Jesus Always First (Not “Jesus Only”)

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.

  • Jero777

    Good reminder of the ultimate revelation of God – Jesus! (Hebrews 1:2) Thanks, Roger.

  • Zach Waldis

    First of all, I agree with you 100%; it took a liberal seminary experience for me to understand what in the world made Barth so uptight about “natural” theology. Yet I have found the work of James D.G. Dunn helpful in his rejecting “Jesusology”, where we actually miss out on who Jesus really is because we neglect the rest of the canon, particularly the OT. Having done some historical Jesus study, it would be incomprehensible to me today to see Jesus as anything other than the manifestation of YHWH God coming as Israel’s anointed Messiah. I understand your hesitancy in regard to the warrior motif, but your hesitancy doesn’t seem to be shared in the NT, where the OT (and violence) was celebrated (i.e. Hebrews 7 and Acts 7). Maybe?

    • Roger Olson

      Everyone has a canon within the canon. Mine is Jesus the bringer of peace who loves all unconditionally.

      • Zach Waldis

        Mine too! I fully agree with the neo-orthodox that Jesus is the Word made flesh, not the Bible or the Old Testament. I would want to push back on the idea of a canon within the canon, though. There’s a reason God inspired all of Scripture, including “texts of terror”, even if we sometimes can’t see it. I have problems with a selective canon, particularly in regards to Yoder/Hauerwas, but that’s for another day.

      • Timothy Rayner

        Dr Olson, could you expand on what you personally mean by a “canon within a canon” please? (A full article may make more sense rather than a quick response if you have the time)

        It sounds like a dynamite sort of phrase (in a bad way) that could be interpreted badly and misrepresented without clarification and makes me wary when I hear it.

        • Roger Olson

          Well, let’s see. When I was a kid we went door-to-door handing out “tracts” and they were often small copies of the Gospel of John. I don’t remember us every handing out small Books of Ecclesiastes or Lamentations or even Jude or Third John. We obviously had a canon within the canon–however implicit. I think everyone has one. Everyone recognizes something within Scripture itself that is especially clear, especially revealing of the gospel of salvation, especially normative for faith and witness. Luther said it was “was Christus treibt” and located that especially in Romans. Many Protestants have found Romans to function as a canon within the canon when it comes to discovering and explicating the gospel of salvation. This is what I mean by a canon within the canon. I also recognize a canon outside the canon–the Great Tradition of common Christian belief that developed through the early church fathers and Reformers. I think most Christians recognize and work with these “other canons” whether they like to admit it or not.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Roger,

    You make a good case for your point. I can’t imagine Christians disagreeing with it. Even with that shared principle of Jesus being the first/primary look of God, we still have a tremendous diversity of ways that we work it out. Many of them in conflict with each other.

    Maybe a question about a specific issue will tease out more principles of application: Would Jesus, like the PCUSA, boycott goods made in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank? How does Jesus’ character inform your actions/inactions here?

    Tim

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t claim to know what Jesus would do in every situation, but I claim to know that Jesus would not slaughter children.

  • http://www.tillhecomes.org/ Jeremy Myers

    Love this! As you say, by beginning with the Bible, we run the risk of making an idol out of the Bible and making it the supreme revelation of God, when Jesus Himself says that the Scriptures speak of Him!

  • http://www.whispersonthejourney.wordpress.com/ Sarah

    This is an intriguing question and discussion. I think I’ve been migrating in this direction naturally the longer I work among Hindus – for whom the question is never “Is there a God?” but “Which god should I worship?” In my opinion, in a pluralistic culture, it’s best to jump directly into a discussion of Jesus and His salvation work for us.

    One question I have that was recently raised by a colleague. If we don’t begin with the OT God of sacrifices and metaphor, is it possible to understand the fullness of the revelation of Jesus? He draws so very heavily from all the groundwork laid when there was only “the unbaptized God” in explaining who He is (not the least of which is His proclamation “I AM”) that my colleague questioned (and got me thinking) is it possible to truly understand Jesus without it?

    • Roger Olson

      The OT helps us understand things about Jesus–his religious context, etc. But it also sometimes complicates things–making it harder to understand Jesus when we insist on making him nothing but a child of his culture and religious context.

  • Jason

    This is the first time I’ve disagreed with the majority of a premise of yours, so I should say up front that I read your blogs regularly and thoroughly enjoy being challenged in my faith and thinking whether it be a nuance here or there, a fresh take on familiar issues, or something that had not yet crossed my mind.

    I think that to put Jesus at the centre or start of a statement of faith or our theology is too easily misleading and naturally leads to ‘Jesus only” or nearly so if not articulated well. I think that the only way we can try begin with Jesus in a way that does not slide in the opposite error of pseudo-deism or biblicism is to start with the gospel, by which I mean the announcement of the ‘Christ-event’, which is very centred on Jesus but is also Trinitarian. The Father sends the Son who says and does what the Father tells him to do by the power of the Holy Spirit.

    Perhaps this is what you had in mind to some extent? Maybe I’m overreacting because the majority of the blog post was clearing space to assert the proposition. However, It seems to me that the proposition, while trying to by-pass the vagueness of ‘god’ and ‘bible’ bases doesn’t include any description of this new cornerstone. What would such a “First Statement” about Jesus on a statement of faith look like to you? Perhaps you could give a few lines or bullet points?

    Grace and Peace.

    • Roger Olson

      I posted my personal statement of faith here a few months ago. The first article is Jesus and the second is the Trinity. The Trinity is not clearly revealed in Scripture; it is a necessary deduction from Jesus as God and Jesus’ own monotheism. In my opinion “Jesus Only” (Oneness, Unitarianism of the Son, etc.) is simply irrational; it can’t make sense. It requires sacrifice of the intellect. But otherwise, I don’t consider it a terrible heresy. Jesus said that if they saw him they saw the Father. He is the human face of God.

  • Timothy Rayner

    Which Jesus always first?

    A good post. I agree that there are many who have a skewed view of Christ and therefore a skewed view of God. As followers of Christ we need to have our understanding of Jesus right at the fore.

    For me, this issue is one of epistemology. How do we know that ‘our’ Jesus is the right one? (Dr Olson, we have gone back and forth on this in a previous thread and I don’t intend to repeat it here.)

    To add some food for thought though, I pose the following:

    It is true that of Jesus it was said “in him all the fullness [of God] was please to dwell” (Col 1:19) and that “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). These are wonderful truths that identify the full divinity of Jesus as God in contrast to anti-gods, aeons, demiurges and folk spirits that were prevalent in the thinking of the 1st century. Jesus’ divinity was not partial nor a temporary thing nor illusory, but is full, permanent and continuing, bodily.

    It is also true of Jesus, that during His incarnation, He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:7) Jesus didn’t lay aside any of His divine nature, but ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν, He emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant. How was this emptying achieved? By being born as a human. The whole context of Phil 1:27-2:18 is that of having worthy conduct during temporal suffering being humble and self sacrificial , and so Paul uses Christ’s incarnational humbling and cross-work as the chief example of that. But Paul doesn’t end there. He ends the Carmen Christi with the exaltation of Christ by the Father even identifying Jesus as YHWH, the only Saviour, by quoting Isa 45:23. All this is done to the glory of God the Father.

    With the above in mind, recognising that there was self-limitation by Jesus during the incarnation for the distinct purpose of fulfilling His role as the ‘suffering-servant’ (Ps 22, Isa 53, etc), and that He Himself promised His return as King and Judge of all (Matt 25), and that Jesus is YHWH of the OT, where would one go to find out about Jesus, and beyond that, the character of the Triune God, before and after Jesus’ incarnation? A cropped set of texts determining and denigrating the meaning of others (e.g. ‘red-letter Christians’)? A different set of texts (as in the cults)? A set of practices/techniques to climb up to God (Mysticism)? An internal, personal experience? Or do we take all of the biblical revelation as God-breathed and allow our thinking to be washed, changed, and conformed to that of Christ’s by the work of the Holy Spirit, recognising that God is the creator and we are His creatures?

    • Roger Olson

      I agree with kenotic Christology, but it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is the full revelation of the character of God and the criterion by which we must decide what God would or would not do.

    • Bev Mitchell

      Timothy,
      Re: “during His incarnation” and “during the incarnation” These two phrases of yours brought me up short. When did the Incarnation end? We have a resurrection and a risen Lord, is he not still the Incarnate God glorified? Is it not this glorified God-man who will return? The lesson (hope) embodied in the Incarnation is, surely, the revelation of a wholeness in creation that can (and will) be realized in and through Christ.

      • Timothy Rayner

        Bev,

        An assumption on my part that people would understand that by the incarnation, I mean the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry between His birth and ascension. My bad for not making that clear. I certainly was not implying that Jesus shed His human nature at the ascension, but is and remains fully God and fully man.

        My point was that while Jesus truly ‘exegeted’ the Father (John 1:18) during His earthly ministry, the nature of the intention of that part of redemptive history meant that the not all of the fullness of every attribute is seen in its maximum force since all of history was not wrapped up then (I.e. the final judgment and consummation of all things was yet to come).

        Would you expand on what you mean by your last sentence please?

        • Bev Mitchell

          Timothy,

          Thanks for the clarification. I agree. In these short blog entries it is hard not to leave things unclear. Assumptions are problematic for all of us, especially since we don’t really know the breadth of the audience. Same problems with my last sentence.

          I think we should considerably and consciously broaden our idea of creation. It is always going on (part of what we mean by God’s sustaining), but there are never-ending changes as well. I find it helpful to think of the Resurrection as a major revelation (and a qualitative expansion) of the creative work of God. The hope is that millions (billions) more will eventually join Christ in new bodies like that of Jesus when redeemed human beings become fully what God has always intended. Keeping all of this in the creation basket can be very helpful in thinking these things through.

  • Bev Mitchell

    You have clearly summarized a central, perhaps the core problem for most of the issues confronting evangelicals today. In confessing fundamental positions to evangelicals, even a post-conservative heavily committed to leading us out of our wilderness like Kenton Sparks is constrained (my reading) to state matters like this when describing an evangelical (himself) in a way acceptable to the majority of North American evangelicals: “I am an evangelical, committed fully to the Bible as God’s authoritative Word, to the doctrines of historic creedal orthodoxy, to the unique significance of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, and the hope of his return.” Reference: Sparks, Kenton A. (2008) “God’s Word in Human Words”

    If I understand you correctly, post-conservatives (at least) should re-order this list so as to begin with the latter phrase. I suggest that we should also include, up front, some clear reference to the Incarnation. And, while we are at it, a clear statement on the Holy Spirit and her role in our understanding the written Word and in following the living Word should also be included.

    • Roger Olson

      Exactly. One great advantage I feel in not being employed by an organization that regards itself as somehow indebted to “American evangelicalism” (although many of us are evangelicals in a broad sense) is not having to apologize and defend and back away and bow and scrape to the gatekeepers, self-appointed Grand Inquisitors, of “American evangelicalism.”

  • CarolJean

    If Jesus didn’t come to the earth to judge then how are what it looks like when God judges?

    • Roger Olson

      Who said he won’t come to judge? You’re leaping over several steps in a chain of reasoning, relying on a non-sequitur.

  • Jim Gifford

    Hi Roger,

    Lately I’ve been rereading Thomas Torrance (one of Barth’s star pupils) in his classic “The Christian Doctrine of God.” He says much the same as you do, but with a slightly different twist. He, drawing upon the work of principally Athanasius, says that the central principle is the “homoousion,” the unity of being held between Father and Son proclaimed at Nicea. Perhaps you will find his language as helpful as I did.

    Something else I am coming to realize more clearly is that the homoousion must be a first principle in doing theology. Any attempt to derive it or to apply it later on in the task of theology is misguided and leads to imbalance (at best). For example, Augustine’s views on nature and grace began on the first principle of divine sovereignty rather than the homoousion, and it led him to the brink of divine determinism. I’m sure he believed the homoousion, but he did not use it as the first principle, and it led him to a conclusion with which many of us are uncomfortable. Good thoughts!

    Jim G.

    • Roger Olson

      Whenever I dive into Torrance I think (after reading a while) “I already know and believe that.” I finally decided to jump over Torrance and re-read Barth. Barth stimulates my theological juices more than Torrance who seems rather dry to me. Just my personal response; I know others get a lot out of reading Torrance. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a Scottish bone in my body but am directly descended from Germans. (Yes, I know Barth was Swiss, but he thought and wrote like a German!)

  • Roger Olson

    Again I will recommend The God of Jesus Christ by Catholic theologian (and Cardinal) Walter Kasper. One of the best books on this subject I have ever read. If you’re looking for a good book on “kenosis” in the incarnation (“kenotic Christology”) I recommend my colleague Stephen Evans’ book Exploring Kenotic Christology. (Steve is the editor and wrote some of the chapters; it contains chapters on all aspects of kenotic Christology by leading Christian thinkers).

  • labreuer

    His treatment of the canaaite woman seems to reflect the chauvinist attitude of his own people.

    John Eldredge, in his Beautiful Outlaw, suggests that Jesus was actually being playful. The same goes with the talk about dogs in Matthew 15. We tend not to think of Jesus as having a sense of humor; Eldredge does his best to correct this [perceived] error. I think I agree with Eldredge.

    • Marc Fischer

      Hi, that’s an interesting interpreation.

      I would not qualify that as playful, but if he intended to heal the daughter anyway, this isn’t that big an issue.

      Maybe it might even have been a way to teach a lesson to the disciples.

      • labreuer

        Hmmm, do you think Jesus was never playful? That seems a bit odd, seeing as we Christians generally don’t see playfulness as sinful. To use one of Eldredge’s illustrations, did Jesus never intend squirrels to be playful? Or is the fact that they are, a reflection on his character? We have to be careful, because stuff like loa loa filariasis definitely isn’t what God intended. (I’m not a Calvinist!) But to consider playfulness to be in the same category as loa loa is awfully iffy.

        • Roger Olson

          Something must have slipped by my moderator’s eye! I did not see a comment that objected to God’s playfulness.

          • labreuer

            True, I exaggerated (or filled in what was ambiguous) my opponent’s position for rhetorical effect. If you’d prefer I never do that, please say so. In case you do request that, I would rephrase my question: can you point to any verses where Jesus is being playful?

            Supposing a “No” answer (otherwise ignore the following): it is certainly possible (in theory) that Jesus was a playful person, but that this playfulness was never recorded in scripture. That seems awfully iffy to me, though. Humor is a pretty big part of many people’s lives. For Jesus to never engage in it would seem theologically important, no?

            If I say too much more on the matter, I should probably start quoting Eldredge, as he has some wonderful, concise statements on the matter. Suffice it to say that Jesus can be portrayed as less harsh if we interpret some of this actions as humor and joking around. It could be scary though: if Jesus has a sense of humor and we must imitate him, we must have a sense of humor as well! :-)

          • Roger Olson

            Well, I don’t think it really matters very much. I can imagine a person being “truly human” and not having a sense of humor. However, I find it hard to imagine a truly human person who never, ever even attempts to be funny to someone else. As I say, however, I don’t think this is a matter of orthodoxy versus heresy. I just have trouble imagining Jesus as totally serious all the time.

          • labreuer

            I disagree: I think it matters more than you do. While I violently disagree with AW Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy (he fails to talk about God’s servant-nature, even though Jesus is “the exact imprint of his nature”), I do agree that one’s conception of God is the single most important aspect of one’s beliefs. If I think God (or Jesus) is always serious, that will have outworkings in my life. I agree that this isn’t “orthodoxy versus heresy”.

            The Bible has unarguable sarcasm: “Come to Bethel and transgress”. Does it have intentional humor as well? See 1 Kings 18:27: while some translations don’t ‘get’ the euphemism—or refuse to because of ‘Christian sensibilities’—others do:

            And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

            :-) Yep, the Bible has bathroom humor!

          • Roger Olson

            I thought the discussion was about whether Jesus told jokes or not.

          • labreuer

            “being playful” doesn’t necessarily mean “telling jokes”. See Matthew 15:21-28 and Luke 24, for examples. I could quote some of Eldredge’s Beautiful Outlaw if you’d like.

  • labreuer

    Hey Roger, how about some scripture?

    Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.

    Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

    A friend wrote Is God Proud?, which is an analysis of the word ‘grasped’, which the author thinks should actually be translated ‘exploited’.

    Add Matt 20:20-28 and Eph 1:19-21 and you get a very different idea of ‘power’ than is conjured in most minds by the word. Jesus exudes power, but not in the traditional way. My atheist boss said that when he thinks of the feeding of the five thousand, he thinks not in terms of “Oooh, a miracle!”, but “Jesus had power and this is how he chose to use it.” I agree with him wholeheartedly.

    How do we develop and use power in the way Jesus did? I think that’s an important question for Christians to ponder. I don’t think that his idea of ‘power’ is going to shift in Revelation; I think it’s going to be a logical development from his display of ‘power’ during his first time on earth.

  • M85

    Excellent post. I was reflecting on your post and some questions came up: what does it mean in practice to put Jesus first? Who is the real Jesus? What was Jesus really like… we all interpret the Bible to a certain degree. I think ultimately it all boils down to a personal encounter with Christ (and his identity as God’s Son) in our own life, it’s God’s self revelation of himself to us in our own experience through the Gospel: to be honest i believe that’s really the Jesus that every christian knows with certainty and the lens through which we interpret everything else.

  • Roger Olson

    In order to be “natural, philosophical theology” (at least as I use those terms) the knowledge developed cannot be informed by special revelation. My point is that natural, philosophical knowledge of God cannot over ride what we know about God from revelation, but it can shed some light on issues not included in revelation. For example, that evil is absence of the good.

  • Misofficialesist

    Mr Roger E Olson, I shall have to give your article a second read (well written). But I get the impression that you believe Jesus is the Only Way to heaven. Oh how dare you. You bad Christian [: I mean, the Bible is the most popular book in the world, sold the most copies, billions of people were killed for translational issues… why should we believe Jesus? (rolls eyes) It’s not like He is the most Awesome being that ever walked the planet, and just lovable?


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