My last post generated some strong reactions. Thanks to those of you who took the time to provide constructive feedback and keep the conversation going. Many of you told me that our unity in the UMC is not simply located in our polity but in Jesus Christ. Jesus is what unites us.
I want to believe this is true, but the theological pluralism embedded in the “Theological Task” section of the 1972 Discipline has had long-lasting and far-reaching effects. Nevertheless, for the sake of conversation, Iet’s drill a bit deeper into what it might mean to be united in Christ.
It’s safe to say that virtually all people who call themselves Christian regard Jesus as in some way important. But why is he important? To put things in fairly broad categories, Christians have claimed that Jesus is important because of (a) who he is (b) what he has done, and (c) what he will do.
Most Christians, following the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions of the Church, have affirmed that Jesus was the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. This statement of who Jesus is cannot be separated from what he has done and what he will do. Jesus has atoned for our sins, made it possible for us to be reconciled to God, and will come again in judgment. His incarnation is essential for our salvation because, as Gregory of Nazianzus put it, “that which he has not assumed, he has not healed.” Put differently, for God to heal the sinful and broken nature of humankind, it was necessary for God to take on the nature of humankind. Only in Christ could the perfection of God and the brokenness of humanity be united. Athanasius put the matter positively: Christ became human that we might become “gods.” In other words, in the divine-human union, all humankind was given the opportunity to be transformed into the likeness of Christ and live forever in harmony with the Triune God.
Doctrine is a delicate matter. It is rather like a game of Jenga. As you begin to remove pieces of the structure, it becomes ever less stable. One piece relies on another piece, and with the removal of just a few key ideas, the entire system becomes incoherent. In other words, the structure tumbles.
Photo by Guma89, courtesy Wikimedia Commons athttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jenga_distorted.jpg
To help stabilize the structure of our affirmations about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, the Church developed creeds, the two most important of which are the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. Consider the second article of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
A more basic Christological summary can be found in the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus Christ is:
[the] only Son [of the Father], Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
Okay… maybe we can leave out the “descended into hell” part…. This affirmation has a complex history and has found its way in and out of the Apostles’ Creed many times, depending upon the community of faith in which the creed was recited.
But we all affirm the other parts, right?
I mean, after all, the affirmations of these creeds are presupposed in the Articles of Religion, one of our doctrinal standards within The United Methodist Church. Consider Articles II and III:
Article II – Of the Word, or Son of God, Who Was Made Very Man
The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.
Article III – Of the Resurrection of Christ
Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.
And we must not forget about the affirmations of that oft-neglected part of our United Methodist tradition, the Evangelical United Brethren, which gave us the Confession of Faith:
Article II – Jesus Christ
We believe in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, in whom the divine and human natures are perfectly and inseparably united. He is the eternal Word made flesh, the only begotten Son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. As ministering Servant he lived, suffered and died on the cross. He was buried, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to be with the Father, from whence he shall return. He is eternal Savior and Mediator, who intercedes for us, and by him all men will be judged.
The problem with claiming unity in Christ goes back to the matter of theological pluralism, as I have argued before. The simple fact of the matter is that we don’t all confess these truths about Christ. The tradition of process theology, so powerfully present in United Methodist theological education through the second half of the twentieth century, provided a set of competing claims about God to those of the Great Tradition of Christian faith, while utilizing much of the same language. Process theology and existentialist theology provided a powerful set of ideas that in many places detached the Church from its historic doctrinal moorings. The theological ideas of highly sophisticated thinkers like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, Charles Hartshorne, and Schubert Ogden were popularized in the writings of people like Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong.
Under the influence of these theological schools of thought, Jesus came to be seen primarily as a teacher and exemplar. But what did he teach and what did he exemplify? No theological or historical consensus emerged. (To identify the specific content of Jesus’ teaching was the goal of the Second Quest of the historical Jesus, which eventually fizzled out in absence of significant agreement among scholars.) The consequence of this Christological re-visioning was that many churchgoers in the mainline Protestant traditions encountered a Jesus who had been emptied of the Church’s traditional proclamations about him, and with no clear content to replace what had been lost, the figure of Jesus became, as he has so often in the past, a cipher, an empty container.
Today, for some Christians Jesus primarily represents radical inclusiveness, which, not surprisingly, is also the ethos of the cultural moment in which we find ourselves in the postmodern West. For other Christians, Jesus was a rebel, kicking against the oppressive legal system of his day in ways that we should both admire and emulate (think Albert Schweitzer). For others, Jesus was a prophet of radical egalitarianism (think Crossan). For still others, influenced by liberation theology, Jesus is the archetype of the oppressed everywhere, teaching us to resist hierarchical systems that necessarily prevent people from living the life that God would wish for them. There may be some truth in each of these positions, but it is important to note what they do not often emphasize, or at times even acknowledge: the redemption of humankind from sin and death through the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.
In discussing these positions, I’m not suggesting that we should neglect the life and teachings of Jesus. On the contrary, I would emphasize that Jesus’ life and teachings are important precisely because of who he was, namely, the incarnate God who has redeemed that which he has assumed. A moral imperative such as the care for the outcast takes on considerably more significance when the one who has given us this imperative is the incarnate God who has redeemed us from sin and death. What I’m getting at here is that, within the broad Protestant tradition, we have lost a unified vision of who Jesus was, and therefore we cannot possibly agree about significant issues related to what he did or what he will do. It was a costly mistake to treat so lightly the creedal claims of the tradition that have sustained the Church through the centuries. In our present context, it is hard to identify any coherent Christology within the practical life of mainline Protestantism. My sojourn in the UM tradition has led me to believe that this is the case within our church as well.
So if we are going to claim unity in Christ, we had better get serious about identifying collectively who Christ is, what he has done, and what he will do. That will involve an ongoing commitment to study, prayer, and catechesis. It will be interesting to see over time whether or not we are capable of, or even willing to, engage in the hard work to bring ourselves to a point of unity in Christ.