The Figure of Jesus Christ in Contemporary Christianity – Part 4
We have noted how Christ has been interpreted in the frame of secular theology by Gogarten, and how political implications have been drawn from eschatology by Moltmann. This is part of the contemporary desire to recapture the full humanity of Christ, and we now come to a further manifestation of the trend in liberation Christology. This has flourished mainly in Latin America, though one might also include similar movements in other parts of the world.
Perhaps the most important contribution of the liberationists towards the interpretation of the figure of Jesus Christ is a book of Jon Sobrino (1938–), known in its English translation as Christology at the Crossroads (1978).Sobrino makes the very reasonable point that ‘there is no reason why Christological titles should be the exclusive prerogative of one particular culture, even that of the New Testament writers’ (Sobrino 1978:379). His own suggestion is that at the present day people in Latin America would be much more responsive to the title ‘liberator’. This of course was the title used for Simon Bolivar and other leaders in the revolt of the Spanish American colonies against the mother country in the early nineteenth century. The use of this title would, of course, associate Jesus Christ with the political sphere, but we should remember that the same could be said of the title ‘messiah’ in the first century. Though Sobrino tends to exalt ‘praxis’ over theory, he is not cutting Jesus Christ down to the size of a politician. In some ways his Christology is quite traditional, and he affirms clearly that ‘it is through Jesus that we learn what liberation really is and how it is to be achieved’ (ibid.: 379).There is, however, a danger in this type of theology that difficult intellectual questions are passed over in the concern for ‘praxis’. Sobrino severely criticizes both Harnack and Pannenberg for their absorption in historical scholarship. He blames them for being ‘explicative’ rather than ‘transformational’ theologians. But since he appeals himself to the historical Jesus, he can hardly evade the kind of problems with which Harnack and Pannenberg have wrestled.
Leonardo Boff (1938–) has also written a full-scale work on Christology, Jesus Christ Liberator (1972), subtitled ‘A Critical Christology for our Time’. He lists his priorities, and they are similar to Sobrino’s—praxis over theory, social over individual, human over institutional, and so on. But Boff too is quite traditional in most matters. Although he insists that salvation must affect economic, social and political structures, he acknowledges that this is less than the salvation which Jesus envisaged, though it is part of it. There is again an appeal to the historical Jesus, but again there is the problem of the limitation of our historical knowledge and the difficulty of moving from what we do know of the first-century Jesus to the socio-political problems of the twentieth century. Is it really the case that ‘the historical Jesus puts us indirect contact with his liberative program and the practices with which he implements it’? (Boff 1972:279).
SOME BRITISH AND AMERICAN CHRISTOLOGIES
In our discussion so far of the figure of Jesus Christ in contemporary Christianity, very little has been said about the contributions of theologians in the English-speaking world. It is true that the leadership in theology has belonged to thinkers from the European continent, especially Germany, but solid work has been done both in Britain and the United States and although much of this has been stimulated by and dependent upon European influences, the English-speaking theologians have brought clarification and criticism to bear on the continental works and, not least, have curbed some of the excesses. An outstanding example of this work of sifting, refining and constructing is the classic treatise of the Scottish theologian, Donald Baillie (1887–1954), God Was in Christ. The book was first published in 1947, and opens with a survey of the scene as it was then. Baillie noted two apparently contradictory tendencies.
One he called the ‘end of docetism’, for there seemed to be a new determination among theologians to take the humanity of Jesus Christ with full seriousness and to combat that largely unconscious docetism (i.e. that he merely seemed human) which is deeply entrenched in popular Christianity and even in much Theology.
The other tendency was a new historical skepticism, which had come about partly as a result of the criticism of the nineteenth-century quest for the historical Jesus, partly as a result of the skeptical researches of Bultmann. In general, Baillie welcomed the first of these tendencies, but believed the second needed modification. The mere fact that Jesus had existed and had been crucified or even had been resurrected could hardly have any significance for us unless we knew something of who and what he was.
Baillie acknowledged that the idea of a God-man is the ‘supreme paradox’, but he was not content just to leave it at that. He believed that light can be thrown on this paradox from the Christian experience of the operation of grace in human lives. From Paul onward, Christians have done things, yet they have said that it was not really they who did them, but God working in and through them. Yet, according to Baillie, it is exactly at such times that human beings are most truly themselves. Here we have the essence of his Christology. Jesus Christ is the man fully surrendered to God, the man in whom grace reigns supreme, yet he is for that very reason truly man. Baillie tells us the idea comes from Augustine, but the use which he made of it seems quite original.
In his book Baillie includes a full discussion of the atoning work of Christ, and here we see how he corrected some of the excesses of continental theologians. He returns to the point that we cannot ignore questions about the Jesus of history, for the meaning of the cross cannot be understood apart from what we know about the one who died on the cross. This seems to be directed against Bultmann. He makes the further point, directed against Barth, that atonement cannot be purely an objective happening, for it is ‘a spiritual process in the realm of personal relationships’ (Baillie 1947:200).In the United States especially, there has developed a type of theology which seems to be genuinely Anglo-Saxon, in the sense that it derives much of its conceptual structure from English-speaking philosophers rather than German-speaking. This is ‘process theology’ and it is deeply indebted to the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and also to his American disciple, Charles Hartshorne.
How the figure of Jesus Christ appears in process theology is perhaps best seen in the work of Norman Pittenger, who about a decade after the appearance of Baillie’s book published a full-length study of Christology entitled The Word Incarnate (1959). He later updated this with a sequel, Christology Reconsidered (1970).The process theologian, as the name implies, sees events in terms of continuous development, rather than as sudden jumps or irruptions from outside the process. So Pittenger is determined to consider even incarnation in this way. This obviously demands that Jesus Christ should be understood as in solidarity with the whole human race, and Pittenger frequently insists that the difference between Jesus Christ and other human beings is one of degree, not of kind. He believes too that Jesus Christ is not an anomaly in the universe but ‘the unique focus for a universal presence and operation’ (Pittenger1959:192). He connects this view with the traditional Christian teaching about the divine Logos. We may note here that Pittenger is anxious to show that his teaching is continuous with the Catholic tradition, especially as it was expressed in the patristic age. He believes he preserves the ‘intention’ of that teaching, though he is not tied to its words. And he asserts that ‘if the intention which determined the classical formulations…be denied, Christianity is certainly destroyed’ (ibid.: 85).
Another American theologian, generally counted as belonging to the process school, though, as we shall see, with a somewhat different approach, is Schubert Ogden (1928–). Ogden’s early work was dominated above all by his enthusiastic (though not uncritical) acceptance of Bultmann’s existential interpretation and demythologizing. But he saw that Bultmann’s views could easily be transformed into a subjectivist or non-realist version of Christianity because they lacked any metaphysical underpinning. So he advocated the bringing together of existentialism and process philosophy as a basis on which to construct a theology that would treat adequately not just human existence but divine existence as well. ‘We would suggest’, he writes, ‘that an adequate solution to our theological problem waits on an attempt to think through in
an integral way the respective contributions of these two movements in contemporary philosophy’ (Ogden 1962:177).In the next phase of his thinking, Ogden emerged as perhaps the most effective critic of the ‘death of God’ school of theology, at that time active in the United States. Ogden was now drawing heavily on the ‘neo-classical’ theism of Whitehead and Hartshorne. However, when he returned specifically to the figure of Jesus Christ in his book The Point of Christology (1982),Ogden also reverted to existentialism, and declared: ‘The point of Christology is an existential point. Its assertion about who Jesus is, is even more an assertion about who we are’ (Ogden 1982:42). Perhaps the welding together of existentialism and process philosophy had proved to be unfeasible.
The British theologian and bishop, John Robinson (1919–83), was attracted to process theology and was a great admirer of Norman Pittenger, but he never fully embraced the process point of view, and based himself primarily on New Testament studies, rather than on any particular philosophy. He shot to fame with his book Honest to God (1963) which was not only a critique of the somewhat deistic image of God cherished among many church people, but equally a critique of the docetism which characterized the way in which they thought of Jesus Christ. In popular belief, Jesus was regarded as a figure from some realm ‘out there’, he had pre-existed in heaven, he had sojourned briefly on earth and then he had returned to his supernatural abode. Robinson tended to caricature popular belief, but there was substance in his complaints and if the idea of Jesus as the God—man seems incredible to many people in the twentieth century, the responsibility for this state of affairs must in the main be ascribed to inadequate teaching on the part of the Church.
Robinson’s major contribution to Christology, The Human Face of God (1973), was a determined effort to dispel the obscuring clouds of Docetism and to present Jesus Christ as a genuinely human person, something which was clearly affirmed by the Chalcedonies fathers in the fifth century and is essential if Jesus is to have any significance for the human race. But although Robinson was critical of supernaturalism and of the way in which ideas like the ‘pre-existence’ of Jesus and his ‘sinlessness’ had been understood, he remained committed to the central Christian belief in incarnation. This belief is not dependent on pre-existence and related ideas. I believe ‘that the word can just as truly and just as biblically (in fact, more truly and more biblically) be applied to another way of understanding it. This is: that one who was totally and utterly a man—and had never been anything other than a man or more than a man—so completely embodied what was from the beginning the meaning and purpose of God’s self-expression (whether conceived in terms of his Spirit, his Wisdom, his Word, or the intimately personal relation of Son ship)that it could be said and had to be said of that man, ‘He was God’s man’ or ‘God was in Christ’ or even that he was ‘God for us’.(Robinson 1973:179)
So it was not surprising that when a collection of essays by some English theologians, The Myth of God Incarnate, was published in 1977, it was sharply criticized by Robinson who considered it unduly reductionist.
to be continued…