Christology in Context: The Doctrinal and Contextual Tasks of Christology Today

Article excerpt

CHRISTOLOGY TODAY lives in the tension between continuity with the church's doctrinal tradition on the one hand and, on the other, openness to the new experiences and understandings of Christ arising out of the particular contexts of suffering and hope. In the past quarter century, there has been an unprecedented awakening of local or contextual christologies that speak of Christ and salvation in strikingly new ways. These contextual christologies are making a significant impact on all christological reflection. At the same time, the recent outpouring of works in systematic theology, ranging from single to multivolume works, is a sign of a deeply felt need to identify and affirm what binds all Christians together and to express this common faith in a full and coherent manner.

These two concerns--the doctrinal concern for the unity of faith in Christ and the contextual concern for expressions of that faith appropriate to particular situations--stand in tension with each other, as every pastor can attest. But these concerns are not mutually exclusive; ecumenical christological doctrines and local christologies can strengthen and correct each other in the task of theology and ministry today. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8); yet, this same Jesus Christ is inexhaustibly rich and cannot be definitively encompassed by any single christology or christological formula.

In this essay, I will consider several contemporary efforts in christology that refuse to choose between classical doctrines and contextual understandings.

Whereas each effort manifests a commitment to do christology in context, the intent is by no means to diminish the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, all these efforts aim to underscore in new ways the uniqueness of Christ's person and the universal significance of his saving work.

The Incarnation as Basis for Contextual Christology

The New Testament itself bears witness to Christ in context. We possess not one but four Gospels, plus numerous other New Testament christologies. Each reflects something of the distinctive situation in which it was written and read.(1) Still, while biblical christologies are remarkably diverse, at their center is the common confession that in Jesus Christ God is uniquely present and at work for the reconciliation and renewal of the world (II Cor. 5:19).

The creeds of Nicea (A.D. 325) and Chalcedon (A.D. 451) established the limits within which confession of Christ faithful to the gospel and consonant with the worship of the church should proceed. In the well-known phrases of Chalcedon, Jesus Christ is fully God, fully human, two natures perfectly united in one person, without confusion, change, division, or separation. While cast in the metaphysical conceptuality of their time, the intent of Nicea and Chalcedon is profoundly soteriological. They aim to preserve the biblical witness that only God can be the agent of our salvation and that God's work of salvation is accomplished in and through a fully human life.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to think of the affirmations of the classical christological creeds as antithetical to the concern for contextual authenticity in Christian witness and theology. These creeds arose within and spoke to a specific context with particular questions and issues that urgently required attention. The truth claims made by Nicea and Chalcedon are not properly understood if they are thought to prohibit fresh witness to the living Christ in new contexts. On the contrary, classical christology provides theological foundation for bearing witness to Christ with attentiveness to context. A doctrine of the real incarnation of God in the particular person and history of the first-century Jew named Jesus of Nazareth is the basis for a theology and ministry that takes the risk of entering deeply into the particular and diverse situations of life in order to communicate the good news of God's salvation in Christ. …