Thursday, July 17, 2008

Druchesis IV: And in Jesus Christ...

We now turn to the second article of the creed. The focus of the second article is Jesus. We have already bumped into Jesus when reflecting on his Father in the first article. But now we focus directly on him. This article is not only placed at the center of the creed, but is also the longest of the three articles. One could say it is the heart of the creed. And that seems appropriate, for Christians bear the name of Christ. Explicit reflection on the one whose name we bear is central to the theological task of the church in all ages. It is with his name that the second article begins, followed by a few titles, before it tells a brief version of his story. This week, we will take up his name and titles, as well as the first episode of his story. These items bring into focus this week's topic: the identity of Jesus. Who is Jesus? He is the Christ, the only Son of God, our Lord, the who (among other things) was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. But before considering these things, let's begin at the beginning with the name, the name that is above every name, the name of Jesus.


At the heart of the Christian faith we find a person: Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, many communities organize themselves around significant historical persons. But Christians are consumed directly with the person of Jesus. Christians concern themselves not only with Jesus's teaching or mission or ideals or accomplishments, but also with Jesus himself. The little word "and" at the head of the second article is significant, because it means that just as we believe in God the Father Almighty, we also believe in Jesus. We believe in Jesus, not just an idea or a rule or a feeling, but a person.

We already indicated that the Christian God is personal. Such a claim required some reflection about the kind of God we believe in. In fact, the claim that God is personal is grounded in the person of Jesus. We know God is personal because Jesus is personal. Personality is not some abstract quality of the Christian God. God the Father relates personally to Jesus, and through him relates personally to us. In Jesus, God is personal.

But the claim that Jesus is personal does not require any complex logical moves. Jesus is a person in the most straightforward sense of the term. Jesus lived at a certain place in a certain time with a certain way of being in the world. He can be distinguished from other persons of his time and place. He is Jesus of Nazareth--a particular first century Galilean Jew. These particularities are decidedly historical: Jesus is a person located within the flow of human history. There is much that makes Jesus unique within this historical flow. Most importantly, he was raised from the dead and therefore he lives. So Jesus is not "historical" in the sense of being dead and gone, a great man to be remembered. But even as the one who overcame death, Jesus is and remains a historical person, a full participant in human history. The risen Jesus is and remains the Jesus he was in his own particular time and place. This is why the Christian Scriptures are organized around documents that tell his story: the four Gospels. The Gospels ensure that our faith in God and in his son Jesus does not fly off into fantasy or legality or idealism, but remains rooted in the historical person at the heart of its faith.

So what do we know about the person of Jesus? Well, persons can be known in two interconnected ways. We know persons by their relations: who they are in relationship to their parents and friends and associates picks them out from among all other persons. We also know persons by their narrative: what they do and how they do it, as well as what is done to them and how they take it, locates them in their unique place in human history and reveals much about their character. The Apostles' Creed identifies Jesus by three titles, all of which identify him by his relations. Let's reflect on each of these titles before turning to the first episode in his narrative.


Jesus is the Christ. "Christ" is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah." Both mean "anointed one." The Messiah is the anointed one. By proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ, Christians are identifying Jesus by his relationship to Israel. He is the anointed one of Israel. He the one from among the Israelites who is set apart as their representative to perform a special task. Now Christians have had a long-standing habit of thinking that there was a secure concept of "messiah" within Israel's Scriptures and/or among Jews at the time of Jesus. The basis for this habit has been successfully deconstructed in recent years. There were in fact many messianic ideas on offer, and even many who claimed to be the messiah, as well as those who were suspicious of the whole messianic trend. The deconstruction of a stable messiah-concept need not trouble us theologically, for three things remain true: (1) at least in the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, many Jews did live in a state of expectation and such expectations were tied up with the messiah, (2) the core element of anointing for representative service appears throughout the various messiah-concepts on offer, and (3) the meaning of "messiah" in the New Testament was from the beginning determined by Jesus himself and his unique identity and activity, not the other way around. The second point is instructive, because it locates Jesus within the long Israelites tradition of prophets, priests and kings. Jesus is anointed to enact the prophetic, priestly and royal missions within Israel and on behalf of Israel. But the third point is decisive. If Jesus does not "line-up" perfectly with any specific messianic expectation, that does not undermine his messianic status but rather indicates the way he fulfills and surpasses even the expectations of his own people. Yet precisely as the one who fulfills God's covenant with Israel, Jesus is identified by his unique relationship to Israel.

His only Son

Jesus is the Son of God. We already mentioned the sonship of Jesus when we spoke of the fatherhood of God. There we hinted at a key building block in the later doctrine of the trinity: the eternal sonship of the Son. Or, in the classical lingo, the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. Here we are merely turning that wild claim on its head: instead of identifying the Father by way of the Son, we are now identifying the Son by way of the Father. By declaring that Jesus is the only Son of God, Christians are identifying Jesus by his unique relationship to God. He is the Son of God, the only begotten of God. He is therefore God the Son. Now it should be noted that "Son of God" does not necessarily carry such "divine" connotation in the New Testament. In fact, the language of "Son of God" had distinctively royal connotations, both in Israel and in the Roman Empire. On the one hand, Israel's king was the representative of God to the people and so was spoken of as God's Son (cf. 2 Sam 7 and Psalm 110, both of which became crucial Christological texts for the early Christian movement). On the other, Rome's emperor claimed quasi-divine status to secure his totalitarian rule. The former points us back to the first title (Messiah); the second points us forward to the third title (Lord). Suffice it say that "son of God" language in the New Testament does not serve as a simple proof-text for the divinity of Jesus. And yet, the church was not entirely without precedent as it moved forward in the development of its doctrine of the divinity of Jesus. For the New Testament does identify Jesus by his unique relation to God. He is spoken of as the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). In these last days, God has spoken through his son, who is the exact representation of his being (Heb. 1:2-3). And the Gospel of John is replete with explicit reflection on the unique relation of Jesus the Son to God his Father. And so it is not without warrant that the church, after centuries of struggle and refinement, came to praise Jesus as "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father" (Nicene Creed 325/381). These words of praise identify Jesus as uniquely and eternally related to God the Father.

Our Lord

Jesus is Lord. This was the most basic Christian confession, which predates even the documents of the New Testament. To be a Christian was publicly to confess that Jesus is Lord. By confessing that Jesus is Lord, Christians are identifying Jesus by his relationship to us and to the world. The notion of lordship implies a domain: to be a lord one must have people or places over which one exercises his authority. A Lord without a domain is a laughing stock. Whose Lord is Jesus? First of all, he is "our" Lord, the Lord of those who believe in him--Christians. This confession got Christians in trouble, because the phrase "such-and-so is Lord" was reserved for Caesar. "Caesar is Lord" was the official gesture of political loyalty, expressed in everyday life, political pomp, and even religious ceremony. Now the Christians could have clarified that when they say, "Jesus is our Lord," they only meant he is their private Lord--their religious guru--and so not a threat to imperial authority. But the Christians did not make this clarification. Rather, they clarified themselves in the other direction: he is the Lord, the bearer of the divine name, the rule of all things. The early Christians would commandeer many of the appellations given to the emperor, declaring that Jesus and he alone could claim such titles. By doing so, Christians have from the beginning spoken of Jesus not just as a significant religious person but as the ruler of all things. Therefore, there is nothing outside the purview of Christian thought and action. This is not necessarily a justification to seize earthly powers, but it is certainly an indictment of any fearful or disinterested escape from the affairs of this world. The creed identified Jesus by his unique relationship to us as our Lord and to the world as the Lord.

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary

Having identified Jesus by his relations, the creed begins to tell his story. This story is introduced by the relative pronoun "who." The remainder of the second article of the creed hangs on this little word. The basic form of Christian belief is, "I believe in Jesus, who ... [insert narrative]." The basic form of Christian proclamation is, "Jesus, who ... [insert narrative], is Lord." Now the narrative found in the creed is anything but complete. Instead, it highlights key episodes in his story that Christians over the years have deemed the most crucial for understanding who he is. Many of the elements listed appear precisely because they were contested. So if something important is missing, it may be because it was never challenged. Of course, we know that things taken for granted are quickly forgotten and easily corrupted, so it is important to be ready to respond to new challenges to the story of Jesus. But as they stand, the classic creedal statements still serve to highlight the most crucial episodes in Jesus's story.

This week let's look briefly at the first episode: the origin of Jesus. Attention to the first episode is appropriate here, because even as this supplies the first moment in the story of Jesus, it continues to identify Jesus by his relations. One the one hand, Jesus is identified by his relation to the Holy Spirit by whom he was conceived. On the other, Jesus is identified by his relation to the Virgin Mary of whom was born. This twofold statement points to the unique origin of Jesus. Of course, this statement has become hotly contested as some find the idea of a miraculous virginal conception impossible to believe. Though the virgin birth may be difficult to believe, the miracle itself points to something deeper and perhaps even more difficult to believe: the incarnation of the God. The Son who is eternal with God, the Word through whom God created the world, has become flesh in Jesus Christ. This "becoming flesh" took place at a particular moment of time: when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. The miracle points to the fact that the incarnation of God is not something that emerges naturally within the flow of history. The incarnation is a gift. It is the gift whereby God, without ceasing to be truly God, becomes a genuine human being. God is with as one of us.

The twofold structure of this statement corresponds to the twofold structure of Jesus's person: he is both fully God (conceived by the Holy Spirit) and fully human (born of the Virgin Mary). The fact that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit means that he was in fellowship with God from the beginning of his existence, not adopted into such fellowship at a later point in time as we are. He is truly God, not just godly or godlike. The fact that he was uniquely born without an earthly father sets him apart from among his brothers and sisters as a man with an unprecedented mission, but it does not separate him from the human community. He is truly human, not just human-seeming. He is fully God and fully human.

Fully God and fully human. This twofold structure of faith in Jesus Christ, while traces of it can be found in New Testament (cf. Rom. 1:3-4) and it is implicit within much early Christian teaching, was declared orthodoxy at the Council of Chalcedon (451). Countering extreme views on all sides that either undermined his genuine divinity by separating divinity and humanity in him or undermined his genuine humanity by mixing divinity and humanity in him, Chalcedon confessed "one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, complete in divinity and complete in humanity... is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division or separation. The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person." This so-called "two-natures" doctrine functions as a rule for interpreting Scripture and for proper worship. No reading of the Gospel story is permitted which undermines Jesus' divinity or humanity or tears apart his person. Within these boundaries, one has great freedom in how to construe the complex relationship of divinity and humanity in Christ. But the point of all such ruled constructions is to point back to the central fact at the heart of the Christian faith: that God's word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Any thoughts?

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