Highs and lows of christology

I’ve been thinking about Jesus lately. It’s probably the sort of thing christians ought to do, but then again I’m not necessarily a very “good” christian, whatever that means. In particular, I’ve been thinking of the aspect of Jesus known as christology. In case you’ve not come across the term before, it’s about how you view Jesus in relation to his qualities as being human and as being God.

A “low” christology tends to emphasise Jesus’ humanity over and above his divinity while a “high” christology tends to see Jesus primarily as God where the ‘incarnate’ is slightly more subdued.

I would hope it’s fair to say that the vast majority of christians subscribe to the idea that Jesus was fully God and fully human. However, it’s also probably fair to say that not everyone (myself included) understands this. It’s a dichotomy close to the heart of the christian faith that becomes harder to understand the more one thinks about it.

The way I tend to go about it is to alternate. As I try to live a life of discipleship, at times it seems to make more sense to think of Jesus primarily human, where the idea of his being God is slightly out of focus in the background. At other times it helps to get an understanding of God through looking at Jesus, which inevitably brings with it a higher christology. Such times tend to ebb and flow, sometimes depending on what teaching we have at my local church, at other times on my own study and musing.

If we look at the gospels, one of the most noticeable differences is between the low relatively low christology of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) and the higher christology of the gospel of John.

In the various evangelical/(ana)baptist/charismatic churches I have been a part of over the years, there is nearly always a real love for John’s gospel above the others. Mark often gets overlooked. It’s possibly in seeking for a sense of balance then that I am drawn to Mark and to seek a fairly low christology.

The highest end of the christology could well be said to be Docetism, an idea condemned as a heresy as it viewed Jesus as God but that he only had the appearance of being human. At the other extreme is Ebionitism which, amongst other things, says that Jesus was merely human and denies that he was one and the same as God.

Perhaps it is our failure to understand the paradox that leads to a suspicion against those who put forward a view that leans more towards one point of view. For example, the late Marcus Borg saw the American evangelical high christology as verging on the docetic and as a result advocated such a low christology that he denied the historicity of the resurrection.

Of late, I’ve been in a season of low christology. But for some reason that seems to be giving way to a higher view. Wherever we are, we can end up unnecessarily disagreeing with those who are at another point of the cycle. The other day I thought of an image of a rope. It’s made up of multiple chords, each of which is made up of other threads, some of which may be frayed or pointing in odd directions but on the whole, the chords spiral round one another and bind together. So it is with different christologies. We may not all point in the same direction all of the time, but given time we move along the timeline of our thread and we all end up winding towards Jesus.

In thinking this through, I couldn’t help but wonder about how we try to tell others about Jesus. My observation is that by and large the Jesus evangelists speak of is the Jesus of high christology. We refer to him as Jesus Christ without ever saying what Christ actually means. This is partly why some (e.g. Tom Wright) refrain from using the term Christ as it has come to be thought of as his surname instead of a royal title signifying his anointing. We refer to Jesus as “Son of God” as though it’s the most natural term to toss around, somehow implying that we fully understand what that means and expecting someone else to be on the same wavelength.

In my opinion, this is an arrogant and unhelpful approach.

Jesus didn’t come into the world declaring himself to be God. Read the gospels; you’ll have to look carefully to be able to construct an argument of Jesus’ divinity. This is where C.S. Lewis’ trilemma is rather unhelpful, as the message that Jesus preached was not “[I am God. Worship me]” or anything like that. The one thing he spoke about more than any other was the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven).

Rather, Jesus appeared as a human. That was how he was first known. I’ve heard preachers say that his earliest disciples dropped what they were doing because they were answering God’s call. I emphatically disagree with that point of view. They didn’t know that Jesus was God. They followed a man, a teacher, someone with a reputation. It was over time spent in Jesus’ company that they come to some level of understanding. Peter’s confession doesn’t appear at the start of any of the gospels. It only comes part way through. Even then, though Jesus affirms that the declaration that he is the Jewish Messiah is the foundation of God’s renewed people, the Church, there still remains much that is unknown or misunderstood. It is only after the resurrection that the pieces start to fall into place and we get the first semblance of a high christology.

So if we try to introduce the world first and foremost to a Jesus of high christology then we are telling the story back to front. It starts with the conclusion and asks for that to be accepted, which is a rather large pill to swallow. It’s no wonder that it is so readily rejected.  It’s not how Jesus introduced himself. If he had, I’m sure the charges of blasphemy would have come far sooner than they did.

To my present understanding, part of the point of Jesus being a human was that he met us at our own level. He trod on the earth entrusted to us, he ate the food we made from it and he defecated it back again. Though he spoke of things of heaven, he drew his analogies from the world around that he saw every day, that he breathed in and out every day for over 30 years. To gloss over this and dive straight into declaring Jesus to be the risen Messiah is like skipping your meat and two veg by going straight for dessert.

If we can get to grips with a thoroughly human Jesus first, then we progress “upwards” and read the Easter narratives in the light of a life of deeds and words. It is right that we follow Jesus but it is hubris to think that there is any novelty in this. The disciples walked this path long before you or I, as have millions of christians across centuries since. Though with such a high footfall, the erosion caused by those who’ve gone a little off the track can make it hard to discern the narrow way.

Only then, if we can put on the glasses of a high christology can we loop back and meet Jesus afresh. It is this cycle that I referred to earlier and why I believe that it is hard to revisit the gospels too many times. There is always something fresh to be found; though of course one must be cautious against seeking novelty if orthodoxy becomes clichéd.

I have a hypothesis about why it is that evangelism is so often stated in terms of a high christology. It is to do with a reaction against the flattening out of the richness and variety of christian belief so that it fits into a neat box called “theism”. Against those who would like to bundle up christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. into this one term, there can be a temptation to go straight for the concept of “God”. But to do so is rather a tough task, not least due to the variety of ways even within just christianity that people speak of God. But we have a trick up our sleeve. If we believe that Jesus is God incarnate and take on board the idea that “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.” (John 14:6-7) then we can point to Jesus. But doing this as a first response asks us to take a conclusion (a high christological view) and asks someone else to use this as their starting point. It may be a quicker answer to a critic but it is not an invitation to join in on a journey of discipleship.

There is a problem with this hypothesis. At present, I’m reading Eusebius’ ‘History of the Church’ and in it there is evidence of a consistent high christology in the first few centuries following Jesus’ resurrection. There is little by way of an expression of low christology. So it might be that evangelism via the high route is simply a tradition that has been in good stead for some 1,700+ years.

There is another problem with my rather idealistic view on introducing Jesus via a low christology. It is this: Jesus lived among, and spoke to, 1st century Jews. He was one himself. Their background, cultural understanding, their worldview if you will, was vastly different to ours. So there are allusions in the gospels which one can understand if you look into such a worldview (and here, the christian world owes a debt of gratitude to historically-minded theologians whose diligent work has shed light on this) but which are easily lost if one approaches the gospels under the misapprehension that they were written for a modern, western audience. Therefore, the message that Jesus taught cannot be fully comprehended without a modicum of education.

While this is no bad thing, it risks reducing christianity to an intellectual exercise. Like the flattening out into mere theism, this would be an equal underrepresentation. Having trod the path from low christology to high christology and back again several times, one gets a glimpse of something more than mere history, more than a binitarian view of Jesus and God the Father. Holding it altogether, bringing life, is the Spirit. And that’s a whole other way of looking at christianity.

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8 responses to “Highs and lows of christology

  1. I read the book ‘The Man Christ Jesus’ by Bruce Ware recently, and found it very helpful in thinking through the humanity of Christ rather than the deity. He argues that Christians too often emphasize the deity rather than the humanity of Christ, and he gives some very good reasons why we should take the humanity of Christ more seriously. Given what you’ve written here I think you would enjoy it.

    • I’ll add that onto the reading list. It looks like a lighter read than Pannenberg’s ‘Jesus: God and Man’. Am just starting on Vermes’ ‘Jesus the Jew’.

  2. I’m really interested to read this now as I have just been writing something about the nature of God, aiming to be accessible to those of all faiths and none. Also my favourite gospel is John, but the ladies’ group I go to is currently studying Mark using “Mark The Servant King” by Paul Barnett. Sue

    • I would say Mark has the most user-friendly opening. No genealogies which are bewildering and seemingly pointless for someone enquiring about christianity and John’s opening, though beautiful and profound, requires the reader to take on an awful lot in one go, which is why I think many metaphorically choke on it.

      • Each gospel was written with a different audience in mind. Mark was for “outsiders”. Sue

        • Indeed. And not one of them was for a 21st century, westernised audience who have the hindsight of 2,000 years of history, philosophy, science, sociology, literary criticism, etc…. 😉

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Jesus – A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham | The Alethiophile

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Jesus the Jew by Geza Vermes | The Alethiophile