Oliver Crisp and the Theology of Christmas
A Christmas Podcast: Evan Rosa interviews analytic theologian Oliver Crisp on the Incarnation of Christ, and how we can learn from the Incarnation about what it is to be human.
Quotes from Oliver Crisp on Christmas and the Incarnation
- “God breaks into the history of humanity in order that he may become one of us. If we just pause for a minute, and take a step back from our gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild images, and just think about what that statement really entails, it should be mind-blowing. It should make us see the Incarnation in a wholly different light—a light that explodes the domestic Jesus.”
Hosted by Evan Rosa
Produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought
Sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and the Blankemeyer Foundation
Theme music by The Brilliance
Additional scoring by Evan Rosa
Podcast artwork by Steven Reynolds
Thanks to Oliver Crisp and Fuller Theological Seminary
Special thanks to Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen; oh, ah, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen)—oh yeah, Rudolph too
Twitter: @EvanSubRosa / @BiolaCCT
Evan Rosa: “The Table Audio” is made possible by the general support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Oliver Crisp: God breaks into the history of humanity in order that He may become one of us. If we just pause for a minute and take a step back from our “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” images, and just think about what that statement really entails, it should be mind-blowing. It should make us see the Incarnation in a wholly different light, a light that sort of explodes the domestic Jesus.
Evan: I’m Evan Rosa. You’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
Evan: We recently wrapped up 10 episodes of Season 2, and it’s Christmastime.
Over the holidays, we’re releasing some reflections on the season of Advent and Christmas, some bonus content from Season 2 after the New Year, and this oldie but goodie from Christmas 2014 — a deep dive into what really happened when the Son of God, who for us and for our salvation, came down from Heaven, by the power of the Holy Spirit, became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
So says the Nicene Creed, at least. Here’s a special Christmas episode with analytic theologian Oliver Crisp — an exploration of the incarnation of the Son of God, which we celebrate this season. Enjoy and Merry Christmas.
Christmas is weird, but we get so used to it we seem to forget. We’ve made Christmas domestic. We’re complacent about it. It happens every year.
It’s just part of the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of buying and selling, of giving a gift, receiving a gift. But every now and then, we ought to be knocked out of that complacency because the core statement of Christmas is totally strange.
It’s not weird because an old, jolly man breaks into your house in the middle of the night to eat cookies or those strange Christmas celebration traditions from far-off places or that mistletoe really means “poop twig” in Anglo-Saxon. You can look it up.
Why is Christmas really weird? That’s exactly what this special Christmas edition of The Table Audio is about, all about the weirdness of the Incarnation of the Son of God and what this central Christian mystery tells us about what we are and what we’re worth because, of course, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. I’m Evan Rosa. Welcome to The Table.
Evan: Christmas is maybe the most central Christian celebration. I mean, the whole church year starts with Advent, where the church waits in joyful expectation for the coming Messiah. It’s the central celebration because it’s the central doctrine. It’s the central doctrine because its premise is just so, well, shocking.
Oliver: What happens in the Incarnation is really the hinge on which history turns. It really is a game-changer, as they say, I think. It makes you see the whole of history differently.
Evan: That’s Oliver Crisp.
Oliver: I’m Oliver Crisp. I am a professor. I teach at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. I teach theology, systematic theology.
Evan: He’s the author of numerous writings on the Incarnation and the theology of Jesus Christ, or Christology, not to mention the theology of sin, the work of Jonathan Edwards.
Oliver: The American, well, he’s actually a British colonial…
Oliver: …theologian, but that’s another matter. [inaudible 3:42].
Evan: Never mind. He’s been a pioneer in what’s called analytic theology, which is basically an approach to theological questions with philosophical rigor and clarity.
Oliver: It seems to me the Incarnation is the defining doctrine for Christians. If Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, then He shows us what God is like. It’s one thing to have someone who’s a prophet communicate to you a message from God, or a story that tells of some miraculous occurrence that displays the power of God.
But for someone to tell you that they are God, that they can tell you about the character of God, that is a completely different order of message, it seems to me. If the Christian message is true and Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, then we can see God through what’s reported of the life and work of Christ. That is a very significant claim, it seems to me.
Evan: The God of the universe, all-powerful, mighty king, became a poor, Middle Eastern nobody, born in the boonies of ancient Palestine. Naturally, early Christians cared a lot about making this coherent. They needed to come to some sort of agreement about who and really what Jesus was.
How could God become man? How could one divine person be both fully divine and fully human? What kind of human nature would He have, and what does that say about human nature for us?
Oliver: In order to unite us to God, God has to provide someone who is fully human and fully divine, a kind of interface between humanity and God, between creation and the divine.
I think of the Incarnation is fundamentally the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, assuming human nature, whatever that human nature is, in order that as one who is both fully divine and fully human He may bring about reconciliation of human beings, who are merely human, with God.
Evan: Human nature, whatever that is, that is really the question that we’re asking. It was that question that motivated a meeting of Christians in 451.
At the Council of Chalcedon, these church leaders came up with a definition, so to speak, a definition to protect the coherence of Christology, and to protect it against problematic formulations of who and what Christ was. Their agreement reads, “Following, then, the holy Fathers…”
Oliver: “We all with one voice teach that it should be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son…”
Oliver: “…the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the same consisting of a rational soul and a body, homoousios with the Father as to His Godhead.”
Evan: This is what is weird about Christmas. The same perfect in Godhead, or fully God, and same perfect in manhood, or fully human. This fundamentally strange, mysterious formula of Christianity is what makes Christmas weird.
Oliver: What’s unique about what the Christian message proclaims in this regard, I think, has to do with the fact that you have someone who is fully both human and divine, and that somehow, you’ve got in this one entity, these two natures. A human nature and a divine nature that are not melded together into something else, that aren’t fused in some way into some odd superman or some odd divine being that appears to be human, but really is both human and divine at one and the same time.
It’s precisely because of that relationship that you can have this idea of participation in the divine life. I think that is really a mind-blowing notion when you try and wrap your head around it. It really is something that, it seems to me, should change everything.
Evan: How could God assume a human nature? How could He take on a human nature? It matters what a human nature is. There’s that line that Oliver just read.
Oliver: “Truly God and truly man, the same consisting of a rational soul and a body.”
Evan: That line is basically telling us what they take a human nature to be.
Oliver: There are various illustrations or analogs that you can use to try and get a better grip on it. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, talks about the Incarnation at various points as like a robe with which God the Son clothes himself.
There’s something to be said of that. He clothes Himself with human nature in order that He may bring about our salvation, but it’s something more intimate, the relationship between His divine and human nature.
It’s something more intimate than putting on a suit of clothes that you can discard without any problem. Perhaps it’s a bit more like — I don’t know — an astronaut spacesuit…
Evan: Think “Interstellar.”
Oliver: …which the astronaut maybe has to have a particular interface with in order to walk around in the hostile environment of space. Similarly, God the Son takes on human nature that’s like the astronaut’s spacesuit. He has a special interface with it in order that He may walk around in the hostile environment, if you like, of a sin-filled, material world.
Some people think of it in terms of a deep sea diving suit. Similar idea, that you put on this apparatus, this suit that fits you in a particularly unique way in order that you can occupy a space that otherwise you couldn’t occupy. In the case of the Incarnation, of course, that space is our world.
There’s a sense in which the human nature of Christ is uniquely hooked up to the second person of the Trinity. It’s his human nature. He owns it, much as I own my human nature, but importantly, what we’re trying to capture here is that there’s a sense in which He has to adorn Himself with that human nature. He has to assume that human nature in order for Him to be able to live amongst us and bring about human reconciliation.
I think those sorts, that kind of family of pictures of what the Incarnation is about I’ve found very helpful as a way of trying to get at just what it means to say that Jesus of Nazareth, this person that walks around the first century Palestine, this peasant prophet, is not merely another human being amongst human beings, but is actually somehow in addition to being a human, being God Himself walking amongst us.
By its very nature, a model is going to be a simplified description that approximates the truth of something that’s much more complex as a model in science does, as well, a model of subatomic particle, for example. No one’s seen one, but we have a model of what we think it is like.
Evan: One of the stickier questions around the matter of Jesus assuming a human nature is that word, “rational soul.” What is a rational soul? What was the soul that Jesus had, and what is a soul anyway?
I guess that’s an easy enough question. Your soul is your soul. Your soul, your soul…
Man: Your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable mangled up in tangled-up knots.
Evan: Right. Of course, there are many answers to the question of what a soul is. Perhaps a bigger question for most is, do we even have a soul? Does the soul even exist? Is there even such a thing as an immaterial soul? Does Christianity teach the existence of such a thing?
On its surface, the Chalcedonian Creed appears to teach the existence of a soul. I asked Oliver about how to handle the Incarnation and Jesus having a human nature from the perspective of different metaphysical views. The metaphysical views I have in mind here are mainly dualism and physicalism.
Dualism’s the view that human beings consist of a soul and a body, two parts, a duality. Physicalism is a denial of dualism, a denial that there exists such a thing as an immaterial soul. Not all physicalist views are reductive. There are non-reductive physicalist views that see the body as central, as important.
Our embodied life is the basis for what it is to be a human being. But those views still emphasize the fact that we are more than a body, that we have a mental, psychological, spiritual life that rises above our mere embodied physical existence. I asked Oliver if he could shed some light on that.
Oliver: In the creeds of the Christian church that were formed in the first centuries of life of the church which express the apostolic faith — this is how we understand Scripture — one of the key claims about Christ is that He has a rational soul. Of course a body, as well, but it’s the soul that’s the site of controversy, I’m assuming for those who are physicalists, anyway.
The live debate is what it is that humans are and whether we have a soul as a distinct substance from our body and a spiritual substance, and whether we have both body and a soul.
For those who say we don’t have a soul that’s separate from our bodies as a spiritual substance, they’ve got to tell some story that makes sense of that creedal claim if for them the creedal deposit is something important to the shape of Christianity. I think undeniably it is. This is the faith that’s been received down through the generations.
Evan: What he’s saying there is that if the Creeds matter — and he thinks they really do — then if you’re going to deny the existence of an immaterial soul, you’re going to have to come up with an explanation for this usage of the term. There are two ways Oliver says to approach this question.
Oliver: One is to shut it down and say, “Look, if you want to be creedally orthodox, then you’ve got to believe that Christ has a human soul.” If Christ has a reasonable soul, He must have a human soul and definitely a human body. Then that closes down the argument as far as the physicalists goes, those who think we are merely physical objects or material beings.
It turns out that they’re unorthodox, and that view’s outside the bounds of the Christian faith. I don’t think that’s a particularly helpful way to go about things. I prefer the second option, which is to try and maximize the metaphysical live options.
Evan: In maximizing the options here, he’s talking about maximizing the number of different metaphysical views that would fit the Chalcedonian definition, that would fit this understanding of Jesus’ human nature.
Oliver: That involves saying, “Look, so we’ve got to have a view of Christ that’s obviously theologically orthodox and that means taking seriously the creedal statements about who Christ is.” One of those statements has to do with Him having a reasonable soul.
What could that mean? In and of itself, that could mean one of several things. One option would be to say it means He has a human soul, as well as a human body. That certainly seems like one option, and it may well be the option that most people have understood that as implying.
However, it might not be the only metaphysical option, all things considered. For example, suppose you think we are physical beings. We don’t have a separate soul that’s an immaterial substance. You don’t think that the mind is reducible to the physical, either, so the mind is something that supervenes on our physical life.
It’s not reducible to our physical life. You’re some sort of property dualist. You’re not a substance dualist. In other words, you don’t think we have two substances, our material substance and body and an immaterial substance and soul.
You think we have one substance, a body, but you think that body has certain properties which have to do with its mental life which are not reducible to properties about its physical life, so it has distinct set of properties having to do with its mental life. That’s property dualism.
If you take the property dualist option, then there are various different views that are consistent with property dualism. Then, you could still, I think, say that Christ has a reasonable soul and mean by that Christ has the requisite mental life in order for Him to be a complete human being and the requisite mental life is one that is not reducible to the physical life.
There is definitely a distinction between the mental and physical. That seems to me to be sufficient to be in keeping with what the creed states, even if it’s a slightly different metaphysical view from perhaps the views that were on the table at the time when the Creeds were written.
It seems to me that that is a better way forward, a way that involves maximizing the options that are on the table. In such a difficult, as well as complex and controversial subject as what we are as human persons, it makes sense to maximize the options rather than reduce them.
We don’t want to paint ourselves into a corner, metaphysically speaking. We want to give Christians the options that they need in order to make sense of these things in different ways for the sake of the church, and for the sake of the future of the faith.
Evan: One way to think about Oliver’s suggestion of maximizing the options is that the more views out there that are consistent with Christianity, the more plausible, overall, Christianity is. These many different views that still fit a Christian perspective on the Incarnation, the central doctrine, increases, strengthens, and builds the plausibility structure of Christianity.
Don’t go anywhere. Stay tuned for why Oliver Crisp thinks dualism fits the Incarnation best in just a moment.
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Evan: Now, you’ve come out in favor of dualism. You’ve written in defense of the existence of the soul. Do you think there’s anything about the Incarnation that supports a particularly dualist perspective on it?
Oliver: Yes, I do. It seems to me that those who take a substance dualist view of human persons, that we’re composed of body plus soul, have the weight of the Christian tradition behind them. That’s a fact. It’s undeniable.
Those who are interested and involved in this debate are all pretty much of the same view on that particular point. That’s the default view in the Christian tradition, and it seems to me with good reason. It’s that one can certainly understand much of the biblical material in line with the notion that we have souls, as well as bodies.
Christologically speaking, it makes sense to say that Christ has a reasonable soul means He has a human soul, distinct from his body, and that the Incarnation involves the assumption of a human body and soul rightly configured. That’s what happens in the case of Christ, so that He is fully human, as we are fully human, having a human body and a human soul.
That seems to me to be not only the default in the tradition, or some version of that seems to be the default in the tradition, but it also seems to me to be a very plausible way of thinking about human life. It seems to me that human life is a soul-ish kind of life. That my life is not reducible to something physical, but is distinct from something physical. It seems to me that I am a soul.
Whilst I am certainly of that view and would want to defend that view, I don’t want to defend it to the exclusion of all the other options. That’s my concern. I think that there are good arguments for physicalism of various sorts.
I also think that on a spectrum of metaphysical views — where on the one extreme, you have those who think we are souls, and on the other extreme, you have those who think we are merely bodies, then you have, in the middle, those who think we are souls plus bodies — that there are views very close to those sorts of physicalist view that would be acceptable to many people in the Christian tradition. For example, the notion of hylomorphism.
Evan: That word he said right there, hylomorphism, is a philosophical view. In this case, it’s a view about human persons…
Hylomorphism comes from the Greek words hylē, which is matter, and morphē, which is form. In this case, the soul would be the form of the body, the matter.
Oliver: …which is really a very popular view in the Christian tradition, hylomorphism being the baptized version of Aristotelian ways of thinking about human persons, where the soul is something like the organizing principle of the body.
On some versions of hylomorphism, that organizing principle is a material principle, so that it turns out hylomorphism is basically a species of something like property dualism, as I was saying earlier. Other people think of hylomorphism as something like a version of substance dualism.
In any case, it looks to me like hylomorphism, as an important view that you find a lot in the Christian tradition, is not that far away, metaphysically speaking, from certain forms of physicalism that are also property dualist accounts.
There’s a spectrum here. We need to bear that in mind in these discussions and treat each other in a civil manner when we’re trying to discuss what are difficult, hard, metaphysical topics.
Evan: We’ve been doing philosophy, but there’s another, a different approach to this same question of what we are, what it is to be human, and what the Incarnation says about humanity. That has to do with the Imago Dei, the image of God.
Oliver: One could read the biblical record as saying that Christ is the image of God. We read this in Colossians and Hebrews.
Evan: In Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Hebrews 1:3, “He is the brightness of His glory and express image of His person.”
Oliver: We’re also said to be made in the image of God, of course, in the primeval prologue of Genesis, “In the image of God He made them male and female. He created them.”
On this way of thinking about the connection between Christ as the image of God and us as the image of God, we could think of it like this, that Christ is the one who is made in God’s image because He, Himself, is divine. He is the divine person united to human nature. As that unique interface between God and human beings, He images God in a way that nothing else can.
What if God created human beings in order that they might image Him, in order that they might be united to Him, in order that we might participate in the divine life? In order to bring that about He had to ensure that Christ was the God-man, this interface, the image.
If you like, a bit like a car prototype. You have the prototype. You have the blueprints for the prototype. You run the prototype. You run the tests. It works, and then you make the production-line model.
Oliver: In a sense, maybe Christ is like the prototype human being. We are the production-line models. Because Christ is the image of the invisible God, we image God as we’re made, in the image of the prototype.
If we think of our being made in God’s image in that Christological sense — in a way that’s formed in a deep way by who Christ is — that makes a significant difference to how we view ourselves in relation to God, not just in terms of our makeup as human beings, but also in terms of what we’re destined for as human beings and how we ought to be living.
That’s one thing I’d say. As we think about a Christology and the image of God, that has implications for what we think about us as human beings.
Evan: This way of viewing the share image of Christ and humanity, that shared image of God, has really interesting implications about what it is to be a human person. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard this line, that every person has a God-shaped hole. Maybe that’s more than just a figure of speech.
Oliver: There we could take this slightly further and say if Christ is a divine person with a human nature in this analogy of the prototype in the production line model, maybe God has made us all so that we have something like a God-shaped port into which God may upload Himself, as He has in the case of Christ in becoming incarnate.
Evan: The port sort of thing that Oliver’s talking about is like a USB port. Think about the USB port on the side of your laptop or the back of your old desktop tower thingy.
Oliver: For the rest of us, God doesn’t upload Himself like a computer program, as it were, into our human nature. That’s why we’re human persons, independent of God.
In the case of Christ, He does upload Himself into the human nature of Christ. That’s why Christ’s human nature is not a person independent of God, but is in fact God’s human nature.
Let’s think about that in terms of human persons. Christ is virginally conceived. That makes Him unique, but His gestation and birth seem, for all intents and purposes, the same as anybody else’s.
If the only thing that distinguishes us from Christ in terms of our generation is that at the virginal conception God uploads Himself into His human nature, so that His human nature becomes the human nature of a divine person, then it looks like we’ve got a good reason for thinking that what happens at the Incarnation has implications for when we become persons.
Because then it looks like we become persons at conception because God doesn’t upload Himself into us and doesn’t make us His human nature, but we become persons independent of God.
Then that has very significant bioethic complications, because then we’ve got a reason for thinking a thick theological, in fact, a thick Christological reason for thinking that we’re persons from the get-go precisely because God doesn’t upload Himself into our human nature.
Normally, the bioethical discussion, from a Christian perspective, goes along the lines of benefit of the doubt reasoning. We say, “Well, we don’t exactly have knock-down, drag-out theological or philosophical arguments for thinking that we’re persons from the get-go, but we’re going to treat human embryos with the benefit of the doubt as if they are human persons.”
But if we think theologically in terms of this Christological argument that I’m outlining here, then we’ve got, actually, a thick theological, indeed a thick Christological reason for thinking that we are persons from the get-go. If that’s true, that has very significant ethical implications, in terms of bioethics, in terms of how we treat human embryos, in terms of what we think about human persons and beings, when we begin, and all those sorts of questions — which are, of course, at the very forefront of some of the most deeply contested ethical debates in our time.
Evan: A profound element of understanding human persons this way is that we are human persons in light of who Jesus is. It’s in virtue of sharing that image of God that we are what we are.
Evan: Like John Donne says in his Holy Sonnet XV, “‘Twas much, that man was made like God before, but that God should be made like man, much more.”
At bottom, Christmas is a mystery, bizarre, a revelation, weird, otherworldly. Isn’t that why we love it, why we never tire of it?
We still need the jolt. Is our Christmas mystery just the boring winter wonderland of the mall? Is it just Santa breaking into your house, or is it divinity breaking in to your humanity?
Oliver: Ways of trying to disrupt our domestication of Christmas I think are very helpful, often. Ways of making us see things differently in order that we are sort of jolted out of our normal ways of conducting ourselves in the Christmas season.
We’ve got to get the presents, we’ve got to get the tree, we’ve got to get, you know, whatever it might be, and making us sit up and realize there’s something different going on here. To just give an analog to that, I remember seeing the film “Man of Steel.”
The premise for that film — the reason why it was made, as I understand it — was to try and get us to see the Superman myth in a [inaudible 31:36] way, and the idea was to present him as an alien, basically, someone who came from an alien civilization, and so he is not human.
He may look like us, but he’s not one of us. He comes from a different planet somewhere far away. To treat Superman as a kind of ET is a rather different take on the Superman myth. It’s the same information, but it’s presented, it’s re-packaged in such a way that it makes us sit up and think, “Mm, this is not what we thought.”
Oliver: There’s a sense in which we can do that with Christmas in a way that could be helpful and make us sit up and think that there’s something here about this message, which is touching on a mystery that somehow God breaks into the history of humanity and assumes a human nature in order that He may become one of us, so that there is a human face to God.
If we just pause for a minute and take a step back from our “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” images, and just think about what that statement really entails, it should be mind-blowing. It should make us see the Incarnation in a wholly different light, a light that sort of explodes the domestic Jesus.
I think recapturing something of the mystery of the Incarnation of the fact that this is something which is beyond our ken. Although there are aspects of what Christ has done and who Christ is that we can’t comprehend, because they’re revealed to us in Scripture, that fundamentally, this is not someone that we can fully understand or apprehend.
This is someone who is beyond us. That seems to me is a vital component of the Christmas message that sometimes in our contemporary culture we’re in danger of losing.
Oliver: Father, at this advent time, we contemplate the coming of Your Son into the world.
Help us to wonder anew at the glory of the Incarnation.
Help us to see afresh the beauty of the face of God written on the Baby Jesus.
Enable us to understand something deeper and richer and greater of this most central mystery of our Christian faith, that God has been made man and dwelt among us, that we have beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
In Christ’s name, we pray.
Evan: Glory to the newborn King!
Hail the Incarnate Deity who appears and makes the soul feel its worth.
The Table is a production of Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. A special thanks to Professor Oliver Crisp and Fuller Theological Seminary.
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And please, keep Christmas weird.
Lyrics: Open up our eyes,
To see the wounds that bind all of humankind,
May our shuttered hearts,
Greet the dawn of life with charity and love,
When I look…
Evan: Thanks for listening to this Christmas special from The Table Audio, which is hosted by me, Evan Rosa, and is produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation. Theme music is by The Brilliance.
Special thanks to Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer, and Vixen, oh and Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen, yeah, and I guess Rudolph, too.
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Lyrics: I look into the face of my enemy,
I see my brother, I see my brother.