Chapter 1: The Fact of Revelation
It will be generally recognized that to speak of the meaning of Jesus Christ is to speak of what is most distinctive and most decisive in Christian life and faith. The Christian religion, in whatever form, finds its center and, it might almost be said, its circumference also in Christ. It is Christ who both distinguishes and unites the church. In so far as the church is one and in so far as it has a distinctive message to impart and a distinctive gift to bestow, Christ is the principle of both the distinctiveness of its service and the unity of its life. In a word, the whole essential meaning of Christianity is not less, or more, than the meaning of Christ.
But the theme proposed for this discussion is important for another reason, less basic perhaps, but no less urgent and, unhappily, no less obvious. If the meaning of Jesus Christ is the ground of our distinctiveness and unity, it is also, in another sense, the most frequent occasion of our confusion and division. If by "the meaning of Christ" we are alluding to what Christ really, that is, concretely, means to us, just as we might speak of the meaning of a friend or the meaning of one’s country, then it is, as I have said, the bond which unites us; if, on the other hand, we are thinking of how this concrete, empirical reality ought to be conceptualized and explained, then "the meaning of Christ" has been the most prolific source of our divisions, and still is.
Whether unfortunately or fortunately, these two "meanings" cannot be altogether separated. Some intellectual understanding of Christ is essentially a part of any experience of Christ; and, it should be added, the depth and truth of that understanding bears a direct relation to the depth and truth of the experience. To be sure, an authentic experience of the reality of Christ no more assures an adequate Christology than a well-developed Christology assures an authentic experience of Christ, but it is also true that a false or inadequate Christology can distort or limit our experience of Christ. Thus, Christology is the most important area of Christian theology and, in virtue of that very fact, the most dangerous.
The statement has just been made that the Christian religion finds its center, if not also its circumference, in Christ. With such an estimate of the importance of Christ most Christians, I have intimated, will readily agree — often, it will be granted, without much thought and therefore perhaps too readily. Others, however, will feel some hesitation about accepting such an estimate; and others still will feel compelled to reject it as untrue. I would insist, however, that the estimate is true even for those who do not recognize its truth; that the acceptance, even if not the acknowledgment, of the Lordship of Christ is implicit in the fact of membership in the Christian community; that Christ actually has for all of us the importance I have indicated, whether we know it or not. This point is obviously of the greatest significance for this discussion and before going further it may be well to examine it more closely.
Let us begin, most simply, just where we are. I assume that, through birth and early nurture or through more mature experience, we have been called into the membership of the Christian community, that in some measure we know and share in the life of the Spirit, which gives the community its character. Now as we think of the knowledge of God that has been vouchsafed to us, can we deny that it has its origin in some way in Christ? We may not see clearly why this should be so; indeed, we may feel a certain aversion to acknowledging that it is so; but, in the last analysis (whatever our Christology) can we deny this fact? Are we not, after all, Christians? And what does this mean if not that our religious life is what it is largely because a certain event occurred in Palestine nearly two thousand years ago?
I have just spoken of a certain aversion we may find ourselves feeling to recognizing and acknowledging this fact about ourselves. On more than one occasion within the last few years, some young man or woman, a devout Christian, has said to me: "I am troubled because I cannot see the ground for the theological importance which Christ has for many of my fellow Christians. I gratefully acknowledge, of course, the incalculable value of the teaching and example of Jesus, but traditional Christian theology ascribes a meaning to the word ‘Christ’ which goes far beyond this. I can understand when you speak of the Father and when you speak of the Holy Spirit. These are two aspects of God’s reality — the transcendent and the immanent — of which I have some experience. But what comparable significance has Jesus Christ?" Such a question springs in part from the inability of these particular young people to accept, or perhaps to understand, certain traditional Christological terms and categories (which I am just now making no effort either to interpret or defend) and partly from a merely naïve ignoring of the roots of their own religious life; but it springs also from the feeling that there is something circumscribing and a bit humiliating in admitting dependence upon a particular ancient event for one’s knowledge of the God of the wide earth, the wider heavens, and, wider even still, their own hearts also. "God has made himself known to me directly," such a one has said to me. "I need only to be still to know that he is God. I am on occasions at least aware of his immediate presence and I find myself praying to One who is closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet, and between whom and myself any mediation would be not only unnecessary but obtrusive."
But when I have persisted in questioning such a person as to the character of the God thus intimately and immediately known, it has soon become apparent that he is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; that the mediation is not needed only because it had already taken place and indeed is taking place all the while; that the whole prayer life of the person is determined by his dependence upon the ancient event communicated to him through the life of the Christian community. Must we not all confess, whatever our Christology and whatever difficulties we may have with the doctrine of the Trinity, that this is true also of us?
This confession, it is important to emphasize, does not mean that we deny the validity of those experiences of God which have come to us without conscious or immediate connection with either "the ancient event" or the continuing community. The supposition that such a denial is called for has often made the assertion of the theological significance of Christ seem both harsh and false. To affirm that God makes his reality known to us in any one area of our experience alone would be to deny the existence of God. For he is the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Giver of every good gift, the essential Being of all that is, the Truth of all that is true, the Beauty of all that is lovely. If it were not true that God may meet and find us everywhere, it could not be true that he meets and finds us anywhere. But although to recognize our dependence upon an historical event for our knowledge of God does not mean a repudiation of the experiences of his reality and glory which have been vouchsafed to us in our common life, it does mean our perception of the fact that the God who is disclosed in these experiences is, for us, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that this God can make himself known to us in these experiences only because he has first made himself known in Christ. The clue to the interpretation of whatever intimations of the divine are given us in our common life is provided by the first century event to which we find ourselves inevitably looking back and by the historical community through which the concrete meaning of that event has been conveyed to us and in which, therefore, the event itself is in a sense perpetuated.
Such intimations of the divine, whether in nature, in personal human intercourse, or elsewhere, can be unmistakably genuine, wonderfully vivid, and inestimably significant, but we are mistaken if we suppose that the God of Christian faith could be known through these alone. "It was a glorious midnight in spring," a young man has written, "and I walked alone outside the city beneath the stars. Suddenly there broke in upon me with overwhelming power a realization of the awful beauty and the sheer immediacy of God. I felt at once an indescribable ecstasy and an almost incredible peace. The whole world became for a while one vast delicious music. I did not need to ask, ‘Who art thou, Lord?’ I could not doubt that God had made his reality known to me in the world of nature itself as its most real and obvious fact — a fact so real and obvious that for the moment nothing else could be seen at all." But again, we ask, "What God?" And the young man’s answer, I happen to know, would be: "You are asking the very question I did not need to ask. For me there can be but one God — the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The meaning of this experience, decisive as it was, would have been utterly different if I had not already shared in some measure in the knowledge of God in Christ." Must we not all acknowledge that the God who makes himself known to us, in whatever area of our experience, is the God whom we are able to recognize there only because we have seen him first in Christ? When we disbelieve in God, it is this God whose existence we doubt or deny; when we believe, it is this God whose existence we affirm. Whether we affirm or deny, the meaning of "God" is the meaning which Christ has given to the name.
But this testimony of our own experience to the uniquely creative character of this ancient event is confirmed by our observation of the life of the church and by our study of its history. Is it possible to deny that a new kind of human community came into being in the middle years of the first century? One may question, if one will, the value of that community; but can one question its reality? The Christian church is a fact of history. By "the Christian church" I do not mean the aggregate of popes, patriarchs, priests, elders, deacons, church buildings, councils and synods, much less any restricted portion of them; I do not mean any so-called denomination or all of the denominations together. Of course, there is no denying the historical reality of the Christian church — or at least of Christian churches — in this external or official sense, but for this discussion that reality is not significant. I mean by "the Christian church" a particular type of community, a distinctive kind of human fellowship, an easily recognizable spiritual movement within our total historical life. The close and essential connection of institutional organization with this spiritual movement — indeed its indispensability — cannot be denied: the spiritual movement could hardly have survived without the institutional organization. But it is not to be identified with the organization any more than such historically developed communities as England or France can be identified with certain political and economic structures. Discussions of institutional organization are important: some forms of organization are more effective and more appropriate than other forms, just as some dogmas are truer than other dogmas and some ritual acts are truer than other ritual acts. The importance of these differences must not be minimized; but underneath the divisions among the churches is the unity of the church. The principal reason for seeking the union of the churches is in order that this existing unity of the church may have a better opportunity to express itself and to grow. This unity consists in the reality of a common and distinctive spiritual life.
The reality of this life cannot be denied. If we may imagine a group of readers, from many different cultures and with various intellectual presuppositions, coming fresh to the New Testament, we shall expect them to respond to that literature in many different ways and to reach various conclusions as to its meaning and worth; but on one thing I believe it is fair to expect them to agree: "Here," they would say, "is reflected a new and distinctive communal life. And the Spirit which pervades this community, the Spirit which its members call the ‘Spirit of Christ,’ the ‘Spirit of God,’ the ‘Lord,’ or by other names — this Spirit we have not encountered elsewhere." They might not agree that this new life had any great significance or value or that it embodied any peculiarly important truth, but the uniqueness of its spiritual quality they would not fail to recognize.
But the spiritual movement, whose inner character is so clearly disclosed in the literature which it threw off in the first years of its existence, has persisted with that same character in spite of all divisions, dilutions, and distortions through twenty centuries of turbulent history. It is simply not true to say that Christianity is only what it happens to be at any given time and place. There is a recognizable central identity from time to time and from place to place. There is a core of truly catholic life with which in varying degrees of closeness (which only God can measure) Christians of every age and of all the ages are related.
I say "truly catholic life," and mean the stress to fall as much on the word "life" as on the word "catholic." Indeed, it is important to notice that the emphasis throughout our discussion so far has been upon life, not upon thought. It may be impossible to demonstrate that Christianity contains a new idea of God — every element in the formal Christian conception can be found, at least implicitly, in the Old Testament — but even an "objective" outsider will recognize that in Christianity the reality of God is experienced in a new way. Although God may not be differently comprehended in the New Testament, he is differently apprehended there. His reality is differently received and responded to even if it is not differently conceived. It is this difference in God-as-concretely-known, rather than any differences in thought about his nature, which distinguishes the New Testament and the community which produced that literature and still cherishes it as the norm of its own life.
But can it be doubted that this community, this distinctive and persistent spiritual movement, had its beginning in Christ? Here the historical facts are unmistakably clear. However many and complex the elements which went into the creation of Christianity, the central and decisive factor was Jesus Christ. Thus, whether we are historians studying the history of Christianity or Christians seeking to understand our own personal religious experience, we are led back ineluctably to him.
Now I do not believe we can go as far as this together without taking, also together, one additional — and, theologically, the really crucial — step. Have we not, in fact, already affirmed our faith in an historical revelation? This would not be true if we went only so far as the "objective" historian can go and stopped with a recognition of the distinctiveness of the Christian community and of the historical ground of that distinctiveness in Christ, without any judgment of value or truth. But when we go beyond this and take our own religious experience into account, as we must inevitably do, are we not forced, even against our will perhaps, to acknowledge not only that we recognize the fact that God is known in a distinctive way within the Christian community, but also that we have trusted ourselves to God as thus known; that God-as-thus-known is our God? It is this God in whom we believe. But to say all of this is to affirm our faith that at a given moment in history God revealed himself in a supremely authentic way. I am not asking that we believe this; I am asking whether we do not already believe it, whether this belief is not implicit in the fact of membership in the church of Christ.
If the answer to these questions is yes, then it is highly important that we frankly and together avow it. If we actually stand under the Lordship of Christ, there is every reason why we should acknowledge it. The development of a common Christian body of beliefs depends upon our doing so. It is the first and, I would be disposed to say, the only absolutely essential step toward a truly ecumenical theology. It is both first and essential because the acknowledgment of the revelation of God in Christ is really nothing else than the acknowledgment of the reality, distinctiveness, and authenticity of the church’s life; and how can we think through the implications of that life — and such thinking through is what we mean by Christian theology — if we do not recognize its existence and its worth? All kinds of differences at other points can be tolerated provided we take this first step together.
No one, I believe, could be more aware than I of the difficulties which this first crucial step involves for the modern man. The invitation to affirm revelation challenges habits of thought which our generation has inherited from two centuries of activity in the fields of science and philosophy. To be sure, when the Christian speaks of "revelation," he is not referring to a magical imparting of truths about God and his actions, as is often supposed. Our dogmas, however hallowed and however useful, are our attempts to understand and define the meaning of the revelation; they do not belong to the revelation itself. We have already insisted upon the difference between God as known and God as conceived. Revelation is not a conception of God; it is God himself acting within certain communal events and becoming known there in the concrete way in which we know one another. In other words, revelation is revelation: it is not information or indoctrination. Thus truly understood, the idea of revelation is perhaps less difficult to assimilate than it would otherwise be; but, even so, the view that it has occurred in a special and supreme sense in a particular set of historical occurrences involves the acceptance of discontinuities within nature and history which we find it next to impossible to contemplate. We have grown so accustomed to thinking in purely naturalistic terms that even the conception of a special historical revelation is hard to entertain. We are so used to thinking about the human quest for God that we cannot easily grasp the idea of God’s taking the initiative in making himself known, especially when it is affirmed that he has done so in specific historical events and developments. Such an idea violates presuppositions so well established in our minds that we have to look twice to realize that it is only our presuppositions that are being violated. It so definitely cuts across the usual pattern of our thought that we find it hard to recognize that there is nothing inherently improbable, not to say impossible, in God’s choosing to make himself known in a particular series of events.
But it is in no degree my purpose to argue that He has done so. No amount of argument could ever establish such a fact. My purpose, rather, has been to point out that no argument is needed. We do in fact believe it. Belief in the revelation of God in Christ is a necessary implication of the Christian life itself.
The recognizing of that implication, the affirming of that belief, is, as I have said, the first and only really essential step in the development of a truly ecumenical theology. May I hope to appear not too presumptuous in proposing that we consider together in subsequent chapters what another step or two might be?