If it is reasonable to say that Jesus is the centre of Christianity, that is not a statement beyond challenge and correction. First, it is not beyond challenge. Christianity has often been at pains to assert its position as a monotheistic faith, whether in the early centuries, in the face of the polytheism of Graeco-Roman paganism, or in recent times, in the context of the diverse religions and belief-systems of the modern world.
Today, in a religio-cultural or inter-faith perspective, it is common to stress the common ground and shared heritage of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Of course, the voices asserting distinction are far from silent, and observers have to consider whether to place the weight more on differences or similarities, and much will depend on the context in which judgement is made; but it is undeniable that these three faiths (at least) have a certain family likeness, as well as actual historical connections.
Further, on the premise that worship is the heart of any religion, then, though there has been Christian prayer to Jesus from earliest times, its most characteristic formulation has always been that it is addressed to God the Father—'through Jesus Christ our Lord'. And though much mainstream Trinitarian thought has emphasized the thorough mutuality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so the inherently 'social' character of Deity, equally commonly (and certainly in everyday Christian understanding) the Father appears as the fount of divinity, so that distinction from other monotheistic faiths is felt (however incorrectly) to turn more on the position of Jesus than on division about 'God' at the deepest level. In that sense, Jesus seems to be, however crucial, nevertheless secondary in the Christian religion's scheme of things.
A plain biblical reading seems to confirm such a view. If Scripture as a whole is to be our authoritative guide, then most of it is about God before ever Jesus appears on the scene: in Charles Wesley's words, 'Late in time behold him come'. Far more of the Bible is (if one wishes to put it in these terms) 'the word of God' than 'the word of Jesus'. This plain approach is not greatly discouraged by its traditional Christian qualification by way of the pattern of 'prophecy and fulfilment'. There again, though the picture of the overall thrust and direction of the Bible cannot commend itself except to Christians, the monotheistic assumption of the Old Testament forms the solid foundation on which attitudes to Jesus and convictions about him are built. Putting it crudely, it is the one God who is in charge of the whole biblical operation: creation itself, the foretelling of Jesus and the bringing about of prophecy's fulfilment in his life, death and victory.
It is no wonder that, from the first century onwards, Christians have (sometimes inconsistently with the pattern just outlined) favoured other models, which give greater prominence to Jesus, from the beginning of everything to the end. Thus, Paul, the earliest Christian writer known to us, already identifies Jesus with 'wisdom', which, from being an attribute of God, had long been the subject of personifying or mythologizing tendencies in Judaism (Prov. 8:22ff.; 1 Cor. 1:24). And the Gospel of John identifies him with God's 'word', a term which had developed in Judaism along similar lines to 'wisdom' (Ps. 33:6; Isa. 55:10-11; John 1:1-14). Both ideas carried with them the notion of heavenly existence from 'the beginning', and, when applied to Jesus, implied a leap forward in the way he was perceived—and at least some modification of his subordinate role as an agent of God at a specific time in the course of history, one element (albeit decisive) in a God-centred universe and a God-centred temporal process. It was one thing to apply the language of 'preexistence', as it were poetically, to an attribute of God, viewed somewhat anthropomorphically; it was, in its implications and consequences, quite another thing to apply it to a man of known time and place, whose historical identity was subject to scrutiny and assessment. But, in their conviction of Jesus' comprehensive function and of his having revolutionized human relations with God in all possible dimensions, Christians speedily took this audacious step. It led them to read even the old Jewish Scriptures (the 'Old Testament') in their own new way: not only as foretelling Jesus' physical arrival and subsequent career, but also as recording his presence and interventions in Israel's (indeed, the world's) whole story, from creation onwards, often incognito and disguised as God's angel; so that the Old Testament was, when rightly interpreted, a thoroughly Christian and Jesus-centred book. Thus, when in Genesis 1:26, God says, 'Let us make man in our own image', it was the pre-existent Christ who was being included in that momentous decision.
This brilliant and innovative move, creating a revolutionary picture both of Deity and of Jesus, was only eroded as, in recent centuries, historical study compelled (and made natural) a more realistic understanding of the Old Testament in the light of its own assumptions and its historical origins. Its authors came necessarily to be seen as people of their time and Scripture as the expression of concepts appropriate to the period of writing. Christians may still read the Old Testament with Christian priorities and values in mind, as a comparison with Jewish ways of reading it soon demonstrates (e.g. the Christian tendency to emphasize the Psalms and the prophetic books and to ignore the Law, which is central to Judaism), but they are less inclined than formerly to see Jesus as speaking in its pages; though old liturgical forms working with the old picture are still in use (e.g. 'by whom all things were made', with reference to Jesus, is the Nicene Creed). In so far as that picture has become unconvincing, then the centrality of Jesus has, implicitly, been reduced in favour of a seemingly monotheistic pattern, with Jesus in a crucial but subordinate role. Historical criticism of the Old Testament may be said to have had this as perhaps its most far-reaching practical effect on Christian belief—one wholly unacknowledged by public ecclesiastical authority (though absorbed in practice by many who exercise it) and, where discerned, sometimes still denied.
It is not only monotheism which may offer a challenge to the apparent truism that Jesus is the centre of Christianity and the heart of its distinctiveness as a faith. From a number of points of view, chiefly of a historical or institutional character, it seems that the Church is the truly central element. Sometimes this is said in a spirit of hostility or cynicism. Christians may claim allegiance to Jesus, but, as deeds speak louder than words (especially pious words), their actions show them much more concerned with the aggrandizement, enrichment and preservation of the Church. It is not hard to point to profound contradictions between the life-style and teaching of Jesus and those of the overwhelming majority of his followers, particularly in their corporate and institutional capacity. And this applies not just to their mediocre achievement (which may be readily understandable) but also to their avowed policies. Even where individual sanctity abounds, the interests of the Church may stultify its impact and be less amenable to the display of Jesus-like qualities. Indeed, it seems that a major feature of Jesus' behaviour was a freedom from those trammels which seem inseparable from the life of organized and long-term institutions.
Similar points may be made from the point of view of objective historical realism. Like any other human phenomenon, Christianity is embodied in time and space, and so in the constant flow of history and cultural circumstance. Whatever its allegiance to Jesus and however great the acclaim it gives to him, it can only view him from its own diverse and incessantly changing settings. Moreover, it must continually reckon with and accommodate itself to the social and cultural contexts in which it exists— and whether it does it by hostility or separation or easy conformity (or some mixture of all three), the principle of context-relatedness is in operation. From this angle too, therefore, the Church, as, in its various manifestations, the 'location' of Christianity, is its true centre. In this perspective, the claim to overriding allegiance to Jesus invites at the least a measure of caution and self-scrutiny, even a recognition of when it is appropriate for the bluff to be called. At all events, the historian is likely to see Jesus as the initiator of a process which has taken a multitude of turns, many of them involving surprising (if understandable) ways of expressing that commitment to him which they all share.
It seems then that the claim to the centrality of Jesus in Christianity is at the very least open to correction. Developed historical awareness makes more and more obvious the astonishing diversity of even contradictory ways in which he has been seen—mostly, with equal and unbounded devotion. Jesus may be central, at least in the sense that Christianity is chiefly differentiated from other faiths by the unique place it gives to him; but the style, character and degree of that uniqueness are subject to immense variety, so that, not surprisingly, the question is raised from time to time whether a particular expression of belief is adequate or permissible. There is room for the ironic reflection that such protests often dwell on matters of belief (e.g. about the manner of Jesus' birth or the historicity of the resurrection), while blatant departures from Jesus' teaching (e.g. about the renunciation of wealth and family) attract no comparable censure and even merit Christian applause (Houlden 1992).
Correction may be offered and plain departures from Jesus' teaching may reasonably be justified by a sober understanding of the nature of institutions-through-history, and so of the inevitability of change, not only in matters where self-interest or practical convenience may incline people to welcome it (the rejection or re-vamping of Jesus' radical ideas on family and property) but also in matters of belief—where there is usually no such intimate threat and both traditionalist and radical tendencies can be indulged freely, even irresponsibly. Or, more theologically, correction may be seen in terms of an understanding of the life of the Christian community (the Church—but in which of its manifestations?) which sees it as itself involved in the redemptive process and as having a God-given contemporary role that goes well beyond its being the mere perpetuator of Jesus' memory and Jesus' teaching and moves in the direction of its being the extension of his work and the God-guided scene of its development, not only in practical activity but also at the level of thought and concept. Here the challenge of the Church to Jesus' position of centrality finds its more judicious and religiously authentic statement: Jesus is to be viewed from within this live tradition available in the Church in the here and now. Commitment to him in that context gives the framework in which change can be theologically legitimated.
This encouraging picture is of course darkened by the difficulty not only of deciding where precisely 'the Church' is located for the due performance of this great task, but also that of knowing what is to be done when it shows itself immobile and far from capable of responding to what seems to many the manifest truth, of eradicating manifest evil and striving for urgent good. It may often seem, in its official organs at least, to belie any claim to a monopoly of discernment.
If the nature of the place of Jesus in relation to Christianity proves on reflection to be a subject surrounded by complexity, one route to clarification is surely a grasp of the facts about Jesus as a historical figure. Even if the elucidation of this matter can only be a preliminary to judging and deciding about beliefs concerning Jesus, it is widely and almost intuitively felt to be an essential piece of ground-clearing or foundation-laying. It is at least a matter of interest to discover how well beliefs fare in the light of knowledge of the history.
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