Tuesday, March 6, 2012

W.J.W.D.? - Which Jesus Wins the Day?

"Christians and non-Christians have quite often produced an image of Jesus which suits their own desires. They have idolized Jesus, and then have taken away the idolizations of believers and humanized him again. He has become the archetype of the divine authority and glory which men have longed for. He has become the teacher of a new morality to mankind. He has become the resistance fighter from Galilee. An analysis of the changing ideas of Christ and portraits of Jesus in history shows that they correspond so much to the needs of the age, place of origin and intended purpose that cannot avoid the suspicion that they are illusory and artificial. The question then arises: Who was Jesus himself, and what does he himself signify at the present day?" [Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 83]


Moltmann's thoughts are as pertinent today as they were in 1974. We are guilty of making the man from Nazareth into whatever idol we desire for our time. The patriotic American Christians have a Jesus who is on their side. The exlusivists have a John 14 Jesus who is the only way to the father. The occupiers have a prophetic Jesus who drives out the money-changers. The evangelicals have an evangelist Jesus who persuades people to pray the sinner's prayer. The reformed folk have a sovereign Jesus who followed the divine script of substitutionary atonement. And so it goes that different cultures and social groups have a Jesus that is suited just for them. This is the day of consumer-Christianity where you can find the Jesus that is just the right fit for you. Hence, Faust wrote, "What you call the spirit of the time, is usually, gentlemen, basically your own spirit." *

Or how about the Jesus who is born simply to go straight to a Roman cross to die for the sins of the world? You know this Jesus. He shows up in prayers like, "God we thank you for sending your son to die for our sins..." In my experience, this is the most common Jesus-idol of the day. I call it the scapegoat Jesus (or the escapism Jesus). This Jesus makes everybody feel better by taking their guilt away. Unfortunately, this Jesus is robbed of his humanity; his prophetic announcements; his eschatological vision; his radical, ethical teaching; his contextual compassion for outsiders; his inclusive agenda; and his struggle/suffering against the powers of his day. In short, this Jesus is robbed of his time and place in history. (Perhaps another title for this post: WWJD-We Want Jesus Domesticated)

So how do we get a truer portrait of Jesus the Christ? How do we know that the Jesus we know isn't a cunningly crafted image of our own desire? The answer, I believe, lies in Moltmann's twofold question: "Who was Jesus himself, and what does he signify at the present day?" (83)


Essentially, these questions point us toward a field that theologians call 'Christology' (lit. 'talk about Christ'). In a nutshell, christology has two parts: 1) Who is Jesus? 2) So what? This is a shortened way of remembering the essence of christology as the study of the person of Jesus and the significance of his life/work. These two questions are often discussed as "the Jesus of History" and "the Christ of Faith." One focuses on the person who lived and died; the other on the significance of his life/work. (I do not include resurrection in the Jesus of History because it is not agreed upon by all serious historians; it is thus an article of faith)

Moltmann emphasizes, "The first task of christology is the critical verification of the Christian faith in its origin in Jesus and his history. The second task is a critical verification of Christian faith in its consequences for the present and the future."(84) Therefore, a truer portrait of Jesus must be rooted firstly in Jesus and his history, not simply what he means to Christians today.

However, these two tasks work together to create a circle of christology. "The one must constantly be related to the other. This tension is itself a characteristic of Christian faith, for the confession of Christian faith always has two aspects: the earthly and the eternal; the particular and the universal; the temporal and the eschatological."(85) Christian faith itself is a constant cycle of asking these two questions: Who is Jesus? So what?

Nevertheless, this cycle must begin with the question, "Who is Jesus?" This is because the name "Jesus" cannot be changed: "The name of Jesus can neither be translated into other languages nor be replaced by other names... His history cannot be replaced by other histories, or by the histories of other people."(85)

On the other hand, the titles that are given to Jesus to express the 'So What?' (Christ, Lord, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, Logos, Messiah, etc.) can and have changed throughout history. This is the very reason that we have diverse portraits of Jesus. This is why you can Google "Jesus" and get almost 8 million results. It is in answering the "So What?" that we diverge.

But at the end of the day, the "So What?" must answer to Jesus and his history. The critical point for all christologies comes when they are faced with the uncensored conclusion to his life. The history of Jesus is the history that explicitly and unashamedly ends in crucifixion on a Roman cross outside the walls of the holy city. When we consider Jesus' history, we "have to state what it means for the Christ, the Son of God, the Logos, the true man or the representative to have been crucified."(86)

The cross is "the mystery behind all christologies, for it calls them into question and makes them in constant need of revision. ...Historical and social changes do in fact cause old world-views and religious conceptions to become outdated, and lead to the construction of new ones. But this is only one side of christological revisionism. It is he, the crucified Jesus himself, who is the driving force, the joy and the suffering of all theology which is Christian."(86-87)

When it comes to asking "Which Jesus Wins the Day?" we are forced to confront the reality of Jesus and his history. That is, his abandonment by God on the cross. This is the scandal of the Christian faith,which K. Jaspers captures so well:

"I would count the scandal of the claim of faith to justification and redemption from sin to be small compared with the scandal that Jesus, the one sent by God, suffered the most shameful and grievous death." (fn.15 in Moltmann, 76, italics added)

The Jesus who is crafted to meet the needs of the day is confronted by the Jesus who leads to embarrassment, foolishness, and blasphemy. A christology that cannot make room for Jesus and his history is no true christology at all, but rather an idol of our own making.

Another popular example of this is 'Jesus the Moral Exemplar.' When this christology is faced with the reality of Jesus' abandonment by God on the cross, it simply discards it because modern ethics are all about practical reason (thank you, Kant. cf. Moltmann, 92-98). The cross of Jesus is intolerable for the christology of Christ as moral exemplar. If it is considered, Jesus becomes a lunatic and a moral exemplar who leads to our own demise. Thus, the foolishness of the cross is jettisoned for a Jesus that suits the spirit of its time.

The problem of modern christology is that we often begin by asking "So what?" instead of "Who is Jesus?" When we begin with the "So what?" we craft a Jesus who has meaning to us now and meets our inner desires. The great irony in this is that it confirms the truth of the Jesus who was crucified. The Jesus of history was abandoned by his disciples, abandoned by God, and left to die on a Roman cross outside of the holy city. In creating alternative portraits of Jesus that meet our own needs we continue this abandonment. We abandon Jesus on the cross because we cannot bear to see the crucified messiah. We cannot bear to see our Jesus die. "The cross is not and cannot be loved."(1)


So where does this leave christology? If we are to relinquish our Jesus-idols, how do we deal with the reality of Jesus who was abandoned by God on the cross?

"If the question of Christ, whatever form it takes, is to do justice to Jesus himself, its relationship to him must not be one of questioning, but of being questioned; must not be one of demanding an answer but of giving an answer. It cannot simply manifest him as its object, but must be aware of its object as a subject. Otherwise it would never be in contact with Jesus himself, but only with that in him which was originally implicit in the question. Thus we cannot conclude our discussion of questions about Christ without pointing to the remarkable circumstance that in the synoptic gospels the question of Christ is not only posed to Jesus by others, but is also asked by Jesus himself."(103)

In the final analysis, the heart of christology comes down to our answering the question, "Who do you say that I am?" Christology is not up to Jesus, it is up to us: "The fact that the center of his existence is outside himself, and the end of his life is open in two directions, has determined the scope of this question."(106)

Christology rises and falls at the moment when we look at the crucified, abandoned Jesus and answer this question: "Who do you say that I am?"

Some say, "Just another would-be messiah," "A great teacher," "A crazy prophet," "A blasphemer!" and so on. In this case, the "So what?" finds no answer. History remains unchanged. Life remains predictable and static.

Some, however, answer differently. They say, "You are the Christ." In this case, the "So what?" finds a particular meaning. By confessing that the crucified Jesus is the Christ, the title 'Christ' is given a new meaning and a new future. The meaning of the titles (Christ, Messiah, Lord, Son of Man, etc.) are now rooted in the person and history of Jesus. They now belong to the folly of the cross. "By confessing Jesus as the Christ, faith also confesses that this future of his is real."(106)

I cannot overstate the significance of confessing a crucified man to be the Lord of the cosmos! By confessing Jesus to be the Christ, Christians confess that the future belongs to the one who was crucified as a blasphemer by the religious elite, hung naked to die on a hill outside the religious establishment, and abandoned by God.

More importantly, the confession of Jesus as the Christ "cannot be a final ontological or factual judgment, which could only ever relate to a closed reality. Nor can it be an arbitrary subjective value-judgment on the basis of devout experience. If it is in accordance with Jesus himself, it is an anticipatory judgment of trust and confidence, and therefore, for all its certainty with regard to the person of Jesus, is nevertheless provisional in an eschatological sense."(106, italics added)

Ultimately, confessing Jesus as the Christ is provisional. Christology that is founded upon Jesus and his history is continuously confronted by the scandal of the cross. It is "essentially unconcluded and permanently in need of revision."(106) We cannot stay at the "So What?" but must continually return to the "Who is Jesus?" in the circle of christology. In this sense, there is no Jesus who "wins the day," but only a christology that provides faith for one day at a time. The point, dear readers, is that Jesus the Christ cannot be pinned down or figured out. Rather, Jesus is both the answer and the question, to which we must return again and again and again ad infinitum. (notice I have not spoken of the "true" or "truest" portrait of Jesus, but a "truer"...)

"In its very concentration upon Jesus and his history, Christianity is in the fullest sense pro-visio and promissus, for it points forward to the new age and new creation, in which the crucified Christ can no longer be a scandal and foolishness, because he has become the basis of the proclamation, 'I make all things new' (Rev. 21:5). And therefore the confession of faith in Jesus concludes with the future hope, 'Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!' (22:20), and thereby places the true starting point at the end."(107)


* I want to note that this is not the same as when James Cone theologizes about a black Jesus or when Rosemary Radford Ruether theologizes about a female Jesus. These, as far as I understand them, are not attempts to remove Jesus' contextual identity from first century Palestine, but to re-situate Jesus the Christ in contemporary society.


  1. Hi Josh, This is an interesting short essay: How to keep from embracing an idol instead of the real Jesus. Answer: Come back again and again to the outcome of the life of the Jesus of history and the scandal of that final moment. But this scandal is dependent on the identity ascribed to him by faith. This juxtaposition renders all efforts to comprehend him limited, but not entirely vain. We must, however, return again and again to the scandalous moment and shed additional layers of idolatry,if we ever are to escape our vain efforts at comprehension (related as this word is to somprehensive).

    This is a complex essay, and I only read it once. Have I gotten your point? I also have a question: Do the titles of Jesus all necessarily speak to the "so what?" I am not sure I agree.

  2. Brescia, thanks for the comment. You gleaned my thesis clearly: we must return to the historical fact of the crucifixion in order to remain as 'true' to Jesus as possible. Is it not possible to be sure of this final outcome without the history of faith? That is, there is a broader history that affirms the historicity of Jesus' crucifixion as a blasphemer. It is the MEANING that is open to interpretation (and is truly the subject of faith, no?).

    What I failed to notice is what you point out: the majority of history that we have of Jesus is from the perspective of faith. Hence, it is difficult to distill the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith.

    Moltmann gets to this (but I had yet to read it and grasp it before writing this post). Moltmann notes that the history of Jesus is "almost exclusively Christian testimonies. In them the experience of the Easter faith have become so intermingled with the recollections of the history of Jesus that it is difficult to separate out the historical kernal."(p.126)

    Perhaps this is why "modern christology always assumes faith" ? (p. 97)

    I may have been unclear as to what I meant by "So What?" I simply mean that the titles for Christ are all interpretations of meaning. Don't they each necessitate a contextualized meaning?