Chapter 5: Surely This Man Was the Son of God

Jesus Lord and Christ
by John Knox (current)

Chapter 5: Surely This Man Was the Son of God

I have just used the word "myth" in referring to the Pauline interpretation of Christ. At other points in this discussion we have spoken of the "story" or the "drama" in which Paul thinks of Christ as playing a part. These terms must not be misunderstood. They are meant to designate the form or type to which Paul’s theological thinking belongs, and, as regards the question of truth or value, they are as neutral as the word "formula" is in science or "syllogism" in logic. A myth, as I shall be using the term, is not to be confused with a legend. Myths may be true or false, just as formulas and syllogisms may be. Needless to say, a myth is not "true" in the same way as a formula, any more than a formula is true in the same sense as a syllogism. Thus we speak of a formula as being true if it represents correctly the way in which certain physical elements act in relation to one another, and a syllogism is said to be true when the final statement in a series of statements is derived by rational necessity from the others in the series. A myth is true in yet another way: it is true, as any work of art is true, when it expresses faithfully some quality or dimension of reality as known in authentic experience, and it is true, more particularly, when it represents some supreme effort of man to express the deepest meaning of his life -- that ultimate meaning, of which his experience in the world makes him aware but which ordinary rational terms are utterly unable to convey.

To recognize, then, that Paul’s theology is mythological (rather than, say, philosophical or scientific) is not to deny its truth. Indeed, not only can it be said that his theology is true, it may also be asserted that it is truer -- that is, it describes reality at a deeper level and in greater concrete richness than any philosophical or scientific statement could begin to do. Few will deny, for example, that Paul’s theology represents with something approaching adequacy the fact and meaning of sin in human life -- the reality of moral evil, the universal blight it brings, man’s hopeless entanglement with it, the perverse and rebellious pride, deep in our nature, which degrades us, distorts our efforts, mars even our best moral achievements, and from which we know God must save us if we are to be saved at all.

Paul also comes near to representing the meaning of the only salvation which can meet man’s need: a salvation which must cost God everything (else it could not be salvation from so desperate a plight) and must cost man nothing (else in his sickness and poverty he could not receive it). The Christian story represents the utmost effort of the primitive Christian community (for no one man was its creator) to express the realities of man’s sin and God’s grace: "God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. The meaning of neither the sin nor the love could have been expressed in the meager terms of mere rational discourse. Indeed, is it conceivable that we shall ever discover an expression of the love of God more nearly adequate than the ancient story of God’s sacrifice of his Son for our redemption, or that the enormity of man’s sin will ever be more vividly disclosed than in the nailing of that Son of God to a cross? If God does actually love such men as we are, the meaning of that love lies far beyond the power of ordinary terms to convey, and the Christian story, which does succeed in conveying that meaning, is therefore in the truest possible sense true.

But does God in fact so love the world? On what ground was the early Christian community so triumphantly sure that he does? That ground lay in its experience of Jesus. In Jesus they had been actually confronted with the disclosure of the ineffable love of God, which is the basis and the meaning of the story. The Christian story thus has a connection with history of the most intimate and necessary kind, and undoubtedly the secret of its power lies in the fact of that connection. There have been other great salvation myths: the first century was crowded with them. The Christian story survived partly because of its inherent superiority, but principally because it had a connection with actual history which the other myths did not have.

That connection might be superficially described by the statement that the story used history, that is, it absorbed the historical career of Jesus as its central element. The chief action of the story does not take place in some other world or (what is the same thing) in some remote and legendary past; it takes place in this world at a particular, comparatively recent time. The action, to be sure, had been prepared for in heaven, just as the next and consummating action was even then being prepared for there; but it had actually occurred on this earth in events which hundreds of living men witnessed and remembered. It was in Palestine at a particular moment in history that God had met the prince of the powers of darkness and all his cohorts and after desperate, unspeakably costly battle, defeated them. It was there and then that God sacrificed himself for our redemption and opened to men the possibility of reconciliation, life and peace.

But there is another way of stating the connection between story and history which is vastly more important and more profoundly true. The Christian interpretation of Christ did not merely use history; It grew inevitably out of history and is therefore itself of the very stuff of history. It developed within the Christian community as a phase of the community’s response to the man Christ Jesus. The beginnings of that interpretation belong to Jesus’ own period, or at the latest, to the days just after his death. The first believers found themselves calling him Messiah, and at once the story in every essential was already in existence. Later they, or their successors, laid under tribute all the resources of Oriental mysticism and Greek thought. But early and late, the effort, conscious or unconscious, was to represent as adequately as possible the meaning which the life of Jesus had actually held for those who knew him. The depth and quality of the love of God which had in fact made itself known in him demanded the story for its expression. The story was not deliberately invented to support a view of Jesus; it grew out of the fact of Jesus as surely as the church did. Indeed the community and the story cannot at any point be separated.

May I give an illustration? We have seen that for Paul one of the principal meanings of the humanity of Jesus is that it represents the self-humiliation of God. We should make a great mistake if we supposed that this view of the significance of Jesus’ earthly life had no connection with what Paul knew of that life. The connection is close, intimate and continuous. What Paul does is to enlarge to the scale of cosmic action a quality of character of which he was vividly aware in the remembered Jesus. It was what Paul knew of the love of God as actually manifested in the human Jesus which led him inevitably to see in the humanity of Jesus itself the sublimest conceivable manifestation of that same love. The result is not a distortion of the historical fact; on the contrary, it is an immeasurably more adequate representation of the concrete reality than any ordinary descriptive statement could be.

Not everyone will acknowledge this connection between theology and fact, between story and history. One distinguished scholar, for example, says of the Philippians passage which we have already examined: "It is more than probable that one who had so far to seek for an example of self-sacrificial love had no precise information regarding the circumstances of the historical life of Jesus which lay much nearer at hand." And another scholar writes in connection with the same paragraph in Philippians: "How much more simply did Jesus teach his disciples the lessons of humility by his example on earth without any mythological background."

But such judgments show lack of imagination. No story Jesus ever told approaches in power the story of which he was the hero: the story of the Son of God who in order to redeem man became a man himself, accepting in every part our human lot, the weakness of flesh, the trial of sin, the bitterness of loneliness, frustration, despair and death. But to say that is not to deny the closest connection between this story and the historical life. The story is an integral part of the history. It was the life of Jesus as realized in the community of his followers which led inevitably to the creation of the story -- as inevitably as it led to the creation of the church. Indeed, just as God created the church, so he created the story. For the plain fact is that God had actually revealed to those who had known Jesus a reality which no bare record of his words or life could convey. The story of the suffering Son of God caught up into itself and transfigured every remembered word and event of the earthly life and in so doing conveyed, not less but more truly, the value and meaning which they had actually possessed for those who first witnessed them.

The acts of the earthly Jesus, for all their remembered beauty, were recognized as but the casual and partial manifestations of a love which only one supreme act had been able fully to express: He who had shared the nature and the name of God had for man’s sake denied himself in a sense in which only God could: he had emptied himself, becoming a common man, and as a man had suffered both life and death, even the death of the cross. . . .

With that story the early Christians entered and conquered the first century world. It is impossible to exaggerate its moving power or to exhaust its implications. The inexpressible tenderness of God; the infinite depths in man, both of good and evil; the beauty and tragedy of human life; its incalculable significance; the promise of its ultimate redemption (but at how great a price!) -- all of this and more is there.

As much is there, in fact, as Jesus himself had actually meant to those who knew him, and no more -- indeed far less. For men had in very truth found God in him. When he had said, "Thy sins are forgiven thee," the sinner had known he was in fact forgiven and that the hold of his enemy had been broken. And men and women whose lives had been empty and meaningless became, in his presence, suddenly aware of the beauty of God, and what had been a form of death became life everlasting. The Christian story is nothing else than an effort to represent the meaning of a salvation which had actually been bestowed and received in the fellowship men had with Jesus.

No reader of the New Testament can escape the impression that within the primitive Christian community, whose life the documents reflect, an event of incalculable magnitude had occurred, an event of such magnitude that those who witnessed it could confidently believe that it was nothing less than God’s supreme disclosure of himself to men. The center of this event was the character and career of the man Christ Jesus. In him God had acted to redeem those who would receive him, and in the community which had been formed about him, and of which he was still the living center, that redemption was offered to all mankind.

This was the faith of the early church, a faith which could be expressed only in the terms of sacrament and story. But the sacrament and story are as true as the faith, and the faith rests firmly upon what men had actually found in Jesus, and find there still.

For the light of the knowledge of the glory of God was in his face.