Who do you say that I am’

By on November 1, 2003

With advent and Christmas approaching, we have reached that time of year when secular commercial interests will again bombard the public with unimagined fantasies to celebrate. Churches will engage in the excitement by preparing for bazaars, nativity plays and special carol services. And when Christmas finally dawns the commercial world will move on quickly to whatever comes next. For Christians it is not so simple.

By celebrating Christmas, the birth of Jesus, year by year we are regularly confronted with a question that has been around since that birth, confounding theologians, philosophers, believers and non-believers alike. Who is this person whose birth we celebrate? What do we make of him? How do we understand him?

Jesus asked his first followers, “Who do people say that I am?” With slight variation the question is asked in all three synoptic gospels and the answers given reveal the popular perceptions of Jesus in his own day. Then follows the question from which, then and now, no follower can escape, “Who do you say that I am?” Once we have emerged from the Christmas wonderland of angels, shepherds and wise men of long ago and re-entered daily life in the 21st century, what is your answer? Are you orthodox or heretical – or somewhere in between? 

[pullquote]In Christology, A Global Introduction , Veli-Matti Karkkainen sets out to pull together the varying answers to this fundamental question which stands at the centre of Christian faith and theology, recognizing that what we answer will affect everything else we believe from the nature of revelation to a doctrine of the church and personal discipleship.

He begins his study with a recognition that in the Bible no simple answer is available. That is why there are four gospels and not one. Then there are the earlier documents, the letters, which also reveal answers far from uniform. Jesus is given many names (teacher, miracle worker, messiah, son of man, son of God – and each with a particular frame of reference) and the writings present, “a myriad of pictures, images and testimonies to his person.” In attempts to provide a unified understanding, biblical scholars from earliest times attempted to bring everything into a unity but later scholars believe it proper to recognize a complimentary relationship between all the perceptions. For example, in traditional terms he identifies four approaches to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus that have shaped Christology: “1) the incarnational Christology of the early Church and Catholicism; 2) the theology of the cross of Protestantism, especially of the Lutheran tradition; 3) the resurrection and ascension Christology of Eastern Orthodoxy; 4) the empowerment Christology of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movements.” Within Anglicanism one finds the presence of all four, separately embraced or in combination.

The author traces the history of Christological development from disputes in the early church through the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon and the condemnation of heretics to the modern quests for the Historical Jesus and the liberal picture of Christ. He reviews in outline the work on Christology of the 20th century theological giants of western Christianity – Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultmann, Paul Tillich, John Zizioulas, Karl Rahner, Jurgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Norman Kraus, Stanley Grenz and John Hick. It may look like heavy going but it is very readable for clergy and lay alike.

Today the struggle with the question goes on as new circumstances and environments emerge. What is significant is that the primary question that Jesus asked can never be ignored: “Who do you say that I am?” Whether involved in process or feminist theology, black or postmodern theology, or caught up in the search for the meaning of Christ in Africa, Asia or South America, the question remains, and, as the author shows, the search for an authentic answer continues worldwide.

While written for theological students beginning their studies this book will be of equal value to clergy and concerned lay people who might take the opportunity to review their own answers to Jesus’ question. It could add totally new dimensions to their reflections during the Christmas celebration.

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