Jesus Always First (Not “Jesus Only”)
Here’s the theological question behind this musing: When composing a Christian statement of faith, a statement of faith for a Christian church, educational institution, whatever, what or whom should the first article be about? Where should it begin?
Two candidates spring to mind because they are often used as confessional statements’ starting points—the Bible and “God.” There are good biblical, historical and philosophical warrants for both starting points. The Apostles Creed begins with God; the statement of faith of the National Association of Evangelicals begins with the Bible.
I believe these traditional starting points may condition Christians to subordinate Jesus to God (subordinationism) or to the Bible (a peculiar kind of biblicism).
Subordinating Jesus to God means beginning with a generic or particular picture of a Supreme Being and then fitting Jesus into or under that. This is what led and leads many Christians to argue that Jesus suffered, for example, “only in his humanity.” I believe it is what leads many Christians to regard Jesus as a warrior—in spite of his own teachings and style of life.
The point, and problem, is that many people form a picture of “God” in their minds from somewhere independent of Jesus and then make Jesus fit that picture when they believe him to be God incarnate. Instead of a “Jesus-like God” they have a “God-like Jesus” where “God-like” means an image of God unconditioned by Jesus.
The problem with beginning a statement of faith with the Bible is that it tends to impress upon people the idea that the Bible is the primary object of their faith—that in which they place most of their trust. Their Christianity, then, becomes “Bible faith” rather or more than “Jesus faith.”
What are we first and foremost—God-people, Bible-people, or Jesus-people?
Of course, someone will say “All of the above.” True enough. But when we say we are “God-people” or “Bible-people,” what do we mean? These are more vague and potentially misleading than “Jesus-people” which, although of course subject to misunderstanding, is clearer.
I believe our primary focus of faith as Christians, that which conditions all else, is Jesus. If he is God incarnate, as all orthodox Christians believe (or at least say they believe), or even the “human face of God,” as liberal Christians believe (or at least say they believe), then we cannot begin with a generic or even pre-Jesus “God,” what theologian Robert Jenson calls “unbaptized God,” and project that onto Jesus.
Church of England Archbishop Michael Ramsey famously wrote that “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.” (Quoted in John V. Taylor, The Christlike God, p. 100)
Many theologians throughout church history have grasped this truth and taken it seriously even if not to its logical conclusion. Luther spoke often and warmly of Jesus as God and insisted that his followers regard Jesus as God for us, rejecting all images of God drawn from philosophy, natural theology, Christian tradition, and even portions of the Bible that conflict with the revelation of who God is in Jesus Christ. And yet he also affirmed a “deus absconditus,” a “hidden God” behind Jesus who is very un-Christlike.
Moravian leader Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf was perhaps the most Jesus-centered theologian in the history of orthodox, trinitarian Christianity. He famously declared that if it were not for Jesus he would not believe in God. Lutheran theologian George Forell called Zinzendorf “the noble Jesus freak.” For him, unlike for Luther, there is no deus absconditus—hidden God lurking behind Jesus. Jesus is God for us and there is no un-Christlike God who is against us.
Karl Barth, of course, very famously focused his entire Church Dogmatics on Jesus Christ, making Jesus Christ so much the center of his theology that he was accused by some critics of “Christomonism.” Jürgen Moltmann has placed Jesus at the center of his thoughts about God in books such as The Crucified God.
In spite of all this, many contemporary evangelical Christians (to say nothing of others) continue to believe in an un-Christlike God first and foremost and then attempt to fit Jesus into that God-faith. For them, belief in a Supreme Being (semi-deism) or in the Warrior God of the early stages of Israel’s history serves as a Procrustean Bed (look it up) onto which Jesus-faith must fit. The result is a truncated, mutilated Jesus who is paradoxically un-Christlike. To use just one contemporary example, Jesus can then become a pugilistic cage-fighter covered with tattoos.
This is, I believe, a watershed among contemporary (especially American) evangelical Christians—whether our faith in who God is and what God is like begins with Jesus or something else—the Warrior God of the Old Testament, natural theology, philosophical theology, “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” folk religion or whatever source outside of Jesus.
The issue is not “either-or,” it is who conditions what? There is truth in the Old Testament vision of God; there is truth in natural, philosophical theology; there is truth in “moralistic, therapeutic deism;” there is truth in folk religion. The question is—what or who is the primary revelation of God’s character that we begin with, stay with and always fall back on to evaluate God-pictures? If not Jesus, then I call the method sub-Christian.