N. T. Wright suggests that the most succinct expression of the gospel is “Jesus is Lord.” Robert W. Jenson suggests that the most succinct expression of the gospel is “Jesus is risen.” Which one is right?
I’m confident one need never choose. How can one talk about Jesus’ lordship without talking about his resurrection, and how can one talk about Jesus’ resurrection without talking about his lordship over creation? But if I have to decide between the two, I think I’ll go with Jenson. Surely it was the message of the resurrection, published in Jerusalem after that wondrous Easter Sunday, that launched the Christian Church into the world as a vigorous missionary sect. To proclaim that God has raised Jesus from the dead is to proclaim that the long-awaited kingdom has arrived, though in a way that no one was expecting, to proclaim that Jesus’ love for his friends will triumph over all evil and death, to proclaim that all of humanity’s hopes and dreams have been fulfilled in the Messias, to proclaim that this crucified Nazarene is the final destiny of the world. The good news of our Lord’s resurrection is as thrilling and exciting today as it was two thousand years ago.
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
I want to comment on one often-overlooked feature of this gospel message–it is a message of the Apostles. It is a message of those who claimed to have met the risen Lord. We cannot go around their back to confirm their message. There are no alternative sources to which we may turn. They either saw Jesus on Easter or they did not; and we either believe them or we do not. All preaching of the gospel is a reiteration of the apostolic proclamation, in one form or another. If it is not, then it is not gospel that is being proclaimed. The paschal joy of the Apostles is the foundation of the Church.
When the Apostles proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, they also had to provide answers to questions like “Who is this Jesus who has risen from the dead?” “What did he teach?” “What did he do?” “What does it all mean?” In response to these kinds of question the genre of gospel was born. The Apostles are the mediators of our knowledge of Jesus. They provide us not just “facts” but “interpreted facts.” Their memories of the Nazarene are profoundly shaped by Pascha and by their experience of the Spirit in the eucharistic life of the Church. The Jesus of the gospels comes to us as processed by lives converted and transformed by their encounters with the living Lord. The gospels do not give us unbiased, neutral accounts. The Jesus of the gospels cannot be divorced from the Christ of faith.
Regarding this topic I have found Thomas F. Torrance’s book Space, Time and Resurrection particularly helpful:
It is to be remembered that Jesus himself was not a Christian, for a Christian is one saved by Christ. Theology is not concerned, therefore, with Jesus’ own private religious understanding of God, but with that which he means us to have through his vicarious life and activity, i.e. the understanding which redeemed sinners have of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This is the kind of understanding of God which took shape in the apostolic mind and which became embodied in the New Testament reports. This is why, evidently, so little attempt is made by St. Paul to ground his teaching about God, mediated through Christ and in the Spirit, upon the ipsissima verba or private religion of Jesus, although he does claim to be operating within, and continuing, the authentic tradition. (p. 13, n. 18)
Christianity is not the “private religion” of Jesus! This point is absolutely crucial, and if we could grasp this, then the popular books of a Bart Ehrman or a John Dominic Crossan would cease to trouble our sleep. Christians should only have modest interest in the historical reconstructions of the latest best-selling author. We are not terribly curious about the gospel according to Elaine Pagels. We are not driven to search for the “real Jesus,” as if he were a stranger to the community of saints and martyrs.
Skeptical scholars assume that the authentic Jesus can only be accurately known when the written sources have been critically sifted, shaken, purified, and reconstructed. I do not depreciate the work of the historians—I enjoy reading their work from time to time—but faith cannot depend upon the assured results of biblical criticism. These results are never assured and rarely stable. Why are there so many historical Jesuses? Why does the Jesus of Rudolf Bultmann look so different from the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan or Reza Aslan? Might it perhaps be that the gospels themselves resist the divorce of the Jesus of history from the risen Christ of faith?
As Torrance reminds us, the “historical Jesus” is incomprehensible apart from the faith of the Apostles. “It is the resurrection,” he writes, “that really discovers and gives access to the historical Jesus, for it enables one to understand him in terms of his own intrinsic logos, and appreciate him in the light of his own true nature as he really was–and is and ever will be” (p. 166).
Bart Ehrman’s new book How Jesus Became God has been generating a fair amount of buzz around the internet. I’m not really sure why. Surely we have seen even more radical presentations during the past century. I have not read the book, but over at his blog Ehrman summarizes his thesis:
Many believers – at least very conservative evangelical Christians and others who have not had much contact with biblical scholarship – will be surprised to learn that Jesus did not spend his preaching ministry in Galilee proclaiming that he was the second member of the Trinity. In fact, as I argue in the book, the followers of Jesus had no inkling that he was divine until after his death. What changed their views was the belief, which blind-sided them at first, that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
Move along, folks. Nothing new here to see. Really.
I gather from my web surfing that some of the brethren are upset by Ehrman’s assertion that Jesus did not claim divinity for himself and that therefore the followers of Jesus only came to a belief in his divinity after, and because of, his (alleged) resurrection from the dead. Even if Ehrman is correct, his thesis does not substantively challenge my Christian faith. Why should it? Why should it matter if Jesus did not understand himself to be the Second Person of the Trinity? He certainly does now! Recall the passage from Torrance: Christianity is not principally concerned with Jesus’ “private religious understanding of God,” even assuming we have access to this private understanding. Christian faith is grounded upon the risen Lord, as attested by his Apostles. New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has firmly grasped this critical point:
Christians direct their faith not to the historical figure of Jesus but to the living Lord Jesus. Yes, they assert continuity between Jesus and this. But their faith is confirmed, not by the establishment of facts about the past, but by the reality of Christ’s power in the present. … Authentic Christian faith is a response to the living God, whom Christians declare is powerfully at work among them through the resurrected Jesus. (The Real Jesus, pp. 142-143.)
Pascha has changed everything. There is no other Jesus but the One who rose from the dead on Easter morning. There is no other Jesus but the One whom Peter, James, and John confessed as their Lord and Savior. There is no other Jesus but the One who meets us today in Word and Sacrament. Christ is risen!