Monday, December 03, 2012

Unexpected Jesus: The Gospel as Surprise, by Craig Hovey

Unexpected Jesus: The Gospel as Surprise,
Craig Hovey, Cascade Books, 2012, 162pp.

There is surprise which is nice, there is shock, which is not and then there is a bit baffled, which is neither one thing or the other. I was prepared to give this book a fair reading. The title has a nice ring to it and the author has some thought provoking things to say, but in the end I was left a feeling bit baffled. 

On the plus side Hovey emphasises that because Jesus is the risen and living Lord, we can never wholly  posses him or think that we have come to know all that there is to know all about him. The living Jesus always has the capacity to surprise and amaze his followers. 

The writer makes a valid point that the  evangelical tendency to focus on the resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact to be proven almost beyond all reasonable doubt can rob the resurrection of its theological significance. Yes, the resurrection of Jesus really happened, but we don't stop there. The fact that Jesus is risen means that he is a living presence to and in the church. 

Now for the baffled bit. For starters, the death of Hovey's 'Unexpected Jesus' was not an act of penal substitutionary atonement. His love for his enemies who crucified him exceeded their hatred for him. Only in that sense says the author, was the Cross good news. It is not that Christ saved us from our sins by dying in our place. Hovey cites Robert Jenson, "The Crucifixion is God's salvific action just in that God overcomes it by Resurrection." While it is true that we are saved by the living Jesus, it was by his death that he paid the price of sin so that we might be forgiven and put right with God. The lack of a rigorous theology of the Cross is a serious shortcoming in this work.

Hovey has a highly sacramental vision of the church, where he speaks not only of Christ in the church through the Eucharist, but Christ as the church (p. 45). He acknowledges that Christ cannot be wholly contained in the church and that there is always more of Jesus than is present in the church, but in speaking of Christ as the church he is in danger of collapsing the head into the body. 

The writer's construal of the day of judgement is not what might be expected if we take the witness of Scripture seriously. Hovey points out that the Father has committed all judgement to the Son (John 5:22). He reasons that "God's word of judgement is none other than Christ." (p. 117). He asks, "Can the lover of enemies be the same who oversees their final destruction?" (p. 116). Yes, because judgement on Christ's part is not an act of hatred, but justice, Matthew 25:46, John 5:28-29, 2 Corinthians 5:10.  Hovey holds out the hope that Jesus will judge in favour of those who have expressed antipathy to the Christian faith, on account of their concern for the poor and needy of the world. But while caring for the downtrodden is commendable, it is by faith we are saved, by grace and not by our works, Ephesians 2:8-9. 

As I say, there are some good things here, but Hovey's attempt at sketching out a 'theology of surprise' doesn't altogether stand up to serious biblical scrutiny. Sad to say that the issues mentioned above explain why bafflement rather than surprise was the overriding emotion evoked by my reading of Unexpected Jesus: The Gospel as Surprise.

* Thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of this book. 

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