Christ and Reconciliation
Living in the third millennium we find ourselves in a world shaped by cultural, ethnic, sociopolitical, economic, and religious plurality. These are the sorts of issues that Christians cannot ignore while doing ministry in a globalized world, yet many Christians have been guilty of not paying serious attention to these realities. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen in Christ and Reconciliation attempts to address this problem. Christ and Reconciliation is volume one of a five-volume systematic theology project designed to address these issues while staying faithful to Scripture, the long-standing tradition of the church, and a broadly evangelical perspective. In this the first volume, he explains that this project is built upon two key convictions. First, it builds upon the conviction that systematic theology, or what he calls constructive theology, must be faithful to Scripture and to Christian tradition, especially but not limited to confessions and creeds. Second, this project is based upon the conviction that in order to coherently argue for the truth of Christian doctrine in our pluralized world, there is a need for Christian theology to engage in conversation and dialogue with those outside of our tradition (p. 24). Holding on to these convictions results in what he calls a “fresh innovative vision of Christian doctrine and theology” (p. xii). One might call this theological project “fresh and innovative” not because he deviates from Scripture and Christian tradition, but rather because he addresses various topics not normally addressed in systematic theology for instance: violence, race, ethnicity, inclusivity, colonialism, and the theology of other religions.
Although Kärkkäinen believes that the person and work of Christ cannot easily be separated in actuality, he believes that it is helpful to do so for the sake of study. Thus he divides this book into two sections, Christ and Reconciliation. He begins the first section, “Christ,” by spending 10 chapters on the doctrine of the person of Christ. Chapter one covers his methodology for doing Christology, he points out the flaws of doing Christology from above and Christology from below and argues that what is needed is a more relational and dynamic Christology. Chapter two focuses on the importance of the messianic ministry of Christ, especially as it is seen in Christ’s deeds, words, and compassion towards the marginalized. In this chapter Kärkkäinen begins to engage Islamic and Buddhist thought on Christ’s earthly work. Chapter three continues the discussion of Christ’s earthly work, but this time the discussion is carried out from a perspective of various contexts. This chapter is a helpful introduction to those unfamiliar with “contextual theology.” This is followed by a chapter dedicated to the discussion of Jesus ministry in a Jewish context. Chapters five through eight cover material addressed in a typical systematic theology. In these chapters he covers Christological topics stemming from the ecumenical councils, especially Chalcedon. This discussion covers a range of topics including incarnation, kenosis, pre-existence, the virgin birth, Christ’s sinlessness, Christ’s resurrection, and the relationship between Christ and the Holy Spirit. His discussion of these topics is thoroughly evangelical in tone. Chapters nine and ten are specifically devoted to dialogue with those outside of orthodox Christianity. In chapter nine Kärkkäinen discusses contemporary efforts in the global north and in Asia to make the incarnation more inclusive. Some of his dialogue partners are John Cobb, John Hick, and Raimundo Panikkar. He concludes that these theologian’s efforts at inclusivity result in a sort of pluralism that Christians cannot accept. Having established his commitment to Scripture, Tradition, and the uniqueness of Christ in chapter nine Kärkkäinen engages in dialogue with Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions regarding the person of Christ.
Having examined the person of Christ from a tradition affirming, dialogue engaging position he moves on to examine the work of Christ in the second section titled, “Reconciliation.” His treatment of this topic is based on the conviction that reconciliation should be thought of in holistic terms. According to Kärkkäinen reconciliation should be thought of in terms of ever-widening circles, beginning with the personal experience of reconciliation and ending with the reconciliation of the cosmos, heaven, and earth (p. 293). The concept of reconciliation being in “ever-widening circles” provides the structure for his discussion of the work of Christ which includes a historical study of atonement theories (chapter 11), a defense against accusations of violence in some of these theories (chapter 12), and his own contemporary theology of reconciliation which is thoroughly Trinitarian and non-reductionistic (chapter 13). Having addressed the personal aspects of reconciliation, Kärkkäinen covers some of the social aspects of reconciliation. This includes a discussion of how the church as a reconciled community can live and work toward the reconciliation of men and women with God and among themselves (chapter 14). The book concludes with a chapter covering some of the similarities and differences between Christianity and Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism regarding the nature of salvation and reconciliation.
Kärkkäinen’s book is particularly strong in various areas; he ought to be commended for his work in these areas. First, he should be commended for the manner in which he engages pluralism. Despite what some might believe to be a capitulation to pluralism, his dialogue with other religions is thoroughly evangelical. As one reads this book, it is apparent that Kärkkäinen is committed to the authority of Scripture, the atoning work of Christ on the cross, the need for conversion to Christ, and the importance of sharing the gospel. He is also deeply committed to the unique nature of Christ and the importance of holding tightly to Christian tradition. Both of these commitments are vital for engaging in inter-faith dialogue. His commitment to these two things allows him to avoid the mistakes of inhospitable exclusivism and pluralistic inclusivism. In navigating between these two positions he follows the lead of Gavin D’Costa who calls for a robust and unabashed tradition based dialogue (p. 223). Kärkkäinen’s commitment to the uniqueness of Christ and the Christian faith is especially seen in chapter 9 where he vigorously refutes the pluralistic theology of John Hick.
Kärkkäinen should also be applauded for providing useful information to missionaries who work in Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu contexts and want to think through their work in terms of Christological lenses. For instance if a missionary working in India wants to speak with Hindus regarding the incarnation of Christ he would find a useful discussion of Hindu avatars. He learn that what Hindus believe about the incarnations of Brahman and that Hindus will allow for the divine status of Jesus if he is counted as one among many other incarnated figures. The missionary will see how he might be able to engage in dialogue with these concepts while arguing for the belief that Jesus is the unique incarnation of God himself. If a Christian missionary ministers to Buddhists he will be able to turn to the section on Christ’s earthly ministry and learn about the value that Buddhists assign to Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes, but he will also read about how Buddhists vehemently reject Jesus’ emphasis on the Kingdom and eschatological rule of God (p. 60). This discussion might serve as a valuable resource for missionaries preparing to go into such contexts as well as those who already find themselves working there.
Although there is much that Kärkkäinen does well, there are also several shortcomings within Christ and Reconciliation. First, some of his critiques of traditional evangelical doctrines like Penal Substitutionary Atonement might make some readers uncomfortable. Although he doesn’t deny the doctrine he questions its priority as a metaphor for atonement and he questions its usefulness in communicating the gospel in our contemporary context. This could be a stumbling block for those who see penal substitution as the central metaphor for atonement, nevertheless he believes that this is one metaphor among others that captures the gravity of Christ’s work on the cross.
Second, there are some problems with his discussion of “contextual theology” e.g. black theology, Latino theology, and feminist theology. Kärkkäinen rightly points out that contextual theologies haven’t been taken very seriously among evangelicals. He shows that he takes them seriously be providing a very throughout and useful overview of some of these contextual theologies. This will be a helpful introduction to those unfamiliar with this sort of theology. However what is concerning is his uncritical acceptance of some of these theologies. There are several fundamental problem with these theologies that Kärkkäinen fails to address. First, many of these theologies forget about the Jewishness of Jesus, they tend to create Jesus in their own image. This happens because these theologies often begin with experience rather than with Scripture. This leads to Christology that distorts our understanding of Jesus. The Jesus presented by some of these theologies does not look much like the Jesus we find in the Bible. Second, many of these Christologies have a tendency towards Arianism. Their focus on Christ’s work to reconcile humans to one another tends to overshadow their focus on Christ’s work to reconcile humans to God. Although Kärkkäinen’s own Christology doesn’t succumb to either of these pitfalls, he ought to address theses problems more thoroughly. Nevertheless, we ought to pay attention to these contextual theologies all the while making sure that we conform our theology to Scripture and the Church’s understanding of Scripture as expressed in the confessions and creeds.
Kärkkäinen attempts to do evangelical theology while addressing issues of cultural, ethnic,sociopolitical, economic, and religious plurality. The result is a volume on Christology which is rooted in Scripture and tradition, but is very aware of our context in the third millennium. Kärkkäinen carefully represents the different views he engages with, both within the Christian tradition and outside of it as well. His dual commitments to the authority of Scripture and the necessity for dialogue makes for a book that will be an invaluable resource for those who find themselves thinking about Christology while out on the mission field.