Nineteen eighty-three was a frightening time to be an evangelical theologian. Liberal, existential, process, and liberation theologies (to name a few) put pressure on conservatives to respond, but many felt untrained for the specialized tasks of redaction, form, and textual criticism. Evangelicals had two choices: ignore or engage. Ramm chose to fight.
An Evangelical Christology is two books rolled into one. On the one hand, Ramm states with clarity the various elements of Christology. The further into the book you read, however, the larger the second purpose looms: this book is a manual for war. It is never enough for Ramm to state what he believes—he defines his views as opposed to liberal theology, especially that of Rudolf Bultmann.
The overall method Ramm uses to fight back is revealed in the subtitle: “Ecumenic and Historic”. Ramm begins with the classic creeds—Apostolic, Nicene, Chalcedon, etc.—and shows how evangelical christology stands in line with church history (and how his liberal opponents have forsaken their birthright).
The strength of this volume lies in Ramm’s clear exposition of the classic elements of Christology (although I am always frustrated at how most Christologies, this one included, virtually ignore Jesus’ three years of earthly ministry). The weaknesses are twofold:
- The battlelines have been redrawn. As culture has shifted from a modern to a post-modern worldview, the war between conservative and liberal theologies seems almost quaint. Ramm’s 1983 battle against the forces of liberalism now reads more like a history of theology.
- Ramm ignores his own situatedness. This comes to the surface (ironically? hypocritically?) when he discusses why John’s gospel is different from the synoptics. Ramm wisely asks, “What kind of gospel would John write if he lived in Ephesus about thirty years and carried on a Christian dialogue at a high level in its most sophisticated community? He would write a gospel . . . that would reflect his effort to reframe the original Christian message to make it most effective to his audience in Ephesus” (145). Ramm understands that the writing of John’s gospel was situated in the cultural river (a John H. Walton phrase) of his day yet understands himself as somehow transcendent to the culture of modernism which led him to war in the first place.
The apostle John once brought Jesus a concern: a person outside Jesus’ group of disciples was going around exorcising demons. Jesus replied, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50 NRSV). An Evangelical Christology would have been a much stronger book had Ramm laid down his weapons and sought to learn from the strengths of his theological interlocutors.
Ramm, Bernard L. An Evangelical Christology: Ecumenic & Historic. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1999.