Who Is the Christ: 1999 Brown Lecture Series | First Presbyterian Church Dallas, TX
Who Is the Christ?
The scholarly and theological literature about this question is enormous – not hundreds, but thousands of paper and books speak to it.
The first person to ask the question was Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus said to the disciples: “Who do the people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27) Even John the Baptizer asked from his prison cell, “Are you He who is to come or shall we look for another?” Who is he: non-historical myth? The greatest of teachers? Prophet? Messiah/Savior? King of Kings? Great man? Hero? Fool?
The importance of the question
First, what is meant by the word Christian? Two different items are essential to anyone calling himself a Christian: (1) you must believe in God and immortality; then (2) you must have some kind of belief about Christ – at the lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men.
You have to answer the question. His claims (about himself) will not allow otherwise.
Our very life is defined by how we answer. The negative critics say Christ is in question and humanity is the answer. People of faith say humanity is in question and Christ is the answer.
A brief history of Christology
Christian theology was not delivered all wrapped up in a complete, consistent package. Jesus lived only a little more than 30 years and wrote nothing down. The church began with only the oral remembrances of the eyewitnesses. Even the canonical scriptures did not give a finished theology, a uniform Christology.
What we have are clear clues to what Jesus thought of himself. He made astonishing claims like: “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:28); “No one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6); “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
It took 451 years for the church to come to its formal answer to the question of “who is the Christ?” And what it said was: He is the Son of God, consubstantial with God and consubstantial with humans. He at once reveals the essence of the mystery of God – he reveals Being itself – and in his incarnate life and human death he is the Savior of the world, making possible reconciliation of humans with God their creator.
Negative views of Jesus as the Christ
For 1,800 years Christianity took for granted that the Gospel portrayal of Jesus was a literally factual account of Jesus’ lifetime. This changed with the 18th century “Enlightenment” movement that exalted human reason and empirical scientific investigation. What followed was an approach called “the quest for the historical Jesus” which concluded that the gospel stories had been so embellished by the faith of the church that the picture of Jesus was not historical, but fundamentally myth.
The latest manifestation of the historical questioners is the Jesus Seminar, consisting of less than 100 scholars who vote on decisions about what the historical Jesus authentically said. They concluded that only 20 percent of the sayings are authentic or might be authentic.
A counterview to the negative historical critics
Reynolds Price, in his book Three Gospels, comments “The effort to recover the historical Jesus is at once legitimate and laughable. Its fallacy is that it presumes it can know from many centuries away more about the life of Jesus than the gospel writers and early theologians of the church.”
A modern Christian can accept solid scholarship and recognize that past phrasings of faith may be time conditioned. This does not require an assumption that the historical critics are correct or that the gospel sources are suspect. Rather, one may assume that God guided the unfolding of salvific history in Jesus Christ from the oral traditions based on the accounts of eye witnesses through the early sources to the final canonical New Testament. This means that the unseen hand of divine revelation raised up writers and editors who produced a document that is a reliable and valid foundation for faith. One accepts that it has inconsistencies, contradictions, and errors that are revealed by scholarship, but that the final record may reliably be called the Word of God.
How does one then believe in Jesus the Christ?
Even with intact faith it is a constant challenge how to explain and share the Good News of Christ to a world that doesn’t believe. For ourselves and for others, the first thing we have to acknowledge is that it is a very strange story.
Three critical steps to belief:
First, it rarely happens seriously in the absence of an awareness of emptiness, guilt and
despair about the pain and evil in the world. It requires a longing for a better world for
self and others.
Second, one must listen to valid and reliable witnesses in history and in the present
time. Study of the scripture is necessary.
The third step in wanting to believe in Christ and follow Him is to live the life He
taught. It is to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love neighbor as
self. It is, then, to practice an agape life in an imitation of Christ whether one yet
believes or not. There is an old saying that one becomes what one beholds.
Which brings me to the answer to the initial question from the lips of Jesus. To the question who do you say that I am? Peter answered: “Thou art the Christ, the son of the Living God.” Whereupon Jesus said: “Blessed are you Simon bar Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” In the end it is an affirmation from the Holy Spirit speaking to the desperate and hoping and partially believing heart that brings us to the answer.
Who is the Christ?
I join my voice with voices of all the saints: He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.