04
Mar
09

The Scandal of Jesus Christ – Three Perspectives

For much of the last two thousand years there have been scandals associated with, or hindrances to, belief in Jesus Christ as savior. What is so outrageous about the claim of salvation in Jesus that offends the moral or rational sensibilities of at least certain segments of society? In examining this question, three authors – Jan Milic Lochman, Elizabeth A. Johnson and Justo L. González – discussed the traditional orthodox views of salvation through faith in Christ in light of modern interests. The authors had particular agendas, openly declared in each of their works, around which they developed their arguments. These various arguments were in close agreement at some points and in discord at others but, when viewed collectively, created an interesting sampling of some of the opinions that make up modern Christian thought.

The perspective of each of these authors needs to be understood in order to accept or confront their assertions. Lochman, in The Faith We Confess[1], attempted to rescue the Apostles Creed from its consigned place as a doctrinal basis for an early imperial church by emphasizing the radical nature of its message in the context of the twentieth century and beyond. By far the most orthodox of the three authors, he asserted there was “a basic continuity between the Creed and the faith of the apostles.”[2] Being an adaptation of basic early baptismal affirmations, according to Lochman, justified the creed as a normative declaration of faith and redeemed the creed from the perception that powerful patriarchs in a church seeking to maintain authority developed it.

Justo L. González in Mañana – Christian Theology From a Hispanic Perspective[3] and Elizabeth A. Johnson in Redeeming the Name of Christ[4] endeavored to liberate the message of salvation in Christ from what they have discerned as the limiting perspectives of orthodox Christianity, as demonstrated in part by the doctrines of the early church. The arguments supporting the particular agendas of González and Johnson, Hispanic liberation and feminist theologies respectively, had numerous junction points, while converging less often with Lochman’s lines of reasoning. González had a great deal to say about the various councils that developed orthodox doctrines. He referred to the various efforts to establish normative doctrine as being unable to avoid the “Hellenization – and therefore the Constantization – of God.”[5] This process was aimed at maintaining orthodoxy’s position as the state religion and keeping the doctrine of the church supportive of the imperial structure extant in the early centuries, at the expense of the message of Jesus’ option for the poor and oppressed.[6] Johnson held the view that the early church doctrines were developed within a patriarchal framework. She asserted generally that the gospel had been “twisted into the bad news of masculine privilege”[7] and “the powerful symbol of the liberating Christ lost its subversive significance.”[8] Within these various perceptions, the authors explicated their understandings of the scandal of Jesus Christ.

Lochman understood the scandal of faith in Jesus Christ, with regard to the profession of the Apostles Creed, to have been its contrast with the widespread Hellenistic views of the prevailing cultures. The Creed’s focus on salvation in, and on the actual person of, Jesus Christ “represents an offense and an incongruity, a stumbling block and a folly…”[9] by challenging the concepts of the universality and immutability of God. The Hellenistic world provided for a plethora of gods, each with salvific possibilities, as well as the view of an ultimate supreme being separate from, and certainly not affected by, human history.[10] Even the Jewish notion of God’s active participation in history was affronted by the concept of the salvation of Israel being linked to the particular person of Jesus Christ.[11] 

Lochman explained his reasons in three arguments. First, he cited the classic Greek philosophical attitude that the highest divine entity would be apart from the world and outside physical and mental realities – God would be outside temporal space. In contrast, the Creed “cleaves to a particular person and to a unique set of historic events.”[12] Second, Lochman discussed the relationship of God to time and eternity. The Hellenistic attitude was that time and eternity were diametrically opposed – in eternity time does not exist, and in time there is nothing eternal. If God were eternal it would follow that God would be outside of the constraints of time.[13] Lochman maintained that when Christians declared God’s presence in history, incarnate in Jesus Christ, it flew in the face of rational Greco-Roman thought. Jewish thought held this declaration in contempt as well, but from a completely different point of view. Jews believed God had revealed Godself throughout their history, and that God would be ultimately revealed in the final salvation of Israel – an eschatological event that would be the “coming of the Lord”.[14]  The recognition of this saving presence as Jesus, a poor and quite human carpenter from Nazareth who suffered a humiliating death on the cross, was paramount to blasphemy. Third, Lochman cited the problem of Jesus’ name. In one aspect of this argument, he pointed to the scandal of naming this human as the starting point and the center of the religious movement. He was not a prophet, nor a distant God, but was claimed to be God incarnate. Another problem with Jesus’ name was the addition of Christ – meaning Messiah. According to Lochman, the term Messiah had gradually come to represent the Jewish people’s eschatological hope for a victorious, perhaps violent, savior from oppression. Jesus, slow to acknowledge the title, “radically rejected any interpretation of his mission in terms of power politics.”[15]

González, who addressed the development of doctrines and the failings of the heresies in detail, essentially agreed with a great deal of Lochman’s statements about the scandalous nature of faith in Jesus, but disagreed with some of his basic assumptions about causality. While Lochman asserted that the intent of the Creed was to state the aforementioned oppositions to prevailing thought, González declared that these inconsistencies were unavoidable leftovers after creeds and doctrines were developed to make Christian, Hellenist and imperial thought compatible. Despite attempts to make Jesus and his sayings more attractive to the rich and powerful, and consistent with their interests in maintaining imperial power structures, the fact remained that there was the scandal of God being incarnate in the body of a poor carpenter – the “very God” being a member of an oppressed population.[16] 

Great pains were taken by González to explicate the theological arguments of the various Councils, as well as the heresies being promulgated that necessitated the formulation of orthodox doctrine. He discussed some of the pros and cons of each development in, at times, even more detail than Lochman. Underlying these logical arguments of the cultural stumbling blocks to understanding faith in Jesus Christ, however, was his most important concept of the scandal. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ demonstrated “God’s preferential care for the poor, the widow, the alien, and the oppressed, all of whom enjoy special protection in the Law, and for whom the prophets repeatedly demanded justice.”[17] The underlying scandal, for González, was the undermining of the true message of Jesus Christ by the historical church in its effort to maintain a base of power. All of the theological arguments were not important as explanations of incarnation or as speculations about the meanings of divinity and humanity, but rather as means of communicating “the existential and urgent matter of what it means for us to be human, and how we can get on with the business of being human in the midst of an oppressive society.”[18]

 According to Johnson, the stumbling block to faith in Jesus Christ, at least for feminists, was the way a distorted, androcentric interpretation of Jesus the Christ supported “male hegemony in the doctrine of God, Christian anthropology, and ecclesial structures…”[19] Jesus Christ being historically understood within a patriarchal structure has resulted in feminists posing the problem, “If maleness is constitutive for the incarnation and redemption, female humanity is not assumed and therefore not saved.”[20] Christology, she asserted, was the doctrine of the church most often employed to alienate and suppress women. In some similar arguments as those made by González, Johnson cited the co-opting of the image of Christ into an imperial model. While González’ arguments centered largely on the ecclesiastic powers oppressing populations based on race and economics primarily and gender secondarily, Johnson reversed the order and significance by placing the oppression of women in the forefront. She even stated that the male hegemony within the church has been a roadblock to the true message of scripture by arguing “Theology will have come of age when the particularity that is highlighted is not Jesus’ historical sex, but the scandal of his option for the poor and marginalized, including women…”[21] On this issue – the preferential option of Jesus for the downtrodden – the arguments of all three authors seemed to converge. 

Johnson, despite being the least traditional author as illustrated by recasting the story of Jesus in terms of Sophia-Wisdom literature, none-the-less mirrored Lochman’s defense of the development of the doctrines. In discussing the doctrines promulgated by the Councils of Nicea and Calcedon, she stated, “These texts in their historical context make clear that it is not Jesus’ maleness that is doctrinally important but his humanity in solidarity with the whole suffering human race.”[22] In contrast, however, Johnson viewed the intent to concentrate on the maleness of Jesus, in the doctrine of Incarnation, as heretical.[23]

Whether the early church patriarchs are to be viewed as misogynists, power mongers or latent egalitarians depends on perspective. So also rests the determination of what makes up the scandals of, or stumbling blocks to, faith in Jesus Christ as savior. Depending on the author read, it might have been early Christian leaders’ opposition to classical thought about divinity and humanity, the intentional manipulation of Christ’s message to preserve imperial and ecclesiastic power over and against oppressed populations, or an equally deliberate effort to suppress womanhood in favor of male hegemony. Among this variety of perceptions, however, one particular point of agreement stands out – the dominant message of Jesus the Christ was one of preference and concern for the poor and oppressed. The authors disagree as to whether the church, in its doctrines and practices, has taken up this message or ignored it.


[1] Jan Milic Lochman, The Faith We Confess, Translated by David Lewis (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984)

[2] Lochman, p.9

 [3] Justo L. González, Mañana – Christian Theology From a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990)

[4] Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Redeeming the Name of Christ”, in Freeing Theology – The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, ed. Catherine Mowry LaCugna (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 115-137

[5] González, p.139

[6] Ibid. p.108

[7] Johnson, p.118

[8] Ibid.

 [9] Lochman, pp.71-72.

[10] Ibid. p.72-74

[11] Ibid. p.74

[12] Ibid. p.73.

[13] Ibid. p.74

[14] Ibid. pp.74-75.

[15] Ibid. pp.78-79.

[16] González, p. 140

[17] Ibid. p.153

[18] Ibid. p.154

[19] Johnson, p.134

[20] Ibid. p.120

[21] Ibid. p.131

[22] Ibid. p.130

[23] Ibid. p.131

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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