Reclaiming a Robust Christology

Off and on for the last 3 months I have been working on paper that I will present at the Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies.  The Institute gathers every five years at Christ Church College, Oxford, England where John Wesley studied.  The gathering consists mostly of Wesleyan scholars (University and Seminary professors) from around the world.  A number of attendee slots are set aside for Methodist judicatory leaders (Bishops, Presidents, Superintending Elders – the titles vary depending on which branch of Methodism someone comes from).  I have the privilege of representing the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops for the 8-day Conference. My paper deals with reclaiming a theological orthodoxy at the heart of Methodism in the North American mission field.  As I have worked on this subject, the cardinal call to reclaim a robust Christology (and pneumatology – Doctrine of the Holy Spirit) as an antidote to what Dr. Kenda Dean, our Conference teacher, calls “moralistic therapeutic Deism.”  A robust Christology is the centerpiece of a faithful and fruitful congregation. New Testament scholar Willi Marxsen noted long ago that the earliest Christian creed was the simple three word phrase, “Jesus is Lord.” It is not a mistake that the great early Ecumenical Councils of the Church dealt first with the person of Jesus Christ.  A doctrine of salvation hinges on a doctrine of Christology which in turn hinges on an understanding of the Trinity.  The whole issue of soteriology hangs on these core doctrines. The Apostle Paul’s great assertion of I Corinthians 15 arrests our attention. “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures.” Paul is not offering a minor aside in asserting the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is a claim to who Christ is.  He is the risen triumphant Lord and Savior; fully divine and fully human.  The creedal affirmation rightly reaches to this essence. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven, Was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary And became truly human.” (The Nicene Creed, No. 880; The United Methodist Hymnal) Such creedal claims are a reflection of the early Christian church.  By way of example, at Pentecost Peter lays out the core Christological claim in the closing line of his sermon.  “Let all Israel know beyond question that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).  When the Apostle Paul offers his witness at Mars Hill, the speech is going well until he insist on the resurrection of Jesus in verse 31.  “When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, ‘We’ll hear from you about this again’ ” (Acts 17:32). This biblical foundation is even more explicit in the Gospel of John. A similar reflection of what we might loosely call a “high” Christology is found in the works of Wesley and the original Methodist movement.  Again by way of example, Wesley’s sermon on “Salvation by Faith” rests on the firm foundation of a high Christology.  “What faith is it then through which we are saved?  It may be answered: first, in general, it is a faith in Christ – Christ, and God through Christ, are the proper object of it” (John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” Sermon #1, in The Works of John Wesley, Sermons I, Volume 1, ed. Outler, 120). I recently compared our current struggle over Christology in United Methodism as akin to so emphasizing the fruit of salvation (sanctification) that we are ignoring the roots of our faith.  My conversation partner emphasized the missional (love, justice and mercy) ministry of the church as central in importance.  He argued that such teaching about Christology didn’t matter just as long as we held to Christian values.  I compared his position to picking the fruit while we starved the roots. Sooner or later we pay for such poor nurturing of the soil of faith.  A robust Christology is not a nice added on but central to the church’s life, health, and deep faithfulness.