The Truth about Jesus, by Chad Thornhill
Talledega Nights gave theology professors everywhere a great gift with Ricky Bobby’s famous “Dear Lord Baby Jesus” prayer. In Smith’s The Magnificent Story, he illustrates from this silly pop culture artifact a real problem: making Jesus what we want him to be. This is a problem for theologians and laity, believers and nonbelievers alike. If we only find in the Gospels what we like of Jesus, we aren’t finding the “real” Jesus.
Here Smith returns to his two shrunken stories. One finds Jesus as a teacher of good works who wants people to engage in social justice and charity. The other finds a Jesus who needed to prove he was God and die for sins, but his life and teachings matter little.
Neither of these shrunken narratives give us a Jesus that is beautiful, good, or, come to find out, true. They have partial truths that shrink Jesus into someone that can be tamed or a part of a formula for personal salvation. So what is the gospel-truth about Jesus?
Smith begins in Philippians 2 and begins with kenosis. Jesus is “the preexistent, preeminent Son of God” who “left his divine throne to become a human being,” sacrificed himself for others, became God with us to establish a “new with-God life,” and reigns as King over the kingdom of God (92-93).
The incarnation is thus “a statement of unconditional love” through which “we experience the solidarity of God with humanity.” It is the ultimate validation of the worth of humanity to God. Humans matter enough to God that he willingly became one in the person of the Son and died a human death to undo the penalty of sin. Smith is right that this vision of Jesus is beautiful, good, and true.
Smith observes that in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ identity is announced in poetry rather than prose, by Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon. Doctrinal statements alone cannot sufficiently describe this grand work of God. Something artistic and beautiful is needed. Mary’s song in particular rejoices at how Jesus’ coming means that a great reversal is taken place where power, authority, wealth, and oppression is being upended and overturned and a kingdom of humility, love, mercy, and justice is being founded. Jesus’ truth is revolutionary because it reforms the whole created order. Jesus is the one through whom God’s plan unfolds, the great agent of creation, salvation, and restoration.And the goal of Jesus’ work for humanity is not just forgiveness of sin (though it is that), it is restoration to the image of the Son, or, in John’s words, knowing God and Jesus Christ (John 17:3). Or, in Balthasar’s words:
“It is not our movement toward God, but God’s movement to us. It is heaven interrupting our world… the descent of the divine light among human beings not only to shine on, to illuminate, to purify and to warm them, but, through grace, to make them also shine with a light not of this world.”
Smith thus summarizes the truth about Jesus:
“Jesus came that we might have abundant life. He opened up the kingdom of God, restored Israel, restored us, and taught us truth—the kind that can set us free if we continue in it. The story is much bigger and better, more profound and compelling, when we see the fullness of who Jesus is. By doing so, we see that the story is not a dry set of doctrines or laws, but an adventure. The magnificent story includes the amazing claim that God so loved that he gave his only begotten Son, not merely to teach us or to forgive us but to shine through us” (105-106).
Does Smith’s telling of Jesus’ story offer a beautiful, good, and true account of Jesus’ life, teachings, ministry, and death?
How does this fuller accounting of Jesus inform how we conduct our lives as Christians? How does it inform the mission of the Church?
Chad Thornhill, PhD
Chair of Theological Studies, Director of the MA in Christian Apologetics,
Associate Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies
School of Divinity, Liberty University