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Christianity - Time to Rethink

Biblical scholarship and increased knowledge of non-Christian religions has left Christianity's traditional claim to superiority on shaky foundations. How can Christianity claim that Jesus was God when Jesus himself did not claim it? Donald Reeves sees the old theology being discarded and new thinking emerging which will put Christianity on the same level as other world religions.

By Donald Reeves
Christianity will have to work out comlications of this new knowledge; particulary in its relationship with other religions.

How are we to 'understand Jesus'. In the last 30 years or so there has been great interest in Christology the significance of Jesus Christ. It has been a subject of intense debate most of it confined to universities and departments of theology. Occasionally these debates reached the secular media Honest to God by John Robinson (1963); The Myth of God Incarnate (essays by theologians on the Incarnation, 1977) and the writings of David Jenkins, when he was Bishop of Durham and set off intense, public, but short-lived debates about matters which are the perennial concerns of theologians.

The basic reasons for this flurry of activity is that Christianity is on a threshold between a structure of belief, which has dominated Western civilisation for centuries, and a new structure of Christianity (as yet unclear) that is aware of itself as one of many responses to the infinite, transcendent reality we call 'God'. This is a new situation, and all of us are caught up in it.

Central to this debate is the person of Jesus Christ. By 'Jesus' I mean the historical figure. The Greek 'Christos' translated the Hebrew Messiah meaning 'anointed' which referred particularly to kings, and carried intimations of divinity.

The earliest Christians saw Jesus as God's anointed of the royal house of David one who would shortly bring in the Final Day of the Lord. Jesus called everyone to repentance, and offered a foretaste of this kingdom summarised in the Commandments love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.

Jesus was exorcist, healer, wisdom teacher, but above all prophet the last of the prophets an eschatological prophet to usher in God's kingdom in the near future.

But this did not happen. Jesus the prophet gradually became transformed within Christian thinking into God the Son coming down from heaven to live a human life, and save us all by his atoning death. One of the reasons for our fascination about the New Testament is that it looks backwards to the memories of the Jesus of history and forwards to the understanding of Jesus as a Son of God, and eventually to Jesus as God the Son, the second person of the Trinity and God Incarnate. Given the occasional nature of the New Testament books gospels and letters there is nothing systematic in this progression. Nor is this progression obvious or self-evident.

Together with the development of a perception of Jesus as God Incarnate grew all the apparatus of a universal religion Creation, the Fall, Guilt and Sin, a long history of divine interventions, the Church as the Body of Christ and the redeemed community, Judgement, Purgatory, Heaven and Hell.

This traditional understanding of Christianity as a universal religion with Jesus as the centrepiece as the unique, sole complete revelation of God lasted until the seventeenth century. As the modern world view began to form, this framework of belief began to strain, crack and snap. There are four aspects of this modern world view:

1. Discoveries about the origin of the universe and the evolution of humankind in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries challenged the creation stories, and with them the traditional cosmology.

2. The scientific study of the Bible as if it were any collection of ancient texts has made it a much less secure and authoritative source of knowledge. Biblical scholarship has made it difficult for us to "trust the text" and when the text is illuminated, it often reveals much less than we expected (there is considerable disagreement about how much we know of the historical Jesus). Furthermore, Biblical scholarship has revealed the 'strangeness' of the Biblical worlds far removed from ours.

3. Global consciousness has created a more sensitive awareness of the variety of cultures and faiths (and an awareness of the obvious fact that adherence to one religion or another is due largely to the accident of birth). Even the most cursory glimpse and experience of other religious traditions shows that each of them has produced great blessings and each is also responsible for appalling evils. Try putting the world religions in some sort of order of merit impossible!!

4. The arrival of post-modernism has meant that large certainties are more difficult to hold truth is experienced in fragments and in stories rather than in universal concepts.

So it is in the light of this new knowledge that it becomes difficult to sustain the conviction that "In Jesus Christ, God came into history, took flesh and dwelt among us, in a revelation of himself which is unique, final, completely adequate wholly indispensable for man's situation" (HH Farmer Revelation and Religion )

Within Christianity there are deep divergences and conflicts. There are those who have accepted the 'new knowledge' as it has affected Christianity; and there are those who have reacted strongly against it, and form a powerful and vocal opposition. But in the end "magna est veritas et praevalebit" Truth will out. Christianity will have to work out implications of this new knowledge, particularly in its relationship with other religions. There is already
powerful resistance. There is much inner turmoil and anger against those who wish to begin to explore these questions. We are all players in this conflict and we need to become more informed and responsible about our part in it.

Jesus did not claim to be God incarnate; nowhere does Jesus show any sense of "being God". All theologians are agreed about this matter from the most staunchly conservative to the most radical. Yet from the second to the nineteenth centuries it was believed that Jesus had proclaimed himself to be God, living a human life. (Many of the "sayings" in St. John's Gospel the "I am" sayings, for example, would have been used as evidence for this, but now they are recognised as not attributable to the historical Jesus ). It is easy to miss the significance of this change brought about under historical scrutiny. The results of such scholarship would have been shocking to Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; those who challenged the traditional beliefs would have been burnt for heresy.

The question about the divinity of Jesus moves to the church how is it possible for Christianity to know something about Jesus that he himself did not know?

There have been five answers to this question. Here they are very much abbreviated:

1. Jesus implicitly recognised that he had a direct and special relationship with God particularly in the intimate way he addressed God as Abba. And Jesus was implicitly aware of this special relationship by his actions abrogating the laws of Moses and forgiveness of sins.

2. Theologians concerned about addressing difficult questions about the historical Jesus speak instead of the "Christ event" the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost, and the development of beliefs about Jesus in the early Church.

3. A variation of 2 is to place emphasis on the Holy Spirit guiding the early Church.

4. A more Catholic and sacramental theology moves from the historical Jesus to the heavenly Christ.

5. A more evangelical theology recognises the presence of the Risen Christ as the hymn puts it "He walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own".

Each of those "answers" is neither complete nor fully coherent. Many of the arguments are circular.

Before concluding this piece on understanding Jesus, and how Christianity emerged from the historical Jesus, I will mention the harmful effects of the doctrine of the Incarnation in terms of its anti-semitism (the Jews were guilty of deicide the murder of God), patriarchy (that only men could be priests representing Christ, a man) and imperialism (the Bible and the Sword went hand in hand in the nineteenth century). The harmful effects of this doctrine do not necessarily invalidate its truth, but I recall them because one of the greatest problems Christianity has to face up to is its traditional belief in the unique superiority of Christianity as embodied in the Church and in western civilisation. John Hick writes in The Metaphor of God Incarnate, "Those who are deeply committed to this are inclined to see within the ambiguous New Testament data, the Jesus whose deity provides the Church with a divine foundation on the other hand those who have come to see the great religions of the world, including Christianity, as different, but so far as we can tell more or less equally valuable forms of response to the Transcendent, are inclined to read the evidence of Christian origins differently." (The Metaphor of God Incarnate ).

Before considering the Atonement, Salvation and the implications of these matters for the life and practice of the churches, let us look at the idea of Incarnation. Sarah Coakley in Christ Without Absolutes distinguished six ways in which Christianity can be said to be Incarnational. As you read them, again highly abbreviated, ask yourself where do you find yourself on the ladder? although they are not mutually exclusive:

Incarnation means that:

1. God is with us. It affirms God's involvement in human life.

2. As well as 1, God was involved in the life of Jesus in a particularly powerful and effective way Jesus was not just an ordinary person but one whose relationship to God has a universal character.

3. Christ existed before his birth in some divine form e.g., the Logos, or the Word (John Chapter 1).

4. There was a total interaction of the divine and human in Christ qualitatively superior to others, because God "gives himself fully".

5. Jesus has been and will be the only divine incarnation in the sense that no other person could be like this again.

6. The definition of the Council of Chalcedon Jesus as God and Man is definitive.

Another way of understanding the Incarnation is metaphorically: we hear of someone who says, "she incarnated the spirit of Christ in the world", or we say that Churchill incarnated the spirit of the British to resist Hitler in 1940. Incarnation here indicates something important about these people; they gather round them an aura of meanings and associations. We might then say that as far as Jesus was doing God's will, God was acting through him on earth, and was in this respect incarnate in Jesus; and in as far as he was doing God's will, he incarnated the ideal of human life in response to God. How this looks and how this works out is described in God was in Christ by Donald Baillie.

In the light of different perspectives on the Incarnation, new vistas about traditional doctrines Atonement and Salvation begin to appear, particularly as the encounter with other religious traditions deepens. All religions offer something like Salvation from a state of the wrongness of ordinary human existence, expressed in many ways, to the proclamation of a limitless, better possibility. In Christian terms this means dying to self and living to God, turning away from self-centredness and relating with love, worship and respect to God, humanity and the environment. But each religious tradition sets forth the way to attain this goal faithfulness to the Torah, living out of the Quir'anic way of life, the Eightfold Path of the Buddhist dharma or the three great Hindu Margas of mystical insight, activity in the world, and devotion to God.

Looking at the 'performance' of the major religious traditions, all offering paths to salvation, it is clear that not one religion stands out as more 'salvific' than the others. Thus, one of the problems we have to address is, if we insist on the unique revelation of God's love in Jesus, other world faiths are downgraded to the status of lesser, secondary channels of salvation. This traditionalsuperiority claim is unrealistic theologically, and unrealistic in terms of what is experienced of Christianity and other faiths today.

It is at this point that we have arrived at a threshold one in which Christianity will have to learn in its teachings and in its practice that it is one path among many. The implications of this insight need to be considered thoughtfully and imaginatively, and above all hopefully.

Donald Reeves was for 18 years the rector of St. James's Church, Piccadilly, London. He is now involved in establishing a network of 'progressive, radical churches from all over Europe in the Orthodox, Lutherian, Anglican and Catholic traditions'. His book 'Down to Earth' is available from him at: 29 the Chase, Bromley, Kent, BR1 1DE, UK. Tel. 0181 249 7774. Price £5+p+p.

This was the content of four sermons transcribed as one page. The sermons were delivered in St. James's Anglican church, Piccadily, London in 1996.


1. The sermons began to address the gut feeling that Christianity is 'superior' to other
religions because of the way the Incarnation has been understood. What seems to be necessary is a recasting of Christianity in such a way that it takes its place as one, just one, of the ways of salvation. Brought up as a Christian, holding traditional beliefs, I am now finding less resonance in the old orthodoxies, but some confusion in what might emerge. I sense the beginnings of the dismantling of much of Christianity; and this is profoundly uncomfortable.

2. I want to hold on to the importance of 'myth'. If I try to be generous to the myths of other religions then I think we owe it to ourselves to be generous to our own and this requires the cherishing of the imagination.

3. One critic of my sermons said in relation to my comments about the Atonement and Salvation that the liturgies contain traditional language about redemption, penalty, sacrifice, etc., which are now being discarded. I take the point, but there is a proper conservatism about liturgy and certainly the official liturgies of the church until some new consensus emerges.

Donald Reeves

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