The apocalyptic Jesus and the divine Christ

Continuing the series on Dale Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (previous posts here and here).

Despite his defense of the general picture of Jesus offered in the gospels, Allison is not out just to comfort conservatives or other traditional believers. For starters, as we’ve seen, he’s dubious that we can determine with any real confidence that any particular saying or deed goes back to Jesus. Moreover, the historical Jesus revealed by the synoptics, while he has a high enough self-conception to make liberals nervous, can hardly be said to have a Nicene Christology.

During much of Christian history, theologians dedicated a fair amount of effort to explaining away passages in the gospels that seemed to make Jesus too human (e.g., passages about Jesus “advancing in wisdom,” not knowing certain things, saying things that seemed to imply that he was inferior to his Father). While Jesus may have regarded himself as a central figure in God’s plan for ushering in the new age, he almost certainly didn’t regard himself as the Second Person of the Trinity, the pre-existent Son of God.

Going hand-in-hand with this is the unsettling likelihood that Jesus was mistaken about how the end times would unfold. Jesus did not return to usher in the Last Judgment after his death, and many modern people–including many Christians–no longer buy into the mythological apocalyptic scenario which that would seem to entail.

Allison observes that the gospel of John, with its realized eschatology, already seems to be at work “spiritualizing” the apocalyptic elements so prevalent in the synoptic Jesus. But John is projecting this understanding back onto the historical Jesus, whereas we are forced to conclude, Allison thinks, that Jesus did not possess any such de-mythologizing hermeneutic:

[Jesus] envisaged, as did many of his time and place, the advent, after suffering and persecution, of a great judgment, and after that a supernatural utopia, the kingdom of God, inhabited by the dead come back to life to enjoy a world forever rid of evil and wholly ruled by God. Further, he thought that the night was far gone, the day at hand. (p. 95)

Whether or not we see this as mythic imagery containing valuable theological insight (much as the Genesis story contains insight about creation wrapped in mythic garb), Jesus probably didn’t. Coming to terms with that entails rejecting at least certain “high” Christologies.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Allison is right about this though, there have been efforts to articulate a Christology that doesn’t depend on denying or downplaying Jesus’s humanity. So-called kenotic Christology has maintained, for a century or more, that, in becoming incarnate in Jesus, God divested Godself–in some mysterious fashion–of the divine attributes. This would presumably include omniscience. And Jesus, being fully human, would have thought using the images, categories, and concepts supplied to him by his language, culture, and religious tradition. To think that Jesus could magically access supernatural knowledge about ultimate things and–moreover–express that knowledge in literal, non-mythological or non-metaphorical terms (whatever that might mean) is to fail to take his humanity seriously.

But these Christologies also maintain that God was really present in Jesus in a unique way. It’s possible to think that God’s love, grace, and saving will were enacted in a particular human life without supposing that the life so united to the divine will was anything but human. Allison is certainly correct, I think, that much traditional Christology has been functionally Docetic, but a Christology that takes proper account of Jesus’s humanity doesn’t, for that reason, have to deny his divinity.

One thought on “The apocalyptic Jesus and the divine Christ

  1. I think high Nicene Christology can take forms that allow for much of this. In fact, I think when this is worked out carefully, it the results are often more surprising. For instance, many of the movies made on the life of Christ are reverent and paint Jesus in supernatural terms, but without quite making him the Second Person of the Trinity. The Last Temptation of Christ seemed to offer something more interesting. The idea of a full Incarnation, but where the human side is only let in on the fact gradually. (I don’t think this part in fact happened, but it would be consistent with the abstract Theology, even if not with all the Biblical text.)

    It is quite possible to imagine that as God Jesus would know all things, while as a man his understanding was limited. That he did not go dipping in to his divine knowledge as often as many of us would. That perhaps this was part of his test as Second Adam. I have adopted this as my working assumption, and it has changed the way I read. I am often wondering what kind of reading he is giving to the Old Testament to support his conclusions. Which is a very fruitful question to ask, as the answers are there to be found.

    As to the eschatology, the other view that could account for the facts you mention is the 70AD preterist position. That the end of the world mentioned as being imminent did happen in 70AD.

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