Christology and History

Ted Grimsrud

[Sermon preached at Eugene (Oregon) Mennonite Church, July 30, 1989—the second of a two-part series; the first part is here.]

I have more to say about christology. In my comments this morning, I will focus on how our understanding of history, of historical events and how we think of those events. That is, how does our view of history affect our approach to christology, our approach to how we understand the implications of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and how we understand interpretations of those implications since then?

Why the historical aspect of christology matters

It is an important characteristic of Christianity that it is a historical religion in the sense that it is based on historical events not myths, thought the symbolic aspect is always intertwined. Christianity asserts that what happens in human history is very important. The major act bringing about salvation, according to Christians, is the work of Jesus of Nazareth, a person in history – his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. And for Christians, the effects of salvation are historical too, not an escape from history. Christians look to a transformed world within history, or as the end of history, not to some Nirvana or personality-less bliss totally removed from history.

Because, as I said, the major act of salvation from Christianity, Jesus’ work, occurs in history, we must conclude then that christology is also closely tied to history. The heart of christology is interpretation of the historical events surrounding what Jesus did and what happened to him. In addition, the development of christological interpretations since the time of Jesus (creeds, confessions, systematic theologies, and so on) all also happened in history. No christology, no interpretation of Jesus, happens in a timeless way separate from the historical context in which it occurred.

For example, both in the case of Jesus’s time and in the case of following doctrinal development, historical social and political issues played a central role even in the theology itself. We cannot really understand what happened with Jesus and how it was interpreted in New Testament times apart from understanding something about the history of the revolutionary political ferment among first-century Jews, the responses of Christians to this later in the first century, and the overarching reality of the Roman Empire. As well, in another example, political concerns in fourth-century Rome, governed by the first so-called Christian emperor, Constantine, greatly affected the formulation of the first great christological creed, the Nicene Creed. So, history has a lot to do with christology.

Two distinct approaches

However, there are different ways history and christology are seen to be related. I think looking at how some of these differences might be expressed can help us better to understand different approaches to Christology in general. For the sake of discussion, I want to develop two distinct approaches. Please recognize that these are artificial; they are ideal types. I am not trying accurately to reflect any particular theological point of view as much as simply set a framework for discussion.

For lack of better terms, I will call these two attitudes upper case-C Christology and lower case-c christology. Lower case-c christology has primarily to do with reflecting on the events and ideas surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, reflecting on the experience in life of those who knew him then and those who have had some experiential knowledge of him since then, and the application of all that to life and thought in the present. Upper case-c Christology has to do with formal, systematic formulations of doctrines and creeds about what is often terms “the person and work of Christ.” Lower case-c christology focuses more on the story of Jesus and experience in life. Upper case-C Christology focuses more on abstract ideas, the intellectual realm, beliefs, doctrines, and church authority structures.

In terms of how these two approaches view history, we may generalize as follows. For Upper-case C Christology, Christology has to do with timeless, absolute Truth. The goal of theology is to interpret this once-for-call-time-given material found in the Bible and early Creeds, to understand this material and submit to its unchallengable authority. Different generations might vary a bit in their interpretations depending on place and context. But the basic message remains the same. Our job is not to question it nearly so much as it is to be subject to it.

In this context, then, history has to do with Facts surrounding the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Did miracles literally happen or not? Are the Gospels historically accurate or not? Crucial issues that are used to define orthodoxy relate to these Facts. Do you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? If so, you are in and if not you are out. If, like orthodoxy, you accept as historically accurate the Gospel accounts of Jesus literally multiplying the bread and fishes, you are all right. If, like William Barclay, you argue that Jesus’ “miracle” was to convince those people in the crowd who had bread, to share it with those who did not, you are highly suspect…. Theology here does not focus on meaning so much as on Facts. Either Jesus did it like it says or he did not – and that is what really matters.

I can remember many years ago attending a theology conference for lay people in upstate New York. Upon arriving, a bit early, I met another young man who seemed nice enough. We had barely introduced ourselves when he began asking me if I accepted the inerrancy, the perfect errorlessness, of the Bible. He was very concerned about the speakers because he suspected that they might not, at least in a rigorous enough way. And he felt that if they did not, that would render everything they said questionable and to be doubted. I saw him several times as the conference went on in discussions with others – always, it seemed, about inerrancy.

The historical significance of the Bible, then, is primarily seen in terms of the accuracy of its data. Do these accounts tell us the story exactly as it happened or not?

Lower case-c christology talks about history in a very different way. Christology comes from below; it emerges out of human experience in history – rather than coming from above, from timeless truths that come directly from God. This human experience always is specific to a certain time and place. Certainly, the way things happen and the way people think in different times and places often are parallel. Human life does not vary all that much. However, Jesus lived and died as a human being at a certain time and in a certain place. Although that life and death have universal significance, they cannot fully be understood apart from understanding that time and place. This need to take context seriously is equally true of all theology since then.

The Gospels were written by historically bound theologians who were part of specific faith communities, each with its own specific concerns and objectives. The Creeds emerged in specific geographical settings, were written in specific languages, by people with specific cultural biases and specific political commitments.

In other words, for this approach, history as it touches on christology, has to do with the social and historical context of Jesus’ time, of each time and place where theology has been done since then, and with our time and place. The point is not so much the facts as it is the meaning, in each context, and then how that meaning translates into our context.

Hence, lower case-c christology is not concerned with finding once-for-all absolutely truthful doctrines. Such would be seen, by definition, to be not possible really because all doctrinal formulation is done by people in history, which in some sense relativizes it all. The job of theology is not so much to discover and apply already existing absolutes. Rather, it is to find new interpretations that synthesize past theology with fresh looks at the Jesus materials and with each new historical context the theologian finds oneself in.

The example of the virgin birth

Looking at the virgin birth can help illustrate the differences between these two approaches. For upper case-C Christology, the focus is on the facticity of the virgin birth. Did it literally happen or not? The importance of this doctrine lies in the fact that this is a major miracle. Belief in the virgin birth reveals whether or not the interpreter believes in the miraculous. Adherence to this doctrine indicates one’s certainty of the truthfulness of every jot and tittle of the Bible. If Matthew’s account of the virgin birth reflects a mere legend, then how do we know whether or not his account of the resurrection also reflects a mere legend? How do we know if his account of the Sermon on the Mount come from Jesus or not?

In the theological tradition, the virgin birth also has come to be connected with a belief in the separation between the world of the flesh and the world of the Spirit, especially as it relates to Jesus’ deity. This doctrine is important for emphasizing that Jesus was truly God since he did not have a human father. He could not be God and have totally human parentage. A bit of an anti-sex notion sometimes enters here as well. If Jesus was the product of a mundane sex act, how could he then be God?

Lower case-c christology, in considering the virgin birth, focuses on the historical context of the Gospel accounts. What would this idea of a virgin birth have meant then? Why would this tradition have been carried on and reported by Luke and Matthew? Possible answers to these questions include the notion of the integral involvement of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus from the start, including his very conception.

Given all the wonderful things Jesus did and his obviously powerful connection with God, it would have been natural to find explanations for that power that look back as far as his birth. That the Holy Spirit caused Mary to be pregnant with him is a partial explanation for Jesus’s lifetime of great power from God. This understanding turns the focus to Jesus and what he did in life, in history. So, then we ask what about this life would have led people to understand him to have been virgin born. This life then becomes central; the virgin birth tradition is another way to illumine the significance of that life. The virgin birth is then seen as a vindication of Jesus’ greatness – and the crucial theological point then becomes that greatness, not the literal historicity of the event.

For people of Jesus’ time, the mere occurrence of an extraordinary event – what we would call today a miracle – in itself had little theological significance. All people believed in extraordinary events. So, one would expect to find the original significance of the virgin birth elsewhere than with the simple fact that it was an extraordinary event. The point, rather, would be that it was an extraordinary event that emphasizes how great his life was. Later developments in the history of Christianity would then be seen as helping to explain why the virgin birth came to be seen as so important on its own terms. As noted above, at least in part these had to do with the rise of the Greek-influenced belief in the separation of the physical and spiritual realms and with the emergence of anti-sex attitudes.

Two different languages: Mutual critiques

In many ways, these two approaches are speaking different languages. Again, recognizing that I am constructing artificial types for the sake of discussion and not trying with great accuracy to outline any one theologian’s perspective, I will say a bit about how each might critique the other.

Upper case-C Christology sees lower case-c christology as being relativistic. It assumes that God’s truth by definition must come to us in terms of absolutes that transcend history. Thus, this perspective sees the talk in lower case-c christology of all theology being historically conditioned as being essentially an admission that we can receive no word from God, that therefore anything goes, and we can believe whatever we want. How can we hope to determine real truth without absolutes that everyone must agree to if they but have an open heart to recognize and submit to them?

Lower case-c christology is seen as hopelessly weak, with its talk of changing interpretations to fit new situations, with its recognition of the validity of different perspectives, with its focus more on conversation and reflection than on strongly presenting the Truth.

As well, lower case-c christology is seen to be works-centered with its focus on the ethical implications of Jesus’ life and teachings more than on the personal salvation brought by his death and resurrection.

And finally, lower case-c christology seems at least implicitly if not explicitly to flat deny the historicity of Gospel accounts. In talking about the Virgin Birth as a “tradition,” in trying to discern reasons for its inclusion in the Gospels, these people are simply implying that it does not matter whether it actually happened – or worse, they might be saying that since it did not happen how can we find another explanation for it.

From the other side, lower case-c christology sees upper case-C Christology as distorting the original intent of christology. This happens by elevating minor things such as historical literalness and minimizing what was central to Jesus – that is, discipleship, following after him, as crucial to the ability to know anything worthwhile about him.

Upper case-C Christology is tainted by its historical association with power politics. Much of it has been formulated by church leaders closely connected with emperors, kings, and the like and at times has been used as a tool for the political suppression of undesirable, heretical elements in a given society.

Upper case-C Christology, by making historical facts and absolute doctrines so central, is seen as blinding people to their own existence as historical beings. If theology is seen to exist outside history as something unaffected by culture and social context – and if this is the best kind of truth, the most real thing, then does it not follow that our own responsibilities to act in our contexts and to see our reality as real, does not our connectedness to our world get minimized? Then we tend to seek for an escape, for a truer reality than the one we have.

Ending with many questions

This discussion leaves us with many questions. Assuming my analysis is at least partly accurate, can these two points of view co-exist in a single denomination? Is it possible to find a way mutually to respect such different approaches? How can any kind of common language be found?

With regard to christology and history, how important do you think the historicity of the Gospel accounts is for formulating christology? Can we talk about the historical contingency of all theology (including the Bible’s) without becoming total relativists? What kind of political commitments would these two approaches seem to lead toward? Are they inevitable?

What about the perspective that would say that it is only in the context of our involvement in present day, historical communities of faith that we can have access to a real connection with the past historical communities of faith that produced christological reflections – including the New Testament itself?

[Ted Grimsrud’s collected sermons]

1 thought on “Christology and History

  1. Pingback: Christology: What It is and Why It Matters | Peace Theology

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