Q & R: A question about Jesus from a seminarian in England
Here's the Q:
I'm currently studying for a degree in theology & biblical studies in sunny England and have really enjoyed reading much of your work, especially admits the academia, thank you for all that you've brought to this big table! Whilst reading A New Kind of Christianity, I found your chapter, 'The God Question', profound and to have been pulled together and articulated beautifully!
It got me thinking however, to your thoughts on this idea of a maturing image of God, how God is like Jesus and the 'highest, deepest and most mature view of the character of the living God.' I can agree wholeheartedly with this, and yet at the same time wonder if there is yet more for us to comprehend, and in doing so, are we going 'past' Jesus, or in fact just understanding him more?
i.e. Do you truly see Jesus as the penultimate image of God in the sense that the progression stopped all those years ago? And in this, where does the Holy Spirit lie, is the Spirit too a view of God (that possibly unveils a 'more mature' image of God) or an extension rather than a progression with the former being a potential excuse for revelations 'outside' of the Bible?
My application and thinking for this has come through looking at ethical issues such as IVF, homosexuality, euthanasia etc. and the cultural, historical and scientific constraints Jesus was under as a result of becoming flesh (the same constraints we find of the Scripture). I find at times this 'most mature view of God' fraught with ambiguity on important issues, that seem new because of various recent developments, and thus we see the Bible able to support a plethora of ideas, even when used as a 'cultural library'. Is Jesus enough?
Here's the R:
Thanks for the good question, or actually, good questions ... Please pardon the old English teacher in me quibbling about one thing before replying, OK? I think you meant ultimate, not penultimate, since penultimate means next to last. I wouldn't even mention this, but it gives me an opportunity to make an observation about eschatology. For too many Christians, I think, they save the "ultimate" revelation of God for "the second coming," which they understand to be violent (a terrible mistake, as I explain in the book under "the Future Question"), which demotes Jesus' "first coming" as "penultimate" (another terrible mistake).
Anyway, putting that little quibble aside, getting on to your questions.
- Do I think there has been no progress in understanding God since the time of Jesus?
Tricky question. First, it should be said that I don't think we Christians have very deeply grappled what it means to call Jesus "the Word of God" or "the fullness of God in bodily form" or "God with us," as I explain in the book. So rather than speaking of us moving on beyond what Jesus reveals about God, I think we're very far from catching up!
Second, I think most Christians would say that since Jesus, doctrines like Trinitarianism have been articulated that - perhaps not in content, but in specificity of articulation - go beyond what Jesus said explicitly. If we allow that to be the case in areas of theology proper, then I think we should do the same in other areas - like our understanding of ivf, homosexuality, euthanasia, etc., as you suggest.
-- Where does the Holy Spirit fit in?
Great point ... We might say that Jesus reveals God in the flesh, God embodied ... and that the Spirit reveals God "in Spirit." Obviously, I don't see these in tension, but rather in harmony. Your question makes that last section of the Fourth Gospel all the more interesting, with Jesus saying, "There are many things I want to tell you, but you are not ready to bear it, so the Spirit will come and guide you into all truth." That suggests, I think, that we should expect the Spirit to continue to do what Jesus promised - to continue to guide us as we deal with contemporary issues like climate change, nuclear disarmament, and so on - issues that Jesus and the original disciples never had to confront directly.
Your question also raises another interesting issue. In the Bible, we have more and less personalized images for God. Father, shepherd, friend, king - these are highly personalized. Wind and breath (which are closely related to Spirit), water, fire, wine, rock - these are non-personal images. So your question reminds me of the wisdom of Scripture in balancing these two kinds of images ... God is not less than personal, but God can't be reduced to the personhood of human beings either. That's why C. S. Lewis (in Mere Christianity) used the phrase (that bothered me when I first read it) "beyond personality." Personality-plus, we might say. (I explore this more deeply in my newer book - Naked Spirituality.)
- Is Jesus enough?
You may have come to the chapters in the book about the Bible where I deal with the question "Is the Bible enough?" - and of course, my answer is a question: enough for what?
I think Jesus is enough to lead us to and into God ... and that's a beginning, not an ending. I've been following Jesus for about forty years, and the deeper I go with Jesus, the more I find waiting to be discovered, pondered, and explored. So I think Jesus is enough, but not in a limiting way, but in an ever-expanding way ...
My guess is that your question is aimed at the limiting way many people "use" Jesus to "define" God. But defining the Infinite is a risky business ... So as I ponder your questions, I think of walking with Jesus (via the Holy Spirit) into new frontiers - an ever-expanding adventure and quest for truth and life, joy and peace, being and becoming and action and contemplation.
All that's to say that I think you rightly point out the ambiguities in the phrase "most mature view of God." In the book, I talked about the Bible - and the same could be said of Jesus - not as a revelation that ends conversation, but as a revelation that invites us to enter a never-ending conversation ... that helps deal with the ambiguity of the phrase, I think.
Thanks again for your questions. You're obviously becoming a gifted theologian!