Chapter 19: Some Proposals for a Modern Christology by Peter N. Hamilton
From Christ for Us Today, ed. Norman Pittenger. Copyright 1968, SCM Press. Used by permission of SCM Press and Peter Hamilton. Peter N. Hamilton was educated at Cambridge University. Having previously taught mathematics and divinity at Marlborough College, he is now engaged in research at Trinity Hall.
The term Christology is used in two senses. It can be confined to the doctrine of the Person of Christ; but for reasons that will soon emerge I take it in the wider sense of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: ‘that part of theology which relates to Christ.’ ‘Christ’ is, of course, a title: used on its own, it lacks a referent. I therefore prefer to speak of ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jesus Christ,’ bearing in mind Paul Tillich’s precise but cumbersome phrase, ‘Jesus whom men call the Christ.’ As Tillich thus reminds us, this combination of proper name and title must include in its scope the response to Jesus as well as his personality, teaching, and manner of life — and at least those aspects of the history and religion of Israel that are relevant to Jesus, to this response, and to the title Christ. And since the response includes the belief in his resurrection and ascension, the scope of the term ‘Jesus Christ’ must include the coming into being of this resurrection-faith and of the Church. Indeed this entire sequence of events possesses a unity such that we can meaningfully speak of it as ‘the event Jesus Christ.’ I here largely confine myself to its central core: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the initial response to this.
I shall seek to distinguish three constituents alike of the wider event and of this central core: history, mythology, and divine activity. These interpenetrate and overlap, but the main burden of this lecture is the assertion that the third constituent cannot be wholly subsumed under the other two. Theists who speak of God acting in or through some event often qualify this by saying that since God transcends both space and time he cannot be said to ‘act’ in any literal sense. We cannot here embark on the doctrine of God, but I would wish to affirm both God’s transcendence in one aspect of his being and his temporality in another aspect, and to say that God does act within our temporal history, and that the response of faith itself a part of history, affecting what follows —is a response to the ontological reality to which it points in saying God has acted.1 I affirm that God so acted within the wider event ‘Jesus Christ,’ and in particular in his resurrection.
It may be helpful to begin by considering this claim in connection with an event that we can perhaps view more dispassionately, the escape from Egypt under Moses. We need not concern ourselves with the mechanics of this, but rather with its religious status and sequel. For the atheist, the escape must have been due to good luck, good leadership, or Egyptian incompetence. The theist can say that God acted, either by a physical miracle or by so guiding the Jews that they benefitted unwittingly from a sudden change of wind and tide; or he can deny that God acted and say rather that Gods strengthening influence upon the Jews and their leaders for example, as they turned to him in prayer — inspired but did not arrange their escape. Any of these views, including the atheist one, is an admissible interpretation of the evidence: a tribal nationalism, belief in their tribal god, and an unexpected and improbable escape could account for the rise of the exodus-faith and its subsequent centrality in the religio-political history of the Jews.
I do not believe that a parallel statement can be made about the birth of the resurrection-faith among the disciples of Jesus. Unlike the Jews on the East side of the Sea of Reeds, the disciples were not confronted with a sudden improvement in their fortunes precisely the reverse. It may be that we sometimes exaggerate the disciples’ despair at their master’s death, and that in its very nature this despair was only temporary. It is also undeniable that a person’s closest friends often see him in a new light immediately after his death. It may be possible to develop these and similar lines of thought to establish what for brevity’s sake I will call a self-generated or psychological theory of the disciples’ belief that their leader was in some sense still alive and present with them.
My first difficulty is that this runs counter to elements in the New Testament which seem to survive rigorous critical analysis and ‘demythologizing’; I have particularly in mind the disciples’ surprise, their experience of being unexpectedly accosted by the risen Lord: neither the evangelists nor their sources had any motive for introducing this element, which is also found in Paul’s own references to his experience of the risen Christ. Secondly, any naturalistic explanation of the rise of the Easter faith raises the further question why such a belief should have arisen once, and only once, in all recorded history. I believe that any modern Christology must be very wary of asserting claims to uniqueness, and I shall decline to affirm traditional uniqueness-claims as to the nature of God’s indwelling in the person of Jesus. But the birth and continuance of the resurrection-faith is a historical phenomenon so strikingly unique as to query the adequacy of any naturalistic explanation, and to suggest that that faith includes what I have called an ontological element and was, and is, a response to a unique act and presence of God.
In thus presenting a theistic interpretation of Jesus and his resurrection, insisting upon an ontological element where others see only myth, I will be held by some to have abandoned all claim to offer proposals for a modern Christology. If in this connection modern be synonymous with atheistic, and if the scope of Christology includes the resurrection-faith, then — for the reasons just given — I have no proposals to offer.
I continue this lecture because I do not accept — and I sincerely hope that many of you would not accept — so narrow an interpretation of the adjective ‘modern’ in this connection. I regard a Christology as modern if it uses every relevant insight of modern knowledge to differentiate the historical element in its interpretation of the event Jesus Christ from the mythological, and remembers that the actual event comprises only history and the ontological reality of God’s presence and action within that history — whilst the mythology expresses that reality in ways which may indeed convey deep truth, yet have in themselves the status not of ontological reality but of poetry. In saying this I assume that the starting-point for such a Christology will be, not the historic creeds and formularies of later centuries, but the attempts of the New Testament writers both to describe and to interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Our starting point is the New Testament, but this itself needs to be interpreted if it is to point us, as I believe it can, to the person of Jesus and the initial response first to him and later to his resurrection. These form the datum; the later insights, including the proclamation or kerygma in the New Testament itself, are highly significant for Christology, but must be assessed in relation to our attempts to reconstruct that datum. In the words of Ernst Fuchs: ‘Formerly we interpreted the historical Jesus with the help of the kerygma. Today we interpret the kerygma with the help of the historical Jesus.’2
I must here quickly re-tread ground covered in previous lectures. I take the view that the principles of form criticism have been established beyond question, but that some of the more negative conclusions draw from them are unjustified. Detailed comparative analysis of individual sections or pericopae in the synoptic gospels has confirmed the hypothesis that during the lengthy period before the writing of our earliest gospel individual sayings and incidents in Jesus’ ministry were — note the verb — used: as they were worked over and adapted, their context and wording may have been altered beyond recall. This analysis shows all the gospels to be deeply theological interpretations of Jesus. They are all so impregnated with belief in Jesus as Messiah, and as eschatological and pre-existent Son of Man, that it seems probable that these beliefs arose early in the pre-New Testament period. Indeed the evangelists and their source-material are alike so suffused with this post-Easter faith as to make impossible any attempt to construct either a biography of Jesus or a ‘definitive edition’ of his teaching.
The methods of form criticism help us to pick out aspects of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ conduct and teaching which are in sharp contrast to the current practice and teaching of his day, and which it would not have been in the earliest church’s interest to introduce into the material: for example, Jesus’ attitude to women, his table-fellowship with ‘tax collectors and sinners’, his refusal of the epithet ‘good’, and Mark’s comment — altered by Matthew — that in Nazareth ‘he could do no mighty work’. That the gospel narratives do include actual historical memories is most clearly seen in their treatment of the disciples. Consider first the repeated references, particularly in Mark, to their lack of understanding. Of course the cynic can say that in attributing prodigious miracles and claims to the earthly Jesus, Mark is forced to exaggerate the disciples’ failure to understand: to insert the messianic secret in order to compensate for unhistorical messianic claims. (He could add that the disciples’ lack of understanding is most pronounced in the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus is portrayed as virtually identifying himself with the divine ‘I AM.’) But it would have been just as easy — indeed more likely, if the evangelists and their sources paid no regard to historicity — to describe Jesus’ immediate entourage as being swept along on this flood-tide of claims to, and acts of, divine authority, whilst emphasizing the lack of understanding of everyone else. There was no need to emphasize the disciples’ failure to understand, nor their surprise at the resurrection, nor to record that one of the twelve betrayed Jesus, that they all fled at his arrest, and that Peter denied him to a servant-girl.
Such honest reporting shows that the synoptic evangelists and their sources did attach some value to history. This makes it the more significant that there is no hesitation in attributing to the lips of Jesus sayings that can only belong historically to the post-resurrection period. I see this as evidence that ‘the early Church absolutely and completely identified the risen Lord of her experience with the earthly Jesus of Nazareth.’3
The tentative nature of the findings of form criticism has already been stressed. But these findings are valuable in precisely those areas which most concern us if we seek the some sort of understanding of the historical Jesus as we have come to have of man in general — an understanding or image succinctly expressed in Dr. Dillistone’s lecture: ‘This image is a "dynamic, temporal one that sees man as first of all an agent, a self," who stands self-revealed only in the midst of the density of temporal decisions.’
We are sometimes told by New Testament scholars that we are in no position to enter into — let alone to psychoanalyze — the mind of Jesus in order to establish the primary motivation for certain decisions or sayings, in particular the decision to go to Jerusalem at Passover-time which led to his death.4 I am myself uncertain how sharply one can differentiate between a person’s decisions and the motivation that lies behind them. In any case this does not affect the point I wish to make as to the application of Dr. Dillistone’s words to Jesus. For even if analysis of the individual pericopae in the gospels does not reveal the primary motivation of Jesus, such analysis does reveal his decisions, some at least of the competing pressures between which these decisions were made, and the still greater pressures they engendered. We find a striking unity between Jesus’ decisions and actions and his teaching. He not only practiced what he preached but also preached or proclaimed his own practice: ‘Jesus’ conduct was itself the real framework of his proclamation.’5
I would agree with Fuchs and others that it was Jesus’ conduct, thus closely reinforced by his proclamation, that led the Jewish leaders to destroy him. Jesus both proclaimed God’s love and forgiveness and lived this out in his repeated table-fellowship with ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ Jews who were regarded as having ‘made themselves as Gentiles.’ This must have been bitterly resented, as the gospels record. Is it fanciful to see a close parallel between this resentment and that of the prodigal son’s elder brother, as also of the labourers who had borne the burden and heat of the day in the vineyard? Both parables proclaim that God loves and forgives all men, including the idler and the waster who becomes a swineherd, and precisely in thus proclaiming God’s universal love they also justify Jesus’ own conduct, grounding this in the very nature of the love of God. Here indeed is cause for the hierarchy to take strong offence: here also, as yet only by implication, is deep ground for the later belief that God was in Christ.’ ‘There is a tremendous personal claim involved in the fact that Jesus answered an attack upon his conduct with a parable concerned with what God does!6 Some find a similar claim in his characteristic opening ‘Amen, I say unto you.
In analyzing the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching, form criticism attributes greatest reliability to those elements that contrast with the outlooks of both Judaism on the one hand and the early church on the other. It must suffice to mention one complex of such elements, all closely inter-related. The Kingdom (or Reign) of God, Jesus’ ‘comprehensive term for the blessing of salvation,’ is an eschatological concept which shows that Jesus stands in the historical context of Jewish expectations about the end of the world and God’s new future’7 yet his teaching also contrasts with that context. He dispenses with the customary apocalyptic ‘signs of the end’ (found only in secondary material). The Kingdom of God — the phrase itself is distinctive, being rare in the contemporary literature — is ‘at hand,’ quietly and unobtrusively breaking through in the everyday situations of life. Jesus’ emphasis is not on nations or groups (as in the Old Testament prophets), but on the individual as confronted in and through his daily life by God’s demand upon him as summed up in the two commands ‘love God’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’
This direct relating of God to everyday situations is epitomized by the way Jesus addresses God, not as ‘O Lord God, Creator of the Universe,’ but simply as ‘Abba,’ ‘Daddy.’ The relating of God to particular situations is also seen in Jesus’ words of healing and exorcism: ‘Your sins are forgiven’; ‘Your faith has saved you.’ In all of this Jesus stands in sharp contrast to his contemporaries.
In what has been so briefly outlined we find Jesus proclaiming the concern and love and forgiveness of God and living out that same concern and love and forgiveness amongst those he met, and those he went out of his way to meet. As Jesus called men to ‘radical obedience,’ so he lived out that obedience, ‘intensifying his obedience to the call of God as every successive challenge in life makes its impact upon him.’8 To Dr. Dillistone’s description of the historical Jesus intensifying his obedience to God’s call must be added St. John’s ‘the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us’. Personification of the Logos belongs not to history but to mythology: the immense significance of this way of expressing that power of God which men sensed in Jesus — even if they sensed it only dimly before his death and resurrection — is perhaps brought home to our modern minds by Norman Pittenger’s fine paraphrase ‘the Word or Logos or Self-Expressive Activity of God."9
We have now reached a point at which, in my view, the ‘philosophy of process’ of Alfred North Whitehead and others has something of value to contribute: I therefore make an apparent digression in order to give the briefest outline of that philosophy. Whitehead is best known in English academic circles for his work with Bertrand Russell in the field of mathematical logic. For the nonspecialist, the most prominent feature of Whitehead’s philosophical writings — like those of Teilhard de Chardin — is their fundamentally evolutionary viewpoint. But Whitehead was a mathematician, not a biologist: he was acutely aware of the two great discoveries in physics made while he was teaching mathematics, the theories of relativity and the quantum. Whitehead was also greatly concerned with aesthetics. As his mind turned increasingly to philosophy, the physicist in him sought to understand the whole of reality and not only man, whilst the aesthete in him interpreted all reality by extrapolation from human experience, thus finding aesthetic value in all actuality.
I here make two comments: that the resulting interpretation of the nature of the world is far easier to reject than to make one’s own; and that it is peculiarly vulnerable to attack by linguistic-analysis philosophy. (This because it extrapolates the usage of such terms as ‘feeling’ and ‘mind’ even into the inorganic realm.) Both comments apply equally to Christian theology, which also stretches the meanings of words.
Charles Hartshorne resembles Whitehead in having had the privilege, or the misfortune, to be the son of an Anglican clergyman. He has certainly had the misfortune of being too often labelled the ‘leading exponent of Whitehead,’ whereas in fact Hartshorne is a significant philosopher-theologian who evolved his own principal positions prior to his contact with Whitehead. Hartshorne’s main importance for Christian theology is his application of modern logic to the doctrine of God. The discipline of rigorously logical thinking has proved its value in many philosophical fields and should be more used — less feared, perhaps — in Christian theology. Highly significant for Christology are these two quotations from Hartshorne’s The Divine Relativity10 In the first he refuses to allow ‘paradox’ to cover up illogicality: ‘A theological paradox, it appears, is what a contradiction becomes when it is about God rather than something else. . . .’ In the second he applies this to the relation between God’s power and our human decisions: ‘For God to do what I do when I decide my own act, determine my own concrete being, is mere nonsense, words without meaning. It is not my act if anyone else decides or performs it.’
Throughout this lecture I have assumed that whatever else we may believe about Jesus we accept that he was, inwardly as well as outwardly, a man: I need not spend time showing that this assumption is to be found in every part of the New Testament. Hartshorne’s statement about human acts and decisions applies, therefore, to Jesus: we must not say that his acts and decisions were ‘also’ — still less, that they were really — God’s. If we feel that the concept of Jesus intensifying his obedience to God’s call does not adequately express the divinity of Jesus, then we must seek to express this in ways that neither compromise his humanity nor rely upon contralogical paradox.
One such way is suggested by Whitehead’s philosophy of nature and in particular its central feature, which he calls ‘the theory of prehensions.’ Whitehead sees all actuality in terms not of substance but of process, not of being but of becoming. The process is the reality: every entity is the process of growing together into a unity of its ‘prehensions’ or ‘impressions’ of everything in its environment. But ‘impression’ is primarily a passive term, and therefore not a good paraphrase for ‘prehension’: ‘grasping at’ is better.11 A novel entity ‘becomes’ by grasping at the influences surrounding it: in grasping at each such influence it incorporates something of its environment into itself, so that the novel entity is the growing together into a unity of all its graspings at the influences comprising its environment. Thus a viewer’s impression of a painting is the growing together into a single unified experience of his impressions of all its elements, impressions which he does not passively receive like incoming telephone calls, but grasps at in his own distinctive manner.
As has been said, Whitehead interprets all actuality by extrapolation from human experience, and is thereby peculiarly vulnerable to linguistic criticism. Whilst some of this criticism must be accepted, I myself find aspects of this extrapolation from experience both meaningful and valuable. But it is precisely human experience and its relation to God — the human experience of the historical Jesus and the Easter experience of his disciples — with which we are here concerned; we need not consider this extrapolation and the criticisms of it, except to note that Whitehead sees his theory of ‘prehensions’ as also applying to God, emphasizing that ‘God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles. . . . He is their chief exemplification.12
In what follows, the person and resurrection of Jesus Christ are treated not as exceptions to, but as the chief exemplifications of, metaphysical principles. The principle applicable to the person, the divinity, of Jesus is that of immanence: incarnation; ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.’ Whitehead’s theory of ‘prehensions’ here offers a significant contribution: it attempts to describe the manner in which one entity is actually, not just metaphorically, immanent in another — actually immanent in that it contributes to and is constituent in, the other’s subjectivity. For Whitehead there is actual immanence, yet each entity, each experience, retains its own subjectivity. He saw experience — and therefore everything — as divisible, not continuous: drops of experience, like the frames of a cinematograph film. (There is a clear parallel here with the quantum theory, the discovery that radiant or electromagnetic energy consists of minute, discrete pulses or quanta of energy.) Each drop of experience enjoys its own subjectivity during its brief ‘process,’ the growing together of its constituent ‘prehensions.’ Only thereafter, when it has ‘perished’ as a subject, moved away from in front of the lens, is it available as an object to be grasped at by other subjects. Thus when a new subject, a new moment of experience, ‘A,’ grasps at an object ‘B’ (itself, so to speak, an ex-subject, a moment of experience that has perished), what happens is that A makes its own an element or ‘feeling’ which formerly belonged to the subjectivity of B, wherein it was perhaps an insignificant, perhaps a decisive, element. Thus a part of B’s moment of experience becomes objectively immanent in the experience of A.
This is so crucial to one of my Christological proposals that I venture the personal illustration of my relationship with my wife. In common parlance, in so far as I am a good husband I enter into her joys and sorrows — as she certainly enters into mine. To take an instance that is perhaps unimportant, and certainly infrequent, consider my wife’s first wearing of a new dress. As I ‘prehend’ her evident enjoyment of this I enter into her joy — or rather, I make something of her joy my own. At that moment my wife’s enjoyment is central to her experience, to her self, and in so far as I make this my own I make an element of her — strictly, of the ‘she’ of a moment ago, since my senses are not instantaneous — to become an element constitutive of me. Thus she becomes partially and objectively immanent in me. The more sympatique I am, the more vivid, and accurate, will be my impression of her enjoyment, making her — her experience — more fully immanent in me.
In general, the extent to which the experience of one person, A, enters into that of a new subject, B, depends both upon how sympatique B is to A and how compatible A is to B. Thus the belief that God’s self-expressive activity was supremely present in the person and the decisions of the historical Jesus implies the belief that Jesus was supremely sympatique to God, and that God is supremely compatible to Jesus.
We are for the moment still concerned with the ministry of Jesus: we turn shortly to his resurrection. It may be that during Jesus’ ministry his disciples did not fully or consciously think of him as divine, as Son or Servant of God, as Son of Man, or as Messiah: it may also be that Jesus did not explicitly see himself in any of these terms. Indeed there are a small number of very significant passages in the New Testament which depict Jesus as completely human up to his death, at or after which God raised him to superhuman dignity: descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power . . . by his resurrection from the dead.’13
I shall suggest that the resurrection-faith may have begun as the God-given awareness, both individual and corporate, that in some intensely significant sense Jesus was still alive and present with his disciples. I shall emphasize this awareness as God-given, not self-generated: but in our present experience God works in and through our thoughts and aspirations — inspiring new ideas, certainly, but building these upon the foundations of previous ideas, not out of a vacuum. It therefore seems more probable, to say the least, that the disciples’ later insights arose out of their earlier feeling — perhaps at the time only half-formed and largely subconscious that in being with Jesus they were in some extremely special sense in the very presence of God’s love and power.
The belief that ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself’ belongs to mythology: however significant they may be, sin and reconciliation are mythological terms. The four opening words perhaps should not be separated from the rest of Paul’s sentence, but if they are so separated the phrase ‘God was in Christ,’ still more God was in the historical Jesus,’ is not a mythological statement: it corresponds to what I earlier called ontological reality. The further statement that Jesus’ disciples were at least dimly aware of that reality during his ministry belongs, as I have just suggested, to history as does the fact that Jesus was fully human.
Christian theology has always sought to affirm these three statements: process philosophy offers a framework within which they can be affirmed without either impairing their true status or resorting to paradox. God’s indwelling in Jesus is the chief exemplification of this philosophy’s principle of immanence: as Jesus intensified his obedience to the call of God so, without impairing Jesus’ humanity and human freedom, God was supremely, yet objectively, immanent in Jesus. Thus the two ‘natures’ of Jesus Christ are affirmed, whilst Jesus remains — as logic insists — the one subject of his own decisions: Jesus the subject, yet God objectively present in such high degree that Jesus’ decisions and actions supremely reveal, through the self of the historical Jesus, the ‘Self-Expressive Activity of God.’
What has just been said may be regarded as true, but inadequate: inadequate firstly in failing sufficiently to affirm the priority of God’s will and act in the whole event Jesus Christ, and secondly in failing to maintain the uniqueness of Jesus. These may well be two ways of saying the same thing, but it is convenient to consider them separately.
The divine priority in the Incarnation is symbolized both by the Annunciation, God’s messenger announcing his plan in advance, and by the virgin birth — more precisely, the virginal conception — of Jesus; also by the concept of the pre-existence of Christ, whether as Logos or Son of Man.
Even if he regards all of these as mythological, the Christian will find deep value in them and will wish to affirm them just as far as he can: the limiting factor is that nothing must impair our accompanying belief in the manhood of Jesus. One aspect of the Annunciation narrative is significant here: it depicts God’s messenger, and therefore God’s purpose, waiting upon Mary’s consent: ‘Be it unto me according to thy word,’ God’s will indeed has priority, but seeks to elicit Mary’s consent rather than override her human freedom.14
A facet not yet mentioned of Whitehead’s philosophy of process makes the same point. If each bud of experience is a growing together of its constituent elements, its own subjectivity arising with the process and not the precursor of it, then the process needs an initial aim or purpose, which must be given to it. Whitehead sees God as giving this ‘initial aim.’ Thus we are free in each moment of experience either to conform to that initial aim or — within the limits of our freedom — to diverge from it. Once again, God’s will has priority, but seeks to elicit our cooperation.
If one follows Whitehead in extrapolating from human experience, one can find in this interpretation of the divine priority a doctrine of creation that is compatible with biological evolution: in the concept of God supplying a ‘lure’ to evolution, ‘process’ thinking approximates to that of Teilhard de Chardin.
But we are here concerned to apply this concept of the priority of God’s will and purpose, which however waits upon — and may be thwarted by — human free will, to the whole event Jesus Christ, including its Old Testament background. I do not claim that God determined the course of that event in every detail: God did not foreordain the worship of the golden calf. But I do see the divine priority, God’s prevenient guidance, in the event as a whole — the history of Old Testament Israel, the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming into being of his church — and in its effect, which we variously describe as the supreme revelation of God’s love, the redemption of the world, the coming into being of the church.15 Indeed it is precisely God’s prevenient guidance that makes of this entire historical sequence, including its climax in Jesus, one single event, producing one single effect. I here quote from John Knox:
The event was a whole event and its effect was a whole effect. We cannot break the event into parts and attribute the whole effect to one part, nor can we ascribe any particular part of the effect to any particular part of the event. Both event and effect are one and indivisible and . . .belong indissolubly together.16
We now turn to the charge of having failed to maintain the uniqueness of Jesus. Those who feel strong religious reasons for affirming this uniqueness may not appreciate that there are others, and other Christians, for whom claims to uniqueness are an inevitable barrier to relevance. Proclaimed as the chief exemplification of the potentiality of human life lived in utter obedience to God, the life and resurrection of Jesus could become meaningful for some who find them utterly irrelevant when proclaimed as unique acts of God.
Thus there are also strong religious reasons for not exaggerating the difference between Jesus and the rest of mankind: this is best avoided by not isolating Jesus from his historical context. I prefer to avoid the word ‘unique,’ with its several shades of meaning, but if it is to be used I wish to affirm the uniqueness of the whole event Jesus Christ, the whole Judeo-Christian ‘salvation-history,’ as the supreme revelation and enactment of God’s redeeming love: a unique event, with a unique effect. (To affirm this is not to deny that God also both acts and reveals himself in other ways and in other religions.) Within this whole unique event the life, death and resurrection of Jesus occupy a uniquely central, indeed pivotal, position. In his historical context Jesus is thus doubly ‘unique.’
Claims for the uniqueness of Jesus often take two forms not covered by the above. God’s presence and indwelling in Jesus is said to differ not only in degree but in kind from his indwelling in the greatest of his saints, or in us. I can find no way of accepting this claim that does not impair, indeed deny, Jesus’ manhood. If religion has any meaning, a man’s conscious and unconscious relationship with God is a vital aspect of his self. If this aspect differed in kind in the case of Jesus from every other member of the species man, then in the present state of our knowledge it would seem impossible rightly to describe Jesus as a man.17 It may be the case that most Christians (and most Christian theologians) in most centuries have accepted this claim: but most have not shared either our modern sensitivity to the difference between history and mythology or our concern for the principles of logic. I emphasize the phrase ‘in the present state of our knowledge,’ because it may well be that in the future new insights will enable us to affirm this claim: we should never assume that what now seems impossible will always be so. But at this present time I cannot affirm a difference in kind between Jesus and other men; indeed I find important religious reasons for wishing to deny this.
The Christology of this lecture may also be attacked on the ground that it sees every constituent of the event Jesus Christ as contingent: Jesus’ obedience to God is a contingent concept, whereas it may be claimed that God’s redemption of the world in Christ is not contingent but foreordained. My reply is as before: if Jesus’ obedience was not contingent, it was not human obedience. I would add that I see no need for this claim. That Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo is a contingent fact, and also true. Where religious truth is found enacted within history it cannot avoid contingency, and loses nothing thereby. As we now consider Jesus’ resurrection, I would just add that there is contingency in the disciples’ response to this.
As has often been pointed out, the resurrection narratives in the gospels — like the infancy narratives — have the characteristics of myth, while the tradition in Luke and John that the first resurrection appearances were in Jerusalem cannot satisfactorily be combined with the Galilee tradition of Mark and Matthew. Furthermore, neither tradition agrees at all readily with Paul’s list of appearances in I Corinthians 15. Neither there nor elsewhere does Paul refer to the empty tomb, and his emphatic ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’ certainly suggests that when Paul wrote First Corinthians he did not know of the empty tomb tradition. In any case the main emphasis in the New Testament as a whole, and even in Matthew and Luke, is not on the empty tomb but on the appearances of the risen Lord, again present with his disciples and continuing to instruct them. This ties in with a point made near the beginning of this lecture — the extent to which the early church identified the risen Lord with the historical Jesus.
It seems that the earliest preaching of the resurrection made no attempt to describe the appearances, but rather proclaimed the fact of the resurrection as God’s reversal of the disgrace of crucifixion: ‘the death of Jesus is interpreted as Israel’s No to the proclamation of Jesus and the resurrection as God’s Yes, his validation of Jesus’ message.’18 This No-Yes pattern is found in the Marcan passion predictions, whose detailed form is almost certainly editorial; in Philippians 2, where Paul may be quoting a very early Christian hymn; and in Peter’s speeches or sermons in Acts. Whilst these speeches are presumably Lukan compositions, many scholars believe that they include traces of the earliest Easter proclamation, preserved because they were remembered as being apostolic, and in spite of their ‘adoptionist’ tone: that God has raised his pais (child) Jesus; that God has mode him both Lord and Christ.
Thus Paul begins I Corinthians 15 with a list of resurrection appearances, each limited to the bare verb ‘he appeared to.’ By this repetition Paul places his own resurrection experience on a par with that of the original disciples. Neither his own brief references nor the more detailed, but secondary, accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts suggests a publicly visible appearance of the risen Christ. Thus the quest of the historical Easter, in the sense of the initial nature of the disciples’ Easter faith, suggests that this began with the conviction ‘that Jesus was somehow alive among them and that, if this was so, God had indeed acted and had raised him and exalted him.’19
All this would seem to imply that — I quote from Professor Lampe’s recent essay20 — ‘the Easter appearances were not dissimilar in kind from other phenomena in the history of religious experience.’ However, as Dr. Lampe says in the same paragraph, ‘this does not imply that these men were not confronted with the Lord’s presence as an eternal reality.’ It is precisely this external reality of the Lord’s presence which I wish to affirm for the first disciples, for Paul, and for ourselves.
Professor Lampe draws a parallel between the disciples’ Easter experience and Isaiah’s vision in the Temple. There is, however, a crucial difference. Isaiah was confronted by, and in his vision ‘saw’ God. But the Christian experience of the risen Lord is of being confronted by an external reality that is both of God (and not simply from God), yet also distinct from God the Father: as he cries ‘my Lord and my God,’ the Christian feels as all the New Testament writers emphasize — that the living presence which confronts him is that of Jesus. This distinctively Christian experience differs from Isaiah’s vision of God; from Mary’s vision of Gabriel the messenger from God; and from that other Christian experience of being confronted by St. Mary or one of the saints.
If one accepts that the disciples were confronted by the Lord’s presence as an external reality, the question remains whether the risen Jesus was — and is — encountered as an individual distinct from God, and is therefore to be thought of as living on with his own subjectivity. The resurrection narratives in the gospels clearly imply encounter with Jesus, who both ‘speaks’ to the disciples — perhaps through visionary experience — and also responds to their response to him. The same is probably implied in I Corinthians 15. But whilst every chapter of the epistles is suffused and inspired by the resurrection-faith, few others — if any — use actual encounter-language. I cannot avoid the conclusion that by the time they were written — and the Pauline epistles are the earliest of the New Testament writings — Christians no longer thought in that way of their present experience of the risen Jesus; but reserved such language for the initial Easter period (extended by Paul to include his own formative experience). Indeed the ascension narratives imply such a distinction between initial and subsequent resurrection-experience.
I cannot survey Christians’ experience of the risen Christ down the centuries, nor discuss its relationship to their other beliefs. In our own day, many Christians do indeed speak of their awareness of the living presence of Jesus in terms that imply encounter; but it by no means follows that, if asked to choose their words carefully, they would describe their experience of the risen Jesus as more like an encounter with another human being than like our encounter in prayer with God. Both I myself and most Christians of my own limited acquaintance would, I think, choose the second as being the closer parallel. Consider, for example, the difference between entering the Lady Chapel of a church to kneel for ten minutes in prayer before the reserved sacrament, and calling at a friend’s house for a ten-minute conversation. There are a number of Christians for whom the former is often the deeper and more vivid experience. But many of these would regard their experience in the Lady Chapel as a vivid form of prayer, in which they may have prayed to Jesus, but about which they would not employ the encounter-language that we use to describe a conversation, and which Luke used of the walk to Emmaus. They would, I suggest, be content to describe their experience as one of being ‘confronted with the Lord’s presence as an external reality,’ a reality distinct from, yet part of, the reality of God.
Process philosophy offers a framework within which one can affirm precisely this. It sees experience as consisting of discrete ‘buds,’ each of which enjoys its own subjectivity during its brief growing together into a unity; it then perishes as a subject, ‘living on’ only in so far as its influence is felt by other moments of experience which make it ingredient — ‘objectively immanent’ — in themselves.
God is the chief exemplification of both aspects of this principle of immanence. We have so far considered only one aspect in this connection: that the more we open ourselves to God and intensify our obedience to his call, the more God becomes objectively immanent in us, and supremely so in Jesus. But God also ‘prehends’ or grasps at us — at everything — in each moment of our experience. The more our thoughts and actions are compatible with God’s loving will and purpose, the more fully he will incorporate them as objectively immanent in one aspect of his nature.21 We earlier emphasized the divine priority in the whole event Jesus Christ: we also thought of Jesus intensifying his obedience to the call of God in each situation that confronted him. These alike suggest that the thoughts, actions, and experiences comprising Jesus’ life and person will have been supremely compatible with God’s loving purpose, with which ours are only sometimes compatible; and that they will have been supremely incorporated by God into himself.
We can now attempt to interpret both the similarity and the difference between Isaiah’s vision in the temple and the Christian’s awareness of his risen Lord. Both experience the external reality of God,22 but in this experience the Christian also meets with the risen Christ, the total action of the life and ministry and death of Jesus, which has been raised or ‘prehended’ into the Godhead, into that external reality which confronts us in prayer and sacrament and accompanies and sustains us throughout our lives. Process philosophy envisages God ‘prehending’ aspects of everything — more precisely, of everything not utterly alien to his will — and making these ingredient in himself. But it is God in relationship to us and our cultural heritage of whom we are made aware in religious experience. God ‘prehends’ aspects of everything into himself, but our awareness lacks his universality: it has often been remarked that it is usually Roman Catholics who have visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Similarly, both now and in the initial Easter period, it is those within the community of his followers, and perhaps some on its fringes, who experience the presence of Christ. And just as those who had known and accompanied Jesus identified the risen Lord with their master and friend, so we-less confidently, perhaps — identify the risen Christ whose presence we experience with the Jesus whom we meet through the gospels. And if modern criticism enables us to get a little way behind the Christ of the New Testament proclamation towards the historical Jesus, then the identification we make will the more nearly resemble that made by the first disciples.
What has been said may be criticized as failing to maintain the uniqueness of the resurrection of Christ; this can be answered in much the same way as the parallel criticism in relation to the person of Christ. But two further criticisms of this interpretation of the resurrection did not apply in the earlier case. It may be said that to speak of Jesus’ thoughts, actions, and individual experiences being raised into God is not the same as to speak of Jesus being so raised. But ‘nothing is more personal about a man than his concrete experiences’:23 inasmuch as Jesus lived a life of ‘perfect’ or ‘supreme’ obedience to God, so his experiences will have been wholly or supremely raised into the Godhead.24
This leads into the deeper criticism that in this interpretation the risen Christ is not alive, whereas the coming into being of the Easter faith was earlier described as ‘the disciples’ experience that Jesus was somehow alive among them.’ In one sense this criticism is indeed valid, for in this interpretation of his resurrection it is not Jesus but God who is the subject, God having raised the concrete experiences of Jesus into ‘objective immortality’ in himself. These ‘live,’ objectively, in God analogously to the manner in which my wife’s joys and sorrows ‘live,’ objectively, in me. But of course, my wife also lives subjectively. And the critic may well ask whether what I have said does or does not affirm that the risen Jesus also lives subjectively. This requires a careful answer.
The interpretation I have proposed sees the resurrection of Jesus as the supreme instance, the ‘chief exemplification,’ of its general concept of resurrection as ‘objective immortality.’ In these terms, the proposition that Jesus lives on subjectively is the supreme instance of some more general proposition as to individual survival after death: to reach a decision as to this supreme instance one would first have to investigate the general concept of resurrection, which lies beyond our present task.25 It must here suffice to answer that these proposals neither affirm nor deny the doctrine that both Jesus and the ‘souls of the righteous’ live on subjectively. Indeed I commend them for your consideration largely because they offer a meaningful interpretation of the resurrection of Jesus, and of ourselves, which does not depend upon that doctrine.
By contrast, Paul makes the resurrection of Christ dependent upon a general concept of resurrection: ‘For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.’26 Clearly, some members of the Corinthian church had rejected the Pharisaic doctrine of resurrection (or its Greek equivalent) — a doctrine that was accepted by Jesus, by Paul, and by the evangelists. Whilst this doctrine often forms perhaps the most cherished item of belief, I believe that there are many today, both inside and outside the churches, who follow the Corinthians in rejecting any such doctrine. In my own ministry I have talked with a number of thoughtful people — mainly young people — who accept belief in God as giving meaning and joy and hope to this life but reject, or are at best highly doubtful about, any concept of personal resurrection or immortality. Similarly, when using the Psalter, I am frequently struck by the note of joy and hope in psalms that rank high among the greatest religious poetry ever written, although their authors — in common with most of the Old Testament — quite clearly did not believe in any concept of individual resurrection. This matter is far too important to be judged by comparing numbers for or against — whether of ancients or of moderns. But our modern, indeed very recent, understanding of the psychosomatic unity comprising a person, and of the deep influence of environmental factors upon personality, raises in acute form the question whether our present personality can be raised individually and clothed upon with a resurrection-body in a resurrection-environment. I ask myself whether it may not be this concept, and not the ‘death’ of God, that God himself is gently but firmly leading us to think out afresh. All I can do here is to suggest that there is a place today for a general concept of resurrection that sees permanent meaning and value in our lives without depending upon belief in individual life after death.
But my proposals as regards resurrection are neither wholly nor mainly negative. This interpretation of the resurrection of Jesus rests upon a general concept of resurrection as ‘objective immortality’ that I believe to be no mere metaphor. The aspect of process philosophy to which I have most particularly drawn your attention is its concept of immanence, whereby it affirms an actual sense in which one entity is immanent in another; a sense in which the experiences of one individual ‘live on’ in those of another, the subjectivity of these experiences passing from the former to the latter. We applied this to the case of God’s indwelling in — God ‘living in’ — Jesus, seeing this as the supreme instance, the ‘chief exemplification,’ of his universal indwelling in his creatures. Process philosophy affirms that there is a mutual relationship between God and the world in that each affects, and is affected by, the other: its concept of immanence applies, therefore, to our indwelling in God as well as to God’s indwelling in us; thus it is as meaningful to speak of Jesus raised into God and ‘living on’ in God as it is to speak of God ‘prehended’ into and indwelling in — ‘living’ in — Jesus. The first is the supreme instance of resurrection, the second the supreme instance of incarnation.
The difference between the two is that the living God becomes Incarnate afresh in each moment of the life of Jesus (or of ourselves), whereas the experiences of Jesus ‘prehended’ by God into himself — Jesus’ resurrection and ascension — form a finite sequence that terminated on Calvary. This sequence lives on in God, continually re-created afresh in God’s living memory and re-presented to Christ’s followers as they turn to God in prayer and sacrament. But it is the sequence as a whole that is re-presented; no new subjective experiences are added — or if they are, that is another story. That is why this interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection cannot take literally the encounter-language of the gospel narratives, but stands much closer to the epistles, and to much of our own experience of our risen Lord.
By way of illustration I take two key verses from Luke’s beautiful narrative of the walk to Emmaus: ‘And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.’ ‘Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.’27 These symbolize two ways in which we are especially conscious of the presence of the risen Christ. As we seek prayerfully to interpret the gospels, either publicly or alone, we feel his living presence, objectively immortal in God and revealed to us as we search the scriptures. Some of us have this experience more vividly when we meet together for the breaking of the bread, as in our moving and memorable evening communion just now. As we turned in prayer to God, as we focused our thoughts upon that Last Supper which so perfectly sums up Jesus’ life of love and his obedience into death, as we remembered and re-presented his words and actions, so we sensed his presence with us — not the presence of another subject wholly distinct from God and from ourselves, but rather the living presence of his words and actions and the love that they convey; the risen and ascended Lord Jesus, objectively immortal in God, and revealed to us, in and through the whole action of the Eucharist, as of God and in God, yet also distinct from God.
The detailed framework of Whitehead’s philosophy is far less known than his aphorisms, for example: ‘Christianity has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic’28 — with the implication that it never rests in any one metaphysic, or philosophy. Whilst our understanding of Christ can be deepened through insights of process philosophy, Christology can never rest in this philosophy, any more than in that accepted by the early Fathers. In summing up, therefore, I would remind you of those parts of this lecture which do not rest upon process philosophy. The primary raw material of Christology is the New Testament documents. To study these I used the methods of form criticism. To interpret the results of that study I relied first upon logic. Hartshorne’s criticism of paradox, and Whitehead’s insistence that God is not an exception to all metaphysical principles but their ‘chief exemplification,’ are products of logical thought that in no way depend upon process philosophy: indeed the converse is the case, for this philosophy is largely built upon such principles of logic.
It is logic, not process philosophy, which insists that one cannot both describe Jesus as a man and also say that God’s indwelling in him differs in kind from his indwelling in other men: since a study of the raw material confirms the first statement, logic demands a modification of the second. The further insight I then derive from process philosophy is that of seeing God’s indwelling in Jesus as the supreme instance, the chief exemplification, of God’s indwelling in his creatures — a divine indwelling which is itself the chief exemplification of this philosophy’s concept of immanence. This insight closely corresponds to the disciples’ experience — perhaps fully explicit only after the resurrection — that when they were with Jesus they were in some special sense in the presence of God. I suggested a like correspondence between the original Easter faith and the insight that the resurrection of Jesus is the chief exemplification of God’s raising into himself of everything compatible with his loving purpose — an insight that is itself compatible with our experience of the risen Jesus as of God, and in God, yet also distinct from God.
1. On being-ful reality: ontology is the study of being.
2. From the foreword to his collected essays, which is unfortunately omitted from the English edition.
3. N. Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 15.
4. Bultmann’s recent essay in The Historical Jesus end the Kerygmatic Christ, eds. C. F. Braaten and R. A. Harrisville, (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).
5. E. Fuchs, Studies of the Historical Jesus, 21.
6. E. Linnemann, Parables of Jesus. 87.
7. R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. I, 4.
8. From an earlier paper in Christ for Us Today, 96.
9. The Word Incarnate, 187.
10. Pp. 1, 134.
11. I prefer ‘grasping at’ to Whitehead’s own usage of ‘feeling’ as an alternative to ‘prehension.’
12. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 521.
13. Romans 1.3, 4 (RSV).
14. I owe this insight to Dr. Norman Pittenger.
15. The coming into being of the church can be regarded either as the effect or as part of the event. See John Knox, The Church and the Reality of Christ, 71, 121-129.
16. The Death of Christ, 159
17. This ‘difference in kind’ is also expressed by saying that Jesus is ‘sinless’ or perfect’ man. Sin and sinlessness are mythological terms. I agree with John Knox that ‘a perfect historical event is a contradiction in terms.’
18. R. H. Fuller, The New Testament in Current Study, 152.
19. Robert M. Grant, The Early Christian Doctrine of God, 43.
20. In C. W. H. Lampe and D. M. MacKinnon, The Resurrection, 27-60.
21. It is a fundamental tenet of this philosophy that God’s nature has two inseparable aspects distinguishable only for purposes of thought: an absolute or ‘primordial’ aspect, absolutely unchanging and unaffected by the world; and a related or ‘consequent’ aspect, which is affected by the world. (See the great final chapter of Whitehead’s Process and Reality or, for a brief summary, my article on Whitehead in Theology, April 1965.)
22. I here assume without discussion the meaningfulness of ‘the external reality of God.’ We are concerned with the Christological implications of the New Testament witness to the Resurrection, and of our own sense of Christ’s presence. That God is experienced as external reality is, to my mind, both the theological implication of this and also its presupposition.
23. C. Hartshorne and W. L. Reese, Philosophers Speak of God, 285.
24. See footnote 17, above.
25. See my The Living God and the Modern World, 108-141.
26. I Cor. 15.16. (See also v. 13, and the chapter as a whole.)
27. Luke 24.27, 35.
28. Religion in the Making, 50.