As many of you know, I’m sure, the LA Theology Conference is coming up in the near future. For more info, see here. This year the conference will be held at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA and will be focusing on the doctrine of the Trinity. I will be reading a paper on beauty and the doctrine of God, utilizing a retrieval from Jonathan Edwards’s trinitarian aesthetics to ground a certain mode of theologizing. But more on that later. The LA Theology Conference has quickly positioned itself as one of the more interesting theology conferences in the country, pulling in great plenary speakers and providing a context for dogmatic theology on the west coast. But more recently, it has also proven it can turn its conferences into an incredibly useful theology text.
Christology, Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Zondervan, 2013) has recently been released, and it is made up of the five plenary addresses from last years conference as well as five of the nine other papers presented at the conference. As with any conference volume of this type, you can always trust that the chapters will be illuminating, but, in my experience, conference volumes are incredibly uneven (even more so than other edited volumes, which are often uneven at the best of times). While I wasn’t struck by this volume being uneven, it did have a range of emphases and approaches, some more philosophical than others, some more strictly dogmatic, others with a more historical or biblical focus. Overall, I am not only pleased by the breadth and depth of the essays, but I believe this could serve as a useful theology text. As with any text, the professor would want to narrate the broad issues prior to the students reading this kind of work, and would also want to “pull back the curtain” on some of the theological spats taking place (trying to explain, for instance, why Torrance would think it necessary to deny simplicity!).
Overall, if the LA Theology Conference can continue to put out volumes like this one, I think it will set itself apart among theology conferences. With the plenary speakers for the next LA Theology Conference (this January), one can assume that will happen.
On Christ, Christology, and Christianity in general:
Many of us want to follow Jesus, or Christ. When I was younger, I was sometimes told to “follow” or even “be like” Christ (as Thomas a Kempis suggested?). But then the question is this: what exactly was Jesus or Christ like? In my childhood attempts to follow or even be like Christ or Jesus, I came to some surprising findings. The first one was that many preachers said Jesus was “humble”; most of the time he did not go around proudly proclaiming to everyone, that he was Christ, or God, or that they’d better obey Jesus, or else. In fact, when I looked into the biblical picture of what Jesus and/or Christ was like, I found a surprising thing. First of all, Jesus was not only “humble” about his status, as some said; most of the time Jesus did not even seem to know – and perhaps did not even privately thinking – that he was Christ, or God.
To me it always seems that there is just too much that is not quite true or consistent in the sermons I heard from traditional Christianity; and that often Christianity is not even following even the Bible itself. And as one major example, is a matter relating in part to the call to be “humble,” vs. Christology; the status and nature of Jesus, or Christ. In much of Christianity, we are told to be humble; and we are told that Jesus, Christ, was a model of humility. And yet? Sometimes we are often told that Jesus was, or allowed himself to be presented as, Christ; or even as God himself. But there are some evident logical problems with this. For one: 1) at times it is said that Jesus is God. But is so, then how, why, can God be humble? God is the creator of all that is; above which nothing can be imagined. But if so, then what room is there in God for humility? For deference to a higher truth, or acknowledgment of possibly errors in one’s self? And 2) was Jesus truly humble after all, if he presented himself, or thought of himself as, the Lord of the whole universe?
Amazingly in fact, from a closer look at the Bible itself – especially the words attributed to Jesus himself – there turned out to be lots of biblical evidence for the position that Jesus did not know, did not say, and perhaps did not even think, that he was God. Or Christ either. Since, 1) out of the hundreds of times he might have seemed to say that he was God, or Christ, read more closely Jesus did not explicitly say that he was Christ; instead he merely asked others questions to the effect of “who do you say I am?” Or he said that “you say” that. Or indeed 2) at times Jesus explicitly told his followers “not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. “ While 3)as for the many bolder “son of Man” sayings? These would at first seem to give divine status to such a son, a) likely refer to a moral, or son of “man,” more than a son of God. And b) they do not explicitly or clearly refer to Jesus. Indeed, Jesus himself speaks of the son of Man in third person.
So first of all: did Jesus himself ever really say that he was the Christ? Out of a hundred or more places where that might have seemed at first to be the case, those cases dissolve under closer inspection. Indeed, 4) the one single time, when Jesus appeared to strongly affirm his status, is contradicted by a parallel passage in other gospel. Where Jesus did not affirm his status as Christ. And where he even also warned that others, priests, would put words into his mouth, that he himself did not say; that others would claim that what they said, Jesus himself claimed.
In fact, there were dozens of ways, times, when Jesus does not seem to be the promised Christ. For example, 5) dying on the cross, Jesus did not seem to think he was favored by God, as Christ would be. His last words – “My God, my God, why do you abandon me?” – imply that Jesus thought he was abandoned by God. So that he could not have been the Christ. While 6) much of Christianity acknowledges that yet another, “second” coming will be necessary, before “full”y all the promises of a Christ are fulfilled.
So what was my tentative finding on Jesus, as “Christ?
If we really are humble, and really are honest, and really try to follow Jesus, then what actually follows Then amazingly, we find that the Bible itself – or more specifically, the sayings attributed directly to Jesus himself – supports a very humble Jesus indeed. If in the Bible we have a humble Jesus, then we have one that does not think that he is Christ. And indeed, this humble, not assuredly Christlike Jesus amazingly, fits the Bible better than the dogmatic Christologies, the Trinities.
So what should we do? If finally we begin to find that Jesus himself did not say, and did not think, that he was the Christ, then what should we do next? Should we ourselves be going against Jesus – and be constantly insisting that Jesus was the Christ? And if we want to follow or imitate Jesus, then would we ever say or think that we ourselves are really so great? That we are the Christ, say?
Most importantly: if Jesus never consistently said he was 1) Christ, or 2) God himself, then furthermore, should we as believers, be believing in and following Jesus as the foretold “Christ”? Should we trust and believe and follow something that Jesus himself, 99% of the time, did not himself say? (Except one time, in an episode that was however narrated differently in a parallel passage in another gospel).
So what should we say about Jesus, and Christology? And for that matter, what has passed as traditional Christianity? In many respects traditional Christianity does not seem to have really understood Jesus at all. Much of it saw Jesus as “humble”; but then it did not quite see what a real, thoroughgoing humility in Jesus would mean, to his self-image. Traditional Christianity did not adequately note that a Jesus who was really humble: one who would not say and would not even know or even think, that he was God or Christ.
And then finally we come to this final question: is it really trusting and believing and following someone, to constantly say and believe something that arguably, they themselves did not emphasize, and arguably never said?
Ironically, it has come to seem to me from a closer look at the Bible itself, that those billions of Christians who insist on following Jesus as Christ, have not been entirely honest. They are not really, honestly facing much of the Bible itself. Among other things, they were not facing the deeper humility of Jesus, in not adamantly declaring himself to be the Christ, or God, and the fulfillment of all.