Jesus Feels Your Pain
If non-Western critics are right, American Christians have a skewed view of Jesus. Asian and African American theologians have consistently emphasized the suffering, compassion, and humiliation of Jesus—not just on the cross but in all stages of his earthly life and ministry. Most Americans, on the other hand, like our Jesus triumphant and our Christianity muscular.
Since the "muscular Christianity" movement of the 19th century, preachers from Billy Sunday to modern pulpiteers have favored a Jesus with (in Mark Driscoll's phrasing) "callused hands and big biceps." Sure, we acknowledge that Jesus suffered on the cross for our sins. But we struggle to express how Christ stands in solidarity with the destitute, diseased, and disenfranchised because we fixate on the glorified Lord and forget the suffering Savior.
Because of this, claims one Japanese theologian, "Christianity in the West has become an anomaly." But perhaps it's no wonder. Theological traditions in the Protestant West have plenty to say about Christus victor—the triumphant Christ—but little to say about Christus dolor—the grief-stricken Christ. Is the American theological tradition deficient in its view of Jesus?
Richard J. Mouw and Douglas A. Sweeney aim to answer this question in The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward a More Compassionate Christology (Baker Academic). Mouw (former president of Fuller Seminary) and Sweeney (a professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) have taken the criticisms of their non-European colleagues to heart. They have mined their own traditions (Sweeney's Lutheranism and Mouw's Calvinism) for resources that articulate a more compassionate understanding of Christ, who stands with the marginalized.
Mouw and Sweeney lead readers on a brisk walk through 19th-century American theologians that typify Reformed thinking during that era. Some of them, like Charles Hodge and Sojourner Truth, are familiar figures. Others are more obscure. Taken together, they demonstrate that the Reformation traditions can in fact speak meaningfully about God's association, through Christ, with the marginalized.
Reformed theology of the era tended to emphasize sin and conversion as the linchpins of Christian faith while deemphasizing other doctrines. A few theologians, though, were recovering the importance of the Incarnation. John Williamson Nevin, a Princeton seminarian and member of the German Reformed Church, championed the Incarnation as the "true measure and test" of Christianity. He insisted that through it, God identified with suffering humans and that he maintains this solidarity today, even after the resurrection and glorification of Christ. Explained the right way, the Incarnation helps us discuss God's companionship with the weak.
A generation later, Franz Pieper, a Prussian immigrant and later president of the Germanic Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, argued that because Jesus suffered, God himself also suffered. This did not please Calvinists. Reformed thinkers preferred to emphasize the distinction between Christ's two natures, to the point of suggesting that sometimes Jesus operated from his divine nature, and at other times operated from his human nature. Even so, Pieper faithfully recovered an important Lutheran conviction. Martin Luther had said that Christ's divine and human natures were so completely united in the Incarnation that "Mary suckles God with her breasts, bathes God, rocks him, and carries him; furthermore, that Pilate and Herod crucified and killed God." Pieper presented "a passionate God who truly makes himself available to finite, fallen sinners, drawing near to those who seek him in their distress."