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Matthew’s ‘Undercurrent’ and Ogden’s Christology

by Russell Pregeant

Russell Pregeant is Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Curry College, Milton. Massachusetts. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 181-194, Vol. 8, Number 3, Fall, 1976. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


"O man, how true are thine instincts, how over-hasty thine interpretations of them!" -- Matthew Arnold

Schubert Ogden’s proposal, that Bultmann’s demythologizing project be carried to its logical conclusion and applied to the Christology of the New Testament, has been attacked from several perspectives, among them Heideggerian existentialism and the process perspective Ogden himself shares. But the point of contention usually seems to be, in essence, the same: in reducing the claim regarding God’s once-for-all act in behalf of human salvation to a re-presentation of the "original possibility of authentic existence" (1:146), it is argued, Ogden quite simply subverts the plain meaning of the New Testament proclamation of redemption in and through Jesus Christ.1

For his part, however, Ogden argues that the christocentrism of the New Testament is actually based upon and sanctioned by a consistent theocentrism and that "the only final condition for sharing in authentic life that the New Testament lays down is a condition that can be formulated in complete abstraction from the event Jesus of Nazareth and all that it specifically imports" (1:43). He readily admits the presence of a christological exclusivism in the various canonical writings but finds this emphasis contradictory to what he takes to be the genuine core of the witness: the proclamation of the action of a God who is ever gracious and to whom humanity is ever responsible -- a proclamation which necessarily entails the presupposition of the genuine possibility of authentic existence at all times and places.

But Ogden is equally adamant in asserting that the Christ-event is to be understood as a decisive disclosure of God’s everlasting nature as a just and loving God. Although it is in no sense qualitatively different from all other moments in history, it is in fact quantitatively different in that it is (according to the Christian witness) more expressive of God’s loving character than are ordinary moments, just as some human acts are more expressive of a person’s inner nature than are others, although all a person’s acts are in an obvious sense his or her own (2:164-87, esp. 180 ff.). And Ogden has recently clarified the implications of this line of thought. While God’s primordial self-disclosure guarantees the possibility of the existential realization of authentic existence in all moments in history, the fully reflective understanding of existence presupposes some special event -- i.e., some quantitatively more transparent event -- in which this understanding is made explicit (3:282-85).2 Thus Ogden takes seriously the New Testament claim to an exclusive, or special, act of God but maintains that it must be divested of its mythological, or nonexistential, elements precisely because they contradict its basic intention, which is to speak of God’s primordial love.

Now Ogden can quote numerous scriptural passages in support of his position (1:141 ff.). But the problematic nature of his exegetical claims may be illustrated by reference to the discussion between Herbert Braun and Ernst Käsemann concerning christology and anthropology in the New Testament. Braun argues that because a common anthropology is shared by Jesus, Paul, and John, while the various christological formulations of the New Testament differ widely, it is actually a particular human self-understanding that is the final reference of the text (4: passim). Such an argument obviously may be used to support Ogden’s view. Käsemann, however, finds in the New Testament hardly any explicit anthropology, contending that the clear intention of the text is to make a christological witness (5:44-46). The key to the discussion, it seems to me, lies in Käsemann’s qualifying term "explicit." The christological witness is, of course, dominant and represents in an obvious sense the "intention" of the various authors. But Braun’s point is also undeniable the character of salvation is consistent, but the christological formulations are not. So the problem is not the ambiguity of exegetical evidence but that of evaluating the evidence. Even the most cursory reading of the text reveals a christocentric emphasis. The subtler question is how this emphasis is to be weighed as over against the equally demonstrable theocentric emphasis in light of certain "universalistic" elements that are also present. The exegetical question, in other words, leads inevitably to that of hermeneutical method.

What I propose, then, is a brief investigation of christology and anthropology (i.e., soteriology in abstraction from christology) in a single New Testament book --.the gospel of Matthew -- that will be carried out in two stages: first, the attestation of a genuinely "universalistic" undercurrent that overextends the christological witness but buttresses the theocentric emphasis; second, an attempt to make use of a Whiteheadian understanding of the nature of language in developing an adequate hermeneutical perspective on the significance of this undercurrent. My basic contention is that such a perspective will place Ogden’s reading of the New Testament in a more favorable light than that in which it has sometimes been viewed.

The problem under consideration has been clarified considerably by Hendrikus Boers, who identifies several points in the New Testament at which christological exclusivism is clearly transcended: (1) the authentic teachings of Jesus, which "did not bring the love and forgiveness of God, but affirmed its presence . . . by articulating it" (6:23); (2) Paul’s treatment of the "faith of Abraham" in Rom. 4 which, in contrast to a related argument in Gal. 3, centers directly upon the "structure of faith as trust in God" (6:91) and, in effect, "pierces [Paul’s] own system of thought" (6:102) by allowing Abraham’s faith actually to define the content of Christian faith; (3) Mt. 25:31-46, the description of the last judgment, in which humanistic actions of a general nature actually "interpret what the Christian confession really means (6:73).

I believe Boers has presented a generally convincing exegetical case; of even greater significance, however, is the hermeneutical insight with which he treats the phenomena encountered: "Thus, ultimately, we must come to ask, not only what the author of a text intended, but what happened to him in the writing of the text" (6:ix). On the basis of this question he looks to the universalistic elements in the New Testament as the foundation for a theology "out of the ghetto." His hermeneutical perspective, then, provides the way for an advance beyond the impasse in the discussion between Braun and Käsemann.

At two points, however, my proposal differs from that of Boers. First, I believe there is a stronger universalistic element in Mt. 25:31-46, and in Matthew’s total theology, than even Boers recognizes. Second, I will try to give, through the use of a "process hermeneutic," a more explicit justification for interpreting the christological mainstream of the New Testament in light of the anthropological undercurrent.

I

There are two conflicting themes in Mt. 25:31-46, one expressive of Matthew’s mainstream of thought and the other of his undercurrent. That Matthew intends to use the passage as part of his christological witness is evident. The passage itself embodies a strongly christological thrust in the phrase "you did it to me," which makes Jesus in some sense the referent of all the deeds of mercy done in the world.3 More importantly, Matthew attaches the pericope to a series of exhortations obviously intended to encourage the Christian community to persevere until the final judgment;4 thus the deeds of mercy inculcated are direct responses to the Christian proclamation (7:794).

On the other hand, it is equally clear that the double climax of the passage (vv. 40, 45) stands in tension with the christological thrust. "When did we see you . . . ?" ask both the righteous and the unrighteous, revealing that their actions -- good and bad -- were done unknowingly. Thus the commendation/condemnation seems to be based upon the fact that the deeds were done spontaneously, out of an inner disposition (cf. Mt. 15:1-20!), and therefore without expectation of a reward. So the theme of the "great surprise," far from a rhetorical device as Stendahl terms it (7:794), is in fact the point of the passage: the righteous are commended precisely because they acted humanely without knowledge of Jesus’ presence and therefore without the calculating attitude Matthew attributes to the Pharisees.

On the basis of an argument that partially parallels my own up to this point, Boers concludes that in this passage "acts that are as such non-Christian, even though performed by Christians -- they were not done in the name of Christ -- are used to interpret the meaning of the confession of Christ" (6:72). This much, I believe, is clear. But even more can be said, despite Boers’ objections, on the basis of the passage. I would agree that Matthew probably does not have the question of the fate. of nonbelievers specifically in view in the sense that "the passage does not polemicize against the confession of Christ, neither in the original description, nor in Matthew’s application of it" (6:71). But there is reason to believe that Matthew tacitly assumes, without explicitly (or perhaps even consciously) acknowledging, that the standard of salvation he applies to Christians is simply that which obtains in the world at large.

To begin with, the opening verses clearly describe a universalistic context in that it is "all the nations" that are gathered for judgment. Thus when the people are divided simply upon the basis of humanitarian deeds the undeniable implication is that the categories of good and evil cut across church and world at large.5 If it is true, as Boers argues (6:68). that the introductory verses are not part of the original passage but are simply used by Matthew as an introduction, there is all the less reason to say that the evangelist intended no universalistic reference at all. Beyond this, there is actually another passage which, by implication, makes precisely the same point: Mt. 13:36-43, the explanation of the parable of the tares. Here, once again, the context reveals an ecclesiastical reference. Matthew is emphasizing that Christians, too, stand under judgment. But it is equally clear that he is, once again, applying to the Church a standard that obtains in the world at large. For it is explicitly said that the "field" into which the Son of Man sows seed is "the world" (v. 38). Thus when the Son of Man gathers evildoers out of his "kingdom" the reference can only be to the world at large, upon which the eschatological kingdom has been superimposed (8:187, n. 3).6 As Anton Vögtle observes, then, although Matthew uses this passage for an ecclesiastical exhortation, what he actually emphasizes is simply the fact of a general judgment (9:286 ff.). And Strecker’s radical conclusion, if it is not taken to indicate an explicit and programmatic universalism on Matthew’s part, seems justified:

Church and world, accordingly, are delineated correspondingly. Both stand under the claim of the Kyrios, regarding the fulfillment of which they will be questioned at the final judgment; and both stand prior to that time as complex entities which contain both good and evil and assume man’s accountability, for his deeds. It is therefore the primacy of the ethical claim which assimilates Church and world to one another. It also prohibits an absolute distinction. The world is not as such negatively assessed; to the contrary, even in it there exists the possibility of salvation. (10:219)

A further consideration indicates just how seriously Matthews universalistic undercurrent should be taken: to the divorce-saying at 19:8b Matthew has added the phrase "from the beginning it was not so!" Not only is this an appeal to experience in general but it explicitly denies that Jesus’ interpretations of the Law add new content. They are, to the contrary, based upon a direct intuition of God’s primordial will which appears "to interpret the meaning" of the Torah itself. In representing the Torah, then, Jesus in no way creates a new possibility for human obedience; he points, rather, to God’s primordial will -- ever perceptible in human experience -- for which humanity has always been responsible. The passages already considered (Mt. 25:31-46; 13:36-43) suggest that it is indeed all people who are thus responsible, and Matthew’s redaction of Mark’s saying on the purpose of parables (Mark 4:10-12/ /Mt. 13:10-15) confirms the former’s explicit interest in the question of responsibility.

The import of Matthew’s undercurrent appears even more clearly when this incipient universalism is considered in light of his subtle theology of "grace." At 11:25-30, Jesus promises "rest" to those who take up his "yoke" -- i.e., the Torah as he presents it. The logion is preceded by accounts of Jesus’ rejection and followed by examples of the wrong attitude of the Pharisees -- specifically, their overemphasis upon Sabbath regulations to the point that human need is ignored (Mt. 12:1-14). Rather clearly, then, we have a reiteration of the call at 5:20 to a righteousness that "exceeds" that of the scribes and Pharisees. But the call to a "higher righteousness" is nevertheless spoken of as easy. "Because," Strecker comments,

the law of Christ, in contrast to the pharisaic precepts, leads to "rest," it can be called chrestos ["easy"] even though it is more difficult in terms of content; and, insofar as the "yoke" provides even now the anapausis ["rest"], it is termed "light," even though its demands are heavier. Ethical demand and eschatological gift therefore accord with one another -- but not in the sense that the latter assumes the former as a prerequisite or even less that, conversely, the "gift" precedes the "demand." To the contrary, the gift of salvation is present in Jesus’ demand; the imperative itself has salvific significance. (10:174f.)

This interpretation is, moreover, strengthened by a comparison of the passage with Mt. 25:31-48 and 28:16-20. In the former passage, a surrogate of the love-commandment functions as the eschatological criterion of salvation; at 11:25-30 the human insensitivity of the pharisaic attitude is implicitly contrasted with the "easy yoke." In effect, then, the call to Jesus’ yoke is a call to imitate the action of the righteous in the judgment-pericope, Mt. 25:31-46 (11:24). And that action is commended precisely because it is noncalculating, spontaneous concern for the neighbor. So the yoke of Jesus is presented as the alternative to a reward-seeking, "legalistic" adherence to the letter of the Law -- a point that Mt. 23:23 ff. makes with bitter explicitness. Again at Mt. 28:16-20 we have a union of grace and demand within Jesus’ command, since the imperative to teach new converts to obey all Jesus has taught is accompanied by his promise to be "with" them. And Jesus’ presence, far from some kind of mystical indwelling, is most naturally interpreted in light of Matthew’s consistent Torah-centered approach: Jesus is "with" the disciples precisely as the one who issues the love-commandment and thereby facilitates the obedience that leads to salvation -- just as, in a similar way, Mt.18:18 implies that his presence in the gathered community is for the express purpose of enabling right legal decisions. Rather clearly, then, Matthew has united his consistently ethical concept of salvation with a surrogate of Paul’s notion of atoning grace. But in this case grace is connected not with Jesus’ atoning death but rather with the command he gives.

Now my investigation may have in one sense added little to Boers’ contention that at Mt. 25:31-46 the Christian confession is "confronted and interpreted by worldly acts" (6:73). But it has hopefully strengthened his point and added this dimension to it: there can be little doubt that this "confrontation" between the Christian confession and humanistic acts of a general nature is, if not a programmatic Matthean theme, nevertheless based upon a tacit assumption which is quite integral to Matthew’s total theological program. Moreover, the hermeneutical question should now appear in even sharper focus. If it is true that Matthew’s legal approach to salvation contains a surrogate of the Pauline concept of grace, then we are faced with a soteriology which in a sense circumvents the christological witness but nevertheless creates an effective union of radical grace and radical demand similar to that which Braun finds in the teachings of Jesus, the epistles of Paul, and the gospel of John. Matthew’s anthropological undercurrent, in other words, presents on its own -- in abstraction from the christological context in which it is set -- precisely that vision of human existence that is generally associated with christology.

To be sure, Matthew does bracket his anthropology with a strong christological witness. And that witness is indeed the mainstream of his thought. Even at Mt. 25:31-46, as noted earlier, there is a final reference of all humanistic deeds to Jesus. But if my exegesis is sound, Matthew’s soteriology does not rest functionally on christology but rather on Law. That is to say, salvation depends finally upon right human action in response to God’s gracious Torah, and Jesus’ function is simply to re-present that Law as it exists primordially in the mind of God -- not to create a new possibility for human existence. The question, then, is how we are to weigh the relative importance of christology and anthropology. And at this point the hermeneutical problem comes to the surface.

II

The primary contribution of a "process hermeneutic" to Biblical studies, in my estimation, will be a recognition of a basic duality in the nature of human speech in general and in religious language specifically. Because all language involves a process of abstracting certain elements in experience out of the total complex in which they occur, it is necessarily analogical and therefore imprecise: a word never refers to an absolutely discrete entity. Speech is therefore subjective and valuational, for its meaning always depends upon what Lyman Lundeen terms "non-linguistic factors," factors relating to the subjective situations of the speaker and the hearer (12:48, 71, 77, 103). But if the abstractive nature of speech formation is recognized, then it must be seen also that the abstract term always implies more than itself; it always brings with it the presupposition of the total context from which it is drawn (12:84).6 All speech, in other words, implies a metaphysical background against which it must be interpreted for its significance to be grasped (PR 16-20; 12:46).

Since for Whitehead language is necessarily "incomplete and fragmentary" (AI 291), no linguistic formulation ever fully expresses that which lies behind it -- a proposition (Or propositions), which is defined as the possibility of some pure potentiality (eternal object, the predicate of the proposition) to be realized in some actuality (actual entity, the logical subject of the proposition) (PR 393f). Moreover, the function of a proposition is primarily that of a lure toward feeling.

Now the "feelings" toward which the "prehending subject of the proposition" is drawn are not simply affective in the narrow sense. They are precisely those encounters with actualities and potentialities that form the basis of all experience. But the point is, nevertheless, that Whitehead explicitly contrasts the role of "lure toward feeling" with that of a conveyor of truth or logical precision:

It is evident that the primary function of theories is as a lure for feeling, thereby providing immediacy of enjoyment and purpose. Unfortunately theories, under their name of ‘propositions,’ have been handed over to logicians, who have countenanced the doctrine that their one function is to be judged as to their truth or falsehood. (PR 281)

Of course propositions do call for truth-judgments (PR 392), and these too are feelings. But the truth-judgment is but one among many types of feeling elicited by propositions (PR 396). "Immediacy of enjoyment and purpose" are broader categories; the basal encounter with the subject and predicate of the proposition is the real focus of interest. According to Whitehead, then, "it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. The importance of truth is, that it adds to interest" (PR 396). Thus the actual function of language cannot be reduced to univocal significations that can be pronounced true or false.

Now Whitehead’s recognition of the fragmentary or imprecise character of speech parallels an insight shared by Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and their theological disciples -- i.e., the practitioners of the new hermeneutic. But important differences must be noted. What they attribute to religious language Whitehead attributes to all language. Thus his vision of religious language is not utterly different from his understanding of the language of the everyday. So from a Whiteheadian perspective, understanding of a religious text does not rest so heavily upon existential appropriation of its message as the Heideggerians claim. In this sense a process hermeneutic will be more fully "secular" than the new hermeneutic, since it will recognize that all beings, in all times and places, who can in the full sense be named human persons, are -- simply by virtue of their humanity -- capable of grasping (and being grasped by) the message of the text.

For Whitehead, religious language is a legitimate mode of discourse precisely because it points to the metaphysical background implicit in ordinary speech and experience. It is distorted, however, when it is taken univocally -- when the abstractive process upon which it rests is ignored. When this happens, religious propositions are taken as dogmas and religious insight atrophies (RM 144f). Religious statements therefore stand in need of metaphysical clarification (RM 78).

Here, then, is my proposal for a "process hermeneutic." On the one hand, because the language of the text is imprecise and analogical, the interpreter must work through the discursive implications of the text back toward the complex of basal feelings toward which it lures the reader. To this extent a process hermeneutic will parallel Bultmann’s demythologizing project and, with important qualifications, the new hermeneutic as well. But a recognition of the metaphysical reference of all language -- and of religious language more particularly -- means that the interpretive process does not end at this point. The interpreter is also bound to take account of the most far-reaching presuppositions of the text. This does not mean that the interpreter must become a metaphysician in the sense of making metaphysical judgments -- although, at some point these become unavoidable and are in fact implicitly at work from the beginning, as in all thought -- but rather that he or she is responsible for recognizing the metaphysical question which the thrust of the text implies.

How, then, will this methodology help us evaluate the tension between Matthew’s christology and his soteriology? This tension, it seems to me, will appear as an invitation to metaphysical clarification.

There is no question but that Matthew’s gospel intends to lure the readers toward Jesus as a specific object of faith. That is clear even in the passages that reveal universalistic presuppositions. The question is whether this lure is best served by a univocal understanding of the language that embodies it. Clearly, the text calls for faith in Jesus as the eschatological judge; the question is whether it actually demands a formalization of the faith-response in a specific conceptualization of Jesus’ status -- one of a doctrinal character that demands assent.

Of course doctrinal implications are at work here and operative in the gospel as a whole -- just as in the entire early Christian witness. But the basic lure of the text is to a faith-response in relation to a particular object, not to any particular conceptualization of that object. Thus when we discover, parallel to the exclusivistic elements in the text, the tacit assumption of a broader principle by which these elements are in fact interpreted, it seems to me that we have the right to speak of a subtle lure toward the recognition of a metaphysical framework within which the call to faith is set. Language betrays, sometimes against its immediate "purpose," its ultimate ground and reference.

The point is that there are two levels of interpretation. On one level interpreters must recognize the right of the text to maintain whatever tensions, contradictions, absurdities that it will. On the other hand, if they are to treat it with full seriousness they must also trace home its metaphysical leadings and ask what final sense can be made of the witness. They must thus seek to understand the plain meaning of the text, but that meaning cannot be fully grasped apart from metaphysical clarification. And this clarification, of course, inevitably involves the interpreters own perspectives. Thus interpretation is the means by which the text wends its way into the future.

Interpreters, then, are not bound to the immediate doctrinal consequences of the text, but are free, and even obligated, to read the more immediate lures in light of the metaphysical implications and assumptions toward which the language of the text points. Elements that appear problematic in light of the metaphysical reference will not of course be excised from the text but rather interpreted -- i.e., recognized as highly analogical or symbolic elements.

Now if my reading of Mt. 25:31-46 is essentially correct, it should be apparent that the basic, overall thrust of the passage can be defined as a lure toward a feeling of compassion, or love, toward the needy. Christians are, in an immediate sense, enjoined to care for the less fortunate within their community. In that this exhortation to deeds of love is sanctioned by an appeal to the eschatological judgment, at which Jesus appears as Son of Man and judge, however, the lure toward love is bracketed by an implicit recognition of its confessional context. There is thus an additional lure toward commitment -- or, really, recommitment -- of one’s life to the Jesus who will appear as judge. But Jesus serves as God’s agent. So the call to recommitment to him actually opens into a lure toward apprehension of and recommitment to the God whom he represents.

These three basic lures are inextricably bound up with one another. Service to the neighbor is considered service to Jesus; service to Jesus is considered service to God; service to God is defined as service to the neighbor. This picture is complicated, however, by the presence of a subtler lure which appears in Matthew’s tacit assumption of the universality of the eschatological love-standard: the implied lure toward the apprehension of this standard as a metaphysical principle -- i.e., as expressing something about God’s being per se, apart from any special manifestation of it. Christians are told, in effect, that they will be judged on the basis of the love-standard precisely because that is the way all human beings will be judged -- i.e., in accordance with God’s primordial will. The necessary assumptions are that the standard is in fact universal and that adherence to it is a universal possibility. So the result is that Jesus, the focal point of a particularistic confession, enforces a standard that is universal, reaching beyond the very confessional tradition that proclaims him to be God’s eschatological agent.

Now there is nothing self-contradictory about the notion of a particularistic application of a universal standard. But the notion of the exclusive representative of a universal standard is problematic. If the standard is in fact universal, and if the corollary assumption of the universal possibility of adherence is accepted, then the real possibility of other representative disclosures cannot logically be denied. To the extent, then, that the particularistic lure toward confession of Jesus is understood as the proclamation of his exclusive status as representative of God’s will, it must be seen as competing with the metaphysical lure that stands in the background of the text. Our question, then, is whether the particularistic lure toward confession of Jesus as God’s eschatological agent must be understood as an assertion of his exclusive status as such.

The concept of "confession," it must be recognized, is highly ambiguous. It can refer to a preintellectual experience of ultimate commitment, or it can mean the discursive expression of that commitment. No linguistic formulation can be free of all discursive content; the question, though, is precisely which nuance, from among all the various connotations any formulation necessarily suggests, is to be seen as determinative. The lure toward confession of Jesus as the Son of Man necessarily entails some kind of discursive explication of his role. But there are two fundamentally different ways of approaching such an explication, and they are correlative with the two primary ways of understanding the language in which the confessional statement is made: the univocal, which takes the language as rigidly discursive, and the imagistic, which sees it as highly analogical or symbolic.

In either case, confession of Jesus means recognition of his objective role as a disclosure of God’s eschatological standard. But a univocal explication entails exclusivity, while an imagistic explication does not. The reason is that a univocal reading gives place to certain negative corollaries entailed in a strict adherence to the logic of the confessional statement. If Jesus is the eschatological judge, then no other can stand in his place; if he is the revealer of God’s primordial will, then no other can perform that function; if he appears at the apex of God’s history of salvation, then no other can occupy that position. His status -- although not necessarily the salvation he brings -- is thus utterly unique and therefore exclusive. Univocally understood, then, Matthew’s confession of Jesus proclaims him the exclusive representative of a standard that Matthew tacitly acknowledges as universal. An imagistic valuation of the confession, on the other hand, connotes only this as a minimum discursive affirmation demanding assent: that Jesus, in fact, represents Cod’s eschatological standard.

Clearly, Matthew himself interprets his confession univocally in the development of the mainstream of his thought. His salvation-history leaves no doubt that Jesus is the culmination of a series of events in which God has been uniquely active. This history, and this history alone, is the divinely-initiated history of salvation. But the salvation that is the goal of this exclusive history is nevertheless defined, through the undercurrent in Matthew’s thought, in a way that transcends this special history that achieves it. So the exclusivist corollaries of Matthew’s confession stand in tension with his metaphysical assumption. Thus if, in keeping with a process analysis of language-function, both the confession and the metaphysical assumption are to be taken with full seriousness, the meaning or point of the confessional element must be sought on the imagistic, rather than the univocal, level. This, in my estimation, is the primary contribution of a process hermeneutic: that it draws our attention to the functional significance of the metaphysical lure while freeing interpretation from the strict logic of proximate lures.

While the appearance of Jesus as eschatological judge and the reference of all deeds of mercy to Jesus imply the exclusiveness of Jesus’ role, the truth-judgment regarding this exclusivity runs counter to the metaphysical lure that grounds the confession itself by providing a universal sanction for Jesus’ decisions. So the exclusivist aspects of the christological formulation give way, functionally, to the imagistic. The christological witness forfeits its self-reference by pointing beyond itself -- i.e., by acting as a kind of confessional hyperbole the function of which is to lure readers to a new self-understanding before God, rather than to elicit a truth-judgment about Jesus’ unique status.

It is important to emphasize that the text’s power to assert is by no means curtailed by such a reading. Whereas the exclusive dimension of the christological confession is an obstruction to Matthew’s tacit assumption of the universality of God’s love-standard, the lures toward that standard and toward God himself form the foundation of the entire witness of the gospel. The truth-judgment becomes a functional necessity at the level of the metaphysical assumption, for the entire witness is futile if one does not believe that God is and that God is the one who bestows, commands, and enables love. It is to this affirmation, not the christological confession, that the text ultimately leads its readers. But the intellectual affirmation, of course, is made secondary to the existential appropriation of its meaning: the eschatological requirement is the deed of mercy.

There is, moreover, an aspect of the confession of Jesus that remains functional. Precisely in acknowledging God’s primordial will as represented by Jesus, one necessarily pronounces a truth-judgment about Jesus’ revelatory function -- or, to use the traditional term, office. But if the christological formulation is understood as confessional hyperbole, the truth-judgment no longer entails the exclusivism of a negative corollary.

A process perspective on the language through which Matthew brings his christological witness to expression thus in my estimation lends support to Ogden’s contention that the message of the New Testament is one that "can be formulated in complete abstraction from the event Jesus of Nazareth and all that it specifically imports." Such a reading discloses a consistent theocentrism that brackets and actually encroaches upon the apparent christocentrism of the New Testament. The ultimate reference of the text is dual -- to Cod, to a particular vision of authentic human existence. But what it has to say about each is expressed in the (for the Christian) indispensable metaphor of its witness to Jesus as the Christ. Interpreting the metaphor, then, I can agree with Ogden that the meaning of the witness of the New Testament to Jesus of Nazareth as a unique and unrepeatable act of God in behalf of human salvation is that

men can realize their true life as men., and thus enjoy salvation, only if they understand themselves in the way concretely represented to them in Jesus’ word and deed and tragic destiny. Only by radically surrendering every form of self-contrived security and trusting solely in the grace of God, which transcends the world as its final ground and end, can men achieve an authentic human existence.

In other words, the New Testament sense of the claim "only in Jesus Christ" is not that God is to be found only in Jesus and nowhere else, but that the only God who is to be found anywhere -- although he is to be found everywhere -- is the God whose gift and demand are made known in the word that Jesus speaks and is. (13:14)

 

References

1. Schubert M. Ogden, Christ Without Myth: A Study Based on the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961.

2. Schubert M. Ogden, The Reality of God and Other Essays. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

3. Schubert M. Ogden, "On Revelation," in John Deschner, et al., eds., Our Common History as Christians: Essays in Honor of Albert C. Outler. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

4. Herbert Braun, "Der Sinn der neutestamentlichen Christologie, Zeitschrift fur Theologie und Kirche, 54 (1957), 341-77.

5. Ernst Käsemann, Exegetische Versuche und Besinnungen, Bd. II. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1964.

6. Hendrikus Boers, Theology out of the Ghetto: A New Testament Exegetical Study Concerning Religious Exclusiveness. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971.

7. Krister Stendahl, "Matthew," in Matthew Black and H. H. Rowley, eds., Peake’s Commentary on the Bible. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962.

8. Rudolph Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition. Trans. John Marsh. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

9. Anton Vögtle, "Mt. 28, 18-20," in F. L. Cross, ed., Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literature, Bd. 87. Berlin: Alcademie-Verlag, 1964.

10. Georg Strecker, Der Weg der Gerechtigkeit. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1960.

11. Hans-Dieter Betz, "The Logion of the Easy Yoke and of Rest," Journal of Biblical Literature, 86, 1967.

12. Lyman T. Lundeen, Risk and Rhetoric in Religion: Whitehead’s Theory of Language and the Discourse of Faith. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.

13. Schubert M. Ogden, "The Significance of Rudolf Bultmann," The Perkins School of Theology Journal, 15 (Winter, 1962), 5-17.

 

Notes

1There are, of course, degrees of subtlety with which this criterion is stated. But it would seem that even the highly sophisticated critiques of Funk and Griffin are finally based upon just such a stance. Thus Funk (Robert W. Funk, Language, Hemeneneutic, and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology. [New York: Harper and Row, 1966]) asserts that Ogden’s proposal contains "no counterweight to man’s freedom." And "if," he continues "Ogden now replies that his counterweight to the absolute freedom of man is die primordial love of God, everywhere effectively present, we can only conclude that God also appears to be placed at the disposal of man" (p.96). The assumption seems to be that only conceivable counterweight to human freedom is some kind of "special’ event which mediates a possibility not actually present in the past. Thus even if Funk goes on to criticize Ogden’s metaphysical bent on the basis of a Heideggerian understanding of language, he has nevertheless linked his critique to a rather traditional understanding of the sense of New Testament christology. Similarly, Griffin (David R. Griffin, A Process Christology [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973]) seems to assume without question that the faith of the New Testament is inextricably bound to the assertion of an act of God qualitatively different from his general activity. Witness, e.g., the following: (1) "Likewise, in speaking of a special act of God, the specialness of this act must be attributed at least partly to God. Ogden has said that there is no reason to affirm ‘that God has acted in Christ in any way different from the way in which he primordially acts in every other event.’ It is really impossible to affirm this totally and also to do full justice to the notion of a special act of God" (p. 219f). (2) "Something is said not only about men’s reception of him; something is also implied about Jesus himself. Only if there was something special about his relation to God is it appropriate to apprehend him as God’s decisive revelation. More specifically, it is implied that he was God’s. supreme act of self-expression. Only if this were the case is it appropriate to receive him as Cod’s decisive revelation’ (p. 221).

2 Ogden’s assertion of the necessity of the Christian revelation to a fully reflective understanding of existence might be taken as a sign of a subtle shift of position -- in effect, an admission that there is, after all, some sense in which this event is qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from ordinary events. I do not, however, think that such a reading is warranted. To say that the Christian revelation is "necessary" in this sense is not necessarily to say that the particular historical event in which the Christian understanding had its genesis is the only event in all history -- past, present, or future -- which could mediate such an understanding. The necessity, in other words, might well lie with the understanding itself and not with the particularity of the event in which it did in fact emerge in human history. Such an interpretation would seem more consonant with Ogden’s earlier work. And what he seems concerned to emphasize in this recent article is that (assuming the truth of the Christian understanding of existence) the Christian revelation embodies a view of life that objectively represents the meaning of human existence, so that if a person is indeed to grasp in a reflective way what the meaning of life in fact is he or she must understand it precisely in the way represented by the Christian witness. But whether this same self-understanding might be embodied in the reflection of some other group historically unrelated to the Christian movement would, I think, remain a matter of phenomenological investigation rather than one of theological pronouncement.

3 This recognition necessitates a qualification of Boers’s claim that here Christian deeds are interpreted by humanistic ones. This is true enough in one sense but must not be taken to indicate that the latter constitute a known quantity which illumines the Christian confession. The presence of Jesus as eschatological judge connotes the opposite: the Christian confession illumines the universal standard to which it, however, refers.

4The fifth discourse may be divided into three sub-units each of which possesses internal thematic unity. In chapter 23 the theme is condemnation of the scribes and pharisees. The second piece 24:1-36 constitutes a prophecy of the climactic esehatological events. The unifying thread in 24:37-25:46 is the note of w - Jesus admonishes his followers, in various ways, that they too will have to face final judgment and thus encourages them to steadfast obedience. For this reason I must reject the attempt of Lamar Cope ("Matthew XXV: 31-46 ‘The Sheep and the Coats’ Reinterpreted," Novum Testamentum 11 [19691, 32-44) to see the passage as a statement of how Gentiles only will be judged -- i.e., in accordance with their treatment of Christian missionaries.

5 I must reject the various attempts (e.g., Victor P. Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972], p. 82) to assimilate completely church and world in this passage on the basis of Mt. 28:19, which indicates that the end will not come until the completion of the world-mission. Granted that Matthew envisions the completion of the mission, I find it difficult to imagine that he actually believes that every single human being in the world will have been personally confronted with the word. I find it more likely either that he thinks of the mission to "the nations" in a representative sense (i.e., each nation, but not necessarily each human being will have been confronted) or that he is simply not thinking in such literal terms but rather wants to make the general point that the mission will be completed so that the salvation-history can come to a p roper end.

6 One may fairly ask, of course, whether the good seed are not products of the Christian mission, since they are sown by the Son of Man. There is no question that Matthew thinks primarily in these terms. But the good seed cannot be identified with Christians in a simplistic way, since the bad seed, quite obviously, cannot simply be identified with non-Christians. Jack D. Kingsbury (The Parables of Jesus in Matthew 13 A Study in Redaction Criticism [Richmond Virginia: John Knox Press, 1969)) solves the problem by making the good seed the product of the Church’s mission and the bad seed the product of Satan’s activity against the progress of the Church -- i.e., the corruption of actual and potential converts. But this view entails the attribution of all evil in the entire world to the effort of Satan against the Church. Mid such a notion is credible only on the assumption -- which Kingsbury seems to accept -- that by the time of the final judgment every single human being in the world will have been personally confronted with the gospel. Only in this way can all evil be defined in terms of reaction to the Church’s mission. In light of the difficulties of such an assumption (see above, n. 5), it seems best to imagine that Matthew simply does not intend the logic of the passage to be pushed to this degree. He wants only to make the general point that at the eschaton two kinds of people will appear before the judge: those who do good and those who do evil. When he encourages the Church members to make certain they are among the good, he tacitly assumes a universal standard of righteousness.


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