The Lure of Divine Love: Human Experience and Christian Faith in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger
Chapter 9: The Self-Expressive Activity of God and the Meaning of Jesus Christ
At the heart of Christian faith, Christian worship, and Christian life is the figure of Jesus Christ. He is the Lord whom Christians adore and serve. His person and his teaching provide in some manner the standard for Christian behavior. His Spirit, entering into the lives of those who respond to him, is for the Christian "the power of God for salvation." His is "the name which is above every name." How then are we to interpret him and his significance?
Alfred North Whitehead had some important things to say on this subject. In Adventures of Ideas (Cambridge University Press, 1933, p. 170) he said that "the essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as a revelation of the nature of God and of God’s agency in the world." He went on to say:
The record is fragmentary, inconsistent, and uncertain . . . but there can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature. The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory.
As we shall see, it is exactly in this disclosure in act (as Whitehead put it in the same passage) of that which others -- and for Whitehead chiefly Plato, but we can add many more names -- have discerned In theory, that the distinctiveness of Christianity lies. The event in history which is indicated when we say "Jesus Christ" has about it an importance that for Christians is supreme and decisive.
Earlier we noted that "importance" has a significant place in process thought. In a universe that is made up not of things but of events or occasions, each of these has integral to it some value in that it is indicative (to greater or less degree) of how things actually go in that world. Every interpretation of the meaning of human experience, every understanding of the world in its totality, must by necessity start from some particular stance -- or, better, must find some particular point that is taken to be of special importance among all the events or occasions; it provides a clue to the totality of experience. But it does more: it makes possible new occasions for future creative advance, since it is in terms of that which is taken as important that decision and action in the direction of fulfillment of aim, or realization of possibility, will occur. This is generally true. Our own experience demonstrates that some moment, a particular occurrence (falling in love, getting one’s first job, choosing one’s vocation, in social matters a special incident in, say, national history like the granting of the Magna Carta in England or the American Revolution for the United States) assumes a decisive role in subsequent events. This point matters; in itself it makes an enormous impact on those affected by it. It has results; because of it, things happen which otherwise would not have happened.
Now it is the declaration of Christian faith that the important event in history, so far as men and women are concerned, is the appearance in the world of Jesus of Nazareth. He is not the only important fact, to be sure, for other facts have had their significance for those in differing cultures and with different cultural backgrounds. But for millions Jesus has been, and increasingly becomes for other millions, just that important event, even if they are not in any sense avowed Christians. The fact of Jesus Christ is a fact that is central to the interpretation of the human, and hence also of the cosmic, enterprise, for all occurrences in the human realm have their significance for the wider cosmic setting in which they take place, for good or for ill.
Whitehead said that Jesus is the "revelation in act" of that which Plato and others as well have "discerned" or "divined in theory." What is there revealed is that persuasion not compulsion, love not force, is at the heart of the creative process of the universe. It is this which gives Jesus his central place and role, and it is from this centrality, or particular "importance," in our understanding and in our living, that the evaluation of Jesus himself, his significance in the total scheme of things, his continuing impact on successive generations of men and women, takes its rise.
But in the first instance the evaluation of Jesus was made by his companions and friends. He was taken by them to be a great teacher, the last of the prophets, perhaps even the fulfillment of Israel’s hope that God would send a final word to humanity in one known as the Messiah. As Whitehead put it, Christ gave his life; it has been for Christians, first in those earliest days and then in the years following his presence among humankind, to "discern the doctrine" -- to discover his significance and to relate him, so far as can be done, to the totality of human experience and to the world in which that experience is had. This is not the place to attempt a full historical sketch of the development of that doctrine. Suffice it to say that it reached its culmination, so far as scriptural witness is concerned, in the affirmation that in Christ the Word (the self-expressive creative Activity which is divine in nature) "became flesh and dwelt among us," while in formal theological statement the climax was the declaration that in him there is a genuine union of divine Activity ("true God") and human activity like our own ("true human being").
Here we have two stories about Jesus made into a unity by the act of Christian faith. As is the case throughout our experience, there is a human story, a naturalistic story if you will. There is a man who was born, lived, taught, suffered, and died. But there is also a divine story, as there can be for every other aspect of human history and human experience. This is the story of what God is up to in that historic, human event. It is an interpretation, certainly, in that it goes beyond the sheer given of the facts as recorded for us in the partial and fragmentary Gospel narratives. But it is an interpretation whose purpose is to make sense of, and give sense to, the facts as they are recorded. It is more, too. It is an interpretation that is intended to make sense of and give sense to the persisting fact that Jesus is not only a figure of the past but in some profoundly real way a present factor in the experience of the human race. Whatever may have been the actual course of events, historically speaking, which the New Testament means to signify when it speaks of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is at least clear that it was the conviction of the New Testament writers, building on the testimony of the disciples after the crucifixion of Jesus -- as it has been the continuing conviction of millions of Christian people since that time -- that far from Jesus’ being "put out of the way" by his death at the hands of the Roman authorities in Palestine, he was "let loose into the world." Those phrases are taken from John Masefield’s play The Trial of Jesus, and they are by no means accidental phrases. In other words, consideration of the significance of Jesus must include reference to what was intended by the narratives, and behind them by the experience, of what is there styled "the resurrection."
Any evaluation of the significance of Jesus must be given in terms appropriate to the general world view of those who seek to make it. The truth that the evaluation contains may indeed be constant, but the ways in which it is to be understood must vary from age to age. And when we have such an overturning of world view as has taken place in the past several hundred years, older formulations will no longer serve the purpose they once did. For example, talk of coming down from heaven may have been appropriate in a world that conceived the divine habitations as almost literally "above"; it will also be appropriate as a useful metaphorical way of describing the presence among us of that which (again in a symbolic sense) is higher than human experience as such. But we need other and more contemporary ways of stating the truth if the abiding meaning is to be brought home to thoughtful persons of our own time. The language of religion is always highly metaphorical -- we might also say mythological, imaginative, poetical -- and it cannot be taken as if it were a literal story or something similar to straightforward human discourse. Thus, to insist on the uniqueness or specialty of Jesus is one thing, and basic to Christian faith, but to present the meaning of such specialty in our own age requires an idiom different from that which was useful for another age.
It is with such problems that we concern ourselves in this chapter. And it is to such problems that we must necessarily address ourselves when we seek a new conception of the doctrine of Christ today. The following pages represent one attempt to do this, and, as indicated earlier, they are written from the point of view of a supporter of process thought as the most adequate conceptuality available for us today.
There are four affirmations about Jesus Christ that historically have been stressed in Christian faith: (1) Jesus is truly human, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, living a human life under the same human conditions any one of us faces -- thus Christology, statement of the significance of Jesus, must start "from below," as many contemporary theologians are insisting; (2) Jesus is that one in whom God energizes in a supreme degree, with a decisive intensity; in traditional language he has been styled "the Incarnate Word of God"; (3) for our sake, to secure human wholeness of life as it moves onward toward fulfillment, Jesus not only lived among us but also was crucified for us -- this is the point of talk about atonement wrought in and by him; (4) death was not the end for him, so it is not as if he never existed at all; in some way he triumphed over death, or was given victory over it, so that now and forever he is a reality in the life of God and effective among humankind. In what follows I shall speak of each of these affirmations and their meaning for Christians today, putting them in the setting provided by the process conception of the divine Activity in the world.
1. Jesus lived among us as a true human being. Integral to the Christian understanding of Jesus is that he was genuinely human, living among us as one of us. As it was for the first disciples, so it must be for us; we start with what we can know about Jesus in the reality of his humanity, although we cannot stop there if we allow ourselves to be grasped by the energizing of God that took place in him.
It was perhaps inevitable that the overwhelming experience of God’s working made available to men and women in the event of Jesus Christ would lead to a less vigorous insistence on his human personhood. Just such a failure has marked a good deal of Christian history and theology. Yet this failure to stress to the full the reality of that humanity, in all its royal splendor and with all its necessary limitations, has led to an impoverishment of Christianity in age after age. It is indeed only within the last hundred years or so that the thinking of Christians has been able to give full value to that humanity, although the church officially has always resisted theologians who have denied it. We might even say that the Spirit who in mysterious ways seems to guide the Christian fellowship has in our own time (and in the few decades before that time) led us into a fuller apprehension of this truth, as it has "taken of the things of Christ and declared them unto us."
Yet we face a problem here. The Gospels are not biographies, such as we possess for many other historical personages; neither do they give us a consistent and completely accurate record of what occurred. Whitehead remarked that "the record is fragmentary, inconsistent, and uncertain"; and every contemporary New Testament scholar would agree with this judgment. What we have in all the Gospels is a "remembrance" of Jesus; but that remembrance is recounted in terms of what he had already become as Lord for those who told the story. This does not imply that there has been willful fabrication in the record, but it does make it necessary for the reader to allow for the ways in which the felt significance of any series of happenings will inevitably be seen and reported. There was a time when, in the early days of New Testament study, it was assumed that by the use of critical method "the quest for the historical Jesus" would be rewarded by a portrayal of that historical figure exactly as he was. That time is now long past, and even the "new quest," as it is called, makes no such claims -- its claims are that there is a continuity between the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels and the ways in which decision is today and always required of those who recognize his own "decisive" quality, which (they believe) can be recovered by us.
With this caveat, and along with it the honest admission that the material in the Gospels is not the kind that permits us (after the fashion of earlier "liberal" Protestantism) to pay Jesus what we might style moral compliments -- as if he is indubitably known as in every sense, both in teaching and in behavior, to be ideally perfect -- we can go on to consider his humanity, insofar as it can be recovered from the impressions of him found in the New Testament. What matters here is that the total witness found in the Gospels, as well as in the epistles of Paul, John, and others, is to an activity of God in human existence and through a human activity, through which "newness of life" has been known; God has been seen as sheer Love-in-action, and human existence has been given meaning and value as a potential agency for divine Love in the world and in human affairs.
Jesus lived as a man. He cannot properly be described simply as "Man," as if there were some ideal humanity he shared without sharing also in the personalization of humanity true of each of us. He was a human being. He lived at a given place, at a given time; he shared the presuppositions, the knowledge, and the cultural milieu proper to such a person. He was a Jew of the first century of our era.
This means, of course, that he was not omniscient any more than he was omnipresent. His knowledge, proper to someone of his time and place and doubtless with that "plus" which attaches to all genius, was the knowledge of a Jew of his age, as were his ways of thinking and teaching. There was much that he did not know, as he himself is reported to have said. What he did know in the realm of human knowledge was after the pattern of his own time and place. If he believed, as it seems he did, in disease as caused by supernatural beings called demons, that does not mean we also must believe this. If he read the signs of the times in the eschatological symbolism of his own day, that does not mean that we must so interpret them. His scientific knowledge was not ours. We need not hesitate to say that in these matters he was mistaken. In his physical condition, of course, he was fully a human being. His body and his mind were human; the church was wise enough to condemn as a heresy the Docetic notion that his body was not really human and the Apollinarian view that his human mind was supplanted by the divine Word. It is in the integrity of a full humanity, and in every range of it, that God’s action is to be found -- God energizes in this man, in his total and genuine personhood, not in some special part of that personhood or by replacing with deity some particular area of human nature.
What is ultimately significant about Jesus is what God did in him and through him. His human life, as we shall see, was an adequate instrument, thoroughly personalized, for God’s eternal Word or Self-Expression. The Gospels give us a picture of one who wore our humanity as a royal garment; they show one who was obedient to what he took to be the will, purpose, or intention of God for him. They portray him as in all things responding to the will of his heavenly parent, his existence filled to the brim -- and overflowing -- with the positive, creative goodness that is God in action. They speak of him as a human person, as a human being is meant to be; we may put this by saying that in Jesus the image of God is supremely emergent and active in genuine manhood.
We cannot demonstrate from the Gospels that at every point and in every moment there was just this response of Jesus as person to God’s activity toward him and in him. Such a statement is part of the interpretation of his human existence. It is a way of understanding how there could be in Jesus the union of God’s activity and the activity of a human being -- in traditional language, how the Incarnation (as the church came to call this union) could take place and how in fact it did take place. But there is nothing in the Gospels to contradict that interpretation, even if it is impossible to make it a matter of clear demonstration.
When approached in this fashion, the stories that the earliest Christians told about Jesus and that were later written down have a much richer meaning than when taken in a literalistic fashion. They are intent on showing that here, in Jesus, the Love which is God is decisively at work -- healing, helping, strengthening, giving life, and above all bringing into existence a community whose characteristic marks are to be faith, hope, and love. It has been said by Dr. F.C. Burkitt that Jesus was the true Prometheus who brought the divine fire to men and women. But this was done by God in our own human terms, under our own conditions, and through one of ourselves. Any theology that so widens the gulf between Jesus and other human beings as to suggest that he is an alien intruder into our human situation is to be rejected, not only because it is heretical but more importantly because it makes nonsense of the Gospel record and denies the dignity and reality of that life once lived among us. Yet we can say with the Theologica Germanica what a person’s right arm is to that person, Jesus was to God, as "the strong Son of God" whom for twenty centuries humankind has declared him to have been.
The extraordinary thing is that while at times we may think that we can sit in judgment upon Jesus, all the while it is really he who judges us. The portrayal of him in the Gospels has made him the world’s conscience; as John Stuart Mill, who was no Christian believer, once dared to say, no better test for human living can be found than so to act that Jesus would approve. In our changing circumstances, we are not called to make a copycat imitation of his life in Palestine; that would be impossible for us. But the Spirit that was in him and worked through him has been released into the world, and that Spirit continues as our inspiration and our judgment. So the historical Jesus becomes the living Christ, but he becomes this without ceasing to be the Man of Nazareth, of whom it was said that his "food" was to do God’s will and who was seen, in the fullness of his human life, as the act that showed us God’s own picture of what human existence really is and what it is meant to be.
Thus, although divinity is not identical with deity even in Jesus, we may seek God in him, not apart from and in contradiction to his human life but in and under the very conditions of that human life. Or, to put it better, we are to be open to God’s grasping of us in and through that human life, with that which was accomplished by God in its concreteness. We may prepare for our next section, then, by affirming that, for Christian faith, by the prevenient Action of God a human life was taken and made into the instrument for the gracious divine operation; in more traditional idiom, the eternal Word, Self-Expression of very God, was clothed with a true humanity, crowning the rest of God’s work in and for God’s human children. This is the true meaning of the oft-stated conviction that Jesus was not only a human being, although he most certainly was that, but also representative Human Being. The notion of an impersonal personhood, sometimes taught by Anglican divines as a way of putting this truth, is nonsensical and impossible, as well as nonscriptural. But the truth remains that in this person, one among his brothers and sisters, we really see ourselves as we are being created to become, ourselves as by the empowering influence exerted through Jesus we may indeed come to be.
2. Incarnate Word of God. The title of this section is the way the Christian church has traditionally asserted that Jesus is that One in whom God energizes in a supreme degree, with a decisive intensity, to bring about newness of life for humanity. The Christian fellowship has never been content to speak of Jesus Christ in terms that minimize the reality of God’s act in him. In all the theologies of the church, as well as in the experience of Christian people -- which is the source of these theologies -- Jesus has been seen as in some sense one with the God who is creative power, enduring love, and sovereign ruler. Often the statement has been "Jesus is divine," a phrase that risks confusing Godhead and human personhood, which even in Jesus Christ (as the church has also affirmed) are distinct from each other however intimately united they may be. In our discussion we shall avoid this kind of language.
This conviction that in Jesus there is a decisive action of God in the world has commonly been expressed in Christian history by the term incarnation. At best this is a symbolic way of speaking, and to understand it we must look at the whole God-world relationship. Only in the context of that relationship can we see Jesus as the Lord in whom "very God" does indeed energize in and through "very man." In an earlier chapter this wider relationship was mentioned; here we pursue the matter in more detail.
I have urged that the divine reality we call God is nowhere absent from the creation but works and moves in it all and through it all; it is "informed" by God, without whom it would not be what it is. In this sense God is the ground of all creation. Yet the divine life is not exhausted or used up by this presence and operation in the created order. God is transcendent, perhaps not unlike the way we say that a person transcends and is not exhausted in various actions. To describe this double truth, Christian thinkers, employing terms that have both Jewish and Greek backgrounds, began to speak of the Wisdom and the Word of God "by whom all things were made," which is indeed divine but is not "all" there is of God. Such a conception finds its noblest statement in the first few verses of the Fourth Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . All things were made through [God], and without [God] was not anything made that was made."
Yet the Fourth Gospel does not stop there. It must go on, because the Christian experience of the fact of Christ, and the fact of the Christian experience of Christ, point to a more profound truth. The knowledge and love of Christ had made it clear to the Christian fellowship that the same Word "by whom all things were made" is also the "light that enlightens" every person in the world and above all is the Word who so energized in and shone through the human life of Jesus their Lord that believers could only speak of him as that One in whom "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was described, then, as the "Incarnate Word of God," "full of grace and truth" -- full of divine loving-kindness and power, full of the reality of God.
This was not a deifying of Jesus the Man of Nazareth, like that which took place in pagan cults, in which a hero was exalted more and more to the position of a god. On the contrary, it was reached by a continual deepening in the experience of the significance of Jesus’ action, in the light of that which he increasingly came to mean to those who committed themselves to him. He was never a god; he was always regarded as the manifestation in act of the one and only God. But so intimate, so decisive, so supreme had been that manifestation, and so all-embracing was the wholeness of life brought by his impact upon them, that in their conviction he came to be linked with God in a unity which was more intense than if he had only "showed" God without sharing in what he showed. Later this insight of Christian faith led to the application of such phrases as "God-Man" to Jesus Christ; unfortunate as language like that may have been, contradictory as it is to our ways of thinking, its intention is plain enough: true humanity and true Godhead are somehow brought together in the historical event wrought out in Jesus.
Once one has given up as incredible and impossible (save for mythological purposes) the Greek idea of a god who comes down to earth and walks about as a human being, there are two possibilities open for the interpretation of Jesus Christ. One is that human nature is nothing other than potential divinity, which realizes its potentiality in this person. If in Jesus we have perfect human nature, then by definition Jesus is also divine. That possibility seems to be ruled out for the theist, whose view of the relation between God and creation has been molded by the general biblical understanding of things. For Scripture -- and I think for common sense -- God and creation are not, and cannot become, identical. The world is in God, God is in the world. It is penetrated by God who works through it and can lure it to serve God’s purposes, but God and the world are never the same reality, not even in human nature at its highest. The other possibility -- and the one I believe makes much more sense and is more in accord with the biblical witness -- is that in Jesus the energizing and indwelling activity of God in human creation reaches a climactic stage. To say this presupposes that in all men and women there is some working of deity, varying in degree and intensity, while those in whom there is a greater fullness of response to the divine working become more adequately the personal instruments for God. And that movement and activity can very well be clinched, so to speak, in Jesus, who would thus be (in von Hügel’s words) "the implied goal and center" of all God-human mutuality and interrelationship. Therefore, what God did in Jesus would be an act of singular intensity with real speciality, but still in human terms and under human conditions. Response on the human side would be shown by increasing moral and spiritual discernment, obedience to the divine will, and dedication to the divine intention; but God would remain God and the personhood would remain entirely human. Human potentiality is not toward becoming divine, but toward so responding to the divine initiative that the Self-Expressive Activity of God would have what Athanasius styled an organon -- a personal instrument open to employment by God but with full human freedom retained -- adequate for the divine purpose. This would indeed be incarnation in a climactic sense.
It cannot be proven that this occurred in Jesus. As I said, to speak in such a way is part of our interpretation, by way of suggesting how God and humanity can effectively be brought together in an enduring unity of act. But although it cannot be demonstrated from the Gospel material, it may be believed; and belief in this instance would be supported by the response we ourselves make to what Jesus does for us by quickening in us the self same working of the Word in our own lives and by the deepening response we may then be enabled to make to that Word. In some such fashion we can come to understand the Christian conviction that through Jesus Christ God is decisively present and at work, "representing" (in Schubert Ogden’s admirable word) the possibility present in human nature as such, establishing a reconciliation of human existence with God’s intention for it, and revealing the divine nature in human terms and with a singular intensity.
In the developing Christian apprehension of the meaning of Jesus Christ, responsible and careful thinkers have never claimed that he is absolutely God, yet it has consistently been asserted that he is the one in whom God so energized -- or "dwelt," in the Johannine phrase -- as to make it right to call him the Incarnate Word of God. We today may prefer other ways of getting at the point, and that is our privilege. But if it is such we must remember always that our Christian ancestors were using what for them was the best available wording to express their, and our, deepest conviction when we are true to the continuing witness of experience of life in Christ.
Those ancient thinkers worked with the concept of the Logos, as we have seen. The Logos, or Word, was the expressive mode of the divine reality. The patristic age believed that in the mystery of Godhead this Word is always indwelling (endiathetos), eternally the movement of God from and in the divine self. In the creation of the world, they thought, the Word is outward-moving, the agent by whom all creation is effected (prophorikos). In every human life made in the image of God, however defaced by sin that image may be, the Word is present and active as the ground and linking of humanity with God (spermatikos). In Jesus Christ, in whom God’s image emerges in grace and truth on the level of human existence, as such existence makes full response to God’s prior initiating activity, the Word is "enmanned" (enanthropesas).
This, in brief, is what patristic Christology affirmed. In The Word Incarnate (Harper and Row, and Nisbet, 1959) I sought to give an account of this development and make sense out of it, but in a contemporary process idiom; and in Christology Reconsidered (SCM, 1970) I worked it over with a more extended and consistent use of that process conceptuality. I mention these two books simply because a reader may be interested in a further and more adequate discussion by the same author along the same lines.
Much official theology seems to have gone wrong, first, in confining the incarnating action of God to Jesus alone, so that he appears to enter the world as a catastrophic intrusion, as someone has put it, unrelated to the rest of the God-world and God-humankind relationship; and second, in speaking of Jesus in "substance" idiom, thus suggesting a static deity who in some fashion is implanted in, takes the place of, or is incomprehensibly united with another static "substance" called human. In a world which is dynamic through and through, however, we cannot speak of static substances but must talk of events or acts or happenings. Hence divine Action and human responsive action make more sense to us. This makes it possible, and right, to agree with Basil Willey, who once remarked that the human life of Jesus was so one with God, in will and intentionality, that in him the life of God was lived in a human being, by a human being, and for humanity. For us he is "adequate," as a modern saint has said. He provides us with a clue to the nature of God disclosed in the divine activity; he gives us a clue to our own humanity in its proper functioning; and he re-presents the right relationship between those two. The image of God is in Jesus emergent in full humanity. He is no outlandish anomaly but rather the classic instance of divine Activity in human expression.
This Christian conviction neither depends on nor demands belief in what is often called the virgin birth. Humanly speaking, we may believe, Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary. The stories told in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke are apologetic, or christological, in intent, and they cannot be taken as historical narratives. Insistence on a biological virgin birth has been a mistake, though an understandable one. But the results have been unfortunate in that they have suggested a low view of the sexual act, minimized the genuineness of Jesus’ humanity, and entailed a distorted picture of the meaning of incarnation itself. The creedal phrases "conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary," are properly understood as a way of affirming the speciality of Jesus, not as a way of making his conception unnatural. The special pleadings of some theologians on this point, along with talk about the virgin birth as necessary because in Jesus the Word came into the world and not out of it, are convicted of absurdity on the face of it. The latter statement, especially, is really based on a deistic view of an absentee God who must "come into" a world which on any Christian, biblical, and theistic view God can never have left. Surely we should talk in terms of intensity of divine Activity and fullness of human response, not in terms of "above" and "below," "in" and "out," "entrance," and the like -- these are mythological terms, and for our own day they are outworn rather than significantly evocative mythological terms.
Much the same may be said concerning the miracle stories in the Gospels. The point of these stories is not that they are veridical reports of what happened in Palestine in the first century; we can never hope to have any such "newspaper reportage" of the life, deeds, or even teaching of Jesus. Their importance lies in their relating to us the astounding impact upon men and women of Jesus’ life and what he accomplished. Thus these stories have an implicit theological value in their testimony to the conviction of those who were Jesus’ companions and of those who through the earliest preaching came to believe in him, that "no [person] ever spoke like this man," no person ever did the things this man did. We can neither rationalize the miracle stories in order to make them more credible nor accept them as if they were literal and scientific truth. But we can read them and use them as witness to the reality of the divine Activity in and through Christ, stated in terms and through stories that belong to a world of historical and scientific thought different from the world in which we live.
The great positive truth with which the Christian fellowship has insistently been concerned -- and hence its central assertion or "gospel" -- is that in Jesus Christ God has "visited and redeemed" creation. Even that is phrased in a poetic and symbolic way, but its point is clear. (Not that this Jesus is incarnate simply as a remedy for sin; we shall discuss this aspect of the matter in the following section.) Above all, what God has "determined, dared, and done" (to use Christopher Smart’s grand words in The Song of David) in Jesus is to crown all previous incarnating and revelatory activity for the human race, thus re-presenting what God is always up to vis-à-vis humanity. Yet it is also the case, as the next section will seek to show, that to men and women who need a Lord whom they can adore, a "Pattern" (as Kierkegaard put it) they can follow, and a Savior who will bring them wholeness of life when they know and acknowledge their selfishness and sin, Christ is God’s supreme Deed for us and for our salvation.
3. He was crucified "for our sake." The Christian affirmation that Jesus was crucified "for our sake" is often stated by the use of the word atonement, a word that will serve if we remember that etymologically it means "at-one-ment." Through the event we name when we say "Jesus Christ," and supremely through what happened on the cross on Calvary with all this implies, human existence is made "at one" with God.
Before we can begin to make sense of this kind of talk, however, we need to recognize that the human situation as we know it and share in it is marked by alienation and estrangement. Later, in our discussion of human nature, we shall have more to say about this. At this point it is sufficient to say that for the moment we recognize that we are not what we might be, that human existence is in defection from its proper fulfillment, and that we are in need of the wholeness of life which will put us on the right path and enable us to become more and more what God intends for us to be.
Unfortunately, many of the theologies that have sought to describe the process of at-one-ment have been so complicated -- sometimes so sub-Christian -- in their assumptions that they have obscured rather than helped to explicate the truth of the matter. Indeed, the truth of the matter can never be fully explained, for like all personal relationships in their depth and in their strange yet wonderful capacity to enrich our living -- of human life with God’s life, of men and women with each other -- there is a mystery here which we must accept with "natural piety" but which we can never hope to explicate with utter clarity. If I can never adequately state the significance of my relationships with those whom I love in this world, or give a neat description of how I can overcome the alienation and estrangement of myself from another, or describe with any fullness what it means to be accepted by another and loved in spite of my deficiencies and my self-centeredness, I can never state in other than symbolic idiom the opening of further human possibilities with the overcoming of human deficiencies in my relationship with God -- a relationship that has been broken by my willfulness and sin.
Yet I can have intimations of what it is all about. And here it is possible to use (if this is done with care and understanding) what is said in the older theologies, as symbols of truths which must be safeguarded. They are certainly not exhaustive accounts of what "at-one-ment" means and how it is accomplished, but they do point to aspects that are significant. And they represent ways in which, under given conditions and in given circumstances, men and women have felt that they were "saved" from what dragged them down and damaged their lives, and that they were being drawn as they responded in commitment of self to the action of God in Jesus Christ. The various theories of atonement can be subsumed under two general heads: first, what God in Jesus does toward humanity; and second, what Jesus in his full humanity does toward God. As there is in Jesus divine Action and human response, so in the making of men and women to be at one with God and with their neighbors, there is action humanward and response Godward.
In the totality of Jesus’ human life, obedient to the will of God even to the point of death, there is the enactment, on the stage of history and in the circumstances of human existence, of the right relationship of that existence with God. We are meant to be obedient children, but in fact we are children of disobedience. The old legend of the Garden of Eden portrays the way we seek to fulfill our own desires and in so doing deny our true nature. De te fabula: the story is the story of each one of us, exiled by false self-seeking from the garden of human obedience and hence from human happiness into the strange land where we seek only our own way and hence lose our intended happiness. But Jesus does what we should do but do not do: he lives in obedience to God. If we are joined with Jesus in a fellowship of surrendering love we too may be enabled to do through him what we are meant to do. The wonderful truth is that through such surrendering love, through willingness to unite ourselves with him, we are indeed joined with Christ and in him we can give ourselves in obedience to God.
But we can do this only because God has first sought us out. And that is the first point of "at-one-ment." Jesus is that one in whom God acts focally toward us, in loving revelation and manifestation, calling forth our response. When, in obedience to what he believed to be God’s unmistakable will, Jesus went to the cross and died there so that God’s sovereign rule might be visibly established (in New Testament language, that the kingdom of God might come), he demonstrated the love of God for humanity. Hence he became the sacrament of God’s love; in him the Action of God, which is the love of God, was decisively at work. Here is the Godhumanward side of the total reality, just as obedient surrender to God is the human-Godward side.
The interpretation of the atonement which makes most sense to me is a combination of Abelard’s position, of God’s exhibiting in act unfailing love for humanity, with what might be styled an ontological grounding, in the very structure and dynamic of the cosmos, for what was done in Christ. Abelard’s position has been seriously misinterpreted, spoken of as "merely exemplarist." The fact is that Abelard was trying to say, with his own passionate awareness of what love can mean in human experience, that in Jesus, God gave us not so much an example of what we should be like but -- and this is the big point in his teaching -- a vivid and compelling demonstration in a concrete event in history that God does love humanity and will go to any lengths to win from them their glad and committed response. When this is combined with what I have called an "ontological" grounding -- that such love in concrete act is precisely what God always is and how God always acts -- we have a picture that is so overwhelmingly real, so profoundly effectual, that it makes things different. Or, better, it enables us to see that things are different from what we had thought to be the case; hence we are drawn to respond with a heart’s surrender in answering love. This is no mere subjective view. It is objective, because it stresses what God does; and the subjective side is only our answer, perhaps our feeble answer, to that doing.
There have been many other theories of atonement, each picking out what a given generation took to be the worst possible human situation and going on to affirm that in the action of God in Jesus, God met us precisely at that point: slavery to demonic powers, from which we have been delivered; actual slavery to human masters, with manumission accomplished in Christ; guilt for wrongdoing, with Christ as the advocate who pleads for, and secures, our release; corruptibility and mortal death, met in Christ with healing and eternal life. . . . And so it goes, even including the medieval idea that no human penance can give God the honor due but that in Christ this has been provided and so men and women are released from their wrongdoing. None of these views should be taken as anything but a way in which the deeply felt experience of forgiveness and at-one-ment with God is known; they are "sociologically conditioned," as it would be phrased today. But they do point to an abiding reality known by those who have become able, thanks to God’s working in Christ, to find freedom from a damaging past and to live toward an en-graced future.
On the cross, where Love went to the limit of death, we are shown for what we are in our sin -- unloving, self-willed, in contrast to that Love. Our defects, our weakness, our failures to follow and to attain what we know to be right -- all are now recognized for what they are: not harmless peccadilloes, but thoughts and words and deeds that tend to kill God who is active within us. We are sinners, which is to say, "we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and left undone those things which we ought to have done." We have broken the intended relationship which is ours with God. That does not mean, and should not ever be taken to mean, that we are utterly depraved in the sense that we are nothing more than a mass of corruption. Never is the image of God, toward which we are moving and which is the light of the Logos spermatikos in us ("the light that enlightens" every person, as John puts it) utterly and totally destroyed. The image is there, however terribly dimmed; the light is still in us, however feebly it is allowed to shine. We are estranged from the God who nonetheless never leaves us. It is in us, in our ways and our works, that the estrangement exists, not in God, who is deeper in us than our own selves, as Augustine, in a happier mood, rightly said in his Confessions.
But health is not in us, as we seek the lower levels of our own will and way; health or wholeness, the full well-being of our existence as God’s children, is in God; it always was and always will be in God, who is the fountain of life and light and love. What we need is to be set on the path to that health. And this we find in Jesus: "Thou of life the fountain art, / Freely let me take of thee." So Wesley put it. And so every man or woman who has turned to Jesus has discovered. Through the act of God in the event of Jesus Christ, the fountain of life is opened and given to God’s children to drink. So when we are turned from our wrong self-will to God manifest in the love wrought out in Christ, we are reconciled, made "at one" with God, made "at one" with our neighbors, made "at one" with ourselves. The split in our inner person is healed; we are made whole.
Not that this takes place instantaneously. It takes time. Once we are ready to accept the fact that we are accepted although we know very well that we are unacceptable, the process has begun. Paul Tillich took delight in stating it in that fashion, and he was surely right in doing so. Once we turn to God we are on our way home. But it is likely to be a long way, and we must be patient. To change the image, the "old Adam" (Our wrong self-will and our wrong self-seeking) takes a long time to die, even though the "new Adam" (the self that we see in Christ and would fain be) is at work in us and grows ever stronger as we look to God and commit ourselves to God and the divine healing work. The worship, prayer, and life of the Christian fellowship have their meaning here. They provide, as it were, the training school, the proving ground, the home in which this conversion, or continuing in our turning to God self-manifest because active in Christ, may be accomplished by God in us.
But why then the cross? We do not know, but at least we can see that it is by love poured out in death that the secret self-giving of God is made plain. Over the centuries Christians have seized on the cross as their central symbol, not by accident but because Christian insight has understood that it is in the one who loved us and gave himself for us that the truth about God and humankind is spoken; and that this loving and giving were consummated on Calvary. The alchemy by which evil is made into good, hatred becomes love, wrong is overcome by right is there demonstrated. The heart of God as compassionate co-sufferer with humanity is there disclosed as nowhere else.
Yet the cross is not the end, for life is stronger than death, love is the conqueror of hate, and God is the vanquisher of the evil imaginations of sinful men and women. So we come to the resurrection, Christ’s conquest of death and his life received into God and therefore made available to humankind for evermore.
4. He rose from the dead. Throughout the New Testament rings the conviction that Jesus is no dead Master but the living Lord. He did indeed die, but he is "alive for evermore." The New Testament as a whole vibrates with the confidence that Jesus, who had been crucified just outside Jerusalem, was not destroyed by death but was still alive, with a fullness and intensity greater even than in the days of his flesh. He could not be held by death, the first Christians declared; in some fashion he had risen from the dead -- and his kingdom will be forevermore.
What gave rise to this conviction? How can we today understand and accept it? To these two questions we must now turn.
First, it is plain that the empty tomb was not the originating factor since careful critical study of the material found at the end of all four Gospels makes it clear that the stories about the empty tomb are more in the category of Christian apologetic -- however honestly believed and taught at the time when the Gospels were compiled from earlier oral tradition -- than in that of historical reporting. Some biblical scholars, like Dr. John A.T. Robinson, would disagree at this point; they are certain that the empty-tomb material belongs to the earliest strata of tradition. But the majority of such scholars would probably emphasize what are usually styled the resurrection appearances.
For this we must turn to 1 Corinthians 15, which is probably considerably earlier than any of the Gospels in their written form. In that chapter Paul gives an account of how Christ appeared to, or was seen by (the Greek word may be translated either way), first Peter, then the Twelve, and so on, until "last of all" he was "seen by," or "appeared to," Paul himself. Just what these appearances involved presents a problem. Certainly they seem to have been "veridical visions," as Dr. E.G. Selwyn phrased it years ago in a well-known essay in Essays, Catholic and Critical, not hallucinations or mere imagining in a fanciful sense. Whatever may have been the psychological process -- and about this we can only speculate -- the fact remains that these visions were inextricably associated with the earliest conviction that the Jesus who had died, who had been buried, who had seemed to be put out of the way had proved that he had conquered death, or, as the New Testament puts it, had been raised by God from death.
There have been many attempts to work out the details of the events that led to belief in the resurrection of Christ, even to reconcile the patently irreconcilable details of the stories about the empty tomb. The results are not very convincing. The material is so much in the category of imaginative discourse and so little in the category of strict or "scientific" history that this exercise seems futile. Yet something does remain: the unquestionable fact that the earliest stories testify to the disciples’ firm certainty that God had vindicated Jesus’ obedience unto death, that Jesus was therefore alive, and that they were in contact with him, not only as one whom they remembered but as one whose reality they could and did now experience.
We can say with complete confidence that this certainty turned discipleship to Jesus from a belief held by a small Jewish sect into faith in a living Lord who was with God and also with God’s people here on earth. Such a conviction could not have sprung from mere hallucination or sheer illusion. In some fashion God assured the earliest believers that this Jesus who had been crucified by Jewish and Roman connivance was indeed both Lord and Christ. He had been vindicated in his obedience to what he took to be God’s will; the love that had marked his earthly life could not be destroyed but was now secure forever in the divine life -- and he was known to his people as a present reality.
But how can we today understand and accept this? That is our second question. Here our process conceptuality can assist us. It will be recalled that this conceptuality insists that there is a mutuality between God and the world such that each influences and affects the other. Not only is the created order open to the divine action but the supreme reality we call God is also open to receive the action taken in the created world. Things that happen there have their effect upon God as God adapts the divine self to and employs that which occurs in the world. God remains always faithful to the divine nature and mode of activity, is always Love-in-action. Yet God’s manner of relating the divine self to creation can be adjusted to what God has received from it; and God responds in appropriate ways to what has gone on there. Thus we may suggest that the total event of Jesus Christ, reaching its climax on the cross, is a matter not of the dead past but of the living past in the divine life. And in God’s continuing relationship with humanity, that living past plays its central role in God’s dealing with men and women. God is alive, and Christ is alive in God, in whatever mode or manner is appropriate to God’s way of remembering and treasuring the achievements wrought out in creation and among men and women in their concrete existence.
Furthermore, this truth was communicated to the first believers by visions, or in some other fashion, so that they have a surety about it proper for their time and place. Thus the contemporary Christian is in one sense dependent upon and shares in the primitive Christian conviction. In another sense the Christian of today can also confirm that conviction in personal experience as a member of the Body of Christ, the Christian fellowship. This can happen because such discipleship brings newness of life here and now. As Jesus died, so the Christian dies to sin; as Jesus was raised from death, so the Christian rises to newness of life in Christ, letting the victorious love which was in Christ and which was released through him into the world, take possession of his or her existence.
Thus the resurrection of Christ is not merely an event in a past that is now over and done with but also a continuing event, first of all in God and then in people who have surrendered or committed themselves to Christ. The "resurrection life" is the life of those who are with Christ in their here-and-now existence. And those who live in Christ have what the Johannine writer called "eternal life" with him. The same writer has Jesus say, "This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent."