Sunday, February 10, 2008

Christology: Luke Timothy Johnson on the Great Both/And

A little over a year ago, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) rapped the knuckles of Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino.

That reads like a dog-bites-man headline. But in the current issue of Commonweal, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson illumines the debate in a helpful article entitled, “Human and Divine: Did Jesus Have Faith?” (requires subscription to read full article).

It seems that Sobrino, taking his cues from the New Testament book of Hebrews, wrote that “with regard to faith, Jesus in his life is presented as a believer like ourselves.” The CDF replied that since Jesus was fully God, his divine consciousness and his intimate communion with the Father precludes him from having faith the way we have faith.

Johnson argues that both sides have much to learn from each other.

As they articulate their Christologies, the CDF and Sobrino are engaged in two entirely different but nevertheless complementary modes of discourse, says Johnson. The CDF speaks the language of ontology (the philosophical discipline that deals with being), which shaped the language of the Chalcedonian definition of Jesus as fully God and fully human—the Great Both/And of Christian faith. Sobrino, like other liberation theologians, is influenced by other modes of discourse: politics, economics, historiography, and anthropology—all of which are appropriate if we are to understand Jesus as fully human.

Not only does the CDF not know how to bring these disciplines together with the traditional philosophical categories, says Johnson, they don’t know how to bring the fruit of biblical scholarship to bear either.

* * *

Johnson is a bridge-builder, but he’s not a split-the-difference compromiser. In this situation, he wants both sides to learn the usefulness of all the disciplines and all the modes of discourse in our understanding of Jesus; thus he does some knuckle-rapping of his own, admonishing both the CDF and Sobrino for their lack of breadth.

Unlike many in our postmodern context, Johnson does not want to jettison the putatively Greek philosophical categories of the creeds, even as he advocates the importance of historical consciousness and of understanding the narrative and literary character of the gospels. He is a both/and kind of thinker. The philosophical language, he says “was a splendid and supple instrument with which to express the mythic dimension of the Christian faith: that God entered into the frame of human existence and elevated it to a participation in God’s own life.” (Note: Mythic here does not mean “fictitious,” but refers instead to the language that transcends the natural world and provides an explanatory framework for why things are the way they are.)

But all of this is prelude to addressing the question over which the CDF gave Sobrino a warning. Did Jesus have faith as we can have faith?

Yes, says Johnson, because the CDF misunderstands the relevant scriptural passages and fails to give full weight to the humanness of Jesus. The CDF clearly understands faith as a cognitive thing—believing that something is so. And if Jesus had a divine consciousness, his way of knowing about the Father and the Father’s plan of salvation was surely different from our own.

But that is not the way Scripture talks about faith, for the most part. Johnson gives a nod to the exceptions, but asserts (rightly) that when the New Testament talks about faith, it usually is talking about the volitional rather than the cognitive. The Greek words built on the pist- root can have cognitive overtones (I believe that), but the vast majority of contexts demand that we read them in more relational and volitional categories (I trust in).

Thus, while Jesus had full communion with the Father and knew the plan of salvation, he was still required to trust and obey, even as we are to trust and obey. Especially in Hebrews, Johnson writes, “Jesus’ human faith” is understood “in terms of his obedience to God (3:1-6; 5:8-9; 12:1-3).” It even says that Jesus “learned obedience.” And in this way, Jesus is the leader/pioneer/trailblazer (archēgon) and perfecter (teleiōtēn) of faith.

It was this notion of faith as trust in God, and not just assenting to truths about God, that made the 16th-century Reformation possible. Fortunately, the magisterial reformers (Calvin, Luther, Zwingli) were like Johnson, seeing the value in both the cognitive and the volitional understandings of faith.

* * *

This puts me in mind of Edith Humphrey’s paper at the most recent Ancient Evangelical Future conference. She resisted the postmodern tendency to suppress propositional approaches to theology in favor of narrative approaches.

Like Luke Timothy Johnson, Edith understands that our faith is a both-and kind of faith (Jesus is both fully God and fully human). And she showed in some detail why we need both narrative and propositional thinking in order to live as followers of the Great Both/And.

1 comment:

Monk-in-Training said...

I understand that Jesus was/is God Incarnate, but He clearly says a couple of times that He did not know something, or that some other thing was the Father's will.

It appears to me that in His voluntary human limitations, He did wrestle with faith and tempations, just as we all do, apart from sin.

How could He have been fully human, if He didn't?