Chapter 4: The Event and the Person

Jesus Lord and Christ
by John Knox (current)

Chapter 4: The Event and the Person

Reference has been made several times in the course of this discussion to the divisiveness of the Christological issue. If Christ himself has been and is still the principle of our unity, the attempt to define the meaning of Christ has just as surely been the major occasion of controversy and division. I believe that this attempt has had this kind of effect because the church has tried to define abstractly in terms of the metaphysical essence of a person’s nature what was at first received concretely as the divine meaning of an historical event; or, to say the same thing somewhat differently, we have tried to interpret the revelation in Christ as a static thing residing in a person when it was really a dynamic thing taking place in an event.

The earliest church did not fail to apprehend this real character of the revelation, as we have already had occasion to observe. One cannot read the New Testament without gaining the impression that this literature was produced by a community standing in the white glow of what was felt to be a supremely momentous event. This event was connected intimately and throughout with Jesus; and his importance as a person, both remembered and still known. cannot be exaggerated. But this person was conceived to be the central factor in an act of God, and it is this act which has largest theological significance in the New Testament.

I have already indicated the elements which belonged to this event as you and I look back to it: the appearance of the man Jesus, his life and death and resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, the creation of the church. These same elements were recognized also by the primitive believers as essential elements in what had happened among them. But at this point emerges a rather important difference between their view and ours. They would not have spoken of the event as "having happened"; as they saw it, the event was still happening. They did not look back to it, as Christians very soon perforce were doing; they stood in the midst of it. It was happening around them, and at least one phase of the event was still to occur. This would be the return of Christ from Heaven to serve as God’s agent in the final judgment and redemption, with which history would end and the life of the "world to come" would be fully inaugurated. Thus, the event as they understood it was the final, the eschatological, event, and the whole New Testament is dominated by the conviction that this event has already begun to happen and will soon be consummated,

Now even a glance at the long course of eschatological reflection among the Jews will reveal that it was concerned predominantly with the culminating event of history and only in a secondary sense and measure with the personal agent through whom this event would be brought to pass. To the Christian, writes R. H. Charles,

the Messianic Kingdom seems inconceivable apart from the Messiah. But even a cursory examination of Jewish prophecy and apocalyptic disabuses him of this illusion. The Jewish prophet could not help looking forward to the Kingdom of God, but he found no difficulty in conceiving that Kingdom without a Messiah. Thus there is no mention of the Messiah in Amos, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Joel, Daniel, none even in the very full eschatological prophecies of Isaiah 24-27 or in the brilliant description of the future in Isaiah 54:11.17, ch. 60 - 62, ch. 65 - 66, which sprang from various post-Exilic writers. Nor is the situation different when we pass from the Old Testament to the subsequent Jewish literature. The figure of the Messiah is absent altogether from the Books of the Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, I Baruch, certain sections of I Enoch, II Enoch, the Book of Wisdom, the Assumption of Moses. Hence it follows that in Jewish prophecy and apocalyptic the Messiah was no organic factor of the kingdom. (Religious Development Between the Old and New Testaments, pp.75f. Used by permission of Oxford University Press. New York.)

In other words, the Jewish prophet looked forward with greatest interest and conviction not to the appearing of a person but to the occurrence of an event.

This same subordination of person to event in Jewish prophecy and apocalyptic appears also in the wide variety of ways in which the "Messiah" was conceived by those who expected his coming at all. I have placed the word "Messiah" in quotation marks because, strictly speaking, the term designates only one of these several ways, namely, the ideal King, usually of David’s line, who would reign as God’s vicegerent over a restored Israel. Probably this was the most prevalent and persistent form under which the eschatological agent or mediator was thought of, and thus it is not surprising that the term "Messiah" tended to spread and to some extent did spread over the whole field and to attach itself to forms originally quite distinct and essentially quite different. At least three of these alternative forms can be distinguished, although many scholars would deny that the term "Messiah" was generally applied to them in pre-Christian times: the Prophet, the Priest, and the "Son of Man."

The Prophet and the Priest, like the King, are obviously idealizations of typical leaders within the nation. (These forms could be combined in various ways. The Messiah could be King. Prophet, and Priest -- all in one. There is evidence in the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Qumran community expected two Messiahs, a King and a Priest. See also earlier comments. The "Son of Man" was a mysterious superhuman figure who would appear from Heaven in the last days to bring God’s judgment and salvation. The literary evidence that the expectation of a "Messiah," in so far as such an expectation existed at all, took these several forms is indisputable, although at points meager, and can be found cited in Charles and other writers on Jewish eschatology. My point here is only that this variety of conception is another indication of the relative unimportance of this phase of the eschatological hope.

It should be added that even where a "Messiah" is expected, the emphasis always upon his office or function, not upon his nature. The King, the Priest, the Prophet are significant because of the part they are to play in God’s judging and redemptive action, not because of what they are in themselves. There is no evidence of any current speculation upon their metaphysical nature. They are to be men, different from others only in that they have been especially chosen and anointed and especially endowed for a supremely important task. The Son of Man belongs obviously to another category; he is a superhuman person. But even he is important because of the role he is to play in the final event. The emphasis is always upon the action of God, not upon the nature of his agent.

When one moves from this background of beliefs and hopes into the New Testament, whose writers speak for a community which is sure that these beliefs and hopes are now being actually fulfilled, one finds, as we have seen, the same emphasis upon event: God has "visited and redeemed his people"; he has "raised up Jesus"; he has "poured out [his] Spirit upon all flesh"; he has "done what the law weakened by the flesh could not do"; he has "disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in Christ"; he "who commanded the light to shine out of darkness has shined in our hearts." In a word, the final act of God in history, the act with which history will close, is under way. The culminating event is occurring and with the return of Christ will be brought to glorious completion. The first form of the Christological question was: "What has God done through Christ?" or, better perhaps: "What is God doing? What is the meaning of the event which we have witnessed and of which we have been made a part?"

But although the real basis of the community’s life was always the total event we have described, its attempt to give a rational explanation of its life took more and more the form of an effort to define the nature of the person. The fundamental ground for such a development was the indubitable fact that Jesus had been and was still the incomparably important, the central and decisive, factor in the event. Since what had happened had happened around, in connection with and through him, and since this happening was interpreted as being the eschatological event, it was to be expected not only that Jesus should be designated "Messiah" but also that this "Messiah" should become the symbol of the entire event. To deny the Messiahship of Jesus was to deny the revealing and saving character of the event from which the church took its rise, To affirm the divine significance of that event was to affirm the divine role, if not the divine nature, of Christ. The vivid memories of Jesus and the fact of his continuing Lordship in the community would make such a development all but inevitable, and the exigencies of evangelism and apologetic only accelerated it. Thus it happened that the Messiahship of Jesus was from the beginning vastly more important in the revised eschatological pattern of the Christians than Messiahship in the abstract had normally been in the traditional pattern of the Jews.

The actual character of this person, the course his life had taken, and the values he soon came to hold for the members of the community led also to a new definition of the word "Messiah." Since Jesus was the Messiah, whatever belonged essentially to his significance belonged also to the essential meaning of Messiahship. By and large, it may be said that all the terms in which the hopes of Israel had been traditionally expressed were utilized and additional Old Testament terms which at first had had no such significance were discovered and pressed into service. Moreover, conceptions originally and probably up to this time quite distinct were combined and fused. We cannot undertake any detailed description of Christological reflection in the early and ancient church. The barest summary must suffice.

There can be no doubt, as we have seen, that almost from the moment of the resurrection Jesus was regarded as the Messiah. At first, his Messiahship was thought of as beginning only with the resurrection, but very soon it was believed that he had been the Messiah throughout his career. But although he conformed to the true Messianic pattern in being (as was supposed at least) a descendant of David, his kingship did not generally follow traditional lines. He had been put to death, had been raised from the dead, and was believed to be in Heaven awaiting the time of his return, when he would be fully manifested as God’s Messiah. None of these features belonged to any previous conception of the Messiah in the original sense of that term, although the present waiting in Heaven for the time of his manifestation conformed to the pattern associated, as we have seen, with the supernatural Son of Man. In as much, however, as Jesus had been ‘born the Son of David according to the flesh" and was now "installed as Son of God. . . by the resurrection from the dead," features of both the human Messiah pattern and the superhuman Son of Man pattern applied to him, and the two conceptions were inseparably fused. The title Son of Man dropped out of use almost at once, if indeed the churches ever employed it, but the functions of the Son of Man became the functions of the risen Christ.

The death of Jesus conformed to no previous pattern and undoubtedly was originally a stumbling-block to believers, just as Paul tells us it was still for unbelieving Jews. Paul himself seems to have adopted a conception according to which Jesus the Messiah must die in order to meet and destroy Death, just as he must be "in the flesh" in order to meet and conquer Sin. This view represents an adaptation of the original Messiah idea: the Messiah defeats, not human, but demonic foes. The Epistle to the Hebrews lets us see that it was not very long before the relevance of the traditional conception of the Priest as a type of the "Messiah" became evident. Jesus was the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek" -- the High Priest who fulfilled and therefore abolished the whole sacrificial cult when he offered his own blood as a sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary. Hints of this view are to be found also in Paul. And perhaps even earlier than the relevance of this priestly conception was observed, the possibility of interpreting the "Suffering Servant" passage in Isaiah 53 as a Messianic prophecy had been discerned: "He was led as a lamb to the slaughter. . . . As the sheep before her shearers is dumb, he opened not his mouth. . . . He was bruised for our iniquity. . . .The chastisement of our peace was upon him and by his stripes are we healed" (Is. 53:7, 5).

It is interesting to note in this connection -- although this is not the place for an adequate discussion -- that little use is made of the category of the Prophet in the interpretation of Jesus’ Messianic role. One would have supposed that the prominence of teaching and preaching in Jesus career would have made that category seem the most obvious and natural of all. Yet it is used hardly at all. (The only clear case seems to be Acts 3:22 ff.) To be sure, in the earliest tradition Jesus is sometimes called a prophet, but the term is apparently used in its ordinary sense and is soon displaced by messianically significant terms. Indeed, the fact that Jesus was actually called a prophet makes even more remarkable the fact that he is rarely in the New Testament identified with the Prophet. The explanation of this omission is probably the fact that John the Baptist had been interpreted by his disciples as a "Messiah" of that type and had become so firmly established in the Prophet’s role that the early Christians (at any rate, before the Fourth Gospel) made no effort to dislodge him from that position. They gave their own interpretation to the role, however. The Prophet, according to the Christians, was not the Messiah, but the herald of the Messiah. The defense of this view required some alteration of the text of Malachi, but that was easily managed: "Behold, I will send my messenger; he shall prepare the way before me," becomes under their hand, "Behold I send my messenger before thy face; he shall prepare thy way." What was originally a reference to God’s own coming becomes a reference to the Messiah’s. With the exception of this one category, however, every form of messianic expectation was applied to Jesus, and even this one, that of the Prophet, already preempted for John, was turned to good account in Christian apologetics: the Prophet had indeed come, but his purpose was to announce the coming of Jesus, the real Messiah, and to prepare his way.

All of these terms, though involving the recognition of the supreme importance of Jesus, are concerned more with his role and function than with his nature. Or, to speak more accurately, the unique nature of Jesus is thought of as consisting in God’s unique action in him, not in some unique essence. The lines cannot be sharply drawn, however: one could not believe that God had accomplished so much in and through Jesus and had exalted him to so supreme a status without soon asking, "What then was the essential nature of this Jesus that he can have become the agent of God’s redemptive purpose?" Even the earliest parts of the New Testament are not free from interest in this question, and by the time we reach some of the later books this interest has become very important.

As early as Paul the doctrine of Jesus’ pre-existence was prevalent, and there is some evidence in his letters that he identified the Pre-existent Christ with the hypostatized Logos or Wisdom of God, who according to certain Hellenistic Jewish teachers, functioned as God’s agent and mediator in creating and sustaining the world. Whether Paul exemplifies this development is subject to question, but there can be no doubt that before the New Testament period ends, such an understanding of Jesus is well established. It appears clearly enough in Hebrews and is quite explicit and unmistakable in the Fourth Gospel: "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. . . . And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten son of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1: 1 ff.).

Thus the revelation in Christ, at first received as an act of God in and through an event of which Jesus was the heart and center, tends more and more to be interpreted as God himself become a man. The Christological question, which was originally a question about the eschatological and soteriological significance of an event, has become a question about the metaphysical nature of a person. This process reaches its culmination in the fourth and fifth centuries, when the attention of theologians was focused almost entirely upon the question of the nature of the person. Was he co-eternal with the Father and of the same substance? Or was he only of "like substance" and "was there a time when the Son was not"? Just how were the human and the divine elements in his personality related to each other? Did Christ have two natures? Such questions threatened for a while to divide the church. For the great majority of Christians they were answered satisfactorily at Nicaea and Chalcedon in the adoption of the doctrine of the Trinity with its assertion of Christ’s co-eternity and co-substantiality with the Father and with the doctrine of his nature as being the perfect and indissoluble union of two quite distinct but complete and authentic natures; but a significant minority in the church, then and ever since, has found these answers either unintelligible or incredible.

In so far as these ancient answers have been divisive, they have been so, I should say, because many of those who have accepted them as well as all those who have rejected them have failed to see their true intention. These answers are true not because they are metaphysically accurate descriptions of the nature of a person -- how can we hope to define in this sense the nature of Christ when we have no idea how to define our own nature? -- but because they are authentic and effective representations of the nature of an event. To say this is to anticipate what will be said a little later about the Christian "story," but the point is of the greatest importance at this stage of our discussion. These ancient answers, I repeat, are authentic symbols of God’s uniquely and supremely revelatory act in Christ. They are thus true symbols of the meaning of Christ in the life and faith of the church; and, because they are the symbols historically developed to express that meaning, they can never be replaced. If Christians are ever to be united creedally, it will be upon the basis of these ancient creeds. But that can happen only if these creeds are recognized to be the symbols of God’s revealing and saving action, not metaphysically accurate descriptions of the nature of his agent. Christ is "of one substance with the Father"; but the utmost, and inmost, it is given us to know of God’s "substance" is that he is love -- as such he is revealed in Christ -- and love is not a metaphysical essence but personal moral will and action.

To see this is to see that the emphasis we are placing throughout this discussion upon event is not a disparagement of the importance of the person of Christ. (May God forbid!) What we are trying to say is that his supreme importance is best seen when he is viewed as the living creative center of the supremely important event of human history, and also that the "nature" of Christ is most truly known under that same category: God’s action is the divine nature of Christ. I would not dare say how far Norman Pittenger would go in supporting the position of this book, but with his definition of the "divinity" of Christ as contained in the following sentence, I would completely and wholeheartedly agree: "Jesus, is then, truly human; he is truly divine. The divine in him is God at work in and through him, the act of God which he is, appearing in the world of men as a man, and performing that supreme function which as Savior and Source of new strength, he has actually performed." (Christ and Christian Faith (New York: Round Table Press, 1941), p. 66. Quoted by permission of the publisher.) The act of God which he is -- God has drawn near in Christ; he has visited and redeemed his people. This is the only essential, as it is the ultimately unifying, Christian confession.