Christologies High and Low

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.

The Reality of Adam and the Story of Christ

On Friday of last week, David Opderbeck asked a challenging question. I had posted on “Anthroposis,” the idea that what we really need is to become more truly human than we already are. Or, in the biblical narrative, to return to the humanity from which we have fallen. David asked,

Here’s a question: anthroposis Biblically is a recapitulation of the first man before sin. But, scientifically, there was no “first man”. How do we hold this missional narrative together if human evolution is true?

I have been wrestling with this question quite a bit lately. I just finished a book on narrative theology, and found that I couldn’t tell the story of Jesus without constantly conversing with Genesis 1-3. The Adam theology of the NT, the Jesus theology of the NT, is written in innumerable ways as an echo of the creation narratives of the first few chapters of Genesis. What, then, if these aren’t literal accounts of what happened? Where does that leave the story?

This is a difficult question, and I want to try to hold onto two things at the same time.

First, to say that they are not literal or historical accounts of how things came to be as they are now is not to say that these stories are not true. They are true narratives about the world. But how are they true and what truth do they teach is a more complex question.

Second, one of the ways that these stories work is that they tell the story of the past in such a way that it becomes clear that the people telling the stories are God’s present means for bringing the world/humanity to a destiny something like what the stories depict.

Genesis 1 uses sonship language to describe humanity as kings, ruling the world on God’s behalf. And what do you know? The Davidic kings are envisioned as God’s specially chosen agents who are enthroned to be God’s sons, ruling the nations for God.

Genesis 1 borrows the imagery of the Ancient Near Eastern creation myths that would place humanity in perpetual servitude, enslavement to the gods, and Marduk in particular. And what do you know? In this retelling of the story not only is Israel’s God shown to be the real creator, and one much more powerful than the other gods who have to fight their way to victory, but humanity is the pinnacle and glory of creation, not ever-oppressed slaves. When God’s purposes for humanity are realized, Israel will not be enslaved to Marduk in Babylon, but participating in the reign of its king, the reign of humanity over the earth.

The point is that stories of beginnings are written to plot a trajectory for the story that follows. Genesis 2 is a bit more on the descriptive side, indicating why the world is the way it is. But even there, I think there are indications of this story of origins setting a trajectory for a world that Israel is at the middle of.

For me, once we realize that these stories were not made to give a disinterested account of some hoary past but rather to speak to God’s plans for a particular people to bring the world from a certain kind of disorder into a certain kind of (what we now see as) restored and glorious future, the historicity question takes a back seat.

The story is still true, and we still plot the story of Jesus within that story, recognizing now that he is the surprising answer to the unrealized destiny of Adam. If we can recognize those pictures as idealized projections into the past of what God intends for the future given his present commitments, then I think we can keep moving forward with them firmly kicking off our story.

I think that some such process is tied up with God’s binding himself to this particular story of Israel.

What do you think? Can something like that work, based not on “we have to trash these stories because of evolution,” even, but “we have to rethink these stories based on what we know about their place in the history of Israel and their ancient environment?

Pride & Perfection

I don’t think it takes much time watching and taking notes before you realize that pride and insecurity tend to be two sides of the same coin. The same people who come across as most proud are often, at the same time and for the same reasons (thank you, Barth), the most insecure.

Lately I’ve been pondering a corollary, tied to perfectionism.

I think this can play out in two seemingly opposite ways. On the one hand, someone who is a perfectionist can be so tied to an ideal that nothing s/he produces is ever good enough, and therefore s/he ends up hating it, smashing it, burning it, etc. (This would be the “insecurity” side of perfectionism.)

But someone who is a perfectionist can also be so tied in and of himself to the things he creates, that he assumes they are all perfect as they go forth, and can never bear to part with a one of them. (This would be the pride side of perfectionism.) Such a person could never bear the thought of something going unused, a picture going unseen, a song going unheard, a thought going untrumpeted. Because not only is the world in need of perfection–here it is, incarnate!

I’m sure there’s a moral here if we dig for it. Maybe something along the lines of, “People wanting perfection may as readily take the guise of unwillingness to pursue it as a meticulous, single-minded devotion to doing something well.”

My Evangelicalism: God is Out There, Too

Way back in the day, like a million years ago in internet years, by which I mean three weeks ago, I posted an outline of the kind of evangelical I want to be (My “Evangelical Manifesto“). Here is another point I’ve been thinking about, and it’s probably connected to yesterday’s post on social justice.

6. Evangelicals Can Celebrate the God Who Is At Work “Out There”. Too often evangelicalism slips into fundamentalism by imagining that the mission of God is about bringing everyone out there into the safe walls of our communities, because the church is the place where the reign of God is being made manifest.

In my ideal world, this is correct, or at least mostly true.

The church is the bride of Christ. It consists of the prophets and teachers who have been entrusted to make the word of the gospel known to the nations. It is the place on which the Spirit has been poured so that the presence of God and the reality of life in the resurrected Christ might come to all.

But on the other hand, the church is not the kingdom of God. One of the surprises of the New Testament is that the reign of God is too capacious to be contained within any one people, even a people so diversely defined as the church.

One of the most important stories for our understanding of the mission and dominion of God is the Good Samaritan. That story is so powerful because it undermines even our own expectations about how the reign of God works, though we’ve been so dulled to the story through repetition and exposure that we too often miss it.

Jesus is talking to a scribe about what must be done to inherit eternal life. How do I live the life that will confirm me, for all eternity, as an insider, one of the people of God? Love God and love neighbor.

Ok, but who, then, is my neighbor?

Jesus tells a story in which a priest keeps Torah–by avoiding an unknown dead man on a heavily trafficked road. It is a story in which a Levite preserves his cleanliness so that he can continue loving God by serving the temple and loving neighbor by keeping up the worship of God.

And it is a story in which the outsider, the Samaritan, not only shows mercy, but thereby shows himself to be the loving neighbor. The thing that must be done for eternal life bursts beyond the bounds of the people of God. The person not defined by Torah, the person who will not be restrained in his love–even by the word of God–is shown to be doing the thing needful for inheriting eternal life. The outsider is the insider. The story is turned on its head.

In evangelical Christian circles we continually face the temptation to demarcate the people of God by means of the truth we hold dear. We are tempted to say that, because we are the insiders, ours is the community to which you must look to know how God is at work in the world.

But the story of the Good Samaritan (as part of a larger biblical narrative) tells me differently. It indicates to me that we are always going to be faced with the possibility that God is at work beyond our walls. We are always going to confront the reality that someone who does not profess that Christ is Lord is going to be a more faithful-looking embodiment of the coming kingdom that we are. We might have to have our eyes opened to the needs of the world around us and what it looks like to love, by our non-Christian neighbors.

And in such cases, the evangelicalism I want to be a part of will not pretend that we do what we do and say what we say simply because we got it from the Bible. My evangelicalism will say that I watched my neighbor and was humbled then to learn what it is to love.

The One, the Many, and Social Justice

Yesterday, I suggested that the church should stand as a perpetual witness to the divine hand at work in the one and the many: we are only truly the one that is the church when we are the many that embraces people across numerous cultures, ethnic groups, social groups, cultures, natures, and languages.

There’s another angle I want to tackle today, and I think it’s related.

Here’s the thesis I’ve been working on for a few weeks: the multi-ethnic character of the gospel makes it, at the same time, inherently concerned with social justice.

Do you agree? Do a multi-ethnic church and social justice demand one another?

I think that the logic of it goes something like this: a message that is inherently directed at those outside our own ethnic group is a message that is always speaking a word of welcome to the outsider. Being an outsider is not merely about being part of another ethnic group, however, it is also about someone who lives on the margins of society, an outcast.

But of course, I am a biblical scholar, not a theologian, so I couldn’t care less about the logic of the thing. I’m more concerned that this conjunction is worked out in the biblical narrative.

And it is.

In Luke 4, Jesus begins his ministry by reading a great passage about good news coming to the poor, sight to the blind, release of the prisoners. The way these things play out in Jesus’ ministry is often within a realm that we would call “social justice.” And everyone is happy to hear it. Because they figure Jesus’ message of release and embrace is for them, as the ones who need such a year of Jubilee.

And it is.

But, it’s not just for them. To sit and think that the message of deliverance is for us, and to delight in it just because it is coming for us, is to miss the point.

Jesus goes on: “There were many widows in Israel… but Elijah was not sent to them–rather to Sidon! And there were lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha… but Elisha only healed the Syrian!” See? This message that looks to the marginalized, the outsider, must always keep looking at the outsider and recognize (in this case) that a message of social justice must also be a message of transcending the ethnic boundaries of Israel to embrace Gentiles.

Paul, ministering to Gentiles, has to work the other way. Since they know the message is one of embracing them as the outsider, he must encourage them to keep loving the old insiders; and, he draws them to see that the reality of “the one” that is in Christ means taking care of the socially vulnerable.

In part, this is going to mean taking care of those in financial need, as we see worked out in 2 Cor 8-9.

The lavish grace of God embraces the Gentiles as well as the Jews (there’s the unity across ethnic bounds bit). Therefore, the calling of the people of God is turn to the world around them and be conduits of that grace across any and all dividing lines. The purpose of receiving grace is to be an instrument of that grace–and all so that God may be praised by all.

If the purpose of humanity is to worship and glorify God, then our enacting of the gospel narrative by embracing and caring for people on the margins and beyond are bounds are the means by which God receives the praise God is due. It happens because of our concern for the poor (2  Cor 8-9).

And, it happens because God’s people consists of those from not just Israel but all the nations (Romans 15).

How is it that we are both one and yet many? It comes about because God has formed just this sort of people. There is one people worshiping the one God with one accord and one voice. And yet they do so together as those who are not one ethnic group, not one social or political group, not one tribe, not one nation.

The mission of God gathers all, and this means that our concern must be for all, and this means that our eyes must be always on the lookout for those who are not inside–not only not “inside” the church, but also not “inside” the flow of society with its labels of belonging.

A gospel that goes out to the nations is, inherently, a gospel of social justice as well. This is part of how we maintain our identity as the truly diverse people of the one true God.

How about it?

The One, the Many, and the church…

One of the great philosophical problems is the question of the “one and the many.” I don’t know what philosophers mean by it (I was a philosophy major only so that I could free up enough space in my schedule to take Greek, Hebrew, and German for Reading Knowledge before going to seminary), but when I hear it I think of something like this:

Somehow we know that there are large, unifying categories, and somehow we know that there are members of those categories, but how do we describe that relationship such that we can explain both how those things are related as one and yet individually distinct. Or, perhaps more starkly: how can things be, at one and the same time, one and yet also differentiated?

Of course, one manifestation of this might also be the difference between Plato and Aristotle on what is truly real. What is more ultimately real: the idea, the form, of something, or the actual embodiment of it in various instantiations, none of which is the thing itself?

Christians have often appealed to the Trinity as a way to make sense of and/or further illustrate and/or claim the solution to this problem.

But I’ve been wondering if we don’t have another answer up our sleeves as well. At least, we’re supposed to be embodying another answer in our life together.

Like the appeal to the Trinity, I’m not sure that this is any more a “solution” to the problem than another instantiation of it, but I think that the community we are supposed to be embodying is important to draw into this discussion.

One of the problems we get into is when we can’t figure out that “one” does not mean “same,” that Christian oneness is inherently a oneness that embraces tremendous difference.

Paul tries this on, of course, in 1 Corinthians 12, the famous “spiritual gifts” chapter, in which diversity of gifts is a manifestation of the Spirit that is, nonetheless, a unifying diversity inasmuch as it makes us all mutually-dependent members of one body.

But there are other indications of the many that we must be if we are to be the one church.

I am thinking of two in particular. One is that the body that faithfully comprises the people of the era of God’s eschatological fulfillment is a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural people. The whole point of Romans is that God’s fulfillment of his promises to Israel comes, surprisingly, not by Judaism going out to the nations, not by the nations flocking into Judaism’s borders, but by God’s story of salvation bursting beyond the bounds of Judaism to include both Jews and Gentiles.

The way that God confirms the promises to the Fathers includes the Gentiles glorifying God for his mercy, includes the nations returning their praises to God. The oneness of the church is made known in this transcending of the oneness of the ethnic make-up of the people.

And, this means that if we are going to faithfully embody the church in our own time and place, we cannot insist that it reflect the one culture we happen to be part of. This can happen not only in the style of music we sing, but also in the type of leadership we demand, the types of theological statements we hold to, the ways in which we police our theological boundaries, the ways we think about what faithful Christian living looks like, and myriad other indicators.

Put differently: everything we do is inculturated, and what simply looks “normal” to us looks that way because it is part of the particular world in which we live. Everything must be subject to reassessment, asking afresh the question of whether the “normal” to which this belongs is the “normal” of “the church,” or, instead, the “normal” of the white, western, post-Reformation church that has defined our experience.

Or again, another way to think about it: the hope of Revelation is not that all the peoples of the earth will be gathered into one language, one nation, one tribe, but that people of every nation, tribe, and tongue under heaven will be gathered to glorify God and the Lamb.

But wait, there’s more! Come around tomorrow for that.

Anthroposis

I know what you’re thinking. Deep down inside, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you think that what you need more than anything is to become more like God. To be transformed into a more pure reflection of the divine.

And you’re right.

So here’s the question: what does that look like in the Biblical narrative? How do you know it, how should we talk about it?

One angle is to come at it from the angle of becoming partakers in the divine nature, the theosis lens that is being helpfully explored by many outside the Orthodox tradition these days. I think there’s a lot to that.

But of course, being all geeked out about being human, and the humanness of Jesus, and our connection to the earth God placed us on to rule on his behalf, I want to pursue the other angle.

I think that too many of us go around thinking that our problem is that we’re too human. “I’m only human” is a way to say, “Of course I made a mistake, of course I can’t do everything.” Being human is something we apologize for, an element of our story that connotes an obstacle to realizing our hoped-for end.

But I want to suggest that our real problem is that we are not human enough. And one of the most important things that comes about as the result of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is anthroposis: we enter the process of becoming truly human. And, becoming truly human is our ultimate destiny.

Humanness is not an opponent in the story of attaining to God’s purposes for us, humanness is the goal of the story, and Jesus is the helper sent to take us there.

Once upon a time, John Calvin talked about the study of God as looking in a mirror: “the human race are a bright mirror of the Creator’s works.” At the time that I was first reading that, it struck me as completely nonsensical. What could be less indicative of the nature of God than the mess that is humanity as we know it?

But then you start working with all this “humanity created in the image of God,” stuff. And you start working through the extent to which people are supposed to be participants in God’s rule over the earth. And you start digging into the ways that humanity’s disposition toward God is supposed to be connected with the flourishing of the planet that God created us to rule.

And what you discover at the end of it is that becoming more like God is tantamount to become more like the people God created us to be at the beginning.

To be a person in the image of God is to be a daughter or son of God. To be God’s child is to be an imitator of God as the parent whose image we bear.

And so the mission of Jesus is to reconstitute that image. He comes to be the true human, who is appointed God’s son through his resurrection life (Rom 1:4) and thereby becomes the firstborn brother into whose likeness we all are renewed (Rom 8:28ff.). he is like God by ruling for God, by bearing the family image, and by being faithful to the Father (even as the Firstborn Son is faithful to the Father through all eternity).

And so our destiny is… anthroposis. To be made more truly human as we come to bear the image of God afresh by being remade after the image of the second Adam, the second Man, who bears the image of the new humanity for the new creation.

Dogmatics Redux

Yesterday I was perusing a statement online and saw that Christian Book Distributors had just charged me for the Church Dogmatics I ordered in March. I am starting to geek out about the set’s arrival, and am stocked that Hendrickson found a way to get the whole set out to the teeming masses for $100.

But the most important thing to remember is that starting in January a number of us will be reading through these volumes at a moderate pace of one bound volume every six months. The road of good intentions says that we’ll arrive at the end sometime 7 years hence. Time will tell!

I do hope a number of you will join–not only to enrich the conversation here, but perhaps to synchro-blog the experience on your own sites as well.

Telling the story of the story-bound God