Williamson on Christology

A question that naturally arises for any Christian theology that attempts to recognize the ongoing reality of Jewish faith and life is What about Jesus? That is, do Christians need to sacrifice, or at least modify, their convictions about the uniqueness and salvific importance of Jesus in order to avoid supersessionism?

In A Guest in the House of Israel, Clark Williamson makes a number of critical comments about both traditional and modern Christologies. Traditional Christology tended to emphasize Christ’s divinity to the exclusion of his humanity, despite official dogmatic statements to the contrary. It was never able to provide a metaphysically satisfactory account of the “two natures.” Inevitably, this neglect of Jesus’ humanity resulted in downplaying his Jewishness. Moreover, much traditional Christology, he contends, describes Jesus as acting in such a way as to make it possible for God to welcome us back into fellowship, whereas for the Reformation, “[t]ransformation of life is the result of God’s gracious gift, not its condition” (p. 172).

Modern Christologies don’t always fare much better in his view. Instead of grounding the uniqueness of Christ in his metaphysical nature, they ground it in his “empirical-historical” character as supposedly revealed by modern scholarship. While they have, commendably, recovered an awareness of the genuine humanity of Jesus, they try to ground their christological convictions in the supposedly unique (but ultimately unverifiable) character of the “empirical-historical” Jesus. Williamson finds this pattern in Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Harnack–Jesus can save us from “authoritarian religion” (usually identified with Judaism) because of his perfect faith or “God-consciousness.” “In modern critical-historical Christologies, the only way to establish the uniqueness of Jesus is to contrast him with his context; he is unique precisely to the extent that he is differentiated from and opposed to Jews and Judaism” (p. 174).

“A post-Holocaust Christology,” Williamson writes, “will make it clear that to encounter Jesus Christ is to encounter the God of Israel, maker and redeemer of heaven and earth” (p. 188). Christology is not based on an “appeal to the empirical-historical Jesus” (though historical scholarship can provide a corrective to defective Christologies). When it is, Christians inevitably end up projecting onto the “historical” Jesus their own concerns and values (thus we get the feminist Jesus, the Marxist Jesus, etc.). But Jesus, Williamson insists, is not a norm, but a savior:

In bringing us to face the decision whether we will understand ourselves in any ultimate sense in terms of and only in terms of the love of God graciously offered to us and in terms of the command of God that we love God and the neighbor, Jesus Christ offers us salvation and is properly spoken of as our savior. (p. 191)

What we need to be aware of, however, is that Jesus points beyond himself to God the Father. We need to consistently “monotheize” our Christology, which, Williamson says, is what the doctrine of the Trinity is all about. The Trinity safeguards the oneness of God by maintaining that it was the God of Israel who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Jesus is the medium through which we are encountered by the singular promise and command of God.

To believe in Jesus Christ is to confess that it is through Jesus Christ as witnessed to in the church that we are brought to understand ourselves in terms of the love of God freely offered to us, as accepted and justified, and in terms of the command of God that we love God and our neighbors in turn, called to a new and radically transformed life. (p. 192)

Drawing on the thought of Paul Tillich, H. R. Niebuhr, and Schubert Ogden, Williamson warns against “absolutizing” the person of Jesus, which is a form of idolatry. Jesus is the medium of revelation, but not the revelation itself (see pp. 188-190). When we encounter the crucified and risen Lord in the church’s life and proclamation, we are presented anew with God’s promise and command–the promise of unconditional love and the command to love God and the neighbor. Jesus Christ is the gift given from within the Israel of God that we (Gentiles) might know the God of Israel. The work of Christ, so to speak, is to “re-present” God’s promise and command to us and to bring us face to face with that promise and command (see p. 190).

Some might worry that Williamson’s Christology is “gnostic”–that is, that the role of Christ is that of a revealer of a truth (God’s love and command) that could, theoretically, be known by other means. In fact, he holds that it has been known by other means, namely through Israel’s relationship with God. Williamson even goes to far as to say that “salvation…at least in part, is authentic self-understanding” (p. 231), and “[o]ur salvation does not ‘become possible’ in Christ–a statement that the New Testament nowhere affirms–but in him what was previously possible and actual in the history of Israel ‘becomes manifest'” (p. 162).

What Williamson would say in reply, I think, is that a Christology in which Christ functions to “make possible” our salvation sets limits on God’s grace. If we say that Jesus Christ as a condition apart from which God is not (or cannot be) gracious, then we are promoting a form of works-righteousness. “If we fail to remember that all christological and soteriological have God as their subject–God is the author of our salvation–we will render Christ into a limit on the grace of God and claim that apart from Christ there is no saving knowledge of God” (p. 198). In his view, the grace revealed in Jesus is the same grace that was and is present in the life of Israel.

2 thoughts on “Williamson on Christology

  1. When I read theology like this, I sense that at base, it is a kind of Christian rationalism that holds strongly to monotheism as something that we can see by means of reason, and holds pretty lightly to the details of revelation. In Scripture, they tend to see a well-kept record of one community’s wrestling with the implications of God. God’s graciousness will then be seen as something that can also be accessed apart from special revelation. (I would imagine that if we peeled back another layer, God’s relationship with Israel will itself turn out to be Israel’s wrestling with the concept of God rather than anything God “did.”) Once we see it this way, you can pit an idea like the graciousness of God against an idea like the uniqueness of Christ and see something new happen. But this involves a very different form of reading from that we would do if we accepted special revelation in a more traditional sense.

    Before I decided whether his conclusions were good ones, I would want to weigh whether his idea of what theology is about is a good one. All the old questions that come up in Prolegomena. “What is the source of theology?” is one that comes to mind. Williamson will offer a different answer from most. When you have a different starting point there, all sorts of different moves will be made. And the different answers are not the result of an unusually insightful individual mind (I haven’t read him. He may well have one.), but from a different understanding of the theological task.

  2. I don’t think it’s accurate to characterize Williamson’s project as one of Christian rationalism in that sense. He takes very seriously the idea of revelation as on ongoing relationship between God and God’s people. He’s not criticizing Christian theology in the name of “natural religion,” but in light of the evident fact of Judaism’s ongoing existence and vitality as a religious tradition–something which, in his view, calls into question certain traditional interpretations of Christian doctrine.

    I do agree though that much depends on how one understands revelation.

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