Who Do You Say That I Am?
Believing in Jesus Christ in the 21st Century
Associate Professor of Theology
McCormick Theological Seminary
Address to the 2002 Covenant Conference
November 9, 2002
I am delighted to be here. Just to be among this great cloud of witnesses is a joy, and to be asked to address you is awesome. This event is proving to be a time of restoration, renewal, and recommitment. We will travel in the strength of this sustenance for many days!
In this dawning of the 21st century there are many and difficult challenges for those who are believers in God. It seems that talk of God has been eclipsed in our day; or where public talk of God occurs, it is discredited by its connection with holy wars or invocation of divine support for national interests or personal blessing. If we would continue to affirm and inquire into this much-abused yet still holy name of God, we have to give an account of ourselves. The very existence of God in these circumstances is under suspicion.
But there is a prior question, is there not? Before we can even ask, “Does God exist?” we have to ask, “What do we mean by God?” This question is the real question for us now, I think. Whether we affirm or deny that God exists, we have to define what it is we are talking about here. We cannot just predicate existence or non-existence of something unspecified.
If you were to engage a committed atheist in conversation, it is probably not helpful to begin with the traditional ” arguments for the existence of God.” These generally only prove convincing to those who already believe on other grounds. It is probably more to the point to begin with the question, “What do you mean by God?” You may find that as they spell out what they mean by God, you do not believe in that God either. They may describe a Santa Claus in the sky or a wrathful judge and punisher of evil or a puppet master pulling all the strings from above.
I recently saw a Far Side cartoon that makes my point. It showed God as an old man with a long beard sitting before a computer, watching world affairs go by on the screen. And on the keyboard there is this key marked SMITE. And every now and then
Now is that what we mean by God? I don’t think so! Many popular understandings are not worthy of the subject matter–not worth believing in. So what do we mean by God?
For Christians our meaning is Christ-formed. We believe that God was in Christ and this self-revelation is our best clue to what God is like. This does not give us an easy answer to the God question, however. Rather, it takes the question to another level. Who is this Christ? The new question, the real question, is the old question: “Who do you say that I am?” And our accounting to this question must paint a picture worthy of that to which it points.
Many have challenged the “worthiness” of particular understandings prevalent today. These new challenges are added to the old challenge — the challenge of believing at all — the leap of faith, the foolishness, the stumbling block, the scandal. We who would name the name of Jesus are beset behind and before! But as the believers who went before us did, so to must we meet also the challenges peculiar to our time. It is not enough to just reiterate what they said. Rather, we must do for our time what they did for theirs. When all is said and done, the foolishness and the stumbling block remain; but let it at least be God’s foolishness and stumbling block and not another forged by our inability or unwillingness to face and address the questions of our day and time.
I will take up only three such questions today. But these are big ones. When I lay them out, you may conclude that I am, as Joseph Sitler use to say, “chewing on more than I can bite off.”
- In a time of raised gender consciousness, what do we make of the maleness of Jesus? As Rosemary Ruether put it so provocatively, “Can a male savior save women?”
- What of the atonement? Some interpretations of the satisfaction theory of the atonement are deeply offensive to contemporary sensibilities, as they seem to glorify suffering. How do we think about this?
- What kinds of claims are we making around the Lordship of Christ? What do we really mean to be asserting in our religiously pluralistic context?
Now I do not mean to simply answer all these three little questions today. In fact, I would wager that anyone who has a simple answer for these questions simply has not understood the questions! What I hope to do is illumine the questions in their challenge for us and begin to hint at ways they might be helpfully addressed. Mostly I want to offer a few stray thoughts and a few resources for Christians today who would seek to be faithful to our historic affirmations concerning the person and work of Christ, and at the same time engage faithfully the particular questions these affirmations raise for our time.
I. Jesus and Gender
“Can a male savior save women?”
At first blush this may seem to us to be making too much of the maleness of Jesus. As human beings, we say, the accidents of our birth — our eye color, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity — though important, are not the main considerations about us. So also, the maleness of Jesus is not decisive for God’s work in him. any more than his eye color is.
But the problem is that in fact the church has made much of the maleness of Jesus. In Christian tradition, this person has been understood to reveal to us both the true human being and the true God. Many have made deductions from this that since Jesus, the human exemplar, is male, then the true human being is male, with female as something of a deviation from the norm, a subspecies, or as Aquinas (quoting Aristotle approvingly) allowed–the female is a “misbegotten male”! Similarly, since Jesus reveals who God is and Jesus is male, some have deduced that God must be male. And as Mary Daly observed, “if God is male, male is God.”
The outworking of these deductions has been disastrous for women. A case in point is the Vatican Declaration (1976) that “there must be a physical resemblance between the priest and Christ” — and they are not talking about eye color or ethnicity here! For Ruether, as a Catholic woman, this is particularly poignant. Since she is not ordained, she cannot be silenced, and she has been bold enough to say that with this declaration, “The possession of male genitalia becomes the essential prerequisite for representing Christ, who is the disclosure of the male God” (Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, p. 126). Now before we begin feeling too righteous in relation to Roman Catholic Christians, I want to remind us that we have our own peculiar set of prerequisites functioning around ordination.
What an odd turn of events it is that Jesus should in any way be used as an instrument of oppression or an occasion for exclusion. Consider who he was and what he did: eating with sinners and outcasts, welcoming children, encouraging women among his followers, caring about the least and the lost, leading through serving. Maybe his being male is significant here since, if a woman did these same things, they would have been unremarkable!
Jesus had a habit of overturning cultural and even religious prohibitions in the interest of persons involved (speaking to women on the street, healing on the Sabbath — shocking!) The norms of his patriarchal society do not seem to limit his ministry. His way of being has caused Elizabeth Johnson to remark that the problem is “not so much that Jesus was a man as that more men are not like Jesus” ! (She Who Is, p.161).
Indeed. And I think we need to take this whole discussion to another level. I will put it this way: there’s more to the Christ than Jesus. (Maybe I am going out on a limb here, but I am among friends.) But I think I can back this up. Remember that Jesus himself did a major reframe on what it meant to be the Christ. Remember that Christ is not Jesus’ last name, but an affirmation, a title meaning “God’s anointed.” His way of being “the Christ” was a kind of repudiation of all expectations — expectations of nationalist revenge and triumph, expectation of a king coming to put down the nation’s enemies. He freed up religious expectation of his day from the fossilization of his own tradition. Would we now make a fossil of him? How contrary to his spirit that would be.
Consider Matthew 25. Where is the Christ to be seen? In the thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned. In our limited imagination, we find it hard to look beyond the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Will we in the last day be found asking, “But Lord, when did we see you?” There is more to the Christ than we know in Jesus.
Consider the community of believers who followed Jesus. They are said to be en christo. “Their own lives assume a Christic pattern” (Johnson, p. 72). The Christian community–plural, gendered, and diverse as it is — is the body of Christ. When Saul is addressed on the road to Damascus during his persecution of the Christian community, the question comes to him “Saul, why do you persecute me?” There is more to the Christ than we know in Jesus.
Consider all those accounts — beyond our more familiar Christologies — of what might be termed “the cosmic Christ.” The conviction that the mystery of Christ pertains to the fundamental structure of the cosmos, and all this prior to any role in relation to human sin. This is the divine Logos. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1). It is all there. And elsewhere, in the less familiar passage of Colossians 1:15-20, “Here is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible. . . . He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
The relation of the Christ to creation is in the primordial mystery of God’s creative purpose (Zachary Hayes, “Cosmology and Christology,” Epic of Creation). Salvation might be thought out less in terms of the eternal destiny of individual souls and more in terms of God’s bringing to completion God’s intentions with the whole creation. The Christ event presents a vision of a God whose mystery lies in the direction of an incalculably generous love, forgiveness, and acceptance. What God instantiated in the Christ is immensely larger than our words have heretofore described, or ever can describe.
[More could be said–but we all have flights to catch, today.]
II. What Did Jesus Do?
And what of the atonement?
Brown and Bohn, in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, charge that “Christianity is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering” (p. 26). Substitutionary atonement looks a lot like “divine child abuse. . . God the Father demanding and carrying out the suffering and death of his own son” so that God can forgive our sins. I would join to their voices that of womanist theologian Delores Williams. Williams, in Sisters in the Wilderness, has brought to our attention that the substitution and sacrificial suffering do not play themselves out as “good news” for people accustomed to roles of surrogacy and sacrifice and suffering.
If it is the case that our interpretation of the cross has become a glorification of suffering, then it seems to me we have badly misrepresented the meaning of the cross. Theology goes awry from time to time.
[It reminds me of a Snoopy cartoon. Snoopy was sitting on top of his doghouse, writing away. Charlie Brown asked him, “What are you writing?” Snoopy answered, “It’s a book on theology.” Charlie Brown persisted, “And what are you going to call it?” Snoopy replied, “The title will be, ‘Have you ever considered that you might be wrong?'” We might be wrong here!]
Perhaps we should begin again at the beginning. We affirm with I Corinthians 5, “God was in Christ reconciling the world.” This story is not about God punishing or causing or requiring the suffering of some other. It is rather about God in Christ, a co-sufferer in solidarity with human beings, in a way that offers healing and emancipatory hope. The crucifixion is a social and political response to the challenge that the life that Jesus lived presented to principalities and powers. Dorothee Soelle, in her book Suffering, has pointed out that there is nothing distinctive in crucifixion; people are, in a sense, “crucified” everyday. What is distinctive is in the life that Jesus lived, in love of God and neighbor, a life that seems to call us to stop the crucifixions! It is time to reclaim the cross–not as a glorification of suffering but as a scene of “dangerous remembrance, empowering resistance, and emancipatory hope” (Joy Ann McDougall, unpublished paper, AAR, 1999).
This can happen best when the cross is not viewed in isolation from the larger Christ event. The Confession of 1967, as John Wilkinson pointed out, lifts up the life and ministry of Jesus. In this way, it fills in the blanks of some earlier creeds. Remember how the Apostle’s Creed goes, “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, (comma!) suffered under Pontius Pilate.” What is missing from this picture?!
What would happen if our doctrine of the atonement took the life of Jesus the Christ, in its redemptive power, more seriously? Consider for a moment the birth narratives and how incarnation — as such — is in itself redemptive. This line of thought could be traced out of Johanine theology into Irenaeus and later Schleiermacher. There is the wonder of Word made flesh. And Irenaeus is intrigued with how Jesus “recapitulates” our lives, redeeming as he goes. With each step our lives are taken into the divine life in a kind of theosis. “He became as we are, that we might become as he is.” It is this divine embrace of our lives in the incarnation that accomplishes our salvation. The incarnation would be enough!
Another way of thinking about what God was doing in Christ — one that has received too little attention — is Abelard’s view (1079-1142). In his view, the human problematic is not so much that we have sinned and God’s wrath puts a distance between us and God. It is more that our own sense of shame causes us to put the distance between us and God. It is not a matter of God turning from us in anger; we turn from God in shame. We go into hiding.
This model I can illustrate from childhood. I think I believed my mother knew everything I did, even if she did not see me do it. As a small child, whenever I got into mischief and did enough damage that I could not undo it, I would go and hide in my brother’s closet behind the boxes of things that were stored. And I can hear my mother calling, “Anna, where are you?” Eventually I would peep out sheepishly to confess my misdeed or more likely to tell her whose fault it really was. What I did not know until much later was that very often she had no idea I had done anything at all until she found me hiding. But because I was hiding, she knew something was amiss.
One picture of the human predicament is as guilty, shame-faced, hiding. This may be more central to the biblical witness about sin than has been heretofore recognized. It goes all the way back to the story in Genesis 3:8, where Adam and Eve hide from God in the garden and hide from one another with a covering of fig leaves. To the person hiding, whether in a closet or in the garden, salvation comes as a discovery that we are in fact loved and accepted just as we are. We no longer need to hide.
The work of Christ as the Word is to manifest God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness. It is a revelation of what is already the case. Once we know of this great love, we cannot help but respond and be transformed. We are drawn out of our guilty hiding and inspired to live lives marked by love and acceptance and forgiveness. Christ is our example: as we grow in grace, our lives come to be, more and more, conformed to his pattern.
Multiple readings of God’s work in Christ are available in Scripture and Christian theology. No one of them comprehends the fullness of our redemption. But each one sheds a beam of light upon the depths of divine love.
III. Jesus is Lord
And what kinds of claims are we making around the Lordship of Christ? What do we really mean to be asserting in our religiously pluralistic age?
That “Jesus is Lord” is our oldest and most central confession. But there is a range of perspectives among Presbyterians regarding what that affirmation means. There are some who are comfortable with language of “uniqueness” or “singularity” or Jesus as the “only savior.” Others are concerned to keep a certain reserve about the extent to which we may know the mind of God and the ways of God with other peoples. They would insist that God is free in these things. To be honest, we have to recognize that both these ways of speaking are found in the Bible and in our historic confessions. So how do we proceed?
Sometimes the way forward is by going back. So I propose a “Digression for Dogma.” In our churches, we sometimes have a “Moment for Mission.” Well, this is our “Digression for Dogma.” Dogma is not really a bad thing in and of itself; it may actually be useful for the church. Dogma simply means the “teaching of the church.” It has gotten a bad rap when imposed or received uncritically. Then we have dogmatism, which has come to signal a certain rigidity and a loss of the tentative and humble attitude that should attend all our church statements. But a critical appreciation of the teaching of the church can be genuinely illumining. So let’s let the dogma out.
What is the teaching of the church on these things? I would like to take the Second Helvetic Confession [SHC] as an example. It is one of our 16th-century confessions, and it exemplifies the ambiguity of Reformed tradition on this matter, an ambiguity that we are still seeing in the contemporary discussions. Martin Bullinger, who succeeded Zwingli at Zurich, wrote SHC. Bullinger would not have had on his screen the context of religious pluralism that is ours today. But the question of What about those who are not in the church or those who through no fault of their own never even heard the gospel? What about Moses, for example? — these questions would have vexed the 16th century; and they are not unlike our own questions. SHC is rather evenhanded — in terms of the differing propensities of Presbyterians today. This balanced view is so much richer, I think, than excluding one insight or the other for the sake of simplicity. There is a holy perplexity here that does not admit of simple solutions. (The document “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” that the General Assembly just approved and commended to the churches for study also makes room for this profounder perplexity.)
SHC in its even-handed treatment goes back and forth between insights. On the one hand, echoing Cyprian, SHC reiterates a view that “outside the church there is no salvation.” On the other hand, there is a recognized difference between the visible and the invisible church (5.137), and the latter is “known only to God.” Bullinger notes that, in the OT “God had some friends in the world outside the commonwealth of Israel” (5.137). This sense that we cannot ourselves draw the boundaries of the church runs deep in Christian theology. Augustine, acknowledging this, said of the church that “there are many sheep without, and many wolves are within.” [Any of us, who have worked in the church for very long, can resonate with these sentiments.]
On the one hand, SHC says, “So we teach and believe that this Jesus Christ our Lord is the unique and eternal Savior of the human race, and thus of the whole world” (SHC, 5.077). On the other hand (and this is a continuation in the same sentence!), “in whom by faith are saved all who before the law, under the law, and under the Gospel were saved, and however many will be saved at the end of the world” (SHC, 5.077). It would appear that people who never even heard of Moses (before the law), much less of Jesus, are being saved. How can this be? SHC continues, “God can illuminate whom and where he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power” (SHC5.007).
God is free! Therefore, we are cautioned, “We must not judge rashly or prematurely. . . nor undertake to exclude, reject, or cut off those whom the Lord does not want to have excluded” (SHC 5.140). And elsewhere it says, we should “have a good hope for all” (SHC 5.055).
SHC is a helpful resource, and there is so much more. But just two more things for now from the treasure house of dogma. So we are having a debate about Christology. What’s new? Debates about Christology are as old as the church. Sometimes the debates were settled by which side had the most monks with clubs in attendance! Thankfully, our discussions of Christology at General Assembly in June were not of this sort! But if you think things get heated at GA, we have nothing on the councils of the early church! In addition, history teaches us that when one side “wins” a debate, it does not necessarily settle the matter. We may take heart.
The definition of Chalcedon was so carefully hammered out — fully human and fully divine, two natures in one person, neither confused nor separated. That settled things, right? Not necessarily. From that day until this, there have been some who emphasize humanity, working out their Christology “from below” and insisting that Jesus was a real human being, “like us in every way except for sin.” And there are those who continue to emphasize divinity, working out their Christology “from above” and insisting that in Christ it is God with whom we have to do. Neither of these approaches is wrong, only partial. Chalcedon helpfully guides us into a more comprehensive picture.
If you will time travel with me from Chalcedon to the 16th century, we can pick up the christological debates of the Reformation. Here we find Luther emphasizing the unity of the person of Jesus Christ (one person!), while Reformed folk like Zwingli and Calvin emphasize the integrity of the two natures (two natures!). For Luther, the communicatio idiomatum (communication of the properties/natures in Christ) meant that whatever could be said of God could be said of Jesus the Christ. Omnipresence, for example, could apply to make possible Christ’s local physical presence at every table in the Eucharist. Ubiquity was assumed.
But Calvin said — this is the “And now a word from our sponsor” moment! — Calvin said this was confusing the two natures. (Calvin spoke of the communicatio idiomatum as a rhetorical device. When the properties of the divine nature are attributed to the human nature this is metaphorical and not literal.) He countered that when the Logos became flesh in Chris, it did not cease to fill the whole cosmos and thus to be outside as well as inside the person of Christ. This doctrine has come to be called the extra calvinisticum–that Calvinist “extra.” In this day, and this debate, I am especially glad we have it; for if the second person of the Trinity is not dissolved and disappearing in the man Jesus, and there is more to Christ than we know in Jesus, then that may give shape to the kinds of claims we make about Jesus as the Christ. Another way a similar thing has been said is finitum non capax infiniti: “the finite does not have the capacity to completely contain the infinite.” These notions are as Reformed as any you will find, and I think they actually are tremendously helpful in the present conversation.
We are clear that Jesus is fully divine; but does that mean that Jesus is all there is to God? We affirm from of old “God was in Christ, reconciling the world” But does that mean this is this the only locus of divine activity?
Tom Parker, Professor Emeritus of Theology at McCormick Theological Seminary, gave an illustration once that has stayed with me as a help in thinking about all this. He talked about growing up on the West Coast and playing in San Francisco Bay. He enjoyed the water of the bay, but he could see from where he stood that there was a whole big ocean out there. Now the bay is fully, completely (totus) ocean, but it is not all of (totem) the ocean.
Similarly Jesus the Christ is fully divine, but God is still more than this. There is more to God than we know in Jesus. What we know of God as Christians, we know from God’s revelation in this one; in him we have found “the way, the truth, and the life.” Beyond that, we really cannot claim to know, but from of old people of faith have said that God transcends all our words and all our best thoughts. The longer the shoreline of knowledge, the greater the ocean of mystery.
What does this all mean for interreligious dialogue? What is it and what is it for? Is there a difference between evangelism and proselytizing? [I find myself in complete agreement with what Shirley Guthrie said yesterday. This is not surprising; he is my esteemed teacher of some 25 years ago. I may not agree with him about everything all the time — he would be disappointed if I did! But on the nature and importance of evangelism we are agreed.]
I have noticed that I am in the odd position of being zealous about evangelism and reluctant in proselytizing. Most days I just live with the perplexity of this, but when I try to make sense of this, what do I say? It is in Jesus Christ that I have found the words of eternal life. It is in him that I have seen the power of evil broken, and a new hope born. Now I want to share that with every breath and every act. There is a world out there that is hungry and hurting. If we have good news, why would we withhold it? Many have no religious commitment whatsoever. And for those of other faiths, well, good news is good news. God is really free, and God’s Spirit is present and active throughout the world and not just in the church. [I assume God’s Spirit is in the church — on a good day — but not contained or constrained there.] When we go out in witness and mission, we are not “taking God to people”; we should rather be prepared to find God already at work. There is a good chance we might receive some good news even as we share the good news.
Diana Eck, in her book Encountering God, notes how Medieval churches were designed with “Holy Spirit holes” in the ceilings, opening them to the sky, dramatizing architecturally the openness of the church to God. On Pentecost in 10th-century Rome, doves were let loose through these holes into the sanctuary to fly about and rose petals were let loose to fall down upon the people like tongues of fire and choirboys were set to whooshing and drumming to call to mind the rush of the Spirit. It is all wonderfully imaginative (p. 130). I wonder if we have not made a mistake in closing up the Holy Spirit holes in our churches (and I am not talking about the architecture!) How hard it becomes for the Spirit to get in. Or maybe we think we have caught the Spirit and worry that it will get away and escape the constraints of our churches and our theologies.
In our time, there is a task of revisioning to be done in our Christology as in all other aspects of our theology. When we have said all we can say about Jesus of Nazareth, we have not told the whole story. When we have believed the best that we can believe, the Christ is greater still. Both our accounts of the historical Jesus and our theological construction of the Christ of faith are at their best much too confining for the reality to which they point. It may be that that Jesus the Christ has to break out of the confines in which he has been once again entombed by our theological constructs, our limited imaginations, and our small hopes.
Whatever we affirm must be affirmed with a fitting humility, for holy mystery always eludes us. We walk by faith and not by sight. It has been wisely said that a good theologian must know when to mumble.
To God alone be the glory!
[Editor’s note: Paul Capetz offered a response to this paper.]
Resources:Borg, Marcus and Wright, N.T. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. Conversation.
Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.
Douglas, Kelly Brown. The Black Christ.
Eck, Diana. Encountering God.
Hayes, Zachary. “Cosmology and Christology” Epic of Creation
Heim, Mark. Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion.
Hick, John. A Christian Theology of Religions: The Rainbow of Faiths.
Johnson, Elizabeth. Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology.
Johnson, Elizabeth. She Who Is.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Real Jesus is the Christ of Faith.
Norris, Richard. Christological Controversy.
Pedraja, Luis. Jesus is My Uncle: Christology from a Hispanic Perspective.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus through the Centuries.
Placher, William C. Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith.
Placher, William C. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic World.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk.
Williams, Delores. Sisters in the Wilderness.