Chapter 20: A Whiteheadian Christology by John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., attended Emory University and the University of Chicago. He is Ingraham Professor of Theology, the School of Theology at Claremont.
Classical Christology focused upon the question of the unique relation between God and Jesus. It dealt of course also with the work of Jesus. Modern Christology has tended to focus on the work of Jesus and to avoid metaphysical questions about his nature and his relation to God. The most radical Christologies dispense altogether with the question of God.
This paper is an attempt to return to the classical problem. This return does not assume that the modern focus on soteriology is misplaced, but it does assume that much of the discussion of soteriology is consciously or unconsciously determined by ideas about Jesus’ nature. The major reason for concern about Jesus’ nature is his work, but beliefs about his nature affect the understanding of the work.
One can approach the question of Jesus’ nature from two standpoints. On the one hand, modern historical study has attained a limited but important knowledge of Jesus that is relatively reliable. On the other hand, as Christians we confront traditional creeds and confessions which are still officially recognized as somehow normative. It is no secret that the historical picture and the creedal picture accord poorly with one another. The historical picture presents Jesus as an entirely human figure. The creedal picture offers a rather abstract humanity combined with deity in a paradoxical manner.
Nevertheless, there is a historical connection between Jesus and the metaphysical claims about him, and the fundamental grounds of this connection in the human figure are as clear now as ever. Jesus was certainly a man conditioned by his time and place. But he was a strange figure for any time and place. His teaching and action involved an implicit assumption or claim of authority that was different in kind rather than degree from the claim of other teachers of his time or of ours. The authority he implicitly claimed rested in himself rather than in received teachings or a fresh word from God. It was closely connected with a sense of relatedness to God such that he saw the response of men to his message and himself as decisive for their response to God or even identical with it. The disciples’ experience of the resurrected Christ heightened and transformed their perception of the authority of Jesus, but historical research confirms the rootedness of the claim of authority in Jesus himself.
The process of the church’s theorizing on the meaning of this claim, which led to the creedal formulations, is not one we should or even can follow today. Acceptance of the creeds today can only be in the form of recognizing the sound elements of their intention and attempting to be faithful to that intention insofar as our present historical knowledge encourages this. The creeds were sound in their intention to insist both that Jesus was fully man and that in accepting his authority and responding to his call men are accepting the authority and call of the one God and not simply of a man or of some demigod or inferior divine being. This meant for the early church and for orthodoxy in general that God was genuinely present in Jesus in a unique way. That is a legitimate and even an essential implication of acceptance of Jesus’ claim of authority.
This paper is an attempt to explain how we can intelligibly affirm the unique presence of God in Jesus in such a way as to avoid detracting from his humanity and yet explain his strange authority. Like the classical debates and creeds, the whole procedure is speculative. The results of such speculation are binding on no one. Nevertheless, they should show the possibility of a style of thinking potentially more meaningful to us than the traditional formulations and yet in greater continuity with the tradition than modern radicalism. It may prove useful today to demonstrate that Christians can think of Jesus’ relation to God as decisively unique without involving themselves in absurdity, or irrational acceptance of dogma.
The paper is divided into three sections. The first reviews the varied possibilities provided by Whitehead for conceiving of the presence of one entity in another and considers how these might apply to God’s varied modes of presence in different men. The second approaches the uniqueness of Jesus from the standpoint of his self or "I" and relates the result of this approach to the discussion of the varied modes of God’s presence in men. The third briefly indicates the implications of this discussion for consideration of Jesus’ work.
I. How God is Present
Every conception of how God was present in Jesus has presuppositions and implications that are subject to philosophical discussion. Most philosophies, however, render thought about this subject very difficult and obscure, and this situation has been reflected in the highly paradoxical character of the church’s historic affirmations. In classical philosophy it is possible to understand how a form is present in a human being without distorting or destroying his humanity, but it is unintelligible how one substance can enter into another without displacing some part of that other substance. Substances, including human beings are seen as occupying space, and two substances cannot be conceived as occupying the same space. When the images are psychological, much the same results are reached. For God to be present and active in Jesus means in classical conceptualities that some aspect of what would otherwise have been the human Jesus was replaced by God. This aspect could be the soul as a whole or some element in the soul such as the will.
It is remarkable that despite the pressure of its conceptuality the church refused to sanction any view of Jesus that curtailed his full humanity in this way. The church insisted that Jesus had a human soul and a human will. However, the pressure of the conceptuality remained, and we find down to our own time the view that if not the soul or will, then the ultimate "I" of Jesus was not human but divine. The doctrine that Jesus’ humanity was impersonal has much support in orthodox circles, and it reflects the fact that, given the traditional conceptuality, there is no other way of conceiving God’s presence in Jesus than by displacing some aspect of the human Jesus. Nevertheless, the view makes mockery of the Christian conviction of the full humanity of Jesus and it runs counter to the picture of Jesus provided us by New Testament scholarship.
Whitehead certainly did not develop his philosophy for the purpose of assisting Christians to re-think the relation of God to Jesus, but he nevertheless provided us with a far richer conceptuality for conceiving the presence of one entity in another; and this conceptuality can be used also for christological reflections. It will not be possible here to give a complete account of Whitehead’s doctrine of relations, but a brief highlighting of the relevant points will be in order.
Let us consider the mode of presence of one actual entity in another. For convenience we can take as our example two successive occasions of human experience, A and B. A is present in B. This does not mean, of course, that B is less an independent entity than was A. A had also in its moment of immediacy incorporated past entities within itself without sacrifice of its unique and self-determining identity. The presence of A in B does not conflict with the subjective unity and actuality of B. No aspect of B’s own being is displaced by A’s presence.
At the same time the presence of A is an ultimately real feature of B. It cannot be reduced to the fact, also true, that B actualizes many of the same eternal objects as A. A as A is also prehended and thus incorporated into B. A is genuinely and effectively present in B, and B would not be what it is apart from this presence. B does not first exist and then incorporate A; rather this incorporation is constitutive of B’s coming into existence.
Thus far only one point is being made. That is, whereas in classical philosophy the idea of one entity being present in another carries with it the notion of displacement, in Whitehead’s philosophy this is not the case. This is an important point because of the havoc wreaked in traditional Christology by this tendency to displacement, but by itself it does not solve the problem of Christology. We must proceed to ask two additional questions. (1) Does or can this mode of presence apply to God’s relation to men? (2) If so, can we meaningfully speak of differences in the mode of God’s presence in different men?
1. Interpreters of Whitehead differ in the extent to which they differentiate God from actual occasions and the relation of God to actual occasions from the relation of actual occasions to each other. On the one hand, Whitehead contrasts God with actual occasions as the one nontemporal actual entity. On the other hand, he stresses that God is not an exception to the categories and uses much of the same language about him as he uses about actual occasions.
My own judgment is that, despite the difficulties, the greatest coherence and intelligibility can be obtained when we think of the ontological structure of God as much as possible in terms of the structure of actual occasions. God’s relations with actual occasions will then be understood as resembling in most respects their relations with each other. I will not argue this view here and will try to carry on the discussion presupposing as little as possible my own peculiar proposals for a doctrine of God, proposals which depend upon, but differ from, Whitehead’s own position. He certainly writes as if actual occasions prehend God, and I will proceed on the assumption that the word prehend has the same meaning here as elsewhere.
The answer to the question whether God can be present in a man as actual occasions are present in subsequent occasions is, therefore, affirmative. The mode of presence of one occasion in another is as prehended datum. God is also a prehended datum, and he is therefore present in actual occasions in the way in which prehended data generally are present. This is an ultimately real presence which involves no displacement.
2. Not only can we say that God is present in actual occasions, but, on my understanding, we must say that he is present in every actual occasion whatsoever. Hence, whereas we are freed by Whitehead to think of God as present in Jesus without reducing his full humanity, by itself this does not enable us to see any distinctiveness in God’s presence in him. We must, therefore, ask the second question, Can we meaningfully speak of differences in the mode of God’s presence in different men?
If the mode of prehension of God by all entities were identical then the mode of God’s presence in all entities would be identical, and there would be no possibility of asserting that the mode of God’ presence in Jesus is unique. But such identity should not be assumed. Prehensions by one actual occasion of others are highly differentiated. Hence the modes of presence of past actual occasions in becoming ones differ greatly. It is my belief that something of this diversity is present also in the prehension of God by actual occasions. This belief rests on the general assumption that Whitehead is best understood and his thought best developed when the structure and relations of God are assimilated as far as possible to the structure and relations of actual entities generally. In light of this assumption, a somewhat detailed account of diverse types of prehensions by one actual occasion of others is relevant to the question of the possible diversity of modes of God’s presence in man.
Since the concern is with prehensions of other occasions the focus of attention is on physical feelings. However an important distinction immediately presents itself between pure physical feelings and hybrid physical feelings. Pure physical feelings objectify the entities felt by their physical feelings, whereas hybrid physical feelings objectify by conceptual or impure feelings. Most of the following discussion will have hybrid feelings in view. Further distinctions of this type can be made but they are not needed here.
A second major way of distinguishing prehensions is less stressed by Whitehead. However, he holds that the statement that B prehends A also means that A has causal efficacy for B. The relation of A and B can be viewed from either end. Whitehead is also clear that A does not rigidly determine how it will be present in B, but that B must take account of A, and how it takes account of A is influenced by what A in fact has become. The actual mode of A’s presence in B is partly determined by A’s decision and partly by B’s. Of course, it is also influenced by many other decisions.
Now let A and B again represent two successive occasions of human experience. The role of A in B is partly determined by A and partly by B. Furthermore, the respective importance of the decisions of A and B for the outcome varies. Sometimes A is relatively passive with respect to how B takes account of it, and B is the chief actor; sometimes A’s decision is largely determinative of B.
Consider the case in which A represents the last occasion in a daydreaming sequence and B involves an abrupt decision to return to work. Here A’s role in determining B is minimized, and that of B is maximized. Consider, on the other hand, the case in which A represents the occasion in which a decision is made to attend carefully to what another person is saying. The content of B may be largely determined by that decision.
This latter example has peculiar importance as highlighting a special mode of relation between occasions. Whitehead makes the sweeping assertion that all occasions aim at some intensity both in their own satisfaction and in the relevant future. This implies that every decision includes some decision about what its successor occasions should be. However, for the most part the successors are envisioned only as sets of possible occasions dimly anticipated, in the case of man primarily a decision about the content of subsequent moments of his own experience. It does not remove the freedom of its successors, for these are not compelled to acquiesce in the decision made about them. But the later occasions probably cannot eliminate the decision made about them from their objective data or avoid some conformity with the subjective form of the deciding occasion. In other words, when A’s self-actualization is determined by an aim to have a definite influence on B, it can bind B to a significant degree.
When A’s aim for B plays a major role in its self-actualization, that aim may vary indefinitely. Only one distinction among possible aims is sufficiently important to require statement here. A’s aim for B (1) may be that B reenact significant features of A or it (2) may lack this reflexive element. For example, (1) I may now decide that I will evermore nurse and retain the anger I now feel toward one who has betrayed me, or (2) I may make a resolution to be different in the future, a resolution whose carrying out will not entail reference to the initially resolving occasion.
Now let us consider possible applications of this variety to the problem of God’s presence in men. According to Whitehead every occasion derives from God its initial aim. This suggests that God entertains an aim for each occasion to which that occasion’s feelings conform in its initial phase. Whitehead associates this aim with the primordial nature or mental pole of God. He may mean that in the initial aim each occasion objectifies God by one of God’s pure conceptual feelings. I prefer the view that the mental pole of God, like the mental pole of actual occasions, includes also propositional feelings and that it is by a propositional feeling that God is objectified in the initial phase of every becoming occasion. In either case, the derivation of the initial aim from God is common to all occasions.
Diversity is introduced, however, in three ways. First, God’s aim for each occasion differs. In this sense God’s presence in every occasion is concretely unique and there is no specifiable limit to the diversity of aims or to the importance of what is distinctive in particular cases. Second, the prehensive objectification of God need not be restricted to the initial aim. Third, the degree to which God’s aim for an occasion is realized in that occasion’s self-actualization differs. These three points require brief elaboration.
Since no two occasions have identical worlds, the self-actualization that is ideal for each must be unique. This is a metaphysical requirement. Furthermore, there are different kinds of occasions ranging from electronic to human ones with differing capacities such that, for example, the aim for an electronic occasion cannot include consciousness, whereas the aim for a human one normally does. Similarly, the aims for most living occasions include no (or few) hybrid prehensions, whereas the aim for a dominant occasion in an animal organism is heavily weighted toward hybrid prehensions of past dominant occasions, which in the case of higher organisms jointly constitute the soul or living person. Whitehead does not discuss the diversity of initial aims experienced by different men, but such a diversity clearly exists. Unless we are to suppose that there is little or no correlation between the initial aim and the final form of the subjective aim — a very strange supposition — we must assume vast differences in the initial aims derived from God by a primitive man and by an Einstein, or for that matter, between myself as I drop off to sleep in the evening and as I write these words.
The aim for most occasions seems to be that the aim be experienced as a possibility for actualization without reference to its source, but in some instances realization of the reference to the source may be a part of the aim. This leads to the second point — that an occasion may prehend God in ways other than the derivation of its initial aim. The initial aim of a human occasion might be that the occasion prehend wider purposes of God or enjoy a peculiar sense of intimacy or oneness. There might be pure physical feelings of God as well as hybrid feelings, or hybrid feelings other than the initial aim.
Third, in the relation of God and a human occasion the relative importance of the divine and the human decisions may vary. God’s decision for an occasion cannot be ignored, but it can be accepted or resisted. The human response to one aim influences God’s aim for the following occasion.
II. The Unique "I" of Jesus
Whitehead concentrated attention upon the common features of actual entities. He also showed how increasing complexity in the structure of actual entities introduces radically new structures culminating in intellectual feelings of several kinds. In less technical treatises he proceeded to discuss human history and peculiarly human problems — science, religion, morals, education, reason, art, and so forth. These discussions are generally compatible with his ontology and cosmology, but they are not readily translatable into the technical vocabulary of Process and Reality. For example, in The Function of Reason, reason is defined as "the self-discipline of the originative element in history." This originative element is "reversion" in the technical language of Process and Reality, but how reversion disciplines itself is not technically explained. I do not state this as a criticism. Perhaps it points to one of the unfinished aspects of Whitehead’s systematic position, but I mention it to indicate the sense in which Whitehead was aware that the discussion of human and historical problems required the introduction of new concepts only loosely related to the categoreal scheme.
The formulation of a Christology also requires that one go far beyond the general ontological questions to a discussion of what man is like. In what follows the influence of Whitehead should be apparent, but the thought is parallel to, rather than derived from, Whitehead’s humanistic writings.
One little recognized factor in the usual formulations of Christology is a certain assumption about the meaning of the word man. This word is treated as if it referred to a fixed and definite mode of being. It is assumed that when we say — surely we must — that Jesus was fully man, we know just what we mean. It is supposed that to be a man is to fall under certain clearly defined categories such that we know quite well the structure of the existence so designated.
Against this view some implications of evolution should be affirmed. However clearly those beings we designate as men are now marked off from all others, the difference came into being gradually. Among our ancestors were creatures that spanned the gap now existing between ourselves and our simian relatives. The term man must either be reserved to a very late arrival on the planet or be extended to include many creatures very different from ourselves.
These differences include physiological ones, but our primary concern is with the dominant or psychic occasions rather than with the organism as a whole. The structure of psychic existence with which we are familiar in ourselves did not appear suddenly but evolved and developed over hundreds of thousands of years. Furthermore, since the peculiarity of the human psyche is indeterminateness or openness to diverse determination, developments in different cultures are markedly diverse. Occasions of human experience everywhere exhibit the structures described by Whitehead’s categories and, in addition to that, the special forms described as intellectual feelings. But beyond these and other elementary structures shared with at least some subhuman occasions, there is no one structure of existence to be designated as human.
This means that the statement, Jesus was fully human, while entirely true, is less informative than it seems. Human beings differ from one another not only superficially but also profoundly, in the very structures of their existence. My common humanity with Jesus does not guarantee that I can understand what it was like to be Jesus any more than a primitive man’s co-humanity with Einstein — to return to that example — guarantees that he can understand what it is like to think Einstein’s thoughts.
That Jesus was fully human does mean that the actual occasions constituting Jesus as a living person were not in any instance the actual entity God or, if God is conceived as a living person, the actual occasions constituting the divine life. Strict identity of Jesus with God is simply nonsensical. But it is not nonsensical that God’s presence in Jesus played a structural role in the actual occasions constituting his personal life which it has played nowhere else.
A useful way of approaching the varied structures of human existence is through reflection on the meaning of "I." The use of the first person singular in some way is probably coterminous with language, but its meaning varies widely. It may refer, first, to the speaker as a physical organism in the public world. Each man learns to differentiate himself from others and from the environment in this way. He becomes aware of himself through becoming aware of others’ awareness of him.
Many men become aware of a distinction between psyche and body. A second use of the word "I" is to designate the former. The body is then perceived as an instrument, a context, or a limitation of the self. Further, the psyche may be understood in a variety of ways, thud altering the meaning of "I." For example, it may be seen as a self-identical entity underlying the flow of experience. This allows for a third use of "I," to refer to a transcendental ego, a mental substance, or an atman, and it reflects a definite structuring of human existence. Having thus identified the "I," its existence may be either affirmed or denied, and the Whiteheadian must share with the Buddhist in the denial of its existence. But for the Whiteheadian this denial can mean only that a more accurate understanding of "I" is needed. This could return to the identification of "I" with the psyche along with the recognition that the psyche is exhaustively constituted by a succession of experiences. Or it could recognize that the psyche is a highly differentiated actuality within which the "I" is one factor or element. This latter approach, by no means limited to Whiteheadians, points to a fourth meaning of "I," the one requiring the most discussion.
Most of us do in fact use the term "I" in this way because we participate in structures of existence in which differentiation of aspects of the psychic life is important, as we do not identify ourselves equally with all of them. For example, some men identify themselves with the rational aspect of psychic activity and perceive passions and emotions as something to be controlled, whereas others identify themselves with this affective aspect and perceive the claim of reason as a heteronomous demand. "I" means something different in these two instances, and this difference expresses itself in quite different structures of existence, but in each case "I" refers to that center which tries to organize the whole psychic life.
The notion of "I" in this sense is inseparable from some element of self-identity through time. Unless the organizing center of one occasion of experience has continuity with its predecessors and successors, it cannot usefully be designated as "I." If the dominant occasions of animal experience are, as seems likely, organized around purposes determined by changing organic needs, the requisite continuity does not occur. To whatever extent in primitive men or young children dominant occasions of experience are determined more by new stimuli received through the body than by continuity with past dominant occasions, the requisite identity through time is lacking. And to whatever extent the Buddhist succeeds in extirpating the peculiar continuity of the occasions constituting the living person, he succeeds also — as he intends — in destroying the "I."
The "I" then is a relatively continuous center within human experience around which the experience attempts more or less successfully to organize itself. Human existence can occur without any "I" even in this broad sense. But the variety of structures of existence can be further clarified by defining the "I" more strictly. If the organizing center of experience is in the unconscious aspect of experience, as is true for those whose world of meanings is primarily mythical, then the term "I" in the strict sense is inappropriate. And even when the center is identified with conscious aspects of emotion or reason, the "I" in the strictest sense does not occur. A man becomes an individual "I," rather than a peculiar mixture of universal forces or principles, only as he inwardly transcends both emotion and reason, accepting responsibility for the outcome of the struggle between them. This involves detaching the self from the several given functionings of the psyche which then become instrumental to the self. At this point a man knows himself unequivocally as an "I" who, by bearing his own responsibility and making his own decisions, ceases to be fundamentally a part of a biologically defined species or a culturally defined tribe or community. With the emergence of the "I" in this full sense a radically new structure of existence appears. Such a structure gained effective entry into the human scene first in Israel and is most clearly represented by Jeremiah.
The prophetic "I" was formed in relation to the divine "I." Israel knew God as "I" before individual Hebrews entered into this structure of existence. The prophet knew himself addressed by the divine "I" and as he became aware of the tension between the requirements of that "I" and his own thought and feelings, he found himself called to responsibility for his actions in a new way. He thus became an ‘I" in relation to the divine "I." The relation was one of encounter, or demand and response.
The prophetic "I" embodied no authority. It exercised freedom in response to the authoritative command of the divine "I." The prophet’s word had authority only insofar as it articulated the divine word.
Here the contrast of Jesus with the prophets is most clear. He spoke on his own authority which was at the same time the authority of God. The "I" of Jesus, rather than standing over against the divine "I," identified its authority with that of God. Among the religious leaders of mankind this is a unique role. It differs from the mystics and ecstatics as much as from the great Hebrew prophets. The "I" of Jesus was neither merged with the divine nor replaced by the divine. On the contrary it retained its autonomous existence but in such a way as to identify its perceptions with God’s.
Serious claim of Jesus’ uniqueness today arises chiefly from the uniqueness of the relation to God implicitly claimed in his mode of teaching and acting. Our task now is to speculate as to how Jesus "I" could have been so related to God as to explain this unique claim. The problem can be approached by returning to consideration of the variety of modes in which a prehension makes its object A present in the subject B. The assumption here is that the prophets and Jesus, like all men, prehended God, but that they prehended God in unusual and in distinct ways.
B may prehend A in such a way that although important aspects of A are re-enacted, the source of these eternal objects has no importance. For example, we might judge that much about the personality of B reflects the influence of A, whereas B is virtually oblivious to that dependence. Or we may hear important news over the radio without being interested in the personality of the newscaster. On the other hand, B may prehend A in such a way that the fact that it is A which it is prehending is of paramount importance for the subjective form of B rather than the particular aspect of A by which A is objectified. For example, a child may experience inner tranquility because of the presence of a parent apart from anything peculiar to the present experience of the parent. A third possibility is intermediate to the other two. In this case both the specific content of the prehension and the fact of its source in A are important to B.
In general, men embody the first of these three possibilities in their relation to God. The initial aim is derived from God, but although the character of the initial aim is of crucial importance to the becoming occasion, the fact that it is derived from God usually plays but a small role in its conscious subjective form. What is important is the urge to actualization of a particular sort, not the source of the urge. On the other hand, for some men some of the time the sense that they are being urged or called or guided by God becomes a very important part of the experience of the initial aim.
In the case of the prophets this dual importance of content and source obtained. But for them the content of the prehension of God was not only that of the initial aim. It was also some meaning of much broader relevance than the private ideal for a particular moment of the prophet’s life. We may conjecture that the divine aim for such occasions of the prophet’s experience included the prophet’s objectification of God by other aspects of God’s total actuality than his aim for that private occasion. The fact that the meaning by which God was objectified had God as its source was of equal importance with the content of the meaning.
The obligation to bear and communicate such meanings against his natural feeling and thinking was the ground of Jeremiah’s discovery of his selfhood as "I." Not the reception of the Word as such but the necessity to decide about it was crucial to the formation of this structure of existence and to its preservation and strengthening in the Jewish community. The "I" was thus formed in the prehensions of two imaginative propositions together with the valuation of one as identical with God’s will.
This kind of experience may not have been alien to Jesus, but it did not constitute his uniqueness. In his case the prehension of God was one for which specific content was of secondary importance. God’s aim for Jesus was that he prehend God in terms of that which constitutes him as God — his lordship, his love, and his incomparable superiority of being and value. This prehension was not experienced by Jesus as information about God but as the presence of God to and in him. Furthermore, and most uniquely, it was not experienced by him as one prehension alongside others to be integrated by him into a synthesis with them. Rather this prehension of God constituted in Jesus the center from which everything else in his psychic life was integrated. This means that at least in some decisive moments of his life he perceived the world, his own past and future, his emotions and reason, in terms of the presence of God in him. At least in such moments Jesus’ weighting of values — his perception of the relative importance of things and persons, of the self and others, of motives and actions, of past, present, and future — was from the perspective given in his prehension of God. This does not mean, of course, that Jesus was privy to God’s knowledge of possibilities or that he shared God’s prehensions of the world. But it does mean that the "I" of Jesus was constituted by his prehension of God.
A separate question must be raised as to the relative roles of God and Jesus in determining the unique structure of Jesus’ existence. The two extreme answers are: one, that God simply determined that he be uniquely present in Jesus; or two, that God offers to all men essentially the same relation to himself which Jesus realized. Orthodoxy has tended to the former answer; liberalism, to the latter. But the analysis above of the respective weight of the decisions of occasions A and B suggests that these two extremes must be rejected.
No entity, including God, finally determines exactly how it will be prehended by any other entity. The final decision always remains with the prehending entity. But high-grade occasions can and do actualize themselves with a view to uniquely influencing other entities. Such actualization, on the one hand, provides new possibilities to the subsequent entities otherwise lacking and, on the cither, compels the later entities to take account of particular aspects of the earlier. Assuming that God’s causal efficacy for becoming occasions is analogous to that of past actual occasions, we should think both of God’s offering differentiated opportunities and of the free response to those opportunities on the part of the recipient. Then the possibility offered Jesus, or the call to Jesus, was distinctive, and apart from it Jesus could not have been what he was. The initiative was with God. But the call did not compel the response. We can never know whether others may not have been called before Jesus to more or less similar modes of existence.
To summarize, we can intelligibly and with some indirect historical justification assert that God’s presence in Jesus constituted Jesus’ essential selfhood. The one God was thus uniquely present in him. At the same time, Jesus was fully human and no aspect of his humanity was displaced by God. It was a thoroughly human "I" that was constituted by Gad’s presence in Jesus.
III. The Work of Jesus
Speculation about the mode of God’s presence in Jesus would have minimal interest unless it threw light upon the question of how we now are, or should be, related to Jesus. Hence, although the objective question about Jesus himself is central to his study, some indication of its implications for us is appropriate. These implications can be considered briefly under four headings: (1) authority, (2) revelation, (3) example, and (4) salvation.
1. The view here presented warrants the attribution of authority to Jesus. This does not mean that one can or should argue from a speculative doctrine as to how God was present in Jesus to the fact of his authority for us. The warrant of the speculative doctrine is the implicit claim of authority in Jesus’ message. The fact of the claim gives reason to ask whether it could be justified, that is, whether it is possible that a man have that kind of relation to God which could ground such a claim. But the fact of the claim plus the demonstration of the possibility of the requisite relationship in no sense substantiates the claim. The substantiation can consist only in the inherent power of the claim and the church’s experience of it and testimony to it. Being a Christian has to do directly with being grasped by the claim, not with some speculation about how God was present in Jesus. Yet in the long run, the power of the claim is weakened when no conceptuality is available to support it, and it is to offer such a conceptuality that this paper has been prepared.
The question is not simply whether Jesus’ claim to authority is thus rendered intelligible but also just what kind of authority this is. The theory here developed provides no basis for the older view that Jesus’ message was infallible either because it was the direct word of God himself or because God revealed these truths to Jesus in such a way as to preserve him from error. We may assume that God provided Jesus with no peculiar conceptuality, that he guaranteed no freedom from sharing in the errors and misconceptions of his time. The presence of God in Jesus in no sense entailed the presence in Jesus of the divine knowledge.
Jesus spoke with an authority uniquely related to that of God because Jesus’ existence was uniquely related to God’s. The center from which he perceived his world was determined by and given in his experience of God. The reality of God and his will dominated his perception of the world in such a way that he saw all else in relation to this supreme reality. The result was an intensification and transformation of Jewish understanding of both God and his creatures.
For most men the world is very real. If they believe in God at all, they accept the idea that his reality is prior and incomparably superior to that of the world. This belief modifies their perceptions to some degree, but intellectual belief remains in some tension with perception. Effective belief is much more a function of perception than of the assent to the idea of God’s superior reality. That means that what one really cares about is himself and his world, and that his real interest in God is limited largely to how he hopes or fears that God may impinge upon that world. The weighting of concern, the attitude toward the neighbor, the valuation of possessions and power, all arise out of the perception which is in tension with the acknowledgment of God’s superior reality. This acknowledgment introduces certain obligations felt as heteronomously imposed burdens.
For Jesus the situation was quite different. His perception conformed with his belief. Hence he could speak directly out of his perception. His preaching was not proclamation of an ought that stood over against him supported by beliefs that were heteronomously grounded. It was a description of what he saw from a perspective that could not be transcended. Whereas others recognize that man should live from God and for God, Jesus embodied that life.
When we are encountered by Jesus’ message we recognize a final claim upon us. It presents us with the world as we acknowledge the world must be from a perspective truer than our own and itself not subject to further transcending. We see what it would mean to believe effectively what we, to some extent, already admit to be true.
2. The nature of Jesus’ authority leads directly into the question of revelation. What does Jesus reveal and how? What has been said about authority implies that he reveals what it means to live in terms of the way reality actually is. Although Jesus’ life, like his beliefs, were conditioned by his time and place in history, at a deeper level we see in him what it is like for a man to exist in a manner appropriate to what God is and what man is. This is fundamental.
Christians often speak of Jesus as the revelation of God or of God revealing himself in Jesus. Such language means different things to different speakers, and in some of these meanings it is to be affirmed. It can be another way of saying what has already been said above. But it can also refer to more direct modes of revealing God.
The God whom Jesus revealed was the God already known by those to whom he spoke. Hence it is not meaningful to think of his revelation of God as something wholly new. But his teaching about God, both explicit and implicit, altered the balance and weighting of the ideas already held about God in such a way as to change the total understanding. Furthermore, reflection about Jesus’ message and life has led to still further reconsideration of the nature of God, to beliefs that were probably absent from Jesus’ own consciousness. When history is read in terms of the centrality of Jesus, the total understanding of God is affected. Paul’s theology illustrates this mode of revelation. Since this reading is new in every generation according to the situation in which it occurs, we can say that Jesus even now continues to reveal God to us in new ways.
Christians are also wont to say that Jesus reveals to us what man really is. This can be a restatement of the claim made above that in him we see what it means to exist in an objectively appropriate relationship to the real. The perceptions which determine our responses to the ever new situations of life are narrow and distorted. Since at the same time we are able to transcend these perspectives in the recognition of their distortion, we acknowledge in principle an ideal limit of such transcendence which would fulfill our ultimate potentiality. Tn Jesus we recognize the embodiment of that ideal limit and hence of what man "really" or rather ideally is.
3. The doctrine that Jesus reveals the reality of man can be understood to mean that in him we have an example to follow. Although such a view should not be totally rejected, the basic implication of the theory developed in this paper cuts against it. There is no indication that God provides all of us with the peculiar aim or possibility with which he endowed Jesus. Jesus was fully human, but that does not mean that what he was called to be and to become is what I am called to be or to become. Perhaps I am even called to be a theologian, and that is something very different from Jesus.
In a much more abstract sense one may speak of Christian discipleship as imitation. If we assume that Jesus was obedient to God’s call in his situation, we can try to imitate him by being obedient to God’s very different call to us in our very different situation. Also, if Jesus shows us fundamentally what it means to live from God and for God, we can seek to find what it means in our situation to live from God and for God. But it is important to recognize that the structure of existence embodied in Jesus is not ours and that hence the translation into our situation is a very radical one.
4. The most important and universal categories for acknowledging Jesus’ importance for Christians are "lord" and "savior." The discussion thus far has dealt more directly with the former. Jesus as lord is authoritative for life and belief. Some Christians have understood that Jesus’ saviorhood is a function of this lordship. For example, they have believed that we are saved by acceptance of his teaching or by following his example. And in the sense now explained this must play an important part in Jesus’ saving work.
However, most Christians have believed that Jesus affected a change in the human situation not only by instruction and example but also in some other way. This additional way is vaguely and variously understood. Some have supposed that he changed God’s attitude toward man or effected some alteration in the power of evil over the world. Others have felt him as a mystical or sacramental presence.
Nothing in the account offered in this paper either supports or opposes theories of this latter sort, and for this reason it would be inappropriate to discuss them here. However, one dimension of Jesus’ work is suggested by the foregoing which deserves more attention than it has yet received.
I have urged that we should recognize the radical diversity among men even at the level of the structures of their existence. The distinction of Jesus’ structure of existence from that of other men has been central to the above discussion. This at least suggests that Jesus’ message and work may have introduced into human history a new structure of existence different from his own in which Christians participate. A new structure of existence opens up new problems and new possibilities for man. The existential problem of Socrates differed radically from that of Neanderthal man. If salvation means wholeness, then salvation has a different meaning for each structure of existence.
It is my conviction that Jesus brought into being for those who responded to him a final and unsurpassable structure of existence. This structure was the solution of the problem posed in the Jewish structure of existence and in that sense was salvation. It in its turn, however, has introduced new possibilities of sickness and fragmentation as well as new possibilities of health. Hence Jesus as savior is not only the ground of the new structure of existence but also the one in relation to whom the health of that structure can be attained.