Saturday, November 28, 2009

Christ and Christianity: studies in the formation of Christology

Chapter 5:
The Incarnation in Historical Perspective
Reginald H. Horace, Robert Kahl

Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Modern Christian theologians, not least among them Albert Mollegen, have wrestled painfully with this question. Of course, there are many who think the ques¬tion was settled once for all at Chalcedon, including those clerics who have rushed into print to condemn "Molle" of heresy.1 All he had done was to insist that you cannot say "Jesus is God" except in a carefully nuanced way and with judicious qualifications. As a bald statement, it can lead one all too easily into docetism, Apollinarianism, or Eutychianism. And when one tries carefully to provide the necessary nuances and qualifications, it is quite inappropriate to level accusations of adoptionism or Nestorianism.

Systematic Christology operates with three major sets of data: the witness of the New Testament writers, the formulations of Nicea and Chalcedon, and the intellectual and cultural situation of the present day. Like all human existence, these three sets of data are historically conditioned, and to understand them we must set them in their historical situation. And, so far as the New Testament and the Christology of the councils are concerned, their findings have then to be translated into another, namely, contemporary, situation. This means among other things that just as the Nicean and Chalcedonian definitions cannot be dumped down as they are for our uncritical acceptance (though as catholic Christians, Episcopalians would certainly accept what those definitions meant), so, too, they cannot be used as the presuppositions for the exegesis of the New Testament. For example, we cannot understand the history of Jesus of Nazareth if we start out with the assumption that Jesus is God and man or the God-man. We may certainly want to affirm that at the end, when we have done our exegesis, as a confession of faith. But that is another matter.

The Prayer of Jesus

Accordingly, we will examine the Christologies of the evangelists from a quite limited perspective. We will start with Jesus of Nazareth as a first-century Jew who prayed. That he did so is the claim of all the evangelists and of nearly every stratum of the gospel tradition.2 It is therefore a historical datum that passes the criterion of multiple attestation.

The gospel traditions and the redaction of the evangelists develop this historical fact of Jesus' prayer in different directions. Mark has Jesus pray in moments of crisis. He prays after the day of successful healings in Capernaum. For the Marcan Jesus this represents a crisis: the continuation of the Capernaum ministry would expose him to the temptation of presenting himself in terms of a theios aner [divine man]. Simon, as the mouthpiece of that Christology,3 tries to call Jesus back but, strengthened by his prayer, Jesus rejects the temptation. Again, Jesus prays after the feeding of the five thousand, a critical moment which again exposed him to a similar temptation. Finally, he prays at Gethsemane, and embraces the cross against all other alternative Christologies.

In the first instance, Luke appears to extend the crisis prayers. Jesus prays at his baptism,4 before the call of the Twelve,5 and during the transfiguration.6 Luke elaborates the Gethsemane prayer, perhaps drawing upon his special tradition.7 The third evangelist, however, has carefully dismantled the polemical thrust in Jesus' prayer as portrayed by Mark.8 Unlike Mark, Luke has no qualms about presenting Jesus as a "divine man". His whole ministry is carried out in the power of the Spirit and—closely connected with the idea of “spirit”—by the dynamis [power] of God. This "power" is drained from him through his miraculous activity.9 Such notions account to Luke's redactional addition of a reference to Jesus' prayer after the healing of the leper,10 and again after the feeding of the multitude. Mark had used Jesus' quest for privacy as part of his messianic secrecy motif. For Luke, the quest for privacy is a means of refreshment and strengthening for ministry. It is through his prayer that the Lucan Jesus operates as the channel of God's presence and action.

The Fourth Gospel has the most developed theology of Jesus' prayer. The major example is in the high priestly prayer of John 17, a more elaborate form of the type of prayer featured in the special Lucan material. But the most important reference to Jesus' prayer is in John 11:41b-42.
At first sight, this seems to say that Jesus had no need to pray at all, but did so only to impress the bystanders, a not very attractive picture, indeed a rather offensive one. Bultmann, however, has given a most helpful interpretation of this passage which deserves far more notice than it has received:

Jesus' prayer therefore is the demonstration of that which he has constantly said about himself, that he is nothing of himself. But does it not, thereby, become a spectacle, a farce? It is obvious that Jesus' words in vv. 41 are not heard by the bystanders; they only see his attitude of prayer, and in this situation they must understand his prayer as one of request. Are they deceived? No, for it is the request of one who stands in perfect unity with the Father. That he stands before God as a petitioner is shown by the fact that the Father's attitude to him is described as akouein (ekousas mou, you have heard me); if he knows that the Father constantly hears (pantote mou akoueis), it is implied that he, the Son, never steps out of the attitude of the petitioner, but continually holds fast to it. For this reason he does not need to be quickened out of a prayerless attitude to make petition by means of a particular act; rather when, in a particular situation, he recalls to consciousness his relation to God as that of one who makes requests, his request must immediately change to thanks. For he who knows himself to be perpetually in the attitude of a petitioner before God cannot do other than recognize himself as a man to whom God perpetually gives gifts. But correspondingly, he cannot know himself as one perpetually heard if he does not know himself as one perpetually asking. The character of this communion with God is clearly delineated by this: He does not need to make petitions like others, who have to rouse themselves out of their attitude of prayerlessness and therefore godlessness; for he continually stands before God as the petitioner and therefore as the receiver.11
On this interpretation Jesus’ vocal prayer is the surfacing of an inner, hidden activity which is going on all the time. It is the continuous traffic between the Father and the Son, between heaven and earth, which Nathanael will see as he witnesses the earthly life of Jesus. For he will see the heavens opened in Jesus' prayer (as they were first opened at the baptism!) and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1.51). It is the ground base, the cantus firmus, of all his words and deeds. It is in this inner, hidden activity that the relation of the Father and the Son is continually actualized. Hence Jesus' overt prayer is a public manifestation of that ongoing relationship. That is why it demonstrates to the bystanders that the Father sent the Son. For the sending of the Son, while inaugurated in Jesus' initial call, has to be constantly renewed in his prayer.

The Fourth Gospel contains many references to the relationship between the Father and the Son. In the light of John 11.41-42 these should be interpreted on the background of the Johannine understanding of Jesus’ prayer.

First, John the Baptist bears testimony to the inner significance of Jesus' baptism: "I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven and it remained upon him" (John 1:32). The evangelist sees no conflict between the initial assertion that the Word became flesh and the later statement that the Spirit descended on Jesus only at his baptism. This suggests that the two events are identical. In the Spirit's descent upon Jesus the Word begins to be enfleshed. But again, this enfleshment is not a once-for-all event. The Spirit inaugurates the Father-Son relationship through which the Son is called to speak the words and do the works of the Father. The Son responds in obedience to this call and is empowered to fulfill this mission. The Spirit "abides" upon11b Jesus. That is to say, the relationship of the Father and the Son is continually actualized again and again in the career of the Son. After this inaugural event, not related but attested by the Baptist, Jesus is introduced on the stage of history by a succession of titles. He is the elect of God (1:14); the Lamb of God (1:36 cf. 29); Rabbi (1:38); Messiah (1:41); Son of God; King of Israel (1.49); Son of man (1.51). All of these titles may be regarded as expositions of the hearing of the baptismal call, for they expound the witness of the Baptist (1.19-34) and the acceptance of that witness by some of the Baptist's followers (1:35-51).

History and Mythology in the Fourth Gospel
The ensuing dialogues and discourses include among other themes an exposition of the Father-Son Christology, and therefore of the relationship which according to chapter 1 was inaugurated in Jesus' initial endowment with the Spirit and which, as we have seen from John 11.41b-42, is constantly renewed in his prayer.

The Father "sent" the Son.12 Much of the "sending" language is clearly susceptible, even in the Fourth Gospel,13 to a historical interpretation, as it is in the synoptic tradition (e.g., Matt 15.24: Luke 4:43). For John the Baptist was also sent from God (John 1:6: cf. 1.38), and after his glorification the Son sends his disciples as the Father had sent him. "From God," "from above" (3:31), and "from heaven" (3:31c) need not by themselves mean more than the source of the Son's historical authorization. This authorization is alluded to in contexts which make it quite clear that its source lies in the historical event of the baptism.

Whether John 3:31-36 is still part of the Baptist's speech or is an appended Johannine meditation, it serves as comment on Jesus' baptism. This discourse identifies the Son's sending with his endowment with the Spirit (3:34) in language derived from the heavenly voice of the baptism. References to the authorization of Jesus are also expressed in language derived from the tradition of the Son of man's enthronement at his exaltation: the Father gave all things into his hands (3.35= cf. 5:22). It is this historical authorization, responded to in obedience, that enables the Son to speak the words (i.e., the Johannine discourses) and to do the works (i.e., the Johannine signs) of the Father. Even the language which speaks of the Father's sending the Son "into the world" (3:17) is open to a historical interpretation, since the disciples themselves are likewise sent into the world after the accomplishment of Jesus' historical mission (John 17:18). The historical nature of the sending and its baptismal connection comes out clearly even in John 6. For the Father's "sealing" of the Son (v. 27) is unquestionably baptismal. This is particularly surprising and significant in the chapter which, as we will see, introduces for the first time an unmistakably mythological Christology.

Like the language of sending, that of the Son's "coming" is patient of a historical interpretation.14 For the Baptist also "comes" (1:7, 31), just as "another" may come in his own name (5.43) as thieves and robbers have come before the Son (John 10.8, 10) and as wolves will come after him (10:12). Even when it says the Son came "from above" and "from heaven," this is capable of referring in the first instance to his historical authorization (3:31).

The language which speaks of the Father's "giving" the Son (John 3:16) is likewise historical. Its roots lie in the early kerygmatic (para)didonai [hand over] formula which spoke of the Son's being delivered up (reverential passive) in the passion (Mark 9:31, etc.; Rom. 4:25). In the Fourth Gospel this (para)didonai is extended to cover Jesus' history in its totality.

Side by side with this historical language there begins to appear at John 3:13 another type of language which is distinctly mythological. We hear there of the "descent" of the Son of man from heaven. But it is in the bread discourse of John 6 that this mythological thought is developed.

First, the Johannine Jesus speaks of the bread that came (comes) down from heaven (6:32-33). Next, he identifies himself with this bread in the first of the seven "I am" savings (6:41, 45). Finally, he drops the identification formula and speaks ostensibly of himself as a mythological being who came down from heaven (6:38, cf. v. 41). This usage is echoed later in the high priestly prayer (17.5). As a result, all the previous historical language becomes ambiguous. Is the apparently historical language to be interpreted mythologically?15 How are the historical and the mythological to be reconciled?

Traditional orthodoxy has unconsciously solved this problem by transposing Johannine mythology into the metaphysical conceptuality of Nicea and Chalcedon and then interpreting the historical language in metaphysical terms. But this fails to do justice to the historical quality of that language and creates an insoluble problem of which it was blithely unaware. For why should the eternal Son need to be endowed with the Spirit at his baptism if he already existed in two natures? Why should he receive a historical authorization, and why should he pray to the Father if that prayer was not ordinary human petition but a prayer which was constitutive of his christological role?

When Bultmann recognized the mythological character of the ascent-descent language and discovered its source in his pre-Christian Gnostic Redeemer Myth, he correctly perceived the problem created by the juxtaposition of the two languages, historical and mythological. The solution he offered was to invoke the pre-Pauline and Pauline Christology of kenosis.16 This answer, however, was unacceptable because the Fourth Gospel presents the incarnation not as a kenosis or krypsis (concealment) of the divine glory but precisely as its manifestation.17 Kasemann rightly saw this but unwittingly fell back on the procedure of traditional orthodoxy, and allowed the historical language once more to be swallowed up by the mythological. Thus he accused the Fourth Gospel of a "naive docetism”.18 The Johannine Christ strode about the earth like a god. He was a heavenly being who briefly touched down on earth, assuming a human guise merely to reveal his glory, and went back to heaven. Luise Schottroff went further and accused the fourth evangelist of an out-and-out Gnostic-docetist Christology.19 Once again these solutions fail to give due weight to the historical language.

How then will we solve the dilemma? It is significant that the mythological language begins with the identification of Jesus with the bread from heaven, the heavenly manna. As Raymond E. Brown has shown,20 this typology is rooted in the wisdom tradition. By identifying himself with the bread from heaven, the Johannine Jesus presents himself as the spokesman and embodiment of the divine wisdom. This is the clue to the descent-ascent saying in which the Johannine Jesus speaks in the first person (John 6:38). The ego here is the ego of the divine wisdom. It is also the clue to such sayings as "before Abraham was, I am" (8:58). One can understand this startling claim if it is a saying of the heavenly wisdom, a pronouncement of the kind one would expect to find on the lips of wisdom in the sapiential literature of the Old Testament and Apocrypha.21 This interpretation is exactly the same as that proposed by M. J. Suggs22 for the Matthean invitation, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me: for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28-30). Jesus' historical humanity is not absorbed by the wisdom mythology. It remains unimpaired. As a man he is called by God to the historical mission of incarnating the wisdom/logos in his word and work. He responds to that call by his continuing prayer. His words and deeds are thus the words and deeds of the Father. When he speaks, he speaks as the Father's wisdom which speaks through him, and when he acts, his deeds are the works of the heavenly wisdom.

This gives a typically Johannine two-level character to all the self predicates of Jesus. In some sayings, the historical sending and coming sayings, the primary ego is that of the historical Jesus. But they acquire a second level in reference to the coming of the wisdom/logos into the world from heaven in and through the sending and coming of the historical Jesus. This explains, for instance, the symbolic interpretation of the footwashing as a parable of the Son's coming from God and returning to him (John 13:3), a saying which speaks both of the mission and crucifixion of Jesus and of the entry of wisdom into the world and her subsequent return to heaven. This two-level meaning further explains such sayings as "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) and "he who has seen me has seen the Father" (14:9). It further explains the six great "I am" sayings which follow upon the initial self identification of Jesus with the bread from heaven (8:12; 10:7, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). The "I am" sayings are properly self-predicates of wisdom, whose spokesman and embodiment, however, is Jesus. They involve a kind of communicatio idiomatum [sharing of attributes]. What is predicable of wisdom is predicable of Jesus and vice versa.

It is significant that the bread discourse forms the crucial turning point in John’s christological interpretation. It is here that the mythological background of Jesus' historical mission comes first to the fore, and the two-level character of all of Jesus' self-predications is exposed. It is here that the first "I am" saying occurs.

Friedrich Gogarten23 correctly perceived the two-level char¬acter of Johannine christology. He observed that there are two events, an event between God and Jesus in history, and an event between the Father and the Son in eternity. These events are one and the same. We would slightly amend Gogarten's formulation, for the Father-Son relationship appears on the historical side. We prefer to say that the historical event of call and response be¬tween the Father and the Son reflects the eternal relationship be¬tween God and his heavenly wisdom. The point of intersection between the two levels is Jesus' baptism and his ongoing prayer.

John’s Gospel and the Patristic Christology
John's two-level Christology is the equivalent in historical terms of the metaphysical doctrine of the two natures. The Nicean doctrine of the deity of the preexistent Son is a translation into metaphysical terms of the Fourth Gospel's mythological proclamation of Jesus as the incarnation of the preexistent divine wisdom. We are entitled to recognize these later creedal affirmations as legitimate attempts to translate the historical and mythological languages of the New Testament into the metaphysical language of the fourth and fifth centuries. What cannot be permitted is the insistence that the metaphysical language must be used as a presupposition for the exegesis of the New Testament. John's Gospel must not be interpreted in the light of the later metaphysics; the later metaphysics must be interpreted in the light of John's Gospel.

There are two remaining difficulties. The Nicene Creed locates the Incarnation at the nativity: "And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary." John's Gospel, as we have seen, regards the incarnation as a historical process inaugurated at Jesus' baptism. "The Word became flesh" is a comment on the whole history which the evangelist is about to relate, beginning with the baptism and running through the signs and discourses which are to follow, and culminating in Jesus' glorification through his passion.24 How does one relate John to Nicea? The second difficulty is, how does one avoid an adoptionist interpretation of Johannine Christology? The second question can be answered without serious difficulty. The Johannine Christology is emphatic that the whole history of Jesus rested on the divine initiative. God called Jesus for his mission at the moment of his baptism. This call was constantly renewed in Jesus' prayer. The second question is more serious, and the answer will depend on an investigation of the infancy narratives and on a relation of their Christology to that of the Fourth Gospel.

1. See Dr. Mollegen's letter to the editor in The Living Church (May 11, 1975) and the subsequent correspondence.

2. References to Jesus' prayer occur in the pre-Marcan tradition (Gethsemane, a christological story compiled from various materials including the Lord's Prayer), Q (the Lord's Prayer—what Jesus taught his disciples he must first have prayed himself), Special Luke (Jesus' intercession for his disciples, Luke 22:32), the pre-Johannine tradition (the "Johannine Gethsemane" John 12.27-28, also modeled on the Lord's prayer). For the connection between Jesus' baptismal call and his use of Abba, see J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology, I (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), 51-56, 67-68.

3. See T. Weeden, Mark: Traditions in Conflict (Philadelphia: Fortress press, 1971), passim. One need not accept Weeden’s thesis in the extreme form in which he stated it. Although mouthpieces of a theios aner Christology during the earthly ministry, the disciples are converted to Marcan orthodoxy at the resurrection (Mark 9:9; 14:28; 16:7).

4. Luke 3:21. If Q contained a baptismal narrative (so Streeter, Taylor, and more recently J. M. Robinson, "Basic Shifts in German Theology,” Interpretation 16 [1962]: 76-97; esp. 82f.), it would be consistent with the Gattung of Q if it began with sayings of Jesus about his baptism, which appoints him the spokesman of the divine wisdom. See J. M. Robinson and H. Koester, Trajectories Through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 71-113.

5. Luke 6:12, either Lucan redaction or from Special Luke (T. Schramm, Der Markus-Stoff bei Lukas [Cambridge: Cambridge Uni¬versity Press, 1971], 113).

6. Luke 9:28. Again this may be Special Luke rather than Lucan redaction. So Schramm, Markus-Stoff, 136-39.

7. So Streeter, Taylor. One does not need to accept their proto-Luke theory. Luke in any case had special passion traditions which he supplanted from Mark.

8. Especially see Luke’s redaction of Jesus’ flight, Mark 1:35-38 = Luke 4:42-43. In Luke it is not Simon, the Marcan mouthpiece of "divine man" Christology, but the crowd that pursues Jesus. In Luke the flight is motivated not by a rejection of false Christology but by the de-sire to extend the activities of the theios aner further afield. Luke accord¬ingly shifts Mark 1:35 to 5:16 where it better serves that Christology.

9. This idea was already present in Mark's miracle source (Mark 5:30), but Mark toned it down by shifting the emphasis to the woman's faith.

10. See above, n. 8.

11. R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 408. Translation modified.

11b. Cp. Mar 1.10: "...the Holy Spirit like a dove coming down into [eis] him." Amplified Bible. Ehrman says that "it is worth noting, however, that both Matthew and Luke changed the preposition to epi [upon]". Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p 141-43.

12. Apostello [set apart, sent] in reference to Jesus is unequivocally historical prior to 6:38 in: John 3:34 (see below); 5:36, 38; 6:29. Pempo [sent] occurs prior to John 6:38 in reference to Jesus' historical sending at 4:34, where "doing the will" refers to Jesus' historical activity; 5:23-24, 36 (in the context of the Father's witness, which began with the voice at the baptism, continued in Jesus' prayer, and surfaced at the "Johannine Gethsemane," John 12:28).

13. Especially if the prologue was added subsequently to the composition of the Gospel. See B. Lindars, The Gospel of John, Century Bible, rev. (London: Oliphants, 1972), 76f.

14. Erchomai [come, go] is dearly historical at 1.15, 27 (the Baptist's witness). 3:2 refers to the source of Jesus' authorization, not to a mythological origin. Cf. 4:25.

15. After John 6:38, “apostle” occurs in an ambiguous sense at 7:29; 8:42; 10:36; 11:42; 17:3. Sometimes the primary reference is still historical (e.g., 10:36 occurs in a context which alludes to Jesus' baptismal consecration). Pempo [sent] is ambiguous at 6:38, 39, 44, where the context suggests a primary reference to Jesus' descent from heaven, and at 7:18, where the primary reference is historical (Jesus' baptismal authorization). 8:16, 29 occur in a context which alludes to the Father's witness, and are therefore primarily historical, as also is 9:4. In 12:44 the allusion is primarily mythological as v.46 shows, but in 12:49 historical (Jesus' obedience to the Father's commandment). Erchomai [come, go] is primarily historical at 7:27-28 (7:41); 10:10b. It is ambiguous at 8:14, 42, and 18:37, though the preceding reference to Jesus’ birth suggests here historical mission. The references to Jesus' "coining into the world" at 9:39 and 11:27 arc primarily historical; those at 12:46 and 16:28 are primarily mythological. Erchomai is ambiguous at 8:42, but with a primary reference to Jesus’ authorization.. At 13:3; 16:28, 30; and 17:8 it is primarily mythological.

16. Bultmann, Gospel of John, at 1:14. (Cf. idem, Theology of the New Testament, vol. 2 (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 40-49. Bultmann loves to speak of the "paradox" of the Word becoming flesh.

17. The doxa [glory] of God is manifested (phaneroo) in Jesus' ministry: John 2:11: cf. 1:14; 11:4 (12:41?); 17:22 (7:24?).

18. E. Kasemann, The Testament of Jesus, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), 8-13.

19. L. Schottroff, Der Glaubenden und die feindliche Welt (Neukirchen: Neukirchner Verlag, 1970). This one-sided interpretation can appeal to the fact that during the second century prior to Irenaeus it was the Gnostics who appreciated the Fourth Gospel; see W. von Loewenich, Das Johannesverstandnis im zweiten Jahrhundert, BZNW 13 (1932); W. Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971); E. M. Pagels, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973)

20. See R. E. Brown, The Gospel of John, Anchor Bible 29 (Gar¬den City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1966), 272-75.

21. In this literature, wisdom activated Israel's salvation history including Abraham (Sir. 44:19-21). There are frequent self-predicates of wisdom in this literature, beginning with Prov. 8:24. See Bultmann, Gospel of John, 327 n. 5. Bultmann rightly sees that Jesus is speaking not in his own capacity but as a spokesman of the Gnostic revelation. His assumption, however, of a pre-Christian Gnostic redeemer myth has been shattered by the researches of Colpe and others. See Robinson, "Basic Shifts," and W. Meeks, The Prophet-King, SNT 14 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967), 12-17. For the Gnostic redeemer myth we now substitute the Palestinian Hellinistic-Jewish wisdom myth.

22. See M. J. Suggs. Wisdom, Law and Christology in Matthew’s Gospel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 71-97.

23. F. Gogarten. Demythologizing and History (London: SCM Press, 1955), 72. The German title, Entmythologisierung und Kirche, carried a primary allusion to Bultmann’s controversy with the Lutheran orthodoxy of the fifties, but suggested also a contrast between historical thinking and the metaphysics of patristic orthodoxy.

24. C. K. Barrett in conversation (May 1975) expressed the opinion that the aorist egeneto (John 1:14) must be punctiliar. But in Hellenistic Greek, that aorist can also be “complexive”, i.e., expressing "linear actions which (having been completed) are regarded as a whole” (F. Blass & A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Tr. Robert W. Funk (Chicago: University of Chirago Press, I96I), 33.

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