Friday, August 12, 2011

Which Jesus?

When one graduates from seminary and then enters into a long summer vacation with entirely too much free time, a lot of questioning begins to emerge. Since my concerns are always bent toward methodology, I have been giving a lot of thought to how Christians have, should, and do approach the task of theology.

Recently I've been asking myself what is the Gospel about primarily? Reconciliation? Forgiveness? Liberation? In dogmatic terms, I keep asking what office of Jesus Christ takes formal precedence - Jesus as prophet, priest, or king? It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence that the answer to this question has upon one's theology. But within western theological circles, especially reformed theology, Jesus' priestly office has been championed as the primary starting point. At the risk of offering arguments or questions that seem to lack in argumentation and offer nothing more than logical fallacies, I would like to say that I find this ordering suspicious. There is this enduring narrative that in order to hold an objective orientation within theology, the focus must primarily start with Jesus Christ's role as the agent of reconciliation of humanity to God the Father. I have heard it said repeatedly that minorities and other oppressed members of the world who are concerned with the understanding of the Gospel primarily as liberation are "subjective" in their orientation. It is almost as if these folks are treated like they use the Christian religion as a utilitarian means to further their own socio-political cause while the "real Christians" are those who are concerned about what happens in the more vertical dimension between Jesus Christ and God the Father.

But I keep asking myself if an objective orientation that is usually championed as orthodox can only be made possible or (more modestly) compelling if privilege is present. Is it any accident that those who led the way for orthodox theology were those who possessed power and control and held a privileged status in society? Is it an accident that the early Church, despite the substitutionary elements in Athanasius' theology, focused primarily (not exclusively) on Christ as Victor instead of Redeemer in their atonement theology?

Part of the reason I bring this up is because in evangelical theology, everything is about the reconciliation of the individual sinner to a holy God. To speak robustly about justice and liberation in relation to the Gospel usually creates instant suspicion and such an understanding is almost immediately dismissed (I have been woefully guilty of this same impulse in the past). Everything is about the vertical dimension since why fight for justice and liberation if the person's very soul is on the line? We'd rather the individual continue in oppression instead of risking their soul continuing in hell for all eternity. I don't say this in a disrespectful tone. Honestly, I have heard this reasoning constantly as someone who graduated from an evangelical private high school, an evangelical liberal arts college, and an evangelical seminary. I simply ask myself if this narrative is born only because evangelicals in North America primarily stand in a place of privilege. They have no real need for Jesus as Victor and Liberator. They only generally have a need for Jesus to be Priest and they then think that is what the rest of the world - oppressed or enslaved or not - needs this Jesus foremost. How can one say such things without serious self-critique when encountering the black community in North America, the oppressed women throughout the world, the patriarchy and poverty within Hispanic culture? I even ask this about Karl Barth's theology. Would his posture and orientation toward the task of theology be the same if he were not seeped in a life of privilege?

I think such an understanding is convenient and fails to identify with the least of those in society which the Son of God came to serve, liberate, and set free. Can we continue to champion this objective narrative without realizing that it is only made possible by our status as the masters of society? And should we not ask how our own privileged status has made our own objective theology that much more subjective in orientation?


Adam said...

I think we should ask. Not that we can always see ourselves very well.

You are reminding me of Scot McKnight's Jesus test. He give a questionnaire about what his students think about Jesus, then another questionnaire about what the students think about themselves. Unsurprisingly, student's view of Jesus is almost always very similar to their view of themselves.

I am increasingly thinking about two things. 1) Am I valuing (and reading) scripture enough and 2) Am I actually doing what it says. For all of the theology that I read and think about and discuss, the real issues in my life are often issues of obedience on minor issues, not issues of belief on big theological issues.

I know that can lead to a focus on holiness issues (which has its own problems) but in many ways I would rather trip over problems of holiness than trip over issues of minor theological differences that end up alienating me from other Christians.

Anonymous said...

Adam's response seems to fall prey to simplistic thinking. Since people tend to project what they want on God/Jesus, we can't trust any sort of particular reading of God/Jesus since it is more reflective of the individual's wishes and fantasies than the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

I don't have a sense for what Adam's views of Jesus actually are, but I don't know why a focus on individual obedience is the compromise being made. This personal/quietist Jesus actually does serve to alienate you from many Christians' conceptions of Jesus whose message is unapologetically political. I think Adam's conclusions mirrors the nihilism of Schwetizer's historical Jesus research which argued that liberal scholarship had fashioned a Jesus who looked a lot like a 19th century German male.

I think is quite clear what Jesus' ministry was all about, namely the proclamation and realization of the Kingdom of God. Crossan argues that the open table fellowship where Jesus broke bread with prostitutes, mentally ill folks, the poor, the lepers, and the outcasts suggests Jesus' strong identification with the least of these in society. Not only does Jesus open his ministry in Luke proclaiming the liberation of the poor, but the conclusion of the teachings in Matthew (25) ends with a similar message about serving the forgotten and despised of society. Jesus' execution against indicates that he threatened the powers/principalities of society. Ultimately, when Jesus discusses the coin with the scribes when he is posed the question of what to render unto Caesar, Jesus lays all of his cards on the table. This worthless coin was fashioned in Caesar's image, but whose image are we made in? Since God fashioned us in Her image we owe everything to God and Caesar deserves nothing.

Given this hermeneutic, I wonder if the jumping off point is that Christians are likewise called to celebrate the Kingdom by being unequivocally on the side of oppressed and rejected peoples of society. This seems to me to be explicitly Biblical. Jesus made no apologies for dividing society, after all this radical message of the serving of the poor would ultimately rupture families (hate father/mother).

Matt Frost said...

I think you've hit a solid point with the assertion of Christological clerisy. In Jacob Neusner's terms, Jesus falls into the prophetic/messianic dialog, not the priestly dialog of the Temple cultus -- or the rabbinic dialog of Pharisaism. "Prophet, priest and king" comes much later than the Judean world in which Jesus makes original sense. We owe the munus triplex to Eusebius in the 4th century. But we owe the clerisy to Hebrews -- there's a lot of high Christology that lives into and out of Hebrews in priestly, Temple-cultus terms. Which are relevant for a certain community, and they adapted the Christological role into terms that functioned not only with the primacy of the Temple in their worship, but also with its destruction, desecration, and permanent occupation by Rome. It was never intended to be a point of pastoral privilege in Christianity!

But the priestly office is not the root of his "role as the agent of reconciliation of humanity to God the Father." That you can find in Paul. And yet my favorite place for this, Romans 5, continues to make more sense to me without the construction of reconciliation to the Father. The wrath of God in Romans is not exercised the way it has come to be commonly understood -- as something persistent, something from which souls must be saved. No; God took care of the atonement in Romans 3 in terms of pure grace, apart from judgment. And the semantic pluralism of Paul's language in Romans 5:1 lets him say both that God has reconciled us to Godself in Christ, and that we should become reconciled to one another in Christ, across our divisions. We are reconciled pros ton theon, with meanings including toward and with respect to God, and also before God in our human situations.

And so I agree that the ways we characterize atonement theology and focus so deadly earnestly on the individual salvation of souls before an angry God have far more to do with the privilege of the institution, and with reconciliation into a power structure of subordination.

But Christus Victor (and don't take Aulen at his word -- the point is right, as far as it goes, but not made on the best historical work about the early church) does not exclude those central early words we find in scripture: salvation, redemption, reconciliation, justification. The Gospels and Paul use these words without meaning what the resolutely middle church has come to. Christus Victor is instead the proper context for them. They do not belong to the priestly apparatus, but to the prophetic/messianic dialogue about apocalyptic hope in God's actions as a way of life in the world.

Matt Frost said...

No; I'm not quite right -- Neusner is intentionally separating factions of the first-century Judean landscape that had also been united under Hasmonean rule. To the extent that Jesus in the Gospels is a type of Judas Maccabeus (see Mark 11 and the Sukkot re-enactment, and the cleansing of the Temple -- and yet his "failure" and the prediction of the Temple's fall), there is every narrative reason for him to accrue the standing of priest and king over Judea. This is in fact one of the messianic hopes of the time. So the "prophet, priest and king" theme stands quite a bit earlier than Eusebius, though in a very different context. "Home rule" out from under the empire, not rule within an imperial context.

The Synoptics play on this theme, but always after 70, telling a story of the antitype, the messiah who was not "prophet, priest and king" and so had to be told in another way. The messiah who obviously did not come to usher in the autonomy of the people of God under their own leadership, and whose salvation and redemption takes a different form. Whose victory takes a different form. Who is only ironically called "king of the Judeans" -- the Hasmonean title Herod holds -- and so whose kingdom becomes the just rule of God outside of the failed Jerusalem factions. The Gospels tell Jesus as precisely an anti-Hasmonean charcter, a messianic prophet stuffed into the mold of the Maccabeans in his time, who subverts the paradigm for the sake of those outside.

Adam Shields said...

I think for me personally, the first step is obedience. I do not think that is the last step (although that is the problem with much pietist theology). I agree with jridenour basic assertion at the end that adherence to the gospel is living with and advocacy for the dispossessed and un-powerful.

But for the person that starts out as powerful (which most of us are in the western world) what I see often is that the mission of God become about what we can do for others instead of what God has done for us and allows us to participate in. We are powerful, so we are more used to getting it done than submission.

I see many young excited Christians going out, but almost as many ending up living the standard suburban lifestyle. They were captured by the mission (or the concept of the mission) but they were not transformed by their Lord. So they burn out, expend themselves, forget their reliance on God to really do the work.

So I think it is important to focus a lot on our own personal obedience and transformation through the word (and WORD) of God. And concurrently, become embedded in a faith community so that we may understand that we are a part the incarnation's work around us. The priest role often stops at the individual. Which is why the other roles need to balance. The church is not about its own mission, but instead the church exists in order to serve the mission of God.

But it is a struggle. The working through is as important as the result.

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