Friday, October 1, 2010

The Christology of the Gospel of John

The Christology of the Gospel of John
The Gospel of John was written later than the Synoptics, and so its Christology is more explicit than theirs, being the product of theJohanninecommunity's struggle to define its beliefs in contrast with those given in the traditional Jewish doctrines of the time.  Indeed, of all New Testament writings, the Gospel of John attempts to interpret the nature of Jesus of Nazareth most centrally, no doubt the result of much reflection and synthesis during a time of internal and external struggles.1
John's narrative offers a relatively unified vision of a transcendent Jesusmodeledin the light of Hellenism's principle of abstract truth, theLogos.  Representing the highest of the Platonic forms, theLogosof John astounds the readership by taking on flesh and entering the realm of mortals as a person.  Jesus is not only a Greek god or a hero doing wonders among (wo)men, he is the Word made flesh.  He is the new temple, the focus of worship which replaces the temple at Jerusalem.2
The high place accorded Jesus in the Gospel of John manifests itself in the “I AM” sayings, as his hearers are made to choose between light and darkness.  Indeed one is required to define one's very self in relation to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  The answers are sometimes earthy, the paradox of transcendence made immanent:  “I am the bread of life” (John 6: 35).  Other times the answers point to a reality beyond the material, embodying the invitation of Christ to ascend:  “I am the resurrection” (John 11: 25).  This high Christology of John's Gospel may obscure for some Jesus' humanity, especially in light of the challenges of later controversies, such asdocetism, which suggested that Christ only appeared to be fleshly.3
In many ways the Gospel of John prepares the way forNicaea, by offering definitions of relationship between the Father and the Son.4   The Word is, on one hand, a separate individual from the Father (“The Word was withGod”).  On the other hand, he is shown to be identical to Him (“The WordwasGod”).  That the Hebrew mind does not always present literal dogmas as such may be gleaned from the manner in which Moses was to be seen by his people as God, with Aaron as his prophet (Exod.4: 16).  Nonetheless, what is clearly offered in John is aproximitypreviously unknown; Jesus is the Word through which all creation was made (John 1: 3).  This clearly reflects the wisdom trajectory of the Old Testament, as presented in Proverbs 8: 22-24, 29-31, where Wisdom is personified as a co-worker in the creation.
Closely linked with the person of Jesus is the nature of his salvific work.  As the Son of Man, he will be lifted up, so that whoever looks at him will be saved (John 3: 13-14).  In seeing Christ crucified, one sees God the Father sacrificing the Word of His commands which would normally judge, rendered silent.  It is in the breathable silence that one is able to understand the commitment God has towards humanity, for it is here that God suspends the strict cipher of His law and offers a measureless freedom for the creative participation of the creation to shape itself.  It is here that the wood is split and the Spirit is released, here that the eye blinks, releasing a tear.  After only a brief visit, Jesus ascends again, showing at once the imperative and the transcendence of life.  Yet here, too, the Trinity is revealed.  For while Christ goes to the Father, he promises to send the Comforter (John 16: 12-15).  Salvation is then the communal effort of the Godhead:  born in the heart of the Father, executed in the work of the cross of the Son, empowered in the person of the Holy Spirit.
Nothing is hidden from the Jesus of John's Gospel.  He is the light spanning all space and time who says to the Pharisees, “Before Abraham was born, I AM” (John 8: 58, NIV).  Though he reveals himself, he is revealing the Father, and the Father reveals him in his works (John 5: 36-37).  Indeed heaven itself is identified with this knowledge:  “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17: 3, NIV).  Salvation in John is a kind of knowing, akin to the deliverance of the blind men from their cave, in Plato's allegory.
This exalted view of Christ must have presented the orthodox with a problem, namely ditheism.5   While traditional Judaism held a strictly monotheistic view of YHWH, here that definition was expanding to include distinct persons.  It may have seemed to some like Jesus was “another god”.  The problem is resolved, however, by the convergence of the wills of the two: “By myself I can do nothing... for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5: 30, NIV).  This transparency in Jesus' person is at once both a subordination to, and an equivalence with the Father.6
Seeing the mythic character of the Gospel of John evokes a rich imagery through which to understand Jesus.7   Israel's symbolism is co-opted to present Christ as the lamb of God (John 1: 29, 36).  The dualistic clash between good and evil (John 13: 27), light and darkness (John 1: 5), heaven and earth (John 3: 31), etc., are resolved in the slaying of the just for the unjust. Soteriologyand Christology are inextricably linked in John, and the transcendent vision of Jesus suits well the eschatological hopes of a community in conflict with the powers of the age.  As theLogosincarnate, John's Jesus is the revelation of God's wisdom and love made manifest to the whole world (John 3: 16).
The Council of Chalcedon
The Council of Chalcedon, held in 451 under EmperorMarcian, saw the gathering of five hundred bishops in an attempt to unite diverse factions of the church around a single formulation to better describe the mystery of the incarnation.  It made use of elements from both the Alexandrian andAntiochianschools to arrive at an official position on the person of Christ, namely that he represented the union of two natures, human and divine, in one hypostasis.  Chalcedon remained, despite the specificity of its intent, a touchstone for general Christology until the advent of historical criticism in the nineteenth century.8
The Council of Ephesus (431) had left two questions unanswered, namely: (1) If the two natures of Christ were not separate, could they be distinguished?; (2) how were they united?9   The Council also provided the language which would help to define the parameters of the dialogue to follow.  The idea of two natures (physeis) and of ahypostasiswere dynamically linked with the termprosōpon,or person, in contradistinction from the use ofousia, or substance, which had been named at Nicaea.10   The Council of Chalcedon, which would follow twenty years later, would make use of this terminology to address the questions left unanswered by Ephesus.  The Nicene and Constantinopolitan creeds, which prefaced the Council of Chalcedon, provided the essential doctrines of the faith, save elaboration of this one point, the incarnation.11
The statement of the Council of Chalcedon presents no new information, rather it synthesizes and refines those elements of the Antiochian andCyrillianschools which were most pertinent to the issues of the day.12   The Antiochian physeisis brought to bear upon the ideal of two natures in context of the Cyrillianhypostasis, in addition to the Antiochianprosōpon.  This was a wise political decision, for it united diverse elements within theecclesialcommunity.  It was also an ontological formulation which excluded the possibility that the union of the two natures was one in appearance only.
The Monophysite position, that of a single nature, failed to adequately represent either the full humanity or the full divinity of Christ. Eutychesconceived of Christ as a sort of intermediate being between humanity and God.13   If this were true, Jesus would not be like us in all things but sin.  No one could be saved in this picture, without first losing his or her humanity, as it was supposed Jesus' humanity was swallowed up by his divinity.  Any notion of suffering would lose its power if Christ did not feel pain as we do.  Total identification with humanity requires full, undiminished participation in human nature.  Yet, as Chalcedon emphasizes, the two natures, human and divine, are not merged or confused, as Eutyches would have it.14
Chalcedon was significant for these reasons, that it united two natures in one hypostasis, and for the fact that it brought together a diverse array of views and opinions from many corners of the Empire into a single, coherent definition.  It proved a fitting addition to the three earlier councils, and their milestones in Christology, namely: Nicaea'saffirmation of the divinity of Christ in refutation of Arianism, by use of the termhomoousios; Constantinople I's anti-Apollinarianaffirmation of Christ's humanity;  Ephesus' refutation of  the Nestorian heresy that two persons shared one body in Jesus  by the distinguishing of two natures.15   Chalcedon answered the Gnostic or Monophysite claim that Jesus' humanity was illusory or overshadowed by his divinity by emphasizing Jesus' full participation in human nature together with his full divinity in a hypostasis.  In summary, it presented a duality of natures united in a single person through a synthesis of the Alexandrian emphasis on the unity of Christ, and the Antiochian representation of the two distinct natures in Christ.16
This picture of orthodoxy dominated Christian thought for centuries until the development of higher criticism.  Many theologians from this school challenged the Chalcedonian formulation, arguing that its precepts were proper in their context but inadequate to Christology today.  Chalcedon is charged as being overly abstract and metaphysical, owing to the influence of Hellenism, and subsequently ignorant of the breadth of empirical data available in an existential context.17   As such, the argument goes, the representations of Chalcedon may be understood as somewhat mythological, in proportion to its theologians' desire to adequately communicate their experiences where little language existed for such purposes, except in supernatural terms.
Another limitation of Chalcedon is that it narrowed the focus ofChristologicalinquiry to the incarnation, to the detriment of other issues, such as soteriology, which required further development.  By presenting a static picture of the natures of Christ, Chalcedon also neglected the dynamic aspects of his resurrection and ascension.18  
Chalcedon'ssuccess, then, was that it united various elements of the Empire through a savvy formulation of unity in the person of Christ and his two natures in one hypostasis.  Though it established norms of interpretation for centuries, it has come under scrutiny in light of modern critical methodology.
Elizabeth Johnson's Waves of Renewal
Vatican II's atmosphere of open and honest inquiry has shifted emphasis away from religion as viewed through the manuals towards a spirituality of being and becoming.  That is, less concern is given to momentary and sporadic evaluations of a person's failings and successes, and more light is shed upon the whole thrust of an individual's journey and projects over the course of a lifetime.  This is referred to as a “turn to the subject,” where the experience of the individual informs our understanding of theology as a valid epistemological hermeneutic.19   Another consideration, voiced pursuant to the atrocities of the Second World War, is the problem of evil and suffering.  How can an all-powerful, all-loving God seemingly do nothing in the face of so much human misery?  By bringing these two dimensions of modern religion together, namely quest and questioning, we may come to a new definition of what it means to be a Christian.  When concern for the plight of otherkind weds itself to the drive to grow to fuller personhood in manifestation of God's giftings, waves of renewalfollow.
Johnson names several major shifts in theology, including a consideration of the humanity of Jesus.  Here Christ as “one of us” is emphasized, his immanence seen as the pretext for thoughtful interaction with the world.  It is also understood in terms of conferring a dignity and an inherent worth to theimago.20   Human rights, by extension, would flow directly and necessarily from this fact.  Anthropology is interpreted in this transcendental context in order to promote the flourishing of humanity.
Following this first wave, a second wave began to reinterpret Scripture as a set of historical documents, subject to methods of critical inquiry.  The ministry of Jesus is viewed as being of primary importance, rather than his nature.21   This shifts the perspective to a Christology from below, which works itself out in praxis.  The cause of the oppressed is at the foreground of this new analysis, in which justice means a reversal of systems and hierarchies.  The “reign of God” (a.k.a. The Kingdom) breaks into the collective awareness of the church and challenges it to rethink and rework itself in this new light.  Piety is replaced by solidarity, dogma extended into discipline.
The ground thus prepared, the third wave follows, namely that of liberation theology.22   Oppressed peoples in various developing countries begin to voice their plight, being subject to hunger, poverty and unjust political systems.  Here theology follows experience.  The cry goes up, “This must not, this cannot continue!”  Scenarios foreign to the First World present themselves to shock the sensibilities:  a woman must prostitute herself to a group of rebels or go hungry, a boy must serve the guerrillas who murdered his family or die, a priest hides weapons for jungle warfare in the church basement.  Sin is no longer understood as individual, it is social and systemic, demanding revolutions in the conscience and in the real world.
Feminist theologies also take stock of institutional oppression, and offer a variety of context-specific solutions.23   Scripture is brought to task for its preponderance of male characterizations, whether of God or of God's servants.  The church, too, is especially oppressive of women, considering advances that have been made for the feminist cause in the secular world.  Many countries have elected female leaders, including India (I. Gandhi) and the U.K. (M. Thatcher), while the church continues to bar women from the privileges of the priesthood and the rungs occupied by the Magisterium.  The full potential of women is understood to be curtailed by Greek images of male perfection, and reinforced by patriarchal notions of the proper place of women being restricted mainly to childbearing (1 Tim. 2: 11-15).  A reformist approach seeks to recover elements of equality from Scripture (e.g. Gal. 3: 28), while a revolutionary approach rejects the Scriptures as being beyond help and desires to establish a new vision entirely.  It would seem that each of these has a point.  The Scriptures, when applied out of context, may be used to justify any number of evils, such as slavery and war.  Voices of reason do appear throughout, however, especially that of Jesus.  By focusing on new trajectories, the nuances of the old ways may be replaced.  For example, the understanding of Jesus as Sophia rather than as Logos, or of divinity as Abba rather than as Father, may help to broaden our understanding of the love which the Bible testifies to.
Globalizationhas brought about massive changes in the environment, which have also called forth new Christologies.24   Awareness of the ecological impact of an anthropocentric ethic has been traced back to the Judeo-Christian underpinnings which permitted the Industrial Revolution.25   A new cosmology, brewing since Galileo first surmised the revolution of the earth around the sun, demands a hearing for its evidence pertaining to the evolution of species and the nature and age of the creation of the universe.  Christ as creator is emphasized, alongside the ideal of the redemption of the whole earth.  The inherent rights of animals are placed beside those of people, that we might consider how they may thrive, and possibly evolve towards sentience.  The earth itself is given value as a home but one whose flourishing depends on humanity's radical shift towards values of sufficiency and sustainability.
Johnson follows Rahner in his estimation of other religions, considering that salvation is not limited to any particular denomination.26   In this view, God is made manifest to all people and they are free to follow love anonymously, as implicit believers.  Thus charity is seen as the earmark of conversion to the service of Christ (Matt. 25: 31-46).  It is interesting to note that Rahner accepted the reality of anonymous Christianity without compromising the need for preaching the Gospel.  Essentially, his conception was one of a tiered church, where explicit believers' lives wereostensiblymore enriched through baptism, communion and fellowship:“...there must be degrees of membership in the church... from the explicitness of baptism into a non-official and anonymous Christianity.”27   Magisterial support for this position comes from Vatican II, which affirms that those persons, who no fault of their own, have never heard the Gospel, may be saved.28   The Holy Spirit is thus seen to be working as leaven in various breads.
These waves of renewal, from a consideration of the humanity of Jesus to the new cosmology, have brought religion alive by bringing faith to bear upon real problems.  Not just Christology, but pneumatology has grown in complexity and applicability as new situations demand incarnation.  The idea of social sin is linked intimately with social justice, theology with praxis, conversion with community.  The immanence of the godhead brings valuable streams of life to many new contexts, making faith as essential today as it was in the past.  Change is taking place at every level, from the mind and heart to policy and action.  Tradition is alive and full of hope; to be fulfilled as individuals, we must embrace the challenges of the future by discerning the voices ofOtherkind.
1 Robin Scroggs, Christology in Paul and John(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988) 55-56.
2 The New Jerusalem Bible, Reader's Edition(New York: Doubleday, 1990) 1242.
3 Scroggs, Christology in Paul and John, 63.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid, 78.
6 Ibid, 80.
7 Colleen Shantz, Introduction to the New Testament, unpublished class notes, 2004.
8 Craig A. Blaising, “Chalcedon and Christology: A 1530th Anniversary,” Bibliothecasacra, 138 O-D(1981), 326.
9 Gerald O'Collins, Christology(N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1995), 190.
10 Ibid.
11 Roch Kereszty, Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology(N.Y.: St. Paul's, 2002), 242.
12 Ibid, 243.
13 Ibid, 245.
14 Collins, Christology, 194.
15 Ibid.
16Ibid, 193.
17 Blaising, “Chalcedon and Christology,” 329.
18 Kereszty, Jesus Christ, 247.
19 Elizabeth Johnson,Consider Jesus(N.Y.: Crossroad, 1990), 12.
20 Ibid, 32.
21 Ibid, 50.
22 Ibid, 83.
23 Ibid, 97.
24 Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology for a Planet in Peril (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), 157-180.
25 Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” Science155 (1967): 1203-1207.
26 Johnson, Consider Jesus, 134.
27 Karl Rahner,   “Anonymous Christians”, Theological Investigations,VI, trans. by Karl and Boniface Kruger (London: Darton,Longmanand Todd, 1969), 391.
28Vatican II, “LumenGentium,” Art. 16. AAS57 (1065) 20.  Abbot, p. 35; One is reminded of the Lord's descent to Sheol where he preached salvation to the souls from the time of the flood (I Peter 3:19).

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