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Review of “The Self-Donation of God” by Jack D. Kilcrease

Jack D. Kilcrease, The Self-Donation of God: A Contemporary Lutheran Approach to Christ and His Benefits (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013).

Jack Kilcrease has accomplished the near impossible, drawing on his dissertation research and revising it so thoroughly as to produce a book that normal people might actually want to read. (“Normal people” is here understood to indicate a self-selecting and highly nerdy Lutheran laity—and “laity” here is understood to indicate “non-academic” rather than “non-ordained.”) His Self-Donation of God borrows the title and builds on the searching analysis from his doctoral thesis (2009), which treated the doctrine of the atonement within the Lutheran tradition, and presents an account of Christ’s person and work that is driven by Scripture and Lutheran theological discourse. Rather than drawing on the last hundred years of Lutheran academic theology, however, as his dissertation demanded (look, if you’re that nerdy, read it there), Kilcrease focuses on Scripture and interacts with Lutheran theology to the precise extent of “[standing] firmly with one of the foundational documents of the Lutheran Reformation, the Formula of Concord” (1). That said, the author does bring in the occasional reference to historical Lutheran lore as it relates to the subject matter at hand: see the Excursus into 17th-century Swabian and Saxon Lutheran churches on kenosis (225-38). And, really, who could blame him?

Why Christology? The person of Christ and the relationship between his human and divine natures are a mystery, and a subject that sends survivors of seminary back to the harrowing hours they spent trying to understand the arguments of their old friends Apollinaris, Nestorius, Cyril, and Eutyches. In addition to the complexity of the issue at hand, Lutheran theologians have the dubious honor of taking a unique (read: unaccepted by other Christian traditions) approach to these questions. Martin Luther’s doctrine of Christ’s two natures underwrote his controversy over the Lord’s Supper with Ulrich Zwingli and others beginning in the mid-1520s. At its fullest development, the doctrine drew on the idea of the communication of attributes, and Luther argued that Christ’s divine attribute of omnipresence was communicated to his human nature, enabling Christ’s bodily presence in the Supper (as well as everywhere else). In the succinct and damning commentary of Reformed theologian Charles Hodge, the resulting Lutheran doctrines and particularly the doctrine of Christ’s human nature’s ubiquity “are peculiar to that Church and form no part of Catholic Christianity.”1

So, why Christology? indeed. Is this not one of those “knotty theological questions” that “will all be resolved in the hereafter, and meanwhile… can be safely shelved”?2 Well, no—as Kilcrease explains, the “chief article” of Scripture is “Jesus Christ and his redeeming work” (7), and the exposition of this article throughout Scripture is precisely the task the author sets himself. Throughout two chapters on the Old Testament and two on the New, followed by nine on particular theological loci (five on Christ’s person, four on Christ’s work), the author draws on through-lines and echoes in the biblical account that converge in his argument for the primacy of God’s act of “self-donation,” the “giving of the divine being to his people in the form of a promise” (32-33).

In other words, the argument of the book is that Christology is central—because God’s act of self-giving or self-donation is central: the gift of the Incarnation and Christ’s atoning work on the cross is the culmination of the way God eternally is. The echoes of that activity are everywhere: when the LORD says, “By myself I have sworn” (Gen. 22:16) and when Moses pleads for Israel and asks God to “blot me out of the book that you have written” (Ex. 32:32), the actions and words direct our attention, argues Kilcrease, to the self-donation of God in Christ (16, 21). Likewise, the two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus or the two angels seated on either side of his resting place in the sepulcher are deliberate echoes of the two cherubim on either side of the Ark of the Covenant, making Jesus’ person “the new mercy seat” (72) where the presence of the LORD appears and where the blood from Aaron’s and the people’s sin offerings is sprinkled on the Day of Atonement. The text is packed with Easter eggs—in a very literal sense. These alone will make a fantastic preaching aid for pastors who wish to indicate the resonance of the cross throughout the Bible. Be warned, however, that there is no index, either of subjects or Scripture references: so you will have to come by your Easter eggs honestly.

It is odd, given his fixation on the language of God’s “self-donation” in Christ, and given his awareness of Tuomo Mannermaa (quoting him approvingly on p. 249, for example), that Kilcrease does not engage the distinction between Christ as favor and as donum popularized by Finnish Lutherans in the last few decades. But then, this should not be surprising, as one of Mannermaa’s central contentions is the need to reread Luther on this topic without the distorting lens of the (historically situated) Formula of Concord. This position is diametrically opposed to the author’s own, as mentioned above. And indeed, reading against the Formula of Concord and the generation of Lutherans who drafted it allows the “historical conundrum” of our view of Luther as a great teacher, none of whose students apparently grasped his main points.3 Still, one’s faithfulness to the creeds is better admired when the work of interpretation is not so narrowly conceived as it is here.4

Indeed, it is one of the text’s more unfortunate features that the author’s most florid prose is dedicated to the disparaging of other voices within the Christian tradition or within academic theology, rather than the stated central task of expounding the doctrine of Christ’s person. The wound that Reformed theologians like Hodge have dealt the author is particularly apparent. Plenty of petty railing is also done against modern day Epicureans who “[need] scripture to be errant in order to bolster their religion of allegory” (6). Kilcrease is very insistent that his readers should “feel no obligation to adopt this [Epicurean] framework” (7), a stance that seems to miss entirely the fact that a multiplicity of voices (even if some of these are wrong or arguing from an untenable position) can in fact draw readers’ attention to precisely the textual features they would otherwise miss. Instead, Kilcrease adopts a dismissive tone in order to protect his readers from the wrongness of multiplicity—identifying early Christian allegory as docetic (4), Protestant Liberal interpretation as Nestorian (5), and feminist and liberation theologies as gnostic (211), in a rhetorically impressive but ultimately breezy and unsupported way that is unfortunate to find in publication.

In summary, Kilcrease’s work is a fine first offering from a promising scholar and a helpful addition to the standard works on Lutheran Christology such as Bonhoeffer’s Christ the Center, Lienhard’s Luther: Witness to Christ, and Schaller’s Biblical Christology. One could wish that a book on the doctrine of Christ—which in Lutheran thought has always underwritten the doctrine of the sacrament of Christian unity—could have had kinder words for the author’s sisters and brothers in Christ. But then, Luther’s own table manners could have used refinement, too.

Katie M. Benjamin is a Th.D. candidate in European Reformation History and Theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

1. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929), 418.
2. As the character Prior Philip says of transubstantiation in Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth (New York: Signet, 1990), 946.
3. Timothy J. Wengert, Defending Faith: Lutheran Responses to Andreas Osiander’s Doctrine of Justification, 1551-1559 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 3.
4. Compare this mission statement from the school of “theological interpretation” of Scripture: “The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible advances upon the assumption that the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture” (emphasis mine). R. R. Reno, “Series Preface,” in Sam Wells and George Sumner, Esther and Daniel (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013), xi.

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