This week I am continuing with the presentation that I offered to the Socratic Club at Gonzaga University. Just as a way of review, the title of this presentation is Christian Pluralism and the Person of Christ. Last week we talked about the fact that as Christians we are called to perfect oneness, with each other and with God. Oneness, as Jesus says, which is of the same quality as the oneness He shares with His Father.
I pointed out the obvious fact, of course, that we live in a Christian world that is very much divided, doctrinally, and denominationally. But Christians, by and large, seek to maintain that there is unity in the Christian faith, despite the diversity, by appealing to the “same Jesus” defense, that is to say, somehow, even though they may hold contradictory doctrines about Christ, yet somehow beneath their contrary views of Him stands one and the same Jesus.
As I said last week, I think we have good reason to question that, and our primary reason for questioning that is the fact that Jesus Christ is not some all embracing ideal. Jesus Christ is a person, with the qualities of a person, who wants to relate to us in an interpersonal relationship of love.
I concluded last week by pointing out that the problems with this idea of the “same Jesus” turns on three points: Number one, we have to understand that Jesus Christ is a distinctive individual in whom there is no contradiction, variation or change—secondly, that He desires to enter into an interactive, interpersonal relationship with us—and thirdly, that the genuineness of that relationship with Him is evidenced by the unity of mind, will and act that we share with all other Christians.
When we understand those truths, then we have to admit that doctrinal differences are not just superficial. As I said last week, the specifics of our beliefs, when we understand this, become critical, and this has serious implications for professing Christians.
Let us begin considering those by thinking about that first point that I raised. As I noted before, some believers hold that Jesus Christ is the God who predestines all of us, either to salvation or damnation. For others, He is the one who offers salvation to all, and it is up to us to choose whether or not we will receive it. Also, some Christians are convinced that salvation is entirely an act of God’s grace. It has nothing to do with our own efforts at being righteous. Others are equally sure that being saved requires that we personally cooperate with God’s grace in doing righteous works.
If Jesus Christ is merely a divine ideal that can be expressed in a variety of particular forms, then it may not matter which of these positions one holds. If the real Christ is, in fact, just the Christ who in some way or another affects our eternal destiny, then doctrinal contradictions are, indeed, unimportant. Contrary theologies may be equally valid.
But Jesus Christ is not an ideal. He is an unvarying person who is who He is, and is not who He is not. His designs and desires for us are specific, eternal, and unchanging. Thus, He cannot be the God who predestines our salvation or damnation, and at the same time makes salvation or damnation a matter of our own choice. Nor can He be the Christ who applies predestination to some folks, while He saves or condemns others on the basis of their free will choices.
Christ cannot require that we personally cooperate with grace to do good works, and at the same time entirely erase such effort and such acts from His salvation equation. If He could do this it would make Jesus Christ the very epitome of variation, the ultimate in shadow and turning.
Of course, it is in the light of the second point, that I raised above, that all of this becomes hugely significant. Salvation is a matter of entering into the life of the Holy Trinity. We are joined to the Trinity through an interpersonal encounter with Jesus Christ. Obviously, to be genuine, that relationship must be with the person, Jesus Christ. It is impossible to have an interpersonal relationship with an all-encompassing ideal.
When we truly acknowledge that, then where one stands on the doctrinal issues I have raised here—and there are certainly others to be considered—becomes crucial. For they define very different relationships with Christ—or better put, they define very different Christs.
For example, suppose Jesus Christ is, in fact, the God who makes redemption a matter of our free will choice, and who requires that we cooperate with grace in order to be saved. If I am a person who is convinced that Jesus predestines my salvation or damnation, and that my own efforts cannot possibly have any bearing on my eternal destiny, then I am living an illusion. After all, the real Christ demands that I make a choice. The real Christ calls me to a life of effort. But my Christ, the one with whom I relate, does not ask any of that.
So if that is the case, who is this Christ with whom I am relating? If Jesus is, indeed, a real live person, who is who He is, and is not who He is not, then my Christ has no substantive reality. He can be nothing more than an idea—my personal, theological opinion.
This is a sobering conclusion. The only way to escape it is to lean hard on the “same Jesus” notion. But to do so is to ignore Christ’s concrete personhood. So instead, we must rely on a way of thinking about Christ that is distinctly Platonic.
Given that the Platonic spirit has been deeply ingrained in Western Christianity since Augustine, it is not hard to understand why so many Christians find it a perfectly self-evident truth that despite their doctrinal differences, they all believe in the same Christ.
I have never heard Plato’s world view expressed more succinctly than the way I heard it from one of my mentors, Dr. Wayne Pomerleau who said one day, “For Plato, ideas are the most real things. Truth is, at its base, intellectual. Abstract ideas have more substance than physical realities. When it comes to realness, universal essences trump individual existence.” This is exactly the world view that allows Christians who dispute over particular doctrines to simultaneously assert their unity.
I had this illustrated to me not long ago at a conference where I brought up this matter. A young man approached me afterwards insisting that I was making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill. He pointed out that all Christians believe that Christ is love personified. They all believe that He is God incarnate and that He was crucified and resurrected. That, he insisted, makes their doctrinal contradictions absolutely superficial. They do nothing to diminish their essential oneness.
Now it is true that professing Christians, with a few exceptions, perhaps, will confess together that Christ is love, that He is incarnate, crucified and resurrected. But here is the issue: In order to believe that mutually proclaiming these makes them one, Christians of differing denominations must ignore the fact that we are called to oneness with Jesus Christ the person, not with Jesus Christ, the abstract idea.
I know that at first blush, loving, incarnate, crucified and resurrected, do not appear to be abstract concepts. They seem to be very specific descriptors of a real individual. But what we must see is that for Christians with conflicting theologies to agree on those terms, they have to be turned into abstractions. For when it comes to what these words mean, that is, when it comes to what they have to say about who Jesus Christ is, and what He does, then Christians of differing doctrinal persuasion hold very different views.
Let me illustrate what I am getting at. For some, saying that Christ is loving, incarnate, crucified and resurrected means that He willingly chooses to come into the world to die as satisfaction for the infinite injustice that human kind has committed against God by its disobedience. Christ’s crucifixion purchases salvation for a pre-destined few while the rest must languish forever in hell. By His resurrection, Christ demonstrates that His limited work of atonement has been accomplished.
Others see the loving, incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Christ as the one who comes willingly to the world to serve as the punished substitute for every individual. Christ fulfills the penalty God demands from each of us for sinning against Him. Payment is made, and salvation purchased, at the Cross. The resurrection demonstrates that the payment has been accepted by God. And still, God leaves it up to us individually to decide whether or not we will receive the salvation He offers to all.