Review: Stephen H. Webb, “Jesus Christ, Eternal God”

Title: Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter
Author: Stephen H. Webb
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Theology
Year: 2012
Pages: 368
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-19-982795-4
Price: $65.00

On a blustery April afternoon in 1844, Joseph Smith stood before a congregation of thousands and fought the wind, and we’re still fighting that wind today. It shuffles the scattered notes of the men who scribbled the funeral sermon Smith was preaching at the top of his lungs. In the midst of creaking tree branches, sentence fragments and shorthand, Willard Richards seemed to catch hold of something crucial Smith was claiming, hold enough to record the gist of it in Smith’s journal:

If men do not comprehend the character of God they do not comprehend themselves.1

Smith had his finger on the pulse of the deepest theological questions. At least since Genesis (“let us create man in our own image”) humans have wrestled with two fundamental questions well-phrased by Catholic theologian Stephen Webb:

“First, what features of human nature—mind, body, soul, gender—best reflect God’s nature? Second, what features of God best provide the source of the image in which we are created?” (177, see also 148, 192, 274).

Webb seeks answers to these and other questions in his amazing new book, Jesus Christ, Eternal God. I’m impressed, exhausted, and definitely taxed.  Basically, the book is a fairly long, very technical, hair-splitting extension of Joseph Smith’s declaration that if we don’t comprehend the nature of God, we don’t comprehend ourselves.2 In fact, Webb draws heavily on Joseph Smith’s thought, along with other Christian thinkers throughout history, to present a “heavenly flesh Christology” in which matter itself is listed as one of God’s eternal perfections. An audacious project. He enlists history as a guide to the future.

Flashback to the year 399 CE. Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria sparks a riot in Egypt by circulating an official letter teaching that God is incorporeal. Desert monks angrily swarm the city to defend their belief that humans are created in God’s image, a human form. The pragmatic bishop withdraws the letter when his life is threatened, but he’ll best the monks in the end as they square off over God’s material or immaterial nature. “How,” he asks a monk called Aphou, “could an Ethiopian be in the image of God, or a leper, a cripple, or a blind man?” But such defects wouldn’t be found in the archetype, Aphou reasons, offering a striking analogy: “As the living flesh of the king is to the wood…of his statue, so is the living and ‘incomprehensible light’ of God’s glory, Christ, to our flesh.” Our bodies are like “dull, rotten wood compared to the beauty of Christ” but there is still continuity there. The Nicene Creed and Chalcedon would do away with Aphou’s counter-arguments, though, rendering the desert monks’ anthropomorphic views of God obsolete to this very day (91).3 But the transition was painful for some, including the elderly monk Sarapion. He received the new instruction that God is boundless, incomprehensible, invisible, and certainly not in the likeness of a mere human. As his instructor offered a prayer following the lesson, Sarapion became confused, “for he sensed that the human image of God which he used to draw before him as he prayed was now gone from his heart” and he began to weep, falling to the ground and crying out, “They’ve taken my God away from me. I have no one to hold on to, and I don’t know whom to adore or to address” (92).

While Mormons typically chalk such events up to the “apostasy,” Webb says these big, bad theologians actually had good reason for rejecting what they saw as pagan remnants of belief which the monks so cherished, including their false attribution of a human shape to God. Xenophanes of Colophon used various culturally-bound descriptions of God to do away with anthropomorphism. Ethiopians believed in a flat-nosed black god while the god of the Thracians had red hair and blue eyes, he argued. “If horses or oxen or lions…could draw with their hands,” he added, “and accomplish such works as men, horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen” (75). Case closed: anthropomorphism is born of gullibility and conceit. For political and theological expediency, centuries of theology would find ways to render Hebrew scripture’s depictions of God’s figure as figurative (76-81). So argues Webb in chapters 3 and 4.

But not every theologian then or now is satisfied with an immaterial God. As the back-and-forths between Theophilus, Aphou, Xenophanes and others suggest, Webb believes that “doctrines have conditions as well as historical contexts” which help determine their shape. Webb argues that the old “teaching of immateriality was a wise choice guided by divine providence” because it was rightfully working against various pagan and Gnostic heresies. But as the conditions change, so too can the doctrine (20). In chapter 2 Webb lays out the metaphysical arguments available to Christians on the nature of matter—Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, Neoplatonism, etc. The Greek assumption that matter is eternal bothered Christian thinkers because it challenged God’s sovereignty. So Christians adopted two strategies. First, that God created the world ex nihilo (from nothing). Second, they argued that God is infinite. Webb believes this had the dual result of making God and matter less comprehensible (4). Speaking of comprehension, a word of warning: Webb’s technical explorations get a little bogged down at times. Non-specialists like me will struggle as he outlines the thought of two contemporary theologians—Colin Gunton and David Bentley Hart and argues against them at length, for instance. What is important to keep in mind is that Platonic metaphysics—once serving as the foundation of belief in an immaterial God—fell out of fashion. So what do we do with God in light of scientific advances like quantum mechanics, let alone organic evolution? Can we still say God is “immaterial” if the reasons that belief came about to start with are now rejected? Webb says we shouldn’t (10).

Webb isn’t alone in recognizing the need to reconceptualize the Trinity, but metaphysics is a bit out of style in current theological discussion. It isn’t on the radar of biblical fundamentalists, while liberal theologians are more focused on issues like social justice. For them, historical groundings and metaphysical considerations are largely irrelevant. Some even seem to be doing away with Jesus altogether.4 Webb knows he is swimming upstream here. He knows some metaphysical meanderings seem downright irrelevant (152, 213, 220, etc.). He’s also aware that specificity is often the parent of heresy (116). But he forges ahead anyway because he holds the conviction that beliefs about matter, well, matter: “So what is matter, and why does it matter to Christianity?” This is the utterly ambitious question posed at the outset of Webb’s thoroughly complex project (3).

In good apophatic style (defining what is by arguing what isn’t), Webb opens the book by describing and rejecting a trinity of alternative positions on matter and spirit: immaterialism, emergent materialism, and pantheism. If Classical theism pitted spirit against matter, it seems Webb wants “a materialistic interpretation of the spiritual” so spirit and matter can actually interact (12). Theologians must “rethink the concept of God’s nature as well as the nature of matter” (252). Metaphysics, by nature, goes beyond what we can empirically know, but Webb, like the ancients, is “guided by the conviction that the knower must coincide with the known” (273). And if Jesus was embodied like us, then Jesus is a gateway for us to know God. Webb lays his metaphysical cards on the table by describing his controlling assumption: “I believe that any Christian metaphysics should begin and end in Christology, so that my metaphysical approach to matter will depend upon a prior investigation into the nature of Jesus Christ” (13).

Ultimately, Webb grounds his metaphysics on the biblical account of Jesus Christ’s incarnation. Christ’s human nature, for Webb, is “soteriologically decisive” for humans, something all Christians heartily agree with. He hopes Western theologians will continue to pay more attention to Eastern Orthodoxy’s focus on divinization, the idea that Christ’s resurrected body, its glorified state, represents our eventual destination. But he takes it a step further in arguing that Christ’s body is also “metaphysically crucial” with this provocative suggestion disguised as a question: “Was [Jesus’s] flesh the origin of matter as well as its end?” (58).

To make such a suggestion he needs to call in some backup, because he’s essentially arguing against centuries of mainstream creedal thought on the nature of God. In chapters 5-8 Webb draws deeply on an “obscure branch” of his own Catholic tradition he calls “heavenly flesh Christology.” Severus, Eutyches, and other lesser-known theologians come to his aid. Most interesting is his countering of Thomas Aquinas’s classical theism with the writings of Karl Barth, a discussion too interesting to describe here. All sorts of fascinating questions are raised throughout these chapters including the nature of the virgin birth and ancient beliefs about conception, the relationship of the Eucharist to the flesh of Jesus, the historicity of the Transfiguration and its implications for the disciples (it introduced a change in them rather than in the nature of Jesus), and the nature of resurrected bodies. Heads will spin. Multiple readings will be required (not merely because the index is practically useless, simply listing names but no concepts. Seriously?! And how about a glossary? A timeline? Any additional apparatus?).

Then comes chapter 9, “Godbodied,” a chapter which Webb says “might be the most controversial” of the book, and with good cause (5). He turns to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of all places for help (243-270). He actually takes Mormonism seriously, regretting that creedal Christians rarely do. In fact, Mormon rejection of certain elements of the creeds are the theological reasons behind Pastor Jeffress’ recent observations that Mormons belong to a “cult.” If anything, Webb’s whole book puts the lie to such arbitrary distinctions on the grounds that Christians from time immemorial have espoused various heresies that would unduly deny them the label of “Christian” as well. Mormons have plenty of heretical Christian brothers and sisters down through the centuries. Besides, “the Christian faith has always grown through intellectual clashes and vigorous disputes” with various “heretics—those close enough to traditional Christianity to really get underneath the skin of its foundational beliefs” (243). For Webb, Mormons are the salutary heretics, and Mormonism is “the most imaginative” and “most exciting conversational partner for traditional Christians for the twenty-first century” (243). The dialog will be difficult, perhaps most of all because Mormons tend to eschew systematic theology (244), but Webb is aware of enough “Mormon scholars, intellectuals, writers, scientists, philosophers and yes, theologians willing and eager” to discuss the matter of matter. He explores Mormon texts including the Book of Moses and various sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, and offers two pages of exegesis on the King Follett discourse (255-7, although there is no footnote explaining what version he’s using). He interacts with Robert Millett, Truman Madsen, and David Paulsen (who offers blurb of praise on the book’s back cover) and other Mormons on matters like cosmology, embodiment, preexistence, and exaltation.5

Surely creedal Christians will be especially uncomfortable with this chapter, but it is the true embodiment of Webb’s overall method: searching through various theologies to hammer out distinctions, propose alternatives, and become more aware of theological problems and potential solutions. Still, when Webb argues against creation ex nihilo (57, 77-8, 97, etc.) and describes some atonement theories as misrepresenting God’s plan as an ad hoc solution (148), or posits that Christ existed pre-mortally with a body of flesh, he’s likely to be dismissed or ignored. Moreover, Mormons won’t escape un-ruffled, either, because Webb isn’t proposing to simply replace traditional creeds with Mormon theology. They’ll resist when he denies the flesh and bone embodiment of God the Father and the nature of the Holy Spirit as being a “personage” (269-270, etc.), and when he questions the concept of eternal intelligences as spirit children of God (268-9). He sees the LDS doctrinal future as being open to change (272), but as an outsider he understandably doesn’t offer much advice on how Mormons could integrate his insights in any official capacity. He wonders if some Mormon thinkers are sometimes too eager to speak majestically of humankind’s eternity “instead of the eternity of the one human who matters, and that is Jesus Christ” (259). Still, as he argued recently in a column at First Things, if Mormons can be thought heretics in regards to Christ, it ought to be for affirming Christ’s divinity without knowing quite where to stop. Superchristians, heretics, but Christian nonetheless (244).

In all of this Webb risks “pleasing no one while annoying everyone,” but he offers his heavenly flesh Christology regardless of the consequences (269). While tracing the history of theology about matter and spirit he rhetorically advances his Christology using a series of carefully placed “if so” and “what if” propositions throughout the book (examples on 103, 105, 108, 173, 196, 222, 257, among many others). These culminate in his explicit outlining of a heavenly flesh Christology at the conclusion of chapter 9 and throughout chapter 10, to follow up his “first approximation” in chapter one. As you’ve guessed by now (if you made it this far) it isn’t something that can be easily explained or summed up, but here’s the condensed version:

“God the Father is material (in a way we cannot completely imagine or understand) without being fully corporeal, God the Son is anthropomorphically corporeal (and thus material in a way that is different from the Father), and God the Holy Spirit is the love they share—and it is this love that dynamically directs matter toward corporeal form” (269).

For Webb, Jesus Christ is the bridge between the somehow-differently-material God the Father and the material human race, and the example of our initial design and future perfected state. If the ancient Gnostics taught about the evil of matter, and the contemporary secularists teach the potential mastering of matter by the hands of humankind, Webb urges Christians (including Mormons) to emphasize the spirit of matter and matter of spirit as originally founded in the flesh of Jesus Christ (273). Webb is absolutely correct that contemporary science (especially physics and biology) are crucial considerations in contemporary theological discussions. He spends a little time confronting evolutionary psychology (84) and transhumanism (176), but he spends much more time with the Mormons! This is because he is more focused on the coherence of conceptual, rather than evidential, Christology, and more interested in grounding his theology in Jesus Christ. If his proposals can’t ultimately be embraced on a wide-scale (and it would probably take a miracle for that to happen!), Webb still takes some consolation: “At the very least, if I am wrong about everything I say here, I want to claim that I have good company” (6). I hope his company extends from the companions of the past who he quotes throughout the book to embrace current theologians across the Christian spectrum and beyond. Jesus Christ, Eternal God is an impressive combination of history, philosophy, and theology. It’s been called “ground-breaking.” As his historical analysis shows, Webb’s heavenly flesh Christology may be “ground-breaking” in the sense of resurrection—the continuation of something old with the addition of something remarkably new.

*For an idea of how possibly under-representative my review really is, check out Webb’s Table of Contents and other info at OUP’s site here.



1. Thanks to WVS, we can easily compare the respective versions at The “comprehend” line from Richards’s notes is prominently included in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007)Chapter 2: God the Eternal Father,” 36–44.

2.  In context it seems Smith was discussing God’s nature as much as God’s character here.

3. Unfortunately, Webb doesn’t engage in the nascent discussions about the implications of human disability for what it means for humans to be created in the image of God. See my review of Molly C. Haslam’s work here.

4. Catholic theologian Ilia Delio would likely object to my characterization, but in my view she re-defines “Christ” so as to completely disconnect the idea from its historical foundation and embodiment in general. She suggests that “To live in the mystery of Christ is not necessarily to speak about Christ but to live in the grace of surrender, the poverty of being, and openness of heart.” The concept of Christ is dying, but will emerge again, evolving, but the physical, resurrected body of Jesus which the disciples claimed to handle and see disappears into a new age grab-bag faith citing books like Eat, Pray, Love and worldwide ecumenical humanist movements. See Delio, The Emergent Christ: Exploring the Meaning of Catholic in an Evolutionary Universe (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011), 147; also 85-6, 116-7, 120, 143-4.

5. Webb also follows a brief side-road to clarify some of the claims made by historian John Brooke in regards to the hermetic/alchemist roots of Mormonism. See pp. 259-261. This whole chapter was published as “Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints,” BYU Studies vol. 50 no. 3 (2011). A .pdf download is available for a mere two bucks. A full review of the Mormon chapter is possibly forthcoming.


  1. John Morehead’s already getting a move on about this book, it seems.

  2. This book sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review. (One more book to put on a list of books I want to but might never read.)

  3. Christian J says:

    “Indeed, part of the problem is that conflict between estranged relatives can be more heated than arguments among strangers. Only a movement so close to traditional Christianity could incite such strong feelings.”

    Love this line. Thanks for the review B.

  4. Thanks for the review, BHodges. Webb is well worth the time I think.

  5. This is a great book that represents the best of inter-religious dialogue. It takes the participants seriously but doesn’t give them a bye on thoughtful criticism just because “it’s their religion.” It’s not for theological novices, but I think people would be ready for it after reading McMurrin’s Foundationses and a couple scholarly works on early Mormon history, say Matt Bowman’s Mormon People and Rough Stone Rolling.

  6. It takes the participants seriously but doesn’t give them a bye on thoughtful criticism just because “it’s their religion.”

    You nailed it, smb.

  7. Ok, I’m buying this book. My own theology meanderings are leading me in some of these directions. Thanks for your careful reading and recommendation!

  8. God the Holy Spirit is the love they share—and it is this love that dynamically directs matter toward corporeal form

    Does he flesh that out quite a bit? It sounds nice and poetic, but on the other hand somewhat meaningless at the same time. That sentence makes it sound like the Spirit is a concept more than an actual entity. All you need is love? So maybe Pres Monson needs to give it some more thought.. ;)

    But I’d like to see you write a bit more about that concept.

  9. I meant to leave this comment on the Nephi Anderson article which I quite enjoyed and it seems every bit as relevant here.

    “Webb is absolutely correct that contemporary science (especially physics and biology) are crucial considerations in contemporary theological discussions.”

    I’m curious, just how serious are people about actually doing this?

    From Added Upon –

    And now they learn the things they could not know
    On mortal earth. They learn the secrets of
    All things that are in space above, or in
    The Earth beneath: the elements which form
    The air that man did breathe, and where obtained,
    And how composed. They learn of primal rocks,
    Foundations of the new-formed worlds in space,
    And how these worlds evolve into abodes
    For man. The source of light and heat and power
    They find, and grasp the laws by which they may
    Be rightly used and perfectly controlled.
    And then, most precious gift! they learn of life:
    What makes the grass to grow, what gives the flowers
    Their fragrance and their many-colored hues.
    They comprehend all life in moving forms,—
    In worm, in insect, fish, and bird, and beast;

    Beautiful? Poetic? Inspiring? Absolutely. Now try reading this abstract from a few weeks ago without falling asleep –

    Would Nephi Anderson be more interested in metaphysics or the fact that we just found 100 billion planets? Why is that?

  10. Thanks for this, Blair.

    I just read his First Things article, “Mormonism Obsessed with Christ.” Whatever else can be said, Webb deserves some serious consideration, and not just because his outsider use of Mormonism is bias-reaffirming, although it is also surely that.

    Webb has paid Mormon theology a careful compliment. Perhaps we can start by offering a hurried version in turn: sometimes only an outsider can get it right. There are thousands of viable critiques that can be made against the Church, which, most of the time, only the insider can get right. But, as many practicing Mormons know, critique is too easy: This is more, this is something, this is insight from outside.

    It may not be too brazen to assert that probably no practicing Mormon could hope to be able to make the case as convincingly for what an an important and ignored element of Mormon theology: the literal, central, material concreteness of Christ. The in-house apologists can’t say it because it just sounds so self-righteous to remind those few willing to listen that Christ’s life, teachings, and sacrifice are so physical they are tangible in metaphysical ways; that symbols, once taken, have a substance all their own, call it transubstantiation, garments, Temple ordinances, family history records, sacred names, or what not; that we are in Christ, Paul reminds us, no less than “new creatures”; that the Atonement, an infinite account to which we co-sign and invest our lives, covers not only sin, not only heartache, stubbed toes, imperfect records, missed buses, but that also animates worldly and heavenly networks of lives beyond our own; that the Hebrew metaphor of “bowels of mercy,” usually a squeamish image to the modern reader, reminds us that Christ, once lived after, should rock us to our literal core; that this material Christ is very shareable as well as responsible to personal interaction, or in Webb’s term, He can be a globe-trotting Savior of all mankind as well as be personally meaningful; that life in all its embodied and material constraints is a marvelous thing; that family relations are biologically and theologically for the long-run; that nature is yet another form of God’s continuous revelation; that religion is, as John A. Widtsoe put it, “the science of sciences”; that Mormonism’ materiality grounds the religion fundamentally as a lived orthopraxy, more than a known set of doctrines, however imaginative, expansive, and peculiar; etc., etc.

    Obviously this is me riffing on some of my own feelings about Christ and materiality, not anything Webb said. But how cool that one can follow (at least the online abstract of) the other!

    I am really grateful to have an outside voice spark something so near and dear to me. Of course there are things to take issue with, but just empirically speaking, this kind of encounter in the scholarly literature concerning Mormonism is a genuine treat.

  11. Thanks Blair for this excellent review. I first noticed Webb when I read his review of McDermott and MIllett’s book: Claiming Christ. Webb, Stephen H. “Review of Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate – By Robert L. Millet and Gerald R. McDermott.” Reviews in Religion and Theology 15.3 (July 2008): 426-29.

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to point out the fruits of interfaith dialogue here. Never mind the flaws of dialogue here or there; and never mind the fact that no Mormon interlocutor will ever explain Mormonism to everyone’s satisfaction, there are real fruits in dialogue! Listen to Webb’s concluding paragraph of his 2008 review and then think about his 2012 publication.

    “In sum, Millet demonstrates the depths of Mormon Christocentricity, even to the point of being theologically eccentric.When you add to this focus the Mormon apotheosis of the Puritan theology of covenant as well as the fact that Mormons take the Great Commission more seriously
    than even most evangelicals, one can only conclude that the next great phase of ecumenical Christian dialogue with other religions has to begin with the conversation between orthodox Christians and Latter Day Saints. No other religious movement (and I include the contemporary
    varieties of Judaism) lies so close to traditional Christianity while speaking in such a vexing voice. To shut out this voice as more imaginative than revelatory is to deny the whispers of our own hearts’ longing. It is time to listen and to learn, but first to forgive and seek forgiveness for all that has separated us in the past.”

  12. Ben: Excellent stuff, I love your riff on the subject.

    Aquinas, thanks for calling attention to that background to Webb’s work. Webb certainly practices what he preaches in terms of making the most of interreligious dialog.

    chris: The Holy Ghost stuff seemed pretty typical in terms of traditional creedal theology, the Spirit’s role in the Trinity being more of the product of the relationship between Father and Son and not an actual conscious entity/personality in its own right. Perhaps more like being consciousness than an individual consciousness would be an appropriate way to describe it? That bit of Webb’s proposal is likely the least controversial for creedal Christians, while Mormons will object on the grounds that the Spirit is understood to be an actual personage of spirit accd. to Joseph Smith, although the Lectures on Faith seem to advance this other view. In all, Webb actually doesn’t spend a lot of time on the Holy Spirit here, although again, Mormons would on the basis that the Spirit is a part of some sort of matter as well as we are.

    Jeff: Would Nephi Anderson be more interested in metaphysics or the fact that we just found 100 billion planets? Why is that?

    Wonderfully phrased, well said. I’m working on a project right now dealing with Nephi Anderson’s views of science and theology. The metaphysical/physical divide, I think, wouldn’t be as pleasing to Nephi on the grounds that he saw the spiritual and physical as on a continuum rather than as distinct and separate entities. So I think he’d be more directly interested in the planets, but he would still be carrying along what we see as metaphysical assumptions at the same time.

    Also, you asked about physics and evolution in tandem with theology. Yes, there are people doing this sort of thing. In the footnotes I mentioned Delia, a catholic theologian (more a post-catholic it seems to me) who engages in questions of evolution and Christianity. John Haught (Making Sense of Evolution among others) and John Polkinghorne (The Faith of a Physicist among others) and Conor Cunningham (Darwin’s Pious Idea, see my review at are three other names that come to mind. Each of these writers brings the creeds along with them, including creation ex nihilo and views on the Trinity which make them somewhat less useful for LDS views. Webb’s book is a move to overcome that division. Other movements, including process theology, are also something of an outgrowth response to Darwinism and physics, I think. From the Mormon side we’ve had less attention paid to these matter,s particularly on evolution, probably due to longstanding cultural skepticism about evolution. But Steven Peck, a biologist at BYU, has been one among several Mormons (Meldrum, Bailey, Stutz, Jeffery, etc.) who have made moves toward including evolution in our theology. Such moves were started even before the turn of the century, incidentally, as my paper on Nephi Anderson will argue, but Mormonism has had a very mixed record on dealing with it. On the physics/cosmology front, Mormons like Ron Hellings should be considered as well, can’t think of the others off the top of my head though. See

    Science/Religion dialogue had somewhat fallen out of favor due to some of the shortcomings of previous attempts at natural theology but I think it is beginning to be a bit more robust once again not only in Mormonism, but in the wider Xtian and religious communities generally, and they seem to have quite a head start on us in those departments. Here are a few books I recommended on the topic:

  13. This is so excellent. There is no where else that I can think of where I would have heard of this book. Thank you.

  14. This is a great review of a great book. Thanks.

  15. Excellent review Blair. I’ve been trying to think of a way to teach this in my Intro to Phil. of Religion class, but I fear it be too technical for an intro class.

  16. I’d say too technical for intro class, yeah

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