A Review of ‘The Christ’s Faith’ by Michael Allen

Allen, R. Michael. The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Account. T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology. New York: T&T Clark, 2009.

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In The Christ’s Faith, Allen opens his book–which is a revision of his Wheaton PhD dissertation–with an overview of the contemporary debate in biblical studies over the meaning of the Pauline phrase pistis Christou. Many recent scholars have controversially seen themselves as inaugurating a post-Protestant movement as they move beyond the traditional Reformation interpretation of this phrase as an objective genitive (“faith in Christ”) to a subjective genitive (“Christ’s faith”). Though Allen does not wish to enter that debate from the linguistic or biblical studies end, he does use this introduction to establish his angle. Some systematicians have fired back at this “New Perspective,” charging its proponents as undermining sola fide. Allen seeks to engage the conversation on precisely this front, defending the dogmatic coherence of the subjective genitive approach, even if he abstains revolving his argument around pistis Christou. Indeed, moving beyond coherence, he argues for the necessity of the Christ’s faith for Christian dogmatic theology. Yet in so doing, he takes a “third way” of sorts, upholding prime Reformation concerns and identifying the dogmatic necessity of the Christ’s faith within its distinctly Protestant structure.

The course of Allen’s argument leads him to an ongoing dialogue with Thomas Aquinas, with chapter two centered on Aquinas’s insistence that Christ experienced the beatific vision throughout the entirety of his life. Aquinas denies that Jesus Christ had faith because “immediate knowledge,” of which the beatific vision consists, “negates the need or possibility of faith.” Conversely, Allen seeks to demonstrate that Aquinas is incorrect and that the Christ did, indeed, have faith (37). Against Aquinas, Allen argues that it is of the essence of humanity to “experience . . . growth and development.” Therefore, even if unique in his human existence, Jesus had to undergo development in order to be truly human (59). Arguing from Luke 2 and Hebrews, Allen contends that “Christ’s solidarity flows from his assumption of true human life into his eternal person; by assuming a human nature, Christ assumes the shape of human life with its developments and limitations” (62). Per Hebrews, these limitations include “struggle, temptation, and growth which imply that Jesus developed humanly” (63).

In chapter three, Allen seeks to articulate “faith” in Reformed perspective in contrast to Aquinas’s definition, which “lacks the breadth required by Scripture” (69). Moving through doubting Thomas, the dogmatic location of faith,[1] and Augustine, Allen then identifies the weakness of Aquinas’s account of faith, being a purely epistemic one. Herein lays one of the great strengths of the Reformation, the recovery and expansion of fiducia. Allen traces the conceptual clarity that Reformed orthodoxy adds to this discussion before solidifying the Reformation heritage of the faith-works distinction in Paul and Hebrews (as opposed to the faith-knowledge distinction of Aquinas).  Allen also moves further in affirming that obedience necessarily follows faith (see 98–100).

In light of the previous discussion, Allen argues that Christ could, in fact, exercise faith in that it is a show of trust (fiducia) which includes but is not limited to or primarily defined by cognitive elements: “This receptive faith involves both mind and will, intellect and aesthetic taste; it is knowing trust or intellectual fiducia”. Nevertheless, Jesus’ faith could not have been that of post-lapsarian trust of and unto redemption. Rather, Jesus’ faith was akin to that of pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve: it amounts to trust in the promise of blessing, in which setting, obedience follows faith. Consequently, “Jesus’s obedience as recorded in the Gospels and discussed in Romans 5 can be analytically related to faith as well” (103). Allen further demonstrates that any appeal to Jesus’ knowledge is insufficient to discount a notion of his faith, given the scriptural and dogmatic moorings that he has provided for faith as something more than Aquinas’ epistemic conception. Indeed, following Avery Dulles, increased knowledge serves the strengthening of faith. Thus, Allen may conclude that Jesus’ greater degree of knowledge provided a surer footing for his faith (see 103–4).

The argument shifts to a more conceptual field in chapter four. Allen seeks to establish the “metaphysical context for the claim that the divine Christ exercised human faith during his earthly life.” This will include an argument for the idea that “Christ assumed a fallen human nature,” though without sin. The course of the broader metaphysical argument includes theological exegesis of Exodus 3 and consideration of creeds (106). Allen explicates Exodus 3 to establish the transcendence of God such that all speech about God can only be analogous at best. In so doing, he affirms the Creator-creature distinction in “non-combative” metaphysical relation. That is, there is a qualitative rather than quantitative distinction between God and human (see 107–116). This pertains to Christology in Allen’s affirmation of an “asymmetry” in the hypostatic union with priority belonging to the “proper necessity” of the divine nature. As “contingent necessity,” the humanity of Christ is instrumental to the revelation of the Triune God (119–20).

In chapter five, Allen considers the function of Christ’s faith in the area of atonement and ethics. He does so in the form of case studies, considering what a dogmatic affirmation of the Christ’s faith might contribute to the theology of Aquinas, Reformation theology, and the theology of Barth. In the case of Barth, Allen’s discussion is primarily descriptive since Barth already explicitly affirmed Christ’s faith. At the other extreme, the Aquinas section involves more conceptual reordering in attempt to fix Aquinas’s theology.

Chapter five seems to serve primarily as a bridge to chapter six, where Allen argues for the necessity of Christ’s faith in atonement and ethics. Throughout, the emphasis of priority lies with objective salvation. Ethics as imitation of Christ’s faith can only exist as a secondary function of Christ’s faith. Specifically, imitative ethics is a response of gratitude that takes form in obedience by the Spirit (203–5). Allen is careful to guard against overly zealous imitation of Christ, cautioning that this can only be an imperfect imitation. Allen recognizes that in some ways believers cannot imitate Christ (those pertaining to Jesus’ “messianic vocation” [207]) while in others Jesus cannot serve as example given his historical situatedness: “changing circumstances of religious and social culture require discernment and moral improvisation” (206). With this in mind, Allen calls for “triangulation” of Christian ethics that looks to Christ and other believers who have lived worthily of the Lord. Both are important models of imitation on the way to the wisdom that bears forth right living in contemporary circumstances (207). Amid this triangulation, Allen is intent to affirm that imitation of the saints includes recognition that their imitation is ontologically and mimetically dependent upon Christ’s faith, whose faith and faithfulness is the primary model for imitation (208–9).

Brief Evaluation

The Christ’s Faith attests to Allen’s great skill and careful attention to detail. However, this does not even address the greatest strength of the book. More than the tight argumentation that moved methodically from one section to another building his case, Allen demonstrated admirable biblical sensitivity and theological sense in his approach to and use of Scripture. The contributions that his book has to offer are plentiful: a more conscientious treatment of the fallen human nature view in Christology than most of its other proponents have thus far offered,[2] an important demonstration of a matter of theological significance that is both friendly to contemporary scholarship and faithful to church tradition, and an inspiring work of synthetic theology with special attention to Scripture. The integration of biblical-theological interpretation of Scripture and excellent synthetic work were quite satisfying.

With this in mind, the weaknesses that Allen’s book portrays should not be seen as devastating to his task, much less his argument. Perhaps the most glaring weaknesses, in this reviewer’s view, concern Allen’s reconfiguration of Aquinas’s theology in order to make room for Christ’s faith and his argument for Christ’s assumption of fallen human nature. Concerning the former, not enough is offered to demonstrate the manner in which Aquinas may maintain Aristotelian physics of actuality and perfect being while allowing for human development (potentiality). As for Christ’s assumption of fallen human nature, Allen’s argument does not offer enough force to overturn Oliver Crisp’s compelling argument that Christ could not have assumed a fallen human nature (see ch. 4 of Divinity and Humanity, Cambridge University Press). Indeed, even concern for coherence does not provide compulsion for Allen here, for there seem to be other compelling ways to uphold his overall argument while not conceding on this point. However, this would take another article, perhaps another book, to map. These two critiques notwithstanding, Allen’s otherwise careful argument calls for consideration, if not affirmation, that the Christ may, in fact, have had faith.

[1] Allen sees faith as something broader than its primary postlapsarian role in salvation, even if this salvific thrust is its primary usage since the Fall.

[2] Allen argues that Jesus must have assumed a fallen human nature in his incarnation (ch. 4).

About Ashish Varma

I am a PhD student under Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and my dissertation project pertains to defending the theological validity and identifying the dogmatic location of virtue in traditional Protestant thought, namely within the sphere of union with Christ. My wife Narissa and I attend College Church in Wheaton.
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1 Response to A Review of ‘The Christ’s Faith’ by Michael Allen

  1. Pingback: Christ’s Faith – A Theological Reading

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