Q & R: Jesus, God …

Here’s the Q:

You probably don’t remember me, but I had the great pleasure to meet you [earlier] this year. I’m the Southern Baptist Seminary student … who admires your work at my own peril hahaha.
I know you get a lot of questions, but I’ve really been thinking a lot about the idea you touched on in A New Kind of Christianity that the character God in some Biblical stories like Job can be distinguished from the true living God we see most fully in Jesus’ life and message. I am very drawn to this idea, but the other day I had someone object to it saying if we say God is just a character in some Old Testament stories how do we not also have to say that Jesus may just be a character in the Gospels? I know many “Historical Jesus” scholars have espoused ideas close to this, but to me Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels is central to my faith. If you ever have time, I’d love your thoughts on this.

Here’s the R:

Thanks for the question. Before I respond, let me clarify … I wouldn’t want to say “God is just a character in some Old Testament stories.” The word “just” feels minimizing to me. Here’s another way to say it.
If I tell you about my wife, you’re getting my perspective on her. I’m describing her to you as best I can, based on my experience of her. You wouldn’t say that’s “just” my opinion, because I know her better than anyone. Even if she gave me a message to give to you, I’m still conveying that message in my words, through my interpretive grid, if you will. To take the analogy even further, if she dictated the message through me and I simply read it to you (some people see the Bible as a dictated document – even though serious theologians would never say this), I’m still conveying it with my inflections, my tone of voice, etc. But if she showed up and visited you in person, there would be a quantitative difference in your encounter. This, it seems to me, is what the writer to the Hebrews is saying in 1:1-3. It’s also what is being conveyed in the first chapter of the fourth gospel.
It’s also what Paul says in Colossians 1. In Jesus we encounter “the fullness of God” – in a way that we can’t say about any story or episode in the Old Testament. Yes, each of those stories tells us something – especially (I suggest in the book) in relation to the earlier stories it seeks to expand upon, deepen, or adapt. (Here I’m thinking of the ways Genesis adapts the earlier Utnapishtim story from the Gilgamesh epic.) But it’s dangerous to try to draw from those stories “timeless truths” about God from any one of those stories alone.
What we have in the Bible, I’d suggest, is something better than “timeless truths” – namely, timely truths: windows into how God becomes known to people, little by little over time, “through the prophets,” but then, climactically and uniquely, “in his Son.”
OK – now to your actual question! At some level, I think you’re saying something like this: “The only way we can know about Jesus is through the Bible, so if you admit that the Old Testament offers us truth mediated contextually through human perspectives, couldn’t the same be true of the Gospels? Wouldn’t we then lose confidence in their depiction of Jesus?”
I know I can’t do justice to your question without writing “a whole ‘nother” book, so I’ll offer a couple quick thoughts, trusting you to fill in the gaps:
1. Remember that for many decades, people knew about Jesus without any gospels … and certainly without four of them bound together in one volume. How did they know about Jesus? Much the way, I’d suggest, Buddhists today know about the Buddha – because there was a community that carried on stories about him and sought to embody his way in the power of his Spirit. Sometimes I wonder if, by assuming that the Bible is God’s primary way of telling the world about Jesus, we miss an important point – that we – as individuals and as communities – are actually God’s “living epistles,” that God wants the world to know about Jesus not just through a book, but through human beings who love and serve. Of course I love the Bible – I’ve devoted my life to understanding and teaching it. But at the same time, it’s true that real people have embodied Christ to me “in ten thousand places” … I don’t want to choose one against the other, but rather, to see the Holy Spirit speaking to me of Christ and of God through both the Bible and through Spirit-filled people, the embodiment of Christ.
2. The fact that we have four gospels is highly significant in this regard. The four present four distinct perspectives on Jesus – four characters, you might say, not just one. (John Franke writes about this powerfully in his book Manifold Witness – which I highly recommend, especially for seminarians like you and your friends. A multiplicity of perspectives helps us get a vision of a multi-dimensional Jesus. Add to that Paul’s vision of Jesus (which appears to have been written down earlier than the gospels, actually) along with the perspectives of the other NT writers … and we have a rich picture indeed – many “characters” depicted by different writers, but we might say they together project a hologram by which we in every age try to get a sense of the real Jesus. If we believe the Holy Spirit was involved in inspiring all these perspectives, and if we believe the Spirit is with us today as we humbly seek to interpret them so as to know God in Christ, I don’t think we have less of a resource for understanding Jesus, but more.
3. But even there – I must use the word “believe.” At the end of the day, I think that Christian faith is a faith … we can’t claim to have absolute, objective, uninterpreted, undoubtable knowledge of Jesus. (Well – we can claim to, but I don’t think the claim can be “proven” to the satisfaction of others.) This gives us – not an insufficient confidence, and not an excessive confidence, but (we hope and pray) a proper confidence, always teachable and ready to learn more of the depths and breadth and heights and expanse of God’s love which always surpasses our knowledge.