Consider Jesus is widely regarded as the finest general introduction to Christology. Adopted for adult education courses, classrooms, and seminars, this classic book, written by one of the leading theologians of our era, presents major themes about Jesus in clear and accessible language.
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A Living Tradition
A seed grows into a flowering tree. A glimmer of an idea matures into full-fledged insight. A young lover discovers ever greater depths in the beloved one, none of which can be fully expressed in words although loving words when spoken do deepen the relationship. A new interpretation of a law brings more of its original richness to light. Each of these experiences has been used to illumine the development of doctrine, that change in the Christian intellectual heritage that happens when followers of Jesus Christ live out their faith in new situations. Through prayer and thought in the context of new initiatives and responses given by the community of believers, insights develop. Different ways of expressing the meaning of faith in accord with cultural variations develop. Doctrine develops. Whether the image be taken from the world of nature, from human psychology, or from the social order, the analogies of the tree, the lover, and the interpretation of law suggest something alive in history. They point to a vital community of faith nourishing not a dead but a living tradition.
This is not to suggest that doctrinal development is a triumphant march of progress along a straight line from truth to truth. The historical record shows otherwise, indicating detours, U-turns, and plain forgetfulness in the community's appropriation of its heritage. But it is to put clearly in the spotlight the fact that guided by the Spirit of God Christian believers throughout two thousand years have never stopped expressing their faith in Jesus Christ, their affection for him, and their understanding of his significance in words and deeds coherent with their time and place. The ongoing story of this community thus involves two elements, the old with the new, or the historically given with its current form of reception.
At the start of an essay on education, the Jewish religious thinker Martin Buber wrote these engaging lines which give us yet another analogy for our situation as a community with a living tradition:
In every hour the human race begins. We forget this too easily in face of the massive fact of past life, of so-called world history, of the fact that each child is born with a given disposition of world historical origin, that is, inherited from the riches of the whole human race, and also born into a given situation of world historical origin, that is, produced from the riches of the world's events. This fact must not obscure the other no less important fact that in spite of everything, in this as in every hour, what has not been invades the structure of what is, with ten thousand countenances, of which not one has been seen before, with ten thousand souls still undeveloped but ready to develop — a creative event if ever there was one, newness rising up, primal potential might. This potentiality, streaming unconquered, however much of it is squandered, is the reality child: this phenomenon of uniqueness, which is more than just begetting and birth, this grace of beginning again and ever again.
In this passionate description of the creative potential of new human beings the importance of both the old and the new are highlighted. Each child receives from the riches of the world while at the same time he or she brings to the world something never before seen. As a community with a living tradition Christians find themselves similarly gifted. Believers today receive an enormously rich heritage woven by the struggles and advances of the cloud of witnesses that has gone before, at the same time that they must witness to the good news in ways that are credible to their own world and to their own heart. If it is not to stagnate and dry out a living tradition needs to be passed on in a living condition.
All of this serves to introduce that theology which reflects on the meaning of Jesus Christ. For here in the first Christian centuries is a striking example of the development of doctrine in a living church. Here too is ferment in Catholic theology today which signals that the development is not over yet. One way often used to focus this issue is to pose the question about Jesus as Jesus himself does in the synoptic gospels. In Mark's narration:
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Casarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they told him, "Some say John the Baptist, and others say Elijah, and still others say one of the prophets." And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" (Mk 8:27–29)
Most Christians know Peter's answer — you are the Christ (v. 29); and Martha's answer — you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world (Jn 11:27); and the answers of the first generations of disciples whose insights frame the scriptural testimony. But the question does not rest there, with these answers. It resounds through the centuries inviting a response from every generation of believers and from every disciple. Who do you say that I am? The question is not the only way of framing the issue of Jesus' significance and, as we will see, there are some occasions when it may not be the best way. But it is a good question, one which sets us to thinking both personally and corporately.
The question itself is not academic but arises from the experience of salvation. Something exceedingly good happens to people in their encounter with Jesus Christ. Fundamentally they are put right with God. Consequently they come to themselves, being restored to inner integrity, healed in body and spirit. Relationships with other people are also healed and peace becomes a real possibility. People experience a new lease on life pervaded with hope in the future, even if it be hope against hope. Among those who have been thus graced by the Spirit of Christ, community forms. Given the profound impact of Jesus Christ on their lives the question naturally arises — who is he? The experience of salvation coming from God in Jesus makes him fundamentally interesting.
The answer to this question has not been academic either. In personal faith and piety, in official doctrine, in liturgy, and in the way people actually live the answer is always a matter of faith. As the faith of a pilgrim people is always historically inculturated, disciples of every generation have answered the question in thought patterns and images familiar to them from their particular cultures. The whole church as well utters its christological answer in every age as an ecclesial act. Each of us who believes today has been shaped by the answers of our ancestors in the faith. As the inheritors of two thousand years of a living tradition we are like "pygmies on the shoulders of giants," able to see far thanks to the stature of those who have handed on the tradition to us. Now it is our turn. Our times face new crises, demands, and critical challenges, and the meaning of Jesus Christ is being sharpened once again in engagement with needs in diverse quarters of the world. As baptized persons graced by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, each of us is called to utter our own personal christological answer by word and deed; so too the church as a whole, in the idiom of our age. We do not do so out of whole cloth, however, but faithful to the truth handed on by the living tradition. A brief walk through history will highlight what our ancestors in the faith have bequeathed to us by way of answers to the christological question, and will point to factors in the world that have occasioned new ferment in the ongoing process of answering it.
1. Biblical Christology (First Century A.D.)
It began with an encounter, as first-century Jewish women and men came in contact with the itinerant preacher Jesus of Nazareth, himself Jewish. He was hailed as a prophet mighty in word and deed. His preaching emphasized that salvation is on its way from God; in other words, that God is on the side of the little ones, the outcast, even the sinners, promising them new life. In light of the coming salvation, all persons, whatever their status, are called to conversion. All are called to open their hearts to receive the mercy of God. For the powerful, this involves a turn of heart and mind toward their brothers and sisters.
Jesus took this good news which he preached in spoken parables and enacted it in living parables. His table fellowship with sinners, his healing people of suffering in spirit and body, and his bold reproach to repressive authorities held out the promise of life to all in concrete ways. Around him gathered women and men called to be his disciples, following his way and sharing his efforts on behalf of the reign of God.
In a short time he was rejected by most religious leaders of his own faith. Arrested and tortured in prison, he was publicly executed by the civil authorities. After his death his mourning disciples experienced him as alive in a new way. God had raised him up! Present through the power of the Holy Spirit, he continues to be the one through whom the compassionate love of God is poured out upon the world to heal grief and alienation and to overcome sin and even death.
The disciples experienced salvation coming from God through him, with ramifications in every dimension of their lives. They preached the good news and suffered for it, expressing his significance in their lives by proclaiming his story as the story of the living one. Since the earliest disciples were Jews they turned to their own scriptures for help in interpreting him. There they found the divine promise embedded in such figures as the Messiah, Son of Man, Suffering Servant, Wisdom, Son of God, and so on. They used these evocative symbols to explain Jesus Christ's meaning and even turned some of them into titles for him. When they did this, his own life history and especially the cross revised what the symbols themselves meant. For example, no longer was Messiah the simply triumphant king of the Davidic line, but the crucified and risen one.
By the second and third decade after the crucifixion, communities of believers had formed all over the Mediterranean world. These reflected different characteristics coherent with their diverse cultural and sociological settings (Jewish or Gentile, persecuted or at peace, provincial or cosmopolitan). Certain of their members took up their quills to write their understandings of Jesus with insights shaped by the preaching and other experiences of their local churches. What resulted was a nuanced diversity of responses to the basic question: Who do you say that I am? Some of the key answers include:
Paul — Jesus is the crucified and risen Christ
Mark — Jesus is the suffering Messiah
Matthew — Jesus is the new Moses, teacher of the new law
Luke — Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, is Savior of all
John — Jesus is the Word of God made flesh
Differing in culture, geography, time, and emphasis, these various writers make clear that from the beginning there has been more than one christology in the Christian community. All confessing the same faith, they articulate this in a pluralism of ways. Taken together, their writings form the Christian scriptures, foundational to doing christology now since they carry the remembrance and witness of the inspired early communities.
2. Conciliar Christology (Second through Seventh Centuries)
As the church moved into the wider Hellenistic world, preaching and thinking made use of philosophical categories that were a common part of the Mediterranean culture. These categories of Greek philosophy abstracted from knowledge of the way things act or function to raise the question of what things are in themselves, formulating this in terms such as nature, subsistence, and the like. While the early biblical communities had concentrated on what God had done for them in Jesus, and consequently on who Jesus is in a functional way, these later Hellenistic communities, made up almost exclusively of Gentiles (non-Jews), began to wonder about Jesus in an ontological way. In other words, from proclaiming what he does — Jesus saves — their questions moved to the order of being: Who is he in himself that enables him to function as our Savior? From understanding that he is from God, their probing raised the question of his relation to the one and only God named Father. Were there two Gods? Unthinkable. Was Jesus a lesser god? Thinkable, but then how could he truly save? How could Jesus Christ be God and God the Father be God, and still there be only one God? In addition, questions about his relation to the human race became acute. If he is truly from God, then is he truly human? Is his body real flesh? Does he have a human soul with genuine human psychology? If not, then is the incarnation only a pretense? But if so, then is he really two persons, human and divine? If he is truly human how can he be considered at the same time truly divine and still be one person? All of these questions were phrased according to the idiom of the day, so that people of the church were involved in their development.
Debate raged over Jesus Christ's identity. One bishop went out to buy a loaf of bread and wrote later that "even the baker" wanted to discuss whether there were one or two natures in Christ!
There were two tendencies causing problems. On the one hand, some wanted to downplay any identity between God and the human being Jesus — in the end he is only a creature. He is definitely a superior creature, so said the priest Arius, but God cannot share being with anything finite or limited. To call Jesus "God" would be to dishonor God by involving the divine with limited flesh. So "God" is applied to Jesus as a courtesy title only. In 325 at the Council of Nicea, the bishops of the East decided that this approach was false. In the creed that they wrote, the Nicene creed still said and sung in the church today, Jesus is confessed as "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made; one in being with the Father." If this were not true, they reasoned, we would not be saved by Jesus. For sin is so strong that no mere creature can overcome it; "only God can save."
On the other hand, some thinkers so stressed the divinity of Jesus Christ that they lost sight of his real humanity. Some examples show how far this tendency went:
For he ate, not for the sake of the body, which was kept together by a holy energy, but in order that it might not enter into the mind of those who were with him to entertain a different opinion of him. — Clement of Alexandria
Our Lord felt the force of suffering but without its pain; the nails pierced his flesh as an object passes through the air, painlessly. — Hilary of Poitiers
Middle beings are formed when different properties are combined in one thing, e.g., the properties of ass and horse in a mule, and the properties of white and black in the color gray. But no middle being contains the two extremes in full measures, but only in part. Now in Christ there is a middle-being of God and man; therefore he is neither fully man nor God alone, but a mixture of God and man. — Bishop Apollinarius
This approach was also found to be false by the Council of Constantinople in 381. The Eastern bishops reasoned that we are saved by God taking on fully whatever belongs to human nature; if something is not assumed in the incarnation, it is not redeemed. Thus Jesus' genuine and integral humanity becomes a salvific truth.
Between these two extreme tendencies, the church struggled to maintain a full appreciation of Jesus' identification both with God and with human beings. As Pope Leo I wrote, "It is as dangerous an evil to deny the truth of the human nature of Christ as it is to refuse to believe that his glory is equal to the Father." Finally, in A.D. 451 after years of debate and episodes of unseemly conduct, the Council of Chalcedon affirmed this insight of faith. In Hellenistic terms they confessed Jesus Christ to be one in being with the Father as to divinity, and one in being with us as to humanity; truly God and truly human, having a rational soul. He is one and the same Christ made known in two natures which come together in one person.
3. Medieval Christology (Eleventh through Sixteenth Centuries)
During this period no major controversies existed about Christ, although some minor ones erupted. The main change came with the introduction of a new process of reasoning and synthesizing identified with scholasticism. Within the sociological context of feudalism, Anselm of Canterbury explored why God became a human being and had to die to save us, for could it not have been done in a different way? He reasoned brilliantly that Jesus Christ dies in order to make satisfaction for sin, without which the order of the universe would be forever disturbed.
Excerpted from "Consider Jesus"
Copyright © 1990 Elizabeth A. Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
1. A Living Tradition,
2. The Humanity of Jesus,
3. Jesus' Self-Knowledge,
4. The History of Jesus,
5. Jesus Christ and Justice,
6. Liberation Christology,
7. Feminist Christology,
8. God and the Cross,
9. Salvation of the Whole World,
Afterword: A Living Tradition — Toward the Future,