Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Flesh

Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to EarthFlesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth by Hugh Halter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I borrowed this book from a friend and I am torn as to how to rate it.  I chose to go with 3 stars instead of 4 for, while I love where this book takes the reader, I feel the path to get to what is a great end is wrought with serious bumps and some deep pits that many readers might unexpectedly find themselves tripping over or falling into.

First, and this is illustrative of many of my issues with the book, sin is poorly defined and this poor definition leads to, at least by implication, poor conclusions about God, the state of man, and the Gospel.  Sin is equated with imperfection.  It is almost treated as something that happened upon man, a disease that was acquired and we are hapless and helpless victim of this monster called sin.  In the text when it is actually seen as an action of man it is referenced as “mistakes” or “missteps”.  The volitional and rebellious aspect of sin is not addressed and, because of this, is implicitly minimized.  By this silence, humanity is treated simply as victims rather than willing rebels.

“Flesh” consistently presents God as having to act by necessity of something outside Himself.  When addressing God’s “nostalgia” for Eden, it comes across as if Adam forced God’s hand.  Adam has sinned and God, in His “nostalgic” yearnings for days gone by, is driven to act in a redemptive manner.  While the author explicitly denies a reactionary motive to the plan of redemption, this sure does seem to be there by implication(if not close enough to being there that it easily could be read into the text).  This, also again implicitly, calls into question God’s immutability and impassibility.  Beyond that, it treats redemption simply as restoring what was rather than creating something greater than ever could have been in the garden, a world where the Gospel existed.


In this same vein,  Halter argues that, "(t)he fact that Jesus came,  lived among us,  and then died for us is proof of our sin and need for a Savior,  but it is just as much proof that we are worth saving."  How?  How does this prove that we are “worth saving”?  How do we merit grace?  How can grace be merited?  We are worthy of (have merited) death (Romans 3) and judgment and God, in HIS goodness and HIS abundant mercy, saves us out of His free and sovereign grace.  The beauty of the Gospel is that while we were His enemies, Christ died for us.  If Halter were arguing that we, as bearers of the Imago Dei or as eternally His beloved in electing love, are “worth saving” then he would have a valid an biblical point.  But he puts nothing, to my recollection, in the text to point the reader that way and nothing to point the reader away from the prevalent human temptation to place one’s self on a pedestal of self-worth, even being worthy enough of the sacrificial death of God incarnate.

This leads to one of my greatest qualms with this book, and Halter’s teaching as a whole.  He pushes the idea of “incarnational” living and “living the life of Jesus”  He has been given great biblical counsel about the trappings of this type of speech but refused to heed this counsel, quoting at length a particular correction he received and rejected. The incarnation happened.  C.S. Lewis calls it the greatest of miracles, God taking on flesh, and I am inclined to agree.  The incarnation is God putting on flesh.  I am not God.  I am not a hypostatic union of, God and man.  I am a human whom God dwells in united to Him, not by my nature, but in Christ.

The ministry leader that Halter quotes makes tremendous points.  I believe it is page 65 and it is worth reading before diving into the book.  It is a struggle for me to read someone biblically corrected and to see him reject the correction, even reject the possibility that what they’re saying may be correct but misunderstood.  David Platt was confronted with an issue in his bestseller Radical and I loved his reaction.  Platt wasn’t teaching something wrong but there was a place where a point of his was easily misunderstood and could burden his reader.  When this was brought to Platt’s attention, rather than reject the very idea that his teaching may have not been conveyed clearly enough, as Halter does, he took the opportunity to clarify and correct.  Platt’s humility and teachable spirit was encouraging and led many, including me, to listen with greater attention to what he had to say.  His reaction is worth emulating by all, including Halter.

Halter again presents God as being constrained by external necessities.  Speaking of the incarnation of Christ he says, "(p)roclamation had run its course [and apparently was found wanting].  Incarnation was now His only play"

Beyond being troubling for its handicapping of God, it is fallacious logic and contrary to Scripture. This false dichotomy promotes the seemingly perennial word/deed antithesis that is quite unnecessary.  It also ignores the incarnation itself as a type of and setting for proclamation and undermines the effectiveness of Old Testament proclamation.

Halter takes the opportunity to encourage the reader to “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”  Beyond there being no reason to believe Francis ever uttered this dubious statement, it is also contrary to Scripture and leads to other confusing statements like any encouragement to “live the Gospel” or “be the Gospel”.  In fact, Halter argues that the “Gospel is the news that Jesus has accepted us into His life and that we can live His life now.”  That is not good news.  The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus already lived His life, perfectly, and died sacrificially and rose victoriously and ascended to Heaven that He might reign eternally.  

Halter is right to reject a reductionist Gospel of “pray a prayer, get out of hell” but he confuses the implications and the results of the Gospel (including how we are to live) with the Gospel itself (the life, death, burial and resurrection of the one who is eternal King).  For a better understanding of this I would suggest Scot McKnight’s “King Jesus Gospel”.

Chapter 5 is brilliant.  I love how Halter encourages the reader that they are not God.  Our call is not to be God, it is to be human.  It is quite good, especially at highlighting our interactions with other people in terms of relational vs transactional and celebration vs segregation.

Chap 7 is very good as well.  Halter highlights the command of ministry given to all believers and I like how he highlights a biblical base of all 3 types of ministers (vocational, bi-vocational and volunteer) and how all of these have their own challenges.

Halter highlights the vertical/horizontal aspects of our relationships and it is good to remember.  I have heard this point numerous times and it is always good to heed, but I always wonder why it is not framed in the language of the Church historic and the Lord Himself of love of the Lord and love of neighbor.  Regardless, it is important to realize that God does not command us to simply love Him, this love must overflow to our neighbor as well or it is not

When Grace and Truth Collide is a brilliant chapter as is Speaking of Jesus.  Halter’s instruction to the reader about how to engage those who are unbelievers (though I think he would reject my use of “unbelievers” here) is quite helpful.  He encourages the reader to
Keep a running conversation with a person,
Talk when invitation is given,
Talk about the Kingdom [a robust Gospel]
Talk about the King

Towards the end he shares a story that really adds nothing of benefit to the book and does not add credibility to him as a leader either.  His account of his joy over a street preacher being assaulted on the street is tacky and juvenile and should have been edited out of his book.  It was a fleshly reaction but he seems unrepentant and  seemingly proud of his attitude and actions.  I wonder why/if he is ok with the ministry of, for instance, John the Baptist but sees no validity in a person calling strangers to repentance.  And even if this preacher were misguided, how can a pastor experience joy and brag about it when a fellow believer is persecuted for their desire, even if misguided, to see people come to faith in the Lord Jesus.

My reservations about the path to the finish remain but I adore where Halter takes the reader. “Incarnational community” as a label is inaccurate and imprecise and can lead to a minimizing of the greatest of miracles.  But it is exactly what being the Church of Christ is meant to be.  I just wish the path to get there had been paved a bit better.


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