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Two Christologies and Liberation Theology: Part 1

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Historically, many theologians and Bible scholars have embarked to understand and explain who Jesus Christ is. The formal term for this kind of study is called Christology. Christology is defined as a specific type of theology that focuses on the person, nature and role of Christ. Basically, Christology answers the following two questions, “who is Jesus and how are we supposed to respond to what we know?” The foundation of Christianity is built on the person  and work of Christ, which includes pre and post incarnation, as well as the incarnation itself. One cannot understand that foundation and totality of Christianity outside of having a solid grasp of who Christ is and what he accomplished on the cross.

Throughout church history, the understanding of Christ had fallen on the shoulders of early church leaders during ecumenical debates, formally described as councils[1], which have formed the foundation of current Christian denominations. With the rise and fall of kingdoms and countries and their respective impact and effects on people groups across the globe, the questions regarding Christ prevail, especially in regard to how people view themselves in relation to God and how they worship. These questions, often lumped together in “the search for the historical Jesus”, tended to be liberal in approach, focused on God, the Kingdom, and righteousness that worked itself out through love, according to Adolf von Harnack[2] , who was a liberal nineteenth century German theologian who sought to change the authoritative dogma that ensued out of the 4th century concerning the identity of Christ. Harnack believed the doctrine that emerged out of these early church councils served ecclesiastical authority church structures and promoted a Jesus that did not connect to humanity. He believed that the primary message of the gospel was “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the infinite value of each individual soul”[3], along with the commandment of love. Not until many years later that Harnack eventually would come to embrace that the fundamental message of Christ was having faith in Christ[4].

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in various scientific lenses by which many used to view or reject orthodox Christian theology, specifically biology, sociology, psychology, economics and anthropology. The Industrial Revolution, progress and applied technology moved society from an “outdated” theological understanding of the world, sin and humanity by embracing “metaphysics” and finally “science”, which rejected traditional views of applied Scripture[5]. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud left a significant nineteenth century stamp on intellectual society that solidified scientific reasoning, further flourishing the above mentioned disciplines which sought to understand society and the mind[6]. These disciplines added further questions about Christ’s identity in which theologians sought to establish a picture of Jesus that lay people could relate to by minimizing his deity and highlighting his life on earth. Since the establishment of the early church, questions regarding the identity of Christ had always been “up for grabs”. As a result of these questions, it is important to recognize two dominating perspectives or trajectories that theologians have been responding to, in various forms, “Christology from above” and “Christology from below”. These two forms of Christology sought to answer questions regarding the meaning of life and work of Christ[7]

Christology from Above

In a broad sense “Christology from above” originates at the beginning, when the Son of God came to earth from heaven[8], evidenced in the book of John. It is here we see that “the Word became flesh”, where God becomes Jesus, the God-man,.  Unlike the other Synoptic Gospels which focused on the humanity of Jesus’s actions and teaching[9], John wrote from a starting point that magnified Christ’s deity, a lens that is a “from above downward movement”[10]. John’s gospel begins the same way that Genesis does, with the phrase, “In the beginning”, to herald Christ’s appearance on earth as the beginning of something different from the rest of history, like a new creation[11].

Christology from above includes an understanding that the priority of the church should be the proclamation of Christ, known as the kerygma, with less emphasis placed on the historical Jesus[12]. Kerygma is the Greek word for proclamation or preaching and is used eight times in the New Testament[13], (Matt 12:41, Luke 11:32, Rom 16:25, 1 Cor 1:21; 2:4; 15:14; 2 Tim 4:17, Tit 1:13). It is the literal act of publicly proclaiming the content of the Word preached (John 1:1), which is the foundational and inherent New Testament message of Christ[14]. It is also what some scholars succinctly define as the Gospel[15],[16], or the primitive kerygma.

The primitive kerygma, according to C.H. Dodd, includes six main points[17],[18].

  • The age of fulfillment has arrived, as seen in Mark 1:15a, where the life and ministry of Jesus is connected to the history of Israel and is himself the climax of God’s historical redemption on humanity, which Dodd calls “realized eschatology”.
  • The ministry of Christ’s life, death and resurrection are part of realized eschatology, evidenced in Mark 1:15b.
  • When Jesus was resurrected, he was exalted to the right hand of God and the King of new Israel, Lord and Judge.
  • Christ’s power, exaltation and glory are revealed through the Holy Spirit.
  • When Christ returns, the messianic age will be consummated.
  • There needs to be a persistent inclusion of a summons of sorts, where humanity is called to repent so that forgiveness can be offered, the Holy Spirit is promised, and eternal life, called salvation, is received for the elect to enter into a community of other believers, according to Mark 1:15c.

Christology from above, or “descending” was the foundational understanding of orthodox Christology that emerged throughout formal church history[19] and took into account a knowledge of Christ that began from a Trinitarian lens that included Christ as mediator between God and man and was the primary messenger of God’s kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit[20].

Christology from above is faith driven. Faith does not take into account reason or history as evidence for its validity[21]. Faith declarations cannot be proved using empirical evidence. Science cannot prove the incarnate Christ but historical analysis can prove that a man named Jesus taught in the synagogues around 2000 years ago. Faith lives outside of both science and history, which makes it difficult for those that need rational evidence to believe something. Faith is a gift given by God, through the Holy Spirit, and is unprovable to the unbelieving heart. Christology from above has been the final response of various historical church councils. In attempting to refute various errors throughout church history, Christology from above is the  foundation of orthodoxy.

Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultman, and Emil Brunner are twentieth century scholars and theologians who reinforced Christology from above. Barth did not believe that the human life of Jesus, which included his words and actions, revealed the nature of God. Knowing the words and actions of Jesus have no power to save, nor does it guarantee that one can know God[22]. Bultman declared that not much can be known about the life of Christ from a historical perspective. Bultman believed that faith did not rest on one gaining knowledge of the historical Christ, however faith was dependent on having a supernatural encounter with Christ when confronted with the kerygma[23]. Per Bultmann, how one responds to the proclamation of the gospel of Christ, along with taking full responsibility for the receptivity and actions that follow the response will determine if one becomes liberated to live in human authenticity[24]. Both Barth and Bultmann agree that the earthly life of Christ was not important for one to come to faith.

Christology from Below

Christology from below was a reaction to Christology from above, specifically to  Bultmann’s work concerning the kerygma, and Barth’s rejection of seeing value in the lived life of Christ. Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus-God and Man, written in 1964, was that reaction.   Christology from above was deemed unacceptable because it presupposed Jesus’s deity and the goal of Christology, per Pannenberg, was to offer evidence of the divinity of Jesus. Christology from below sought to value, instead of Christ’s divine characteristics, the historical and relational features of his life and message, meaning Jesus could be more accessible if there was a focus on his behavior and actions towards humanity. Since people do not hold any divine characteristics, it makes sense to study the humanity of Jesus instead of the deity of Jesus. In Pannenberg’s  reaction to Bultmann and Barth, he writes that history is the fundamental way to view Christian theology and that it is only through the study of the history that God shares with humanity, through humanity and with all of creation that can one look to a hidden future that is already revealed in Jesus[25]. Pannenberg affirmed that it is only Christology from below, based solely on the history of Christ, and not on the actions of the God from above, can one form Christology that allows for anticipatory results that culminate at the resurrection of Christ[26].

Christology from above makes it difficult for humanity to accept Jesus of Nazareth, the man who was crucified by Pontus Pilate[27]. When the divinity of Christ is magnified, it is difficult to find real answers to the history of Jesus on earth and especially difficult to answer the questions regarding God abandoning Jesus when he was crucified on the cross[28].

Christology from below looks to reason and history to validate the “ascending” trajectory approach to explain the work of Christ. The overvaluing of the humanity of Jesus was the foundation of this form of Christology. Christology from below focuses on the actions and words of Jesus as he interacted with humanity, which looked to validate and affirm his divine characteristics[29]. This form of Christology emphasized his human identity as an oppressed ethnic minority and focused on his portrayal of exhibiting the expectations of participating in God’s kingdom through his actions[30]. Christology from below, with its emphasis on Jesus’s humanity, played a major role in the development of Latin American theology, specifically Latin American liberation theology[31].

Latin American theologians used Christology from below to pushback on the Roman Catholic Church dogma that historically tended to ignore the social concerns of humanity[32].  They believed that the church, in its traditional orthodoxy spent too much time theologizing and philosophizing the deity of Christ, which contributed to lack of appreciation for the historical Jesus and how he interacted with humanity. Christology from below, with its emphasis on the historical and human characteristics of Christ, paved the way for Catholic and Protestant theologians to promote a love for God that includes connecting with Christ through interactions with broken and destitute humanity. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Latin American theologian and author of A Theology of Liberation, wrote, “our encounter with the Lord occurs in our encounter with others, especially in the encounter with those whose human features have been disfigured by oppression, despoliation, and alienation, and have no beauty, no majesty, but are the things from which men turn away their eyes”, which he interpreted from Isaiah 53:23[33].

For Part 2: History of Liberation Theology

 

References:

[1] Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology.

[2] Ibid

[3] Woodridge, John D. James, Frank A. III. Church History: Volume II.

[4] Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity: Volume II. 396

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Green, Gene., Pardue, Stephen., Yeo, K.K. Jesus Without Border: Christology in the Majority World. 88.

[8] Raymond, Robert L. John, Beloved Disciple: A Survey of His Theology. Fear, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2001.

[9][9] Erickson, Millard L. Christian Theology.

[10] Raymond, Robert. John, Beloved Disciple.

[11] Reformation Study Bible

[12] Erickson, Millard L. Christian Theology.

[13] Cairns, Alan. Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002.

[14] Grenz, Stanley, David Guretzki, and Cherish Fee Nordling. Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

[15] Myers, Allen C. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987

[16] Geehan, E.R., ed. Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apolgetics of the Cornelius Van Til. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Nutley, NJ, 1971.

[17] Raymond, Robert L. Paul, Missionary Theolgian. Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000.

[18] Hugenberger, G.P. “Preach”. Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised. WM. B Eardmans, 1979-1988.

[19] Erickson, Millard L. Christian Theology.

[20] Green, Gene., Pardue, Stephen., Yeo, K.K. Jesus Without Border: Christology in the Majority World.

[21] Erickson, Millard L. Christian Theology.

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Sobrino, Jon. Christology at the Crossroads.

[26] Ibid

[27] Moltmann, Jurgan. The Crucified God. 

[28] Ibid

[29] Green, Gene., Pardue, Stephen., Yeo, K.K. Jesus Without Border: Christology in the Majority World.

[30] Ibid

[31] Green, Gene., Pardue, Stephen., Yeo, K.K. Jesus Without Border: Christology in the Majority World

[32] Erickson, Millard. L. Christian Theology

[33] Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation

Ariel Gonzalez Bovat

Author Ariel Gonzalez Bovat

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