Issue 44, December 2004
Christological and Soteriological reflections in the wake of half a century of intense and improved Jewish-Christian relations
"His theology contains a trace of greatness, yet I think that a believing modern Christian can and must go beyond Augustine of Hippo", David Flusser.i
It is a distinct pleasure and privilege to contribute to an important project, recently initiated by the World Council of Churches et al., which will seek to explore how Christian self-understanding has changed as Jewish-Christian relations have enhanced and improved during the last half-century. To what extent are traditional Christological and soteriological models and motifs discussed, defined, redefined, refined or even refuted? Due to limitations of space, this brief presentation can address but a few of all the interesting and important issues which deserve to be discussed.ii
A. Beyond bipolarity
By now I have been teaching New Testament classes for a decade at Lund University. After having explained that Pharisaism should not be described as legalism, and that Judaism is not a religion of existential anguish and theological self-glorification, there is at least one student each semester who asks almost the same question: “But if Judaism is not such a bad religion, why then did Jesus have to come?” We must ask ourselves why and how so many Christians have been trained not only to understand Judaism as the opposite of Christianity, but indeed also to understand its alleged shortcomings as the very raison d’être of Christianity?
Thus, it is necessary to continue to oppose the bipolar way of thinking, which is deeply offending to adherents of other religious traditions, since their religions so often are reduced to cults of empty ceremonies and their theological systems described as futile efforts to reach God. As we go beyond bipolarity, we have to address the question of how Christology is to be articulated in the future.
B. Creative Christology
John May has suggested that ”[t]o continue thinking of Christ only in the traditional way is like sticking to the examples in a grammar book instead of using a language freely and creatively after having assimilated the rule systems of its ’generative grammar’.”iii His example is illuminating; it reminds us of the fact that the wide variety of first century Christologies is neither self-evident nor self-interpreting. Thus, the Christological ”grammar” per se invites us to reflect on the importance and the articulation of Christology today. It could even be argued that Christological ”literalism” is equal to misunderstanding, in the words of John May: ”[t]he whole concept of ‘incarnation’ as a three-stage process of divine pre-existence, human indwelling and final exaltation seems mythical, and to take it literally is to invite the accusation of fundamentalism.” iv
Another reason for paying attention to Christology in this context is that it is often accused of fanning religious intolerance. One does only need to refer to Rosemary Radford Ruether’s famous dictum that the left hand of Christology is the rejection of Judaism.v In his seminal book on religious pluralism, Alan Race argues that it is the doctrine of the incarnation which is the greatest obstacle to his pluralistic paradigm. These references make clear that Christology has the reputation of being the primary reason for Christian intolerance, although, as Krister Stendahl puts it, ”… it all depends on what Christology you have.”vi
A third reason for examining Christian incarnational language is that it not only touches upon, but actually is dependent on our whole understanding of theophany and its limitations. Both Judaism and Christianity underline the importance of events. As Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it, “Biblical religion starts with events. The life of religion is given not in the mental preservation of ideas but in events and insights, in something that happens in time.”vii He thus understands revelation as an intensifying act, as “a hierarchy of moments within time.”viii This also means that revelation is not only to define but also to confine. Every experience of theophany must inevitably in the eyes of coming generations look dated and of its period. Indeed, it will be argued below that restriction is one of the most fundamental aspects of revelation, that curtailment is not the opposite of but a necessary condition for theophany, and that the dynamics of communication need to be considered in order not to turn revelation into petrification of the past. There can be no divine revelation without divine concealment.
A fourth aspect is the observation that, whereas the moral dimension of incarnation is manifest in the paranaesis, it is seldom treated in the discussions on Christian theology of religions. In other words, what in inner-Christian teaching is understood as an asset, is in the interreligious discussion often presented as an obstacle. ix
All this is merely to point out that even in a cursory presentation of Christology, and especially of its incarnational aspect, we are confronting a host of issues. Whereas it is impossible to examine all of them in this paper, at least three reflections will be presented below which hopefully will further the discussion on the possibilities to forge more modest theologies.
(1) First and foremost, it needs to be maintained that theology begins in wonder, simply because utter transcendence is the non-negotiable starting-point of theology. In his masterly two books Man Is Not Alone and God in Search of Man Heschel reminds us of Plato’s assertion that philosophy begins in wonder (Theatetus 155d). This thaumatism (cf. Greek thaumatizein, “to wonder”) could easily be extended from pure philosophy to include theology as well. In other words, Jewish reflection on creation could and should assist Christians as they forge a contemporary and creative Christology. Anyone reflecting on the doctrine of incarnation does well in approaching it with Heschel’s ”radical amazement.”x As soon as incarnation ceases to be a mystery, it is changed into something else.
Is this not an illustrative example of what Kierkegaard refers to by the famous expression Springet (”the leap [of faith]”), the commitment to an objective uncertainty, the gulf which faith alone can bridge?xi This needs to be pointed out in the discussion on the quest for the historical Jesus and the different Christologies in early Christianity, as well as in modern times. When reading some presentations of earliest Christianity it is easy to have the impression that the disciples’ response was the only possible one to Jesus’ appearance. Charles E. Carlston has correctly pointed out the problems related to this understanding:
That would be, in current jargon, to legitimize the kerygma. And—since not everyone who met Jesus did understand him to be an eschatological event—it is demonstrably not only bad theology but also bad history. xii
If the importance of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is not recognised one begins, in the words of Carlston, “to legitimize the kerygma”, i.e., one argues that one’s own interpretation is the only possible outcome, the only intellectually possible conclusion. There will always be those who only see a piece of wood where others see a Stradivarius, and people who only see just another sunset over the ocean whereas it is an unforgettable experience to the fellow passengers on the same ship. There will always be some who are moved to tears by Kol Nidrei, whereas others are indifferent. One person’s Eucharist is another person’s dry ceremonialism etc. One person’s matter of course is another person’s unfathomable mystery, one person’s paradoxical revelation is another person’s contradiction. Understood in this way, Christian theology contains an inevitably paradoxical element, and incarnation could be described as an intensification of the paradox of the radical amazement every human being experiences in moments of insight. Accordingly, Christology is not a problem to be solved as quickly as possible—so that we can move to other more interesting and burning issues—, but rather a mystery to be preserved, a challenge to be accepted, and a question to be posed: how does incarnation affect the thinking and the lifestyle of the individual Christian? To put it differently, the mother tongue of Christology is wonder, not arrogance, and its second language is ethics, not apologetics.
(2) Incarnation is a celebration of particularity. If the previous paragraph accentuated the Deus semper major aspect of theology, this second point emphasises the importance of not forgetting the motif of smallness and lowliness in Christian theology, of what is toned-downed and low-pitched. Indeed, incarnation could be interpreted as a heavenly reminder of the tremendous significance of what is often considered to be triflingly insignificant. Any theology which embodies incarnation insists on the importance of an approximately thirty-year-old Jewish Aramaic-speaking male who lived some two thousand years ago. How could this emphasis be anything but a celebration of particularity?
Theologians face the delicate task of separating historical circumstances from indisputable and eternal ”truths”, lest Christianity degenerates into a petrification of the conditions of living two millennia ago. This is still an ongoing process, as becomes obvious in an essay on the imago Dei concept written by Tikva Frymer-Kensky:
Christianity quickly made it clear that the age, skin tone, and foreskin of Jesus were historical circumstances, not essential parts of the image of God. Christianity, however, has had a harder time ridding itself of the notion that gender is more significant than age. xiii.
(3) The last point argues that, understood in this way, incarnation promotes a non-apologetic theology. In the wake of Enlightenment the ontological uniqueness (whether this uniqueness can be defined or has been correctly defined is another question) has been transferred to an historical uniqueness, i.e., the radical incomparability of the proclamation of the Nazarene. The insistence on historical uniqueness has two major shortcomings: first, “uniqueness” is a way to describe phenomena, not to estimate them. Thus, there are some phenomena which could be described as unique but not the least momentous, and there are other phenomena which are far-reaching in importance, but not the least unique. Thus to seek the importance of Jesus of Nazareth to Christians exclusively on an historical level is to seek in vain, in the words of E.P. Sanders: “[t]he claim of Christianity historically has not been that Jesus said six things which no one else said.”xvii The second reason for dismantling the quest for the unique Jesus is that it does not promote a soul-searching Christianity, but rather a triumphalist belief which scouts out and tracks down differences, and then turns them into some odd point of pride: “the more unique (as if it were possible to express the comparative forms of “unique”), the merrier!” One consequence of such a boasting historiography is that the contemporaries of Jesus, i.e., those people he knew as his own, will no longer be understood as his historical context but as his theological contrast.
Incarnational theology does not need to portray Jesus as historically different from his contemporaries. A Jewish Jesus who teaches about the Kingdom of God with the help of Jewish parables, which were characteristic of the time, constitutes no threat to this interpretation of Christianity. According to this line of thought, Jesus does not need to be historically “unique,” “best,” “unsurpassed” etc.
On the contrary, Christians may rejoice in the many parallels between the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and his contemporaries because this observation encourages them to believe in the divine will being communicated in human words. If his teachings were all that new, one must be allowed to ask why Christ came so late, why this teaching was revealed so many years after the origin of the human species, why on earth (in the most literal sense of the expression!) the doctrines about the infinite value of the human soul and the commandment of love were kept back for myriads of millennia.
An historically unique person is also an historically incomprehensible person—and that can hardly be the point! Incarnational theology compels Christians to ask themselves exactly in what respect Jesus can be said to be ”unique:” in his proclamation or in his passion—or is it in his person? What is suggested here is a non-apologetic reading of the New Testament Gospels, what John May designates “overcoming ‘meliorism,’ [i.e.,] abandoning unilateral declarations of definitiveness and superiority.”xviii
In a word, incarnational Christology proclaims that the protagonist in the Gospels is not different from but rather an intensification of what the world has already seen, albeit through a glass darkly.
C. Deutero-Augustinian Soteriology
Few Christians are indifferent to Ruether’s assertion that Christian anti-Judaism evolved as the flipside of early Christological hermeneutics, that “anti-Judaism developed as the left hand of Christology.”xix Many certainly repudiate it as an unfounded and unjust accusation, others have accepted her statement and initiated a soul-searching re-examination of traditional Christology. A third response to Ruether’s provocative statement has been articulated by Helen P. Fry, who argues that it is actually soteriology and not Christology which is the main problem. One could, of course, modulate her approach by pointing out that Christology and soteriology certainly are related and influenced by each other, but she is nevertheless altogether right in stating that “the main problem is found in exclusivist concepts of salvation.”xx Thus, what needs to be reappraised is first and foremost Christian soteriology. In Tony Bayfield’s words, how can Christian soteriology create “theological space” for the other? xxi
No one Christian theologian has been more influential than Augustine in forming the anthropology and soteriology of Western Christianity. Adherents of Augustinian soteriology have to face a host of complex issues in relation to these twin concepts, two of which will be dealt with here: first, Augustine took for granted that the Fall, as described in Gen 3, was an historical event. How is this biblical passage interpreted by those theologians who do not believe that the first eleven chapters in the book of Genesis relate a course of historical events, i.e., all those who do not believe that Adam and Eve have existed as historical persons at the beginning of time? Or are the biblicists right when claiming that only those who believe in the historicity of Gen 1-11 are true Christians?
Secondly, Augustine’s doctrine of peccatum originale cannot be separated from his struggle with the problem of evil. He started with an individualistic understanding of retribution, but realised that there are instances—e.g. the suffering of newborn babies—when this individualistic approach is not only insufficient but even wrongheaded. His doctrine of original sin, which he developed towards the end of his career, is his way of coping with theodicy. This implies that original sin is quite simply the opposite of an individualistic concept—it was from the very beginning a collective idea which cannot be separated from concepts such as structural sin etc. To treat it in splendid isolation from collective notions is nothing less than to misunderstand it.
Given the complications of historicity and collectivity, additional studies on Augustinian anthropology and soteriology are warranted.xxii However, there is a third aspect of his soteriology which is of interest in this discussion. It is well known that Augustine argued that the continued preservation of the Jews post Christum was a proof to the veracity of Christianity; the humiliation of Jews was given a theological interpretation: Jewish misery was a divine punishment for their rejecting God’s Messiah. Today, few will find his line of thought convincing; hopefully it will appeal to even fewer. What is important to remember, however, is that he argued that it was imperative to interpret theologically the continued existence of Jews [sc. non-Christians] in the Christian empire. Thus, he was one of the first Christian theologians to articulate a theology of religions. To express it radically: although admittedly under heavy disguise, Augustine actually argued for religious pluralism! Whereas he interpreted it as a divine reminder of what happens if people do not pay heed to God’s call and obey God’s will, theologians today seek an alternative explanation to the existence of non-Christians. Deutero-Augustinian theologians (by which is meant theologians who belong to the Augustinian tradition, but are no slavish adherents of his teaching) today express the theological significance of non-Christians in totally different ways—but they do follow him when stressing that non-Christians should be seen neither as anonymous Christians, nor as conversion targets, but as of revelatory significance. Whereas Augustine referred to the Jews as librarii nostri sunt (“they are our librarians”), deutero-Augustinians solemnly name them a sacramentum, i.e., a visible sign of the goodness of the invisible God. In other words, sacramentum nostrum sunt (“They are our sacrament”), as also Cardinal Walter Kasper stated on October 28, 2002:
[With the promulgation of Nostra Ætate on October 28, 1965] … we Catholics became aware with greater clarity that the faith of Israel is that of our elder brothers, and, most importantly, that Judaism is as a sacrament of every otherness that as such the Church must learn to discern, recognize and celebrate.xxiii
These three suggestions—a repeal of bipolarity, a renewed Christological reflection and the shaping of a deutero-Augustinian soteriology—are meant to help us to follow Bayfield’s advice to create “theological space” for the other.
Dr. Jesper Svartvik is a Senior Research Fellow at the Swedish Research Council and also Assistant Professor pro tempore in New Testament Studies at Lund University. He is currently completing a monograph on case issues in biblical interpretation (slavery, anti-Judaism and sexuality).
Bayfield, T. 1992. “Making Theological Space.” Dialogue with a Difference: The Manor House Group Experience (eds. T. Bayfield & M. Braybrooke; London: SCM), 15-28.
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