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Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind
By MARK A. NOLL
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2011 Mark A. Noll
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Place to Stand ... from Which to See
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Although the various forms of traditional Christianity present sometimes strikingly different versions of the faith, they also share a common inheritance in the foundational theology of the classical Christian creeds. Christian bodies that claim to follow "no creed but the Bible" put themselves at an enormous disadvantage for many purposes, not least for promoting Christian learning, because they cut themselves off from the vitally important work that has been accomplished by the numberless assemblies making up the communion of saints. That communion stretching back in time to the apostolic age and out in space to the ends of the earth is crucial for grasping the meaning of divine revelation in itself and for understanding how that revelation illuminates the world as a whole.
An unusually important place in Christian history has been occupied by the saints who lived during the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., that is, during the era when Christianity moved from being an illegal and culturally despised sect to becoming a formally recognized religion of the Roman Empire. Their challenge, in what might be called the church's first intellectual breathing space, was to summarize the faith in authoritative short statements that could specify what Christianity was, define a curriculum for new converts, provide formulas for use in worship, and build barriers against false teaching. The prime defining statements that resulted—especially the Apostles' Creed, the so-called Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian definition of Christ's divine-human unity—all functioned as key resources for meeting those needs. Yet beyond their historic value for worship, proclamation, catechesis, and theology, the creeds offered—and continue to offer—precisely what is needed as a grounding for Christian learning. They do so because they represent the distillation of concentrated reflection on Scripture and of hard-won wisdom time-tested by Christian experience.
The ancient creeds became authoritative in the early centuries because they were thoroughly, profoundly, comprehensively, and passionately rooted in Scripture. They retain their importance only because they remain such forceful summaries of biblical revelation. Yet because the creeds also represented the most intense effort imaginable to root the biblical realities of Jesus Christ in the reigning thought forms of the fourth and fifth centuries, they remain important for later eras because they were such superlative exercises in Christian thinking when they were first written. Perhaps most importantly, the creeds concentrate with fearsome energy on the themes that define the heart of Christianity. They remain important for Christian scholarship because they have stood the test of time as faithful summaries of biblical revelation concerning the person and work of Christ.
Examples of Biblical Revelation Summarized by the Creeds
As only the barest sample of the vast material summarized in the creeds, I would like to sketch two strands of that biblical teaching. The first concerns use of the term "glory" in both New and Old Testaments as a word describing the presence of God; the second treats images of Christ in the book of Revelation. Both strands display the diverse richness that made the Christian faith so compelling, but also so challenging, for those who summarized biblical teaching in succinct creedal statements.
In the Old Testament, God's glory was described as an ineffable splendor that displayed his holiness and marked him as distinct from the creatures; that glory also spoke of his true character that at the end of time would be manifest throughout all creation. In the story of the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt, the glory of God was an overwhelming and frightening presence: "To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain" (Exod. 24:17). Later, at a time of worship, "Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Exod. 40:35). This identification of God's glory as an awe-filled presence would continue long after Moses had left the scene, as was recorded once during the reign of King Solomon: "When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple" (1 Kings 8:10-11). The fear-inspiring quality of the divine glory was reflected even in the New Testament when the shepherds in the hills above Bethlehem received a message from God on the night of Jesus' birth: "An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified" (Luke 2:9).
The clearest explanation for why such holy dread attended the presence of God's glory was recorded during the life of Moses when he asked for an unusual gift: "Then Moses said [to the Lord], 'Now show me your glory.' And the Lord said, 'I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,' he said, 'you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live'" (Exod. 33:18-20). In this strand of Old Testament revelation, the glory of God was to be honored, revered, worshiped, but also feared—and from a safe distance.
Yet, as awesome as the glory of the Lord appeared to ancient Israel—terrifying as the face of God was—so too did Israel's prophets foresee a day when that divine glory would be manifest for all to see. To the prophet Ezekiel this revelation of divine glory was construed as a sign of apocalyptic judgment: "I will display my glory among the nations, and all the nations will see the punishment I inflict and the hand I lay upon them" (Ezek. 39:21). But to the prophet Habakkuk the connotation of this eschatological revealing was more hopeful:
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. (Hab. 2:14)
Such prophetic words underscored the splendor of the divine presence, but they did not fundamentally alter the sense of God's unapproachable transcendence that was conveyed throughout the revelation to Israel.
The Hebrew term for glory (kabôd) that was used in these passages expressed a metaphorical sense of "weight" as "splendor, glory, or honor." In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) and in the New Testament itself, the term became doxa, which means "brightness, splendor, and radiance" manifest as "glory, majesty, magnificence, splendor" and also "fame, renown, and honor."
For the New Testament writers who proclaimed the "gospel" or "good news" about Jesus Christ, it was of highest importance that his presence and his work be described by this same word. Sometimes, to be sure, New Testament usage resembled what had been said in the Old Testament by pointing to an awesome eschatological future. So it was on the Mount of Transfiguration when Peter, James, and John received a glimpse of how the exalted Christ would one day appear: "Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men [Moses and Elijah] standing with him" (Luke 9:32). The Synoptic Gospels also record Jesus speaking of the end of the age in terms of his own awe-inspiring glory: "At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" (Luke 21:27, with parallels in Matt. 24:30 and Mark 13:26).
But the revolutionary use of this term in the New Testament came not in its reference to the End, but in its application to the present appearance of Jesus Christ. What no one in ancient Israel could look upon and live was now being shown to all people as the gift of life itself. So it was in stories from Jesus' infancy, as when in the temple at Jerusalem the aged Simeon saw the young child and then praised God in these words:
"My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." (Luke 2:30-32)
So it was in later recapitulations of the meaning of Christ's life and work, as in the opening words of the Epistle to the Hebrews: "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets ..., but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.... The Son is the radiance of God's glory" (Heb. 1:1-3).
The Gospel of John offered the sharpest New Testament emphasis on Jesus as the one in whom the glory of God dwelt and who in his person opened that glory to all. A stunning announcement at the start of the Gospel asked hearers, in effect, to remember how God's glory had been experienced in ancient Israel so that they could understand the momentous thing that had happened in their midst: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Elsewhere in his Gospel John underscored what it meant for the unapproachable holiness of God to become approachable in Jesus Christ. At the conclusion of his account of the marriage feast at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, John said of this incident, "He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him" (2:11). Later in the Gospel John interwove the theme of divine glory into his account of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. When anxious friends of the dying Lazarus came seeking help for their friend, Jesus replied that the sickness of Lazarus was "for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." And then after Lazarus had been raised from the dead, Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" (11:4, 40).
John's insistence that the divine glory was manifest in Jesus Christ distinguished his contribution to early Christian proclamation, but it was by no means unique. Thus, we find in Luke's account of Jesus' appearances after the resurrection a story of two dejected disciples who, on their way to Emmaus, encountered the risen Jesus, who asked them, "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" (Luke 24:26). And when the apostle Paul was telling the Romans about the significance of Christian baptism, he too linked the rising of Jesus from the dead with the manifestation of divine splendor: "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Rom. 6:4).
The New Testament claim made by this full range of passages was audacious in the extreme: the one God of Israel—who had created the world, who had initiated a covenant with a distinct people through their father Abraham, who had then protected that people for the sake of his own name, but who also existed as a perfectly holy being in unapproachable glory—that God had entered human history in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, in turn, did not simply trail clouds of glory in the sense of a romantic metaphor, but he actually embodied the divine splendor in such a way that, as the First Epistle of John puts it, "we have heard ... we have seen with our eyes ... we have looked at and our hands have touched" (1 John 1:1).
Then, most remarkably, the New Testament records that the glory of the Lord, as revealed in Jesus Christ, could be communicated to those who followed him. The humble creature was being given that which belonged by rights exclusively to the Creator. In the Gospel of John once more, the Evangelist records a prayer that Jesus spoke immediately before his passion. One of its central elements was the desire of Jesus that the glory he shared with the Father would be communicated to those who followed him: Jesus "looked toward heaven and prayed: 'Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.... And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.... I have given them [his disciples] the glory you gave me, that they may be one.... I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory" (John 17:1, 5, 22, 24). Even more expansively, the apostle Paul, in words addressed to the new believing community in Corinth, contrasted the glory of God that was revealed to Moses (from which people hid their faces) to the glory that believers in Christ enjoyed because of the work of the Holy Spirit. At the end of a lengthy comparison, the apostle summarized the full weight of the earlier revelation to Israel and its transformation by the revelation of God in Christ with another strong statement: "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18).
In this range of passages from the Old and New Testaments concerning the glory of God, it is obvious that early Christian writers were making unusually bold claims about the person and work of Jesus Christ. He appears on earth and appears to be human, but he is also said to possess—and to bestow—the glory of the one true God. Mysteries, conundrums, paradoxes, and apparent contradictions abound in this strand of biblical revelation: How could an apparently ordinary human born to an apparently ordinary Galilean woman be said to partake of what the one true God enjoyed as his sole prerogative? If Jesus somehow did embody the divine glory, why was it recorded that he seemed to lack the prerogatives of deity—that he needed to eat and drink, that he became weary, that he professed not to know everything, and (most counterintuitively) that he could die? But maybe, if testimonies about the glory of God in Christ were true, then the reports of human limitations were deceptive and Jesus never really experienced the ordinary human weaknesses he only seemed to experience. Or perhaps Jesus was like ordinary humans in only part of his person while the rest was the habitation of God. Most disconcerting of all, the religion of ancient Israel was so militantly monotheistic, it seemed incredible that someone supposedly learned in the Hebrew Scriptures could ever imagine ascribing deity of any sort to a mere human being.
If such puzzles were not enough, it is important to remember that teaching about the glory of God represents only one of many trajectories in the biblical record that early believers perceived as leading from the first revelations to Israel toward full fruition in the revelation of God in Christ.
In the early centuries of the Christian church it was no easy matter to sort all this out, but sorting it out was precisely what the church faced as a community gathered to worship God-in-Christ, and also as a community of belief pressed to explain—to prospective converts, incredulous opponents, suspicious public officials—what it all meant. The main creedal statements represented the most important efforts to summarize what the early Christians knew they had experienced, but also knew they needed to formulate for themselves and for others as carefully as they could. Because these statements concentrated so hard on getting the Biggest Questions right about Christ and his work, they, in turn, became ideal guides for shedding the light of Christ on the worlds of learning.
The Lamb That Was Slain
As with a theme like the glory of God that stretches throughout Scripture, a parallel plentitude with similar depth is found in more compact parts of the Bible, like the book of Revelation that draws the New Testament to a close. In this strange book of visions, wonders, and the renewal of the earth, one of the most remarkable things is its diverse and complex depiction of Jesus. As with the biblical theme of divine glory, so in Revelation's picture of Christ, the early church was challenged to say succinctly what a tumultuous array of images, teachings, and descriptions might mean.
Excerpted from Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by MARK A. NOLL Copyright © 2011 by Mark A. Noll. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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