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The Identification Principle, by Christopher Steed

22 March 2019

Philip Welsh considers an Evangelical bid to rediscover a doctrine

“THE identification principle beckons us to join the world as Jesus did (who combined messy involvement with critical radicalism and prophetic clarity).” In this book, Christopher Steed explores the incarnation. He examines the range of human experience which Jesus shared, and so redeemed, including human weakness and capacity for error. He speaks of the empathy of a God who did not stay above the fray, and who is himself changed by the encounter.

It’s a theological cliché that Catholics have favoured an incarnational theology, while Protestants emphasise the atonement. Steed will have none of this: “The atonement is a development of the incarnation. The former is derived from the latter.” He takes a broadly substitutionary approach: “Jesus makes a one-off representative payment.”

The identification principle takes him to the prayer of intercession as fundamental to the Church’s life, and with a welcome insistence that we are called to identify with others for their own sake, not as a means to some evangelistic end: “Why can’t we have such love for people that we are genuinely interested to understand as much as we can about what makes someone else tick?”

Equally welcome is his insistence that the world-affirming incarnation addresses not only individuals, but unjust social structures: “If we truly believe in the immense value of humankind, we would aim for social transformation and not just acts of caring.” He links this to an account of his own experience of a project for community engagement and its theological foundation, and a useful analysis of the grounds that make social action by the Church authentically Christian.

There is not much in all of this that is original. The book’s distinctiveness is that it seems to be written from an Evangelical background and is offered by an explicitly Evangelical publisher.

The Identification Principle reads more as a manifesto than an exposition, and the author’s excitable flow of thought is channelled into an idiosyncratic style that is by turns assertive, overwrought, and addicted to rhetorical questions. More problematically, he strains to express theological truth in homely figures of speech which are crudely reductive: “Jesus is God’s selfie. . . The cross is the speeding fine being paid for, the penalty points on the licence being erased. . . It looked as if the result was certain, but there was extra time and a surprise victory.”

Occasionally this rises to the weirdly gnomic: “To reach the weak may mean we wear the clothes of fading strength, but to reach lap dancers does not mean that we apply for their job.”

This is a substantial drawback in a book that makes an important case, particularly for its target constituency: “Why does the social conservatism many Christians espouse lead to not questioning the system?”

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

The Identification Principle: How the incarnation shapes faith and ministry
Christopher Steed
IVP £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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