by Young Oon Kim
The Person And Work Of Jesus
Christology deals with the significance of the person and the work of Jesus. Hence, it has two parts. First, it explains who Jesus was. Second, it relates what he did for mankind. Interpretations of Jesus' real nature and authority began when he was hailed by Peter as the Messiah and reached a climax in the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas of the ecumenical councils of Nicea (325 A. D.) and Chalcedon (451 A. D.). Almost as important yet never so officially promulgated are various doctrines about the atoning and justifying effects of Jesus' ministry. According to the conventional view, Jesus Christ is both God and Savior.
This traditional Christology is still professed by most Eastern Orthodox, conservative Roman Catholics and Protestant evangelicals. In their opinion, God the Father intervened in history in a new and definitive way in order to re-establish communion with sinful men. God sent His Son, clothed in our flesh, to fashion mankind into a community of brotherly love. What then was Christ's mission? His work was two-fold: to snatch men from Satan by liberating them from the sinful realm of darkness and to reconcile the world to God.
In the beginning God had created everything through Christ. God also appointed Christ heir of all things, so that in His Son God might restore the whole creation. God therefore sent Jesus into the world as the mediator between Himself and fallen men. Since Christ is God, say the traditionalists, the divine fullness dwells in him. However, because he also possesses a human nature, he is the new Adam, the head of a renewed mankind. Thus the Son of God became incarnate in order to make men sharers in the divine nature. He came among men as a lowly servant, giving his life as ransom for the sins of all mankind. 1
Since 1900 every aspect of such traditional Christology has been questioned bymodernlogians and Biblical critics. Although there has never been complete uniformity in the various denominations about the person and work of Christ, these differences of opinion recently have become more widely known. One should therefore recognize that logians and Biblical critics. Although there has never been complete uniformity in the various denominations about the person and work of Christ, these differences of opinion recently have become more widely known. One should therefore recognize that modern Christianity contains a variety of views no one of which really dominates the theological scene. Perhaps as never before, Christology exists in a very fluid state. Laymen and clergy alike seek better answers to the age-old question Jesus asked, "But whom do ye say that I am?"
First, let us consider a few of the very influential Christologies of the 20th century. Since Karl Barth's influence was so impressive from the end of World War I to the close of World War II, his Christology will be described first. 2 Barth insists that Jesus is the Victor over sin and death. Reconciliation of man to God has already taken place. Because of the sacrificial life and death of Jesus Christ, God has effectively, totally and objectively restored mankind to Himself. This conversion of man to God effected by Jesus Christ came wholly from without. Men had nothing to do with it. Through Christ, God once-for-all liberated and redeemed man. Thus the living Jesus Christ is the circle enclosing all men and every man in divine judgment and grace.
But if reconciliation has already happened, what is man's role? Man had no role in God's act of reconciliation. Barth asserts that God acted on His own. God has already spread the table for all men and invites us to the banquet that He has prepared. All that men have to do is recognize the fact and sit down at the feast. Reconciliation then is not really dependent upon a change of attitude on our part or our having faith or living righteously. God on His own initiative has already changed the human situation. Christ has already died for all men so that they are free of guilt, sin and death.
Since Christ represents mankind and his atoning act is for everybody, Barth denies the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination. God has predestined no one to eternal damnation. To think otherwise is to limit God's freedom by making His actions dependent upon men's behavior. However, Barth also opposes the usual doctrine of universal salvation. God does not have to save all mankind, for that too would restrict His free will. Nevertheless, Barth tends toward universal salvation, because he insists that God's love goes out to all men and that divine grace will overcome all obstacles. As he puts it, the stream of God's grace is too strong and the dam we construct to hold it back is too weak to expect anything but the collapse of the dam and the onrush of the mighty waters. 3
If Christ has already reconciled God and man, how does one explain present evils? For Barth evil has no positive ontological status. Evil is merely chaos or Nothingness (das Nichtige). In Jesus Christ, evil has been overcome and destroyed by the positive will of God's overflowing glory. God has rendered evil powerless in the light of the cross. We may think evil exists, but that is an illusion which deceives men whose eyes are not yet open to Christ's triumph. When one has faith he sees that God in Christ has routed all evil.
For Barth, the one thing which has to be done has already been wholly accomplished in Christ. What Christians therefore should do is simply announce this fact. Nothing else is needed, as Christ is already victorious. Men are simply invited to see what has occurred and be grateful for God's victorious love.
Reinhold Niebuhr's Christology grows out of his general theology of "prophetic realism * " Jesus Christ reveals how God is related to history. Both Jews and Christians believe that history has direction and purpose. Messianism represents an affirmation of history's goal. When men expect the advent of the Christ, they look forward to the eschatological end when history's meaning will be fully revealed and life's 4 hopes will be fulfilled.
However, Jesus transformed the ordinary messianic faith. The Old Testament concept of the Messiah contains three elements:
1) an egoistic belief in the future triumph of the Hebrew nation;
2) faith in a universal victory of the good over evil forces in history; and
3) a supra-ethical prophetic understanding of history. The Hebrew prophets like Amos and Deutero-Isaiah went far beyond the ordinary nationalistic and racist form of messianism. The glory and blessing of the messianic age would not be for Jews only. Nevertheless, these prophets generally expected that God's kingdom would combine earthly power with goodness. At the same time the Hebrew prophets were aware that all nations rebel against God, and history is in defiance of the divine law. How then can God judge history for its sins and yet also redeem it?
Jesus rejected Hebrew legalism and messianic nationalism. Then he profoundly reiterated the meaning of history by stating that the Messiah must suffer. By combining the Messiah idea with the Suffering Servant idea, Jesus gave such an astounding view of history that he was rejected. His contemporaries expected the Messiah to triumph over evil and solve all of the painful contradictions of life between the ideal and the real. Jesus denied that hope.
When the Messiah comes into history he must suffer. Pure love must always be suffering love, because man's life is always subject to contingency, necessity, pride and corruption. History inevitably contradicts our ideals, as we see from Christ's death on the cross.
Niebuhr was keenly aware of the ambiguities and ironies of history. Whenever men say they have realized the ideal, they are either lying or boasting. Every civilization has within it the seeds of its own destruction. In history men are always sinners because there is no way to avoid self-centeredness and pride. It is impossible to actualize a utopia.
Neibuhr's prophetic realism can be seen in his explanation of the eschatological hope. The Gospels say that the kingdom is present and yet to come. How is the kingdom present? Biblical faith recognizes the worth of this world. It does not ask us to escape from history. So, in this sense, God's reign is here already to some extent. At the same time, the kingdom remains in the future. History can never be perfect. Because of finitude and sin, we cannot realize the ideal.
What then does the apocalyptic End-time mean? For Niebuhr, the consummation of history lies beyond the temporal process. There will never be a messianic millennium in history. Christians affirm the ultimate sovereignty of God and the final supremacy of love, but they do not deceive themselves by thinking that these can take place within finite, temporal conditions.
Emil Brunner's doctrine of Christ represents a typically modern expression of Reformation theology. 6 For him, faith in Christ is the center of Christianity, the foundation for all other doctrines. Like other theologians of crisis, Brunner criticized the liberal Protestant portrait of Jesus. Liberalism is inadequate because it thinks of Jesus as merely a great teacher or religious genius. This notion ignores the basic New Testament claim that Jesus is the Christ, a unique person and not simply 7 one of a number of outstanding religious personalities in history.
Brunner also rejects Fundamentalism. Fundamentalists believe Jesus is the Son of God because that is what the Scriptures say. In other words, they derive their faith in Christ from the authority of the Bible. This means that they implicitly substitute faith in Scripture for personal faith in Jesus. In effect, theirs is a religion of the Book rather than trust in Christ. Fundamentalists elevate the Bible to a position higher than that of Jesus.
Like Calvin, Brunner deals first with the saving work of Christ, then with his person. 8 The messiahship of Jesus should be understood functionally. If Jesus was truly the Christ, it is because of what he did rather than who he was. The New Testament titles for Jesus describe the work God does through him for the benefit of mankind. He is Christ because he leads men out of the present age by ushering in God's rule upon the earth. He is Son of God not metaphysically but because God hands His authority over to Jesus. Similarly, he is Lord because he has been given the right to rule over the church. All of the New Testament titles are functional instead of "substantive" (ontological).
As Calvin pointed out, Jesus was the Messiah which means that he holds the three-fold office of prophet, priest and king. Christ was a prophet because of his teachings. All of his teachings presuppose Jesus' messianic authority. For example, he could correct or abrogate the revealed Law of Moses since as the Messiah his authority surpasses that of the Torah. Jesus' message is not doctrinal, however. Jesus proclaims two things: a new demand for righteousness and the gift of the coming kingdom of God. This illustrates his prophetic function.
Although technically Jesus was a layman, he carried out a priestly role. As priest, Jesus atones for man's sins. The Fourth Gospel describes him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29), and the Epistle to the Hebrews calls him our high priest (3:1-2). But according to Brunner, the atoning work of Christ was not limited to his death on the cross. Jesus' entire life was an act of priestly expiation and reconciliation. His whole life reveals the merciful God who stretches out His arms to His lost creation. Jesus actively fulfilled the Law because of his generous love-love which saves.
The traditional doctrine of the atonement interprets the redemptive effects of the crucifixion. According to Brunner, the cross reveals first the unconditional love of God. He loves us in spite of our sin and our rebellious nature. So God willingly takes man's guilt upon Himself. Secondly, the cross reveals that God is righteous as well as loving. Man ought to be executed as a criminal for his sins but Christ suffers in our place. Jesus voluntarily dies on our behalf, a ransom for the sins of many. Thirdly, the cross discloses our actual situation, our need for justification. We need to be saved, so God restores man to his original position in the purpose of creation. As Brunner maintains, there are objective as well as subjective aspects to the atonement. Subjectively, the cross has a profound effect upon men. Objectively, it has an effect upon God, actually changing His relationship to us.
Besides being prophet and priest, Jesus the Messiah has a kingly office. Jesus proclaims the coming kingdom. He conquers the forces hostile to God. Henceforth, Christ rules through love and the free obedience of those who trust him. However, Christ is only potentially the divine ruler over all men. His true dominion will not be fully established until the end of history.
Having looked at Brunner's understanding of Christ's work, we can now evaluate Christ's person. Brunner begins with the human Jesus. By meeting the man we can come to knowledge of God. Jesus shared our common humanity. He was as creative as we are. He was subject to all the natural laws of growth. He suffered ordinary human limitations. For example, Jesus was tempted, even though the New Testament nowhere shows him succumbing to temptation. His knowledge was limited. He could not predict the future: for example, the date of the arrival of the coming kingdom. 9
Yet Jesus was not simply a man like ourselves. His life was wholly one with God's will. He personified divine love. Sin played no part in his life. Most importantly, he was unique because he claimed messianic authority. Brunner denies the virgin birth of Jesus. This idea was not part of the original Christian keryma. Hence, he calls it "a foreign body" within the New Testament.'
Jesus is the God-Man:
1) because he truly reveals God;
2) because he reconciles us to God; and
3) because he makes us trustful servants of God. For these reasons God was in Christ. According to Brunner, if Jesus be the Revealer in his person, then he must be God. So Jesus is the One in whom God meets us-personally, not impersonally.
Brunner denies the physical resurrection and bodily ascension of Jesus. 10 These dogmas are not an essential part of the Easter faith in Jesus as the risen Lord. What mattered most to the original disciples was not the empty tomb but their meeting with the resurrected Jesus as a spiritual reality. For Brunner, the resurrection of the body means the continuation of the individual personality after death. When Christians speak of Christ's exaltation, they are using the language of parable, meaning that Christ is appointed by God to exercise dominion over humanity.
Brunner condemns the "two natures" theory of Nicea and Chalcedon for being too abstract. All speculation about how the incarnation came to be or how the historical Jesus is "True Man, True God ' " is fruitless. When we try to explain philosophically how Jesus Christ is both God and man, we end up in the logical contradictions of Nestorianism or Monophysitism. The unity of Jesus' person is a mystery beyond intellectual formulation. Thus, Brunner affirms the "unthinkable, unimaginable miracle of the incarnation, 11 a supernatural event to be accepted on faith alone.
1 Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity, II Vatican Council, 1: 3. For Eastern Orthodox and Protestant statements, see Metropolitan Philaret's Longer Catechism (129-237) and Heidelberg Catechism (29-52) in Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (1877), 2 volumes.
2 Cf. Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus is Victor, Karl Barth's Doctrine of Salvation (1976), pp. 32-71.
3 K. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV, 3, first half (1961) pp. 555-556.
4 R. Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. 11 (1964), pp. 287-298.
5 Ibid., pp. 44-45.
6 E. Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (1952), pp. 239-378. For perceptive evaluations of Brunner's Christology, see essays by Tetsutaro Ariga and E. A. Dowey in Kegley and Bretall, eds., The Theology of Emil Brunner (1962).
7 E. Brunner, The Mediator (1947), pp. 72-101. For his later comments on Bultmann and the consistent eschatologists, see Christian Doctrine of the Creation and Redemption, pp. 260-270.
8 Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, pp. 271-307.
9 Ibid., pp. 322-324.
10 Ibid., pp. 352-356; cf. Brunner, The Mediator, pp. 322-327.
11 Ibid., pp. 371-378.
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