Histology From Below: Historical Development, Global Trends, and Contextual Proposals: Part II

Christology “from Below”: Evaluation and Proposal

As indicated earlier, our perception of reality is, to a large extent, a mediated perception. By “mediated perception,” I mean, we conjure known concepts and images to make sense of things and concepts that were previously unknown to us. Even in our direct experiences of God, we cannot avoid that we still must employ known categories to understand and communicate such encounters. Avery Dulles rightly points out that in any given experience, “the subject contributes a host of socially acquired memories and anticipations, hopes and fears, which in great part shape the experience itself.”[1] The point here is that in order to make sense of Jesus of the Bible, people start with the available categories—cultural, mental, religious, etc.

Therefore, there is no debate about the benefits of communicating Christ through familiar categories. In fact, there is no other way to make sense of Jesus Christ other than through our known framework. No doubt, our conceptual framework can and should be challenged, affirmed, or corrected; yet, they are the tools by which we sieve information. Jesus, as the Savior, the Bearer of the sins of humanity, the Lord of the universe, the Alpha and Omega, the Son of Man, etc., must be conceptualized through and with categories familiar to us, a strategy adopted by the early Ecumenical Councils as well. The high Christology[2] of the Bible was conceptualized, communicated, and defended with the available Greek philosophical tools—along with its accompanying strength and limitations.[3] Likewise, today, the high Christology of the Bible can be conceptualized, articulated, and communicated with the available resources, although without ignoring or undermining the past Creed. Thus, some of the proposed titles of Jesus can possess significance in day-to-day life.

As Christianity transitions into different cultures, it must adapt to suit the new socio-political and cultural realities. As various people groups read and interpret the Scripture, our understanding is enriched, and the Church is edified. Thus, it is befitting that we give attention to how our brothers and sisters from those regions are theologizing. The Majority World Christians’ theologizing is a piece in the formation of a more extensive christological narrative.

In this sense, Christology “from below” has the potential to bring the perspectives of the neglected and marginalized to the forefront. The perspective of those from the margins can enlighten those in the center. Since no one theologizes with a blank slate, our preconceived ideas often impinge on our most honest, objective exegesis. Our pre-understandings are often hard to notice, much less to eradicate. Hence, our goal is to overcome, borrowing Christian Scharen’s terminology, the “epistemological obstacles” by “unearthing the personal and social unconsciousness” of thoughts that we embody unreflectively.[4]An alternative approach can compensate the dominant christological narratives, some of which have been construed more through the Hellenistic categories and less with the biblical text.[5]

However, we must also not overemphasize the voices from the margins. While we certainly want to pay attention to the diverse voices, we do not want to shift the focus from the text to the “imaginative construal of the reader,” which, as Brevard S. Childs reminds, would inevitably result in robbing the text of its determinative meaning.[6] Our experience of Jesus as Healer, Savior, and Master, etc. must accord with the portrayal that he is indeed the healer, savior, and master in the biblical sense. It is true that our perception and experiences of Jesus in many ways are contextual, yet it is also true that Christians encounter the same person, Jesus. Since the person of Christ, as revealed in the Scripture, is the essential content of our diverse experiences, our “mystical” experience or personal encounter of Jesus must be guided and evaluated through the Scripture. As Craig S. Keener rightly puts it, “For any even partly full picture of Jesus, the Gospels are our best available source.”[7] Or, as Bauckham reminds us, the historical inquiry of Christology must merge with the theological inquiry that is grounded in the eyewitness testimony of the biblical writers.[8]

Unless Christians have shared objective sources to evaluate our knowledge and experience of Jesus, it will become difficult to answer to others’ radical claims of Christ. If all experiences are of “experience as,” we run the risk of succumbing to claims of people like that of John Hick. Hick takes the position that all knowledge is “knowledge as”—for instance, Christians know God as the triune God, but Hindus know it as the Transcendent being—and concludes with a pluralistic religious hypothesis to reconcile the diverging claims.[9] Given his presupposition, Hick was not hesitant to deny Chalcedon Christology and settle for the incarnation as a mere metaphor.[10] I am positive that most of the Majority World Christians would’ detest Hick’s pluralistic conclusions. His position, nonetheless, is a reminder for the necessity of christologizing in the biblical, ecumenical, and local context. Oliver Crisp rightly warns us of the danger of the Hick’s historical-critical methodology that presumes to discover the deity of Jesus in the gospel without any prior theological assumption.[11] Crisp is not denying that such an approach will yield some truth; he is skeptical that such an approach will yield the whole truth.

There are both elements of continuity and discontinuity between the gospel and the culture, and overemphasizing the continuity also creates the same problems of ignoring the continuity. Some have raised concerns about uncritically overemphasizing the continuity in Christology “from below.” For instance, Rodney Reed and Gift Mtukwa, while finding some utility in the use of the term Ancestor, caution us of its potential abuse. They contend that when applied to Jesus, it could reinforce the ethnocentrism associated with the term in the traditional belief.[12] They assert, “What Africa desperately needs is not a Jesus formed in its (African) image, but Africa shaped in Jesus’ image.[13] Although their fear is not in the use of the term per se but the potential abuse of the term because of its associated understanding within the African context, their apprehension reveals the fine line between contextualization and (negative) syncretism, and the need to carefully delineate the two. It will be worthwhile to recognize that the holiest Ancestor or the saintliest local Healer stands on the same ground of human depravity with others. Rather than exalt Christ, they can relegate him to the character and status of an ordinary human.

The substitutions of the non-biblical localized titles for the biblical titles could create unwarranted domestication of Jesus. Some proposals of Asian Christologies such as that of Peter Phan and C.S. Song, although have commendable elements, go too far in contending, “the Asian reality . . . and not Bible and/or tradition, is the starting point” in christologizing[14] and “Jesus means crucified people.”[15] While the Latin American Christology, such as that of Leonardo Boff, also has admirable components, his proposal to maintain “the primacy of orthopraxis over orthodoxy,”[16] puts the texts at risk by opening up room for construing their meanings in light of our existential challenges before letting the texts speak in their terms. Victor I. Ezigbo puts it that “It is an error to assume that peoples of Africa cannot truly experience Jesus Christ unless he is described with a local metaphor, for example, as an ancestor.”[17] He also reminds us that all contextual Christologies must avoid the danger of becoming “irrelevant to the development of the Christologies that exist outside of its context.”[18]

The meaning of Ancestor, Healer, and Mediator, Liberator, Rooster, etc. can be a helpful lens through which Christ’s person and work are interpreted and understood; however, I suggest that they must not in themselves become the controlling paradigm to replace the revealed titles in the Scripture. In other words, the local titles should not be competing but complementing models. They should be helpful imagery to makes sense of Jesus, who is revealed in the inspired Word of God. We indeed apprehend Christ with and through the available cultural and mental categories. It is also true that our Christology “from above” is also, to a degree, Christology “from below” (and vice versa). Our reading of the biblical text and construal of biblical Christology is also influenced, stirred, and motivated by our existential and contextual challenges. Nevertheless, as Ingolf U. Dalferth rightly points out, the historical identity of Jesus (Who is Jesus?) cannot be adequately answered without referring to his soteriological (What is this Jesus for us?) and theological identity (How can he be what he is for us?).[19] The point is that to understand who Jesus is for us truly, we need to thoroughly investigate the biblical portrayal of Jesus by investigating the historical, soteriological, and theological context. As we do that, we leave room for continual correction, modification, and reformulation of our christological imagery, allowing the biblical text to break through our preconceived ideas.

The texts of Scripture are not raw data for which we supply meanings; the texts come with theological meanings. While some biblical forms/categories are not closely tied to the theological meanings (God is our rock), some are (God is a Father). For instance, the title for Jesus, Son of Man, has a broader theological and prophetical reference. Despite the fact, there are nuances in the understanding of the concept of “the Son of Man,” New Testament scholars agree that there are rich theological precedents in the term (for a brief discussion, see Ben Witherington III).[20] Substituting that particular title with another will silence these rich theological referents, and, at worse, misrepresent the very identity of Jesus. Understandably, therefore, others like Wellum are wary of Christology from below that does not allot Scripture of its epistemic and revelatory primacy.[21] Even though we draw insights from general revelations, Scripture alone comes to us as God’s interpreted redemptive act in creation.

While we recognize that we participate in the drama of God’s redemptive story and that we forge our unique story in this rich tapestry, we also should acknowledge the discontinuity between the contemporary communities and the community that was instrumental in bringing the Canon. As Vanhoozer rightly puts it, “The Bible is both the authoritative version of the drama of redemption and the authoritative script for the church’s ongoing life.”[22] He continues, “the canon is the script of the theo-drama, the normative specification of what God was saying and doing in Christ.”[23] We must make room for the unique place that God allotted the biblical writers in his redemptive drama. Whereas their writings are inspired, ours are not. So while we are called to model the way they live, we are not necessarily called to theologize precisely the way they theologized.[24] The Canon is closed, and we must recognize the freedom and limitation that comes with that reality.

I suggest that in employing local titles and images to conceptualize Jesus of the Bible, we must recognize their proper place by maintaining the primacy of the revealed titles. Extra-biblical titles should be used to communicate and supplement the biblical portrayal rather than substitute them. At the same time, the Majority World Christians’ experience of Jesus must be paid attention in theologizing. Our metaphysical reflection of the divine logos must be balanced by our mystical experience of the human Jesus whom we encounter in our lived reality. Conversely, our existential encounter with Jesus must accord with Christ, who is revealed in the Scripture.

The cultural traditions, including those of pre-Christian experiences, are not to be suppressed or baptized completely; they are to be encountered, redeemed, dismantled, and integrated into theologizing. Such was the case with Christianity in general. Today, we see the residue of the pre-Christian beliefs and practices in the names of the weekdays, in the observation of Christmas and Halloween (in the West); we celebrate the bravery and sacrifice of our ancestors and heroes (Veterans Day and Memorial Day) even during the corporate worship gathering. Yet, we integrate those practices in Christian life with the awareness that all things are being redeemed through and in Christ. Even those who tend to see it differently are mindful that disagreements in these areas are in-house Christian differences. Then, as Vanhoozer asked, “Why, in principle, can theology borrow from Plato but not from primal religions?”[25] We must think about it. We could extend the same courtesy (although not without caution) to the practices of our brothers and sisters around the globe. This proposal is not a call to adopt a (negative) syncretistic Christology, but a suggestion to allow Christology to emerge from the ground-up by keeping the inspired, infallible Word of God as the primary source.

Conclusion

Oliver Crisp makes an important observation about our conception of Christology: if non-Christians can affirm the central tenets of our Christology without holding on any other distinctive Christian doctrine—incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, etc.—then such Christ is inadequate.[26] The point is clear: is our Christology bringing us to Jesus of the Bible by exalting him, or is it distracting us from the Jesus of the Bible? The question we must wrestle is not just whether our Christology is false but whether our Christology does justice to the whole portrayal of Jesus of the Bible. Keeping such awareness in mind, Christology “from below” can be redeeming.

In this article, we have looked at how the term Christology “from below” developed, was modified and reified and adopted and applied in the global context. I argued that the many Majority World Christians favor “from below” approaches to the christological puzzle. This method takes the existential encounter with Jesus seriously and attempts to christologize ground-up, allowing it to serve as a counteractive force to the approach that starts from the ontological and metaphysical aspect. At the same time, I also emphasized the danger of compromising the priority of the text and the uniqueness of biblical Jesus pregnant in this approach. Therefore, I suggested that it is best to use the non-biblical titles as complementary and not competing models to those presented in the Bible. Stated differently, they should supplement rather than substitute the primary titles for Christ. Our christological formulation should help us see the Jesus of the Bible more clearly and beautifully, the Jesus who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

 

Sochanngam Shirik, PhD Candidate

Asbury Theological Seminary

 

[1] Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 81.

[2] By “high Christology,” I am referring to what Bauckham calls “Christology as Christology of divine identity (2008: 30–31). It means that the divine status and worship of Jesus was already in early Jewish Christianity.

[3] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Christology in the West: Conversations in Europe and North America,” in Jesus without Borders : Christology in the Majority World, Gene L. Green et al., (Grand Rapids, MI Eerdmans, 2014), 11–36. Stinton. Conversations in Religion & Theology 6, (1): 37–49. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel : God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 58–59.

[4] Christian Scharen, Fieldwork in Theology : Exploring the Social Context of God’s Work in the World. The Church and Postmodern Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 37–39.

[5] Justin L. González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 149.

[6] Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (MPLS: Fortress Press, 1993), 723.

[7] Craig S. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019), 11.

[8] Bauckham, Jesus and Eyewitnesses, 4–5.

[9] Hick, Disputed Questions in Theology and the Philosophy of Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 3–16.

[10] Hick, “Jesus and World Religion,” in The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick (PHL: Westminster Press, 1977), 167–188.

[11] Crisp, Divinity and Humanity, 160, 154­–184).

[12] Reed and Mtukwa, “Christ Our Ancestor: African Christology and the Danger of Contextualization,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 45, 1 (2010): 156–161

[13].” Ibid., 162.

[14] Peter C. Phan, “Jesus the Christ with an Asian Face,” Theological Studies 57, 3 (1996): 403.

[15] Song, Jesus, the Crucified People, 216.

[16] Martinez–Olivieri, “¿Quién Vive? ¡Cristo!” Christology in Latin American Perspectives, in Jesus without Borders : Christology in the Majority World, Gener L. Grene et al., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 89–90.

[17] Ezigbo, Re-Imagining African Christologies : Conversing with the Interpretations and Appropriations of Jesus Christ in African Christianity (Princeton Theological Monograph Series: 132. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 304.

[18] Ibid., 301.

[19] Dalferth, Crucified and Resurrected: Reconstructing the Grammar of Christology, translated by Jo Bennett (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015 [1994]), 83.

[20] Witherington III, The Christology of Jesus (MN: Fortress Press, 1990), 233–262.

[21] Wellum, God the Incarnate, 92.  

[22] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine : A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 115.

[23] Ibid., 141.

[24] For example, the NT writers exercise relative freedom to reframe the OT texts for their theological purpose. The Holy Spirit guided such a process and inspired the resulting texts.

[25] Vanhoozer, “One Rule to Rule Them All?: Theological Method in an Era of World Christianity,” in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, edited by Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Books, 2006), 103.

[26] Crisp, Divinity and Humanity, 183.



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