Christians of differing doctrinal persuasions hold very different views.
Let me illustrate what I am getting at. For some, the loving, incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Christ is the one who becomes human in order to heal fallen human nature. His incarnation has nothing whatsoever to do with punishment. For the God of love has never demanded our punishment. Rather, Christ becomes human to unite human nature with the divine nature.
He thereby restores us to that oneness with our creator which Adam and Eve lost for us. Jesus Christ dies on the Cross because in order to completely heal humanity, He must defeat death, the death that humanity chose for itself, and He must defeat it in the flesh. The resurrection—not the crucifixion—is the culmination of that work. By it, all of us are given new life in God. To be saved is to choose to live God’s life.
Still others see the loving, incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Christ as simply the great messenger of love. He comes to the world simply to show us that God cares about our human condition and wants to identify with us. By His life in the world, Jesus shows us what God is like. The Cross reveals that God’s love extends even to the worst of man, and worst of deaths. Christ’s resurrection demonstrates that there is life for us all after this one, and we have nothing to worry about.
I have just described four very different Christs here, and there are others, to be sure. Interpersonal relationships with these various Christs clearly would have very distinctive, and in some cases contradictory, dynamics. What one of these Christs does, the others do not do. What a believer does in response to one of these Christs, he or she would not do with the others.
Hopefully, it is also clear that for Christians in these various camps to say that they believe in the same loving, incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Jesus requires that they completely ignore how those terms apply to the particular person with whom each of them relates. To see themselves as one, they must instead turn these terms into non-specific generalizations. They must make Jesus Christ the loving God who is incarnate, crucified, and resurrected, for some reason, or another. And then they must treat this generalized, essential Christ, as a real person. In this Christ they are one.
The Platonic mindset, that was long ago married to Western Christian thought, the mindset that readily invests ideas with substantial reality, lets them do that without hesitation.
Unfortunately, the teachings of the scriptures and the early church do not. These uphold the truth of Christ’s invariable, unchanging personhood. Contradictory Christs cannot be lumped together into one all-embracing, idealistic, but non-existent person. There is only one real Christ, the one who is who He is, and is not who He is not.
The real Christ has only one plan of salvation. He has only one set of intentions for us. He makes the same requirements of all. His expectations for each of us are the same. The oneness God desires for us can only be found in this unique, concrete individual. All other Christs, no matter how theologically attractive they may seem, are not real.
With no “same Jesus” to whom we may appeal, the sobering truth of our situation confronts us. If Christian pluralism cannot be defended, then we must face up to the question, “Who is the real Christ?” Even more importantly, we must with courage, honesty and sincerity ask ourselves, “Why should I think it is the Christ in whom I believe?”
So where do we go from here? The purpose of this presentation has been to confront this fundamental problem with Christian pluralism, and to point out the implications of Christ’s personhood, for a divided Christian world.
The questions I have raised here are questions with which I struggled for decades. In the past 10 or 15 years, and especially since the publishing of my book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells, I have encountered hundreds—I could probably actually say, thousands—of people who also have come to grips with the contradictions within the divided Christian west, and the inherent Platonism that blurs them.
So I feel that I must offer at least a short word for those who might be asking, “So, what do we do?”
First of all, obviously, we must acknowledge that there is a problem. Jesus Christ’s own words, together with the witness of the apostles and the teaching of the early church, make it plain that Christians are to be genuinely one in the one Christ. For the Christ who intends that we be one like the members of the Trinity are one, and who admonishes us that our minds, judgments actions must be perfectly one, the un-ending division of the church cannot possibly be acceptable.
Secondly, we must also accept that if Jesus Christ desires something of us, there must be a way of accomplishing it. Real oneness—not just theoretical oneness, or abstract oneness, or agree-to-disagree oneness—must still be a possibility within the Christian world. Christ promised in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of Hades would never prevail against His Church. But division in the church is as “gates of Hades” as it gets.
So if we take Christ’s promise seriously, it suggests that the oneness to which Christ has called His people since the beginning, must not only still be possible, somewhere it has to exist. In fact, it must always have existed.
Thirdly, we have to accept that this oneness can never be founded upon personal, theological speculation. Obviously, it is theological speculation that has led to the division. To think that someone may come along and introduce a new theological, philosophical interpretation of the scriptures and the Christian faith that will suddenly draw everyone together seems unjustifiably optimistic, given the evidence of the last 1000 years.
So, how do we find the oneness? The New Testament, the writings of the early church, and the experience of Christians across the ages make it clear that the answer is not in theology or philosophy, but in history.
Saint Paul tells the Thessalonians that if they want to be sure that they are living in the unifying truth of the Christian faith, they must stand fast and hold the traditions that they had been taught through both the epistles and the preaching of the apostles. (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Earlier, we heard Saint Irenaeus identify the source of Christian unity as “that doctrine and practice which was handed down from the apostles and carefully preserved by the succession of bishops.” In his work The Commonitory, Saint Vincent of Lerins succinctly states the principle which guided the early church in its preservation of unity. For Christians today, it serves as a starting point for rediscovering oneness. “The true faith,” Saint Vincent says, “is that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”
My own search for that faith has led me to Eastern Orthodoxy. There I have discovered, together with thousands like me, a Christianity that, as Methodist historian Andrew Walls observes, is marked by a sense of continuity, of embodying the ancient in the modern world, of being living antiquity.
The Christian East has no Middle Ages. The sense of timelessness can be overwhelming. History is where we must look to discover the real Christ, the Christ of oneness, the Christ who invites us to participate in the life of the Trinity. He calls us to become one with God and one with each other, just as the Father, Son, and Spirit are one.
It is a place we are meant to reach together. May we all dedicate ourselves to the journey.