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The Common Faith

by John Knox

John Knox (1513-1572) was a Scottish priest who became a Protestant reformer and founder of Scottish Presbyterianism. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock. This article was published in the Christian Century, February 6, 1957. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


1. One cannot gain even a little acquaintance with the early church—which means, one cannot do even a little reading in the New Testament—without recognizing not only the importance of what the word "Christ" stands for in its life, but also the richness and manifoldness of this same reality. If we examine the Christian community’s experience, I believe that the reality with which we are concerned appears under no fewer than three aspects. First it refers to the event or slowly knit series of events in and through which God made himself known. This includes the whole complex of what happened in connection with Jesus (including the cultural setting and background, Jesus Himself. His relations with His disciples and others. His death, His resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, the creation of the church). Secondly, it refers to the person who was the center of that event or complex of events. Finally, it refers to the community which both came into existence with the event and provided the locus of it. As a matter of fact, none of these three meanings—person, event, community—ever stands alone in Christian usage; all are present in some degree of relevance whenever the word "Christ" (or any equivalent term like "Jesus Christ" or "the Lord") appears. The word has this rich and varied meaning, not because one wants it to have it, or believes that it ought to have it, but simply because on cannot talk about the Christian life without using the term "Christ" in this manifold way.

2. If follows from this that the Christological question does not need to be construed as a question about the person: it can just as appropriately be thought of as a question about the event or the community. And it is when we ask the question in one of the latter forms that the large and significant agreement in belief, not only among early Christians but among all Christians, is most likely to emerge. Let us suppose, for example, that we were accustomed to ask the question primarily about the event; that when we asked, "What think ye of Christ? We meant, not "Who is He?" or "Whose son is He?" (Matt. 22:42), but "What has occurred? How are we to understand this thing that has happened among us?" If this were the question, would not the answer have been something like this: "In Christ, God has visited and redeemed us. The same God who made a covenant with Abraham has made a new covenant, calling into being a new people. He who made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the children of Israel, has acted now in the fullness of time to deliver mankind from all its enemies, from the guilt and power of sin and the fear and doom of death. This deliverance, God has brought about in our history and has made available in the new community of the Spirit to all who will receive it in penitence and faith." Would not this have been the unanimous early-Christian answer if the question had been asked in this form, and would it not have been the answer in every part of the church in all the ages since?

3. Or suppose the Christological question had been primarily a question about the community: "What is the reality in which these persons who knew Jesus and now remember Him participate, and which constitutes the essential principle of the community’s existence?" Would not the answer have been rather similar? Something like: "That reality is God’s own presence and love—that is, His Spirit. Through the remembered event God has acted to bring into being this community, into which these persons have been called; in this community the One they remember is know as a living Presence, and in it are found the forgiveness, the healing, the security, the hope they need. All of this is found there because God Himself is present and active there and has chosen to bestow it there. It is the community of His Spirit." And would not this answer have been as unanimously given, through all the centuries, as the other?

4. In the actual course of Christological reflection however, the question (except possibly at the very first) has not been asked in either of these forms, and consequently the wide and deep agreement among all Christians about the meaning of Christ has been to some extent obscured. The characteristic Christological question has been a question about the person: "Who was this person? What shall we call Him?" How shall we define His nature and His work? Whose son was He?" This preoccupation with the person can be partly explained by the fact that Christianity moved very early into Greek environment. For the Hebrew it was natural to think of God as revealing Himself chiefly in events occurring within a communal history; God had always made Himself known primarily in mighty acts. The Greek, however, characteristically thought of revelation in less dynamic terms—as theophany, the appearance of the divine in human form. The Greek was also more interested than the Jew in speculative metaphysical questions, in questions about the nature of things, in distinctions between form and substance, and the like. But although such facts as these may help explain some of the directions that reflection upon the person of Christ took in the ancient church, they do not account for the initial emphasis upon the person. This emphasis was inevitable from the start. The event had centered in the person and career of Jesus, and the church’s memory of it was largely a memory of Him. The event had happened in and around Him, and the community had come to pass among those who had known Him. He was the divine personal center of the church’s life (empirically identical with the Spirit). moreover, the moment in which event and community met—the one culminating, the other emerging—was conceived of as the resurrection of this same person from the dead. All of this being true, it was inevitable, I repeat, that the Christological question should have become almost at once a question about Him and that the earliest statement of faith, the first "creed," should have been a statement about Him.

5. The New Testament leaves us in no doubt both as to what that "creed" was and as to the unanimity with which it was accepted and used among the churches. It was: "Jesus is Lord and Christ." The constant collocation of these three terms in various parts of the New Testament—sometimes in the form of quasi-creedal statement (as in Acts 2:36; Phil. 2:11), more often in such a phrase as "Jesus Christ our Lord" or "the Lord Jesus Christ"—bears witness to its prevalence. Thus, the common faith of early Christianity involved a considerable measure of agreement not only as to the significance of the event and the meaning of the community, but also as to the nature and role of the person: Jesus was Lord and Christ. It is important to note, however that this agreement about the person was possible only because that category (that is the person) was subordinate to the other two in the sense that the terms in which He was first defined were terms provided by the event and the community respectively and constituted hardly more than a reassertion of the empirical values that the event and the community had proved to have. Only because this was true, we may believe, were the terms so unanimously acceptable. To call Jesus "Christ" and "Lord" was to say something about Him, but only because it was to say something also about the event and the community. May I try to show that this is true?

II.

6. First, then, to say that Jesus was "Christ" was to say something about the event. Now there can be no doubt as to the importance of Jesus in (or to) the event. The event happened around Him; He dominated it completely. It was what it was in its concrete character in large part, because He was what He was; and the memory of it was, as we have seen, largely the memory of Him. An event of a highly distinctive kind and of incalculable creative power occurred in first century Palestine; it was remembered as centered in and taking its character largely from a certain Jewish teacher and prophet. Contemporary, or almost contemporary, records confirm the memory both of the event as a whole and of the central decisive position of Jesus within it. The fact that both the event and the community have, from the very beginning, been called by His name bears witness to this same centrality.

7. But although it was undoubtedly the actual personal life and character of Jesus that in large part determined the actual concrete character of the event in the more objective sense, the relationship between person and event is, in a way, revered when we consider the faith of the church. It was the meaning the event had provided to have in the experience of the primitive community that largely determined the earliest theological significance of Jesus. The situation in the early church was not that the event was regarded as the eschatological event, because Jesus was believed to be the Christ but rather that Jesus was called Christ because he had been the decisive center of what was empirically realized to be the eschatological event. The very first Christian theological question (essentially Christological) was, "What has God done?" And the answer was (to repeat what had been said already in other words): "He has reconciled the world to Himself. He has put sin under sentence of doom. He has got us the victory. He has destroyed Him who had the power of death. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness. He has brought life and immortality to light. He has given us the kingdom." Now these are all descriptions of the eschatological fulfillment, for which other men had only wished, or at best only vaguely hoped. But for the early Christians, God had already acted to bring all this to pass. The consummation, to be sure, was still to come: but the thing had in principle been accomplished. He had already given His Spirit, the "guarantee of their inheritance" and they had already entered upon the experience of sonship. Their hope was not mere hope, but hope that had already begun to pass into realization. The final decisive event of human history had occurred. This was the empirical fact and was the real ground of the belief that Jesus was the Christ. How could he not be when the event that he so completely dominated had proved to be the eschatological event? The statement of faith that Jesus was the Christ was really, in its basic intention, an affirmation that the event the church remembered was the supremely significant event of human history. God’s final act of redemption.

8. But much the same kind of thing can be said also about the lordship of Jesus, as this was first affirmed. To say that Jesus was "Lord" was to say something about Him, to be sure, but only because it was to say something about the community. It was a statement of belief only the shortest step removed from the actual experience of the church—hardly more than a description of that experience. No wonder it could be a common and universal faith. The earliest Christians found themselves belonging to a new community in which their memory of Jesus as human Master and Lord was now reinforced and enriched by their knowledge of Him as living and present in the church—still their Master and lord, but in a new sense. Yet the sense was not altogether new. The hushed cry of one disciple to another when at the end of a long night of fruitless labor at their nets they see the risen Jesus on the shore, "It is the Lord!" (John 21:7), serves admirably to remind us of the continuity of the lordship of Jesus as well as to suggest, at least, its fresh meaning after the Resurrection. They recognized Him as their Lord—so they have called Him all along—but now He is "the Lord" in a sense both more transcendent and more intimate. He is the ruler of the church just as He had been the leader of His little band of followers: He is the head (or, we would say, the heart) of the church just as He had been the center of interest and unity among them; He is the object of devotion, even worship, in the church just as He had been the object of His disciples’ loyalty. But whether at one time or the other, to speak of Jesus as Lord as to speak of a relationship in which he stood to the community, and was to say therefore as much about the community as about Him. He was "Jesus Christ our Lord." He could be known as the Lord only by members of the community; or, to say precisely the same thing in different words, no one could "say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit." (I Cor. 12:3).

9. We are dealing in these paragraphs with what I believe to be the most primitive faith. Once Christianity was established on Hellenistic soil, the term "Lord" tended to take its meaning primarily from its use to ascribe divine honors to emperors or to the gods who presided over the mystery cults, not to mention its use in the Greek Bible to render the unspeakable name of Yahweh. At the same time the world "Christ" tended to lose its meaning as the name of a function or office and to become a part of "Jesus’" own personal name. Thus, "Lord" came to carry something like the whole meaning formerly conveyed by the two names together. But in the beginning the titles were distinct and answered to the dual relationship (that is, with the event and the community) that we are now considering; and their primitive meaning was never completely lost. Jesus is still the Christ and our Lord.

10. As was pointed out in the preceding chapter, all early attempts to describe what is usually called the "work" of Christ are in the same way attempts to set forth the empirical realities of the new communal life. The "work" of Christ is the issue of the event. He is believed to have "overcome the world" and the power of sin has been broken. He is believed to have "tasted death for every man," because the members of the community find themselves walking in "newness of life" and filled with the hope of "the life everlasting." He is "Savior," because the event has proved to be in fact the saving event and the community the saving community. All the earliest names of Jesus are functional names; they are ascriptions to Him, as source or mediator, or the values that have been empirically received in consequence of the event and in the actual life of the community. They say only in various other ways that Jesus was Christ and Lord.

11. This Christ and Lord was, of coruse, believed in as divine. He was of "the nature of God;" He shared "the throne of God;" He was "at God’s right hand;" He was "God’s Son;" He was the divine "Logos." These terms cannot be pressed to yield definite and consistent conceptions of Christ’s "nature;" if any such conceptions were formed in the earliest period, no one of them was generally shared. But they do indicate the common faith that the Lord of the church was, in effect, Emmanuel, "God with us." There is no convincing evidence that He was called "God" in the first century, and indisputable evidence that He was not generally called by that name; but it is clear that He was thought of as being related to God as no other man could be. (This is best represented by the statement that Jesus Christ was an act of God—or, if one prefers, that in Him took place the revealing act of God.) But again this belief in the divinity of Jesus rested on the experience of the divine in the life of the community and on the recognition of the divine significance of the event. The position was not that the earliest Christians believed that the event and the community were divine because they also believed that Jesus was divine; but rather He was seen to be divine, because of the way in which He was related to an event and a community whose divine significance was a matter of intimate and indubitable conviction. Must Jesus not have been divine to have been the center of so divine an event?

12. Not only was that the first way, it is also the true way, to ask the Christological question just as the true way to ask the question about the Resurrection is, "Must not Jesus have arisen from the dead, since He is the present living center of the church’s life?" When the divine meaning of the event is made to depend upon views of Jesus’ divinity and when the presence of Christ in the church is made to depend upon a belief in the Resurrection, we cut the solid ground out from under the whole Christian position; we invest the purely speculative with an importance it does not possess and rely on it to perform a function it cannot perform; and we open the door to discord and division. The common faith of the church—even though it is expressed in terms of belief about the person—rests always, and only, upon the common memory of the event and the common experience of the Spirit. On this ground the common faith of primitive Christianity was firmly based.

III

13. Thus far in this chapter two things have been attempted: first, to show that the primitive Christian faith could be a common faith, because it was grounded in the very existence of the primitive church; and secondly, to indicate its basic structure. It was expressed, we have seen, in the formula; Jesus was Lord and Christ: that is, He was supremely significant in the community’s own life (Lord) and in human history ("Christ"). But this is only the basic structure of a faith which, even in New Testament times, underwent considerable development and was found in many diverse forms. It is important that this fact be borne in mind even when we are discussing the "common faith." Only in basic structure was the faith common; as elaborated and articulated, it assumed a great variety of forms.

14. This was true, because the church was not content to say simply that the event of Christ was in the mysterious providence of God, the supremely significant event of history, since through it God had brought into being the new community of His love in which sin and death are overcome and life and peace can be found—the community of the Spirit, of which the church is the anticipatory embodiment. It went on—inevitably, as things were—to ask why this particular event had had this particular effect and this question, because it was a purely speculative question, unanswerable on the basis of the experience of the early church, was susceptible of almost as many answers as there were theologians to ask it. To raise this question is to assume that the secret of the significance of the event can be found within the event itself; whereas this secret lies in Him who acted in and through it. One who raises this question of "why" must seek to answer it by breaking down the event and the new common life into their "parts" and then correlating the several elements of the one with the several elements of the other, as, for example, the death of Jesus with the forgiveness of sins, when really the event (like the new life itself) is one and indissoluble, and there is as little chance of our knowing the "why" of its affects as there is our understanding why God does anything else He does in His creation in the precise way He does it. But speculation of this kind, for all its divisiveness, was inevitable; and agreement in the early church on what we have called the "basic Structure" of faith did not prevent it.


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