The Person of Christ
The famous account in Mark’s Gospel (8:27-30) tells of Jesus traveling with his disciples after a time of healing and proclaiming the good news. People are marveling at this great prophet. So are the disciples. Who are people saying I am? Jesus asked the disciples. John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” This remains the big question. Who do we say that he is? Who is that guy?
Who is that guy?
We could answer the question in line with much of Christian tradition. Who is that guy? He is God incarnate. He is the one whose perfect sacrifice saves us from sin—and who was without sin himself. He is all-powerful and mighty. That is, he’s anything but human and his actual life has little to do with how we answer this question of who he is.
I want to suggest a somewhat different answer. Who is that guy? Let me propose this: Jesus Christ is a human being, just as human as we are, who lived among us and in that life showed us how God wants all human beings to live. For Christians, “that guy” should be our central guide for discerning our theological convictions.
The doctrine of Jesus Christ
Often the doctrine of Jesus Christ is divided into two parts. First, the “person of Jesus Christ;” second, the “work of Jesus Christ.” The doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ focuses on his identity—“who is that guy?” His second name, “Christ,” is about his identity. Who is he? He is the Christ, the king, the messiah.
The doctrine of the work of Christ focuses on how Jesus brings salvation—“what did that guy do to reunite us with God?” His first name, “Jesus,” is about his work. This name “Jesus” (the Hebrew version is Joshua) means “God saves” or “God liberates.” In this essay, I want to talk about the person of Jesus Christ, his identity.
I propose that we start with the person of Christ as our very first doctrine. Jesus provides our lens for evaluating all of our values and convictions. He helps us understand God, which is to say that he provides the orienting point for making sense of everything else. Our christology itself will be much different when we make Jesus’ life and teaching the core content of that doctrine.
The christological evasion of Jesus
When we repeat the name, “Christ,” we make a confession about Jesus’ identity, about who we think he is. However, if asked, we may say that by “Christ” we mean something like Jesus is the Son of God—by which we may actually mean Jesus is God, Jesus is divine. And when we think of Jesus as divine we may have in mind Jesus as perfect, sinless, all-powerful. And when we think of Jesus in this way, the term Jesus may actually disappear and be replaced with only “Christ.” And, often, the life of the person Jesus tends actually to disappear. What matters then are his perfection, his god-ness, his perfect sacrifice for sin that makes it possible for God to forgive our sins.
What happens then is what we could call the “christological evasion of Jesus.” By this, I mean the process where Christianity’s hierarchy of values ends up being very different from Jesus’ own hierarchy of values. We have christology but we don’t pay much attention to Jesus.
Too often Christians focus on belief instead of focusing on following Jesus. Christology tends to have to do with correct doctrine more than correct discipleship. Too often theology focuses on the idea of Jesus dying and receiving God’s wrath that we deserve—leads to concluding that Jesus took up his cross so we don’t have to. This delinking of Jesus’ cross from our discipleship is the opposite is what Jesus actually taught: he told us, indeed, to take up our cross and follow him. For Jesus, the cross is not something he frees Christians from; it is the consequence of being a Christian. For Jesus, the cross had to do with standing for a love that resists oppression and injustice.
This “christological evasion of Jesus” links with what we could call a “christology from above.” “Christology from above” focuses on Jesus’ god-ness. It makes doctrine and belief central and minimizes discipleship. In effect, christology from above starts with a doctrine of God that emphasizes God’s “attributes” such as omniscience, omnipotence, and impassability. These attributes focus on God’s “perfection,” and do so in ways that distance God from our human characteristics.
Such a focus on Jesus’ other-than-human attributes as what matters most with christology shapes how we view God. When we confess Jesus as God Incarnate within the christology-from-above framework, we typically start with God’s other-than-human “attributes” as definitive of Jesus’ divinity. When we do so, we likely will focus on beliefs about Jesus as central and absolute. This may lead us to marginalize or ignore altogether the actual shape of Jesus’ life as a human being. Jesus words and acts will then have little theological relevance, and hence ultimately little direct ethical relevance for today.
Christology from below
However, if we take our cues from the gospels themselves, and from Jesus himself, we will be compelled to seek instead for a “Christology from below.” A christology from below will focus first on Jesus’ actual life and teaching. Confessions we make about Jesus’ identity as God Incarnate will be conclusions coming from his life (coming from “below”) rather than assumptions coming from doctrines about Jesus (coming from “above”).
The first followers of Jesus drew their conclusion from the quality of his life, validated by God raising him from the dead. In his life, we see that Jesus was goodness, mercy, and love incarnated. He fulfilled the true meaning of the Law, and he embodied as no one else the message of the prophets.
The following are only some of the ways Jesus did this. He performed miracles of healing. He taught with authority of the meaning of the Kingdom (or reign) of God. He included marginalized people as full members of God’s community. He confronted unjust structures, challenging oppressive and exclusive legalism, hierarchical religion, and cynical politics. He practiced nonviolence, even in the face of his own arrest and impending death. He manifested deep trust in God, from the time of his initial temptations in the wilderness down to his execution.
With a christology from below, we will realize that confessing Jesus as “the Christ” comes as the conclusion his followers drew based on the quality of his life. It wasn’t so much Jesus’ perfection or his own insisting that he is God that showed him to be “the Christ.” It was his love and compassion, his entering into life with sinners, outcasts, the poor and oppressed, that established his identity. God confirmed Jesus’ messianic identity when God vindicated Jesus’ way of life by raising him from the dead.
Jesus’ Christ-ness mattered because it established a pattern for others to follow in order to be Christians (Christ-followers). The difference between a christology from above and a christology from below may be illustrated by two different ways of thinking about Jesus’ cross.
For the first view, Jesus’ cross is understood more as a necessary sacrifice that allows God to forgive our sins. Jesus’ cross is unique and only effective because of his utter sinlessness. Jesus takes up his cross as a substitute, being punished for our transgressions. That is, Jesus takes up the cross so we do not have to.
For the second view, Jesus’ cross is understood more as a model for all believers that arises as a consequence of experiencing God’s forgiveness. When Jesus called upon his disciples to “take up the cross and follow me” he meant it pretty literally. The “cross” is a consequence of living with open and welcoming mercy in a world that relies on domination and violence to sustain oppressive social systems. The people who can take up the cross are those who know that God’s love matters more than the systems’ dominating ways.
In the first view, Jesus’ resurrection ends up being peripheral to the cosmic transaction that happens in the events of Jesus’ sacrificial death. In the second view, Jesus’ resurrection looms large as how God vindicates Jesus’ way of life as the norm for everyone. That is, in the second view, Jesus does not take up the cross so we don’t have to; Jesus takes up the cross to show us the kind of life God wants from us all and promises to vindicate.
Problems with the theological tradition
This problem of the christological evasion of Jesus has bedeviled Christianity for most of its history. I will just mention a couple of important markers. In the year 325, the leaders of the church in the Roman Empire got together to write what became one of the definitive creeds in all of Christianity, the Creed of Nicea. This is part of what it says. “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,…God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father…; who for us men and our salvation came down and was incarnate, becoming human. He suffered and the third day he rose and ascended into the heavens.”
This statement of faith still shapes Christian theology in powerful ways. According this core part of the creed I have quoted, what matters about Jesus Christ? He’s God, he was killed, and he rose. What doesn’t get mentioned? We don’t learn anything about what Jesus actually said. We don’t learn anything about how Jesus lived. And we don’t learn anything about who killed him and why.
Whatever the contextual issues were that shaped the creed in the fourth century, these issues disappeared from the tradition and the timeless words of the creed remained. And these words set a tone. What matters about Jesus Christ is his divinity per se, his sacrificial death, and his resurrection. This is christology from above par excellence. It simply does not provide any sense of Jesus’ life and teaching. It does not speak to ethical faithfulness. It does not reflect Jesus’ continuity with the story of Israel and the core concerns of Torah.
Many centuries after the Creed of Nicea, the events we now call the Protestant Reformation split the Catholic Church into many parts, triggering a theological revolution. However, the christological evasion of Jesus continued. We can see the evasion in most of the theology of the magisterial Reformation (Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans). It finds obvious expression is a document formulated as kind of a summation of Reformed theology about one hundred years after the ministry of John Calvin. This document, one of the greatest Protestant theological statements, was the Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1646. The Westminster Confession of Faith has been definitive for Presbyterians and very important for Congregationalists and Baptists.
This is part of what Westminster says: “The Son of God, the 2nd person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon himself man’s nature…yet without sin….Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.”
Again, what matters most here? That Jesus Christ is “very and eternal God” and that he is “the only mediator between God and man” (that is, that he offers the necessary sacrifice to save us from God’s wrath). The Westminster Confession says nothing about what Jesus said did and said between his virgin birth and his death as a sinless sacrifice.
The creeds and the gospels seem clearly to be emphasizing different themes. Should we see these different emphases as complementary? Or do we actually have a near contradiction between the emphases of these key creeds and the gospels account of what mattered most to and about Jesus. Do the creeds complement the gospels’ story that focuses on Jesus’ mighty deeds, his message of loving enemies, and his challenging religious and political hierarchies when they assert as their core statement about Jesus that he “of the same essence as the Father”? Or is this a different kind of assertion altogether that implies that Jesus’ words and deeds are peripheral for christology?
It would appear that the message we get from the creeds is that what matters most about Jesus is simply his being, his God-ness that is part of who he is by definition. There is little sense of a life with concrete acts and words that demonstrate God’s ways in the world.
Hence, the creeds pay little or no attention to the ethical significance of Jesus’ life. They do not present Jesus as a model for authentic human living. They give no sense of the social-spiritual context of Jesus’ struggle with the powers and his genuine struggle to trust God and live faithfully. The creeds also give little sense of Jesus’ connection with the story of Israel. They actually turn the Bible’s emphases upside down, making central abstract conclusions about Jesus’ divinity and making peripheral the actual story of Jesus’ message of costly discipleship to his fellow Israelites in the nitty-gritty of first century Palestine. It is small wonder that most Christians who have made the creeds central for their christology have not taken as normative Jesus’ message of love of enemies.
Christology based on the gospels
Based on what the creeds affirm, it would appear that the titles “Son of God” or “Messiah” or “Christ” at their heart refer to Jesus Christ’s divinity, his unity with the transcendent and perfect God of omniscience and omnipotence. However, as these terms appear in the actual story of Jesus they seem much more refer to Jesus’ vocation, to the shape of the life and ministry Jesus will embrace as a response to God’s call.
God’s affirmation, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 4:22), marks a transition into Jesus’ public ministry. His next step is his retreat in the wilderness and encounter with Satan, an encounter where Jesus’ clarity about his vocation is tested with three powerful temptations concerning what kind of “Son of God” he would be. The specifics of Jesus’ life and teaching have everything to do with his identity as God’s Son/Messiah/Christ.
Let’s take just one statement from the Gospels that provides Jesus’ own take on his identity. We see that he affirms that this identity could be understood in messianic terms. He did offer a kind of definition of what he meant by “Christ” or “messiah” in Luke seven.
John the Baptist had wanted to know—was Jesus the one who is to come (that is, was Jesus the Messiah)? Jesus replies, in effect, yes I am the Messiah. You can know that I am the Messiah because of what I am doing. Jesus affirms that the bestowing the title Messiah should be a conclusion based on what kind of life he was living.
Jesus asserts, when you look at my actual deeds and words you will see that I am healing people and bringing good news to the poor. I am exercising power over demons and providing sight to those who could not see.
Contrary to the impression we get from the creeds, Jesus’ Messianic identity included a direct call to his followers to imitate his way. The creeds focus on aspects of Jesus’ identity that separate him from human beings (“of one essence with the Father) and underscore his uniqueness (“the only mediator between God and man”). According to the gospels, though, Jesus’ identity as Messiah had overt and wide-ranging ethical importance following from a sense of connection between Jesus and other human beings. Jesus as Christ is Jesus as the definitive human being who shows the rest of us how to live as human beings in God’s image.
The report Jesus gives for John’s followers’ to take back to him includes actual mighty deeds. The healings Jesus performed are certainly literal. Jesus did minister to people’s physical needs. However, I think the healings also operate on a metaphorical level. And the most basic metaphor is bringing sight to the blind.
The more I think about it, and the more I study the Bible, the more convinced I become that the heart of Jesus message is one of revelation, of making visible the true character of God and the true calling of human beings. We need sight to perceive God as merciful.
Jesus proclaims: See this, the universe bends toward justice and mercy. God is not a punitive God to run away from. God is like the shepherd looking for the lost sheep (the one out of one hundred) and the woman looking for the lost coin. Both rejoice when they find what was lost—a model for Jesus’ welcome of sinners (Luke 15:1-10). All it takes are eyes to see.
Jesus adds, this truth about God of which I speak and that shapes my own life, is truth you can let shape your life. “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).
Doing theology in light of Jesus includes at its heart a version of the creedal affirmation of Jesus’ identity. Yes, Jesus is God incarnate. Indeed, Jesus as Messiah is Jesus as God in the flesh. However, when we follow the biblical portrayal of this identity, we will make this confession based on the events of Jesus’ life. Our confession will be a conclusion based on what we know about how Jesus lived, the specifics of what he taught, the consequences of his way of living (the cross), and of God’s vindication of Jesus’ life through resurrection.
We cannot confess Jesus as Christ without being quite specific both about the content of his life that revealed him to be the Christ and how he insists that his way should also be definitive of his followers’ lives. The problem with the creeds is that they start and finish with the conclusion (Jesus’ divinity) as if the content of the life were irrelevant for christology.
Christology in light of Jesus will understand our affirmation of Jesus’ identity as the Christ to be expressing our commitment to make his hierarchy of values our hierarchy. There is no authentic confession of Jesus as Christ without a corresponding confession of his way of life as our norm.
When we confess Jesus as Christ, we affirm that we want to stand for what Jesus stands for. We affirm that we want our hierarchy of values (our theology) to be like Jesus’ hierarchy of values. When we confess Jesus as Christ, we affirm that we too want to embody radical love in our lives. That we too want to value and respect people who are vulnerable, exploited, and disrespected by the great ones in our world and in our churches.
1. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine, from the Bible to the Present (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1983), 30-31.
2. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches. 203.