What Do We Mean By Faith in Jesus Christ?

by B. A. Gerrish

B.A. Gerrish is John Nuveen Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Distinguished Service Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia.

This article, the first of a two-part series, is excerpted from his book, Saving and Secular Faith (Fortress Press). This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 6, l999; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The author identifies a crisis in christology, stemming from religious pluralism and the quest for the historical Jesus. He suggests that christology properly begins with the experience of the believer, not with dogmatic formulae.

"Crisis" is an overworked word. But few will deny that there is a crisis today in Christology, the doctrines of Christ's work and person. What is not always so clearly recognized is just how long the crisis has been in the making. It is the product, in part, of two characteristics of our modern habits of historical thinking: relativism and historical skepticism.

For Luther and Calvin, there could be only one Savior of the world; outside of faith in Christ, they could see nothing but idolatry and the willful suppression of God's witness to Godself. And they had no serious doubts about the historical reliability of what the New Testament says of Christ. Whether true or false, neither of these two assumptions -- the uniqueness of Christ and the historical reliability of the Gospels -- can be taken for granted anymore.

It is astonishing to find doubts on the first assumption as early as the 17th century, in the confessions of a model Puritan. Here is John Bunyan's testimony in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:

The Tempter would also much assault me with this: How can you tell but that the Turks had as good Scriptures to prove their Mahomet the Saviour, as we have to prove our Jesus is; and could I think that so many ten thousands in so many Countreys and Kingdoms, should be without the knowledge of the right way to Heaven (if there were indeed a Heaven) and that we onely, who live but in a corner of the Earth, should alone be blessed therewith? Everyone doth think his own Religion tightest, both Jews, and Moors, and Pagans; and how if all our Faith, and Christ, and Scriptures, should be but a think-so too?

Bunyan's temptation expresses an early tremor of Christian complacency in a world not only of confessional pluralism but of religious pluralism, too: he has looked at the alarming possibility that all religions, Christian and non-Christian, are alike no more than "think-so," none of them having any special right to be set apart as alone true, or even placed on top as the truest there is. We remember, of course, that according to Bunyan, it was the devil who put these unnerving thoughts into his mind. But what to him was a passing insinuation of the Tempter became for the English Deists, who followed him, a sustained assault on any revelation addressed to all humankind from corners, as Deist Anthony Collins ironically put it. And for the present-day Christian theologian it has become a sober unavoidable theological question: Is there only one mediator between God and humankind? If there are many candidates, how can we adjudicate between them? Or does religious pluralism necessarily imply a religious relativism, in which what is good and true for us may not be good and true for everyone?

Theories constructed to assimilate the new data about other religions sometimes adjusted the old theology, sometimes broke with it; either way, a new theological agenda was quietly taking shape. Richard Baxter (1615-91) argued that if all nations of the world have some kind of religion, then all may hope to obtain mercy for their sins. "Those that know not Christ nor his redemption, are yet his Redeemed." A staunch Puritan, Baxter could not suppose that the salvation of pagans nullifies the need for atonement; it must mean, rather, that the efficacy of Christ's saving work extends to some, at least, who have never heard of him. Christian theology thus retains its priority over the evidences of natural religion, which are simply incorporated into the old scheme with a minimal adjustment -- an adjustment, by the way, that was not without precedent in the theology of the Reformation era. But the English Deists reversed the priorities: they incorporated Christianity into a general understanding of religion.

The Deists were not all of one mind. But we find repeatedly in their writings the view that a pure religion is accessible to all by nature and that Christianity, like every other historical religion, partly exhibits the religion of nature, partly obscures and corrupts it. The familiar scheme of Protestant orthodoxy is turned upside down. Revelation does not, after all, clarify our confused natural knowledge of God; quite the contrary, our innate knowledge of God enables us to judge every pretended revelation and to sort out truth and error even in Christianity itself. Such a revolutionary shift of perspective, typical of the Deists, nurtured a fascinating body of subversive literature, which actually began even before the heyday of Deism. Natural religion, or the religion of plain reason, was assumed to be uncomplicated ethical monotheism, incompatible with trinitarian speculations and the imposition of other religious duties besides the duty to lead a virtuous life.

In the early 20th century, when imperialism was still at its height, Ernst Troeltsch observed that christocentrism is the theological counterpart of geocentrism and anthropocentrism in cosmology: an anachronistic absolutizing of our own contingent place in the scheme of things. That the center of our own religious history is also the sole hope of salvation for the rest of humanity could be a miracle of divine election, but to the rest of the world it looks like another example of the Western will to dominate. And now that the supporting ideology of colonialism has collapsed, the absoluteness of Christianity appears ready to collapse with it. Christians face the adherents of other religions on an equal footing; the dialogue begins, in effect, with Troeltsch's contention that the history of religions reveals several nodal points, not one absolute center. And Christians must now ask: Is Jesus Christ the only redeemer, or are there many?

This, however, is only the first reason that the present-day theologian has to rethink the meaning of Jesus Christ for faith. For what, in any case, can we claim to know about him?

On this problem, too, the dividing line between the Reformers and ourselves fell in the 18th century, the period of the Enlightenment; and the pioneers were again the English Deists, who turned a skeptical eye to the wondrous events related in the Gospels. During the same period New Testament scholars, especially in Germany, began to reflect critically on the fact that the four Gospels do not yield a consistent, unified narrative of the life of Christ. Of course, Christians had noticed from the earliest times that the Gospels have individual characteristics and present the story of Jesus with wide variations. But this had not given rise to much serious doubt concerning their truthfulness.

Even Calvin's ingenuity did not suffice for him to incorporate the Fourth Gospel into his Harmony of the Gospels; he commented separately on John. Yet he was confident that his arrangement of the Synoptics (as we call them) gave a generally accurate account of the words and deeds of Christ. Where the pieces seemed not to fit, he was content to shrug his shoulders and to grant that the Evangelists were not always concerned to provide a strict, chronological account. Neither was he bothered by what he admitted to be a few minor errors in the texts.

We find ourselves in quite another world when we turn from Calvin to the notorious Wolfenbuettel Fragments, which G. E. Lessing (1729-81) began to publish in 1774, thereby launching the so-called quest for the historical Jesus. H. S. Reimarus (1694-1768), the author of the fragments (not identified by Lessing), had been influenced by the English Deists and had decided that the Gospels were not merely inaccurate but fraudulent. Others took the view that the Gospels were not so much conscious fabrications as the work of naïve believers living in a prescientific age: their credulity led them to misconstrue the testimony of their own eyes.

The attempts of the early writers on the life of Jesus to unearth plain facts, and to reassure Christians that the facts were not really miraculous, went nowhere. One commentator on one such interpretation remarks that it retained the husk and surrendered the kernel. But the story of the quest for the historical Jesus is long, complicated, immensely fascinating -- and still incomplete. We now have an Old Quest, a New Quest and a Third Quest. I cannot trace the story here. I simply venture to offer a theologian's comments on its apparent inconclusiveness. Occasionally, it is true, New Testament scholars have spoken of an agreed core of information about the words and works of Jesus. But the consensus, when it is predicted, does not arrive; or if it is achieved, it does not last.

Recent years have seen an extraordinary flurry of new proposals, ranging from technical works of esoteric scholarship to racy publications that court a public sensation. Barbara Thiering's contribution, Jesus the Man (1992), attracted media attention chiefly by its argument that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had three children with her (two boys and a girl), divorced her and was remarried -- this time to the Lydia of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles. (Acts 16:14 tells us that "the Lord opened [Lydia's] heart," which, being interpreted, means they fell in love.) Naturally, this presupposes that Jesus did not die on the cross: poison given him as an act of mercy only left him unconscious. In the tomb Simon the magician, one of the two offenders who had been crucified with Jesus, was able to revive him with the spices left by the women. He lived to a ripe old age, but there is no record of his last days. "He was seventy years old in A.D. 64, and it is probable that he died of old age in seclusion in Rome."

A banner headline in a British weekly caught my eye in October 1992: "Man and Myth -- More Bad News for Believers." It was a review of several popular attempts, including Barbara Thiering's, to rescue the real Jesus from the church. But it is, I think, easy enough for believers to brush aside the entire genre of popular Jesus books. A senior New Testament scholar may speak for most believers when he remarks that "Thiering's exotic fantasy would be a rollicking good joke, were it not so sad that the public, ignoring the Gospels, lap up this total rubbish." The bad news for believers, if there is any, is surely the failure of the more sober scholars to reach a consensus on the historical Jesus: if they agree on anything at all, it is that the Gospels cannot be taken for historical or biographical accounts of what the Jesus of history said, did and suffered. And where does that leave believers?

I admit that I am a mere dilettante in the historical field explored so closely by New Testament specialists. I can only stand by and watch as a church theologian intensely interested in the implications the quest has for faith. And if the significance of the Christian encounter with other religions is that it sets Jesus amid a crowd of competing redeemers, the significance of the many quests for the historical Jesus seems to be that they have taken away the Lord altogether: he disappears in a crowd of competing interpreters. Jesus is variously represented as a marginal Jew (John Meier), a Mediterranean Jewish peasant (John Dominic Crossan), a wandering Cynic preacher (Burton Mack), a Jewish revolutionary (S. G. F. Brandon), a Galilean holy man (G. Vermes) and so on.

And when we move from such general characterizations to matters of detail, it is again the lack of consensus that is most likely to strike the believer as bad news. Perhaps the best we can hope for are the results of Robert Funk's Jesus Seminar, which has now classified all the sayings attributed to Jesus as certainly inauthentic, probably inauthentic, probably authentic or certainly authentic. A sequel has followed on what Jesus really did. A great deal of fun has been poked at the method of deciding historical matters by majority vote of a select conclave, although that is how the church has usually decided matters of dogma. But the real question (for a theologian) is this: Can faith survive the wait, as the words and works attributed to the Lord are passed through the sorting office? And if it can wait, will it then survive all the uncertainties about him that will inevitably remain?

The two problems I have laid on the table are unavoidable. How deeply they have already affected Christians untroubled by a theological education is hard to say. A lot depends on where they live and where, or whether, they go to church. In England church attendance is slight, but religious pluralism and the quest for the historical Jesus have been strenuously debated in the public news media. There are signs of a growing public concern in America, too, where a much higher percentage of the population is connected with one or the other of the churches. In any case, both the interfaith dialogue and the search for the real Jesus are gaining in intensity, and they promise to have repercussions in the churches not unlike the impact (in an earlier time) of the Darwinian controversy. Christian theology must clearly take up the new agenda, which in truth is not so new as is sometimes imagined.

Unfortunately, the problems are not only unavoidable; they are also difficult problems, in which Christian sensibilities are painfully exposed. I cannot hope to enter into conversation with all the various positions that are currently recommended, or even to say as much as I should like to say about my own position. I will only try to point out an approach to Christology, which, admittedly, is not itself a Christology.

The question before us is how faith, understood as a total orientation of the self, is to be related to Jesus Christ in light of the problems of relativism and historical skepticism. Perhaps the instinctive Christian reaction to relativism and to skepticism about the Jesus of history is to insist: "But Jesus was God in human flesh! We believe in his divinity. This is what separates our Christian faith from every other religion, and it isn't negotiable. Salvation depends on it."

However understandable the instinctive Christian response (if such it is) may be, it cannot be promoted to dogmatic status, or we will find ourselves back with faith as the Athanasian Creed understands it. The creed says: "The right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man. .. . This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved." The objection we have to register, first of all, is that faith as belief, and even as belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, is something other than "saving faith" (as Luther and Calvin understand it).

But more than that: To begin with belief in the divinity of Jesus is also a dubious stand to take in the present situation of interfaith dialogue. It is dubious not simply because the tone of inflexibility tends to close off conversation, rather than to foster it, but also because the uniqueness of belief in Jesus as God-Man is one of the things that the conversation has placed in doubt. Elevation of the founder of a religion into a preexistent divine being, it will quickly be pointed out these days, has occurred also in Mahayana Buddhism. Further, there are remarkably close parallels between the stories that celebrate, respectively, the birth of Jesus and the birth of Octavius (the emperor Caesar Augustus). John Dominic Crossan concludes: "Jesus' divine origins are just as fictional or mythological as those of Octavius." The conclusion, I should think, goes beyond the evidence. The stories about the divine origins of Jesus and Octavius may be fictional, but either one of them, or both, could still be in some sense divine, or of a divine origin, as could also the Buddha. The point, rather, is that belief in the divinity of Jesus does not settle the question of Christianity and other religions, and it raises again questions about the truthfulness, or (better) the literary character, of the Gospels.

A third difficulty with going straight to Chalcedon, so to say, is that it immediately raises the question of the scriptural norm. Whether the New Testament teaches that Jesus was God, like nearly everything else in biblical scholarship, is keenly debated. The expression "Jesus is (or was) God" occurs nowhere in the Gospels, or anywhere else in the New Testament, although it has sometimes been made into the watchword of Christian orthodoxy. The overwhelming weight of the New Testament's way of speaking about Jesus is plainly on the side of distinguishing him from God. Paul's statement may be taken as an apt summary: "For us there is one God, the Father and one Lord, Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 8:6). The sole uncontroverted instance of Jesus himself being named "God" is in doubting Thomas's confession, "My Lord and my God," addressed to the risen Lord (John 20:28); and the scholars will immediately tell us that this is probably a formula from the Evangelist's own time, made in response to the claim of the Emperor Domitian to be "our Lord and God." The case can certainly be made for a few other instances -- with varying degrees of probability or improbability. But that only brings us back again to our harried believers, waiting anxiously for the latest news about the historical Jesus.

For Roman Catholics, the problem is less painful than it is for Protestants. Raymond Brown begins an essay titled "Does the New Testament Call Jesus God?" by noting that he is not asking whether Jesus was in fact God. "This question," he says,"was settled for the Church at Nicaea." Brown also points out -- superfluously, I suppose -- that the constitutional basis of the World Council of Churches, formulated by the Amsterdam Assembly in 1948, is acceptance of Jesus Christ as "God and Saviour."

For Protestants, however no decision of an ecclesiastical council is irreformable. It is true that the Protestant Reformers and the Reformation confessions often endorsed the trinitarian and christological definitions of the ecumenical creeds and councils. But the grounds on which they did so must be clearly understood. The Reformers did not share the view of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches that the pronouncements of a synod of bishops have, or can have, the status of dogmas that are free from error and binding for all times. (That would be a theory of church government quite alien to those churches, in particular, whose historic stand has been against episcopacy). The Reformers reaffirmed Nicene Orthodoxy because they thought it agreeable to the word of God, and this logically implies the possibility of second thoughts if scriptural exegesis so requires. Otherwise, the descendants of the Reformers would find themselves in exactly the error of which Karl Barth so relentlessly accused the Church of Rome--not permitting the Bible to remain free, sovereign over all ecclesiastical interpretations of it, so that the church may be always and only a hearer, not the master, of the word of God.

But suppose we begin, not where Athanasius ended, but where Athanasius himself began, with the actual experience of new life in Jesus Christ; and that we do our best to understand the new life with the resources available to us, as he did with the resources available to him. We would then, I think, be following much the same path that Luther and Schleiermacher were to take later. For Athanasius, the divine life that came into the church from the incarnate word was imperiled when the Arians took God's word to be

something less than God: if he "deifies" us, the Son must be of the same substance as the Father. Luther said in one of his sermons (in that carefree style that can make even a Lutheran nervous):"Christ is not called Christ because he has two natures. What is that to me?" And in another sermon he said: "To believe in Christ does not mean to believe that Christ is a person who is both God and man. That helps nobody." At first hearing, this may sound like a rejection of the christological orthodoxy that Athanasius had labored to secure. But Luther was certain that it was God he met in Jesus Christ because his conscience told him that his sins were no longer counted against him. Christ is revealed as God by doing God's work. The scribes asked correctly: "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7).

I believe that Friedrich Schleiermacher discerned particularly well the logic of christological reflection exemplified in Athanasius and Luther. As I said in my little book on Schleiermacher: "He began neither with ancient dogmas nor with ancient history, but with what every Christian experiences, and he sought to give an honest account of it that would not run away from the intellectual problems of the modem world." What Christians actually experience in their encounter with Jesus Christ, according to Schleiermacher, is a heightened awareness of God, which is symbolized and celebrated in the joy of Christmastime: they are drawn under the sway of Jesus' uniquely powerful sense of God. "To ascribe to Christ an absolutely powerful consciousness of God and to attribute to him a being of God in him," Schleiermacher concludes, "are entirely one and the same thing."

Naturally, I had to admit in the Schleiermacher book, and I admit it again now, that "what every Christian experiences" is a question-begging expression. But that is only to concede the limitations of the approach, not to doubt its fundamental soundness. Schleiermacher believed one could make headway in dogmatics only by inviting the hearer's or reader's participation in the inquiry. He took the question, "What does Christ actually do for the Christian?" to be, as we say, existential or self-involving: it invites the Christian's reflection on her own experience. He knew well that there are varieties of Christian experience. But he remained convinced that, on reflection, a common faith would be discerned in them all, and it held the clue to a sound understanding of Christ's person.

In the three testimonies we have just looked at, the key thought that brings it all together, so to say, changes: "life," "forgiveness," "the sense of God." But the question "What, as a matter of fact, does Christ do for Christians?" is still, I think, the crucial one to ask in any Christian community, if the christological project is to be duly launched. The proper approach, in short, is to begin not with the definition of Chalcedon (451), "truly God and truly man. . . in two natures," but with the actual experience of Jesus Christ that has led to the confession of his divinity, or of a unique being of God in him. We are surely on firm ground if we assert that what Christians actually receive from Jesus Christ is saving faith, meaning both 1) perceiving one's experience under the image of divine benevolence (fides) and 2) a consequent living of one's life out of an attitude of confidence or trust (fiducia). The work of Christ, we can now add, is the gift of saving faith, which is not belief about Christ, but confidence in God through Christ -- a confidence that rests on the perception of a pattern in the events of one's life. What is believed about Christ is the implication, not the precondition, of this gift of faith. Hence the primary or initial interest of Christology is to understand the faith that actually occurs through Jesus Christ.

I have no wish to cut off the traditional christological assertions any more than Luther or Schleiermacher did. It is the duty of the dogmatic theologian to understand and, as far as possible, to retrieve the doctrinal formulas of the past -- at the very least, to show their point. But a proper order must be observed. The Chalcedonian definition is not the foundation of saving faith, and unless one accounts for it genetically, it is more likely to mystify' than to enlighten us, or else to become a mere shibboleth of doctrinal correctness.