Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Christ of the Spirit is not merely the historical Jesus

There's a fascinating section of Orthodox Spirituality called "the Christ of the Spirit" that I want to break out as a separate post. Frankly, I don't know if I agree with it or not. It seems to be in danger of cutting Jesus loose from history by separating the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith". It sounds similar to what I've read about Luke Timothy Johnson's critique of historical Jesus scholarship, though I may be wrong about that since I have not read the book. Please let me know what you think. I'll summarize the opening and then quote Gillet.

The Spirit reveals "new aspects of our Lord. Christ, as disclosed by the Spirit after Pentecost, cannot be merely identified with the historical Jesus." He cites 2 Cor 5:16: "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way." The "Christ of the Spirit has replaced the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53" (as seen in Orthodox art's predilection for Christ glorified), though his sacrifice remains salvific.

To the Orthodox mind a "back-to-Jesus" movement, stripping the Gospel of all its supposed "later accretions", would not constitute progress. Real progress consists in becoming more and more deeply conscious of the presence and action of our Lord in all the phases of human life and of our own life. The "Galiliean Gospel", the ipsissima verba of Jesus, cannot be isolated from the interpretations put upon it by the eye-witnesses of His Life and the ministers of His words. Modern criticism has made it perfectly clear that the Sermon on the Mount, taken by itself, does not provide an adequate explanation of the rise of Christianity. The vitalizing centre of Christian thought and devotion was neither a body of ethical teaching, simply relating the individual to his Father and Maker (Harnack, Tolstoi), nor a mere eschatalogical expectation (Schweitzer). Christianity was a stream of charismatic life flowing out with torrential might from Palestine upon the Greco-Roman world. It was a new spring-tide of the Spirit. Out of faith in, nay, out of experience of the risen and exalted Christ and the manifestation of His Glory grew the whole efflorescence of prayer and belief, of grace and self-giving, which we call the Holy Catholic Church. "Christ", on our lips, is no longer the exact equivalent of the name "Jesus" or of the Jewish title "Messiah". When we say "Christ", we think of the Pentecostal Christ, of the spiritual Lord of the new life. It is this spiritual Christ, and not merely the Christ of history, who was the source of Christianity. The confession of faith of the first Christian generation was: "Jesus is the Lord" (Kyrios Christos). But during the same period Paul wrote: "The Lord is the Spirit - Kyrios to Pneuma" (2 Cor 3:17). This equation magnificently expresses the fact that the Holy Spirit living in the Church is one with the historical Jesus, and is really the Spirit of Jesus (as well as the Spirit of the Father).

We have yet, perhaps, to recognize more clearly that the Spirit - or, if we prefer it, the Spiritual Christ (and by this phrase we do not mean to belittle in any way the distinct personality of the Holy Ghost) - is still a genuinely creative force among men to-day. Not only Paul but the author of the Book of Revelation, the Alexandrine exegetes, martyrs like Ignatius of Antioch, Felicitas and Perpetua, and many others, have witnessed - (the "cloud of witnesses") - to the Spiritual Christ, to the actual charismatic presence of the Lord, as the great fact behind the whole Christian movement. Do we believe as intensely in the reality of the Spiritual Christ? For the early Christians, the danger was of secluding themselves in the worshipping remembrance of the historical Jesus, and of perceiving but dimly the actuality of the Pentecostal Christ. For us, the danger is rather of localiizing and limiting the Pentecostal Christ within the Apostolic or sub-Apostolic times, and so failing to acknowledge that He is just as much present now as He was then.


  1. Really interesting. Is this related somehow to a progressive revelation of Christ?

  2. I agree that there might be a danger here, though it's hard to tell from a single quote. I think any Christian has to allow for experience of the Risen Christ as part of the ongoing life of the church--that's the whole point of the Resurrection, that Christ is living and not just a figure of the past.

    On the other hand, I think we need the historical Jesus as a check on our spiritual flights of fancy. I think it matters that the life of God incarnate had the particular shape that it did (and the church has always said that the Risen Christ retains his human nature). Jesus had a particular mission and program, and that matters (or should matter) to Christians. (There also are slight hints of supersessionism in the quote above--the idea that we go beyond (discard?) the Jewish Jesus to the Spiritual Christ--which might be cause for worry.) I imagine the devil is in the details of how this is worked out.

  3. Grub00: Like Lee pointed out, it's a little hard to tell too much from Gillet's brief discussion. It does sound something like a progressive revelation.

    Lee: It's the potential loss of particularity and historicity that disturbs me. It's like Christ has become some sort of cosmic principle. I'm hoping that this idea is discussed in one of the other books on Orthodoxy I'm planning to read so I can make a more informed assessment. Don't Be Hasty, you know.


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.