I swear that’s not horrible news
Or as boring as it sounds
This essay went off the rails for me about halfway through. It started by asking the simple question: is Jesus a theologian? Can He be said to have a theology? For me, It ended up doing more than that, which we will get to later.
But wait, you say, I love Jesus and all, but outside of seminary would that title really be such high praise? Aren’t the self-proclaimed theologians around us all awful, pompous jerks? Isn’t it kind of hard to say that word theology without having your voice drip with contempt? Aren’t theologians the religious people of the religious world, who we say we’re fine with but would rather avoid? Shouldn’t we address this before we go dragging the Son of God into it?
Jesus is of course a teacher, we know that, but he’s also more than a teacher. For most of us in the Christian world, theology is a word we use to describe our efforts to understand what that “more” is – theology is what we know about Jesus.
Much of of this knowing about Jesus comes from Paul. The majority of the New Testament is theological in nature, though it exists alongside historical accounts, church business letters, and even apocalyptic visions. The middle category takes up the most real estate, and Paul is the undisputed king of the church business letter. Amid all the news, the drama, the disagreements, he’s doing a lot of reflecting about who God is and what God’s up to.
One very important thing that seminary has helped me develop is a clearer definition of what theology is (or should be). Put as concisely as possible, it is our reflection on our experience of life with God. This of course can extend beyond our particular context – world news, historical narratives, philosophies, and scientific discovery. If God is in the mix, or if we’re wondering where God is in the mix, we’re doing theology. In this sense, everyone is “a theologian”. Some folk just manage to make a living off of it.
Of course, if you take a Christian theology class, you probably aren’t going to be taught how to do theology – You’re going to be studying the Bible or or the works of famous dead people who studied the Bible. But it’s helpful to understand the common, everywhere nature of theology because that’s what much of the New Testament is – people doing theology. Understanding it this way helps us key into how Paul, Peter, John, and James’ words emerged from their cultural background and their experience of God, filtered through their personalities and particular sticking points. This doesn’t make their words less true, rather it roots that truth in concrete, lived experience with a living God – in history. Their words become both argument and testament. The theology of the New Testament isn’t just moral aphorisms and propositional theories transliterated through lifeless mouthpieces. It’s both a picture of God and an example – a story – of how we people get that picture.
So my starting question is invalid. Everybody is a theologian, so of course Jesus is. So here are some new ones, more clear and appropriate: Does the Bible give a clear record of Jesus’ theology? And if so, what is it?
And then, an intrusive thought: Why don’t I know this? After a decade plus of pursuing Jesus, why don’t I know what His theology is – or know why the Bible wouldn’t mention it?
And then, an uncomfortable realization.
The Bible is a motley thing. A multiplicity of witnesses. Different time periods, different genres, different voices. How do we know what’s most important? When two sections seem to contradict, how do we weigh them in the balance?
One way is to say: size matters. What takes up the most real estate must have the most value. Another way: newness matters. What comes later is most true. This is doubly tempting because of how the New Testament claims to be both a fulfillment and a realizing of the Old. Both of these are natural assumptions, if lacking in insight.
Another option, and the one as a student of literature I think is best, is to get inside the narrative and see where it points to itself, where the words themselves decide what matters most.
These two approaches applied to Scripture yield very different results. Narratively, the whole Bible points to the Gospel of Jesus. His birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, Kingdom, and final promised return. No matter the time period, the situation, the type of story – be it history or poetry, everything in the Bible is asking a question or posing a problem or making a promise that will eventually find fulfillment in Jesus. On the other side of the cross is the same thing. We now know Christ as a concrete hope but we still find ourselves waiting for His arrival – again.
My unfortunate realization was that I have, along much of the Christian culture around me, picked the former criteria for evaluating the Bible’s importance. We picked the biggest chunk of the newest part of the Bible and set up camp there. Perhaps that isn’t the reason why (maybe they’re just the easiest parts to understand or accept), but either way it’s inexcusable. Paul and John simply are not the core of Scripture. Neither are James or Peter or whoever wrote that sermon to the Hebrews. Neither do they claim to be. And yet.
Here’s the problem with this approach: The Epistles spend most of their time defining what the Christian life isn’t, and only secondarily do they address what it is. The apostles are resolving conflicts, defending against heresies, and working for unity. Their letters have specific purposes. They are committed to the health of the church as an institution, and (especially in Paul’s case) defending the purity of the Christian message as something distinct from religious law. That’s what they were called to do. But to do so, they’re defining the outer boundaries of what is acceptable, not the core of what is good. They’re doing surgery, not promoting health.
We who have made this error are missing out. We are becoming little Pauls, not little Christs. We care more about the health of our church institutions than about being God’s children, and more about our theologies than about God’s kingdom reaching the world. We assume that at the center of everyone’s being is a wrestling between law and grace, justification by works or by mercy – but that’s not always true – it’s too narrow a lens. A lot of people never think about that stuff. Worst, we look down on the teachings and words of Jesus as second and inconsequential. Cute, but ephemeral. Romans, there’s some meat right there. Hebrews – that’s the good stuff.
If Jesus were walking around today in the flesh and I treated Him in person like I treat His account in Scripture, I would be ashamed. I am ashamed, actually.
There’s not enough space here for me to take on all of Jesus’ theology, so let me leave you with an encouragement (as well as a promise of part 2): read the Gospels. Try to forget, one more time, everything you’ve been taught about Jesus. Just bring yourself, your life, your questions and your doubts. Ask God to meet you there, and speak to you there, if you’re feeling daring.
I think you’ll find them more challenging and interesting than you remember. In the gospels are everything that offends us about Christianity, which is maybe another reason we don’t give them their due. Miracles, demons, anger, arguments, scathingly authoritative and prophetic teachings, Acts of love that fly in the face of social norms, women (lots of them), poor people, blessings, woes, injustice and institutional corruption, tears (God cries!), and violence. Through it all, Jesus reveals to us his theology in riddles and paradoxes: God is an extravagant lover who is zealous against evil, a small seed who takes over the whole world, a party-thrower who invites generously but who will not be taken advantage of. A vindicator of the innocent, but one whose Holiness goes well beyond the most righteous of any of us. Someone who comes both in overwhelming power and almost incomprehensible weakness – who gives freely of himself even unto death.
This is the reality that God is calling all of us into – not to memorize the theological arguments of the apostles, but to let Jesus live his life and continue His ministry through our obedience. To put Him first, even over the will of our churches. We have no business worrying about the edges of our faith if we’re not headed toward the center – toward Christ and the life He is leading us towards. Here’s to starting.