Open to transformation
Kristine A. Culp has produced a sophisticated, original and timely work of constructive theology. It also happens to be a great story—even a page-turner. As with most great stories, its action revolves around an ambiguous and compelling protagonist. Here, though, the protagonist is not an important person but an anthropological entity: vulnerability. Human vulnerability, Culp argues, renders us open to infiltration by all the threats and harms that attend human life—contagion, weakness, error, torture, persecution, sickness, suffering and death—but it also lends humanity the capacity for transformation and hence for bearing God's glory.
Culp's disinclination to harden vulnerability into something more recognizably negative (weakness, for example, or suffering) is foremost among the book's many strengths, for it allows Culp to tell the story of how theologians have sought to offset ambiguous vulnerability with something more reliable and solid. Often, she suggests, this theological impulse has resulted in a bifurcated ecclesiology, with the church existing in two versions: a changeable church vulnerable to persecution, error, scandal and history and a reliable, steadfast church immunized against such forces. Naturally this dynamic unfolds differently depending on whether one is talking about Paul, the Donatists, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Brunner or Ruether, to name but a few of the figures Culp treats with nuance and clarity. It also plays out differently depending on whether the threat is torture, schism, heresy, corruption or institutional malaise. Culp's analysis sounds in both these registers, never becoming muffled by jargon or redundancy.
This historical survey—which constitutes part one of the book—is almost worth the cover price. (My chief complaint after finishing Vulnerability and Glory was that I did not discover it in time to assign it to students, as part one is as good as any Protestant survey of ecclesiology I've seen.) But Culp has a more ambitious and constructive goal that is fully unfolded in parts two and three. There she constructs a theology of life before God in which human vulnerability is opened to transformation by God and thereby shows forth God's glory.