He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
The church has become uncertain of Jesus, even uncomfortable with him. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) the issue has surfaced whether Jesus is Savior, or whether God alone is Savior. Is Jesus the means of salvation for all humanity, Christians or otherwise? Or is he simply an expression of salvation, one among other possible expressions? The Christian gospel differs most radically from all other religions in the doctrine of the Incarnation. Yet it also seems true that the church is scandalized by the Incarnation no less than the world is.
Believers inevitably experience anguish whenever the church reopens the question of the significance of Jesus Christ. We instinctually sense that the foundation of salvation is in trouble. And it is. If the history of the church teaches us anything, however, it teaches that the foundation of salvation is endangered in every generation.
A History of Embarrassment
Church history is sadly replete with a tendency to forsake Christ—often with subtle theological sophistication. I am not thinking only of the great Christological heresies of the second through fourth centuries, in which every conceivable option to the dogma of the full humanity and full deity of Jesus Christ was advanced and entertained. Those controversies exposed a tendency in the early church that has remained to the present, even if subsequent expressions of it are less dramatic than Athanasius's battle with the Arians.
Many medieval theologians replaced Christ with the church and its alliance with Western culture known as "Christendom." During the Reformation, Luther and Calvin sought to emancipate the gospel of the saving efficacy of Jesus Christ from its captivity to an ecclesiastical system and a corrupt papacy that substituted relics and works for Christ and the gospel. The radical reformers, in turn, accused these "magisterial" Reformers of subordinating Christ and the gospel to other cultural icons.
Think of the experiments to prove God's existence and derive knowledge of God via philosophical argumentation, including the ontological, cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments. Not one of the traditional arguments for the existence of God mentions Jesus Christ. Think of the hardening of Protestant orthodoxies in the centuries following the Reformation: many seemed to believe that Sabbath observance or abstaining from alcoholic beverages was more important than what one knew, believed, and proclaimed about Jesus Christ.
Think of the debate over evolution that has pitted science and Christianity against one another for nearly two centuries now. Is it not remarkable that nearly all disputants in this debate neglect the existence of Jesus Christ?
Think of the modern dialogue between Christianity and other religions. The first article of the gospel compromised or surrendered is inevitably the Incarnation, in order to make Christianity appear more compatible with other faiths. Think of the mantra of 19th-century liberalism—"the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man"—and its conspicuous omission of Jesus Christ from the saving equation. Think of the historical research on Jesus extending from the Enlightenment to the Jesus Seminar: its philosophical presuppositions render Jesus a mere mortal like one of us. Think of issues like prayer in public schools or abortion. The church has attempted to engage secular culture with arguments of natural law or freedom of religion or divine command theory, but with little or no reflection on the significance of the Incarnation for such issues.
I mention these few examples as a reminder that our crisis is not unique. The church has a long history of discomfort with Christ. Jesus may have been rejected by Jews and crucified by Romans, but according to all four Gospels, he was first denied and abandoned by his own disciples—all of them. History requires a sad admission: Nowhere is Jesus more scandalous than among believers and in the church.
A Shifting Center
If this is so, what is the particular face or expression of our Christological crisis today? I suggest that we are witnessing a shift in the theological center from a theology of redemption to a theology of creation. We are shifting away from a theology of God's redemptive acts and promises in history to a theology of the state of things in their natural order as being the rightful and final expression of God's will. The final word of the new theology is not what God can do and wills to do in the gospel, but what God has done in creation.
Along with the shift from Christology to creation is a shift away from the doctrines of sin and repentance, which according to the preaching of the Cross are indispensable for receiving new life in Christ. The new theology often assumes that what is is essentially good. The paradigm shift changes the theological proclamation of the church from a call to transformation according to the image of Jesus Christ to one of affirmation of who I am as I am. The proclamation of the saving grace of the gospel has usually been expressed in transitive verbs of change—believe, turn, repent, follow. The new theology is couched in intransitive verbs of affirmation—being and becoming.
We are, in short, witnessing a shift from a theology of transcendence to a theology of immanence. Statements that are putatively about God are said to be statements about humanity, human community, and creation. The high theology "from above" is being replaced by a reductionist theology "from below" that has strong affinities in Deism and Unitarianism. The new theology is essentially one of solipsism, which believes that the one thing worth living and dying for is the self.
We Western Christians are undergoing an unavoidable and uncertain passage. For the first time since the pre-Constantinian era, Western Christians are no longer speaking from the center of the culture but from its margins. And we are speaking to a culture that in many respects has been inoculated against the gospel. Such changes are making new demands—and promise to make many more—on the way we conceive of the relationship between the gospel and our culture. Our new circumstances are making us aware that the proclamation and defense of the gospel rest upon the shoulders of each generation.
We are now in the season of Epiphany. According to the church calendar, Epiphany celebrates the appearance of God in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a time to reflect in new ways on the meaning of Jesus Christ for us and our desperate world.
The maneuvering of Christ to the margins of our culture—and to the margins of many of our churches—may diminish the status of Christianity. At the same time, it also puts believers in a position to experience the transforming power of the gospel in new ways, for the gospel is most empowered when it is least encumbered.
The gospel entered the world in such circumstances, in the appearance of a baby in a feed trough on the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire. In this respect, we stand closer to the first Christians than to many generations before us. May we, like them, experience in the gospel of Christ crucified, the wisdom and power of God, and may we, also like them, be enabled to proclaim it to the rulers of this age who are perishing.
James R. Edwards, professor of religion at Whitworth College, is author of The Gospel According to Mark (Eerdmans, 2002).
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
James R. Edwards's book, The Divine Intruder: When God Breaks into Your Life, is available on Christianbook.com.
Previous Christianity Today pieces written by Edwards include:
A Unity Not of Our MakingWe should question some denominations' refrains of unity in diversity. (August 10, 2001)
Jesus Wasn't a PluralistWhen I debate defenders of homosexuality, I am often accused of being exclusive in a way that Jesus wasn't. (April 5, 1999)
At the CrossroadsThe battle for a denomination's soul. (August 11, 1997)
Previous In The Word articles include:
How Excellent Are Thy NamesWhat God invites us to call him says volumes about his relationship to us. (Oct. 30, 2001)
The Grim ShepherdHe visits every living thing, but those with understanding need not be afraid. (Oct. 24, 2000)
Stony the Road We TrodGod will hold us up and keep us safe, despite the times we've tripped. (July 19, 2000)
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