Book review: The Unique and Universal Christ

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Drew Collins, The Unique and Universal Christ, (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2021)

by Howard C Bigg, Cambridge

When I received this book for review, I was not prepared for the kind of book it turned out to be! As I began to read, I quickly became aware of three things. First, this is an immensely important book; second, a fairly brief review can do little more than offer some idea of its content. Only a review article could do full justice to it. Third, this book is the fruit of the author’s personal quest to find answers to some basic questions, because “these questions nearly cost me my faith”. The preface is a moving account of the author’s intellectual and spiritual journey towards what he describes as a “generous Christian orthodoxy”.

As the subtitle indicates, a major area of enquiry is the modern theology of religions. In a lengthy chapter (60 pages), Collins engages with what has become known as the Threefold Typology of Religions. Here, Collins interacts principally with Alan Race’s use of this typology. The three typologies are exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Race fairly quickly disposes of first two and adopts the third because the others are unable to deal with what he loosely describes as philosophical criticism. This then poses a stark choice: either establish the possibility for theologically affirmative relationships with non-Christians by denying the literal sense of Jesus’ description in Scripture and his status as the incarnate Son of God or affirm this or forsake any possibility of theologically constructive relationships with nonChristians. Simply stated, for Race, philosophy is the final arbiter of theological discourse. Race bolsters his position by his reliance upon the historical method developed by Ernst Troeltsch. Race insists on the centrality of historical criticism. He adopts the principle of analogy in two ways. Negatively, Race uses the principle to limit the possibility of metaphysical uniqueness by insisting that all events occur under universal conditions thereby subverting the notion of divine intervention operating within a Chalcedonian Christology. Positively, the principle allows Race to identify analogical correspondences between the world religions in their orientation toward an experience of the transcendent and ethical transformation. This account leaves Race open to the charge that Troeltsch’s exposition of historical method leaves the validity of religious experience insecure. Collins thus continues his exploration of Race’s theology by bringing in John Hick’s epistemology of religious experience, which Race finds unsatisfactory, and this is followed by an examination of the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith and his exposition of the phenomenology of faith, which Race finds appealing – but there is no space here to pursue either Hick or Smith, important though they are for Race.

We turn then to the work of Hans Frei, which Collins believes will show that concerns about God’s universal presence can be honoured outside of pluralism in a manner that Race’s typology inhibits our ability to grasp.

Pairing Frei with Race may appear odd, since Frei is only rarely mentioned in the theology of religions discourse, but it can be shown that Race and Frei do have in common some basic concerns. There is no space here to draw attention to the full extent of such concerns, but mention must be made most notably of their common belief in God’s presence to those outside the Christian faith and church, even while Frei insisted that it was a question that could only be addressed after the basic question of the identity of the God who is present.

Frei’s work is sometimes described as postliberal, but, as Collins points out, it may equally merit the description post-conservative. In his approach to the Gospels, Frei’s view centres on what he regards as an error made by both conservatives and liberals, namely that both mistake the Bible in general and the Gospels in particular as texts whose meaning is a function of its external reference over, and often against, it’s syntactical sense. In a word, both decide first to what Scripture refers and then interpret it accordingly. Conservatives tend to locate this reference in the past, in a chain of factual events running through scripture. Liberals locate Scripture’s ostensive reference in the present, in terms of its contemporary relevance. In response to the influence of historicism, empirical philosophy and Deism, Frei shows how conservatives alike sought meaning in something behind or beyond the text, such as historical facts or ethical ideals. Here we come close to Frei’s own mode of interpretation, which Collins calls the narrative option and which is oriented around the plain or literal sense of Scripture. This, for Frei, is not a claim of historical inerrancy. Rather, Frei advocates a literal reading of the Bible in which the interpreter can affirm that an affirmation of the historical reference of the Gospels and crucifixion/resurrection accounts, though an essential component of Christian faith, is nonetheless secondary or subsidiary to their interpretation as realistic narratives. Thus, for Christians who are inclined to believe the resurrection transpired in history, the Gospels can only be said to refer miraculously to such historical events, even while they are acknowledged as necessarily limited accounts. The Gospels are not histories, but they are history-like and give rise to a figural interpretation. By this term derived from Erich Auerbach, Frei means that guided by faith in God’s providential plan for the world, he suggests that what he calls the strange amalgamation of the particular identity and universal presence of Jesus Christ leads Christians into an engagement with the world.

In his conclusion, Collins seems to have resolved, albeit tentatively, his initial question: “How is the uniqueness of Jesus’ identity connected to his continuing presence to creation?” He does so by expressing his preference for Frei’s figural interpretation in its narration of the particularity of Jesus Christ in the Gospels over Race’s vaguer hope in what Collins calls an “existential” horizon of concern.

This is an important book because of its intellectual rigour and honest questioning of standard answers to complex questions. It does however require some acquaintance with the work of modern theologians, especially Hans Frei, but it certainly moves forward the debate concerning Christian engagement with other religions.

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