During my first year of teaching at a high school, I was handed the preexisting curriculum for the sophomore class. I vividly remember sitting at my desk starring at the large multi-colored teacher’s manual with the big bolded word “Christology” written across the top. Despite having just graduated from Boston College with a degree in Theology, Christology was a topic that I was reluctant to teach to a room filled of 15-year-olds. As I skimmed the pages of the teacher’s manual, I could not help but grow more frustrated with each new lesson that I read. I did not think that these students were going to be intrigued by Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius, or the Cappadocian fathers (although my lesson on St. Nicholas’s showdown with Arius was a big hit). And yet, a course in Christology had to begin with the classic formula developed at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, that affirmed the full humanity and full divinity of the one person, Jesus Christ, ” without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” And even with such a set definition, it is profoundly difficult to make sense of this. So I began the semester with the basic knowledge that my students and I were going to have to undertake that challenge together.
I managed to outline the course and develop a syllabus under the guidelines of three “simple” questions: Who am I? Who is Jesus? Who is God? I set out with the intention that on the last day of class, we would return again to the first question in light of the responses we gathered from the other two. My aim, of course, was to demonstrate that knowledge of Jesus and knowledge of God enhances our understanding of who we are as finite beings and challenges us to live a life of Christian discipleship. And as I am sure most teachers know, the lessons that I taught ended up having a deep impact on my own personal and academic journey of faith.
As we began to answer the second question, I made a distinction for the class between “Jesus of Nazareth” and “Jesus Christ.” Although “Jesus of Nazareth” is a designation found rarely in ancient Christian authors, I used these terms in order to create an appreciation for the cultural and geographic historical contexts that informed the theological understanding of who Christ is for believers. As we use the terms today, “Jesus of Nazareth” and “Jesus Christ” tend to be used interchangeably. And yet when separated, the two have their own defining characteristics. “Jesus of Nazareth” refers to the more concrete aspects of his historical life, ministry, and death. By way of contrast, “Jesus Christ” refers more to the cosmic Christ’s role in salvation history, and is contingent upon his divinity.
As I began to make this distinction for the class, I realized my own Christological presuppositions. Up to that point in my life, I had always identified more deeply with the portrait of “Jesus of Nazareth,” feeling both challenged and inspired by his earthly ministry, and seemingly indifferent towards some of the other cornerstones that make up the Christian faith such as the resurrection. And yet my students, many of who came from popular forms of Catholicism in the Dominican Republic, seemed to resonate more fully with the portrait of “Jesus Christ.” They seemed far less interested in the historical facts and were more inclined towards his role as their Savior.
In order to meet my students where their interests were, we turned to the Gospel of John as a departure point for our Christological exploration. My reason for doing so was that the fourth Gospel presents a more radical and more explicit Christology than do the Synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Composed decades after the first Synoptic writer, John furthers many of the theological themes present in the earlier Gospels by centering in on the identity and origin of Jesus. The Gospel of John is known by many for its prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3, NRSV).John 1: 1-18 encapsulates John’s view of Jesus Christ as a divine being, God’s Word (I, 1, 14), who is also the light (1:5,9), and God’s only Son (1: 14,18). John’s Gospel goes much further than the other Gospels in presenting Jesus as an incarnate revelation who has come to offer people light and truth. There are a few things worth noting here about what makes John’s Christology so distinct:
1. There are seven key ” I am” sayings: the bread of life (6:35), the light of the world (8:12), the door (10:9), the good shepherd (10:11), the resurrection and the life (11:25), the way, the truth, and the life (14:6), and the true vine (15:1).
2. Jesus is presented as the Glory of God (1:14; cf. 2:11,11:4,12:23).
3. Several titles are ascribed to Jesus through the Gospel such as “Logos “Messiah,” “Son of God,” “King of Israel,” and “Lord.” In addition, Jesus is named as the ” only – begotten Son” (John 1:14), “equal to God” (5:18), and sent from the Father “comes from above”(3:31)
It was for these reasons, among others, that my reading of the Fourth Gospel had always been a contentious one. When I was an undergraduate, indebted in particular to the portrait of “Jesus of Nazareth” presented by liberation theologians, I got lost in the way Jesus presents himself and knows himself in the Fourth Gospel. Rereading John’s Gospel with high school students (and on my own for the first time in years) elicited a new Christological perspective. What struck me in reading John’s words was that that he still makes it so clear that the Logos took on real flesh – true humanity; sarx in John signifies what is material, perishable, fragile, and finite. No doubt this is the opposite of divinity clothed in majesty. In John’s Gospel we see the way that Jesus wearied physically on trips (4:6), he thirsted (4:7; 19:29), and he wept (11:33-35). Where people were expecting the Messiah to come as a powerful warrior and political leader, Jesus’, messiahship in John is presented as the Suffering Servant. G.K. Chesterton summarizes and encapsulates this point beautifully:
“Right in the middle of all these things stands up an enormous exception … It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historical times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the Word. That such a higher personality exists behind all things had indeed always been implied by the best thinkers, as well as by all the most beautiful legends” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908), 93).
To my surprise, John’s Christology more than the other gospel narratives brought me into a complex level of self reflection. It helped me to understand that “doing Christology” is not an exercise reserved for academics, but is an incredibly important task for Christian discipleship. Even more, the Gospel of John helped me to understand that ultimately Christology must be about establishing reasons for the confession of Jesus’ divinity, not merely presupposing it.
I no longer cast my initial inclination and identification with “Jesus of Nazareth,” over “Jesus Christ,” in a negative light. That was, and continues to be, my starting point for “doing Christology”. Here lays the difference between “doing Christology from above,” and “doing Christology from below.” In many cases, the Catholic Church has implied that theology should start ” from above,” with the Nicene Creed’s affirmation of Jesus’ divinity (” one in being with the Father”). By way of contrast, Wolfhart Pannenberg (1948-2014), a German theologian, writes an interesting critique on the consequences of doing theology ” from above.” “For Christology that begins “from above,” from the divinity of Jesus, the concept of the incarnation stands in the center. A Christology “from below,” rising from the historical man, Jesus, to the recognition of his divinity, is concerned first of all with Jesus’ message and fate and arrives only at the end at the concept of the incarnation” ( Jesus God and Man, 33). Whether or not we agree with Pannenberg’s line of thinking, it is important to remember that Jesus’ message and fate must remain at the center of our Christological thinking and ought to continually inform and reform our discipleship. The mode of Christology that I had initially undertaken tried to form an understanding of Jesus that began with the way Jesus appeared to his contemporaries. I realized that as I began my theological studies as an undergraduate, I needed to begin with the historical Jesus because I was not working off of an assumption that I knew what divinity was. And because I still don’t, doing Christology from “below” remains an important aspect of how I approach faith from both an academic and spiritual perspective.
What is feared in doing Christology from below, I suppose, is a Christ who emerges out of a social setting instead of a communion of faith – to have Christ be subject to political and ideological currents. And this is the very reason why I think doing Christology “from below” is so important. Starting with Jesus and his message – most particularly his direct and evident preferential option for the poor – provided the best way for me to be led into authentic faith in Jesus Christ. It empowered me to live as a disciple of Jesus while being an advocate for peace and justice.
The greatest lesson I have learned in “doing Christology” is that our Christology will fail us if we concentrate too much on the divine exalted Christ and end up with the virtual exclusion of the historical Jesus. If we spend too much time thinking of why the divine Logos became incarnate, we inturn risk focusing on the epistemological significance of Jesus’ historical vocation, or indeed, the unity of his person and destiny revealed in the cross and resurrection.
During the 1950s, Karl Rahner S.J. wrote an essay titled ” Current Problems in Christology.” He wrote, “We shall never cease to return to this formula [of Chalcedon], because whenever it is necessary to say briefly what it is that we encounter in the ineffable truth which is our salvation, we shall always have recourse to its modest, sober clarity. But we shall only really have recourse to it (and this is not at all the same thing as simply repeating it), if it is not only our end but also our beginning.” These words continue to remain true. I would even go so far as to say that we ought to amplify the timbre of urgency to not indifferently repeat creedal confessions, but appropriate them into our lives. When I look at the political climate I recognize the pressing need for us to return to our own Christological presuppositions and challenge ourselves to renew our commitment to live out what it means to confess a belief in Jesus Christ.
Of course, what I am writing here is nothing new or novel. Rather it is to serve as a simple reminder that as Christians when we ” do Christology ,” it ought to present a challenge to us. Christology is not an academic exercise that is devoid of reality. When I think of Jesus’ origin, the composition of his nature, his self-perception, and his relationship with God, I cannot help but return to ask the same questions of myself. In my own life this exercise has served as a reminder that I am a finite being, and presents me yet again with the challenge of being a Christian.
Doing Christology during the political season in particular cannot be an indifferent academic exercise or statement of faith. In light of who Jesus was and continues to be, what is our role as Christians in the midst of a tense political climate? Are we getting too caught up in the maelstrom of gossip and scandals? Will the vote we cast be marked by selfish individualism, nationalism, or a belief in American exceptionalism? Or will it, to the best of our ability, be marked by an attempt to vote for the candidate who seeks to bring about a preferential option for the poor through their legislation and policies? Will we hold the candidates to higher standards, using as a barometer the inclusivity they espouse to bring about?
I cannot help but wonder if doing a Christology “from above” can render the same consequences as doing politics “from above” – one that is driven by what each party professes to stand for, but not rooted in the reality of the people that our political decisions ultimately effect the most, the poor and marginalized. And even more, a consequence of doing politics “from above” ( so to speak) could run the risk of not fully integrating what we purport to stand for into our lives.
If our Christology does not demand critical self reflection, challenging us to live out a preferential option for the poor, and leaving us in awe at the mystery of the incarnation, then it is failing us. We cannot risk reducing the incarnation to a vague avowal. The challenge before us in an era of Clinton and Trump is to appropriate and extend our creedal confessions, and to “do Christology” with a challenge from below.
Meg Stapleton Smith is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University. She received her M.A. degree in Ethics from Yale Divinity School in 2016 and received her B.A. degree in Theology from Boston College in 2013. Prior to her time at Yale, she was Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, MA. Her current research interests lie primarily in looking at Christian virtue ethics from a liberationist perspective.