UPDATING OUR CHRISTOLOGY III SWEDENBORG AND THE GOSPELS
Friday, September 9, 1996
It is time for me to try to keep my promises, and to pull together some of the material
from my last two talks. We have taken brief looks at early Christians who saw Jesus as a
new Moses and their religion as a purified Judaism, and at early Christians who focused
almost exclusively on inner experience. In each instance, we were dealing with material
which is not adequately represented in the New Testament, either in the Gospels or in the
Acts and the Epistles.
It is probably best to begin, then, by a brief summary of the view of the early church
that we do find in the Acts. It begins at the Ascension, with a promise that Jesus will
return in the same way in which he has just departed. It goes on to tell of the selection
of a replacement for Judas, and then of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Peter's speech on that occasion portrays Jesus not as a divine figure, but as the Messiah,
the royal descendant of David who received and pours out the Holy Spirit. There are
confrontations with the Sanhedrin in chapters four and five, and in chapter six we are
introduced to Stephen, who is accused of blasphemy by a particular faction of Judaism.
His defense in chapter seven consists of a recounting of the history of Israel, with the
basic message that throughout her history, Israel has persecuted the prophets. At the
close of this speech, he has a vision of "the Son of Man standing at God's right hand,"
and following this, he is dragged out of the city and stoned to death.
The following chapters tell of the persecution of the church, in which Saul plays a major
role. He is in fact on the road to Damascus to arrest any Christians he may find there and
bring them back to Jerusalem for trial when he has the vision that converts him to the
apostle to the Gentiles. It is after this, in the ninth chapter, that we find the note
that "throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria the church was at peace. It was being
built up and was making steady progress in the fear of the Lord; at the same time it
enjoyed the increased consolation of the Holy Spirit."
The first hint of difficulty comes in the tenth chapter, when Peter has a vision in which
he is commanded to eat foods which under Jewish law are unclean. This is interpreted to
mean that the good news is not just for Jews, but for all people, and the mission to the
Gentiles is seen as divinely authorized. When Peter returns to Jerusalem, some of "the
circumcised" object to this; but when Peter tells them of his vision, "they stopped
objecting, and instead began to glorify God in these words: `If this be so, then God has
granted lifegiving repentance even to the Gentiles'" (Acts 11:18).
After a chapter on Herod's persecution of the church in Jerusalem, the story shifts to
follow the missionary travels of Paul--to Cyprus, Antioch, and in general throughout Asia
Minor. In chapter fifteen, we learn that Paul is followed in Antioch by some men "from
Judea" who teach that circumcision is necessary, and a council is called in Jerusalem to
settle the matter. Peter, on the basis of his vision, argues that it should not be
required. James (whom you may remember from my first talk as the prime representative of
the Judaizing tendency) proposes that ". . . we ought not to cause God's Gentile converts
any difficulties. We should merely write to them to abstain from anything contaminated by
idols, from illicit sexual union, from the meat of strangled animals, and from eating
blood" (Acts 15:19f.). This proposal is accepted, is sent to Antioch, and is received
there with great delight.
The rest of the book focuses on the mission of Paul, and the persecutions which he
undergoes as a result. There is little that bears directly on the internal affairs of the
nascent church, though it is worth noting that a major crisis is precipitated when he
returns to Jerusalem and is accused and imprisoned by Jews there. The trial proceedings go
from the Sanhedrin to the Roman courts, and ultimately to Rome itself. The book ends with
Paul formally a prisoner, apparently neither convicted nor acquitted, but still
functioning as a missionary.
The impression given is that the early Christians were, for the most part, of one mind.
There was a little difficulty about extending the mission to Gentiles and dropping the
requirements of circumcision and the dietary laws, but through the good offices of Peter
and James, a negotiated settlement was reached without much difficulty, and was generally
welcomed. This is the picture that is tacitly accepted in the present-day Christian
church. From time to time, one reads laments over our division into different
denominations, and pleas to return to the unity of the apostolic era.
The picture offered by the sources I have been citing is quite different. It portrays
bitter hostility between the "Ebionites," those who saw Christianity as a reformed
Judaism, and the "false apostle" Paul. It portrays both Peter and James as resolutely
opposed to dropping what were regarded as the essential requirements of Jewish law. It
uncovers a form of Christianity to which Acts makes no clear reference--the gnostic
variety which saw Jesus as opening the way to a direct, inner experience of the Divine.
The traditional picture of a united apostolic church begins to look suspiciously like a
public relations picture--resting on the facts, but suppressing those which are
uncomfortable. The "unity of the apostolic era" looks much more like the divided state in
which we now find ourselves, with even less of an ecumenical spirit, less of a will for
Behind each of these factions of early Christianity lies a particular view of Jesus
himself, and more specifically, of the relationship between the Divine and the human in
Jesus. The issues involved were given their classical form in the creedal councils of the
early church, under the clear influence of Greek thought. The competing views ranged from
seeing Jesus as completely human to seeing him as completely divine--from the Arian to the
docetic, if your are interested in such terms. The consensus reached was that Jesus was in
some way fully human and fully divine; but there seemed to be no way to understand this
that was clearly satisfying.
The main difficulty, I would suggest, lay in conceiving of the Divine and the human as
utterly and irreconcilably different. When the Divine is seen simply as infinite and
perfect and the human as simply finite and fallen, there really is no way to combine the
two in one individual. When the Divine is seen as immensely remote, working only
indirectly through agents, there is again a gap that is difficult to bridge.
This means that the problem is not simply one of defining the relationship between the
Divine and the human in Jesus. It requires that we understand what we mean by the term
"human," and it seems regularly overlooked in discussions of the nature of Jesus that
there is no widespread agreement about our own nature. We might paraphrase a question in
the first Epistle of John: "If we do not understand our brother whom we have seen, how can
we understand God whom we have not seen?"
In each case, it can be argued that there is a kind of projection going on, with people
prescribing for everyone what has worked for them. The Judaizing Christians saw a lawless,
pagan world, pitifully short on ethics, full of seductive temptations. They found security
and moral strength in a trust in laws that had divine authority behind them, and that
sense of security and strength depended on seeing Jesus as the new Moses. The gnostics, on
the other hand, could readily believe that God was wholly present in Jesus because they
had experienced the divine presence in themselves. To their minds, if Jesus could not say
that he and the Father were one, he was not worth listening to. The mainline church came
to be perhaps the most pessimistic of the three, effectively giving up on both divine laws
and personal transformation, and substituting obedience to the regulations of the church.
The first step in presenting our Christology to other Christians, then, might well be to
explore what we mean when we talk of a "human nature." Do we mean only the worst side of
the human race, or do we include the best as well? Do we limit ourselves to what seem to
be the prevailing averages, or do we include the extraordinary? Do we see only our actual
performance, or do we allow for our potentialities? Only when we at least know what we are
talking about can we have some assurance that we understand each other.
For the second step, I would urge that we not rest our case on our favorite Gospel
passages. As I indicated in my first talk of this series, the Gospels present a wide range
of views about Jesus; and I would go on to suggest that to find an adequate Biblical basis
for our Christology, we must take that variety into account.
This second step in fact relates very closely to the first. As soon as we start looking
clearly at "human nature," we find that we have our ups and downs, our good days and our
bad days. There are times when it seems impossible to love our world and our
fellow-humans, and other times when it seems impossible not to. The picture of Jesus
sometimes praying to a remote Father and sometimes having a sense of total unity should be
perfectly understandable; and as soon as we see it in this light, we see what we are doing
when we focus exclusively on either our faults or our potentialities.
But for all the variety of such views in the Gospels, there are some constant themes. In
my first talk, I summarized what I think we can be sure of, and I'd like to review that
We can be quite sure, first of all, that there was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth.
There are problems as to exactly when he was born, and there is a shortage of contemporary
references to him, but there is no possible way of explaining what happened by any
assumption that other people just invented him.
Second, we can be quite sure that he was an unusual individual. He made a profound
impression on people. He was perceived as a miracle worker, for example, and this was not
just the enthusiastic view of his followers. There are hostile arguments in early
Rabbinical literature that his healings were actually works of forbidden magic. Such
arguments presume that the healings actually took place. He was also heard and seen as a
teacher, and as a remarkable one, within the traditions of Judaism. There can be no doubt
that he used parables and questions and paradoxes more extensively than he used any direct
didactic method. His technique, that is, was not to tell people what they ought to think,
but to stimulate them to figure things out for themselves.
He evidently had profound insight into the people he met, and conveyed a very personal
care for them. Those individuals who were willing to be understood found themselves
accepted, while those who simply wanted to maintain the appearances of virtue or
superiority found him intensely threatening.
There is no doubt that he was tried and condemned, and there is no doubt that he died by
crucifixion. Again, early Rabbinical sources contain allegations of the theft of the body
which remind us of the story that is denied in the Gospel of Matthew.
Lastly, there is no doubt that he appeared to the disciples, convincingly alive, after his
death and burial. There can be no other explanation of the confidence and zeal with which
the apostles went out to change the world. They had been utterly crushed by the
crucifixion, and no private spiritual experience, no aggregation of private spiritual
experiences, could have worked such a collective transformation. After Paul had his
personal revelation on the road to Damascus, for example, he had a hard time convincing
other Christians that it was genuine. No, something quite tremendous happened after the
crucifixion, and that experience was shared by the disciples.
We are faced, then, with a real, flesh-and-blood individual of quite extraordinary grace
and power. The pervasive image is of a man who saw into the hearts of those he met, who
cared profoundly about them, and who sought and found ways to help them to discover what
life was really all about. At this point, I would stress particularly his use of parables
and questions rather than direct expository teaching, because this indicates a very rare
trust in the intelligence and insight of his hearers. When we are sure we know more than
other people do--as may in fact be the case--then we tend to tell them what we know. We
may even wind up giving lectures. It is hard to imagine simply telling a story or asking a
question, and leaving it at that. We would like to control the results.
I emphasize this because I think it is very close to something our theology regards as
particularly characteristic of the Divine. When Swedenborg began listing the laws of
divine providence, the first one was that we should act from freedom according to reason.
The whole intent, the whole working of divine love and wisdom is to provide us with
significant choices. God will not condemn us to hell or legislate us into heaven, and in
the Jesus of the Gospels, we see the matchless skill with which this care for our
essential freedom is exercised.
Perhaps the best way to approach Christological questions realistically, then, would be to
imagine ourselves even for a moment capable of this kind of care and skill. You are with
someone else, and that someone is inexpressibly dear to you. You know to the depths of
your being that issues of heaven and hell hang in the balance, and that anything you do to
compel the "right" decision will be hurtful. You see in your mind the particular image
which will enable that individual to see exactly what is at stake, an image which will be
clear only if there is the willingness to see. You tell the story or ask the question,
simply and directly, and you leave it at that.
Where did all this love and insight come from? It is certainly not part of our ordinary,
everyday equipment for dealing with life. It certainly did not come from a God who is
remote and unforgiving. Our own theology would say that it could come only from a God who
is infinitely loving and wise, and who deepest longing is to share that love and wisdom
with us. This would be the Lord working in and through us, and if we had the courage of
our convictions, we would state this as clearly as possible. In Gospel terms, it might
come out with a statement that it is the Father within who does such works.
At the same time, it is hard to deny that such caring and insight are really what "being
human" is all about. It is intriguing in this respect to recall that in spite of some very
negative ideas about "human nature," there is still a very close resemblance between the
word "human" and the word "humane," and that when we see outright cruelty or callous
disregard for the welfare of others, we call it "inhuman behavior."
This is expressed in our theology in the frequent statement that the Lord is the only
Person. One particular passage that relates this principle to our present topic is Arcana
The reason the Lord's inner person, which is Jehovah, is called a person is that no one is
a person except Jehovah alone. For in its genuine sense, "person" is that reality from
which we exist. Without the divine heavenly and spiritual, there is nothing human in us,
but only a certain spiritedness such as there is with beasts.
Suppose, then, that we take a fresh look at ourselves. Suppose we regard ourselves as
potentially rather then actually or fully human. Then I would suggest that the views of
the gnostics and those of the Judaeochristians both have significant contributions to
make. I believe that there is a combination of the best in each which the orthodox church
failed to find.
To start with the Judaeochristians, I would highlight particularly their insistence that
Jesus underwent a process of change and development. We might be reluctant to say that he
was not born the Messiah, but perhaps we should think again. We do believe that he was
born into all the evils that flesh is heir to, The Ebionite view that he became the
Messiah by his obedience to the Law is closely kin to our view that the process of
glorification depended on his meeting and overcoming temptations of all kinds.
While Swedenborg does not single out the Lord's baptism as a moment of special
significance, there would seem to be every likelihood that it was. It led directly to the
temptation in the wilderness, and to the beginning of his ministry. While we do not know
what he had been doing up till this time, there is every indication that it marked a major
change in direction.
What the Ebionites missed, from our point of view, is the essential deepening of the Law.
They rightly saw that the laws of literal sacrifice were abolished, but did not apparently
understand that the underlying principles of holiness were to be brought to the fore
instead. They rightly saw that dreams of a triumphant nation of Israel were superseded,
but they apparently did not grasp the substantial spiritual presence of the kingdom of
heaven that it represented.
It is this dimension in particular that is supplied by the gnostics. They were wholly
convinced that the vital message was a spiritual one, that what Jesus was all about was
the demonstration of a more potent and intimate divine presence than orthodox religion had
dreamed of. Nothing mattered more to them than the theme of "oneness with the Father"
which is so dear to us from the Gospel of John.
What they missed--again from our point of view--was precisely what was so important to the
Ebionites, namely the role of the Law in making this oneness possible. Their tendency, if
you will, seems to have been to strive for oneness by direct assault, by working directly
on consciousness. This is presumably why they came up with such a wild variety of images
and mythologies. Their search for oneness was not adequately grounded in concern for the
day-to-day dealing with the problems of human community.
If it seems as though I have been following two distinct lines of thought in this talk,
this is a rather "real appearance." There is on the one hand the thought that issues of
Christology should take seriously what we mean by the word "human," and on the other hand
the thought that there was a wide variety of opinions in the early church about the nature
of the Christ. I'd like to conclude by bringing these two themes together.
I would see the strength of our Christology in its realistic relationship to our own human
situations, and would find historical warrant for it in the kind of revised view of early
Christianity which I think is demanded by available sources. We need not and perhaps
should not depend so strongly on abstract arguments or philosophical theology, when
historical fact and personal experience converge so effectively to support Swedenborg's
"Doctrine of the Lord."