Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Who was Jesus of Nazareth?

Fifty years ago when I was a young inquiring Christian, research concerning the historical person Jesus of Nazareth (as distinguished from Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity) was largely confined to academic circles. Ordinary churchgoing believers were not much troubled by these speculations in the 40s and 50s. Today, it seems there is a supposed "discovery" appearing almost literally every day. Most of these books and television documentaries purporting to reveal new truth about Jesus are meretricious, exploiting the public thirst for sensation with "theories" masquerading as "scientific" evidence. The Da Vinci Code and its progeny are grounded in the P. T. Barnum school of what the public wants, with over-the-top financial rewards. (Does it really need to be said that no one who cared two cents about accuracy would call the great artist "Da Vinci" instead of "Leonardo"? That would be like calling our third President "Of Virginia," instead of "Jefferson.")

I have been re-reading the Church Fathers for several months. What a wonderful experience it has been. It is often said that the gathering of great minds in the American colonies at the time of the Revolution was a sort of miracle. This could equally be said of the assemblage of thinkers who carved out the shape of the orthodox Christian faith in the first four centuries after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. One marvels at the sheer intellectual firepower of these figures, and at their numbers spread all over the Mediterranean world. Moreover, many of them suffered all sorts of indignities, being deposed, exiled, or anathematized on account of their unflagging efforts. Their disputes were ferocious and often vicious, as is unfortunately typical of human controversies, but the final product is a firm anchor in a safe harbor for the believer in these difficult times.

This does not mean that orthodoxy is timid, fixed, or reactionary. Quite the contrary. I found a wonderful summary of the right use of the "Chalcedonian Definition" for us today (lay people reading this, fear not! You don't have to understand it to appreciate it and be grateful for it). The esteemed Anglican patristics scholar, Richard A. Norris, explains its right use in the Church today[note that "Christology" simply means, the study of who Christ is]. Here is what he wrote:

"This formula [the Chalcedonian Definition], the final product of the classical christological controversies, is essentially a rule of christological language. Its terms are not calculated to picture the way in which Jesus is put together. Rather, they are calculated to explain how it is proper to speak of him. Orthodoxy consists in the acknowledgment that Jesus is one subject, who is properly spoken of both as God -- the divine Logos -- and as a human being. To give an account of Jesus, then, one must talk in two ways simultaneously. One must account for all that he is and does by reference to the Logos of God, that is, one must identify him as God acting in our midst. At the same time, however, one must account for him as a human being in the ordinary sense of that term. Both accounts are necessary. One cannot understand Jesus correctly by taking either account independently, even while recognizing that they really are different accounts. There is a sense, therefore, in which it is true that the Council of Chalcedon solves the christological problem by laying out its terms. Its formula dictates not a Christology but formal outlines of an adequate christological language."

In other words, the Church Fathers left markers for us, like those that guide skiers downhill. There is great freedom in this. The purpose of the markers is to tell us that we may enjoy a great range of exciting trails at various speeds, observing only the boundaries that say "beyond this, you will be off-piste" -- which may be exhilarating but may also mean a badly broken leg or even death.

Above all we may rejoice and marvel at the truth newly proclaimed in every generation: Jesus is "God acting in our midst."

For a delightful Christian Century article on this subject here's a link: