Chapter 2: the Revealing Event

Jesus Lord and Christ
by John Knox (current)

Chapter 2: the Revealing Event

The statement has just been made that distinctively Christian theology begins with the affirmation of the revelation of God in Christ, and that this affirmation is a necessary corollary of the acknowledgment of the reality and distinctiveness of the Christian life itself. I have insisted, therefore, that this first step toward an ecumenical theology all Christians can take together and that there is a sense in which we do in fact take it together, whether we recognize that we do or not.

At the risk of seeming repetitious I would urge again that when we speak of a common acceptance of this revelation, we are not referring to the "revelation" of any intellectual belief or any system of such beliefs: obviously, we would not agree that any such "revelation" has taken place. We are using the term in its true sense, to mean the disclosure of an objective personal reality. God has made himself known in Christ. At any rate, we know him so; and to deny the reality of this revelation would be to deny the validity of what knowledge of God has been vouchsafed to us. It should also be pointed out that such a statement does not shut out the possibility of other revelations, although it is hard to see how the particular reality, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, could be known elsewhere or otherwise than in and through Christ. But the common and all-important affirmation with which we start is not a dogmatic assertion that God has revealed himself only in Jesus Christ, but the glad confession that he has revealed himself there to us.

But what is Jesus Christ? What do we mean when we speak of revelation "in" or "through" Christ? Here is the question which, we have seen, we cannot help asking but which is likely to prove so divisive. It may be both rash and hopeless for me to attempt a unifying answer to this question. But such an answer is so urgently needed that discussion among Christians of the lines it should take is surely always appropriate, and any sincere attempt, however feeble, to clarify and formulate the meaning of Christ may prove to have some value. To such an attempt these chapters are devoted.

At the outset, it should be observed that a valid answer to the Christological question must, on the one hand, give full weight to the empirical fact of the revelation and, on the other, must avoid including as an essential element of itself anything not at least latent or implicit in that empirical fact. The question of the meaning of Jesus Christ has been divisive because one or the other of these criteria has so often not been present. Either we have refused or for some other reason failed frankly and joyously to avow the fact that the God of all nature and history has made himself known to us in Christ, or else we have drawn unwarranted inferences from this fact or defined its meaning in ways not determined by the fact itself, at the same time insisting that all others should do the same. Both of these faults -- shall we call them the characteristic faults of the liberal and the conservative? -- must, if possible, be avoided. A true Christology will begin with a full recognition of the fact of the revelation in Christ and will not range beyond the empirical meaning of that fact. It must be added, however, that such a Christology will not fail to take into account the full scope of that empirical meaning. A doctrine of Christ which disregards or fails to do justice to important elements in the common Christian experience of Christ -- I am excluding anything merely individual or esoteric -- will be as inadequate as the doctrine which, at important points, bears no direct or necessary relation to this experience. Here, then, is the kind of Christology at which we should aim and toward which I hope we may move in these pages.

We may well begin by seeking to define more carefully just what is the empirical reality which must be the ground -- and the only ground -- of an adequate Christology. The formal designation can be made easily enough: When we refer to "Jesus Christ," we are referring to the historical reality about which we were thinking in the preceding chapter -- the reality from which the Christian community took its beginning and by which the continuing character of that community has been determined, the reality in and through which the revelation of God, known within the church, took place.

But when we proceed from mere designation to some attempt at description, we face no easy task, as the history of Christological discussion will plainly show. This reality, just because it is a concrete reality, is infinitely rich and complex, and no simple or single category will suffice for an adequate description of it. Indeed, if the Christian community’s experience of Jesus Christ should be examined with this question of description and definition in mind, we should discover, I believe, that the reality with which we are concerned appears under no fewer than three aspects: (1) as the event or closely knit series of events in and through which God made himself known; (2) as the person who was the center of that event or complex of events; and (3) as the community which both came into existence with the event and provided the locus of it.

The New Testament is much more concerned with pointing to Christ than with defining him, but it would not be hard to show that he appears there also under these same three aspects. Sometimes the word "Christ" means primarily the event, sometimes primarily the person, and sometimes primarily the community. I say "primarily" in each case because it would be a mistake to suppose that any one of these three categories is ever entirely absent when Christ is referred to. The empirical reality, Jesus Christ, always involves all three; but one or another category may be dominant at a given moment or in a given context. (I am aware of that philosophical view in which "person" is entirely subsumed under the category of "event" and in which therefore the distinction I am proposing between the two categories is rendered impossible: the person is an event and nothing more, as indeed is everything else. Although in general this dynamic way of thinking about the nature of reality appeals to me as sound and is congenial to the argument of this book, nevertheless I confess that I do not find it possible to think of personality as being exhaustively definable in such terms. But this philosophical question [which I lack technical competence to handle] is really irrelevant to the point I am trying to make. I am using the word "person" in its ordinary sense to designate an individual possessed of self-consciousness and will [whatever be the essential nature of personality]. and "event" in its usual meaning of historical occurrence.)

A few illustrations will perhaps be useful. When Paul says, "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20), or "My desire is to depart and be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23) -- in these statements he is clearly speaking primarily of a person. This person is not merely an historical person, in the sense of being someone remembered; he is also both known as a spiritual presence in intimate intercourse and believed to reside in Heaven, where the believer will eventually see him face to face. But under these several aspects or through these several phases, a person clearly appears, and the word Christ in these passages, and in scores of others, unmistakably refers to this person.

But when Paul writes, "In Christ God was reconciling the world unto himself" (II Cor. 5:19), he is thinking primarily not of the person simply as such, but of the event which happened around and in connection with that person. He is thinking of the whole historical occurrence, or cluster of occurrences, with which and out of which the church came into existence. This way of speaking is not altogether strange to us in other connections. In somewhat the same way we may speak of Washington when we really have in mind the American Revolution and the beginning of the republic. This analogy must not be pressed, for the person Jesus was far more decisively and pervasively present in the event with which the Christian movement began than was Washington as a person in the establishment of the American nation; besides, there is nothing corresponding to the resurrection in the latter. The same thing could be said of any other similar analogy. Still, the reference may serve to illustrate the way in which a personal name can come to stand for an event. The more significant the person as a factor in the event, the more likely such an identification is. Small wonder, then, that when Paul wishes to refer to the event in and through which the reconciling act of God has occurred, he should call the event or cluster of events by Christ’s name, since Christ was in so important a sense the determinative center of it. His great statement, just quoted, is not an answer to the question, "Who was Jesus?" but to the question, "What was God doing in and through the event of which Jesus was the center?" He answers, "In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself."

But when the same Apostle asserts, "As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive" (I Cor. 15:22), he is making a somewhat different use again of the name. "Christ" here stands for the new order of relationships between men and God and among men, the new and divine community, which is preeminently heavenly and eschatological but which in a real though partial sense has come into historical existence with the event and in which the believer is already incorporated. As natural men, Paul is saying, we die; as members of the new community we share proleptically in the life of the world to come, the new and divine order which is indeed already breaking in upon us. An even clearer example of this use of the name is found in Paul’s statement: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). We are "in Christ" in the sense that we are members of his body.

It is interesting to note in passing that the proposed analysis of the meaning of the term "Christ" provides a possible clue to the meaning of the phrase "in Christ," found in all three of the passages just quoted and characteristically (though by no means exclusively) Pauline. Allowing for the fact that the Greek preposition e n was used very widely and loosely in the New Testament period, we may still recognize a certain strangeness in its use in connection with the name of a person. But if this name often also signifies the event and the community, this strangeness disappears. If one will examine the occurrences of e n C r i s t y in the New Testament, one will find that they divide rather evenly as between those which are used in allusions to God’s action (when the meaning "event" would be paramount) and those which are found in references to the situation of the believer (when the conception of community, the body of Christ, is dominant). To cite a few additional examples, this time chosen almost at random from the early chapters of Ephesians: when the readers of that letter are addressed as "the faithful in Christ Jesus" (1:1), the idea of the new supernatural community is surely most immediately in the writer’s mind; but in such a passage as "That you may know . . . what is the abundant greatness of his power toward us who believe according to the working of his mighty power which he wrought in Christ" (1 :18 f.), the conception of event is just as clearly dominant. When the same writer says, "Now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off are brought near by the blood of Christ" (2: 13), one cannot tell whether he has event or community primarily in mind. If he is thinking principally of the new situation of the believer, the emphasis is upon the community. But if he is thinking more particularly of the means God has used to bring this new situation to pass, then event is the more important category for the understanding of his thought.

The assertions of the several passages of Scripture we have examined may or may not be altogether acceptable to us. Certainly we could not be expected to adopt them as our own without considerably more elaboration and clarification of their meaning than the last few paragraphs have attempted. But at the moment we are concerned, not with the truth of statements, but with the significance of terms. My only point is that in the New Testament the meaning of "Jesus Christ" involves, in varying degrees of relevance, the three categories, event, person and community. The same thing is true, I have ventured to say, of the actual empirical meaning of Christ for you and me.

The importance of these three aspects of this meaning, as well as their intimate interconnectedness, appears the more clearly when we ask which of them is most significant for the formulation of the doctrine of Christ. Granted that all of them are present and are essential, which has preeminence? A good case could be made for each of the three. The person is the center of the event and also of the community -- the event occurs around him and the community is formed around him. But the community is both the locus of the event and the place where alone the person is remembered and still known. But just as inclusive, at the very least, is the event in which the person played his decisive part and out of which the community emerged. The truth is that these three are one -- essential aspects of the same reality -- and we cannot think of Jesus Christ without employing, implicitly if not consciously, these three categories.

Nevertheless, I do not believe one can reflect long on this reality without recognizing that the category of the event has, for purposes of theological definition, a certain primacy. I am convinced not only that this is true, but also that our attempts at stating an acceptable doctrine of Christ have often failed largely because we have lost sight of this primacy. Concerning this failure I intend to speak at some length later; just now let me try to state the grounds for regarding the reality Jesus Christ as being under its primary aspect an event.

The real issue here is between the event and the person, not between the event and the community. For all of its importance, no one, I believe, would deny on reflection that the church has, as compared with both person and event, a secondary character. To be sure, it was only in the community that the meaning of the event was realized and thus it was only there that the event in the full sense occurred, but, even so, it would obviously be truer (or at least less false) to say that the event produced the church than that the church produced the event, although the Christian would prefer to say that God created both. The meaning of Jesus Christ first came to realization in the Christian community and has been conveyed to us through that community, but no one would claim that it originated there. Back of the church, even though also present in and with it, stand the person and the event.

But which of these categories is the more accurate and adequate? Is it more exactly true to say that the church was formed by a person or that it sprang from an event? Both of these statements are so obviously true as to suggest a doubt that the distinction we are discussing can really be drawn: The person was the event; the event was the person. There is more than a merely rough truth in such an identification, as has been said; one reality is being designated under both terms. But, for all that, there is a difference between these two ways of considering that reality. Both ways are appropriate and indispensable. But one of the major purposes of these chapters is to urge that when we are seeking to define the meaning of the revelation of God in Christ, event is the more appropriate and adequate category. Several reasons for this view may be indicated.

First, it would not be difficult to show that this category is the more inclusive. The person may be the dominant, altogether decisive, factor in the event -- in this case, he obviously is -- but the event contains more than the person. It contains, for example, the historical context in which the person lived his life. It contains the response which others made to him, the way in which they received him, the social consequences of his life. It contains everything remembered which happened to the person or in connection with him and the meanings and values which were found in those happenings.

But just because event is thus inclusive, it is only through the event that one can gain any true impression of the person. The person is reflected in the event as in a mirror (or rather a whole circle of mirrors), and facets of his reality can be seen only there. Persons of history are known only as participants in events. They cannot be known otherwise except as pale abstractions and therefore not as persons at all. To see a person in his full concreteness and in his true character is to see him in and through the events of which he is a part. To speak of the person as being thus, in a sense, less than the total event which happens around him, is not to disparage the person. The greatness of any individual is the greatness of the event of which his life is the center. This is pre-eminently and, because of the resurrection, in a special sense true of Jesus. Still another reason for insisting upon the primacy of the event as the category for interpreting Jesus Christ is that it is par excellence the historical category, and the reality we are seeking to interpret is essentially an historical reality. We began this discussion by reflecting upon the origins of our own religious life and upon the origins of the church. In both cases we found ourselves returning to something that happened twenty centuries ago. To something that happened -- we attempted at the time to go no further in describing it. But to say even so much is to indicate that what we are talking about is primarily an event. For revelation, as we have seen, is an act of God making himself known. The revelation in Christ, in any sense in which either our experience or really primitive Christian doctrine confirms it, is not most truly represented by the statement that Jesus Christ was God, as certain types of later Christian orthodoxy have tried to say it, nor yet by the modern liberal view that Jesus was a picture of God, showing us "what God is like." The revelation is best represented by the statement that Jesus Christ was an act of God -- or, if one prefers, that in him took place the revealing act of God. But if revelation is an act, the medium of revelation is an event.

There can be no doubt that the most primitive church understood it so. One cannot read the New Testament without realizing that it was produced by a community standing in the glow of a supremely significant event. Before there was much speculation on the "nature" of the person and long before any dogmatic statements about that nature were attempted, the members of the community knew that they stood at the great climacteric moment of all history, that in and through the things which had happened among them and of which they were witnesses, God had visited and redeemed his people.