Capetz Response

Response to Anna Case-Winters’

 “Who Do You Say that I Am? Believing In Jesus Christ in the 21st Century”

Paul E. Capetz
Associate Professor of Historical Theology
United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities

2002 Covenant Conference
November 9, 2002

When someone is asked to respond to a paper or a lecture in an academic setting, the usual assumption is that the person responding will have some critical remarks that suggest disagreement with the scholar to whom one is responding. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything critical to say in response to Anna Case-Winters! As I read her paper earlier this week and again listened just now to her remarks, my sense is that she has pointed us in the right direction for thinking about the challenges of Christology today in the light of the theological resources of the Reformed tradition. The strength of her Christological reflections is their simultaneous grounding in the historic documents of Reformed faith and their openness to the burning questions on the minds of people today.

Since there are no points of disagreement that I wish to register, instead I simply want to elaborate on a few of her remarks by way of enhancing and rounding out the proposal she has given us. Let me do this by taking the three challenges she names at the outset of her lecture and engaging her discussion of helpful ways we might go about tackling these problems in a way that is responsible to our Reformed heritage.

First, there is the question of the gender of Jesus: “Can a male savior save women?” (Rosemary Ruether). In one sense, of course, the maleness of Jesus is a problem, but only if no distinction is properly drawn between the human and the divine natures in the person of Christ. Christology, as our speaker has pointed out, is not to be misconstrued as “Jesusology” or “Jesusolatry.” Jesus is fully human, which means that, like all human beings, there is a particularity to him of time and place, gender and sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, religion and culture, as well as socio-economic location. Both the New Testament and the classical creeds of the church insist that Jesus was, in every sense, truly human. It is important to remember that one of the Christological heresies against which both the New Testament and the creeds fight is “docetism,” the idea that the savior only appeared to be human since his true identity is divine. Interestingly, if that heretical position had succeeded in becoming orthodox, we would have a much easier way to address the question before us about the gender of Jesus: if Jesus only appeared to be human, that would mean that he only appeared to be male!

But I doubt that any one of us here today would want to throw away the full humanity of Jesus for a ghost-like redeemer. The genuine humanity of Jesus is crucial to our faith; but real humanity is never “humanity in general” but always “humanity in particular.” Like Jesus, each of us is historically particular; no two of us are identical. And when we read in Galatians 3:28 that “in Christ there is neither male nor female,” we never take that to mean that we cease being men and women by becoming Christians. That would be to obliterate our very humanity which lies in its particularity and its physical embodiment.

What I find truly remarkable about the New Testament is that it does nothing to minimize the particularity of Jesus. Think about the conversation recorded between him and the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt 15:21-29, Mark 7:24-30). Here is an exchange where Jesus is not only religiously and culturally particular, but actually comes across as ethnocentric. When she implores Jesus to heal her daughter, he refuses her with the insulting words, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But the woman’s retort is so clever and quick that Jesus is forced to concede: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” I remember a professor at Yale saying that this is the only passage in the New Testament where someone actually wins an argument with Jesus. Here a woman gets the best of Jesus, and a foreigner at that!

Why didn’t the writers of the New Testament eliminate this embarrassing episode from their portrayals of the savior? Apparently, they took seriously their commitment to the real humanity of Jesus and understood that the humanity of Jesus, like that of everyone else, is finite and limited, subject to correction and enrichment from the particular experience of other human beings who are different from ourselves. I think the way forward for us in this tricky matter is to hold a text like this one from Matthew and Mark in tension with that from Paul in Galatians so that we have a paradigm of what it means when we affirm that in Christ there is neither male nor female. On the one hand, we must insist that sexism is idolatrous because it evaluates the worth of persons according to gender. But on the other hand, we have to stop thinking about Jesus in isolation from his real relationships with other people, without whom he would not have been the particular person he was, such as his mother who raised him, the women who loved him and supported him throughout his ministry, the women whose dignity he restored through his healings and table-fellowship, and the women who buried him and were the first witnesses to his resurrection. Jesus, in all his human particularity, would not have been who he was apart from these relationships with these women. That’s surely a large part of what it means to affirm, with the New Testament and the classical creeds, the full humanity of Jesus.

Second, what about the atonement? Delores Williams has made the provocative statement that we don’t need any more crucifixions and, of course, she’s completely right about that. But it would be wrong for us, I think, to move from that moral concern for history’s victims to the proposal that we should abandon the cross as a central symbol of Christian faith. After all, one cannot really understand what Jesus in his full humanity lived, experienced, and endured apart from the manner of his death.

When I teach seminarians about the doctrine of the atonement, I remind them that in the ancient world in which Christianity arose, “religion” consisted of animal sacrifices, quite literally. Few of us today would recognize what the ancients thought of as being essential to religious practice. If we were to walk into a church on Sunday morning and see an animal being slaughtered, we would be shocked and horrified. But for ancient people, Jews and Gentiles, animal sacrifice was essential to the meaning of religion. It was the means through which individuals and communities made reparation to God or the gods for breaches in the divine-human relationship. When the Jewish Temple was destroyed, of course, animal sacrifice ceased altogether in Judaism, and the prayer service of the synagogue became normative. Also, when the Romans first began to take notice of the Christians, it was hard for them to view Christianity as a religion because there was no animal sacrifice. It looked more like a social club or a philosophical school, but not a religion. So I think we moderns fail to understand the importance of sacrifice to ancient sensibilities when we talk about the atonement today. If we are going to take seriously what the Confession of 1967 says about reading scripture in its historical context, taking into account “views of lifewhich were then current” (9.29), we have to appreciate the theological significance of the early Christian claim that there is no more need of animal sacrifice because Christ has made reparation for the breach between humanity and God. This was a theological innovation of Christianity: insistence upon the “once and for all” character of Christ’s death as an atonement for sin provided a rationale for a form of religion without the literal practice of sacrifice.

On account of this innovation, sacrifice comes to be understood in both the New Testament and later Christian writings in a metaphorical and symbolic sense. When Paul says that we Christians are “to present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), he is clearly using the word “sacrifice” in a non-literal way. We are to live lives that are pleasing to God by doing God’s will. That’s what sacrifice means in this passage.

Unfortunately, obedience to God sometimes does lead to precisely the sort of crucifixions that Delores Williams has in mind. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his life for the sake of the liberation of oppressed black people in this country. King was well aware that he might be killed for his leadership of the civil rights movement. King’s death never should happened in an ideal world; but since we live in a world that does not reflect God’s will for human life, the cross reminds us that sin exacts a price, a price paid by Jesus and one that his disciples must also be willing to pay when necessary. What if there weren’t people like King who, in the name of what he as a Baptist minister believed was the potential cost of discipleship, picked up their cross to follow Jesus? With Delores Williams, I believe that we should deplore and lament that King and others had to die. The world shouldn’t be like this. But, unfortunately, it is, and King’s is a modern example of what is sometimes required of Christians in a world corrupted by human sinfulness. Like that of Jesus, King’s death was a “sacrifice” on account of sin.

I believe the way forward for us in this matter of atonement doctrine is both to understand the ancient context of the Bible more empathetically and to search for contemporary analogues that can teach us anew what “sacrifice” ought to mean in the life of Christian discipleship. A Christianity without the cross is a gospel of “cheap grace,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another modern Christian martyr, reminded us all. In his workshop yesterday, Shirley Guthrie lifted up the importance of Luther’s theology of the cross as a necessary corrective to any and all triumphalistic versions of Christianity that focus solely on the resurrection. Resurrection is that for which we Christians hope, but it is not the state of the world in which we live. The Easter faith has to be preached in a Good Friday world. I believe that reflections of this sort could help us to appreciate anew the theological intentions behind the classical doctrine of the atonement of Jesus.
Third, there is the question of religious pluralism. Again, I believe that Anna Case-Winters has pointed us to the rich resources in our own tradition for thinking about the issues involved in this question. It is precisely this seemingly arcane doctrine called the extra-Calvinisticum that indicates the way forward. Calvin affirmed that the logos or the Word of God was fully incarnate in the human Jesus, but not in such a manner that the Word of God was circumscribed, limited, or exhausted by the human Jesus.

It was here, of course, that Calvin had his principal Christological difference with Luther, and this Christological “extra” in Calvin’s theology led to a different understanding of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper from that held by Luther. Jesus is not God, but God is fully incarnate in Jesus. Again, everything hangs on the crucial distinction between the human and divine natures in Christ. For the Lutherans, Calvin was guilty of the ancient Christological heresy called “Nestorianism,” of separating the two natures with the result that there are two Christs, not one. Yet his intention was not to separate but to distinguish.

In spite of Lutheran charges that Calvin works with an insufficient Christology, I believe that Calvin correctly understood the dangers of idolatry lurking in the failure to make this distinction between the human and divine natures properly. We do not worship a human being; that would be idolatry of a high order! We worship the one God, made known to Moses and the prophets, and then fully revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that the Word of God, while incarnate in Jesus nonetheless transcends the finite human person Jesus, is the way to begin thinking about our present encounter with non-Christian religions.

The ancient apologists of the 2nd century correctly understood that it was this doctrine of the logos that made it possible for them to explain how the Greek philosophers were inspired in their wisdom by the same Word of God that inspired the prophets. As a result, they believed that the pagans had not been left without witness to God and the Christians felt free to appropriate the Greek philosophical legacy for themselves. Of course, they sharply distinguished the wisdom of Greek philosophy from the folly of Greek idolatry, but why should we not attempt to make the same distinctions as we get to know our non-Christian neighbors?

We need not condemn out of hand everything in other religions; there may be plenty of wisdom in them that could enrich us, just as the ancient Christians were enriched by Greek philosophy. Still, on the other hand, a willingness to listen and to learn is not to say that we should fail to make critical distinctions between those elements in other religions which are reflections of genuine wisdom and those elements that may be idolatrous. Again, to refer to Shirley Guthrie’s workshop yesterday, we Christians are pointing to Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth, and the life,” not to Christianity, which is just as subject to idolatry as any other religion and which has, in fact, committed many idolatries in the name of Jesus.

We have nothing to fear in the present encounter with non-Christian religions. Indeed, I believe it will have a purifying effect on our own tradition, forcing us to see ourselves through the eyes of the other. Those of us who have been involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue have learned, not only that we Christians have been guilty of grave sins in relation to the Jews, but also that we had misunderstood important pieces of our own scripture and tradition on account of our loss of a vital, living relationship between church and synagogue.

And we have to remember, too, that Christians in Asia and Africa have been grappling in a very practical way with these issues for centuries. Part of our problem in the West is that the embrace of an appreciative attitude toward religious pluralism forces us to acknowledge our loss of cultural hegemony. We no longer live in a Christian culture in the official sense. All the more reason, therefore, to start learning humbly the lessons of the churches in the non-Western parts of the world where Christians have been dealing with religious plurality a lot longer than we have.

I could go on and on, but this will have to suffice for now. My remarks only confirm the points made much better and more eloquently by Anna Case-Winters. We can learn from her example that our tradition is not only deep, but broad. We have untapped resources in our tradition that can provide us with helpful ways of thinking through contemporary challenges.

But breadth without depth quickly becomes shallow. That’s why we need to know our tradition in order to be broad in the best Reformed sense of the term. One of the recurring themes in conversations I’ve heard at this conference is the urgent need for Presbyterians to re-acquaint themselves with their tradition. We talk a lot about the Reformed tradition, but not many people in our churches really know what this means. Too often seminarians and ministers neglect their intellectual responsibilities as those who are called to teach the Bible and the doctrines found in the creeds and confessions. I do a great deal of adult education in local congregations, teaching the “essential tenets of the Reformed faith” to intelligent members of the church who are thirsting for historically informed theology that can make sense of their religious convictions as well as their experience of living in the contemporary world.

We desperately need what John Wilkinson called for the other day: “a thrilling revival of theology in our time.” The problems in our church today are more than merely matters of morality or matters of polity. They are fundamentally theological, getting at the heart of our identity as Protestant Christians who have inherited a distinctive tradition that goes back to John Calvin. Yet without a solid base of knowledge of our tradition, we will continue to flounder. How many Presbyterian ministers could pass a rigorous exam into the theology contained in the Book of Confessions? How many really read Calvin and the other reformers? How many take theology seriously? How many regularly teach courses to their elders and deacons using the Book of Confessions? We have a great tradition, but we can’t leave it lying on the shelf gathering dust. It can’t be of any help to us if we don’t know it and teach it.

Without depth, there is no breadth worthy of the name. But with the proper depth in our own tradition, we will find the breadth to embrace the contemporary challenges without fear. For our tradition is a self-critical tradition, calling ourselves to constant re-examination of what we have inherited from the past and insisting upon new formulations of the tradition that meet the needs of our own time. Calvin didn’t live in our world, nor do we live in his. Therefore, we cannot simply repristinate his teachings as though they were infallible. But that would be the last thing he’d want us to do. He would hope for us that we take up the same attitude of critical appreciation toward his tradition that he took toward the traditions he inherited, precisely so that we might find a responsible and fitting formulation of the gospel for our time, as he did for his.

I close with these words of Calvin which could well serve as the motto for just that sort of “thrilling revival of theology in our time” which the church needs so much in order for it to carry on the legacy of the Reformation today:

Our constant endeavor, day and night, is not just to transmit the tradition faithfully, but also to put it in the form we think will prove best.
(“Defense against Pighius,” cited by B. A. Gerrish, “Continuity and Change: Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Task of Theology,” in Tradition and the Modern World: Reformed Theology in the Nineteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 13.)

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