I confess: I am a theological reader of the Bible. I know, you already knew this, but in Biblical studies I have just cut myself off from a huge portion of the guild. So be kind.
But I am not a systematic theologian. I prefer to see myself as a biblical theologian or, better, a narrative theologian.
I know, you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, and probably don’t care. But wait, this actually explains something.
A couple of weeks ago I expressed (again!) my exasperation at the suggestion that “Jesus is God” is the most natural thing to get from the Bible, as though it’s the point of the whole New Testament. I keep suggesting, instead, that “Jesus is Lord” is the main thing, or perhaps “Jesus is The Man.”
And a couple of you grumped at me. Don’t I think that Jesus really is God? Don’t I care? Doing my best to show myself a good, Orthodox, Nicene Chalcedonian Constantinopalitan Christian, I posted a couple of thoughts (one based on John, one on Colossians) tied to Jesus’ preexistence.
So what am I doing here and why am I doing it? If I believe Jesus is preexistent son of God, why do I give folks so much crap for reading the Bible as though it teaches that Jesus is the preexistent, divine Son? Let’s start with a couple of definitions:
(1) “Low Christology.” When I use this phrase what I mean is that the person or text in question sees Jesus as Messiah, as Christ, as specially empowered by God to act in God’s name, as specially anointed by the Spirit to work deeds of power over the entire created order–and that the document or person does not simultaneously depict Jesus as preeexistent or otherwise divine. That is to say, its understanding of Jesus is a unique human.
(2) “High Christology.” High Christology takes all of low Christology, including its robust affirmation of Jesus’ humanity, in addition to affirming all that great stuff Jesus does, but also adds the piece that Jesus is preexistent son of God in some sense.
(3) “Gnostic Christology.” This is like high Christology without the humanity. The Jesus of what I’ll talk about as “Gnostic Christology” is a human who is not the Christ; the Christ comes upon the man Jesus at baptism, and leaves him at his death. The Christ is not human, but only spirit.
So, now that we have some terms on the table, why do I agitate so much against “high Christology”?
First, because high Christology is the assumption of modern readers. For many of us, this boarders on gnostic Christology, such that our default mode is to say that Jesus can do what he does because he is God–whereas even the high Christology of the church should impel readers to say, “He can do it because he is the man, and he can do it because he is God incarnate.”
Thus, one reason I harp on the humanity is because the pop-Christian version consistently falls off the horse on what it takes to be the “divinity”/high Christology side.
But the other reason is because as a biblical rather than systematic theologian, I think that the first thing we should say about the text is not what the church says as the conclusion to its theological assimilation of various texts, but what the text itself says that we are reading.
And, much if not most of the New Testament, develops its theology of Jesus within a framework of low Christology. Low versus high Christology is one of the points of genuine theological diversity in the New Testament, with the Synoptic Gospels in particular (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) telling stories of Jesus as a specially empowered man whom they do not simultaneously depict as God incarnate.
By the way, in denying that these Gospels have high Christology, I just alienated myself from all the rest of the New Testament scholarly guild who still liked me after I said I was a theological reader of the NT.
As a narrative/biblical theologian, reading the text according to some sort of historically-rooted attempt at understanding what an ideal author wanted an ideal reader to hear is the first goal I want us to strive for. In the case of much of the NT, including most of the Gospels, what this means is being willing to be surprised about what Jesus can do because he is a specially endowed man.
The very push-back I get when I highlight this point at the expense of the divinity is clear indication to me that we do not give sufficient weight to the humanness of Jesus in our readings of the Gospels. People see the wonders and they attribute them to Jesus’ divinity.
But Peter at Pentecost has a different interpretation: Jesus was a man, testified to by God by signs and wonders.
But at the same time, none of this means that I don’t affirm Jesus’ divinity. It simply means that not every text in the New Testament that tells us about Jesus views him as divine/preexistent. That is the claim advanced in John, and in Colossians 1 (I think…) and a few other places. And it is a legitimate and important theological position to hold.
But, it’s not the unanimous position from which the NT was written. And, thus, it is not the most basic thing there is to say about Jesus. Without downplaying the importance of continuing to affirm high Christology at our point in the story, I think that the extensive evidence for low Christology should challenge us to rethink what it is that we have to say about Jesus that makes his the saving story to which we are committed.
Tomorrow I’ll reflect on some of what I see along these lines in Irenaeus, who both does what I love and does what drive me nuts.