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Confessing Christ in a Post-Christendom Context

by Douglas John Hall

Douglas John Hall is Professor of Christian Theology in the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Among his many books are the first two volumes of a proposed trilogy, Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context, and Professing the Faith; Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross; The Reality of the Gospel and the Unreality of the Churches; The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death; and God and Human Suffering. Permission to use this material has been granted. The following address was given to the 1999 Covenant Conference, Network of Presbyterians, November 6, 1999, in Atlanta, GA. Other presentations made at the conference may be found at http://www.covenantnetwork.org.


Before turning to the substance of my first address, I should like to thank the planners of this event for inviting me to participate in it. As a foreigner, and inheritor of Presbyterian identity by only one third of my ecclesiastical lineage, I have little right to be here, really. My only qualification for accepting the honor of the invitation, I think, is a lifetime of attempting to comprehend the same mysteries that you yourselves seek to address. I also feel a strong sense of identification with what I believe to be the generative basis of this "network." At a time of unprecedented transition in the Christian Movement, when (as George Orwell once put it) "the little orthodoxies of the right and the left vie with one another for possession of our souls," it is necessary to assert both the modesty and the complex, nuanced character of Christian faith and theology against the false certainties of true belief, ideology and religious simplism. Today, Christians of integrity are thrown back upon the never reducible testimony of Scripture, Tradition and the divine Spirit--a testimony that defies possession, but also manifests an exceptional trust in the insight, imagination, reasonableness and spiritual courage of ordinary human beings when they are modest enough to ask for what they do not and cannot possess. As I keep assuring myself, "God permits theology." That, in any case, is the spirit in which I would like to address the two topics I have been asked to treat in these meetings: christology and ecclesiology.

Both of these topics, obviously enough, demand far more time and space (not to mention wisdom!) than are available to me. I have assumed, however, that what you have wished me to do is to comment upon aspects of these two areas of doctrine that have seemed to me especially vital for the life and mission of the church in our context. In both lectures, much (nearly everything, in fact!) will have to be assumed and telescoped; but I will concentrate on what I think are critical questions--critical in the sense that they represent, at least in my opinion, points on which greater clarity is required if the community of Christ's discipleship is to move into the post-Christendom future with something like apostolic confidence.

Our first subject is christology, and there will be three sections. The first will address the centrality of Jesus Christ in Christian confession. The second will concentrate on christology proper, that is, the identity or person of the Christ. The third, which I feel is today the greatest challenge, will consider the soteriological side of the subject. I would be glad if you could consider the substance of this lecture a kind of commentary on the first paragraph of your own "Call to Covenant Community," which reads: "We affirm faith in Jesus Christ who proclaimed the reign of God by preaching good news to the poor, binding up the broken-hearted and calling all to repent and believe the good news. It is Christ whose life and ministry form and discipline all we say and do."

I. The Centrality of Jesus as Christ

Christianity is a dialectically monotheistic faith in which the nature and purposes of the Ultimate are illumined by historical events culminating, though by no means terminating, in the life, death and resurrection of the Jewish teacher Jesus, called by faith the Christ. This may seem a truism, but it acquires new import in our historical situation. For as the Christian religion emerges out of the constantinian cocoon in which, throughout most of its history, it has been so tightly enclosed, Christians find themselves relieved of the burden of assuming, as the raison d'être of their movement, custodianship of the random religious sentiments and moral codes that have clustered about the corpus Christianum. In short, we are free, insofar as we are courageous enough to undertake it, to contemplate and to enact in concrete ways the only biblically and theologically sound reason we have for calling ourselves Christians--which is to say our confession of Jesus as the Christ. As long as Christianity had to play--or allowed itself to play--the role of Western culture-religion, the nomenclature "Christian" was obliged to stand for all sorts of dispositions extraneous or tangential in relation to biblical faith. In the post-Christendom context that has been in the formation since the 18th Century and will be the normal situation of the church in the third millennium, Christians are required to become knowledgeable and articulate about the christological basis of their belief. We are Christians, not because"we are (or think we are) good, or right, or just, or "concerned"--and certainly not because we are "nice"--though hopefully we are (as Reinhold Niebuhr once said) "as decent as ordinary people." We are Christians because we believe in God as God is made known in Jesus Christ through the divine Spirit and the testimony of Scripture.

This is basic, and indeed it is so basic that we should expect, over the next few decades, that any for whom such a confession contains no element of meaning or conviction or even interest would likely withdraw from the churches and seek their spiritual homes in religious or quasi-religious or purely secular settings more commensurate with their predispositions and "values." This too--this exodus that has already been experienced by most churches in Europe and (to a somewhat lesser extent) North America--is an inevitable aspect of the humiliation of Christendom, the pluralization of religion, and the secularization of society. To many (and in some sense to all of us) it seems a matter of deplorable loss; but we should try to see it, rather, as a necessary and even a desirable clarification of the meaning of Christian identity in the post-Christendom world. In direct proportion to its being deprived of the cultural props that have sustained it as the established religion of the western world, the Christian church is being cast back upon its rudimentary confessional basis.

The attempt to affirm and give direction to this process within the North American context, however, is fraught with difficulty. For here it is necessary to be vigilant simultaneously on two fronts. On the one hand we share with European and other Christians the task of distinguishing Christianity from the remnants of superficial culture-religion, and this necessitates the firm recovery of our christological foundations. On the other hand we find ourselves surrounded by true-believing, biblicist and fundamentalist versions of our faith which out-do us in confessing Christ--but a Christ so unbending, so dismissive of difference, and so reducible to dogma that we cannot recognize in him the One we have been taught by biblical scholarship and Reformation theological traditions to honor as Redeemer.

If I am asked to identify more precisely what biblical scholarship and Reformation traditions have taught us on this subject, I quote one of the eminent theologians of the first part of this century, who wrote:

Christianity is what it is through the affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth, who has been called "the Christ," is actually the Christ, namely, he who brings the new state of things, the New Being. Whenever the assertion that Jesus is the Christ is maintained, there is the Christian message; wherever this assertion is denied, the Christian message is not affirmed. Christianity was born, not with the birth of the man who is called Jesus, but in the moment in which one of his followers was driven to say to him, "Thou art the Christ." And Christianity will live as long as there are people who repeat this assertion. (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. ii; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, p. 97.)

This statement, albeit in somewhat different language, could have been made by Karl Barth, or Rudolf Bultmann, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Suzanne de Dietrich or any number of others who have spoken to us of these matters during the century. As you will have recognized easily enough, it was written by Paul Tillich, hardly a flaming conservative, and as the very first paragraph of the christological section of his Systematic Theology. I find it right and altogether satisfying. However: How, in our present context, shall we say this, represent this, live this, without seeming to endorse the kind of christomonism (Dorothee Soelle called it "Christofascism"!) that inevitably ends in religious triumphalism and exclusivity?

I think that we can do so only if we recover a foundational Theology--a doctrine of God--that is informed by a Judaic sense of the dialectic of divine distance and proximity, otherness and sameness, transcendence and immanence. Christomonism and the exclusivity that attends it represents, I believe, a failure of trinitarian theology. For a triune understanding of God, the western tradition especially was always tempted to substitute an undialectical monotheism heavily informed by a christology emphasizing the divinity principle and downplaying Jesus' true humanity. The result, in the hands of the simplifiers, is what H. Richard Niebuhr rightly named "a new unitarianism of the second person of the trinity"--or, in the plain and oft-repeated slogan of popular evangelicalism, the simple declaration: "Jesus is God." If all we can say of Jesus and of God is that Jesus is God--all the God of God there is--then we have effectively ruled out all other attempts of the human spirit to glimpse the mystery of the ultimate; and this is all the more conspicuously the case when our understanding of "Jesus," in the first place, is really a dogmatic reduction of his person, his "thou-ness," to the "it-ness" of christological propositions that, most of them, enshrine little more than our own religious bid for authority.

Perhaps the doctrine of the trinity was doomed to failure from the start, because it tried to express in the ontological language of the hellenistic world an understanding of deity belonging to the tradition of Jerusalem. More of that in a moment. But even in its officially sanctioned forms, the trinitarianism of the classical tradition ruled out as plainly heretical the docetism, monarchianism, and monophysitism that would have justified any such bald statement of Christ's divinity as the slogan, "Jesus is God." Its language notwithstanding, the trinitarian theology of the main stream tried to do the two things that had to be done if Christianity was to survive at all: namely, first, to justify the centrality of Jesus Christ for this faith by affirming his unique relation to the ultimate; and, second, to set the mystery of his appearing within the context of a greater mystery still, that of the "suffering love" of the Creator for the creation.

It is this latter dimension that has continuously been thwarted in Christian religious history in favor of yet another apotheosis of the particular; and it is this same dimension that is most in need of being recovered in our present context. Only if the Christian Movement is able to demonstrate, concretely in deed and word, how Jesus Christ reveals the radical world-commitment of a God who is (as Paul reputedly said on Mars Hill) "not far from every one of us," will it manifest biblical faithfulness in the multi-religious and multi-threatened world that is and is coming to be. As (I think) your christological article in the "Call to Covenant Community" assumes, gospel has more to do with the humanity of God than with the divinity of Christ; that is, it posits the divine origins of Jesus of Nazareth as the necessary theological presupposition of its primary testimony to the ultimacy of the Creator's world-orientation (John 3:16!). And when the so-called "divinity of Christ" becomes an article of faith independent of that divine world-orientation, then the gospel of the incarnation of the Word has been replaced by yet another declaration of the divinization or apotheosis of a seemingly human being. But this leads to the second point, the specifically "christological" aspect of our faith; and here my thesis is stated rather succinctly in the sub-heading I've given to this section:

II. Recovering Biblical Ontology in the Discussion of Christ's Person

The tendency of most historic Christianity to overemphasize the divinity principle in christology must be traced to the political and ontological transformation of our faith that occurred between the original testimony to the messiahship of Jesus, which issued out of a Jewish context, and the councils of the fourth and fifth centuries that gave definitive shape to the doctrine of Christ's person. Today it is necessary for Christians to become clearer about that transformation.

Politically speaking, the transition is rather easily stated. It should not be overlooked that both the trinitarian and christological decisions of this period, decisions that have to do with the most foundational aspects of the Christian faith and have been accepted in subsequent ages with astonishing equanimity, were decisions undertaken by the church under the aegis of Empire. Rome's adoption of this faith insured that, especially in christology, the triumphalist dimensions and possibilities of the received narrative would be given pre-eminence. No respectable empire wants to set up as its primary religious symbol the spectacle of a broken, publicly despised, and officially criminal human being, particularly one whose execution the empire itself effected! It was inevitable, given the fourth-century establishment of Christianity, that the divinity principle in christology would triumph--as it has triumphed in all the subsequent empires with which the Christian religion has covenanted. Little of the Hebrew Bible's critique of power (the power of kings and military heroes and alleged deities) found its way into Christian christological reflection, except in the thin tradition of the theologia crucis.

But it is in the vicinity of Athens and Alexandria and not of Rome that one has to look for the more subtle aspects of the transformation of the crucified one into the transcendent God-Man whose very suffering seems academic. Both christology and trinitarian theology were articulated according to an ontology that not only gained little or nothing from the narrative traditions of the Jews, but displaced those traditions very effectively. As Joseph Sittler and Joseph Haroutunian and, latterly, many feminist writers have demonstrated, the ontology of Jerusalem is a relational one: being means being-with; existence is co-existence. Reality is not to be glimpsed through the examination of individual entities or abstract universals but in the between-ness of all that is. Jesus' relatedness to God does not consist in his possession of a divine substantia, but in his faithful representation of God's dominion, which is servanthood; and Jesus' relatedness to us (the relatedness that matters!) does not consist in the obvious fact of his participation in our human ousia and form but in his faithful representation, before God, of our struggle to live the life of the wondrous and impossible creatures that we are.

The question that is put to Christians today where our christology is concerned is whether we can return our thought and the ethical consequences of our thought concerning Jesus the Christ to the ontological matrix in which it was originally enfolded--namely, the relational ontology of the tradition of Jerusalem; and thus overcome this obdurate temptation, neither biblical nor contemporary, of regarding the one at the center of our confession as the bearer of "substances" that are as incomprehensible as they are incompatible. I know that the decisions of the ecumenical councils with regard to Christ's person were sincerely meant to translate the received testimony of the primitive church into the more universal, established, and highly nuanced philosophic language of the period. But it is a language that is, like all language, more than language; and it is a language that is as foreign to us today as it would have been to the disciples of Jesus themselves. If we must still resort to the language of the "two natures" (and probably for ecumenical and other purposes we must), why cannot we give them an Hebraic as well as a contemporary twist and say, for instance, that insofar as Jesus bears within his person and represents for us the very presence (the being-with-us; the Emmanuel-hood) of God, he turns inevitably towards the creature for whose love God yearns: that is his "divinity"; and that, insofar as Jesus bears within himself and represents for us the very soul and pathos of the human creature, he turns inevitably towards the eternal Thou who (as Augustine rightly said) "created us for thyself": and that, relationally understood, is Jesus "true humanity."

The ethical consequences of such a christology are manifold; for it at once denies us, as a paradigm of wholeness, a Christ-figure morally impeccable in his unique and lonely perfection, and it gives us a model of moral integrity achieved through an ongoing struggle towards depth and truth in all of his relationships.

I turn finally to the soteriological aspect of christology, under the sub-heading--

III. The Cross as God's Act of Solidarity and Reconciliation

Lately something has puzzled and astonished me consciously that had been festering in my mind for many years: How did it happen that one particular theory of the atonement, the so-called Latin or Anselmic or substitutionary or satisfaction theory, came to dominate the entire Christian religion in its Western expression? It is amazing, surely, when every textbook of Christian systematics one can think of develops three or more (usually three) historic types of atonement theory, that people in the pews (and many in the pulpits!) assume that there is only one--to the point, as I have discovered of late, that some people are immensely relieved when they learn that there are other explanations of the cross, and that Anselm's classic expression of the atonement in Cur Deus Homo? had its critics from the very start.

There is of course no doubt that the substitutionary theory has had a profound psychological appeal, and that certain biblical texts can be adduced to support it. The human anxiety of guilt is perennial.

But it is also, like everything else, historically conditioned. An atonement theology directed towards the assuaging of guilt before God is a powerful gospel--in contexts where God is immediately and almightily real; or where (as we may note more skeptically) a religion is still powerful enough to hold up before its host culture the image of a holy and righteous deity before whom none is worthy except through the appropriate cultic observations. As however Tillich demonstrated brilliantly in his most popular book (The Courage To Be), human anxiety does not always take the form of guilt and condemnation, dominantly. The earliest and (according to Gustav Aulen) Luther's atonement theories were not addressed to the anxiety of guilt, but to that of (in Tillich's terms) "fate and death." Personally I am convinced that, while both guilt and fate have obviously not left the human scene, Tillich was right in insisting that the dominant anxiety of the whole modern epoch is neither of these but that of "meaninglessness and despair."

Why have we Christians failed to produce soteriologies that speak to the anxiety of our age in the way that Anselm and the Reformers spoke to theirs? Sometimes I think that the reason for this failure (besides the readiness of religions to foster theological conventions that precisely do not speak to their contexts!) is because of our great hesitancy to enter into the anxiety that shapes our own epoch: for the anxiety of meaninglessness and despair, however it may be named, is the most debilitating of all. As Kierkegaard insisted, it is the "sickness unto death" that cannot be specified as to cause or character.

Yet we must enter this darkness. For any convincing expression of "salvation" has to be forged on the anvil of the peculiar damnation that is its negative backdrop. If for guilt one wants to offer forgiveness, one has to become consciously and articulately guilty with the guilty. If for death and destiny one wants to offer liberation, one has to enter the dark realms of mortality and oppression. And if for meaninglessness and despair one wants to offer a gospel of purpose and hope, one has to experience--in one's person, and in the corporate person of the church--the "sickness unto death."

In the churches we have almost palpably shied away from any such venture; indeed, we have offered the church as sanctuary from the cold winds of late 20th Century despair and the loss of purpose that informs nearly every creative work of art and parades itself visibly in the arena of politics. Until we become courageous enough to go with our contemporaries (and especially the most victimized of our contemporaries) into the dark night of the eclipse of meaning, we shall not have a gospel that speaks to the real situation of our time and place.

Certainly fundamental changes would be required of the churches if they were to do this: we would have to put truth before comfort; we would have to listen to the losers, the jobless, the homeless, the unsuccessful, the ostracized; we would have to leave the sanctuary and enter the marketplace, and learn through participation how to contemplate the human condition as Jesus did: with compassion.

In connection with this assignment, I read again (rather carefully) the New Testament. Theologians should do this from time to time. It is really quite surprising how often the word "compassion" appears as the primary response of Jesus to human situations, both personal and collective. Considering such texts (and much else) over the past months, I have found myself wondering: has not the Christian religion put far too much emphasis on sin, and far too little on finitude, mortality, creaturehood? Well, I am a Protestant! I believe in my heart that sin is a splendid concept, full of wisdom-- and, when it is understood biblically, that is, relationally, that is, as the abbrogation of relationship, it is itself, at bottom, a highly compassionate teaching. But sin has rarely been understood biblically, and the press that it still has today is so moralistic, so tied to guilt of the most privatistic nature (above all, to sex), and finally so bourgeois, that it is hardly helpful in the Christian apologetics of salvation in our social context.

Compassion is evoked in Jesus, and in those whom Jesus calls, not by the recognition of human guilt, though it is certainly true that we are guilty, we rich especially! But Jesus' compassion arises in response to our finitude--that is, the strange admixture of possibility and impossibility that constitutes the being of the human. Out of the anxiety of creatures capable of such abysmal self-knowledge as we can and often do acquire, much evil and wickedness emerges. But until a faith shows that it understands the anxiety that is sin's genesis, neither will it speak profoundly to the suffering that is sin's consequence. As the gospels present him, Jesus conveys an astonishing empathy with the broken human beings whom he encounters; and it is only through this compassionate identification with their brokenness that he is able to become their healer. In this movement of the incarnate Logos towards ever greater participation in creatureliness, and especially in his own final brokenness at Golgotha, Jesus enacts--indeed, "fulfils"!--that "divine pathos" that Abraham Heschel declared to be the essence of the Hebrew Bible's prophetic tradition. The cross is certainly a many-sided event and symbol, and contexts alter meanings; but in our context at least, I believe, it should be seen primarily, not as a divinely managed human sacrifice to a righteously wrathful God but as God's own solidarity with the creature and the decisive statement of One who would be "with us" unreservedly.

What a difference is made in the whole realm of sexual ethics (to mention only one consequence of such an imago Christi), if human sexuality is regarded under the perspective of our finitude rather than that of sin and guilt--at least as these are regularly conceived. What a piece of work is man, is woman, who must combine the noblest sentiments of existence, included other-directed love, with the hard realities of self-preservation and concupiscence, and do so with some measure of dignity and grace! Seen from the vantage-point of our extraordinary kind of creaturehood, sex can neither be glorified and romanticized nor despised and demonized. It is an integral aspect of our creatureliness, and its problematic, as with every other dimension of our "finite freedom in anxious self-awareness" (Tillich), should elicit foremost in the disciples of Christ compassion: com-passion, Mitleid--that is, the with-suffering of those who share, and recognize that they share, the same possibilities and ambiguities as they find in others, albeit perhaps in different configurations. What could it mean for the struggle over sexual orientation and ordination that is going on in all of our denominations if we began, not from some culturally inherited moral code, but from the thought-filled recognition of our discipleship of the compassionate Christ?

This is of course part of a larger issue, which could be called the tragic dimension of the human condition. In her book, Tragic Dimension and Divine Compassion (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), Wendy Farley argued that Christians have not addressed profoundly the reality of the tragic. I concur--and I add: particularly North American Christians, who have been so uncritically carried off by our culture's veneration of alleged "freedom." There is a necessary dimension of the tragic in our creaturehood (yes, I think it is a necessary dimension), because any kind of freedom or victory of the good without it would be shallow and unworthy of both God and humanity as they are viewed in Scripture. And surely, at bottom, it has always been the Judeo-Christian recognition of our finitude, and of the compassion that is evoked by its tragic dimension in the very heart of our Maker, that has constituted the basic appeal of this faith--even when, at the official doctrinal level, it has been overshadowed by the sterner dogma of God's holy wrath in the face of human distortedness.

I want to close on that note, with the recitation of one of the most touching literary illustrations of that appeal known to me. In his A History of the English Church and People, the Venerable Bede, describing the council held by King Edwin in 627 to decide whether Christianity should be adopted in the land, has one of the king's chief counsellors address the assembly in the following manner:

Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter's day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it. (Trans. by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R.E. Latham; Penguin Books, 1955; p. 127.)

This, to my mind, not only represents very movingly the anthropological presupposition of all authentic soteriology, but exemplifies the apologetic stance for which we must aim in our proclamation of "gospel" in our time and place.


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