The supernatural Christ of the creeds has been relegated to the dustbin of superstition.
A mid the sweeping changes in recent theology, one landmark stands superficially intact: Christendom acknowledges Jesus as its fundamental datum. No little confusion exists, however, about Jesus’ identity and character. How should naturalistic, modern man interpret the first-century itinerant prophet? Dietrich Bonhoeffer during his Nazi imprisonment put it this way: “What is bothering me incessantly is the question … who Christ really is, for us today.”
Jesus himself posed this question to his followers near Caesarea Philippi: “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13). Numerous views on this were advanced; Peter alone perceived that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).
From Pentecost to comparatively recent times, Peter’s confession of Christ was upheld as the church’s standard of orthodoxy. The councils of Nicea (A.D. 325) and Chalcedon (A.D. 451) affirmed Christ’s full deity and humanity cojoined in the God-Man. The great pillars of Christendom—Augustine, Aquinas, the Protestant Reformers—and the principal confessions of Protestantism all came down on the side of the received Christology.
The eighteenth century, however, brought a frontal assault on orthodox doctrine. Renaissance humanism in philosophy and science invited theologians to accept only those phenomena they could observe in nature. Following the theological Enlightenment, the supernatural Christ of the creeds and confessions was relegated to the dustbin of superstition and ignorance. The traditional concept of “true God, true man” was deemed an absurdity. Since then, modern Christologies have emerged that tend to produce an impoverished Christ. We will assess six of them here.
1. The mythical approach. This began in the nineteenth century with the idealism of Kant and Hegel. Assuming the a priori impossibility of the supernatural, theologians in this tradition insisted that the New Testament Christ existed merely as an idea or ideal in the minds of Jesus’ disciples. This gave way to a more sophisticated approach. Imposed upon the simple carpenter of Nazareth, assert the followers of Bultmann, are mythical accounts of a preexistent deity who became incarnate, overcame demons, rose from the dead, and who will return to earth to subdue evil powers. “Modern men take it for granted,” said Bultmann, “that the course of nature and history … is nowhere interrupted by the intervention of supernatural powers.”
Oxford scholar John Macquarrie freely employs the myth motif to assess Jesus Christ. He argues that the biblical writers sought to express Jesus’ divinity by transposing aspects of his history into the framework of Greek mythology. He holds that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration, resurrection, and ascension “are partly historical, partly legendary, partly mythical.”
Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufman likewise insists that Christ’s preexistence, incarnation, virgin birth, and atoning work are “fantastic mythological notions.” Embedded in the myth, however, is the truth that God was profoundly present with the man Jesus.
While the older rationalists sought to eliminate the deity of Christ by exegetical means, today’s naturalists do so by regarding the New Testament documents as mythical. Evangelicals, however, approach Scripture with no anti-supernaturalist illusions. The Lord who created the universe by the word of his power also became man in Jesus of Nazareth. No room exists in Scripture or history for those who exclude God from a mechanically conceived universe. Contemporary psychic and occult phenomenia confirm that the cozy, predictable world of the closed system is open to challenge.
2. The existentialist approach. This view tries to interpret the alleged myths in Scripture in terms of human possibilities and decisions. For example, Bultmann argues that to speculate about Jesus’ deity is improper, but to focus on “self-examination and radical consideration of the nature of one’s own existence” is legitimate for modern man.
John Knox likewise insists that myth is a vehicle to express the concrete meaning of our existence. The traditional concepts of Christ’s “humanity” and “divinity” answer “not to ideas or thoughts about him, but to the church’s experience of him.” In a similar vein, R. M. Grant feels that the essence of Christology is not Christ but human existence. Titles that ascribe deity to Jesus—“Alpha and Omega,” “Lord,” “King”—simply express his unusual dignity. When the New Testament alludes to Christ as God, argues Grant, it upholds “the supreme meaningfulness of Christ in relation to human existence.”
J. A. T. Robinson’s viewpoint is similar. The myths surrounding the man Jesus must be expounded in terms of the new realities of human experience. The myth of the resurrection signifies for Robinson the new possibility of life in the spirit, and the myth of the ascension asserts “Christ’s ascendency in all the processes … that shape the lives of groups and individuals.” The bishop’s banality emerges when he demythologizes the parousia myth to “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
To reduce the objective reality of God down to mere aids for self-understanding allows man to be the measure of all things. Evangelicals do not deny that Christ helps us to understand ourselves better. What they do dispute is that Jesus Christ can be adequately represented solely in terms of human experience.
3. The dialectical approach. This postulates that everything is contrary to something else, that no statement can be considered apart from its opposite. Since every theological statement is partial, divine truths cannot be captured in a single, timelessly valid, propositional statement. Tillich defined the dialectical method as “the way of seeking for truth … from different points of view, through a ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ until a ‘Yes’ has been reached which is hardened in the fire of many ‘No’s’ and which unites the elements of truth promoted in the discussion.”
Karl Barth used the dialectical method to speak of the infinite and ineffable God who transcends rational comprehension. In Romans, Barth declares that finite man cannot know anything of the infinite world; therefore Jesus as the Christ can be comprehended only as “Problem” or “Paradox.”
In his earlier dogmatic work, Christliche Dogmatik, Barth developed more systematically his understanding of “God and man in the Person of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.” He writes: “To eliminate the word ‘and’ and speak of ‘God-man,’ or he who would make out of Jesus Christ one name Jesus-Christ, is to depart from dialectical theology.” Because Jesus Christ is the revelation of the majestic and terrible God, the union of God and man in human flesh is a logical impossibility. So Barth explains this impossibility, not by a static creed but by an irreconcilable dialectic, with ineffable deity on one side and ordinary humanity on the other.
Emil Brunner also insists that theology must be dialectical to portray the true paradox of the gospel. Only patently contradictory statements express the paradox that God became man in Christ. He sees the doctrine of the Two Natures and of the Trinity as “logical absurdities … [that] express the inconceivable miracle of revelation.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Vincent Taylor also make use of the dialectical method. “It might be thought,” states Taylor, an English Methodist, “that in using restraint in speaking of the deity of Christ, we are robbing Him of his true deity; but so far from doing this, we are enhancing it.”
The rationalist views the doctrine of the human-divine Christ as a logical impossibility. But the dialectician prefers to hold in tension the “antithetic” concepts of humanity and deity in Christ. Orthodoxy, however, insists that the special revelation of God is consistent and coherent rather than contradictory. Through analogies meaningful to human beings, God communicates truthful, noncontradictory knowledge as he himself perceives it. Since Scripture faithfully reflects God’s knowledge, we can know truly what God has disclosed concerning his Son.
4. The functional approach. This view claims that Christ can be known only indirectly through the effects of his work. Functionalists insist that “action” is more important than “being.” Thus contemporary liberal theology is more concerned with the events in Jesus’ life than with his person; close scrutiny of Jesus’ deeds would be a return to the biblical perspective.
Oscar Cullmann typifies this viewpoint: “When it is asked in the New Testament ‘Who is Christ?’, the question never means exclusively, or even primarily, ‘What is his nature?’, but first of all, ‘What is his function?’.” More pointedly, Cullmann declares that “Jesus himself is what he does.”
In a similar vein Norman Pittenger argues that the central question of Christology can only be “What was God doing in Christ?” Theologians have spent too much time focusing on Jesus’ “natures.” We are on safer ground, Pittenger asserts, in claiming that Jesus’ “divinity” corresponds to “God’s act in the manhood of the one who dwelt in Palestine.” Later the church coined the phrase “diety of Christ” to express its belief that Jesus was the special vehicle of God’s activity.
In The Human Face of God, J. A. T. Robinson readily identifies with the functional way of representing reality: “The Christ is the one who does what God does, who represents him. He stands in the place of God, speaking and acting for him. The issue is not where he comes from or what he is made of. He is not a divine or semi-divine being who comes from the other side. He is a human raised up from among his brethren to be the instrument of God’s decisive work.” Robinson maintains that this view of Christ is faithful to the dynamic Hebraic concept of God. Functionally Jesus was “divine,” but essentially he was not.
Those who hold that “God is what he does” admit that they know nothing about the nature of the Being who acts. Who is this Otherness? One of God’s greatest acts was his self-disclosure through the Incarnate Word.
5. The humanitarian approach. According to this view, Christ’s significance lies in his concern for man’s plight and anguish in the world.
In an attempt to reinterpret faith for a secular age, Bonhoeffer portrayed Christ as the model humanitarian—“the man for others”—transcendent only in his relationship with humanity. By replacing the unanswerable question “How can Christ be both man and God?” with the relevant human question “Who is he?”, Bonhoeffer shifts the focus of Christology to the world and to Christ’s being there for us.
M. M. Thomas, former chairman of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, develops Bonhoeffer’s concept of “the man for others.” Negating the biblical concepts of sin, personal conversion, and the wrath of God, but stressing his secular relevance, Thomas characterizes Jesus as “the New Adam,” “bearer of the New Humanity,” and “the New Creation.” Christ represents the new stage in the natural evolution of man; he is the ideal of what man can and shall become in the utopian progress toward the new order of creation. To follow Jesus in a broken world means to join him in transforming the oppressive power structures that impede the realization of man’s full humanity. Thomas’s caricature of Jesus lends itself to Marxist doctrines of man and society—notions that have become prominent in Thomas’s radical religious humanism.
Black theology’s left wing develops this humanitarian emphasis in a similar radical direction. Emerging black theologians represent Jesus as “the Liberator,” “the Emancipator,” or “the black Messiah” who struggles against the so-called white racist power structure. In an essay entitled “Jesus the Liberator,” James Johnson, Jr., argues that Christians should stop speculating about the person of Christ and unite around Jesus’ teaching—that manifesto of liberation uttered in language “extreme, extravagant, explosive as hand grenades which are tossed into the crowds.” Albert Cleage, a spokesman for black theology, insists that “Jesus was a revolutionary black leader, a Zealot, seeking to lead a black nation to freedom.”
Although the humanitarian emphasis incorporates valid insights, it amounts to upholding Jesus as nothing more than a mere man whom God indwelt in an unusual way. But the humanitarian model is inadequate for the One the church proclaims as Savior. To qualify as Redeemer of mankind, Jesus must be not only a man, but authentically God. As Athanasius put it, nothing created can unite the creature with the Creator.
6. The evolutionary approach. The evolutionist envisages a world in continual flux and development. Process theology builds on this idea of the new coming from the old. In our constantly changing world, lower “levels” of the natural order are ascending to the level of spirit. Process theology’s ultimate reality is not substance, but the dynamic, energizing process itself.
Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin adapted the modern evolutionary vision of the universe in the form of a unique Christ-centered metaphysic. Teilhard’s theory of complexity consciousness postulates that matter relentlessly presses toward higher consciousness levels. The end product of evolutionary gestation would be a super-organism embracing material and immaterial forms in a union of common consciousness whose center is called the “Omega-point.”
Theologically, the goal of this development is the Christification of the cosmos. By a brilliant synthesis of scientific and Christian perspectives, Teilhard concludes that the Omega of science and the Christ of the Bible, as two centers of cosmic convergence, coincide. Since humanity and the cosmos collectively will be perfected in the whole Christ, the Lord who assumed an evolved body is simultaneously the author, the product, and the goal of the evolutionary process.
In his book Christology, a thoroughly eclectic thinker, J. A. T. Robinson, weaves process concepts into his formulation of the person of Christ: “This insistence on Jesus being a genuine product of the process, with all the prehistory of man in his genes, is, I believe, one of the distinctive presuppositions of a twentieth-century Christology.… To be a member of the species homo sapiens includes having genes and chromosomes shaped and transmitted by millions of years of evolution. No one can just become a man out of the blue: a genuine man (as opposed to a replica) can only come out of the process, not into it.” Thus Jesus was not a special creation of God from the heavenly realm, but a man born, bred, and evolved through nature and history.
In pure-blooded form, process theology bows before the idol of scientific evolutionism. Since Jesus is simply a product of the cosmic process, his preexistence, Incarnation, and divinity are exposed to radical reinterpretation.
At the heart of the modern views of Christ is the post-Enlightenment revolt against biblical supernaturalism. John Knox articulated the shift in outlook when he said, “It is impossible, by definition, that God should become a man.” Yet a plain reading of Scripture confirms that at the foundation of the Christian faith is a supernaturalism which refuses to be boxed in by scientific naturalism.
Further, contemporary theology insists that Christ is beyond the reach of human knowing. Since the concepts of “being,” “essence,” and “nature” have been appropriated from Greek philosophy, the traditional two natures category of Chalcedon must be abandoned; no relationship between the Father and the Son can be established on the ontological level.
In response, evangelicals claim that the triune God who acts and who may be existentially encountered is also the God who is. We can know Christ both as Subject and as Object, and possess both practical and theoretical knowledge of God. Unless we have objective knowledge of God, the idea of God lacks all meaning. Unless we can talk cognitively of the God who is there—that is, make statements about Christ’s transcendence, preexistence, and Incarnation—no criteria exist to distinguish Jesus from any other man. Knowing something concrete about Jesus is indispensable to knowing him.
Let us return briefly to Peter’s encounter with Jesus at Caesarea Philippi. In response to Simon’s forthright confession of Jesus as the Anointed Messiah and Son of God, Jesus said, “You did not learn this from mortal man; it was revealed to you by my heavenly Father” (Matt. 16:17, NEB). Our Lord’s retort proves that we can responsibly confess Christ only on the basis of special revelation. From the biblical perspective, the person of Jesus Christ is a spiritual mystery (1 Tim. 3:16). Finite and sinful man cannot of himself unfold the profound reality that God became man in Jesus of Nazareth. Any attempt to explain the mystery of Jesus Christ apart from Scripture will be doomed to failure.
Kant precipitated current developments by suggesting that revelation was inimical to a critical philosophy of religion. When theologians thereafter began to assert that portions of the Bible were factually erroneous, the loss of the biblical Christ inevitably followed.
From a careful reading of Scripture, Christians conclude that Jesus Christ is coequal with the Father in being, purpose, and action, and that he became man at the Incarnation without for a moment ceasing to be God. Assertions about Christ’s essence and nature are inherent in the biblical revelation. John’s Gospel repeatedly identifies Jesus with the self-existent “I AM” of the Old Testament (John 8:24et al.). Jesus’ bold declarations “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:38) imply an ontological unity with the Father.
Paul, who spoke much of the existential character of Christ’s saving benefits, plainly taught that in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:10). Paul’s majestic hymn of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation (Phil. 2:6–11) and his statement that Christ “became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9) point to his preexistent, essential unity with God the Father. Similarly the Epistle to the Hebrews, which thoroughly stresses our Lord’s humanity (Heb. 2:11, 14, 17), asserts also his deity in both functional and ontological categories: “He reflects the glory of God, and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3).
Jesus Christ, the eternally changeless and timelessly relevant Person, should not be relativized to accommodate the ebb and flow of modern secular thought. We must reject the liberal assumption that modern perspectives are an advance over those of the past. Jesus’ response to the contemporary critic might prove similar to his retort to the Pharisees: “You have no idea where I came from or where I am going. You judge by human standards” (John 8:14, NIV). Those who depreciate special revelation and depend upon their own insights have an imperfect understanding of our Lord’s heavenly origin and his earthly task.
Norman Pittenger, an eminently modern scholar, insists that “whether we like it or not, things are different nowadays.” Evangelicals, in contrast, confidently stand with their early Christian brethren who proclaimed their Lord’s humanity, deity, and redemptive work by the acrostic ΙΧΘΥΣ—“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”
G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.
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