Review: Incarnational Humanism, by Jens Zimmermann

Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World (IVP, 2012)

Jens Zimmermann (Professor of Modern Languages at Trinity Western University) proposes Incarnational Humanism as a recovery of traditional Christian philosophy centered on the incarnation. He argues that a proper Christian focus on the incarnation solves a host of modern and post-modern philosophical dead ends while stimulating a robust humanism—a view of life that promotes human flourishing. This book is a theological companion (and significantly less expensive alternative!) to his Humanism and Religion (OUP, 2012) and contributes to what Hans Boersma calls the recovery of a sacramental ontology. Zimmermann powerfully exposes the west’s cultural bankruptcy when it ignores the incarnation.

Zimmermann traces the disappearance of a participationist ontology (Platonism) in the late middle ages. His narrative is a grand one, though he refuses to name a specific figure to fault for the downfall. His first chapter observes cultural emptiness in the West, particularly the challenge in Europe to assert what Angela Merkel calls “a Christian view of humanity.” Zimmermann argues historically that such a Christian view of humanity undergirds western culture. Chapter 2 demonstrates that the Church Fathers held an incarnation-focused humanism. Deification (as grounded in the incarnation) provides the cornerstone of humanism. Chapter 3 develops the tradition of Christian humanism through medieval and renaissance culture. Zimmermann bypasses the usual boogeymen of nominalism or the enlightenment to focus on how humanism continued to exist through education as character formation and a focus on language. Chapter 4 introduces “anti-humanism” in the person of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the “grandfather of postmodernism” (175) and bequeathed his anti-humanism to Foucault and Heidegger. Chapter 5 presents the flowering of post-modernism and the answer in the incarnation. Zimmermann leads a grand tour through continental philosophy in search of incarnational analogies. He shows that these thinkers grope for a redefinition of transcendence, but ultimately without success. Gianni Vattimo provides a case study in which incarnational language succumbs on the “altar of interpretation” (251).

Chapter 6 introduces a positive, contemporary incarnational humanism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to the rescue as an example for Christian relation to culture. An incarnational humanism recognizes that heaven and earth are joined in Christ, but that Christians still await an eschatological consummation. This helps cure Christians from “fundamentalism” and “complacency.” Christian life thus becomes a “hermeneutical endeavor” (Gadamer is a significant co-star, 273), by which Zimmermann affirms the use of reason to discern which elements of the world are affirmed, which are under judgment, and which hint toward the new world. The final section sketches how incarnational humanism would revitalize evangelical church life. A properly Platonic ontology would allow Protestants to overcome aversions to real presence in the Eucharist.  Following T. F. Torrance (and reading Calvin), Zimmermann emphasizes that a sacramental ontology affirms a spiritual presence as the truly real presence. Christ’s sacrifice is re-presented in the Eucharist (295–99). Zimmerman’s appropriation of Roman Catholic sources throughout this section does, however, make the reader of Calvin’s Institutes wonder what has changed at the Vatican.

In one sense this book is about Western Culture as a whole, and so goes beyond the series title, “Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology.” Zimmermann confronts the challenge for Western Europe to decide whether tolerant modern states require a Christian base for moral values. The breadth of content is prodigious. Zimmerman leads us through post-modern philosophy and offers a compelling reading of the Christian tradition to emphasize both the incarnation and the resulting humanist or world-affirming vision. It is admirable that Zimmermann deals with so many figures. He introduces them well and gives succinct summaries at needed points.

Zimmermann writes in conversation with big names from the tradition and with relevant near-contemporaries in continental philosophy. He does this job extremely well. At another level, however, he is making an argument for Protestant evangelical church practice. And therein enters at various points the ephemeral “fundamentalist” (11–12, 271). At root, this person denies that life in the world is a hermeneutical endeavor, and so hastily presumes access to absolutes with which to condemn or rule others. That may be an effective foil, but the fundamentalist is not given a speaking part, and we are left without a sense if any published authors would fall into this category. If his argument is against popular practice, that may be all well and good, but I would have appreciated more diagnosis or exposure of how evangelical theology has failed to grow beyond this naïve “fundamentalism” (with scare quotes). Along these lines, a discussion of evangelical options for relating Christ and culture would have helped clarify where incarnational humanism falls within these. For instance, it would have been engaging to read how incarnational humanism relates to neo-Calvinism or to Anabaptism (of the non-fundamentalist type). This suggestion for the book that could have been written takes nothing away from the volume itself. Incarnational Humanism is an engaging, bold, and colorful re-appropriation of central Christian belief for engaging culture and revitalizing the church. It makes an excellent addition to the growing interest in sacramental ontology.[1]

[1] A big thanks to IVP for the review copy.

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1 Response to Review: Incarnational Humanism, by Jens Zimmermann

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