and estranged human beings, humanity is now furnished with necessary capabilities to act in such a way as to make what is already effective in Christ a reality in the present. Speidell’s view of reconciliation as an effective reality that includes all human beings means that

A Christian social ethic must attest to the concrete reality of our restored relationships in Christ. He does not merely leave his life and teaching for us to copy and embody in this world—as if we, rather than his Spirit, continue his presence and work in this world—but he continues to re-present himself as the ongoing reality of social reconciliation and true humanity (53; emphasis original).

Thus the ministry of the church is to embody the reconciliation between human beings that is already a reality because of God’s grace toward humankind. On the basis of Jesus’ vicarious humanity, the church can work toward establishing restored relationships between estranged human beings and breaking down barriers that the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ has already broken down on behalf of all human beings.

Chapter four seeks to advance a trinitarian ontology capable of sustaining a conception of “personal relations in society [that} holds together the unity and diversity of humanity” (87). Whereas the previous chapters focus on how Christ’s salvific action functions as the enabling ground for responsible human action, this chapter focuses on how the doctrine of the Trinity provides the uniquely personal shape that responsible human agency embodies in the world. Therefore, according to Speidell, “A trinitarian ontology of persons in society affirms the public example and witness of the Church as a theological agent of social witness and criticism” (104). The church is called to mirror the “perichoresis of God’s being” in her gatherings and, on that basis, can “be called a model for society” because “God’s triune life of communion, God’s being-as-communion, is the basis and reality of human life” (88), Speidell utilizes his trinitarian account of “persons-in-communion” as the basis for preventing the dignity of the human person from becoming eclipsed by the rampant individualism of contemporary society on the one hand, or the collectivist erosion of the individual on the other. He also registers a criticism toward “social, political and liberationist theologies” (descriptions Speidell employs to categorize a wide array of thinkers, ranging from Leonardo Boff and James Cone to Jürgen Moltmann and Catherine Mowry LaCugna) for lacking sufficient concern to uphold the personal dimensions of human existence (103). Speidell criticizes their “anti-capitalist bent” as failing to recognize the importance of “mediating communities (e.g., families, churches, synagogues, schools, and voluntary associations)” as the institutions that “instruct individuals in virtue and provide an alternative to rugged individualism and utopian collectivism” (95). However, Speidell’s polemic against theologians who are animated by broader structural concerns is exaggerated and uneven, failing to acknowledge how the values inherent to late-modern capitalism have their own dehumanizing characteristics that are hostile both to the dignity of individual persons and the various communities and associations to which they belong.

Chapters five and six are a commendation of the pastoral theology and wisdom of Ray S. Anderson and focus specifically on his Christologically conditioned theological anthropology. Anderson sought to present a conception of the human person as predicated upon “the very humanity of Jesus Christ” (123). Viewing others in accordance with what Jesus achieved for them enables the church to become a community “where the Spirit of Christ joins and unites sinners to God’s own fellowship of being as Father, Son and Spirit” (126). All human beings are included in Jesus’ saving activity, which requires a rethinking of the significance of the Lord’s Supper. As Speidell points out, “Anderson views the Lord’s Supper as an event belonging to Christ, even and especially for those who do not believe” (126). The characteristics definitive of the ministry of Jesus also lead one to reconsider the practice of the Lord’s Supper since “Christ’s sacramental ministry and mission often occurred in the midst of mundane places and activities, such as eating and drinking with sinners and outcasts” (126). Anderson’s inclusive understanding of the Lord’s table provides the church with an understanding of her gathering that can rectify some of the ways in which her members often find themselves estranged and disconnected from the community. As Speidell posits, “The church can offer nothing less than Jesus Christ himself to those in need, especially for those on the margins of the church life and community” (129). The reconciliation achieved in Jesus is a reconciliation achieved for all people indiscriminately, and the gathering of the church ought to reflect this universal reconciliation to the world. Although these chapters are articulated in more of a practical idiom than the previous chapters, scholars interested in questions surrounding a Christian ethic of hospitality would profit much from wrestling with the implications of the material set forth in these two chapters.

The first appendix consists of a radio interview Speidell gave to a Christian radio station on the topic of Christian ethics. This appendix provides a helpful summary of the themes that run throughout the previous chapters, and is also are more accessible to readers who may be engaging in academic theology for the first time. The second appendix is an appreciative critique of the anti-theological assumptions governing the films of Woody Allen. This appendix digresses from the argument set forth in the previous chapters and for that reason I think it should have been excluded from this work.

The weakness of this volume consists in its uncritical posture towards the market-driven logic of late-modern capitalism and its (at times) generic reading and uncharitable interaction with scholars whose theology reflects modes of thinking that Speidell characterizes as “political” or “liberationist” in orientation. However, this volume contains much that is both illuminating and helpful, especially the way in which Speidell expands the use of T.F. Torrance’s theology into the arena of Christian ethics. This expansion provides scholars with the opportunity to read a theologian who has traditionally been confined to conversations surrounding systematic theology or theology’s relationship to the natural sciences in a surprisingly new light and also opens the door to explore his theological writings for unexamined elements that may have been overlooked in the past. Perhaps this volume will elicit further conversations regarding the significance of Torrance’s theological project for the work of Christian ethicists.

Barth scholars should view this work as an impetus for further study as well. Although Torrance was a pioneering figure in shaping the reception of Barth’s theology in the world of English-language scholarship, there are recognizable differences between the two thinkers. Barth did not view the doctrine of the Trinity as a basis for understanding either the identity of human persons or how personal relations within the church ought to function, and he was much more adamant about equating political regimes organized around market demands with the “lordless powers” that are hostile to the witness of the gospel. The differences in political postures between the two thinkers should be further explored and how such political postures are informed by each thinker’s conception of God, God’s activity in the world, and the understanding of human agency that arises as a result.

Tyler J. Frick, Independent Scholar, Ph.D. University of Aberdeen

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.