At the center of what makes Christian theology distinct from the general theological conversations of the religious traditions of the world, is the Christian engagement of Jesus. Other traditions – Judaism and Islam particularly – have something to say about the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth; his life, ministry, and teachings. Only Christianity, however, places cosmic implications on Jesus. Within the Christian tradition, Jesus is not only prophet, rabbi, and rebel, but also Messiah, Christ, or “Anointed One.” Christology, then, within the Christian theological tradition, is to define precisely who the historical Jesus of Nazareth was and what the cosmic implications of his life are for humanity and all of creation.1
From the start of the Christian tradition the implications of Jesus’ life where broadly agreed upon. Jesus’ apparent death and resurrection2 had brought about a type of salvation or freedom from the present context of existence. Naturally, the first question one might ask when one discovers that one has been rescued without any visible change in circumstance is to ask from what one has been saved. Early Christian theologians did indeed ask this question and quickly realized questions of soteriology and sin cannot be easily answered without first defining exactly who and why Jesus is.
The authors of the gospels and the writers of the New Testament epistles all wrestle with the question of who exactly Jesus was. The gospels present Jesus as man born into humble circumstances who starts a ministry among poor Jews and Samaritans after experiencing baptism from John. Jesus eats food like a human being3, he gets tired like a human being4, he has a mother like a human being5, he weeps like a human being6, and finally he dies like all human beings. Juxtaposed against this human backdrop, however, the gospel writers present a divine being who can walk on water7, turn water into wine8, give sight to the blind9, and bring people back from the dead.10 The Gospel of St. John presents Jesus as the eternal Logos.11 The epistle writers ascribe creation12 and other divine acts to Jesus.13
The question of whether Jesus was fully human, fully divine, some hybrid of those things, or something entirely different was the focus of the early conversations and councils of Christianity. At Nicaea in 325 and Chalcedon in 451 the main bodies of Eastern and Western Christianity defined Jesus as being one prosopon and one hypostatis, homoousios with God the Father – one person of one substance of one and the same being with the Father. Though there were disagreements with this analysis, the dominant sources of power within the tradition took the statements of Nicaea and Chalcedon as orthodox and for the next many centuries would do theology starting from that definition.14
Starting from a position where Jesus is the Second Person of the Triune God, theologians moved to integrate this who of Jesus into the why and how of Jesus. If Jesus was fully God and fully human and Jesus had saved us from something called sin, how did this all happen and what particularly about Jesus made this change of reality possible? Anselm of Canterbury put forth a popular theory of atonement called the satisfaction theory where Jesus healed the chasm made between humanity and God’s honor at the fall by taking humanity’s dishonor on himself on the cross. Peter Abelard rejected Anselm’s explanation and focused on Jesus’ mortal life lived fully to display the perfect qualities of love; the moral exemplar theory. In conversation with Anselm and Abelard other theologians have posited the Christus Victor theory where Jesus defeats the evil powers of Satan, demons, and death through his overcoming these powers in his resurrection from the dead.15
Starting from the historic definitions who Jesus is and building from the theories explicating what his implications are for humanity’s status before God, theologies over the centuries have continued to build and construct theologies for their own context. This process, as with the processes that built the early orthodoxies of the majority body of the Christian church, was filled with the influences of empire and other forces of evil. While many modern theologians find the perceived influences of empire’s evil powers so corrupting that they must reject all theological claims sourced from that tradition, Rieger posits that “surplus” – places of life-giving theology – can be found between the corruptive, death-dealing theologies of empire.16 Johnson, too, rejects the notion of entirely rejecting the traditional theologies of the Christian church. She, with Rieger and others, seeks to recast and reclaim Jesus within the Christian tradition in ways that bring surplus and are theologically useful for all people.17
I appreciate Rieger, Johnson, and other’s movements to remain within the Christian tradition as they seek to build life-giving theologies. The evils of power are a constant foe of the traditional theology of the church; always at work attempting to corrupt the empire resistant message of the Gospel. The God displayed in Jesus is not a God of power and empire. Though Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation” and “all things were created through him and for him,”18 he does not “consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.”19 For humanity’s salvation, Jesus “made himself nothing.”20 Becoming incarnate as a human being, he lived as a servant. Jesus died a shameful public death at the hands of an empire and took no actions to save himself.21 If this is the “image of the invisible God”22 Jesus – as Rieger and others rightly notice – is turning the notion of divinity and empire on its head.
Though historically the line between the government and the church have been severely compromised and blurred, the unexpected and contrary nature of the Triune God lived-out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has not been able to be completely obscured. God’s will for life precludes humanity from completely obscuring his call for life made manifest in Jesus. The Protestant Reformation of England and Europe shows, to me, that the branches of the vine of God’s advances for loving relationship cannot be cut back or killed no matter how powerful the forces of empire are. In victory over evil, in satisfaction and healing of the chasm between humanity and God, in example of how to live perfectly into God’s eternal relationship of love, Jesus is the embodiment of all sides of the diving/human encounter. So far as the theology of the church is founded in the teaching of those in unity with God through his Holy Spirit, the forces of empire and evil will not be able to obscure the light of the living God made manifest in creation through the Eternal Son. Jesus is the life-giving surplus of creation. As from the beginning, the theology of the Christian tradition must begin and end with Jesus.
- Serene Jones, Paul Lakeland, and Workgroup on Constructive Christian Theology, eds., Constructive Theology: A Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes with CD-ROM (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 162-183.
- Gnostics and other early traditions within broader Christianity held varying views on whether Jesus had actually died or been raised from the dead. All, however, at least agreed that those events were part of the narrative of Jesus’ “last” days.
- Matt 4:2
- Mark 4:38
- Luke 2
- John 11:35
- Matt 14:22-33
- John 2:1-11
- John 9:35-41
- John 11:38-44
- John 1:1
- Col 1:16
- Constructive Theology, 165-167.
- Ibid., 167-170.
- Ibid., 170-171
- Joerg Rieger, Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007).
- Catherine Mowry LaCugna, ed., Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, 1st ed (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 115-134.
- Col 1:15-16, ESV
- Phil 2:6, NIV 2011
- Phil 2:7, NIV 2011
- Phil 2:6-11
- Col 1:15, ESV
Works Cited & Referenced
Anglican Church in North America, and Catechesis Task Force. To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism. Ambridge, PA: Anglican House Pub Inc, 2014.
Articles of Religion of the Church of England. London, England: 1571.
Jones, Serene, Paul Lakeland, and Workgroup on Constructive Christian Theology, eds. Constructive Theology: A Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes with CD-ROM. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
LaCugna, Catherine Mowry, ed. Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. 1st ed. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
Rieger, Joerg. Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.