by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 15, 1978, p. 263. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Who is Jesus? He is God become man. How can we say so radical a thing? It is because through his humanity, we are able to see the fullness of his majesty — a majesty so sure that it can serve and die and still be the source of life.
Who was Jesus? The answer to this question has inspired but also divided Christianity since the beginning. Christians must raise and answer the question as to the meaning of Jesus’ lordship. A christological understanding cannot be evaded in the name of some anti-intellectual harmony, and yet whenever it is raised, brothers and sisters in Christ differ. The intense debate among Catholics between the advocates of ‘high" (orthodox) and "low" (liberal) Christologies has made even the pages of Time. Protestants, for their part, never cease arguing over the nature of the Lord’s lordship. Their squabbles are old hat -- far less newsworthy.
Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane provides us great help in determining what we can think and ought to think about his lordship. "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt" (Mark 14:36). In the light of this prayer, hardly any Christology could be too "low." Yet when we consider the matter further, hardly any Christology can be too "high." A really "high" Christology can finally spring only from a very "low" Christology.
Jesus’ prayer is an all-too-human prayer. Can we hear his prayer and doubt his finitude? Does it not even remind us of our own utterances as we pray, hoping against hope that we might be saved from the inevitabilities we create for ourselves in our lives? For surely Jesus’ actions and words had already made his own death inevitable. Do we not recognize in the fear he expressed something of the fear we feel when events force us to make good on our words? Do we not recognize the tenuousness of all human faith? We trust God, but we doubt him too. We believe he is acting for the good of those who love him, but we confess that we often have no idea of how this act or that act can ever work for good. The words "not what I will, but what thou wilt" are words of faith, surely, but they are also words of resignation before the impenetrable.
Jesus’ knowledge was that of a first century man. He knew nothing of the atom or the solar system. He understood disease in terms of the demonic. He believed the world would soon come to an end. He didn’t even know he was the Messiah, for the tempter could taunt him, "If you are the Son of God . . ."
"If you are . . . if . . . if." If Jesus knew he was God’s son, he would not have been subject to such temptation, but he knew no certainty. He proceeded toward his messianic destiny by faith. If he knew he was God’s son, then his human relationship to the Father had nothing in common with ours, for he would have lived in certitude while we must live by faith. How irrelevant his life becomes, how trivial his death becomes, if he knew the end from the beginning: striding confidently through life like some paragon, with all human relations, all human spontaneity and surprise, all humility really only outward show, inwardly the complete master who knows everything. It is a grisly science-fiction parody of the suffering servant.
If he knew that he would be resurrected, then his cross has little more significance than some particularly gory dental session. We know we will ultimately survive the pain and go home. Later we can even laugh about it. Mere pain doesn’t call existence into question as Jesus’ existence was called into question. Jesus’ anguish on the cross was more than pain. His rejection by humanity and God called everything into question. He was abandoned, bereft, without hope, shattered by sin and evil. He did not know he would be resurrected. What he knew was that he had been rejected. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
His passion and death confirm that he "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" (Phil. 2:6-7). He lived and died among us as a human being. He gave up everything -- knowledge, power, wisdom, life itself -- anything that would stand in the way of his taking common cause with us.
This humility is the ground on which all Christologies must stand. If we say that he is God’s son, that merely human categories cannot hold him, it is not in contradiction of his humility, but in confirmation of it. His exaltation is the result of his humility. "He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him . . ." (Phil. 2:8-9). Therefore Christ humbled himself; therefore God exalted him.
Who is Jesus? He is God become man. How can we say so radical a thing? It is because through his humanity, we are able to see the fullness of his majesty -- a majesty so sure that it can serve and die and still be the source of life.