Medieval And Modern Views Of Christ As Prototype

But what does it mean for Christ to be a prototype and in what sense is imitation of him required? Let us begin to tackle these questions by first noting the historical background within which these ideas became prominent in the Christian tradition. The notion of a prototype is associated with being an archetype or original pattern, model, form, or ideal of some kind. In the Christian tradition the notion of Christ as a prototype and example for the Christian life through his perfect obedience, self-giving love, self-denial, and suffering has both biblical and patristic roots but came to the fore in the Middle Ages in the strict discipline and asceticism associated with the imitation of Christ in monastic orders and by religious figures and mystics of the period such as St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Francis of Assisi, Thomas a Kempis, and Johannes Tauler. Kierkegaard owned works by or about most of these figures and was acquainted with the medieval ascetic tradition of the imitation of Christ.56

Closer to Kierkegaard's own time, Kant also viewed Christ as the prototype or ideal of moral perfection. As Kant sees it, only human beings who have a moral disposition would be able to believe and trust that 'under similar temptations and afflictions' they would 'steadfastly cling to the prototype of humanity and follow this prototype's example in loyal emulation' so as to become pleasing to God.57 But while Kant does not deny the historical appearance of this ideal in the person of Christ as the Son of God, in his view 'There is no need ...of any example from experience to make the idea of a human being morally pleasing to God a model to us', since it is already present in our reason.58 Moreover, Kant holds that 'each and every human being should furnish in his own self an example of this idea' inasmuch as 'outer experience yields no example adequate to

56 Rohde (1967: nos. 245-7, 272-4; 282, 427); see also Dewey (1968: 111-16).

the idea' because 'it does not disclose the inwardness of the disposition but only allows inference to it, though not with strict certainty'.59 We cannot be certain, therefore, that Christ is in fact an example of moral perfection or that he is divine. Indeed, even if his divinity could be proven, in Kant's view it would be of no practical moral benefit, since 'the prototype which we see embedded in this apparition must be sought in us as well'.60 Moreover, Christ's purity of will and sinlessness as a superhuman being would make him so infinitely distant from us that he could no longer be held up as an example for our moral development. The most the thought of such a divine human being can do, then, is to excite admiration in us, not emulation.61 Ironically, then, even though Kant affirms Christ as a prototype, he ends up vitiating Christ's historicity and divinity in favour of a universal rational ideal within human beings that can and should be conformed to for the sake of attaining moral perfection.

Another modern thinker in whose theology the notion of Christ as prototype figures importantly is Schleiermacher, who views the historical Jesus as being both the ideal embodiment of absolute perfection (Urbildlichkeit), by virtue of which he is the redeemer who brings the life-giving and person-forming power of God to the human race, and the exemplar (Vorbild) of perfected human nature by virtue of the constant potency of his God-consciousness.62 As exemplar of what it means to be a human being, Christ enters into the corporate life of humanity in every way except its sinfulness, which does not belong to human nature in its original perfection or possibility for a continuous and universal God-consciousness.63 Christ's God-consciousness had to undergo a gradual process of development in the context of the environment in which he lived, but at every moment of this development he was free from sin, due to the implantation of a higher God-consciousness within him originally and to the fact that his life issued solely from human nature in general and not from 'the narrow circle of descent and society' to which he belonged.64 What Christ exemplifies for Schleiermacher, therefore, is the actualization of the original possibility of a sinless development in an individual human being.65 In his capacity as exemplar, Christ thus constitutes the second Adam, who manifests in his perfect God-consciousness the original spirituality that was insufficiently present in the first Adam, in whom 'the spirit remained sunk in sensuousness'.66

62 Schleiermacher (1956: 377-89); see also R. R. Niebuhr (1964: 210-28), and Marina

63 Schleiermacher (1956: 244-7, 381). 64 Ibid. 388. 65 Ibid. 381-3.


Like Kant and Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard views Christ as the prototype (Forbillede) of 'essential human perfection' who defines what it means to be a human being and exemplifies 'the lofty creation' that the human being essentially is and was destined to become (UDVS 197). In his view, the human race is related to God, otherwise 'there could be no such prototype for it' (231). Since human beings are created in the image of God, who is Spirit and thus invisible, to resemble God means to be spirit, which constitutes the invisible glory of being human (192-3; cf. SUD 13). Ever mindful of the infinite qualitative difference between God and human beings due to sin, however, Kierkegaard maintains that 'the human being and God do not resemble each other directly but inversely; only when God has infinitely become the eternal and omnipresent object of worship and the human being always a worshiper, only then do they resemble each other' (193). The divine conception of what it means to be a human being, spirit, or self, it may be recalled, is to become a theological self, that is, a human self whose qualitative criterion and ethical goal is God, but 'only in Christ is it true that God is the human being's goal and criterion' (SUD 79, 113-14, emphasis added). A relation to Christ is thus crucial for becoming a self before God.

In order to be and to portray the truth as a human being, Christ had to undergo a process of development during his earthly life, learning perfect obedience through suffering before being exalted as the prototype (UDVS 250-63; PC 181-4). The life of the prototype thus can be depicted in two ways, either through the image of lowliness and abasement or through the distant image of his loftiness (PC 184). It is decidedly the former, however, that is the basis of imitation, discipleship, or, more literally, following after Christ (Kristi Efterfolgelse)67 in Kierkegaard's theology, although Christ's abasement must always be understood inversely as a sign of his loftiness (238-9). Whereas human beings ordinarily form, via the imagination, an image of perfection or ideal self which they strive to become in life, the Christian's image of perfection is Christ, whose perfection or loftiness appears inversely in the world as lowliness or abasement (186-99). Since for Kierkegaard it holds that As was the prototype, so must the imitation [Efterfolgelsen] also be', to follow Christ means 'to deny oneself' and 'to walk the same road Christ walked in the lowly form of a servant, indigent,

67 See Dewey (1968: 119-61), who opposes translating this term as 'imitation' in order to distinguish Kierkegaard's view from medieval ascetic and facsimile forms of imitation. On discipleship, see also Law (2002a).

forsaken, mocked, not loving the world and not loved by it' (UDVS 221, 223; cf. JP ii. 1867). This, Kierkegaard says, both 'the mightiest and the lowliest', 'the wisest and simplest', in short, 'every human being can do' (UDVS 226).

This way of following Christ is narrow, difficult, rigorous, and strenuous, inevitably entailing voluntary suffering and perhaps even persecution and martyrdom on the part of the Christian striver who undertakes to become a witness to the truth. But Kierkegaard is careful to distinguish his view of imitating or following Christ from the ascetic forms of imitation practised in the Middle Ages, which in his view merely copied (copierede) Christ rather than imitated or followed after (efterfulgte) him (JP ii. 1893, 1922). The basic mistake of the Middle Ages, Kierkegaard contends, was naively to believe that one could actually resemble the prototype by engaging in such practices as entering a monastery giving everything to the poor, fasting, and engaging in various forms of self-flagellation (JP ii. 1857, 1866, 1893, 1905, 1914; JFY 192). Kierkegaard does not oppose asceticism and monasticism perse, which in his view were 'still an expression of an infinite passion and of Christianity's heterogeneity with the world', but he does object to the merit, honour, admiration, and extraordinary religious status associated with them and which made them homogeneous with the world and the secular mentality of the age (JP iii. 2760, 2762, 2764). While he agrees that there ought to be striving towards likeness to Christ, in his view Christ does not function altogether literally or directly as a pattern or example for human beings (JP ii. 1921-2). The ideality of Christ as the prototype is so infinite that he is 'heterogeneous to an ordinary human being by a full quality' (JP ii. 1922; cf. 1432). Consequently, 'the prototype is so far in advance that the believer is demolished', even though 'in spite of the infinite imperfection there is nevertheless a slight advance' in striving to be like him (JP ii. 1861).Yet, as Kierkegaard sees it, 'Every step forward toward the ideal is a backward step, for the progress consists precisely in my discovering increasingly the perfection of the ideal—and consequently my greater distance from it' (JP ii. 1789). Paradoxically, then, Christian perfection consists inversely in the 'deep recognition of the imperfection of one's striving' rather than in a direct perfection of striving to be like Christ (JP ii. 1482).

Thus, in accordance with the second use of the law in Lutheran doctrine, the chief function of Christ as prototype for Kierkegaard is 'to teach us how infinitely far away we are from resembling the ideal' and thus 'to teach us how greatly we need grace' (JP i. 334; ii. 1922; cf. 1905-6).68 Here we see the dialectical alternation between the two roles of Christ as redeemer and

68 See Barrett (2002); Hall (2002: 12-22); The Book of Concord (2000: 311-12); Schmid(1961: 508-20).

prototype in his theology, which is perhaps best expressed in the following journal entry: 'when we are striving, then he is the prototype; and when we stumble, lose courage, etc., then he is the love which helps us up, and then he is the prototype again' (JP i. 334; cf. i. 349, 692; ii. 1857, 1863, 1877, 1884; JFY 147). Grace does not mean that we are exempt from striving but rather that we are treated gently when we fail to measure up and are freed from 'the anxiety of meritoriousness' associated with trying 'to earn salvation by suffering' (JP ii. 1868). In line with his Lutheran heritage, Kierkegaard affirms that salvation is by grace alone, but one still must strive to conform one's life to the prototype, not as a 'kind of extorted discipleship', but out of gratitude, for if following Christ does not come as 'a glad fruit of gratitude', it is not imitation but 'a perverted mimicking' and grace is taken in vain (JP ii. 1892; cf. 1886).69

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