Chapter 3: The Event and Its Parts
So far we have done little more than point to the event in which the spiritual community to which we belong had its beginning and through which the revelation of God, which we have received, was made. We must now attempt to define that event more carefully. We have several times identified it, quite easily and accurately, as the event of which the career of Jesus was the center. But what are its limits? What can properly be regarded as included within it?
One does not need to be more than a casual student of history to know how difficult it is to set limits to any historical event. One finds, indeed, that absolute limits cannot be set short of the limits of history itself. Historical events are not mere isolated occurrences, and history is not a mere aggregation of such occurrences. History is an organic whole, and the events which make it up participate in one another. In the final analysis no event can be altogether excluded from every other event. If then we ask, "When did the event which we are considering begin and when did it end?" the only possible absolute answer must be, "It began when history itself began and it will end only when history itself shall end."
But granted the impossibility of setting absolute limits to this event or of regarding any part of history as being entirely irrelevant to it, degrees of relevance can surely be discerned. The event which bears the name of Jesus Christ is more clearly and more closely related to some parts of history than to other parts. As any event must, it belongs not only to history as a whole, but also in a special sense to its own particular stream. This stream began (in the restricted sense in which any segment of history may be said to "begin") when the Hebrew people first became a self-conscious community with Yahweh as its God; and now for nearly twenty centuries it has been identified as the Christian community and, in the broader sense, as the culture of Christendom.
Of this particular movement of history Jesus Christ is the center. By such a statement we do not mean, of course, that the same span of time follows as precedes that event -- this is only very approximately true and will become increasingly less true as the centuries pass. Nor do I intend merely to refer to the temporal fact that Christ’s appearing marks the moment when Christianity emerged out of Judaism, Jesus Christ is the center in a more profound and thoroughgoing sense. He is the center of meaning in the entire movement. Christian history is not something merely added to Hebrew-Jewish history; it represents an appropriation and transfiguration of that history. New meanings are found in ancient happenings and thus the ancient happenings are themselves transformed. As Jesus is described as talking with Moses and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration, so early Christianity talked with Judaism, teaching as well as learning. In Christ’s presence, Moses and Elijah were also transfigured. The Hebrew. Jewish element within the Hebrew-Jewish-Christian stream is something profoundly different from Hebrew-Jewish culture simply as such. Whether this difference is regarded as representing a distortion of the reality or as being a disclosure of its true meaning will depend upon one’s point of view. There can be no question about what will be the Christian’s judgment. A member of the Christian community will, simply in virtue of that fact, see it as disclosure.
But the event in which this disclosure of the meaning of Judaism is made -- this historical "mount of transfiguration" -- is the same event in which, as we saw on the meaning of the life of the Christian church and of our own life within it is also revealed. Thus, this event, Jesus Christ, not only belongs in a peculiarly intimate and important sense to the stream of history which is the bearer of our spiritual life but it also imparts to that stream its distinctive character. So true is this that the whole spiritual movement of Hebrew-Jewish-Christian culture might in a certain perspective be thought of as a single event and might appropriately be called by his name. The event would thus be said to have begun when Israel began and to include the whole history of the church down to this moment,
But this event has in turn a center, And it is with this center that we are particularly concerned. Acknowledging that no absolute limits can be set to this central moment, that it cannot be precisely bounded on any side, must we not, even so, recognize that when we use the term Jesus Christ we are usually thinking primarily not of an extended movement in history, but of something that happened in Palestine within a specific and rather limited period nearly twenty centuries ago? It is in that sense that the term Is, for the most part, used in this discussion.
As we seek to define this "something that happened," we must be on our guard lest we do so too narrowly. There are limits beyond which the procedure of seeking a center within a center must not be pressed. The innermost central event cannot be identified, for example, with the birth of Jesus, or with his death, or with his resurrection. It cannot be identified with the personality of the human Jesus or with the appearance of the so-called Christ-faith. None of these elements is the center around which the total Christian event has occurred; rather, they are integral and interdependent parts of that center. We do not identify the central event, Jesus Christ, when we separate off one or another of these elements; on the contrary, we destroy the integrity and reality of the event. On this point we shall want to speak later at greater length. At the moment we are concerned only to urge that the central historical event in and through which the Christian revelation occurred, is itself a complex of events -- a cluster or closely knit series -- and that to reduce it to absolute simplicity is to destroy it.
The various elements can be identified in different ways; but I should say that this central event must be thought of as including, whatever words may be used in designating them, the personality, life and teaching of Jesus, the response of loyalty he awakened, his death, his resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, the faith with which the Spirit was received, the creation of the community. It may be possible to add to these factors, but I would urge that we cannot reduce them further. Not a single one of them can be dispensed with. They form together an indivisible historical moment. And it is in and through this moment as a whole that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ made himself known.
In thus analyzing the elements in this moment, as well as in describing as I have its inner significance, I do not believe I am doing more than to draw out some of the implications of the common Christian experience and conviction which we considered in an earlier chapter. However divergent our views may be on other matters, I venture to affirm that we all agree in recognizing the several elements I have indicated as being present in the event we call by Christ’s name as well as in ascribing to this event, as one and indissoluble, a supreme revelatory significance.
This double fact of the complexity of the event, on the one hand, and its integrity and indissolubility, on the other, is of such major importance for the argument of this book that it may be well to examine the fact itself somewhat more thoroughly before we go on to consider several of its implications and bearings.
I have ventured to sum up the constituent elements in the central and crucial event -- and because of their importance for our discussion it may not be amiss to name them again -- by referring to the personality, the life and teaching of Jesus, the response of loyalty he awakened, his death, his resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, the faith with which the Spirit was received, the creation of the community. It was urged that though it might be possible to add to these factors, we could not reduce them. This restriction applies, of course, to the "substance" of these factors, not to their number or arrangement. Seven or eight items appear in the analysis just proposed, but obviously they could be so grouped and conceived as to be either fewer or more. One might think, for example, of the life and death of the man Jesus as a single factor, rather than two; or of the deepening response of his disciples to the total event -- earthly life and resurrection -- as one factor instead of two. Likewise the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit and perhaps also the creation of the community might be conceived of as a single element. But the possibility of such modifications in the form which analysis may take does not alter the fact of the complexity of the event we are considering or allow for the exclusion in substance of any of the factors I have mentioned.
It is not difficult to establish the indispensability of these several factors, if by "indispensability" is meant their actual presence and actual importance within the event, and not some theoretical or logical necessity. Agreement on such a necessity would be far to seek, and of dubious importance even if found. But our purpose all along has been to remind ourselves of the facts of our religious life, to describe the meaning Christ actually has for us; not to develop a logically consistent Christology. And when I speak of the essential character of these elements in the event, I mean simply that we actually find them there and that, so far as we can see, the event would have been altogether different if any one of them had been missing.
Let us briefly notice the several elements I have mentioned. To begin with the first and most obvious: When we speak of Christ, we certainly have in mind the man whose personality and the general character of whose life emerge clearly enough in the Gospels, the man who was remembered as speaking such words as are found in the Sermon on the Mount and in the fifteenth chapter of Luke and, more important, as being himself the person who could have spoken them. Attempts have often been made to show that this man never lived, that he is entirely the product of early Christian imagination, but these attempts have at no time succeeded in convincing more than a few, and it is inconceivable that they would ever convince the Christian, for the event whose historicity is to him more than the conclusion of an argument but is witnessed to by his own being as a Christian -- this event includes the appearance in history of this man.
But, someone says, suppose that tomorrow or next day indisputable historical evidence should come to light showing that this appearance did not really take place? The only possible answer a Christian can make to such a supposition is to say, "Such evidence will not come to light." The community bears in its heart a memory of Jesus and it is inconceivable that it should either modify radically the character of that memory or deny its validity. Theoretically, on the basis of sufficient evidence, it might do so; but the evidence would actually never be sufficient. This does not mean, as we shall see in the next two chapters, that we can regard every item in the Gospels as belonging to this authentic and abiding memory. It does not mean that we can feel absolute confidence in the original authenticity of any separate word or act of Jesus merely as such. It does mean that he was himself remembered as being the kind of person he was, that this memory has come down to us in the Christian community, both in the New Testament and as a "living voice," and that as members of that community we have entered into this memory. To be a Christian is to remember Jesus; and one can hardly remember Jesus and at the same time entertain a serious doubt of his existence.
But when we speak of Christ and thus remember Jesus, we think not only of his life but also, and in a special way, of his death. He not only lived, and lived as he did; he also died, and died as he did. This death, although in one sense simply an element in the life of Jesus, has always been the object of special attention, both in theology and devotion, and undoubtedly has a place of special significance in the event to which we find ourselves looking back in memory and faith. To this fact the symbol of the cross bears witness. Although we shall be returning to this theme again, we shall not attempt, either now or later, any adequate explanation of why this should be true. The simplest explanation, and certainly part of the answer, is that it was actually in connection with his death that the whole concrete meaning of Jesus’ life came home to his disciples with greatest force, poignancy and truth. The cross was the center of their memory of Jesus, and since our memory of him is theirs conveyed to us, it is the center of ours too.
But the cross is central in a more objective sense. It is one pole in the most decisive phase in the development of the event, the other pole being, of course, the resurrection. The first community was convinced that he who had died lived again. They were convinced of this not primarily because some of them had had visual experiences of him, but because the Spirit had come upon them. We too are convinced that he who died lives still, and in our case too this conviction is not the consequence of visual experiences reported in the Gospels and Epistles, but of the presence of the Spirit in the community. This Spirit authenticates itself both as a divine Spirit -- it comes from God -- and also as the Spirit of Christ. No argument can establish the fact that the Spirit is from God or that it is the Spirit of Christ or even that the Spirit exists at all. But one who belongs to the community knows the Spirit and knows whence the Spirit comes and knows also who the Spirit is. The Spirit comes from God and is the abiding presence of Christ. The one remembered is still known. The one known as the divine center of the church’s life is the very one who is also remembered. The Spirit is the Lord; "the Lord is the Spirit." The Christian life is life not only in Christ but also with Christ. The one who lived and died -- even he! -- lives still; and it is possible still both to walk with him in the way and to know him in the breaking of bread. This is the meaning of the resurrection in any sense that matters; and is it to be doubted that the resurrection thus defined belongs essentially to the event we are discussing? Thus defined, it is not a mere belief, but a part of the empirical ground in the life of the community upon which sound belief of whatever kind must rest.
The other elements in our analysis have been presupposed in all that has been said: namely, the response of the first disciples to Jesus and to all that happened in connection with him and the creation of the church by the coming of the Spirit. We cannot speak of any historical event without having in mind the social context in which the event occurred. Events take place among and within persons and to "objectify" them completely is to destroy them. When we spoke of the life and death of Jesus, we spoke of them as remembered, and when we spoke of the resurrection, we spoke of it as occurring within the experience of the first disciples. An objective element is present in each case: Jesus is not a mere memory -- in that case he would not be a memory. The resurrection is not a mere faith -- in that case it would not be a faith. Both memory and faith point beyond themselves to the more objective occasions which gave rise to them. Still, we know Jesus the man of Galilee only as he was, and is, remembered; and we know Christ the Spirit only as he was, and is, still known. The actual event includes both objective and subjective elements -- and the one kind of element is as real and essential as the other.
In the same way the creation of the church is an element in the event, for the church is in a true sense its human side. The church is the community which came into being with the event and in which the event in its totality occurred. It is the community of loyalty, devoted memory, and faith, which answer to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; and therefore it is the community in which alone the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as a revelatory event took place. To some of us such a statement may appear at first to represent too "high" a doctrine of the church; but actually the significance of the church can hardly be defined in terms too exalted since the revelation of God in Christ took place only within it and has been conveyed to us only there. Where we are likely to go astray is not in formulating too high a doctrine of the significance of the church but in identifying the church too readily or exclusively with some existing group or institution. The church, as we have been using the term, is nothing less than one side of the event itself. This is certainly part of our meaning when we speak of it as the body of Christ.
Not one of these elements in the event stands alone. They all belong together and to one another and participate in one whole. It is through this whole, and through nothing less than this whole, that the revealing act of God occurred.
A brief recapitulation of what has been attempted so far in this discussion may be in order at this point. First, it was affirmed as a simple fact about us that we are dependent upon the revelation of God in Christ for what is most precious in the knowledge of God which has been given us. We then considered what is meant by the word "Christ" and concluded that the word, as we use it, designates most obviously a person, but, equally truly, an event and a community. Of these three categories I sought to show that event has a certain primacy and that it is, on the whole, the most appropriate and useful category for the understanding of the revelation, involving also, as it does, the other two. We then sought to define what is meant by the event. It was recognized that it has no absolute outer limits except those of history itself, but that it belongs in a special sense to the Hebrew-Jewish-Christian stream, and that it is, more particularly, the central and decisive moment in that historical movement. This moment is not a single happening, but a cluster of inseparable and mutually interdependent elements, which might be summed up in the words, "Jesus and all that happened in connection with him." It was through this event as a whole, rather than through anything outside of it or any element or combination of elements within it, that the revelation which is the source of what is most distinctive and precious in our own spiritual life took place.
The recognition that it was through an event, and through that event as a whole, that God made Himself known in the characteristic way in which He is known within the Christian community -- this recognition has certain practical consequences which I propose that we now consider. There are at least three of these: (1) the recognition of this fact frees us from excessive preoccupation with the insoluble and divisive problem of the "nature" of Jesus; (2) it frees us from a certain immoderate anxiety about the "historicity" of the Gospels; and (3) it places the miracles of the New Testament in true perspective. The following three chapters will be concerned with these three bearings of the major theme.