Christology: What It is and Why It Matters

Ted Grimsrud

[Sermon preached at Eugene (Oregon) Mennonite Church, July 23, 1989—the first of a two-part series; the second part is here.]

What is Christology and why does it matter? I suppose for most of us most of the time we do not really think much about this question and hence do not really have an answer. But in reading the pages of the Gospel Herald, in observing the discussion near the end of the Pacific Coast Conference meetings last month, and in seeing that our denomination’s general assembly next month will include a conference on Christology having a registration limit of 600 people, a total already reached – obviously many people in our denomination do believe that Christology is very important. And, as many of you know, I believe that too, and last Fall began a long-term research project on Christology. But I am not sure we all think Christology is important for the same reasons.

Mennonite controversies

Last month, at the Pacific Coast Conference annual meeting, Harold Hochstetler gave his annual report as Conference Minister, which included a summary of the ordinations and ministerial licenses that the Conference Leadership Committee approved during the past year. Following his report, as is customary following all of the reports at the meeting, the audience was asked if anyone had any questions. An older man, a long-time leader in the Conference and retired pastor, stood up to express his concern that the Leadership Committee might not be doing its job carefully enough. That is, he expressed concerned that the Conference might be ordaining or licensing people who are not theologically sound. He mentioned two foundational beliefs that he feels are especially crucial: the virgin birth and the deity of Christ.

Harold attempted to respond by explaining the Leadership Committee’s care in approving credentials for ministers. This did not seem to satisfy everyone, however, as his comments were followed by more expressions of concern, this time by a couple of young pastors sharing the basic perspective of the first questioner. I did not talk with any of these people, but I am pretty sure that they have been influenced by an organization called the Fellowship of Concerned Mennonites which for nearly ten years has been arguing very publicly that the Mennonite Church is experiencing a crisis in its theology. This group has focused its concern on the issue of Christology in recent years, especially since the publication of the book Jesus Christ Our Lord: Christology from a Disciple’s Perspective, written by long-time Goshen College professor Norman Kraus and published by Herald Press, the official Mennonite Church publisher. These Concerned Mennonites think Kraus’s book is heretical.

Some of you have perhaps followed this controversy as it has spilled over onto the pages of the Gospel Herald. I mention this not because I believe that the intellectual concerns raised by the Fellowship of Concerned Mennonites are particularly important in themselves. Their real importance lies more in the political arena in some pockets of the church – including our Conference, as I am finding out myself as I go through a fairly agonizing process of being considered for ordination by the Conference Leadership Committee.

The issue of Christology has a great deal of importance in Mennonite churches, and not just, or even primarily, because of the concerns being raised by fundamentalists like the Fellowship of Concerned Mennonites. For them, a major issue is making sure that the church adheres to certain never-changing absolutes. They are seeking to establish controls to make sure these absolutes are followed – controls that have to do with specific code-words and a general worldview that is very rigid and self-certain about truth and good and evil.

For others, such as Norman Kraus, the interest in Christology results from an awareness that as we as a church face the 21st century we need to be constantly working at what it means to be Christ-followers in our day and age. And, among other things, this involves theological reflection and conversation. A chance to think and talk together on some fundamental issues related to this task, which is the main purpose of the Christology study conference next month, has great value. I will be playing a small role in the conference by leading a discussion group on the question of the relation between historical events and belief concerning Christology. Next week I will present some of the thoughts I will share in that context. This morning I want to address the broader issue of Christology in general.

Small-c christology and Capitol-C Christology

As I see it, we can talk about Christology in two senses: what I would call small-c christology and Capital-C Christology. In both cases, christology has to do with reflection, concentrated thought, organizing ideas, finding ways to express the results of the reflection. The term “Christ-ology” literally means the study of Christ.

Small-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. Capital-C Christology has to do with formal, systematic formulations of doctrines and creeds about what is often terms “the person and work of Christ.” Small-c christology focuses more on the story of Jesus and experience in life. Capital-C Christology focuses more on abstract ideas, intellectual speculation, beliefs, doctrines, and church authority structures.

It is of course somewhat artificial to make too strong of a distinction between these two approaches. In all cases, probably, people doing theology incorporate both to a greater or lesser degree. But I do think it is appropriate to speak of different orientations.

In our belief-discussion class last Fall, we looked at the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed in the back of our hymnal. The Apostles’ Creed, which is quite a bit earlier, tends more toward small-c christology, while the Nicene Creed tends more toward Capital-C Christology.

Small-c christology’s focus is more on reflection having to do with Jesus’ life and teaching; it has more to do with direct ramifications for our living. It is more dynamic, makes more allowance for diversity, for leaving things unsettled, for asking new questions, for not blindly accepting old answers. It is less concerned with establishing controls on who is in and who is out. If flows more from what Jesus himself said and did, with what his priorities were – and less from the doctrinal needs of later church councils and other organizations with their institutional concerns. Small-c christology sees theology more in terms addressing specific current needs and less in terms of constructing systems that touch on everything. It is content to leave some issues unaddressed.

Capital-C Christology is much more static. It has the nature of the truth, once and for all delivered. It has little to do with present life except for in the sense that we are responsible to adhere in the present to these past authoritative formulations. As reflected in the Nicene Creed, Capital-C Christology is less concerned with historical human existence, less concerned with Jesus’ life and teaching and more concerned with abstract ideas: Jesus is “begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” This language perhaps can be unpacked, but it is largely unintelligible to most modern-day people, even educated people. What is more, even if one can define and explain these terms, one would be pretty hard pressed to state clearly why they matter for present-day life, nor why these should be “fighting words” over which many “heretics” suffered great persecution and even death.

Capital-C Christology and discipleship

In my research project, I am testing the thesis that Capital-C Christology historically stands in tension with discipleship, that it transforms our experience of Jesus from being one of “following after” into being one of “believing about.” The basic problem with Capital-C Christology is that it removes reflection on the Jesus story from practical living, removing it to a much more isolated intellectual realm. Which is not to say that we do not need to be intellectually rigorous in our reflection. Nor is it to say that the various doctrinal formulations, creeds, and so on which have been formulated are necessarily wrong.

In each of their contexts, they likely had some direct connection with practical life. Certainly, I think the Nicene Creed had a direct connection with the practical realities of the Emperor Constantine’s need to maintain some kind of political order in the Roman Empire. But, of course, this is not the kind of practical connection that most people who confess the centrality of that creed want to claim. However, it is the kind that exists as a reality no matter how much we try to attach some kind of timeless authority to what are always time-bound and politically influenced formulations.

When the doctrinal statements are separated from their historical contexts and made into absolute, once-for-all-time Truth, they cannot help but change our focus from practical living to doctrinalism.

The virgin birth and deity of Christ

I mentioned earlier that during the Pacific Coast Conference meetings, two Christological issues were raised as central by several pastors: the virgin birth and deity of Christ. Making these two doctrines central illustrates some of the problems with Capital-C Christology.

A little over a year ago I was involved in a discussion with some other pastors from our conference about the Mennonite Confession of Faith. One pastor was saying how he felt the confession of faith has to be enforced, it has to be used in a way in which it can impose conformity within the denomination, so that it can provide certainty that all Mennonites are sound theologically, so that it can provide a clear basis for excluding heretics from our churches. The others were not comfortable with that approach, and one states that he thinks the church needs to allow latitude on most issues, only insisting on conformity to the “essentials, like the Virgin Birth.” I appreciated his attempt to allow for flexibility, but I had a hard time with his one example of an “essential.”

The affirmation that Christ was born of a virgin is a fairly late one in the development of New Testament Christology. The earliest Christologies as reflected in various early confessions that are quotes in the New Testament do not refer to the Virgin Birth. Neither does Paul in his letters, which are the oldest documents in the New Testament. The oldest of the Gospels, the Gospel of Mark, also does not mention the virgin birth. It is only with the writing of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, probably at least forty years after Jesus’ death, that the virgin birth is mentioned. And even then, it is not given a lot of importance. No other New Testament documents allude to Jesus being born of a virgin. This point is never central to early Christologies.

Most likely, the belief in Jesus’ virgin birth arose as early Christians reflected on this great savior of theirs and attempted to make sense of that greatness by affirming the power of the Holy Spirit in his whole life from the very beginning, that is, from the time of his actual conception. That is not to say that the virgin birth did not literally happen historically. Rather, I am simply asserting that during New Testament times it was a peripheral idea and likely was a tradition that was unknown to most of the first churches. It was anything but an essential.

However, later on, for various reasons, the virgin birth became a more and more central part of creedal language. What it came to symbolize was not the presence of the Holy Spirit throughout the life of Jesus starting with his birth. What the virgin birth came to symbolize more was a litmus test for belief in literal miracles; it became part of an airtight package where the loosening of one aspect would lead to the collapse of the whole. That is, the virgin birth was seen to be as central to orthodoxy, as central to Christianity itself, as any other theological affirmation. And one could not question the virgin birth then without questioning Christianity as a whole.

The affirmation of the deity of Jesus, that Jesus is God, is an even later development than the virgin birth. The only New Testament document that even approaches this affirmation, the Gospel of John, is one of the latest. And even there, the point seems more to be asserting that Jesus’ bringing of salvation, his teachings and acts, are inextricably connected with God. The focus is on the events and the effects of the events.

However, later on, as we see in the creeds, the focus shifts to essence, being, and similar kinds of static, abstract concepts. The point for John is that God is totally involved in what the man Jesus did and does. The point for later doctrines is that Jesus is of the same essence as the almighty, all-knowing, eternal, unchanging, great God. Again, this marks a shift from practical life to abstract belief with at least part of the effect being that of providing clear grounds for religious and political leaders to exert control, to determine who is in and who is out. And to punish those who are out.

For New Testament christology, and – I believe – for any small-c christology that is concerned more about faithful living than intellectual doctrines, for these the doctrine of the deity of Christ, that Jesus is God, is a secondary issue. It is not unimportant, especially as one works at understanding what God is like and what ultimate reality is like. But what Jesus himself said and did, and how he wants his followers to live – these are at the heart of small-c christology, not speculation about divine essences.

What matters most to us?

In my own thinking, I have begun working at a small-c christology in the following way (again, recognizing that this will leave many issues unaddressed). Initially, I want to consider the question of what we human beings need for a fulfilled existence, for living what we might want to call “the good life,” and then consider how the Jesus story relates to this. These are some of the characteristics I have thought of, largely stemming from my own experience of life.

(1) We need hope that life is worth living and that a “good” life is possible. We need to have goals, ideals, projects, aspirations. And we need to have some hope that these are attainable, at least partially. We can all think of examples of people who give up hope and spiritually wither away. On the other hand, we also all know people – even very old people – who have reasons for getting up in the morning, who are hopeful that they can accomplish something worthwhile with their lives.

(2) We need an experience of integration connecting our ideals, and our practices in life, and our overarching belief system. Ideals can be frustrating and paralyzing if we have no experience of practicing them. We all have some ideals; they are our friends only when they are continually critically examined and then help shape the way we actually live. Ideals are a source of frustration and guilt feelings when they do not. Integration has to do with a sense of harmony with ourselves, contrary to the internal dissonance of feeling one is a hypocrite or constant failure.

(3) We need a language that can explain our ideals (at least partially) and that fits with our practices (again, at least partially). It is important that we understand why we live the way we do and to be able to communicate that with others, even if only primarily in the form of stories and images. The experience of many moral people in present-day North America is one of living morally while lacking an ability to say why or how. Over time, these moral practices themselves will likely wither away. Evangelical “God-talk” has little value; nor does modern-day psycho-talk when it recognizes only the morality of individualistic self-actualization. Our culture teaches us many languages – mostly having to do with material well-being and military “security” – few of which help us live morally good lives.

(4) We need the strength to live according to our ideals. This point certainly ties in with what I have already said. What is adds is the notion that even with a well-balanced understanding of what our ideals are and a clear sense of what we need to do to put them into practice, we still struggle with simply having the power to do so. We need such power. One of the biggest frustrations most people experience is merely that of a sense of powerlessness in the face of our selfishness, our fears and doubts, our experience of social pressure to violate our ideals, and other such hindrances.

(5) We need an awareness that other people share our ideals and also want to practice them, and share our frustrations and hindrances. Practically, we are assisted by the wisdom and insight we can gain from others’ experiences and knowledge. Equally significant is the power that comes simply from having people to walk with. In other words, we need community.

(6) We also need a sense of connectedness with past traditions; people who have gone before us, sharing our ideals, facing problems, struggling to practice their ideals, creating new responses. Too often, modern-day Westerners have become a people without a past. We tend to see tradition as only a restrictive, confining thing. But we are who we are (for good and ill) because of those who have gone before. We are not isolated, self-contained entities but part of a story that began before our time and will continue after we are gone. A creative relationship with our traditions can strengthen and enlighten us as well as allow us the freedom to respond in new ways to new situations. At best, we live in tension with the past. We are restricted by it in some ways. But we cause more problems by rebelling against that than if we accept those restrictions as part of being part of human history and seek to work creatively within them.

(7) Finally, we need some kind of experience of effervescence, worship. Joy, transcendence, or the like. Almost, to talk about this point is to run into difficulty. I do not want to limit this only to an experience with ah wholly (and holy!) Other/God. What we need in this area cannot be prescribed with much specificity. Traditional worship meets this need for many. Others find this kind of empowerment elsewhere. But we all need to know experientially a sense of joy, excitement, transcendence, connectedness to the power of love/life.

I would tend to think of this list of needs/callings/aspirations as somewhat universal among human beings. However, I do not presume to speak beyond my own experience and my own thinking. These are the needs/et al I find central in my life and in the lives of those I am close to. I do not expect to find total fulfillment of any of these – but, hopefully, partial fulfillment is a genuine possibility. This hope would seem to be the activating aspiration that enables us to go on and to find ways to meet these needs.

How Jesus addresses what matters most

I believe we find in Jesus one who can truly help us meet the needs I have just listed. Small-c christology can help us reflect on this. These are some elements of Jesus’ life and teaching that I believe can be helpful for us in our attempts to meet our needs and aspirations:

(1) Jesus is an example of a person who lived an integrated life grounded in love. This example is important because here is an exemplary person who illustrates human life as it is meant to be lived. We learn from that example and gain awareness into how an integrated life can be lived. We also gain inspiration simply in knowing that it has been done.

(2) Jesus, in his teaching, offers the insight of a person whose keen vision uncovers the barriers, false idols, ill motives, posturing that inhibit life and love. Certainly, Jesus’ teachings need to be understood in the context of his time and they address realities of that time. He (or, at least, his “recorders”) did say things that are hard to accept, difficult to understand, or hopelessly obscure. While these hard sayings may actually yield great insight as we wrestle with them, much of the rest of his teaching is clear enough. Our difficulty with most of Jesus’ teaching lies in our desire and/or ability to follow what we do understand.

(3) Jesus reflects and models a connectedness with God and Tradition that is creative and life-giving. Jesus did not reject his Jewish tradition. But his relationship with it was creative. He focused on the elements that fit his purposes, ignoring and at times repudiating the elements that hindered his work. And, his God was no static, other-worldly entity; his God was not a wrathful judge requiring a fearful and rote obedience that stifles creativity and in the long run leads to moral paralysis and human retributiveness and violence. Jesus’ God was dynamic, loving, merciful, and most concerned with creative, mutual relationships with and between free people.

(4) Jesus is a model of a certain kind of power and response to evil, brokenness, and violence. As such, his way provides possibilities for creative responses to present-day evil, brokenness, and violence. Thus, life according to moral values becomes more of a possibility. Jesus was a liver and a giver of hope – for those who can accept his response (the Cross and what led to it) to evil, brokenness, and violence. He gives hope to those who see the cross as a constructive and ultimately powerful response.

(5) Jesus, through the resurrection but also through his life, provides a promise of power over death. In his acceptance of a sudden and violent death as a genuine possibility for one who lived like he did, in his overcoming the fear of death, in his own rejection of the possibility of taking others’ lives violently, in his trust that Love would survive and continue its work after his death, Jesus points to a life free of terror from death – which is great freedom.

(6) And lastly, Jesus, through his practice in life and the on-going work of his Spirit, established a community for strength and encouragement in the moral living of his followers, a place where through mutual care and respect we find others to walk with.

Why christology is so important

In conclusion, I would like to state more specifically why I think christology matters. A christology that is connected with the original Jesus story, a christology that takes into account on-going reflection on the Jesus story and the attempts throughout history by people to live faithfully in light of that story, a christology that with open eyes looks at present realities, needs, and aspirations, such a christology when formulated in clear, accessible terminology, can be invaluable in helping provide a moral language for people of faith. Such a christology can help us to name our fears, to name the goods and the evils that we experience, to name what we are responsible to and for and what we hope for and are empowered by.

Ultimately, such a christology matters because it can help connect us with God’s power. It can help us to have clarity in perceiving that some kinds of power exist that are life-denying and some that are life-affirming. And it can help us choose the latter; it can help us choose life. Such a Christology can actually help connect us with its subject, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet, the savior, who shows us God and who lives on, loving us and calling on us, strengthening us, so that we too might know love, embrace love, be in life-giving relationships with God, with Jesus, and with people around us.

[Ted Grimsrud’s collected sermons]

1 thought on “Christology: What It is and Why It Matters

  1. Pingback: Christology and History | Peace Theology

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