A Contemporary Christology

Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © by Kenneth Cauthen 2000. All rights reserved. Portions of this essay in a revised form are taken from my Science, Secularization and God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969).
Jesus regarded as the Christ is the focal point of a call to faith in the God of Unbounded Love revealed in the New Testament. The function of Christology is to clarify the relationship between God and humanity within the context of the created order in which the human adventure takes place. The crucial problem for Christology is to specify how Jesus can be of normative significance for all people now and everywhere. The answer to this problem involves a double assertion. Jesus is both the historical and the metaphysical ultimate. He is the Messiah of Israel and the Logos of God. Jesus appeared in a community whose religious faith anticipated a culminating phase in the history of salvation involving the appearance of a divinely appointed agent to inaugurate the New Age. The witness of the church is that this climactic era was initiated in the person and mission of Jesus himself. In this sense Jesus becomes the crucial figure in the history of Israel as understood by the Christian community. He is the historical ultimate. But the claims made for Jesus did not end there. Not only did the messianic titles assert his ultimacy for the understanding of the communal pilgrimage of Israel; some of them also included reference to his divine status and function. He is the only begotten Son of God; he is pre-existent with the Creator; his death and resurrection altered the cosmic relationships between God and the demonic adversaries; and he now is exalted to the realm of heavenly transcendence, from whence he will appear as Lord and Savior of the world at the end of history. The fundamental affirmation is that in this specific life, death, and resurrection, we find the clue to the universal situation of in the world before God. This is the meaning of the claim in the Gospel of John that the Logos was made flesh. The Logos is the reason of God or the pattern of the divine purpose and activity. John identifies this Logos with the person of the pre-existing Christ. The important point here is that the Logos who was the agent of creation is present in Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, the pattern of the divine purpose and activity everywhere expressed in the cosmos is decisively disclosed in a particular person and event. The crucial significance of this fact for humanity is that in Jesus is to be found the normative disclosure of the true meaning human existence here and now in present encounter with the Ultimate Reality which undergirds our being.

An examination of the New Testament provides the concrete content of this normative disclosure. There can scarcely be any doubt that the central theme of the New Testament witness concerns the saving activity of God motivated by perfect love for every creature. Above all else, the quality and intention of the divine love are manifest in Jesus. It must be emphasized that his career is of one piece, so that the love of God, which is the ground of all beings and the source of all creaturely fulfillment, can be discerned in his words and deeds as well as in the kerygmatic interpretation of his incarnation, death, and resurrection. His teachings about the providential care of God for sparrows and lilies, the parable of the prodigal son, his association with sinners, publicans and outcasts all testify to the same divine love of which Paul speaks in Romans 5. This means that those who try to bypass the kerygma in order to seek out the earthly Jesus, and those who neglect the earthly Jesus in the interest of the kerygma, are putting asunder what the New Testament has joined together. In fact, the kerygmatic interpretation of Jesus, which speaks of his pre-existence, of his descent from the heavenly realm to be incarnate in human flesh, and of the cosmic meaning of his death and resurrection, is simply a witness, in the categories of that age, to the ultimacy of Jesus of Nazareth.

However, the New Testament focuses on the death of Jesus as the event in which the divine love is most clearly discerned. In the cross, God bears the sins of humanity, overcomes the evil powers, and reconciles humanity to God and human beings with one another. The resurrection, which stands in correlation with the cross, is viewed as the triumph and exaltation of the crucified Jesus by which faith in him as the Christ is vindicated. It is clear that any adequate contemporary interpretation of Christology must preserve the underlying intention behind the New Testament witness to the cross and the resurrection.

With all this in mind, let me proceed by spelling our briefly my own interpretation of what this means in contemporary terms. The New Testament witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the climax of his life is the testimony that the Sovereign Power which undergirds the whole cosmos is suffering and triumphant love. The cross is the disclosure that God is in the world with us and for us as the companion who knows and loves and cares for every creature. God who is the gracious creator of life is also the gracious redeemer of life who does not destroy human beings when they rebel and sin against their neighbors. Rather, God bears their guilt in the divine suffering heart and offers them free pardon. Moreover, God is the companion who suffers with us and with all creatures in their pain and feels every sorrow the world knows. This abiding love is the undergirding reality of the whole cosmos which struggles in all times and places for the fulfillment of every being. The resurrection means that this love does not only suffer; it also struggles to triumph over whatever seeks to defeat it. This conquest is not complete in human history and probably is complete nowhere in the cosmos, but there are real victories. God acts to preserve the good that is accomplished and strives toward that consummation when all evil shall be put down.

These affirmations assume a view of God as the Ground of the cosmic process who includes the evolving world within the totality of the divine being. God is the Life of the World whose own fulfillment is identical with the completion of the creation. God struggles against evil with limited power, so that is creative process is ambiguous. The suffering of God is an aspect divine passivity, i. e., the capacity to be affected by events in the world. The suffering experienced by the creatures of the cosmic process may be spoken of as the wounds of God. The evils springing from finite freedom and the evils springing from the destructive but unwilled interactions of relatively independent chains of causation disrupt the harmony of God's own being. Divine suffering indicates specifically that God experiences these damages to the divine body in such a way as to qualify the total situation within which God's purpose is henceforth carried on. This is the cosmic-metaphysical meaning of the cross - God absorbing the evil of the world into the divine self. The appropriation of the evil that springs from freedom (sin) into God's being is an aspect of the divine love by which God not only passively incorporates the destructive consequences of deliberately willed acts but also allows the perpetrator to go free, except as the self-negating tendencies of evil administer the divine justice. The assumption here is that a process of judgment does occur in history, but it is never exact. The course of human events is morally ambiguous in that sometimes the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. There is unrequited evil. The meaning of the cross is that God takes the full weight of sin upon God's own self, that for which there has been retribution and also that for which there has been none. Here we find the objective basis for forgiveness. This is the moral-religious meaning of divine suffering.

The resurrection is the revelation that there is triumph, despite loss, in the divine struggle to create and fulfill finite creatures. Resurrection is the reversal of reversal, the renewal of the divinely grounded drive toward fulfillment in terms of the total situation as qualified by the organic disruptions of evil. The creative process continues in perpetual struggle against the impediments that block the fullest possible realization of the potentialities of the creatures and their enjoyment of the fact of being. Evil qualifies but does not destroy life, the process by which the possible becomes actual under the lure of the good. This is the metaphysical meaning of resurrection - the healing of cosmic wounds. The resurrection is also the revelation that the crucified Jesus is the living, universal Christ - that is, the authentic mediator between God and humanity. The exaltation of the risen Lord points to his freedom from the limits of localized time and space to be universally present as the meaning and content of the Gospel. This is the existential meaning of the resurrection - the encounter with Jesus of Nazareth experienced as the living Christ. Put otherwise, the experience of the resurrection is identical with being grasped by the possibility and actuality of recovery despite loss; of moral healing from inflicted wounds; of being reconciled to humanity, society, and the cosmos, and of being freed from one's guilt.

Cross and resurrection, then, are parables or examples that clarify the interlude, due to loss inflicted by evil, between creation and redemption. Redemption consists in the redirection of organic processes in nature and history toward possible achievement in a situation qualified by the disruption of the original creative drive. Cross and resurrection illumine the way that obstacles to fulfillment are dealt with in the divine economy. They symbolize the essence of the good news that there is a creative power, whose character is love, at the base of all things, directing the whole cosmic process and all its constitutive creatures toward fullness of life, despite the threat of evil.

It should be made clear that these symbols are understood to provide illumination of the universal processes of creation and redemption operative in the world and do not stand for supernatural divine acts at specific points in time and space. The New Testament mythology, with its view of cosmic powers both divine and demonic intervening in the ordinary processes of nature and history, does not provide literal descriptions of actual events. As demythologized, these descriptions are interpreted as disclosing patterns universally present in the cosmos and in human history. Supernaturalism is not regarded in this outlook as a valid option for modern theology. By supernaturalism is meant the belief that there is a second order of activities, through which the world is redeemed, in addition to the order of activities of the created world open to ordinary experience and scientific investigation. There is one world process, which can be viewed from the perspectives of creation and redemption. Creation is the world seen from point of view of its origin, while redemption is the world seen from the standpoint of its goal. There is, then, one creative-redemptive work of God that moves from the origination of the creature toward the realization of the fullest possible embodiment of life.

With respect to the implications of this position for the theological meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, it can be said that the symbolic or paradigmatic significance of these events does not depend upon the reality or visibility of any extraordinary occurrences. The crucifixion was an event in the history of the Jewish people in the time of Roman domination. As such, it was as observable as the crucifixion of the two thieves who died with him. The resurrection was an event in the experience of believers only, and consisted, as Bultmann says, in the rise of faith in the disciples. Viewed in this way, both occurrences can be incorporated into a modern historian's account of that era and region. What is significant from the point of view of Christian faith is that the church discerned, in the whole complex of events and experiences related to its encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, an unveiling of the universal pattern of the divine purpose and activity. Hence, he was confessed in the Christian community as Messiah and Logos. This pattern might have been discovered in other events, since God is everywhere at work as the creator and redeemer. However, the fact is that it was the total impact of Jesus upon the disciples that gave rise to the Christian vision of life and reality. Special revelation does occur, but in the discernment of the universal metaphysical and existential meaning of a particular cluster of ordinary worldly events and not in the recognition of occurrences that are themselves exceptions to the general patterns operative in the cosmos and human history.

The cross and resurrection, then, define the meaning of creation. But, at the same time, they throw light on the consummation. The Christian message is a theology of hope. The hope we have, however, is tempered by a realism which expects that the dialectical relationship between suffering and triumph, parabolically enacted in Jesus' own career, provides the pattern of the future for individual lives as well as for human history as a whole. There is no situation so tragic that it cannot become an occasion for the birth of new life. There is no pinnacle of achievement so secure that it may not be toppled by fresh outbursts of deliberate or accidental destruction. In this sense, then, the parable of the wheat and the tares epitomizes the dialectic between the promise of good and the portent of evil in the continuing process of history. So it has always been; so it is now; and we have no certainty that it will ever be otherwise. The kingdom of God is in our midst to the extent that the potentialities of finite life are being realized. However, it is always in the process of coming and never arrives unambiguously.

But what about the proclamation of a final victory when all enemies will be put down? The nonoccurrence of the Parousia, despite the persistent prediction of its imminence, is itself a refutation of the expectation that a perfect society will be established among human beings by direct divine intervention. In addition, one has to consider the mythological character of the apocalyptic vision which informs the New Testament. When translated into contemporary existential and cosmological terms, the eschatological symbols provide the criteria by which the ultimate goal of the creative process may be defined. The kingdom of God points to a perfected society in which all ambiguity has been overcome. In this ideal realm, always hovering over history as the measure of the perfect good divinely sought, there is neither physical nor moral evil, and love reigns supreme as the bond of harmony uniting all humankind into one organic society. Here, then, is a vision of a "new heaven and a new earth," in which the dialectic of suffering and triumph has been completely transcended. As such, the kingdom of God specifies an absolute which is only approximated in the actual structures of the ongoing cosmos and in human history. To shift terminology, heaven and hell are symbols of the ultimate possibilities of creaturely existence. Heaven, or the kingdom of God, stands for the complete blessedness of life in perfect unity with God. Hell designates the utter despair which characterizes human existence absolutely shut off from meaning and fulfillment. In history we move between and toward these ultimates.

So viewed, the biblical symbols have their locus of meaning in this world. It would be presumptuous to assert that there will be no consummation beyond earthly history in a life after death. However, the whole weight of evidence provided by modern science against supernaturalistic explanations of human origins tends to create doubts about a destiny of humanity which transcends the bounds of terrestrial life. The major point here, of course, involves the obvious dependence of human consciousness upon evolved bodily mechanisms. Given the unity of humanity with the animal world, it is certainly audacious to suppose that the human spirit somehow continues to exist while the psychic life of other creatures does not. Moreover, the mythological character of biblical eschatology raises equally potent questions about the persistence of conscious personality beyond the dissolution of the body. To demythologize is to desupernaturalize, and this leads to a focusing of the interpretation of human destiny upon the present and future possibilities of life within this cosmic epoch.

Hence, while one cannot put any prior limits on the new possibilities which the divinely grounded creative advance may bring into being, the Christian will not forget the lesson learned from the crucifixion of Jesus. The future is open, pregnant with promise, though ever threatened by new peril. The hope of humanity is in the travail of God, struggling and suffering with us as he triumphs over the impediments to the fullness of life's potentialities. We may cherish the goal of a final victory beyond all ambiguity as we live in the confidence that for every cross there is the possibility of resurrection. Beyond us lies a future lost in mystery, but illuminated by the vision of a creating, loving God whose most astounding victories may not yet have been won. Christian faith challenges us to commit our own wit, will, and work to the achievement of God's purposes and so to find the abundant life. The end of humanity is to glorify and enjoy God absolutely.

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This is one in a series of essays on theological and ethical topics. The best place to start is:
Theological Essays
Presently, the following essays are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God
Hints Toward a Doctrine of God
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch
For something on the light side:
Mother Goose Goes Electronic

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Created: Tuesday, August 22, 2000. Last Updated: Friday, June 15, 2001, 2:00 PM.