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Jesus, not some Christ-principle [Thawed out Thursday]

An interviewer once suggested to Barth that he followed a christo-centric principle in his theology.  Barth was not impressed.  He insisted that he had no interest in a christo-centric principle.  He was interested in Christ Himself.

Whether Barth always achieved that is another matter (who does?).  But at least he identified the danger with which all theologians (i.e. all Christians) must reckon.  Is Jesus Himself our Lord, or have we tamed the Lion of Judah making Him serve our real theological agenda?

Let me play devil's advocate and describe four popular ways you can turn Jesus into a mechanism to serve some abstract theological concern.  (Please do add others in the comments).

1) A general ethic of inclusion

2) A general doctrine of universalism

3) A general object of devotion

4) A general concept of grace


1) A general ethic of inclusion

You know the kind of thing - "Jesus identified with the outsider, the persecuted, the marginalised.  He opposed the religious and those who would condemn or exclude."  Take the aforementioned generality, apply it to your cause celebre and, presto, one all-purpose inclusion ethic.  NB: Best not to pry too closely into Jesus' particular ethical pronouncements nor the Scriptures He claimed could not be broken.


2) A general doctrine of universalism

Here, as with the other examples, it is vitally important to think of Jesus in abstraction.  Again, do not pry into the actual teaching of Christ, especially His words concerning judgement, but think only of Christ as Cosmic Reconciler.  Now that you've turned Him into a principle, theologize away on the inevitability of universal salvation.  After all the universal Creator has taken universal flesh and wrought a universal victory.  Keep it in universal terms, in the abstract.  Don't get too close to the Person of Jesus - it's the principle of reconciliation you want.


3) A general object of devotion

Take a prolix puritan, set them to work on some devotional writing, give them Song of Songs as their text and wait for the treacle to flow.  Delight in the mystical union.  Let the particularity of the One to Whom we are united be swallowed up in the general enjoyment of that union.

Or take a modern worship leader strumming tenderly, synth strings in the background, congregation swaying.  Wait for the effusions of ardour - mountains climbed, oceans swum to be near to... Who?  Jesus of Nazareth?  Or some ideal Love?  Is this praise to Jesus?  Or praise to praise?  What's missing?  Very often the actual Jesus is missing.  This is key.  Make sure that you abstract Jesus from His words and works.  Do not think in concrete terms.  In fact it's best not to think.  Simply imagine Him as 'The Highest Object of Our Hearts' and just enjoy the gush.


4) A general concept of grace

This one's very seductive, I'm always falling for it so I know whereof I speak.  Define yourself as 'a believer in grace'.  Define the gospel in terms of this abstract principle - grace.  Speak of the love of God.  Even speak of the sin of man.  But only speak of the Jesus who reconciles the two as a handy instrument - an instrument of Grace.  That's the main thing - Jesus fits into this grace paradigm.  That's why we love Him.

When anyone asks what Christianity is - tell them: 'It's not works!  People think it's works, but it's not!'  And when they say 'Ok, alright, calm down.  Tell me what it is,' don't tell them it's Jesus.  And definitely don't introduce them to the walking, talking actual Jesus.  That'll only distract them from your excellent grace-not-works diagrams.  Major on the whole grace-not-works principle.  And if they ever want to receive this principle into their own lives (after all your diagrams make a lot of sense) tell them to accept 'grace' as a free gift and they're in.  They may well struggle to understand what receiving a concept actually looks like or whether they've done it properly (or at all).  They may well question whether their intellectual assent to your diagram really has decisive eternal significance.  But whatever you do, don't point them to the Person of Jesus.  Grace is the thing.


In all of these examples Jesus is called on to serve a pre-existing theological programme.  He may be treated with the utmost respect.  He may be considered the very chief Witness or the Exemplar par excellence.  But He is at your service, not you at His.

Beware fitting Jesus into your pet theological programme.  We do it all the time but He resists all efforts to turn Him into a principle.  The Truth is a Person and will not be abstracted.


0 thoughts on “Jesus, not some Christ-principle [Thawed out Thursday]

  1. Jon Sidnell

    Ouch and Amen!

    Like yourself, I'm very much in danger of #4. Having grown up legalistic, moral and principled, the grace of God was a *huge* discovery. Justification, union with Christ, sanctification as impartation by faith not sheer self-effort, all things I am passionate about.

    Yet it's all for nothing if it doesn't actually lead me to Jesus. I can make an idol out of grace that keeps me just as separated from Jesus as my old legalism did.

    I get to preach in church in about 5 weeks, and it's my choice what I speak on, so thanks for this reminder that will hopefully stop me making grace another "thing" that is put in place of Jesus.

    Just out of interest, have you come across Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet's latest book The Jesus Manifesto? I think you'd really like it. It started life as a joint essay, and seems to have disappeared now - the book's website is at

  2. John B

    This post is an eyeopener! Your #3 succinctly summarizes some thoughts that I've been struggling to say for some time. I think that sacerdotalism is also included within this category. Evangelicalism, which arose as a rejection of sacerdotalism, has installed new objects of devotion to replace the sacramentals. The only stricture is that the new objects of devotion mustn't be material elements; but only words and music are permissible.

    I'd add #5, a general exemplar of righteous conduct. WWJD. Man has a wonderful nature; he's made in the very image of God! The work of the church is to influence people to be good, polishing them up so that their own natural goodness shines through, as they just follow in Jesus' footsteps. We can live the victorious Christian life by rightly controlling our decisions and choices. Thanks be to God for giving us such fine natures; and thanks for sending His Son to show us how it's done. (A good dose of Athanasius provides an antidote to this view!)

    With the exception of #2, all of these ways align fairly closely with specific branches in the church. But universalism is a kind of theological "black hole"; a problem in the East since Origen; Catholicism racing to catch up since Vatican II; and part and parcel of Neo-Orthodoxy.

  3. Paul

    Maybe two more which I am always falling for:

    #6: A general story of revelation

    Define yourself as a 'believer in revelation'. Define the gospel as an exciting plot line like in a novel. Talk about the speaking God but don't be too specific about who the Word is. Speak of Jesus in terms of the best revelation, the best bit of the Great Story, which is the fundamental thing. Tell them the Bible reveals God's awesome revealingness and creation reveals God's awesome hiddenness. Tell them they need saving from their ignorance and then invite them to be the end of the story. But don't bring Jesus in too early, he has his assigned time and we can't ruin the plot. And don't get bogged down in details about Jesus as the One who's revealed, certainly don't let him get too close to their or your life. It's all about the Story - Revelation is the thing.

    #7: A general law of morality (I think this might be the same as John B's #5)

    Take life as an exam and describe the gospel as the answers page. Tell them it's all about knowledge and logic but don't let those concepts have anything to do with Jesus. Jesus is the one who got all the answers right, but fundamentally it's all about passing. So tell them it's about how they're doing against some checklist - anything from not murdering to having good quiet times will do. Pat them on the back when they think they're doing well and leave them in despair when they don't. But don't talk about Jesus coming to us where we are and don't tell them to look up to him. When you tell them about Jesus and the pharisees make sure you point to someone else. After all they themselves might be doing alright without that Jesus - because it's all about morality.

    Thawed out Thursday is great Glen - thanks

  4. John B

    I was thinking that *a general vision of liberation* might be another way. But on reflection, Liberation theology is more likely a specific type within the category of #1. The view of faith in Jesus as a call to His mission of social justice is very much on the ascendancy in America. This originated in liberal churches; was adopted by evangelicals; and is now reawakening in depleted (some would say "purified") mainline denominations.

    There are many different strains of Liberation theology, which doesn't see Christ as universal truth, but rather views him in the context of society and culture. While there are differing cause celebres, all see theology in terms of a transforming orthopraxy. Orthodoxy is not the aim of theology in this view.

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