Jesus, not some Christ-principle

An interviewer once suggested to Barth that he followed a christo-centric principle in his theology.  Barth was not impressed.  He insisted that he had no interest in a christo-centric principle.  He was interested in Christ Himself. 

Whether Barth always achieved that is another matter (who does?).  But at least he identified the danger with which all theologians (i.e. all Christians) must reckon.  Is Jesus Himself our Lord, or have we tamed the Lion of Judah making Him serve our real theological agenda?

Let me play devil’s advocate and describe four popular ways you can turn Jesus into a mechanism to serve some abstract theological concern.  (Please do add others in the comments).

1) A general ethic of inclusion

2) A general doctrine of universalism

3) A general object of devotion

4) A general concept of grace

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1) A general ethic of inclusion

You know the kind of thing – “Jesus identified with the outsider, the persecuted, the marginalised.  He opposed the religious and those who would condemn or exclude.”  Take the aforementioned generality, apply it to your cause celebre and, presto, one all-purpose inclusion ethic.  NB: Best not to pry too closely into Jesus’ particular ethical pronouncements nor the Scriptures He claimed could not be broken.

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2) A general doctrine of universalism

Here, as with the other examples, it is vitally important to think of Jesus in abstraction.  Again, do not pry into the actual teaching of Christ, especially His words concerning judgement, but think only of Christ as Cosmic Reconciler.  Now that you’ve turned Him into a principle, theologize away on the inevitability of universal salvation.  After all the universal Creator has taken universal flesh and wrought a universal victory.  Keep it in universal terms, in the abstract.  Don’t get too close to the Person of Jesus – it’s the principle of reconciliation you want. 

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3) A general object of devotion

Take a prolix puritan, set them to work on some devotional writing, give them Song of Songs as their text and wait for the treacle to flow.  Delight in the mystical union.  Let the particularity of the One to Whom we are united be swallowed up in the general enjoyment of that union. 

Or take a modern worship leader strumming tenderly, synth strings in the background, congregation swaying.  Wait for the effusions of ardour – mountains climbed, oceans swum to be near to… Who?  Jesus of Nazareth?  Or some ideal Love?  Is this praise to Jesus?  Or praise to praise?  What’s missing?  Very often the actual Jesus is missing.  This is key.  Make sure that you abstract Jesus from His words and works.  Do not think in concrete terms.  In fact it’s best not to think.  Simply imagine Him as ‘The Highest Object of Our Hearts’ and just enjoy the gush. 

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4) A general concept of grace

This one’s very seductive, I’m always falling for it so I know whereof I speak.  Define yourself as ‘a believer in grace’.  Define the gospel in terms of this abstract principle – grace.  Speak of the love of God.  Even speak of the sin of man.  But only speak of the Jesus who reconciles the two as a handy instrument – an instrument of Grace.  That’s the main thing – Jesus fits into this grace paradigm.  That’s why we love Him. 

When anyone asks what Christianity is – tell them: ‘It’s not works!  People think it’s works, but it’s not!’  And when they say ‘Ok, alright, calm down.  Tell me what it is,‘ don’t tell them it’s Jesus.  And definitely don’t introduce them to the walking, talking actual Jesus.  That’ll only distract them from your excellent grace-not-works diagrams.  Major on the whole grace-not-works principle.  And if they ever want to receive this principle into their own lives (after all your diagrams make a lot of sense) tell them to accept ‘grace’ as a free gift and they’re in.  They may well struggle to understand what receiving a concept actually looks like or whether they’ve done it properly (or at all).  They may well question whether their intellectual assent to your diagram really has decisive eternal significance.  But whatever you do, don’t point them to the Person of Jesus.  Grace is the thing.   

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In all of these examples Jesus is called on to serve a pre-existing theological programme.  He may be treated with the utmost respect.  He may be considered the very chief Witness or the Exemplar par excellence.  But He is at your service, not you at His.

Beware fitting Jesus into your pet theological programme.  We do it all the time but He resists all efforts to turn Him into a principle.  The Truth is a Person and will not be abstracted.

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Posted on by Glen in ethics, grace, theological method

About Glen

I'm a preacher in Eastbourne, married to Emma.

14 Responses to Jesus, not some Christ-principle

  1. Dave K

    Phew, is there anyone who is not guilty of this one? Very challenging and something I need to be reminded of again and again.

    Thanks Glen, yet another brilliant post.

  2. Missy

    Glen, I don’t tend to do this, at least not for any length of time. However, when I am in a situation to share about Jesus I can get hyper aware of my hearers’ preferred program and teach to it. Do you think that is wrong?

  3. glenscriv

    Dave,
    we all do it. We’re like Joshua asking the Commander of the LORD’s host whether He’s on *our* side or the other side. He always says no. And we always have to realign to Him not He to us.

    Missy,
    excellent question. I struggle with that one all the time. Why don’t I post on it and we’ll see if others have wisdom too?

  4. Missy

    Yes, that would be helpful. Thanks, Glen!

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  6. Pete Bowman

    I was thinking through this on the train this morning, and listening to Mike Reeves on Augustine’s response to Pelagius.

    To focus on grace rather than Jesus is a similar approach to Jesus as in Pelagianism – that we use Jesus to get grace, and therefore we abuse him because we’re not interested in him for his own sake, but for what we can get out of him – grace.

    Should we avoid popular phrases like “we come to the cross for forgiveness of our sins”? Isn’t that the same issue expressed another way? Shouldn’t we say “we come to Jesus, who died on the cross, for forgiveness of our sins”? The former seems much more focused on the mechanism of our salvation, whereas the latter is interested in the person in whom we find salvation. Although obviously the latter is often meant when saying the former, we need to avoid being lazy about such vital things!

  7. glenscriv

    Totally agree Pete.

    Col 1:13-14

    The Father has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

    We have forgiveness (which is redemption) in the beloved Son. Therefore we call people to Him (not to it). You can always tell a sermon that falls into these problems by listening to the call to respond. Is it ‘Come to Jesus, receive Christ, accept Him, etc.’ Or is it ‘Believe the gospel (which has just been abstractly defined as your forgiveness mechanism), accept **that Jesus died for you**, receive it, etc’

    My recent comment to Dev is similar. We can sometimes preach law-gospel such that the good thing about Jesus is He gets us off the hook of the law’s curse. Now that’s true. And I think people who trust Him for this are truly saved. But there’s something very troubling about it all.

  8. chris

    This is a really penetrating post. Thanks very much. As an apologist, this is a really hard line to tread. It’s the hard line of what Newbigin called “the scandal of particularity”, of incarnation, somewhere between syncretism and fideism. How can we take the various stories and themes of common grace and connect them to Jesus?

    I’m probably way too late on this, but I’d be interested on your thoughts on the concept of “forgiveness of sins”, or “end of exile” that NT Wright, for one, is often proclaiming, as a universal age that has been brought in by Jesus and carried through the church.

  9. glenscriv

    Hi Chris,

    Welcome to the blog (did you find me through Dave K?)

    I’m a bit of a Barthian when it comes to apologetics so I may end up frustrating you on this one, but it’s very interesting that you raise it. Missy (above in the comments) raised the issue of apologetics which I tried to address here:

    http://christthetruth.net/2008/09/01/the-truth-that-is-in-jesus/

    And then gave a worked example from a wedding sermon here:

    http://christthetruth.net/2008/09/03/love-is-the-greatest-thing-or-is-it/

    Soon after that I posted on the Large Hadron Collider – a kind of apologetic type piece.

    http://christthetruth.net/2008/09/04/faith-seeking-understanding/

    That might give you a flavour for where I’m coming from.

    You’ll have to educate me though about NT Wright and the connection between ‘end of exile’ and apologetics. Is it the claim that Jesus has brought the world into some kind of sphere of grace – a court of the Gentiles in which the kingdom is more readily visible? Just guessing here.

    If that’s anywhere near the ball park of what’s being claimed, I guess I’d raise Ephesians 2:12 – through the church, yes Israel is going global. Yet outside the church, people remain foreigners to the covenant, without hope and without God. I’m not sure that the international nature of the church helps bridge the insider-outsider divide – the insiders can be any ethnicity yes, but the outsiders remain just as much outsiders.

    That’s probably a million miles from the Wright point so I’ll stop there and throw it back to you. Love to hear your thoughts.

    Glen

  10. Andras Nagy

    The Historical Jesus

    “I tell you the truth. The person that believes in me will do the same things I have done. Yes! He will do even greater things than I have done. “John 14:12

    It is speculated that Jesus (the historical figure) had lived about 100 years before the Biblical one. This is why there are no only little traces of him in texts other than the disciples etc) Biblical scholars are befuddled even today that Apollonius and Pythagoras had so many more outside references of him, than Jesus.
    So, the whole biblical story of the crucifixion is perhaps a metaphor of the ascension and Christ principle.
    The real rabbi, Joshua that the Talmud has actual references was a sorcerer and was killed (probably stoned to death.
    It is very likely that historical, Talmud figure, Joshua and the Christ principle was bound together in the Bible as we know it.
    However, if the historical Jesus had lived and crucified in the Biblical manner or stoned to death according to the Jewish law, he most likely he had done something of murderous in his past life to deserve this fate. Remember there is murder and there is spectator to murder both equally wrong.

    Whether Jesus died on the cross, as the Bible says or was the Bible story a metaphor is not that relevant in my view. The principle of ascension and Jesus teaching; that all men can do (and even do greater things) is what matters. There is no need for the clergy, and definitely no need to give money to televangelists.

    My take on this and it is based on my intuition rather than historical facts. That Jesus actually lived albeit ~100 years prior to the biblical Jesus (as Madame Blavatsky suggested) and he was born sometime around the spring as a Pisces teacher. His identity as the Christos, the Christ principle is more important than the actual man.
    Apollonius was a contemporary of Jesus and more of a historical figure than the mystical Jesus. His existence was also the proof that anyone can achieve the Christ level just by rising up to it and follow the examples already shown.

  11. Glen

    Hi Andras,

    Welcome to the blog. You seem a very thoughtful person. I’m glad to have your comment.

    You use a lot of words like ‘speculation’, ‘intuition’, ‘suggestion.’ I really hope you are not trusting to your own intuition in these matters. It is just too important an issue to speculate on.

    Jesus did not come to show us some truths which we might have worked out another way. He did not come to give us a good model to imitate.

    Jesus came into history as the Christ. The New Testament begins by tracing His genealogy. (Matthew 1:1-17) Jesus was indeed an historical figure – and the bible has four separate biographies of Him. That’s twice the number of witnesses which an Old Testament court required for a true testimony. You have everything you need in the bible to come to a true knowledge of Jesus Christ. You certainly don’t need to speculate. Madame Blavatsky’s ‘suggestions’ are nothing compared to the bible.

    These gospels present Jesus *not* as a teacher of some higher truth. Jesus Himself, the flesh and blood Son of David – *He* is the truth. He doesn’t come to save us from ignorance so much as to save us from our sins (Matthew 1:21)

    And He does this by sharing in our human situation. He – the Son of God – becomes our Brother. He is made like us in every way except without sin. Then on the cross He takes our sin and curse on Himself in order to reconcile us to the Father.

    Andras, you and I need saving from our *sins* – not simply our ignorance. And therefore you and I need the One and Only God-Man – Jesus Christ. He is our salvation. Not our minds, not our intuition, not any ability to imitate the Christ principle. We need Christ Himself to save us.

    Why not look at my latest post on Matthew 1:

    http://christthetruth.net/2009/12/01/if-you-could-choose-your-family-would-you-choose-yours/

    There’s a sermon there you might like to listen to.

    Glen

    PS: Please, please don’t send any money to televangelists!! :)

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  14. Claudette

    Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular post! It’s the little changes that will make the most important changes.
    Many thanks for sharing!

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