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CHRIST IN CONTEMPORARY THEOLOGY
Christianity by its very name has always honored Jesus Christ as its historical and theological center. No other person has been more essential to its origination and subsequent history and no set of doctrines has been more determinative than the doctrines of the person and work of Christ. In approaching a study of Christology, one is therefore concerned with central rather than peripheral theological matters. One's faith in and understanding of Jesus Christ involve the most important theological issues anyone can face.
DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY
In the history of theological thought concerning Christ until modern times there was always a solid core of doctrine which can be equated with biblical orthodoxy. The early church Fathers, struggling with the obvious problem of the doctrine of the Trinity and how could God be Three and yet One, stated in enduring terms that while God is One numerically, He subsists in three Persons, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit who are equal in eternity, power and glory, Each possessing all the divine attributes and yet having properties which distinguish Them within the unity of the Trinity. A milestone in the statement of this important doctrine of the Trinity was reached in the Nicene Council in 325 and was matured and restated by the Protestant Reformers.
ORTHODOX DOCTRINE OF THE PERSON AND WORK OF CHRIST
Following the delineation of the doctrine of the Trinity, the subject of the person of Christ incarnate also received major attention in the early church. Discussions concerning the relationship of the human and divine natures finally achieved a standard of orthodoxy when the person of Christ was defined as having a complete human nature and a complete divine nature united in one Person without moral complication (e.g., in the Chalcedonian Creed, 451). Although Calvinistic and Lutheran definitions of the human nature of Christ differ in some details in their doctrine of the person of Christ; a well-defined pattern emerged which can be described as orthodox.
Discussions of the person of Christ inevitably led to study of His work, especially His work in death on the cross. Here again, though definitions varied, the objective fact that Christ died for our sins and by this act of redemption achieved reconciliation of man to God forms the mainstream of orthodox conviction. Generally speaking, within orthodoxy the bodily resurrection of Christ and His bodily second coming to the earth have not been questioned.
EARLY DISSENT FROM ORTHODOXY
From the early days of the church, however, some have dissented from what might be described as the main thrust of orthodoxy. During the third century, the Alexandrian School of Theology with its attempted harmonization of Plato and Christianity tended to regard all Scripture as a revelation in symbolic or allegorical rather than literal and historical terms. An important fourth century event was the challenge by Arius to the eternity of Christ which ended in his condemnation at the Council of Nicaea. The allegorical approach to biblical revelation, which characterized the Alexandrian school, had its counterpart in the later philosophy of Hegel who regarded the biblical record as presenting concepts which belong to the Christian faith in symbolic terms. In various forms this point of view has persisted to the present day and has influenced many diverse systems of theology both conservative and liberal.
RISE OF MODERN LIBERALISM
Another major movement in the history of the doctrine of Christ can be observed in the introduction by Ritschl and Schleiermacher of the concept that the language of Scripture should be studied for its spiritual intent, namely, the ethical and theological implications rather than the explicit statements of the Bible. This led to contemporary liberalism of the twentieth century which assumes that the Bible cannot be taken seriously in its historical or factual content, but considers Scripture only a means of gaining spiritual insights. Obviously this point of view often resulted in the rejection of the full deity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, and substitutionary atonement as well as questions concerning the bodily resurrection of Christ and His bodily second coming.
The conflict between orthodoxy and modern liberalism had many causes. John S. Lawton traces it first to a shift from a priori to a posteriori method, that is, a change of acquiring and interpreting knowledge from consideration of principles to formulating knowledge by an induction based upon all the facts which could be obtained, an approach in keeping with the modern emphasis on science. A second major factor was the rise of evolution as a means of explaining complex modern life with an emphasis on God's being in the natural process. Hence God is knowable by experience in a way that a transcendent God could never be understood. This in turn laid the groundwork for the third major factor, the so-called historical approach to the Scriptures, and a naturalistic explanation of life as a whole. These approaches undermined the whole superstructure of orthodoxy including traditional approaches to Christology. An attempt to explain God and His world inductively and by a process of natural evolution left no real basis for worship of a supernatural Deity, and this opened the way for the reaction to liberalism which has been called neoorthodoxy.
RISE OF NEOORTHODOXY
The religious insights of liberalism were so anemic and subjective that they did not provide a living faith for people and nations in crisis. Out of World War I came the new movement known as neoorthodoxy sparked by Karl Barth's The Epistle to the Romans which challenged the naturalism of liberalism and its doctrine that God is immanent or in the world, but not transcendent or greater than the world. Barthianism restored revelation to a supernatural communication of the infinite God to finite man, communication in which Jesus Christ is the principal medium.
Although Barth tended to reestablish Jesus Christ as the virgin-born Son of Mary who was in fact God and Man at the same time, his failure to be clear on the role of history in revelation and his tendency to regard real communication as suprahistorical has tended to make the main facts concerning Christ experiential. Hence, the Christ of the Scriptures is to some extent supplanted by the Christ of experience, and the resulting doctrines become subjective in contemporary theology rather than historical and revelatory in absolute terms in the Scripture.
Karl Barth is sometimes charged with Christomonism, the reduction of all theology to Christology. Although the charge is only partially true, Barth has emphasized the incarnation as the major act of God's self-revelation to man. The major question of theology is how to understand God's communication in the incarnation of Christ. It is through the incarnation that God speaks to man and reconciles man to Himself.
Introducing the subject of "Jesus Christ" in his Dogmatics in Outline, Barth writes,
The heart of the object of Christian faith is the word of the act in which God from all eternity willed to become man in Jesus Christ for our good, did become man in time for our good, and will be and remain man in eternity for our good. This work of the Son of God includes in itself the work of the Father as its presupposition and the work of the Holy Spirit as its consequence.
A discussion of Barthian Christology is a major field of contemporary theology. While agreeing with most orthodox doctrines relating to Christ as illustrated in his treatment of the Apostles' Creed in Dogmatics in Outline, Barth's approach is more philosophic and experiential in that the Bible is considered a channel of experiencing Christ theologically, but Barth does not hold with orthodoxy that the Bible is factual revelation. He is, however, closer to orthodoxy than most in the neoorthodox school, and unquestionably believes in the deity of jesus Christ, His virgin birth, and His death and resurrection, in contrast to Reinhold Niebuhr, who seems to question all of these important doctrines. All theologians classified as neoorthodox tend to emphasize contemporary experience rather than historic revelation as embodied in Scripture. The work of Emil Brunner Revelation and Reason is a classic expression of the neoorthodox concept of revelation.
RISE OF BULTMANNISM
The swing to a more supernatural God with its resulting effect upon the subject of the person and work of Christ in the period following World War II was followed by a movement back to a more liberal concept crystallized in the writings of Rudolf Bultmann. Seeking to establish the viewpoint of the early church, Bultmann adopted the approach of demythologizing Scripture and with it Formgeschichte as the main means of determining the real meaning of the New Testament and the viewpoint of the early church. Bultmann holds that "the so-called social gospel" as well as "eschatological preaching"—the idea that the kingdom of God is wholly future—are both unsatisfactory. He prefers "de-mythologizing," an attempt to get behind "the mythological conceptions" of Scriptures to their "deeper meaning." In his attempt to eliminate the supernatural and arrive at a nonmiraculous interpretation of the New Testament, Bultmann tended to dilute the facts concerning the historical Jesus in the Bible with emphasis on what he believed the early church held rather than what the Bible itself actually teaches.
Bultmann's concept of demythologization is based on a technical definition of a myth, not as a fantasy, or a mere fiction, but the sense in which it is used in comparative religion where it is a statement of man's experience. Jesus, according to Bultmann, spoke in the terms of His day, and thus taught that He had descended from heaven, that He was contending against Satan, and used the concept of a three-story universe, that is, the heavens above, the earth, and that which is below the earth. This was coupled with reference to miracles and other supernatural events. According to Bultmann, all these are ideas clothed in language which now must be stripped of its superficialities and invested with the true intent of the teaching. We must get away from the pictures to the event itself.
The return to the historical Jesus is complicated by the fact that Bultmann considers the Gospels merely a record of what the early church believed Jesus thought and did. Actually, according to Bultmann, all the facts presented in the Bible were filtered through the mind and faith of the church, and probably Jesus did not do the things and say the things which the Scripture ascribes to Him. The process of demythologizing is to get back to the experience of the early church which prompted scriptural accounts. Their experiential encounter with Christ is the kerygma, or the message which must be repeated today, even though the precise details of the Bible may be uncertain.
Bultmann opens his treatment of Theology of the New Testament with the statement
The message of Jesus is a presupposition for the theology of the New Testament rather than a part of that theology itself.... But Christian faith did not exist until there was a Christian kerygma; i.e., a kerygma proclaiming Jesus Christ—specifically Jesus Christ the Crucified and Risen One—to be God's eschatological act of salvation. He was first so proclaimed in the kerygma of the earliest Church, not in the message of the historical Jesus.... Thus, theological thinking—the theology of the New Testament—begins with the kerygma of the earliest Church and not before.
Bultmann, however, acknowledges that Paul's theology shows frequent use of primitive Christian tradition. Vincent Taylor, for instance, cites numerous passages in Bultmann's Theology of the New Testament where Paul is said to rely upon earlier traditions of the church. Significantly, Bultmann by this confession relates Paul more intimately with the early church than would otherwise be the case.
When Bultmann was overtaken by age and infirmity, his disciples tended to return to the search for the so-called historical Jesus with the implication that the Bible is not an accurate presentation of the actual Jesus of history. All varieties of divergent opinion can be observed from the relatively conservative point of view of Oscar Cullmann, who considers as fact that Jesus regarded Himself as the Messiah, to the more radical disciples of Bultmann such as Herbert Braun and Manfred Mezger, who have reduced revelation almost entirely to personal communication between God and man with corresponding neglect of Scripture. At the beginning of the final third of the twentieth century, the pendulum seems to be swinging back again to a position more friendly to Barth, but still far from historical orthodoxy.
EMERGING FACTORS IN CONTEMPORARY CHRISTOLOGY
In surveying contemporary Christology, certain major factors emerge. First and probably most important is the fact that any Christological system can be no better than the view of Scripture on which it rests. Orthodoxy historically has assumed the accuracy, authority and the inerrancy of the Scripture record. Hence, the search for the historical Jesus as well as the theological facts concerning Him are determined under this point of view by what the Scriptures actually teach. It is significant that aside from a few cults, whose teachings are quite contradictory, students of Christology who have accepted the Bible as the inerrant and authoritative Word of God have invariably also accepted the deity of Jesus Christ and the historical accuracy of His virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary death and bodily resurrection. Variations on these major aspects of Christology almost always stem from a denial in some form of the accuracy and authority of the Scriptures.
A second major fact in Christology has been the hermeneutics or principles of interpretation of Scripture. Those who, like the ancient school of theology at Alexandria, deny that the Bible is normally to be considered in its grammatical and historical sense and who substitute a symbolic interpretation, have also tended to question the major facts concerning Jesus Christ. If the Bible is not to be taken literally, then the virgin birth, the miracles of Christ, His death on the cross and His resurrection as well as the theological explanation of these historical facts are all left in question. The search for a true Christology which is not linked to the authoritative Scriptures is therefore endless and almost fruitless.
Modern confusion and the multiplied divergent views concerning Christ which have arisen in the twentieth century are the product of this uncertainty as to whether the Bible speaks authoritatively and in factual terms. The pendulum will, therefore, continue to swing erratically between those who take the Bible more seriously than others such as Barth and those who attempt to rewrite the Scriptures completely as does Bultmann. The fact that these theoretical interpretations have their rise and fall often within the same generation is a testimony to their lack of objective connection with the Bible and with any norm of truth which endures the scrutiny of succeeding generations.
MAJOR TRENDS IN CONTEMPORARY CHRISTOLOGY
Unquestionably, the modern world does not accept the orthodox definition of the person and work of Christ. As John Baillie wrote in the context of liberalism following World War I, "In most of our communities there is to be found a surprisingly large number of men and women who are prevented from a wholehearted sympathy with the Christian teaching and a whole-hearted participation in the life of the Christian Church by the necessity of making some kind of reservation." He goes on to state that the modern mind has no problem with the doctrine of God the Father, and its human need can be met by divine love and acceptance of many Christian ideals. But he states, "The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation and the Atonement have never been anything else to them than a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence." The attitude of a friendly interest in Jesus Christ, but an unwillingness to accept the theological statements of the Bible concerning Him as a Member of the Trinity, as virgin-born and incarnate, and His death as a real redemption from sin, continues to grip a major section of the church today. Baillie goes on to restate in simplest form basic Christian doctrine almost totally rejected by the modern mind.
Carl Henry has summarized the major trends of the past century in these words:
The rationalistic liberalism of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Troeltsch was the dominant religious force in the forepart of our century. Classic modernism, a theology of intensified divine immanence, so neglected God's transcendence in relationship to man and His universe that it left no room for miracle, special revelation, or special redemption. The Christian religion was viewed as a variety of religion in general—even if it had certain unique features, and could in some respects be viewed as "higher" than the others. Compatible with this basic outlook, Christian religious experience was viewed as a variety of universal religious experience. Against this speculative immanentism, Karl Barth reasserted God's transcendence and special divine initiative, His wrath against man as sinner, and the reality of miraculous revelation and miraculous redemption. So contagious was this "theology of crisis" that by 1930 most German theologians conceded the death of rationalistic modernism, or classic liberalism, which Barth had deplored as heresy. They proclaimed the triumph of dialectical theology over immanental philosophy.
Excerpted from Jesus Christ our Lord by John F. Walvoord. Copyright © 1969 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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2. Christ in Eternity Past
3. Christ in Old Testament History
4. Christ in Old Testament Typology
5. Christ in Old Testament Prophecy
6. The Incarnation of the Son of God
7. The Person of the Incarnate Christ
8. The Life of Christ on Earth
9. Christ in His Suffering and Death
10. Christ in His Resurrection
11. The Present Work of Christ
12. The Future Work of Christ