The Presence of Christ and the Problem of “History”
Among the problems of most ‘quests for the historical Jesus’ is the illusion of distance. It is assumed that the “Jesus of History” stands quite apart from our time. Granting his existence, the most charitable inquisitor still maintains that the man Jesus is quite foreign to the modern Western Man much in every way. We are purportedly responsible for digging through the rubble of cultural artifacts in order to compare the data concerning a certain Galilean rabbi with the other archeological findings of first-century Palestine. After constructing a composite image of Jesus as a historical figure, we can then begin to piece together what he most likely said and did. Such details can be validated, and otherwise legitimated, by the sacred consensus of secular methodology. Having separated myth from fact, the humble historian is now ready to present us with his creation—“behold, the man!” What comes to us, then, is the Christ of Consensus. “Whom do men say that, I, the Son of Man, am?” says the fabled Lord. To which the critical historian swiftly answers, “Archeological evidence suggests that you were a Jewish male, perhaps of germanic descent. Sociological data hints that you were a peasant who attained prominence as a religious teacher and political reactionary in the early common era. Others assert that you were a figure formed in the mold of the zealots; a theological innovator pushing reform, if not revolution, within the confines of Second-Temple Judaism.” This is pretty much the best that flesh and blood can muster.
So there exists, we are told, this Christ of Consensus, or perhaps more accurately, the Christ of Critical Construction. But he lies buried beneath the debris of nearly twenty dead centuries. This presents what some who are less prone to the great displays of faith now evident in the agnostic quester might call a problem. Whereas this Jesus may not have been a miracle worker, the critical historian and the religious scholar certainly have to exert no small amount of wonder-working power. First, they would need to bind him with the brittle cords of their methodological naturalism and drag him across the chasm of time and space successfully. Second, (and this one has the tendency to make or break a good religion) they would have to revive him. “Can these bones live?” says the historian. “Of course not. But we can always prop him up when the crowd needs a fix and nothing but a deity will do,” explains the religious scholar.
Assuming that the graverobbers were able to affect such feats, we would still have to answer Pilate’s question: “What shall I do then with this Jesus who is called Christ?” The assumption, whether we are conscious of it or not, is that it falls to us to make this first-century Jew relevant to a post-industrial, technocratic age. After all, ours is a world that is completely alien to that of the early Roman empire. We are hostile to its cultural mores and social structures. It may even be said that our time is as impenetrable by that time as theirs was to ours, if only slightly less so since we had the luxury of not existing yet. So the question of relevance is a reasonable one. Unfortunately, though, it is one without a comforting answer with regards to this Cobbled Christ.
Undoubtedly, there are good men of faith who attempt a sort of suspended belief in order to access the “pure history” of the man called Jesus. Not all are on a quest to discredit the central figure of the Gospels. Concerning these, it is not their motives but rather their methods that are suspect. The one who desires to be a good scholar and/or historian is not exempted from being a faithful scholar/historian. It is no Zen koan to suggest that one who is actively on the “quest for the historical Jesus” should also, and without contradiction, be actively “following Jesus.” There is no virtue in prizing the facts of a human historical Jesus over the truth of the God-Man revealed as Scripture’s incarnate Lord. This is not so much a Postmodern turn as it is a Chalcedonian pivot. If a person suspends faith, they have abandoned their search. Whatever else they may find, it will not be the person which others saw and said, “My Lord, and My God.” Orthodox historiography, like orthodox theology, will not attempt to rend the seamless garment of the Person of Christ. There is no God behind the back of Jesus, there is no historical Jesus without the Christ of Faith, and there’s no crying in baseball.
Jesus Christ did indeed come to us in history, even as the embodiment of history, yet He is not bound by the strictures of temporality and spatial limitations. This Christ, the Son of the Living God, has not been glimpsed by the critical scholars who were too busy digging in the dust of days long dead. While they were trying to unearth Him, He was already reigning in all of His risen glory. Jesus Christ is not entombed, either in history or anywhere else. The presence of this Jesus is such that He need not be made present. The Living Word is ever near, even in our mouths.
Such near-presence entails a perpetual relevance, yea an immediacy, that overwhelms those who hear His voice. I say overwhelmed precisely because there are no barriers that need be overcome. This Christ is at home in this world, in this age, in any and every age, because His royal presence is diffused among each epoch without degradation. Every moment lays hold upon the hem of His regal garment, and every age is shot through with the virtue of Omnipresence. Just so, the Jesus who is History’s Master is no slave to utilitarianism. The Present Christ need not be joined to anything else in order to be made necessary, be it politics, economics, or any of the other lesser gods in the contemporary pantheon.
Over against such unfettered pluralism stands the adamantine monotheism of the earliest Christian creed. “Jesus Christ is Lord” —this credo is also the most primitive and true acknowledgement of the historical Jesus. God’s Second Self entered into history, and history was never the same again. Jesus made it his own, He emerges from it as Sovereign. History is neither judge or jury, but witness. It gives testimony to the mighty acts of God in Christ. Christ is Lord of the past because He is alive from the dead. He left behind the stasis of inaction and the restrictive nature of time along with his graveclothes in Joseph’s borrowed tomb. (That we are redeemed at all owes to the fact that the cross and resurrection have been made present to us in the proclamation of this Living Word and under the signs of water and bread and wine.) Jesus Christ is Lord of the future precisely for the same reason. Our hope isn’t dependent upon a crass determinism or some lifeless cogs turning in the cold machinery of fate; rather, it is just this freedom of the Christ of God who lives and rules according to his promises into a future that is comprehended only in Him. And what of the present? Christ cannot but be Lord of the present since it is always just this particular moment in which He is present with us. “Today” is always the day in which we hear His voice; whether we are Moses at Meribah and Massah, or with princely David calling us to worship at the tent of meeting, or the aged Apostle who warns the Hebrews of the perils of drifting, or to you and me as we hear the Scriptures read and preached, “Now” is always the acceptable time, “Now” is the day of salvation. Such is the immediacy of the presence of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with Us.
To paraphrase Calvin, history is the theatre of God’s glory. It is the stage upon which the Divine Drama is played out. The stage doesn’t tell the story, the actors do; the stage is merely the place in which the story is told. And when we say that in the great saga of redemption Jesus took the stage, we mean just that. The historical Jesus does indeed reveal Himself in history, but only as the Ancient of Days; very God and very Man—Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday and today, and forever.