Review: A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age

[1] When I was studying history and ethics as a Ph.D. student at Fuller Theological Seminary in the latter 1970s, I was the only doctoral student who was doing anything at all in Christian Ethics. Now at Society of Christian Ethics meetings one seems to run into Fuller doctoral students in almost every session. Part of the reason for that is Glen Stassen, who has provided both the energy and content to make Fuller an important place to study ethics. Among his other initiatives, “just peacemaking” is perhaps best known and has done much to bridge the gap between “pacifist” and “just war” traditions. A Thicker Jesus gives us the theological basis for all this activity.

[2] The book presents what Stassen calls “Incarnational Discipleship”; part one gives the basic foundations, and part two shows how Incarnational Discipleship meets seven challenges of secularity. Throughout, Stassen is making the argument that Incarnational Discipleship meets four specific criteria for a valid theological ethic which were suggested by his colleague Nancey Murphy in Theology in an Age of Scientific Reasoning (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).

[3] Part one centres on Stassen’s reading of the lives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, André Trocmé (a French Reformed pastor who led the people of Le Chambon to hide 3500 Jews during World War II), Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan (Baptist theologian, anti-segregationist, founder of Koinonia Farms and author of the Cotton Patch versions of the New Testament), Dorothy Day and Muriel Lester (a Londoner whom Stassen calls “the Baptist Dorothy Day”). In addition he analyses the actions of the “Righteous Gentiles” during the Holocaust and the East German resistance in the 1980s. From these lives Stassen draws the three dimensions which form Incarnational Discipleship: an emphasis on a “thick” understanding of Jesus, a focus on the lordship of Christ or divine sovereignty through all of life, and a rejection of captivity to ideologies.

[4] Part two is based on Stassen’s reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). In that book Stassen finds at least seven causes of secularism: democracy, modern science, individualism, the tension between cultural optimism and the doctrine of sin, the cross (by which is meant the vicarious satisfaction theory of the atonement), love vs. renunciation, and wars of religion. A chapter is devoted to each of these themes to show how Incarnational Discipleship offers a way for Christian ethics to counter the claims of secularism. In each chapter Stassen draws out implications of work he has done elsewhere and shows how it fits into the model of Incarnational Discipleship.

[5] A Thicker Jesus is a significant book that deserves a close reading. I do have at least two points that I would like to argue with Stassen; one as a historian and one as a Lutheran. Stassen is a moderate exemplar of the “character ethic” school, but he does show the characteristics of one who is influenced by John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. One of these characteristics is that he points to certain “saints” as models for the Christian life and uses these lives as sources for his argument. The ethicist in me can see the advantage of using concrete models, but the historian in me keeps seeing the problems inherent in such a method. People are much too complex to serve well as support for a philosophical or ethical argument. The actual lives they have led, the actual details of what they have said and done create too many complications for one’s argument. Especially Bonhoeffer, as popular as he is as a modern Protestant “saint,” is not a very good support for the sort of ethic Stassen puts forward if one takes into account the Ethics and the prison writings. Bonhoeffer himself described the trajectory in Discipleship as a dead end and that is the trajectory which Stassen wants to follow.

[6] This relates to my second quibble: the need to set up an antagonism between “Christian” and “secular” ways of life. Obviously not everyone today lives as a Christian ethicist might want people to live, but that still, in my opinion, does not justify a dichotomy between what is Christian and what is secular. As R. A. Marcus pointed out in The End of Ancient Christianity, the strong distinction of “Christian” or “sacred” and “secular” was a product of both Theodosius’ campaign against paganism and the growth of a semi-Pelagian monastic piety after Augustine.[1] Part of the impact of the Reformation was to restore a valid place for the secular and Christian participation in the secular. While it may be popular in our time, it seems like a setback to treat the secular as some sort of opponent to Christian ethics. This is not to say that there are not those who invoke scientific and secular values who are not more scientistic than scientific (certain celebrity atheists come to mind), but these voices ought not tempt us to give up our own traditions of participation in the secular and speaking to the world in language and thought patterns the world can understand. Stassen, as one who finds the Radical Reformation position amenable, seems to me to err on the side of over-emphasizing a split between sacred and secular.

[7] That being said, there is much that is valuable in A Thicker Jesus and it merits study and dialogue. Glen Stassen merits our thanks for his work and this book shows us the source of his efforts for reconciliation and peace-building.


[1] R.A. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Robert A. Kelly

Robert A. Kelly is Professor Emeritus of Theology and Ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.