Starting in the late 1800s, Western theologians launched a quest to discover the truth behind who Jesus really was. Equipped with tools from the Enlightenment, these theologians sought to produce a portrait of Jesus that was historically mindful and that did not presume on dominant dogmatic and traditional interpretations of the centuries before. Beginning particularly with Albert Schweitzer in 1906, what resulted from the initial quest was a historical-critical view of Jesus within the Jewish apocalyptic context. Jesus was one of many apocalyptic preachers of his time, nothing more.

The quest continued throughout the 1900s in various waves. Although its findings differed considerably in each stage, scholars homogeneously agreed that the claims of Christ’s divinity came not from Jesus himself, but was a construct from his followers under the influence of Greco-Roman philosophy. So after a century of historical criticism, the basic consensus was that Jesus was a more likely a Jewish carpenter who became either an apocalyptic prophet, healer, wise teacher or social activist–or someone like that. The historical-critical project ultimately failed to provide a consensual and empirical answer to the question of Jesus’ identity.

But still, the quest for a reliable and realistic view of Christ still continues. Whereas Enlightenment thinkers sought to paint a portrait of Jesus within the constructs of rationalism, today new realities such as globalization, religious pluralism and the spread of Christianity throughout the Global South present us with a new toolbox of epistemologies and interpretations. The dehomogenisation of Western thinking coupled with the increasing relevancy of contextual theologies has proved able to provide fresh insights into our own Christology.

Nonetheless, globalization and pluralism raises the following challenges. Does the Bible promote a homogeneous view of Christ? Does it allow for a plurality of orthopraxis whilst maintaining a solid orthodoxy? What is the core Christological belief and practice that the global church should uphold? This post seeks to engage some of these questions. I will start by addressing Christological plurality in the Gospels and end by proposing a common unifying paradigm of who Jesus Christ is today.

Pluralism in the Gospels

The last one hundred years has provided Christianity with a dynamic change in its centricity. For the first time in over two thousand years, Christianity has moved away from the Global North and is now found mostly in societies of the two-thirds world. Today, the average Christian is most likely female, non-white, non-western and from a developing country.

Consequently, the process of theologizing has also become diverse, evidenced by the variety of contextual Christologies that can be found today. Each of these theologies seek to represent their particular contextual needs and realities. Some views that are present in this spectrum are the Reformed, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, African, Liberation, Black and feminist Christologies. A question beckons in this reality. Does the Bible support the contextualization of Christology? My initial assessment is yes.

What is perhaps most reassuring about the rise of contextual Christologies is the variety of interpretations found within the Biblical canon itself. The Jesus story is told primarily in four different Gospels, all of which witness to different aspects of the person and work of Christ. For instance, in Matthew, Jesus is the King of the Jews. In Mark, he is the Suffering Servant. In Luke, he is a friend to all, and in John, Christ is the preexisting Word of Life. But why four Gospels? Why not just a single more objective account? The variety of Christological perspectives within the Gospels is due to the diversity among his followers.

Jesus was born into a specific time and social context, to which the word “Christ” communicated a particular message and meaning. Scholars claim that at the time of Christ, Israel was divided in about 160 different Jewish sects all of which produced their own theologies concerning the person and mission of the Messiah. This diversity was reflected among the followers of the Jesus Movement itself, which consisted of Galilean Zealots, Herodians, scholars, the outcast and even Pharisees (John 3). This band of eccentric followers were initially drawn to Jesus because of the different aspects of his mission. Some viewed him as a revolutionary political leader, others as prophetic miracle worker, yet others as a wise teacher.

Despite of particular individual expectations, Christ’s testimonies about himself-or rather the Father’s testimony through him (Jn 5:36)-challenged the Messianic assumptions that were dominant in Israel at that time. Jesus preached a Kingdom message that was different from the expected armed revolution. Nevertheless, Jesus communicated the theological meaning and reality of his Kingdom within that particular political and historical context. For instance, he used the Beatitudes to redefine Israel’s response to the oppressive Roman regime. He healed, forgave and included the disenfranchised minorities. He spoke of reconciliation between Jews and Samaritans. Above all, he revealed himself as the Messiah, foretold of his suffering on the cross, and forbade his disciples to call him Christ until the time of his crucifixion (Mat 16:16).

Ontological and Teleological Uniqueness

In many ways, the life, death and resurrection of Christ described in the four Gospels were in aimed to deconstruct erroneous Messianic theologies adopted by the different segments of Judaism. At the same time, the evangelists sought to construct a new Christology that was based on a new understanding of God as revealed by Jesus through the cross and resurrection. What resulted was a reflection concerning the first-hand accounts and post-resurrection understanding about the person and work of Christ.

An intrinsic unity was consequently developed between the ontological and teleological Christ. Jesus was not just a revolutionary leader, a miracle worker or a wise teacher as originally thought by the disciples. Christ had to be the Holy and Righteous One in divine terms (Acts 3:14) in order to be sinless and forgive sins. In the same regard, Christ had to be fully human in order to have truly incarnate, suffered on the cross and raised from the dead (Acts 3:15).

This unity between the ontological and teleological Christ became indispensable in the Christology of the Early Church. To a certain extent, the Church’s understanding was both historic and dogmatic. Christ existed in the flesh, and fulfilled his mission within salvation history in the larger context of Israel’s existence. This was the Christ chronicled by his own disciples but also by Josephus, a prominent historian at the time. At the same time, Christ revealed, through both word and deed, a new understanding of God as the eternal community of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, triggering the disciples to theologize about his life and death.

Although the disciples had come from different philosophical and theological angles, they developed a unifying core that was the synergy of the person and work of Christ. With this in mind, the plurality of Christological images to define his earthly work (prophet, servant, high priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior) and his divine preexistence (Word, Son of God, God, YHWH) all steamed from a single soteriological nexus. Therefore, Gospel writers were intentional in revealing both the divine (Mt 16:16, Mk 1:1, Jn 8:58; 17:5; 20:28) and the human nature of Jesus Christ (Mt 4:1, Mk 15:39, Lk 2:52, Jn 9:35; 19:5).

What remains clear from this plurality of Christological views is its unifying soteriological core which hinges on Jesus’ full divinity and humanity. Contrary to systematic methods of today, early Christian thinkers did not dichotomize the person from the work of Christ. Neither did they disengage Christ’s mission from its historical-political context. Jesus was at all times divine and human, both Lord in the now and Savior in the eternal. Both realities were reconcilable in the person and work of Christ.

Though rich in different missiological interpretations, the apostles and early church fathers were quick to refute any Christology that was contrary to the divine-human and soteriological understanding of Christ. Some of the earliest letters in the New Testament were written in quarrel with the Gnosticism of the time. It was not until the subsequent Patristic Period that this understanding of Christ would become dogmatic. Two major creeds, Nicaea-Constantinople Creed (325-381) and Chalcedon (451), established Christ’s divine essence and preexistence in the Trinitarian community, and the hypostatic union of the dual nature of Christ, human and divine. Jesus’ diverse band of disciples converged around his divinity and humanity that redefined their sense of civil action and soteria.

To decolonize Christ means to strip our interpretation from epistemological biases (whether political or cultural) by affirming his ontological and teleological uniqueness as synthesized by the apostles through various perspectives and confirmed by the early fathers. Christianity is unique because Christ is unique to the world. The early disciples interpreted the gospel story through a plurality of conceptions. They also made sense of his life by joining in his missional imperative in many different ways and contexts. Christ therefore is not a dogmatic product of a single culture or worldview. Neither does he fit into contextual modes that prioritize a particular interpretation of his soteriological mission. Overall, Christ’s unique identity promotes him as the sole mediator between God and creation. As divine, Christ uniquely reconciles humanity to God, as human, he reconciles the multiplicity of cultures and ethnicities to each other. It is therefore, in the fullness of Christ’s ontology and teleology that the global church finds unity in meaning and purpose.

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