THE UNIQUENESS OF CHRIST I
Our modem world and modem theology make it hard to believe in the uniqueness of Christ. His uniqueness is subverted by evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike. Why is it that today the church is often in retreat from what Christians believed historically?
From the Nicene Creed in the fourth century, to Chalcedon, to the Reformation and post-Reformation confessions, Christ has been seen as unique. He was the only incarnation of God in human flesh, who died for us on the cross. He did what no one else could do or has done: He bore our sins and rose again for our justification. There was no one else like him in his time, and there is no one else like him in ours. He was and is unique— without rival, peer, equal, or comparison. He is in a category by himself. He is God—the incarnate and sovereign Lord, without whom we would still be hopeless orphans in a cold and indifferent world. Men and women across the ages have worshipped him, served him, suffered for him, and sometimes died for him. He can call forth our highest praise, our deepest commitment, our greatest service because of who he is and what he has done.
Why, then, are so many people today not only embarrassed by this, but think it is wrong. Some even proceed to build their Christian lives without him.
There are cultural factors which, in different parts of the world and in different ways, make belief in Christ’s uniqueness difficult. For example:
- In many cultures in the East, the uniqueness of Christ sounds either arrogant or ignorant. They think Christ’s uniqueness is a claim made only by the ignorant, who do not know how much of God they could experience outside of Christ; or by the arrogant, who do not realize how much they do not know.
- To some in the Third World, whose memories of colonialism are neither diminished nor happy, the claim of Christ’s uniqueness can be misunderstood. It can be heard as a claim for the uniqueness of the West, or it can be misunderstood as a claim for the uniqueness of Western Christian religion. The uniqueness of Christ does not imply the superiority of the West and the inferiority of other cultures, nor is it saying Christian activities are unique. The activities of Christian believing, worshipping, and serving are not unique as activities; the uniqueness lies in whom Christians believe, in whose living presence they gather, whose grace and forgiveness they know, and whose Spirit empowers them. It is Christ who is unique, not the West, or the followers who worship him.
- In the West, Christ’s uniqueness often fares no better than in the East, though for different reasons. In the West, secularism robs every religious claim of its finality because secularism is the attitude that God and the supernatural are not meaningful to everyday life. Secularists may say that they believe God exists, but then they look the other way. They are practical atheists. Wherever secularism has triumphed, and it has triumphed over broad areas of Western life, there are truth claims, but no truth; there are beliefs, but nothing to believe in; there are hymns, but no one to sing to. The world has become a stage whose only actors are human and whose Director has vanished.
These and other cultural forces make it difficult to believe in Christ’s uniqueness. They make us sound foolish; we may feel embarrassed. But they are not the potent challengers to Christ’s uniqueness operating in the theological sphere. There are others far more damaging. The theological challenge is, in fact, many different challenges so we must speak in generalizations.
There has been an accumulation of damage to the credibility of the biblical account, and especially to the Gospels. If it is the case, as it is frequently argued today, that the Gospels tell only of the faith of the early Christians, and has little or nothing of the life, acts, and teaching of Jesus, then with one stroke, his uniqueness has been made inaccessible. He may have been unique, but we have little record of what that uniqueness meant.
This leads to the next step, which is to cut Christ loose from the historical Jesus. Christ takes on an identity which is quite different from what the Gospel record of Jesus is like. A striking example of this is Raimundo Panikkar’s argument that Christ is encountered unknown in Hinduism, that his grace is channeled to people through its sacraments.
The results are with us on every side. Norman Pittenger developed a process theology in which Jesus was merely a model of the kind of incarnation that takes place throughout humanity. Liberation theologians, like Juan Segundo, see Christ in today’s political struggles, though these events have no cogn itive connection with the historical Jesus. Karl Rahner saw Christ so universally present in human life that he spoke of “anonymous Christians,” those who were infused by Christ’s grace though they knew nothing of him. Wilfred Smith said that there can no longer be any such thing as idolatry since every worshiper, regardless of the object of worship, brings to the act some transcendent sense. Hans Kung declared, “We seem to be witnessing the slow awakening of global ecumenical consciousness.” He added that ecumenism “should not be limited to the community of the Christian churches; it must include the community of the great religions.”
Common to all these examples is that Jesus can be bypassed because God can be known directly. God can be known directly because he is found beneath the human spirit working within our history, breaking through our consciousness. Jesus, then, is unique only in the sense that we see in him clearly what we sense in ourselves only dimly.
An immediate consequence of this is seen on the liberal Protestant side as well as in Roman Catholicism, where a profound reappraisal of the relationship between
Christian faith and the other religions is underway. It has taken two forms: the Second Vatican Council was tempted by the one form, and the World Council of Churches is now struggling with the other.
One form argues that, though Christian faith is most true, other religions are not untrue and, indeed, they can mediate salvation. The Second Vatican Council allowed that atheists could be saved because Christ’s grace infused them even though cognitively they denied his existence (see David F. Wells, The Search for Salvation [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1978], 141-162).
Another form, recently advocated by John Hick in his Myth of Christian Uniqueness, says all knowledge is relative and all religions are unique to their own context, so no one can say one religion is true and another false.
In either form, the result is the same: Christ is neither central nor necessary to a knowledge of God.
The challenge historic Christian faith now faces is not a new temptation. The apostles’ world was as filled with gods as ours is with religious claims. We need to reestablish what they had: A deep and unshakable sense that the biblical gospel is true, and that truth matters!
A common assumption is that there is a world spirituality, regardless of the religious forms it takes on the surface. Beneath all those forms is spirituality, and through this spirituality and within it, is God himself. Jesus Christ is not necessary for us to gain access to it.
Human beings were created as spiritual beings: made for God, made in his image, made to want to know spiritual reality. Human spirituality has remained stubbornly resistant to every assault, whether by the Marxists with their ideological materialism, or by Western secularism with its insatiable appetite for consumption. It cannot be extinguished by dictatorships of the Left or Right who brutalize their captive citizens. The only way human spirituality is destroyed is when the person is killed or, as happens in Western and Marxist countries, its potential is snuffed out when millions of unborn children are discarded each year through abortion. Human beings remain spiritual beings whose hunger for spiritual reality defies all of the misguided attempts either at crushing it or feeding it.
However, human spirituality is not redemptive—even when it takes on religious forms. This is obvious, for example, when we see Paul encountering it in his three missionary sermons (Acts 13:16-41; 14:14—18; 17:22-34). In each case, he recognized that those to whom he spoke, whether Jew or Gentile, were religious. But this spirituality was not recognized as an alternative to Christ!
In tite past, God had let the Gentiles go their own way. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance” (Acts 17:30). But through Christ sin has been dealt with decisively, and God now “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed” (Acts 17:31). That man is Jesus Christ.
Why is human spirituality not redemptive itself? Why is Jesus Christ necessary for redemption? The answer is that human spirituality is inundated with sin. Evil is a reality in this world and it lives through this spirituality, even taking on religious forms, and over it hangs the judgment of God. That is why Jesus died—the just for the unjust.
These truths are an integral part of biblical thought. They have held such a central place in Christian thinking over so many centuries that we have to ask ourselves who has deceived us to think it were otherwise? Is the New Testament vague about this? No, the New Testament is abundantly clear!
Its focus is unremittingly on the Cross and on Christ’s work of substitution on the Cross. The New Testament never says he was made hungry for us, or weary for us, or that he thirsted for us, or was made homeless for us, even though this is certainly true. It does say repeatedly that he died for us, bore our sin, and he did for us in his death what we could never do in our lives: He bore and satisfied the righteous judgment of God. Why would he have done this if God were already benignly resident in the human race and if through our own spirituality we could bypass Christ in a direct union with God?
Why, then, is the uniqueness of Christ treated so casually in the evangelical world? If Christ is the only case of God in human flesh doing for us what he alone could do on the Cross, then why is it we sometimes treat him as a junior partner in the evangelistic enterprise or, worse still, market him in ways that are simply not honest.
The United States is the largest publisher of Christian books. Its products are disseminated throughout the world. In a recent study, it was found that about 80 percent are books catering to the self, to the life of the self, to the needs of the self. In other words, they are like the huge body of secular literature in America. Both secular and Christian literature propose techniques for self-help and tricks for self-conquest. Both markets assume that the fundamental goal in life is to be a whole, happy person.
I am shocked that we have so smoothly, so easily, coupled Christ to this secular interest, and then cast our evangelism in the terms of this new metaphor. If we can do so well with all of the techniques of self-mastery from secular literature, why do we need Christ at all? What we are seeing in the evangelical world is a subversion of Christ, one driven not by theology but by popular psychology.
The experience of affluence in the United States puts health care and the good life within reach of many people. When you enjoy these things long enough, you begin to think they are rights—that life would be unthinkable wi thout them. It was not unnatural that some evangelicals, marketing the gospel from America to other parts of the world, would include in the message of salvation through Christ, the promise both of health and wealth.
They have taken this message into some of the poorest countries of the Third World, Countries where disease is rampant and countries whose economies are in shambles. And through Christ, a promise is made that with belief, health and wealth will follow. The disillusionment created among the poor who believe these promises is as devastating as the false theologies I described in the beginning which deny his uniqueness. We are being cruel and heartless to preach this in the shanty towns of the world.
What, then, does it mean to believe in Christ’s uniqueness in a world that is religiously pluralistic? It means that we have a gospel that cannot be bartered, boiled down, or minimized in order to accommodate those who do not like it. Christ is not up for sale. His gospel is not just one among many items in the market place of religious commerce. It is not a commodity we peddle, nor is it an item we can negotiate about.
He is not one among many possibilities; he is not one among many paths; he is not one among many teachers; and his gospel is not one among many gospels. “Salvation is found in no one else,” Peter said. “For there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). There is no other name, no other path, no other gospel, no other way of salvation than the salvation which God has wrought through his Son.
What, then, does it mean to affirm the uniqueness, necessity, and centrality of Christ today?
It does not mean that men and women of other faiths can be treated insensitively or their beliefs confronted carelessly. Their civil right to disagree with the gospel must be respected. Christ’s uniqueness does not give license to use methods of evangelism that are psychologically coercive or manipulative, or which take advantage of the lonely, the poor, the uneducated, and the frightened. If the gospel is about truth, then the reasons for proclaiming it, as well as our methods, must have complete integrity.
David F.Wells is professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Born in Zimbabwe, Dr. Wells is a citizen of Great Britain.