Jesus Christ: Saviour or Guru?
Jesus Christ: Saviour or Guru?
Abstract and Keywords
In this age of theological pluralism, even within Christianity, is there good reason to affirm the incarnation of Christ as expressed in the Creed of Chalcedon? To affirm as much is to commit oneself to what is called a maximal christology, as opposed to the many minimal christologies available today. It is argued that the New Testament picture of Jesus is unified and consistent. The purpose of the incarnation is to show what God is like, to make it possible for human beings to know God, and to defeat God’s enemies. To accomplish as much, Jesus had to be truly human and truly divine. Four indications that Christ was divine are considered: his willingness to forgive sins, his reference to God as Abba, his willingness to speak “with authority”, and his implicit claims to be divine.
If my argument thus far has been convincing, we have reason to believe that God exists, that God reveals himself to us, that God is a Trinity, that part of what God reveals is that he wants to reconcile us to him, and that it is pre‐eminently through a person named Jesus that he accomplishes our salvation. But Christians want to say more about Jesus than that it is through him that we are reconciled to God. Christians want to say that Jesus is Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. And so we must move on to that part of Christian theology called christology.
One of the most striking texts from the fourth Gospel tells of an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well. It ends with the villagers of Sychar declaring of Jesus: ‘we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world’ (John 4: 42). I believe these villagers were correct; I too hold that Jesus is the Saviour of the world. I will now try to show why.
Although I remember as a child hearing some of the stories about Jesus, I first saw myself as one who believed that he was the Saviour of the world after I, as a teenager, encountered Jesus in a conversion experience. As I began to read the Bible, listen to sermons, and speak with other Christians, I remember forming the definite impression that Jesus must have been an extraordinary person. There were several reasons for this impression.
First, I remember being convinced that Jesus must have been an attractive person who had a flair for leadership and an aura of charisma. Like most strong leaders, he must have been a great polarizer of people—they seem in the Gospels either to love him and follow him loyally or else to hate him and plot against him. He does not seem to have been the sort to inspire neutrality.
Secondly, I remember thinking that Jesus must have been an enigma to many of his contemporaries. He must have struck people as being strangely different from other folk; they could not figure him out or place him in a category. Once, when some hardened temple officers were sent by the authorities to arrest him, they were dumbfounded by his words. They returned to their superiors, gasping, ‘No man ever spoke like this man!’ (John 7: 32–46).
(p.97) Thirdly, I remember noting that Jesus seemed a loving, concerned, compassionate person. The story of Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19: 1–10) is one of the earliest that I remember hearing about Jesus, and it made a deep impression on me, even as a child, that the Son of God would make friends with an ostracized tax collector. Jesus' love extended to all sorts of people, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, righteous and sinful, sophisticated and crude. I remember feeling how strange and unexpected it was that the Lord seemed to love and accept all the people he met, just the way they were, even his deepest enemies.
Fourthly, I remember being impressed with Jesus' apparent facility for changing people. Almost nobody met Jesus and remained the same as before. Some changed for the better: Peter, an ignorant fisherman, became the courageous leader of the church. Saul, a persecutor of Christianity, met Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus and became Paul, the greatest missionary and theologian the church has known. Others changed for the worse: the man whom we call the rich young ruler came to Jesus anxiously seeking salvation, but left him rejecting salvation when he learned how dearly it would cost (Matt. 19: 16–22). An obscure man named Judas, who would otherwise be long forgotten today, met Jesus, made a decision, and became infamous for an act of betrayal that history will never forget.
I count myself as one of those whom Jesus has changed. I am convinced that I was once on a wrong path that was leading nowhere and that in Christ I found the right path. I have a strong sense of having been created, guided, forgiven, and redeemed by God in Christ; that, I suppose, is much of what makes me a Christian and engenders my interest in christology.
Soon after my conversion, I joined a church of a mainline Protestant denomination. (I am now an ordained minister in the direct historical descendant of that same denomination.) As a member of that denomination, broad and inclusive as it was and is, I soon became aware of theological pluralism. Lots of theological options were available. People interpreted the Bible differently. How should one decide what to believe?
Even more than in those innocent days, we live today in a time of theological pluralism. Many Christian theologies are available today, and many christologies. However, it seems to me that all the available christological options can (p.98) be divided into two categories, what I will call maximal and minimal christologies. A maximal christology accepts and presupposes (even though it may struggle with) the classical doctrine of the incarnation from Nicaea and Chalcedon (i.e. Christ is ‘truly divine and truly human’ and ‘two natures in one person’). A minimal christology does not presuppose or accept this notion and indeed is usually offered as an alternative to it.
Many (not all) minimal christologies seem to me to revolve around at least some of the following six points.1
(1) The Bible is a wholly, or at least primarily, human book. No doctrine of biblical inspiration or trustworthiness is accepted; the Bible (it is said) should be treated like any other ancient text.
(2) A great variety of distinct and inconsistent christologies can be found in the New Testament, but the classical doctrine of the incarnation is not one of them. In addition, some sort of quasi‐evolutionary explanation is given of the rise of ‘high’ Johannine christology and of the classical doctrine.
(3) The classical doctrine of the incarnation is incoherent. On purely logical grounds it is to be rejected.
(4) There never has been a universally accepted christology in the church. What we find in the history of the church is the same kind of christological pluralism that exists in the New Testament. As John Hick says, ‘there is nothing that can be called the Christian doctrine of the incarnation.’2
(5) The classical doctrine of the incarnation should be rejected not only because of its logical incoherence, but also because it has had dire pragmatic consequences; it has, for example, helped foster Christian exclusivism vis‐à‐vis other religions, or male domination of women, or anti‐Semitic attitudes.
(6) Accordingly, what the New Testament writers say or were trying to say about Jesus can best be captured via a minimal christology.
Naturally, the christology proposed can take many shapes, but nearly always the humanity and the teachings of Jesus are stressed. In fact, some minimal christologists like to claim ownership, as it were, over the humanity of Jesus; (p.99) maximal christologies, they sometimes imply, always entail some form of Docetism. Jesus is said to be a man who perfectly reflects the presence of God, or a man who is uniquely chosen by God to express and symbolize God's love for us, or a man gifted by God with love and wisdom and self‐sacrifice, or a man whose exemplary life and unparalleled teachings still inspire men and women to live godly lives and to alter oppressive structures of society.
In sketching my own christology, I try to reply to many (but, for lack of space, not all) of the criticisms that minimal christologists have raised against the classical doctrine of the incarnation. In the concluding section of this chapter, I mention the deepest reason I have for rejecting minimal christology.
In AD 451 the Council of Chalcedon declared that Jesus Christ is
at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a rational soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; … one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only‐begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence.3
This is the dogma I have been calling the classical doctrine of the incarnation. It constituted something of a consensus in Christendom from the time of Chalcedon until recently. Some aspects of what the fathers were trying to say are difficult to grasp, especially for us today. The concepts from Greek ontology that form the metaphysical underpinnings of the doctrine are particularly intractable. Few people today have any idea what a ‘hypostatic union’ is (this is the term that is typically used for the unity of divinity and humanity in Christ); the many subtle ancient uses of the word ‘substance’ are now almost impossible to sort out and explain to non‐experts; and even the one important metaphysical term that we recognize, ‘person’, was used by the fathers in a different way from the way we use it.
Nevertheless, the main idea that the fathers were driving at is quite simple. It is that Jesus Christ is one person who is truly divine and truly human. That (p.100) is, Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, a divine nature and a human nature. The natures are neither confused nor separated in him. Nor are they merged or amalgamated—divinity and humanity are far too different for that. Nor are the two joined so as to convert the one into the other—that cannot happen either. Nor are they fused so as to produce a third, or hybrid, nature. The two are united in the person of Jesus Christ ‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’.
Notice that the classical doctrine is primarily negative. It makes no attempt to explain, for example, how one person can have two natures (let alone a divine and a human nature); it merely insists that this characterizes Jesus Christ. The mystery, the paradox, of the incarnation stands unresolved. What the fathers did, I believe, was set a boundary. Certain heresies and errors (adoptionism, Docetism, Ebionism, Arianism) are ruled out; any christology that affirms that Jesus Christ is ‘truly divine and truly human’ and has ‘two natures in one person’ is allowed.
Should the classical doctrine still be believed by Christians today? I believe it should. Of course, like any exercise in theology (which is, after all, a human discipline), the words of the fathers at Chalcedon are fallible. They can never have scriptural authority for Christians. Thus, we must leave open the possibility that some theologian will find a doctrine superior to the classical doctrine. As for me, however, I do not believe any past theologian has done so, and I doubt that any current or future theologian will do so either. I confess to believing that the church was led to the classical doctrine by the Holy Spirit. As I argue later, the theological costs are far too high if we deny either the divinity or the humanity of Christ's person.
My early impressions of Jesus (mentioned earlier) and the classical doctrine of the incarnation defined at Chalcedon were based upon what we might call a pre‐critical reading of the four Gospels. But one of the facts of our age is that the Gospels are subject to rigorous and searching historical‐critical scholarship. Surely this fact is the single most important factor distinguishing Christian faith in the twentieth century from Christian faith in, say, the fifth or the sixteenth century. All those who intend to do christology today must first make their peace with the historical‐critical study of the New Testament.
My own view is that the historical‐critical study of the Bible is to be strongly encouraged. I have no problem with the various methods New Testament scholars have been using to illuminate biblical texts—source (p.101) criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, canonical criticism, and so on. I have no doubt that such methods are both helpful and necessary. I am not a defender of the theory that the Bible is ‘inerrant’ the Gospels contain inconsistencies that I am quite unable to harmonize sensibly. I do, however, hold a ‘high’ view of scriptural authority and reliability.4 Accordingly, I am suspicious of many of the more radical conclusions some historical‐critical scholars have been reaching about the Gospels.
1. One of the reasons for my disquiet concerns what appears to be a near axiom of contemporary Gospel scholarship. It can be expressed like this: what we encounter in the Gospels is not Jesus himself (i.e. the actual events as they occurred, say, in AD 29 or 30), but the Christian church's understanding of Jesus, say, in the 70s or 80s or 90s, when these books were receiving final form; ergo, many of the events recorded in these books did not occur as described.
Is this axiom worthy of belief? Well, part of it surely is. I have no difficulty accepting the idea that the Gospels are indeed expressions of the faith of the Christian church and that accordingly we do indeed come into contact there with the consciousness of the church at the time they were written. But what I do not see is how that fact entails that in the Gospels we do not also come into contact with Jesus himself, with events that occurred in AD 29 or 30.
The point can be generalized. In reading any historian's work about any figure or period of history, we do naturally enough come into contact with the consciousness of the historian at the time the work was written. But surely if the historian has done a worthwhile job of writing history, we also come into contact with the person or period written about. I do not wish to be interpreted as claiming that the Gospels are entirely or even primarily works of history. Nevertheless, I believe these books bring us into contact with Jesus himself, that is, with what he said and did.
2. A second reason for my disquiet about some of the more radical conclusions of contemporary New Testament scholarship concerns the unity of the New Testament. Reacting against an almost a priori assumption of biblical unity in the so‐called ‘biblical theology’ movement of a few decades ago, some contemporary biblical scholars seem to me to have gone overboard in the other direction. They seek contradictions in the Bible with inquisitorial zeal; they label as laughably unsophisticated any attempt at harmonization of two apparently inconsistent texts; one sometimes feels it is considered almost uncouth to use a text, for example, from the fourth Gospel to illuminate a Pauline text, or vice versa; and it seems to be assumed that there is almost no such thing as ‘the New Testament view’ of this or that.(p.102)
The issue of biblical unity and disunity becomes relevant to my concerns in this chapter at the point of the contemporary insistence that many christologies exist in the New Testament. It is now frequently held that the New Testament contains many competing and mutually inconsistent interpretations of Jesus, that harmonization is impossible, and that accordingly no one orthodox biblical christology is normative for all believers.
Once again (in my opinion), some of this is right and some is wrong. Surely there are different christological emphases in various New Testament texts, and facile harmonization should be avoided because it can cause us to miss the richness and variety of christology in the New Testament. We need to respect the differences among the portraits and interpretations of Jesus. However, I believe that the various interpretations are mutually consistent, are best seen as related insights that developed about Jesus among different persons and communities, and are best expressed in terms of the classical doctrine of the incarnation. It is, I think, a telling fact that many theologians from the second century (e.g. Ignatius) onward, most of whom were presumably not obtuse, were sufficiently impressed by the unity of the various New Testament pictures of Jesus to claim strongly that they can be synthesized in the notion of incarnation.
Furthermore, it seems to me evident that what might be called a ‘New Testament picture of Jesus’ does exist. Despite differences of emphasis, all the New Testament texts seem to agree on various crucial points about Jesus. As Arthur Wainwright has convincingly argued, the Gospels agree (a) that Jesus is uniquely related to God; (b) that Jesus is the unique revealer of God; (c) that Jesus is Saviour; (d) that Jesus has certain personal characteristics (e.g. strength of purpose, compassion, obedience to God); (e) that Jesus is teacher; and (f) that Jesus is identical with the risen Christ.5
3. A third reason for my disquiet about some of the conclusions of contemporary New Testament scholarship concerns the life of Jesus. A rough and fuzzy, but nevertheless real, consensus about the life of Jesus seems to emerge among the more radical New Testament scholars. Here are the main facts many of them would claim we can know about Jesus: he was a first‐century Palestinian Jew from Nazareth who conducted a ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing; he became a public figure; under the influence of Jewish apocalyptic thinking he preached the kingdom of God and came into conflict with leading Jewish groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees; though ministering mainly in Galilee, he eventually came to Jerusalem, where he was arrested, tried, and crucified; some time later his disciples began preaching that he had been raised from the dead and was alive.(p.103)
I have no difficulty accepting that these are facts; I am quite prepared to do so. My difficulty comes in seeing how anybody can claim that this is all (or almost all) that we can know about Jesus. I have never been able to understand how these minimum facts can be sufficient to explain the existence of the Christian church and the traditions about Jesus that we find in the New Testament and in the early church. Why, for example, would anyone hold that the relatively innocuous figure described here was God incarnate? Surely scholars are rationally obligated to posit a ‘life of Jesus’ that would go at least some way towards explaining why the church so quickly arrived at notions such as sinlessness, pre‐existence, divine sonship, and unity with God. Surely more needs to be said about Jesus than what is said in the consensus just described.
4. A fourth reason for my disquiet follows immediately from the third. It concerns the intense speculation about the sources of and influences on New Testament christology. Some scholars seem strongly committed to the assumption that Jesus was an entirely human figure and that notions such as pre‐existence and divinity were arrived at years later through a long and complicated quasi‐evolutionary process primarily involving embellishments in the tradition due to the influence of other cultures and religions. A mere Jewish prophetic teacher who was deeply committed to God eventually became a pre‐existent being, ontologically one with God.
The minimum point to be made here is that those who argue for some such scenario have yet to make a compelling case. Despite the best efforts of certain scholars to find pre‐Christian parallels to and influences on the classical doctrine (and some such efforts surely merit high marks for imaginativeness), no assured parallels and influences have been found. Even if parallels were located, the assumption of extensive pagan syncretistic influence on pre‐Pauline christology seems to me implausible in the extreme.
Keep in mind that I am trying to criticize not the current state of New Testament scholarship on christology but its extremes. One need only read some of the attempts to explain how the church so quickly arrived at the high christology of the kenosis hymn (Phil. 2: 5–11) or at Johannine Christology—attempts written by people unprepared to accept those christologies—to grasp my point. Some scholars do indeed point to the influence that other religions or religious movements had on early Christians in order to solve this mystery, do they not?6(p.104)
The stronger point, however, is that nowhere in the New Testament or in any of the sources or layers of tradition that supposedly antedate and influence it has any scholar discovered a purely human Jesus. Scholars such as C. F. D. Moule, Martin Hengel, N. T. Wright, and others have convincingly argued that even the most elevated christological notions are very old indeed. Hengel, for example, argued that the title ‘Son of God’, understood in a theologically robust way (and not just as a term applied to Israel's kings and other exalted men), was applied to Jesus between AD 30 and 50.7 Moule argued that some of the ‘highest’ christology in the New Testament is present, either explicitly or by implication, in the Pauline epistles, the earliest datable documents in the New Testament.8
5. A fifth reason for my disquiet concerns the frequently made claim that the early Christians were quite blasé about the facts of Jesus' life; what they were interested in was not history but proclaiming the kerygma; the only facts about Jesus that were preserved were those that furthered the evangelistic, liturgical, or apologetic ends of the church. But this assumption seems to me both a priori improbable and irreconcilable with the evidence. It is a priori improbable because the people who believed in Jesus, or were being encouraged to believe in Jesus, would naturally have been quite curious about what he said and did. It is irreconcilable with the obvious and intense interest the early church had in writing gospels, especially in writing detailed Passion narratives. The four Gospels record all manner of items about Jesus that seem, as far as I can tell, unrelated to the needs and language of the church in the second half of the first century. Jesus, for instance, regularly spoke of himself as the ‘Son of Man’. But early Christians found that title too puzzling to be of much use in communicating their message about him across the Mediterranean world. They proclaimed him rather as the Christ, Lord, and only Son of God.
For these five reasons (and others), I do not share the scepticism that some New Testament scholars today exhibit towards the Gospels. I accept as accurate the basic New Testament picture of Jesus; the documents are faith statements, to be sure, but reliable nonetheless. My method, then, both in this chapter and elsewhere, is to trust the Gospels as reliable witnesses to Jesus except in instances in which there is compelling reason not to do so.
Why would God choose to become incarnate in human flesh? What was the purpose of the incarnation? My own view is that there were three main purposes. First, the incarnation was designed definitively to show us what God is like, especially that God is loving and works for our redemption. Secondly, the incarnation was designed to make it possible for us to come to know God; apart from Jesus Christ, I would claim, people can have only a hazy knowledge of God. Thirdly, the incarnation was designed to defeat all the forces in the world that are God's enemies—forces such as sin, death, suffering, and despair. (I do not claim it would have been impossible for God to have accomplished these ends in any other way than through incarnation. I do claim that incarnation is the route that God chose in order to accomplish them.)
‘God became man’—that is the doctrine. If so, the incarnation means first that Jesus Christ is a person—a real, living, human person. Jesus Christ is not an idea, an ideal, an emanation from God, a divine influence, a principle, a lifestyle, or an ethical system. These notions are ruled out because what God became was a human being (‘and the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1: 14) ).
If God became a human being, then we have here the decisive ruling out of all forms of Docetism. Jesus Christ was a man. He had a human body; he got hungry and thirsty and tired (John 4: 6); he was tempted (Matt. 4: 1–11; Heb. 4: 15); he wept when a friend died (John 11: 35); he was not omniscient, expressing at one time ignorance of who had touched his garment (Mark 5: 30) and at another time of the date of the Parousia (Mark 13: 32); lastly, he died (Mark 15: 36).
But if it is God who became a human being, then we also have here the decisive ruling out of all Arianism. Jesus was a man, but not a mere man, not a man simpliciter, not even an exalted man. He was a man who was also God. (Arius himself would have denied that Jesus was merely human; nevertheless, I will use the term ‘Arianism’ to mean views that deny the full divinity of Christ.) But why would anybody want to claim such a bizarre thing as this? Why would anybody want to say Jesus was God incarnate? As a general answer to these questions, Moule said: ‘the impact made by Jesus on his own and the next generation was such as precludes an estimate of him as no more than a man.’9 I agree with this sentiment and wish now to explore what characteristics of Jesus might have led his contemporaries and near contemporaries to such an assessment.
Although I will discuss the matter more thoroughly in Chapter 9, here I will briefly cite four reasons that I believe convinced many such people that Jesus was the divine Son of God.10 Accepting the Gospel accounts, as I nearly always do, I also find them convincing. Doubtless, none is a strict proof, but all seem to me strong indications.
(p.106) First, Jesus assumed for himself the divine prerogative of forgiving sins (see Mark 2: 5, 10; Luke 7: 48). All of us as moral agents own the prerogative to forgive sins that have been committed against us, but only God (or God incarnate) can forgive sins tout court.11
Secondly, the intimate, almost blasphemous way Jesus addressed God (often translated ‘Abba! Father!’—something perhaps analogous to the English expression ‘Papa’) indicates at least a uniquely close relationship to God. I suspect the amazement caused by this novel form of address was the reason the church remembered and recorded it.
Thirdly, Jesus spoke ‘with authority,’ not citing sources or precedents or famous sages. He spoke, not as if he were speaking on behalf of God (he did not say ‘Thus says the Lord’), but as if he were God, delivering the truth to human beings. I think it highly significant that Jesus assumed for himself the authority to reinterpret and even overrule the Old Testament law (see Matt. 5: 21–48; Mark 2: 23–8), again something no mere human being could have done.
Fourthly, Jesus claimed to be divine, and his earliest interpreters accepted that claim. I recognize that it is a commonplace of much contemporary New Testament scholarship that the historical Jesus (as opposed to the Jesus of the Gospels) said remarkably little about himself—what he spoke about (so it is said) was not himself, but about God. Apart from an a priori assumption that Jesus simply could not have said such things, I see no rational way of ruling out as inauthentic Jesus' claim to be ‘the Christ, the Son of the Blessed’ (Mark 14: 61–2), which the high priest took to be blasphemy. I will explore this point more thoroughly in Chapter 9. But apart from an ideology that says that no such strong statements can be authentic, I see no good reason to deny the authenticity of these sorts of statements. Notice also such typical Pauline affirmations of Jesus' robust divine sonship and incarnation as Romans 1: 3–4; 8: 3; Galatians 4: 4; 1 Thessalonians 1: 10.
(p.107) Does the New Testament actually teach that Jesus was God incarnate? Frances Young (in an early essay) and Don Cupitt have said no.12 They admit that it teaches Jesus' divine sonship, pre‐existence, nearness to God, mission from God, and eschatological return as judge; Jesus is God's chosen agent, a transcendent human being—but not God incarnate. Surely these two scholars are being contentious. Where in the New Testament do we find the claim that Jesus is (merely) ‘a transcendent human being’? Although few people want to claim that Jesus went about saying ‘I am God’ (and I surely do not claim he did so), there are places in the New Testament where Jesus' status as God incarnate is evidently being affirmed, for example, John 1: 1, 18; 20: 28, 31; Philippians 2: 6–7; Colossians 1: 15–19; 2: 9; 1 John 5: 20.13 (Depending on how one solves the textual problem, Heb. 1: 8 might be included; and depending on how one solves the grammatical problem, Titus 2: 13 might be included.)
Furthermore, I argue that the best way for God's aims in the incarnation (already discussed) to be achieved would be for Jesus to be ‘fully divine and fully human’. First, why should Jesus have been ‘fully human’? For the following reasons: (1) Pure God in our midst would only dazzle and frighten us; we would not understand what God wanted to show us or say to us unless God were at least partially veiled, incognito (Exodus 33: 20). (2) God wanted to declare as fully as possible his love for us and solidarity with us; the incarnation means that our fate is intimately (rather than remotely) tied to God; because he was fully involved and immersed in human weakness, Jesus Christ can empathize with us and be our redeemer (Heb. 2: 17–18; 5: 2; 4: 15). (3) God cannot die. Accordingly, Docetism in any form is unacceptable.
Secondly, why should Jesus have to be ‘fully divine’? There are three reasons which, when taken together as a kind of cumulative case, answer this question. (1) We human beings are incapable of saving ourselves. If we are to be reconciled to God, God must do the reconciling. (2) We human beings cannot defeat death. If death is to be overcome (along with God's other enemies), God must do the overcoming. (3) If Jesus were a mere human being, he would in the end amount to nothing more than a great religious hero or genius (p.108) among all the others. Like all prophets, he would be fallible. There is in my opinion no compelling reason to believe or follow one guru rather than another apart from purely subjective ones (‘My guru speaks to me; your guru leaves me cold’). Some gurus of course speak the truth, but even they teach truth that is not intimately connected to their person or personal authority. Even the opponents of incarnation recognize that if Jesus is God incarnate there is a non‐gainsayable finality about him and his path to God. Accordingly, denial of the incarnation of Jesus is unacceptable.
1. I promised earlier to mention the deepest reservation I have about all forms of minimal christology. Minimal christology would be a perfectly acceptable theological option, in my opinion, if Christianity were at heart an ethical system and if the Pelagian notion that we can save ourselves by hard spiritual effort were true. But Christianity is not primarily an ethical system. It involves an ethic, to be sure. But at heart it is a set of beliefs and deeds that form our feeble response to a surprising and quite undeserved act of infinite love that God has performed on our behalf.
We are not able to save ourselves, no matter how hard we try. The Protestant Reformers were quite correct on that point. We are in bondage, and the Jesus of minimal christology is anything but the (or even a) redeemer from bondage. Of course we do desperately need spiritual teachers these days, and we do desperately need supreme examples of openness to God; minimal christology provides both. Yet in truth we need far more than this: we do not need a guru, but we need a saviour. The classical doctrine of the incarnation, recognizing as it does that Christianity is a religion of grace, provides this. That is to me the deepest reason why it should be preferred to all versions of minimal christology.
2. John Hick said: ‘If Christ was (literally rather than metaphorically) God incarnate, it would seem clear that the religion which he founded must be intended to supersede all other religions.’14 Here Hick is surely correct. If the classical doctrine is correct, then doubtless Jesus is, after all, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (John 14: 6), and doubtless it is true that ‘there is (p.109) salvation in no one else’ (Acts 4: 12). The incarnation is of cosmic rather than local significance, in my view; any human being who is reconciled to God is reconciled through Christ. One of the main objections global theologians have to absolutistic interpretations of Christianity is that these interpretations imply that non‐Christians are ‘outside the sphere of salvation’. That of course does not follow. The view that no non‐Christian can be saved is not taught in the Bible (people like Abraham, Hagar, and Jeremiah were hardly Christians); few Christians of even a conservative persuasion hold it; nor do I hold it.15
Christianity is a metaphysical and theological system, not a set of discrete gems of heavy spiritual wisdom from which we can pick and choose. (The same can be said, I suspect, about most of the other religions of the world.) So the emerging discipline known as global theology is, in my opinion, untoward. To attempt a syncretistic amalgamation of the ‘best insights’ of various equally valid and valuable religious systems is ill‐advised.
3. In the New Testament a strong connection is made between Jesus' status as Son of God and his resurrection from the dead (see Rom. 1: 3–4.). We live in a world in which messiahs, gurus, and holy people proliferate. In such a world, how can we know whom to believe? Which messiah is the true Messiah? Paul's answer (through Luke) to the Athenian philosophers was that Jesus is the man whom God has appointed and ‘of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead’ (Acts 17: 31). Many messiahs have commanding personalities. Many gurus are full of spiritual wisdom. Many holy people recommend noble lifestyles. But none of them has been resurrected from the dead.16
Of course Jesus is not the only person ever to have been raised from the dead. Others (Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus) are mentioned in the Bible. Such stories appear in other religions too, and perhaps some of them are true. I am willing to believe that God performs miracles in other contexts than the Christian context. But these raisings were of an entirely different character from Jesus'. These people were restored to their former earthly life; they were resuscitated. Jesus was transformed into what Paul calls a glorified body. He was raised never to die again. He lives today. He was resurrected. In my opinion, Jesus is the only person in the history of the world ever to have been resurrected from the dead.
(p.110) If Jesus had not been raised, Christianity would not exist today. He would have ended up a fine teacher of religion and ethic—like Socrates or Gandhi, perhaps—but not the Saviour of the world. I believe the resurrection was God's way of pointing at Jesus and saying: He is the one you are to believe. He is the Saviour. He is Lord.17 The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a graphic way for God to repeat what the villagers of Sychar had said about him: ‘This is indeed the Savior of the world.’18
(1) I do not claim that all contemporary minimal christologists accept all six of these points or even that any one minimal christologist accepts all of them exactly as stated. Naturally, each minimal christology has its own themes and emphases and differs from the others in striking ways.
(2) John Hick, ‘Is There a Doctrine of the Incarnation?’, in Michael Goulder (ed.), Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979) (hereinafter Incarnation and Myth), p. 48.
(5) Arthur Wainwright, Beyond Biblical Criticism: Encountering Jesus in Scripture (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1960), pp. 22–33.
(6) A remarkable example of this sort of effort, but not by any means the only one, is Michael Goulder's second essay in John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 64–86.
(7) Martin Hengel, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish–Hellenistic Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), pp. 2, 10. See also Martin Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul: Studies in the Earliest History of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), p. 31.
(8) Charles Moule, ‘Three Points of Conflict in the Christological Debate’, in Incarnation and Myth (n. 2 above) p. 137. See also C. F. D. Moule, The Origin of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 207.
(9) Charles Moule, ‘A Comment’, in Incarnation and Myth (n. 2 above), p. 149.
(10) I will not cite as reasons the facts (so I consider them) that Jesus performed miracles, predicted the future, and was raised from the dead. These are important considerations, but the other reasons I will cite are more compelling.
(11) The situation is slightly more nuanced than this. Christians believe, for example, that God granted the church the right to forgive sins (John 20: 22–3), although I understand this as the right confidently to declare that God has forgiven a sin that has sincerely been confessed and repented of.
(12) Don Cupitt, ‘Professor Stanton on Incarnational Language in the New Testament’, in Incarnation and Myth (n. 2 above), pp. 167–8; and Frances Young, ‘The Finality of Christ’, in Incarnation and Myth (n. 2 above), p. 179.
(13) Since the title ‘Son of God’ appears in some of the texts I have just cited, I should point out that there are many places, especially in the Old Testament, where this term is a title for a king of Israel or some other exalted personage and has nothing to do with any notion of incarnation. When the title is applied to Jesus in the New Testament, however, it is often perfectly clear that something much more theologically robust is intended. This is in part revealed by the use of the terms ‘only Son of God’ or ‘only begotten Son of God’ (John 1: 18; 3: 18).
(14) John Hick, ‘A Response to Hebblethwaite’, in Incarnation and Myth (n. 2 above), p. 194.
(16) The resurrection is not a rigorous proof of the incarnation. God could cause a mere human to be not merely resuscitated but resurrected. But Christians have always taken the resurrection as a kind of vindication of Jesus, a sign rather than a proof of the truth of Christian claims about him.
(18) I would like to thank Thomas V. Morris and John Schneider for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.