The Lamb of the Nonviolent God (Book thoughts)

This week I finished Sergius Bulgakov’s The Lamb of God as well as J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent God. As someone who appreciates both Orthodox theology (Bulgakov) and Anabaptist theology (Weaver) it was interesting to read these books at the same time. They are quite different. Bulgakov’s is heavy and challenging, its a weighty tome dealing with ontology, Divine Sophia, kenosis and more. Weaver’s is a lived theology, focusing more on how our view of God is impacts how we live.

First, Bulgakov:

“One can even say that God created the world in order to become incarnate in it, that He created it for the sake of his Incarnation. The incarnation is not only the means to the redemption, it is also the supreme crowning of the world, even in comparison with its creation. In the Incarnation, God showed His love for creation” (169)

Bulgakov begins by reviewing the early church councils and theologians in their debates about Christology. He starts with Apollinaris, known for Adoptionism, then tells the story through Nestorius and Cyril and many others, the whole way to the Sixth Ecumenical council. Through this, he argues that Chalcedon gave a dogmatic definition of Jesus Christ, but by saying what is not (without separation, without division) they did not actually answer how the union works.

Bulgakov sets out to offer a theological explanation for this dogmatic definition. In this he utilizes the Divine Sophia which, for me, was the toughest part of the book. Divine Sophia, God’s Wisdom, is identified with God’s essence and goes into the world as creaturely wisdom.

Once this nuanced, profound and mind-bending definition is made, Bulgakov spends the rest of the book developing a theology of Jesus Christ. There is way more to say here than I could possibly say in a short review. I will just say, I have never read a better explanation of how the one person of Jesus is a union of both human and divine natures. The ideas of Divine Sophia play in this, as in the Incarnation the second person of the Trinity empties himself (kenosis) of divine glory (which I think Bulgakov connected to Sophia) to remain divine. Bulgakov emphasizes the Jesus then lived in the world as a God-Man and we must experience him in this way.

This means he truly learned and grew, he truly experienced temptation even though there was no way he could sin. Bulgakov continually splits the difference between Docetism (Jesus is not really human) and Ebionism (Jesus is only human). Everything in this was not just thoughtful, but moving. Perhaps that’s the best thing you can say about a theology book – it speaks to the heart and not just the mind.

From Bulgakov to Weaver

“It seems to me that one of the great and longest-running distortions in Christian theology has been the attribution of violence and violent intent to the will and activity of God. But if God is truly revealed in Jesus Christ, and if Jesus rejected violence, as is almost universally believed, then the God revealed in Jesus Christ should be pictured in nonviolent images. If God is truly revealed in the nonviolent Christ, then God should not be described as a God who sanctions and employs violence.”

The first half of this book, where Weaver provides his more theological and biblical arguments, seemed weak to me. I truly wonder if my perception of Weaver’s book was down because I was reading Bulgakov at the same time. Bulgakov is incredibly deep and profound which, to no fault of Weaver’s, made this other read seem less profound.

That said, there were some points of contact between Bulgakov and Weaver. Weaver is offering here a “lived theology” and it seemed like a logical practical and ethical next step from Bulgakov’s work. I doubt Bulgakov, as a Russian Orthodox scholar, would have thought so. But me, as someone who is drawn to both Orthodox and Anabaptist theology, I think so.

But herein lies perhaps another disappointment: Weaver comes close to playing the “when Christianity developed creeds everything went wrong” card. The story goes, once upon a time Christians just lived like Jesus and didn’t get all worried about theology, Trinity, hypostatic unions and ontology. Then Constantine made Christianity legal and they all stopped living like Jesus and just read books all day.

I know my description is an over simplification of the argument. But the argument is an oversimplification of what happened. If I recall correctly, both Sarah Coakley (God, Sexuality and Self) and S.T. Kimbrough (Partakers in the Divine Life) demonstrate how the early Christians after Constantine were still very much drawn to spiritual living and being like Jesus. In other words, folks like Weaver (and me!) can have the nonviolent Anabaptist ethical living without jettisoning the depths and profundity of Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology!

I mean, not to beat a dead horse, because I like Greg Boyd too, but Weaver flirts with Open Theism. Open Theism is fine, I suppose. I think all sorts of views of God can be debated and no one’s eternal salvation is dependent on getting everything about God correct (we’re talking about the infinite here!). But its the idea that to be nonviolent or have this nonviolent God you need to get rid of classical theism that kind of bothers me.

Give me the classical theism AND the nonviolence.

Anyway, I gave the book FOUR STARS despite all this negativity because in spite of all these flaws (oh yeah, I hate the word ‘theologizing’…stop using it Dr. Weaver) I still liked the book. Part two is really where he hits his stride as he describes what this nonviolent life looks like. He covers a lot of ground from war and mass incarceration to poverty and gender to even science and nature. I don’t know much else about Weaver, but part two of this book makes me think he is a brilliant practical theologian.

Wrapping Up

Overall, these are both good books. Bulgakov is better on the theology as well as just writing in a beautiful way. It feeds the mind and heart. Weaver, to me but I doubt on purpose, offers practical theology that, had he wanted to, could build on Bulgakov. I guess, on that note, I would love to see more works connecting the best of traditional theology with liberation, feminist, womanist and other contemporary theologies.

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