Unity in Christ (?)

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.

crucifixion icon

Gregory_of_NazianzusMost 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.

31 thoughts on “Unity in Christ (?)

  1. Appreciate your writing about our denomination, particular in this post and the prior ones you’ve linked to. I’ve been a Methodist virtually all my 74 years and have lived through the period you’ve been describing. Gary Bepob’s observation that “United Methodists speaking a muddled message via multiple voices talking at once in downright contradiction and chaos” is pretty much how I experienced our denomination and its predecessors. You have helped bring clarity.

    Is there anyone you could recommend who has chronicled this period in our denomination? You’ve done a good job of summarizing this, but as a layman I’m probably never going to wade through the writings of the theologians you mentioned and arrive at the big picture.

    In our mission statement, “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” I think I have a handle on “making disciples…” if we center on who Christ really is, as you’ve discussed above. For me the “transformation of the world” part means doing so through transforming individuals by bring them to Christ, who then interact with the world (because of whom they have become) to transform the part where they are. However, I’m suspicious that “transformation” in the mission statement is intended as an ambiguous term left open to more than one interpretation. Likewise, in the vows that are currently used when joining the UMC (…support with our prayers, out presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness), what is meant by witness? I suspect an intended ambiguity again. I may have missed something you’ve written, but are you going to make these the subject of future posts?

    Brother in Christ

    • Hi, Chris. I don’t know of one book that chronicles all of these developments. Mark Tooley’s book, Taking Back The United Methodist Church, chronicles a number of them. Perhaps other readers know of other resources.

      As for future blog posts…. I don’t know. So much blogging to do… so little time.

  2. David, in this short blog you have identified the heart of the problem in mainline Protestantism today. Indeed, there was more Christological substance in Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and Tillich than in so much of the discourse in our church and other mainline Protestant churches today. You have made a constructive contribution to the general discourse in our church with this blog, and I would so much like to hope that your suggestion for conversation about the person and work of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son and our Lord, would be taken seriously.

    • Thank you, Bishop Whitaker. I appreciate your taking the time to read and respond. Let’s keep praying for a serious discussion of Christology in our denomination.

    • Bishop Whitaker,.
      I so enjoyed reading your blogs and articles on the Florida Conference website. If you are blogging somewhere now, I would like to “keep on reading”. If you are working on a book (or more), please let us know. Thank you for your ministry as bishop and may God continue to bless, guide, and use you.

  3. I appreciate that a blog isn’t a book, but I think you left two important things out. The first is that the rise of process metaphysics as a resource for Christian theology came about because the Christian church of the 20th century had failed to make the gospel message relevant and comprehensible in the cultural context. The idea of God as articulated in the recently United Methodist church of the 1960’s not only strained credibility, but couldn’t possibly inspire the awe and wonder I felt in contemplation of the rapidly unfolding universe revealed by science. The God of United Methodist Christianity was a parochial patriarch overly concerned with a narrow set of social issues located almost entirely in the US.

    C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and their interpreters were a thousand times more compelling in their imagination of God than what I was hearing Sunday after Sunday in church. When I took my first course with Charles Hartshorne it was a revelation. Here was someone who took seriously the vastness of the universe, the depth of human culture, and the compelling question of theodicy and freedom. What Ogden could do (for I had him after Hartshorne) was offer a compelling interpretation of Christian symbols so that they became meaningful again – in an entirely different way than the re-mythologization of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams. Never, I note, did he reduce Jesus to being an examplar or deny the atonement. Your binary is too simple by far and fails completely to capture his understanding of the atonement.

    The problem with process thought was that it was a form of contextualization relevant to a relatively small cross section of western culture over a relatively short period of time. I realized this when I left the US and began to work with Asians and indigenous Asian theologians whose cultures brought a completely different set of metaphysical concerns. And which therefore demanded different forms of contextualization.

    Our problem today is that no compelling contextual theology has arisen for the 21st century West. The God of process metaphysics turns out to have been willfully impotent and thus unworthy of worship by a humanity that wants more than a fellow sufferer and permanent memorial. So called orthodox theologians are busy defending an increasingly meaningless traditional language in the mistaken belief that they are defending the underlying gospel message. And so-called progressive theologians appear to be, as you point out, simply making Jesus in their own image. And while I have my own problems with process thought (above), I have yet to see a metaphysical alternative that can even begin to capture the reality of the universe as unfolded by science. Neither orthodox nor progressive theology is capturing the imagination of young people, nor will they.

    I quote Richard Feynmann: “It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all the atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil-which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”

    Until we can articulate a drama bigger than Jesus died on the cross for my sins, or even died on the cross for humanity (a fading species on a minor planet) we really don’t have anything to say of relevance. Surely the Christ of the creeds is far more than we have understood him to be. When have a I heard a UM preacher equal this for a vision of humanity in the universe? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSgiXGELjbc? Alas, never. If we can’t do better than Carl Sagan and Steven Hawking we’re lost. Fortunately there are still Lewis and Tolkien, each more compelling and relevant today than virtually anything that has come along since.

    • Robert, thanks for adding your perspective and insights to this discussion. I don’t think I can add anything of significance to Bishop Whitaker’s response below. I understand the content of proper Christian proclamation to be a cosmic drama, not simply one that is focused on humans. But I think this is articulated well enough in the orthodox traditions of the faith. Blessings to you and the good people of Perkins.

  4. In my opinion, the perspective of the historic ecumenical creeds not only present the gospel as the good news of forgiveness, but also as the restoration of humankind to the image and likeness of God. When the Nicene Creed confesses that the eternal Son became fully human, it affirms that it is for us and for our salvation. There are two distinct purposes in the sending of the Son: “for us”–to represent and to embody God’s original purpose in creating human beings in God’s image, and “for our salvation”–to accomplish our liberation from slavery to sin and death, a liberation or redemption that is necessary in order for us to participate in the new humankind offered in the person of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this salvation is not limited to humankind, but it is cosmic in scope. Both of these emphases in the catholic tradition represented by the creeds are grounded in the witness of the apostles. It is notable that the most effective apologists of the 20th century were laypersons (Lewis, Chesterton, and perhaps also Tolkien in his own way), but all these laypersons presented a message coherent with the great tradition of the ecumenical church symbolized in the Apostles’ Creed and the NIcene Creed. John Polkinghorne, the physicist and theologian, offers a compelling engagement between the natural sciences and orthodox Christian theology in his several works, and there are others as well. In his “The One, the Three, and the Many,” the late Colin Gunton shows how the doctrine of the Trinity (grounded in the ecumenical councils and creeds) addresses the crisis of modernity. I think that, when the creeds are properly understood, they represent a large vision of God’s eternal being, creation, and salvation that is relevant to all cultural contexts.

  5. Wonderful article! I am a Pentecostal minister however I have a great affection for the UMC due to the Wesleyan heritage of my own Pentecostalism. Your thoughtful concern for what unity in Christ really looks like is much needed.

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