Review of A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of Human Life by Ephraim Radner

August 15, 2016

A Time to KeepRadner, Ephraim. A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of Human Life. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016, pp. 304, $49.95, hardback.

The significance and meaning of the anthropos has and continues to capture the imagination of ancient and contemporary reflections. Several recent reflections highlight human constitution, the afterlife, sexuality, and race, among others. Ephraim Radner’s A Time to Keep touches on these important topics, but his approach is unique. Radner claims that an understanding of humanity must take into account the theological nature of time. Radner makes an important contribution that advances a rich vision of humanity situated in the scriptural story, guided by various theological authorities, and informed by the social sciences.

Radner advances the argument that humans are relational (i.e., filliated) beings shaped and molded by God’s design of creation, redemption, and death. On that basis, he exhorts us to count our days. Our days are numbered as creatures. Between birth and death, we have a vocation and purpose. Life, death, toil and generative relationship shapes and forms the patterns of human living (p.16). Radner sees this reality in the “figural” portrayal of redemption in “tunics of skins” or clothes, which is a metaphor for the shape of life, reflecting what God did at creation when giving humans skin. After the Fall of Adam and Eve, God made clothes as a way to protect humanity in the world, prefiguring what God does in Christ (see especially 2 Corinthians 5:1-10). It signifies the frailty and humility of human life, yet it also signifies God’s actions toward humans as the means by which we live, and how we understand humanity. For Radner, the temporal frame in which we live is given by God not as an ad-hoc aspect to life, but as the way in which God reveals himself to his human creation.

With all of Radner’s focus on mortality and the immanent realm, it is tempting to think that he has no place for the afterlife and the transcendent realm. Such a conclusion would not fill out a complete picture. In line with Charles Taylor’s recent research, for example, Radner rejects the modern tendency to link the immanent of meaning to the denial of the afterlife. The immanent is suffuse with meaning, instead. As a divine gift, human vocation is not purely immanent but transcendent. Radner states it well: “This is in part what I will be arguing when it comes to the areas of maturation, family, and work: their character as aspects of survival is, for the creature, precisely what makes them transcendent, and not purely immanent, goods” (p.34). Participation in the framework God establishes, then, provides the means by which to develop transcendent meaning—value and character. He illustrates the dual nature quite well in his discussion of the Eucharist (i.e., the Lord’s Supper; the anti-type for all meals as signs of life) where we partake of divinity through the flesh (pp.213-18). The discussion is rich with symbolic and sacramental meaning, but he does not venture far enough in parsing out a sacramental ontology of participation.

There is some room for suggesting that Radner could say a bit more about participation and activity in other-worldly reality. For example, much of what Radner advances is quite compatible with platonic leaning views of the world in which all of reality is connected in a hierarchy of being leading to God with its attending emphases on the immaterial or heavenly realities. The talk of souls and access to another world (e.g., heaven) is not completely out of place in Radner’s discussion (pp.225-27), but he is generally weary of separating the two as he finds in theologians like René Descartes. Some might find his emphasis on the immanent a bit too strong; they might prefer to highlight the rich reality of the mental life as signifying and pointing to a higher reality that grounds and sustains the present material reality. While Radner might characterize substantival dualism as inhabiting a separation, many like myself would disagree, highlighting the integrative functional nature of both soul and body—which is, arguably, capable of accounting for both the “filial” and heavenly nature of Christian anthropology.

Radner discusses several other worthwhile, albeit, surprising and fruitful topics. He offers the reader careful discussions of bodily fluids and how it fits in the bodily nature of humanity (pp.97-99). He also puts forward a thoughtful argument against homosexuality in the context of the scriptural pattern of generative life. He argues from a common theological reading of Genesis 2:24 that the one flesh union not only accounts for the two (male and female) that unite sexually, but that the union generates a third party. According to Radner, to go against such filial patterns would miss the shape of our sexual lives in the context of God’s design.

As far as constructive theology goes, Radner’s A Time To Keep is one the most significant pieces I have read in several years. The strength of his discussion rests in his expounding on the embodied life of the human. While there are other elements worth developing, his study helpfully keeps in perspective our life as creatures. Although not an introductory text, his book is an excellent complement to other works in theological anthropology and Christian ethics, given its emphasis on the frail bodily life of humans. It could serve as a useful text in biblical or theological anthropology at the upper-undergraduate level and at the graduate level. Finally, evangelical Christians will find much that is worth their attention as they develop their theologies of the body, death, and Christian living.

Joshua Farris

Houston Baptist University, Houston, TX.

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