Jesus and the early church

There is no completely unambiguous use of the title “God” for Jesus in the NT (John 20:28 is the nearest; Rom. 9:5 and Titus 2:13 present considerable problems of translation and interpretation). However, it is clear that, within 20 years of the crucifixion (i.e. by the time Paul was writing 1 Cor.), there were Christian communities accustomed to thinking of Jesus as embodying the action of God towards the world, God’s “power” and “wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:24). By the end of the 1st century C.E., when the gospel of John was probably written, Jesus could be seen as the one in whom dwelt the creative and mediating logos of God, the divine mind and purpose, the one upon whom the glory of God’s tangible presence permanently rested. Jesus has become for believers what the temple was to Israel, the place where God is met, but is also the visible form of the power that makes the world. Both Paul and John suggest that, because Jesus is experienced as inaugurating a new age, a new creation, because he bestows on the believer a new identity in which human life is no longer bound and limited by a past of moral failure and staleness, or self-deceit and spiritual blindness, the history of Jesus is completely continuous with the infinite resource of divine life which brings all things into reality. Just as in the Jewish scriptures, especially the Psalms and Isa. 40-55, the exodus and the return from exile are seen as images of the creation itself, so now is the formation of the new human race through the history of Jesus. The difference is that here the creative act of God is bound up with a single human story as never before and that the scale of the restoration and renewal expands all the time towards the limits of the human world, including all men and women equally. It is inevitable that Jesus, as the one who enacts the saving action of God, should, like the God of Israel, be called Lord and should be seen as the touchstone by which all human events are to be judged, the one who possesses “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18).

Yet this is only part of the picture. Jesus possesses supreme authority but does not simply stand in the place of the God of Israel. He prays to this God as “Father”, “Abba”, and interprets his mission and destiny as the fleshing-out of a purpose not his own. His authority is inseparably interwoven with a loving dependence upon the one he worships, a steady “obedience” – i.e. he allows the pressure of God’s love for the world to mould his human identity without interruption. Particularly in John’s gospel, Jesus is presented simultaneously as entirely and sovereignly free – and as doing nothing from his own human initiative alone. It is this paradox in the way the figure of Jesus is understood in the NT (cf. Phil. 2) that prompts the development of a technical theological account of his person and a new Trinitarian conception of God.* If Jesus’ life is entirely moulded by the loving will of God, it makes sense to say that it is that loving will “made flesh” (see incarnation ), that there is no obstacle in Jesus to God’s action in renewing the face of the earth.

But the life of Jesus, as we have seen, does not simply express the outgoing action of God but is also a loving response to God. So the conclusion is slowly drawn that the very life of God – if it is this which is expressed in the life of Jesus – involves both the outgoing, generative, creative element and the product or issue of that outgoing in the form of total and perfect response, reflection back of the love given. God comes to be conceived as both “Father” and “Son”. In the doctrinal controversies of the 4th century, out of which the Nicene Creed* emerged, the crucial point established was that God is never to be thought of as a solitary individual: God is eternally in relation and so eternally open to the “other”. It is because God is thus that there is no problem about God’s will to create: although this is a free action, it is rooted in the divine life itself, whose nature is to generate in love and to generate love. Because of the relation of Father and Son, creation* has access to a share in this movement of creative love: creatures can also be creators. This theme, set forth classically by Athanasius in the mid-4th century, is what lies behind the Eastern Christian understanding of salvation* as theosis , sharing in God’s life.

Jesus and salvation

The confession of Jesus Christ as God must therefore, if it is to be faithful to the NT witness, involve the belief that through Jesus the renewal of the whole human race has become possible and that all human beings may find in Jesus the good news of their absolution and liberation; through Jesus, all have access to the life he lives, the life of liberty and creativity founded upon complete openness to the divine will for the salvation of women and men. In other words, to confess Jesus as God is to presuppose something about the radical character of the salvation he brings – the “new creation” – and to be committed to the new human race, without barriers of race, sex and status, which has begun to exist as a result of his life, death and resurrection. Bonhoeffer was certainly right in insisting that it is impossible to confess Christ as God and Saviour while refusing to be committed to the hope of an integrated, reconciled humanity: the Christological confession poses clear and sharp questions to our political and social loyalties, to our partial and distorted models of human community.

Remembering Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 12:3, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”, we may conclude that to know Jesus as “Lord”, to acknowledge him as the Creator and final Judge of the new humanity, and as the one who opens for us the way to a share in the freedom of the Creator, is to live in or by the power of God’s Spirit. God is “Father” and “Son” but is equally that agency which draws us into the relation between the eternal creative source and the eternal creative response – that which realizes in us the possibility established in the history of Jesus Christ and in the coming-to-be of a community committed to Jesus Christ.

Often in the history of theology, the salvation brought by Christ has been analyzed and theorized about without reference to the witness and work of the Spirit. Some have tended to think (as a superficial reading of certain early Christian writers might suggest) that salvation occurs because God, in becoming flesh, transforms human nature by the mere fact of contact with it. Others have stressed that the cross of Jesus alone brings about our redemption,* as a sacrifice or an expiation for our sin, and have refined and developed the language of Paul and the letter to the Hebrews about atonement through sacrifice. Both themes have a significant place in Christian theology. It is essential to see Christ as God’s way of pledging absolute faithfulness to our “cause”, God’s identification with the need and agony of human beings. Salvation does involve a transformation of our situation by God’s contact with it. No less is it essential to see the death of Christ as pivotal to the process. Only in the cross do we see clearly the depth of our unfreedom, the way in which our moral, religious and political systems of power fear and reject the life God offers, and strive to obliterate the threatening hope of conversion. Only here do we see the cost of our slavery to ourselves and protection of ourselves. To say, as Christians have consistently said, that the cross is God’s bearing of this cost may be a metaphor, but it is an untranslatable and irreplaceable one.

However, neither of these themes alone will carry the full weight of what the Bible understands as salvation. For this we need a doctrine of the work of the Spirit actively forming Christ’s likeness in us, ceaselessly bringing us to conversion and hope.

We cannot speak of Jesus as God without speaking of him as Saviour; but equally we cannot speak of him as God without speaking of the God he calls Father, and we cannot speak of him as Saviour without speaking of the life in us of God as Spirit. This point is made with admirable clarity in the 1979 document from the Klingenthal consultation on the filioque:* “We are ‘christified’, ‘made christs’, in the church by the indwelling in us of the Holy Spirit, who communicates the very life of Christ to us, who in Christ makes us the brothers and sisters of Christ, and strengthens us in our new condition as the adopted children of the Heavenly Father.”

The Chalcedonian schism

In the early centuries of the church, Christology proved to be a deeply divisive force at least as much as it was a unifying one. The classic definition at Chalcedon* in 451 of the inseparable co-existence in Jesus of full divinity and full humanity looked back on what was already a complex history of controversy and was itself to fuel further division. The churches that refused Chalcedon did so because some believed it to compromise the necessary distinction between divine and human nature, while others saw it as over-emphasizing the disjunction between the divine Word and the human Jesus.

The 20th century saw great advances in overcoming the ancient schism. Representatives of Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches (esp. those of the so-called monophysite tradition – a misleading label – in Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Ethiopia and India) have had candid, fruitful conversations; recent popes have issued joint statements of faith with leaders of the non-Chalcedonian churches (e.g. the joint declaration of Pope John Paul II and the Syrian Orthodox patriarch of Antioch in 1984). There is a growing recognition that terminological confusion and misunderstanding, as well as political and ethnic rivalries, have long embittered what is at heart a disagreement in idiom and emphasis within a common faith. Non-Chalcedonians have played an active role in the work of F&O, not least in the recent studies towards an ecumenical explication of the apostolic faith as confessed in the Nicene Creed (381) (the sub-title of the 1991 study document Confessing the One Faith ). These studies have made it clear that a Christology firmly anchored in Trinitarian belief, grounded in a careful, critical and imaginative reading of scripture, and oriented towards the priorities of mission and of proclaiming a shared hope for the human world, remains the fundamental inspiration and critique of all ecumenical endeavour. Such an emphasis has increasingly dominated reflection on the doctrine of Christ outside the European and North American context.

Jesus Christ in non-Western theologies

As with all theological topics, the doctrine of Christ has largely been explored and developed by theologians from a particular social and cultural world, that of Western Europe and its North American offshoots. Recent years have witnessed the rapid development of theologies whose priorities and criteria do not depend in the same way on a Western tradition moulded by classical Hellenism and the medieval cultural synthesis (what Bernard Lonergan called the world of “classical” thought in the widest sense). Christology is now being written from the standpoint of newer Christian communities, or Christian communities that have only recently discovered a voice of their own, and the insights coming from this burgeoning world of fresh reflection have put some serious questions to aspects of “traditional” Christological thinking in the North Atlantic intellectual world. Asia, Africa and Latin America are all developing distinctive styles of Christological thought, in response to the pressures of being Christian in these diverse environments. What it means to have the life of Christ communicated to us and, indeed, what the divinity of Christ means in terms of critically available images of God in a particular cultural context are matters not to be resolved by easy abstractions and generalizations.

Asia. Perhaps the longest tradition of trying to express Christological convictions in non-Western language and thought-forms is to be found in India. Since the middle of the 19th century, a variety of Indian Christian writers have attempted to re-conceive the doctrine of the Trinity in terms of the classical Hindu threefold formula for the absolute: saccid-ananda , i.e. sat (being), cit (consciousness) and -ananda (bliss). In this perspective, the second person of the Trinity becomes the divine as active and communicative, the exemplar of creation, and, in the remarkable phrase of Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-84), “the journeying God”. Jesus is the absolute turned towards relation and love, made particular in the world so as to become the first moment of a new creation in which human beings are enabled to overcome the cycles of karma (the determinism of moral cause and effect, the round of expiation requiring re-birth again and again until the effects of the past are neutralized). These themes are very common in Indian theologians of the later 19th and early- to-mid-20th centuries (Brahmabandhav Up-adhy-aya, Pandippedi Chenchiah, etc.); they are sometimes combined with a stress on Jesus’ self-emptying, so that he becomes without ego, a “universal person” to whom all without exception can relate (Chandra Sen, V. Chakkarai).

This appropriation of classical Hindu metaphysical and mystical categories, reaching its most sophisticated form perhaps in the early writings of Raymond Panikkar, has not been the only Indian response to Christ. Some Indian Christians (Sundar Singh, A.J. Appasamy) have preferred to underline the native tradition of Bhakti, devotion to a personal “lord”, as the entry point for Christian insight. Without necessarily denying the identification of Christ with the relational form of the divine usually referred to as Isvara , they concentrate on how that relational form generates individual love and devotion in the believer. There is a rich and little-known heritage of poetry in several Indian languages, especially Tamil and Marathi, expressing this approach, concentrating on the saving work of Jesus, and strongly reminiscent of both Western evangelical piety and the passionate religious poetry addressed in various Indian languages to Krishna or Siva.

More recently, however, Indian writers have become conscious of the difficulties implicit in an approach which privileges either the speculative religion of the higher caste groups or the individualized piety of devotional circles, in a country of acute social divisions and inequality. M.M. Thomas, one of the greatest of Indian Christian writers and a formidably important figure in the history of the WCC, produced an influential book on The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance (1970), pointing out that Hindu reformers had seen in Christ a stimulus towards the critique of classical Hinduism, a vision of the just social order, even a challenge to the idea of a sacrally validated society. Hindu culture itself is not as static as some Indian speculative theologians seemed to assume. For the first time, Thomas argues, India is discovering a critical dynamic in its life, a sense of the imperative to make history;* the Jesus who creates a new historical community of human beings in unrestricted fellowship, a new humanity, is the Jesus who must now be preached in India. The interest of some earlier writers in Jesus as Second Adam, as the beginning of the new creation and as the one whose ego does not stand in the way of any other person’s full humanity, is here given a more directly political focus. Thomas’s work, prolonged in his own Risking Christ for Christ’s Sake (1987), has been of the first importance in preparing the way for a “liberation” Christology in India, and for engagement not simply with the philosophy of a Hindu elite but with the images, hopes, stories and songs of the working people of India in their search for a fuller humanity. The work of Roman Catholic theologians such as Samuel Rayan and Sebastian Kappen has, in recent years, extended this theme in a dialogue with both popular religions and Marxism.

Elsewhere in Asia , distinctively Christological developments have been less in evidence. The minjung theology* of Korea has moved a little in this direction, identifying the oppressed and marginal peoples of today with those with whom Jesus identified in his ministry; so that the minjung, the marginal and despised classes, become, like the friends of Jesus, an eschatological people, the bearers of God’s ultimate distance from and repudiation of worldly power. In this perspective, Jesus becomes not only the fellow

sufferer but also the fool, the “clown”, wholly free from anxiety about status and dignity, knowing the (divine) truth that God laughs the powerful to scorn. More than one Japanese theologian (Kazo Kitamori, Kosuke Koyama) has found that a theology of the cross, a theology of divine passion and suffering, is a neces-sary critical tool in confronting both Western abstraction in theology and a Budd- hism one-sidedly concerned with overcoming rather than transforming history. Koyama has written of the need to keep Buddhism and Christianity in a close and balanced interaction as two responses to human violence and acquisitiveness – the moment of distance and detachment and the moment of creative and vulnerable engagement, nei- ther making sense without the other. The crucified Jesus once again acts as a challenge to notions of human power and security.

The encounter with Buddhism has gone further still in the work of Aloysius Pieris, a Sri Lankan Jesuit, who has written of “Buddhology” and “Christology” as complementary ways of identifying a particular human being with the non-worldly power of liberation. Both are “crystallizations” of liberating praxis, understood as the movement into the world of final truthfulness and freedom (God for the Christian, the dharma for the Buddhist). Buddhist “gnosis” and Christian agape are both the ways of the divine in the world, and only in mutual relation can they be fully themselves. Pieris’s approach has much in common with some of the Indian approaches outlined earlier but is more definitely pluralist in its implications.

Africa. African theology as a whole is still in a fairly inchoate condition, though developing rapidly; it will likely have some very distinctive questions to put to classic formulations from the point of view of a world-picture dominated by a spirituality of creation , of continuities with the natural order and with the human past. Gabriel Setiloane, writing from a South African perspective, notes that incarnational language presents few difficulties in a culture for which possession of a human subject by divine spirit is a readily accessible notion; the difficulty comes in understanding what is unique about this. Setiloane gives a hint at an answer in drawing attention to the Sotho-Tswana concept of “flowering” or “coming into vision” (like the sun rising) as a possible “carrier” for traditional doctrinal approaches to conversion in the African context. Jesus’ status would be defined, in this perspective, as that of the bringer of a corporate “flowering” of the human family in its new unity and communion. Earlier African theologies had debated the question of how far traditional African language about the status and authority of the tribal chief could be used to describe the position of Jesus. An initial enthusiasm for this possibility gave way to caution about borrowing an uncriticized model of political power which in fact carried associations of remoteness in many contexts.

John Pobee of Ghana suggested a middle way, using the Akan idea of the royal spokesman as a metaphor for the role of Christ. It is important to preserve the positive aspects of the imagery of the chief – as the one who connects the living and the dead, as the one whose word is wholly to be relied on, as the community’s priest – while both maintaining the difference between Jesus as the “speaker” and mediator and the real chief, the High God, and also developing a theology of the cross which insists that the metaphor of chiefship, like every other metaphor, stands under the judgment of the sacrificial death of Jesus.

Both African writers mentioned here are at best ambivalent about the doctrine of a Trinitarian sharing of the divine substance; the African context seems to assimilate more readily a narrative pattern focused on Jesus’ relation to the Father, who delegates to him the power of conserving the community and freeing its members from evil and alienation.

Latin America. The liberation theology of Latin America has proved particularly resourceful in the exploration of Christology. Heavy emphasis has been laid upon the humanity of Jesus as the keystone of a theology of liberation; however, this stress is meant not as a denial but as a re-locating of classic confessions of his divinity. Leonardo Boff has presented this relocation in terms of seeing Christ’s divinity in the freedom and the universal accessibility of his humanity. Because the human being Jesus takes his stand beyond the slaveries of history to speak for and from the “utopian” position of God’s justice and love for all, he stands in judgment upon the whole of history. Because he offers himself as the focus for an unrestricted human fellowship, he is bound by no local constraint. As the one who proclaims the possibility of a worldwide exodus from unfreedom and oppression, he is outside the realm of the merely human. And from the side of God, it can be said that Jesus has and communicates this freedom by virtue of realizing completely the human potential for communion with God; his life, death and resurrection show that to be thus given into God’s hands without reserve is to be given to the human world without reserve, and so to be the place where all may meet – once they have abandoned their struggles for dominance or privilege. Jesus’ self-gift to the Father is of immediate political significance because it is creative of a different social network.

Jon Sobrino shares with Boff the concern to present Jesus as the paradigm of faith as well as its creator and its object; he has linked this understanding with a new and challenging exegesis of the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola, the foundational text for Jesuit spirituality. His contention is that the following of Jesus along the way presented by the gospel narrative is to move from seeing this following as dictated by a logic independent of Jesus (Jesus as a way to arrive in a kingdom whose nature and promise are already known from elsewhere) to grasping that Jesus is to be followed even when there is no correspondence to what we think the kingdom should be. This attitude means following Jesus to the “failure” of the cross; walking in the way of justice, exposed to the power of oppression, even where there is no tangible hope of what we would consider a successful outcome. Doing this, Sobrino argues, is what it means to confess Jesus as Lord and God; it is a praxis which, by putting the following of Christ and the search for the kingdom above and beyond all refutation and undermining by history, sets Jesus himself above the vicissitudes of this world’s present order, and so places him with God. Orthodoxy lies in this kind of commitment to the justice of God, to the kingdom, to Jesus crucified.

Latin American theology has also been involved in examining the images of Christ available in its culture. The “official” faces of Christ tend to be either the Man of Sorrows, expressing the helplessness of the sufferer, or the glorified heavenly Monarch. Neither of these provides a vehicle for hope. To do that, an image of Christ must somehow articulate the way in which, because of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, human pain is now taken up into the story of God’s struggle with human rebellion and alienation, our alienation from our own humanity. Hugo Assmann has argued that practically all images of Christ, like all formulas about Christ, turn a process into a substantive state of affairs; when this happens, the inevitable corruption sets in of identifying the rule of Christ with the prevailing administration of human power, and we lose sight of Christ as the permanent “counter-power”. Cross and resurrection must be kept inseparably together in their dialectical relation within the human story of the struggle for humanization – which is the story God has made his story.

Liberation Christologies have generally understood the belief in Jesus’ divinity to be intelligible only through commitment to the authority of Jesus in social practice. They have thus – without necessarily wanting to deny or set aside the traditional creeds and formulations of faith – drawn our attention back to the origins of Christological confession in the simple acceptance of Jesus as authorized to define the shape of one’s human hope and effort, Jesus as judge and prophet. The divinity of Jesus is shown rather than defined, shown in the radicalism of this commitment. Although many liberationists are heavily influenced by a residually liberal conviction about the “natural” utopian aspirations of human beings and hold to a theological anthropology still marked by the influence of writers such as Karl Rahner, their central direction is towards a more austere and cross-centred account of the cost of discipleship.


n R. Boyd, An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology , Madras, CLS, 1969 n A.C. Cochrane, The Church’s Confession under Hitler , Philadelphia, Westminster, 1962 n Confessing the One Faith: An Ecumenical Explication of the Apostolic Faith As It Is Confessed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) , WCC, 1991 n P. Gregorios, W.H. Lazareth & N.A. Nissiotis eds, Does Chalcedon Divide or Unite? Towards Convergence in Orthodox Christology , WCC, 1981 n K. Kitamore, Theology of the Pain of God , Richmond VA, John Knox, 1965 n K. Koyama, No Handle on the Cross , London, SCM Press, 1977 n W.H. Lazareth ed., The Lord of Life: Theological Explorations of the Theme Jesus Christ – the Life of the World , WCC, 1983 n J. Míguez Bonino, Faces of Jesus: Latin American Christologies , Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1984 n G. O’Collins, Christology: A Biblical, Historical and Systematic Study of Jesus , Oxford, Oxford UP, 1995 n K.H. Ohlig, Fundamentalchristologie: Im Spannungsfeld von Christentum und Kultur , Munich, Kösel, 1986 n A. Pieris, An Asian Theology of Liberation , Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1988 n J. Pobee, Toward an African Theology , Nashville TN, Abingdon, 1979 n R.J. Schreiter ed., Faces of Jesus in Africa , Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1991 n J. Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroad: A Latin American Approach , Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1978 n R.S. Sugirtharajah ed., Asian Faces of Jesus , Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1993 n M.M. Thomas, The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance , Madras, CLS, 1970 n L. Vischer ed., Spirit of God – Spirit of Christ , WCC, 1981.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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