Saturday, February 05, 2005
Book Review: 'Touched with Our Feelings'
The relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ has been a sore point of controversy throughout the history of Christianity. There are two equal and opposite errors regarding the nature of Christ: one is to over-emphasise his divine nature leading to heresies such as docetism -- the idea that God did not really come in the flesh but only appeared to do so; and the other is to over-emphasise his humanity leading to heresies such as that of Arius who believed that Christ was not divine but was the highest created being. One denomination which has struggled with these issues over the course of its own history is Seventh-day Adventism (SDA). To read the history of this doctrine within this movement provides an excellent insight into the issues of Christ's nature, in particular, his human nature. Early SDAs believed that Christ came in sinful human flesh with the only difference from the rest of us that he didn't actually sin. Around the 1950s, however, a 'new theology' of Christ's human nature began to emerge within the denomination -- at least, new for Seventh-day Adventism. A number of their theologians began to teach that Christ came in the human nature of Adam before the Fall. This has been the understanding of most of Christendom but not by the SDA Church up until that time. Of course, the conservative/traditional theologians of the denomination reacted against this movement and, since then, the debate has raged without any end in sight. J R Zurcher's highly readable book Touched with Our Feelings: A Historical Survey of Adventist Thought on the Human Nature of Christ describes the history of this doctrine within the SDA church from the early 1800s to the present day. His overall purpose is to show that the original understanding of Seventh-day Adventists was in the fallen human nature of Christ (which, in his view, is the correct view) and that, since the 1950s, the push by some SDA theologians toward a more orthodox Christian view is a departure from the truth. Despite Zurcher's obvious agreement with the belief that Christ came with a fallen human nature, he presents what seems to be an objective and fair survey of the debate with Seventh-day Adventism. He leaves his positive support of his view to the last chapter of the book although hints of it obviously come through in other chapters. In his last chapter he offers what he considers to be the biblical evidence in support of Christ's human nature being that of fallen humanity. This is an important place to finish because a good deal of time within Seventh-day Adventism is spent arguing from the writings of their prophetess, Ellen G White. Zurcher tries to avoid that in his last chapter. He is not entirely successful at this because on a number of occasions Ellen White's views intrude into his argument. There are a number of good reasons for reading this book. Firstly, it provides an interesting case study of a denomination which has tried to grapple with the mysterious doctrine of the nature of Christ -- not only through intellectual debate but also through some interesting deviations such as the Holy Flesh Movement which, during the late 1800s, asserted that a person's flesh became like that of Adam's before the Fall. All of this makes for fascinating reading. Secondly, it is an interesting case study of theological debate in its own right. Along the way there are some interesting issues to do with what documents are authoritative for believers in their struggle to find truth. The prophetess of Seventh-day Adventism, Ellen G White, features prominently in the story on both sides of the debate. There are also practical implications that are derived from an individual's understanding of the human nature of Christ and the nature of the gospel. In my view, Zurcher achieves his aim of showing that early Seventh-day Adventists believed in the fallen human nature of Christ. However, I do not believe it is appropriate to read this book with the intention of deciding what is truth in this matter. There may be some within Seventh-day Adventism who will accept the original doctrine because it was the belief of the founders of the denomination and because they believe that Ellen White confirms that position. But, of course, neither of those is adequate as the basis of belief. For the Christian, the final and ultimate authority is the Bible and the truth must be evaluated on that basis alone. The Seventh-day Adventists' own Statement of Fundamental Beliefs state that quite clearly. For the general Christian reader, then, the book can be read for the valuable insights and lessons that can be derived from any story of the followers of Christ as they struggle to be faithful disciples. It may also motivate us to pursue a greater understanding of the miracle of the incarnation -- God, in Christ, reconciling the whole world to himself. Related Links Non-Seventh-day Adventist The Divine and Human Nature of Christ -- Herman Bavinck Did Christ Have a Fallen Human Nature? -- Donald McLeod Human Nature of Christ, The -- Torrey's Topical Textbook Seventh-day Adventist Christ's Human Nature -- Angel Manuel Rodriguez The Nature of Christ -- GreatControversy.org Buy Touched with Our Feelings from Amazon.com