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Doubting Thomas: Christology in Story Form by John B. Cobb, Jr.


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by Crossroad Publishing Company, 481 8th Ave. # 1550, New York, NY, 10017. Copyright ã 1990 by John B. Cobb Jr. All rights reserved. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 5: Prof. OíConnorís Study -- Thursday Afternoon


"Well, gentlemen, what can I do for you?" Prof. OíConnor asked, once the two young men were seated in her study. "You said you had a theological problem to discuss with me. I must warn you that Iím not a theologian. In my church few women are! My field is history of Christianity."

"Truthfully, your students speak so enthusiastically about your teaching that we thought you would be the ideal person to talk with. Thanks so much for seeing us so promptly." Chan-Hie began. "Tom and I got into a discussion of Christology, and we soon realized we needed help."

"My concern arose because of Chaplain Levovskyís views," Thomas interjected. "Iíve always thought that belief in the deity of Jesus is the heart of what it means to be a Christian, but she dismisses that as an obstacle to faith. Itís hard for me to come to terms with that rejection."

"I havenít heard the chaplain much myself," Prof. OíConnor commented, "but sheís known around here as a radical. Iíve often thought itís a good thing sheís not ordained as a Catholic, although thatís quite pointless, since if she were a Catholic she would not be ordained! Seriously, I mean that in the present climate of my church she would get into a lot of trouble. Iím really glad for the Protestant denominations! They give space for lots of practices and ideas that we donít seem able to tolerate -- at least at present."

"Are you saying that the church should tolerate heresy, even on Christology?" Thomas challenged her.

"As a historian," she replied, "Iíve grown a little skeptical of hard and fast definitions of orthodoxy. Sometimes the orthodoxy of one generation becomes the heresy of the next. There was a scholar in ancient Alexandria, named Arius, who taught that the Logos, or Word, that became incarnate in Jesus was a supernatural creature, the first and greatest of all creatures. Back in the fourth century there was a whole generation of Christians who were taught that Arianism was orthodoxy. It was their missionaries who converted to Christianity many of the Germanic tribes who later overran much of the Western Roman Empire. It was hard to persuade them that the Christianity to which they had been converted was heretical, that they must believe that the Word incarnate in Jesus was truly God."

"Iím sure I would have trouble acknowledging that what I was brought up to believe was heresy," Thomas agreed.

"Also, when we study the councils at which the decisions were made, it isnít easy to be sure that faith and reason were always the causes of victory. A lot of what went on reads more like power politics."

Thomas had heard some of that before, but he hadnít been much affected by it. In his present mood he was more vulnerable. He commented almost sulkily, "You make it sound as though the creeds donít count for much."

Prof. OíConnor smiled: "Actually, Iím very glad Arianism lost out. Iím quite enthusiastic about the official teachings of the church about Christ."

"Why, then, make such a point of the vacillation between Arianism and what came to be orthodoxy?" Chan-Hie complained.

"I just mean to illustrate that Christological orthodoxy didnít fall from heaven. It is not taught by Jesus himself, and it can only with difficulty be read back into Paul. What is orthodox gets decided in very human struggles within the community of faith. I have a lot of confidence in that struggle. Over time bad ideas tend to lose out. But if you just determine to be orthodox, official teaching may change, and youíll have to scramble to change with it or end up a heretic."

"But hasnít Christology been pretty well set since the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century?" Thomas persisted. "Thatís fifteen centuries; and the ancient creeds unite the Orthodox East, Roman Catholics, and mainstream Protestants! Iíve thought that was something to celebrate and cherish."

"Youíre right, Thomas. And I do want to be part of that great consensus. Thatís where I differ most from Chaplain Levovsky. Sheís a preacher who wants to talk to people today in their own language and context. Iím a historian who feels a part of a great community and who wants to make sense of what ancient people said and to appreciate it. But Iím glad sheís doing what sheís doing."

"I still donít understand you," Thomas fretted. "If there is a great consensus around the creeds, isnít the task of the preacher to explain the content of that consensus in todayís language? It seems to me that Chaplain Levovsky wants to oppose the consensus. How can that be Christian?"

"I appreciate your persistence, Thomas. Maybe I do want to have my cake and eat it, too. But for me itís important to remember that even after the Council of Chalcedon there were large groups of Christians who rejected what we call the orthodox Christology formulated there just because of their faith. One of these groups, the Nestorians, was for centuries an important factor in central Asia. Nestorian missionaries reached China and established churches there. And there were the Monophysites who dominated Egypt. They thought Chalcedon had given up the deity of Jesus!"

"But doesnít the fact that those heretical groups faded from history tell us something about the worth of their doctrines?" Thomas pressed her.

"I donít think so," Prof. OíConnor answered. "As I read history it was Muslim armies that reduced the Nestorians and the Monophysites to minor status. Somebody might argue that God raised up Mohammed to punish those Christians for their heresies, but thatís not the way I see it. And we should not underestimate the power of Nestorian and Monophysite faith to stay alive even under the most adverse circumstances. There are still Nestorian churches, in Iraq, for example. And Coptic Christians, descendants of the Monophysites, are an important part of contemporary Egyptian life. Also, I think one reason we can celebrate the consensus is that we see Christianity through North Atlantic eyes. We forget that Ethiopia has been Christian longer than Western Europe and that its Christianity is Monophysite."

Chan-Hie liked what he was hearing. It supported his need for space to think what Christianity could be in modern Korea. He wanted to understand better what Prof. OíConnor was saying. "All the names you are throwing around are ones Iíve come across before, but frankly those Christological debates in the early church are a blur to me. Could you remind me what the issues were?"

Prof. OíConnor laughed. She sometimes spent several weeks in class trying to help her students understand, and she knew from the exams that the blur was rarely dispelled. "Iíll try," she said, "but donít expect too much in a few minutes!"

Chan-Hie also grinned. "Iíll take what I can get. Maybe through repetition it will begin to sink in."

"Perhaps the easiest place to get a handle on those debates is in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. In the first verse we are told the Logos, or the Word, was in the beginning with God and that it was God. Later, in verse 14, it says the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. That refers to Jesus, of course, the enfleshment or incarnation of the Logos."

"But what is the Logos, anyway?" Chan-Hie interrupted.

"We could say it is the same as the ĎSon,í but then you might think directly of the historical Jesus, and that wouldnít do. Maybe the easiest way to get at it is to work backwards. The Logos is the aspect of the divine that was incarnate in Jesus. The church fathers agreed on that. But still they had two major debates about the Logos. First, how is the Logos related to the Father? Second, how was the Logos related to the human in Jesus?"

"Thanks," said Chan-Hie. "That distinction makes a lot of sense to me. I suppose the Council of Nicea dealt chiefly with the first and the Council of Chalcedon with the second."

"You get an A. You probably remember more of this than you thought! In any case, the major debate about the first question was whether the Logos was a creature or was truly God. The Arians said there could be only one God, the creator of all things, and that it demeaned God to suppose that God could take on finite, bodily form. They did not intend to belittle the Logos. On the contrary they held that God had created the Logos first, before creating the world, both as the agent of creation and as the agent of redemption. But still, the Logos was a creature. Athanasius and his followers objected that the Logos was truly God, not a creature. Since John distinguished the Logos from God as well as saying the Logos is God, they affirmed a distinction within the unity of God, between the Logos and the Father."

"Thatís why the doctrine of the Trinity became so important, I guess," said Chan-Hie, "once they brought in the Holy Spirit. If what is incarnate in Jesus is truly God and yet not identical with the Father, there has to be something like a distinction of persons within one substance. And thatís what the Council of Nicea decided."

"Itís a complicated story," Prof. OíConnor replied, "but youíre on the right track. The debate about the relation of the Logos to the human in Jesus was somewhat different. After Arianism was finally overcome everyone agreed that the divine element in Jesus was truly God. But how could one conceive of a human being as containing God? I offer my students two basic images that sometimes help them see what was going on in the debates. Some Christians thought of the Logos as assuming humanity. Some thought that the Logos dwelt in a human being."

"Frankly," Chan-Hie commented, "I donít see much difference."

"Itís hard to say whether there has to be much difference in the way those images work out, but in fact there was enough to create a lot of controversy. Those who thought of the Logos assuming humanity usually thought that what was most fundamental in Jesus was truly God and not human. God took on human form and characteristics, but Jesus was not in any full sense a human being. Chalcedon was responding to people who thought that way and who said that Jesusí nature was not human -- only divine. These people said Jesus had only one nature -- a divine one. In Greek that makes them Monophysites. Those people thought that to acknowledge a human nature in Jesus would undercut his deity."

"So Chalcedonís main point was not to affirm Jesusí deity but to affirm his humanity!" Thomas exclaimed.

"Yes, thatís true, but of course it also affirmed, or reaffirmed, his deity. It had to satisfy those who thought that Nestorius had wrongly denied Jesusí deity."

"What was Nestoriusís position?" Chan-Hie asked.

"Nestorius came from the side of those who thought of the Logos as dwelling in Jesus. They thought Jesus was truly a human being, human in every respect. The difference between Jesus and others was that God chose to dwell in Jesus fully. Thus Jesus had divine authority and was worthy of our worship as our Lord and Savior."

"What was wrong with that?" Chan-Hie asked.

"Frankly, I donít think anything was wrong. But much of the piety of the day expressed itself in ways that Nestorius didnít like. For example, people prayed to Mary as the Mother of God. Nestorius didnít like that language. God, who is eternal, cannot have a mother. Mary was the mother of the human being in whom God chose to dwell with fullness. That human being is Christ. So Nestorius taught the people to speak of Mary as the Mother of Christ. I would guess that you, as Protestants, are more comfortable with that, arenít you?"

She was right about that, and Thomas was trying to ransack his memory to recall what it was that he had been taught was wrong with Nestorius.

"But for people who thought of the Logos as assuming human form in Maryís womb, calling her Mother of God seemed proper. To them Nestoriusís objections indicated that he was denying Jesusí deity. And long before the Council of Chalcedon they had him banished and his ideas rejected. In order to make sure that Nestorians were not allowed back in, Chalcedon stuck in a phrase about Mary the Mother of God even though otherwise it opposed those who had taken the lead in banishing Nestorius."

Thomas was both fascinated and troubled. Chalcedon no longer seemed like such a firm basis for oneís faith. "So youíre saying that the Chalcedonian Creed was a kind of compromise between the two ways of thinking, what you call the two images?"

"Yes, and the compromise worked for a good many people," Prof. OíConnor continued. It excluded on both sides those who had the most consistent ideas or images. It leaves us with a paradox or a mystery that has baffled the faithful. It has contributed to an idea of faith as acceptance on authority of what cannot be understood by the mind. I donít much like that. But still it has set some boundaries within which the discussion could go on."

"Then you do agree with me that it sets boundaries," said Thomas.

"Well, I agree with you that it has set boundaries," Prof. OíConnor replied. "But Iím not saying that setting boundaries is altogether a good thing. In recent centuries a lot of Protestant thinkers have ignored those boundaries. When I read recent confessions and creeds of some of the more liberal Protestant denominations today, Iím not sure they are very close to Chalcedon. And Iím glad for all of that. I think ancient formulations are important, that we should pay a lot of attention to them. But I donít think any pronouncement settles issues forever."

Thomas felt a bit giddy. Every time he thought he could nail something down, it came loose again. He saw that she was taking much further the direction on which he was already embarked: holding herself to the traditional teaching but calling for openness for others to explore in whatever direction they were called. But surely she couldnít be open to all ideas whatsoever! Surely some proposals must be entirely beyond the pale. "But we do have to have some kind of boundaries, donít we? Youíre not going to accept Nazi Christianity as a legitimate exploration, are you?"

"Thatís a tough one," Prof. OíConnor admitted. "I hope that if I had been a Christian in Nazi Germany I would have resisted the Nazi influence. But Iím not sure that I really would have. And Iím also not sure that holding fast to Chalcedonian orthodoxy would have helped very much. Actually teaching that Jesus is truly God has led to a lot of anti-Jewish teaching, and anti-Jewish practice too. Most of the ideas of the Nazis about the Jews came right out of traditional Christian theology. It was only Hitlerís "final solution" that went clearly beyond the teaching of the church against the Jews. The church had taught that the Jews should be restricted in all sorts of ways -- punished for their stubborn refusal to accept Christian baptism. It was the duty of the state to make them suffer, but they should be kept alive until the last judgment. Hitler just exterminated them. Of course, Hitlerís position is worse, but that doesnít make me proud of orthodox Christianity!"

Thomas was troubled, but he had to push on. "Does that mean that you donít set any boundaries at all?"

"In spite of all the evil that has been done by the church, Iím still disposed to trust the community of faithful over the long haul. That means that we should let people think creatively and freely. Eventually the bad ideas will be exposed. Today weíre realizing that we must change those Christian teachings that led to the Holocaust. Weíre searching around in our heritage for other ways of understanding what it means to be Christian, ways that donít imply that the Jews are Christ-killers and that they have lost their covenant with God by rejecting Jesus. If everyone had been held tightly to orthodoxy during the past centuries, we might not find much to draw on. Iím disposed to let time decide."

Thomas could not accept that. He needed criteria now. "But surely today there are theologies you reject and reject strongly."

"Indeed, Thomas. But to reject them and to want them silenced by church authority are two quite different matters. I want to be free to argue my case against them vigorously. But I want them to be free to talk back. I may even have to change my mind. Ideas that I now object to strongly may prove convincing to our grandchildren. They may be just the ideas our descendants will need in order to deal with their new situation. Remember, the ideas of the early prophets were rejected in their time, but later they provided the basis for the Jewish people to rebuild their faith after the Babylonian captivity."

Thomas found it strange that what he had been taught were Protestant views were coming to him from a Roman Catholic. "But whatís the point of church doctrine if everything is always up for grabs?"

"Thatís a very reasonable response to my one-sided emphasis, isnít it?" Prof. OíConnor answered. "Iím probably reacting too strongly against the new authoritarianism of the Vatican. I owe my own enthusiasm for the church to the vitality and freedom I felt in the late sixties in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, when Pope John XXIII threw the windows of the church open to the best thought of the modern world. But Vatican II is a good example of the value of official church teaching. It now functions to restrain the reactionaries somewhat. I certainly donít want to knock that!"

"But even Vatican II didnít raise questions about the Christological creeds," Chan-Hie pointed out. "How can you as a Catholic be open to ideas that oppose those."

"We Catholics have always had more doctrinal freedom than you Protestants have recognized," Prof. OíConnor protested laughingly. "We see that it is the whole church that corporately grows in the understanding of the truth. Wherever we find the whole church has expressed its shared understanding, we treat what is said as authoritative. As Thomas pointed out, the Christological creeds come close to an ecumenical consensus. That gives them a lot of authority.

"After the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Roman Catholic Council at Trent, Catholics tended to narrow their view of the church to just the Roman Catholic church and leave it to the pope to tell them what the consensus is. That was not the true Catholic spirit. John XXIII threw open the windows. We recognized that there are lots of good Christians whose thinking had not had to kowtow to Vatican authority, that we could learn from them. Some of the most interesting work on Christology has gone back behind the creeds to the New Testament. What it finds there may or may not fit with the later creeds. Maybe we should stick with the creeds. Maybe we should go back to the New Testament and follow the leads we get there wherever they take us. Who can say? I want enough freedom for both to be tried by believing Christians. Generations can discuss and live with the results. I trust that process. Somehow God works through it. New consensus will emerge out of open discussion. Drawing boundaries and enforcing silence only slows the process.

For the first time Thomas began to feel some positive excitement about this different way of thinking of Christian doctrine. But it was also disturbing -- frightening really. It meant living without any solid ground under your feet. The image he had was of finding himself in a stream, not knowing where it was taking him. In that stream one could no longer settle disputes by appeal to orthodoxy. The question would always be one of the merits of every view. But who could decide that? Wouldnít the fragmentation and individualism of Protestantism just get worse? Maybe the Catholics had a sense of the church that could hold them together. But it had always been hard for Protestants who disagreed about doctrine to work and worship together very long.

Chan-Hie was talking. "I really like that. For me Jesus is at the center of my faith, but I havenít wanted to commit myself to any doctrine about him. I like the idea of openness to lots of teachings, testing them practically in the ongoing life of the church."

Thomas yielded somewhat. "I guess I may be too insistent that a Christian has to make central some traditional doctrine about Jesus. If Jesus himself is central for people, I suppose they should be free to consider various doctrines about him. But I donít see how one can avoid holding that there was something special about his relation to God. Even with all the openness it seems to me Chaplain Levovsky goes too far."

"Maybe you should talk with her again," Prof. OíConnor suggested. "Maybe she really doesnít deny that there was something special about Jesusí relation to God. You noticed that a lot of what I said was in reaction to the tightening of the reigns in my own church. I seem to see something like that in Protestant denominations, too. I suspect that she is reacting against what still seems to her to be the mumbo-jumbo of orthodoxy. When sheís not feeling pressured to use that language, sheíll probably talk more positively about Jesus."

That made sense to Thomas, and he agreed to talk with the chaplain again. Chan-Hie wanted to join him. "Youíve been more than generous with your time, Prof. OíConnor," he said. "I can see why your students appreciate your teaching so much. Thanks a lot."

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