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High Christology and Prophetic Witness

High Christology and Prophetic Witness

I once heard a preacher (I am sorry to say it was a bishop) argue that the church's concern for doctrine goes against its prophetic witness against social injustice.  Then the preacher supported this claim with the curious assertion that it was the "liberals" who led the protest against the Nazis in Germany in the 1930's.

I must have read a different history of the struggle of the Confessing Church against the established German Church that had succumbed to the pressures of the Nazi regime.  In the history I read, the leaders of the Confessing Church were confessional theologians with high Christologies like Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Pastor Martin Niemoeller.  It was Karl Barth who drafted the theological protest against the Nazi regime, the Barmen Declaration, which stated in its first article, "Jesus Christ as attested to us in Holy Scripture is the one Word of God we must hear and whom we must trust and obey in life and in death."  And Barth was the theologian who led the revolt against the liberal theological tradition of Friedrich Schleiermacher when he discovered that his liberal theological professors had signed a statement supporting the war policy of the Kaiser in World War I.  In the history I read, it was the liberals like the famous church historian Adolph von Harnack who failed to protest against the German Church in its accommodation to the Nazis.

I am reminded of a conversation with a friend who asserted that Athanasius, the courageous 4th century proponent of the Nicene Creed which affirmed the divinity of Jesus Christ, was one of those bad "orthodox" Christians who persecuted the Arians, who taught that Jesus Christ was not divine but  was God's most perfect creature.  This person sounded like a different Athanasius than the real one who was exiled 5 times, threatened with death, and viciously slandered by parties in the church that were opposed to the Nicene Creed and that were allied with the Arian rulers like  Emperor Constantius.

The issue is not whether there are liberal Christians with a low Christology who have a committment to social justice nor whether there are conservative Christians with a high Christology who do not have a developed social conscience.  There will always be both kinds of individuals.  The issue is what kind of theology, especially Christology, sustains the church in its prophetic witness around the world over a long period of time. 

I believe that the long term experience of the church is that  the church is most likely to make a strong prophetic witness whenever that witness has a secure dogmatic basis in the biblical portrayal of Jesus Christ as interpreted through the hermeneutical lens of the ecumenical councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (usually called the Nicene Creed).  This is the conviction that Jesus Christ is the sovereign of the world over all authorities, rulers, and powers because he is the eternal Word of God who became flesh, and who lived our life, died our death, and was raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God the Father.  Without this faith, the evidence seems to be that the church will not have the theological resources or courage to resist cultural and political accommodation. 

Because the social witness of the church is centered in Christ rather than in something in the world, it will not be a social witness that is trimmed to a particular ideology or political party, but one which is sometimes sharply critical of both progressive and conservative agendas.  Individual Christians have to practice a spiritual discipline of distinguishing between social and cultural conditioning and the call of Christ in forming their views and shaping their actions.  Since this discernment requires much spiritual maturity, it is not surprising that so often too many of us too often try to present our own ideology as the pure way of Christ.

Where Christ is worshipped as the second person of the Trinity who became incarnate and who now reigns as the crucified and risen Lord of the world, the church is called to witness to  both personal and social transformation.  In this way, taking doctrinal teaching very seriously does not get in the way of the church's prophetic witness, but is its foundation.

It is something to think about during Advent and Christmas when the church celebrates the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ.