One of the chapters in my book, Your Church Is Too Small, is taken from the title of a book by the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Christ the Center. Here I argue that the Christian faith is first about Christ? "Who do you say that I am?" asked Jesus. Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Before we argue about the doctrine of the church, the nature and seat of authority or even about the nature of faith and grace in our salvation why not begin with this question. It is clearly the most basic and core question of them all. If a person says (with the faith that only God knows and really sees) "Jesus is Lord" and confesses openly that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then Scripture is very plain about this matter. Such a person is to be numbered among his followers and should be received by his followers as a brother or sister in Christ.
I am frankly amazed at how quickly we move away from this simple core conviction. Theology matters! In fact it matters profoundly because we are always in danger of losing our way in regard to rightly confessing the core mystery/truth that Jesus is Lord. Other lords seek our allegiance and bad theology can mislead us, even causing us to leave the Lord who redeemed us. But all of this does not negate the simple fact that we are saved by confessing Jesus, not by knowing which church is right, or which creed we accept or what doctrines we agree/disagree about.
I am well aware that some extremely progressive Christians deny the most basic truths that support a credible confession of Christ when they deny his death, burial and resurrection. I am aware that some progressive Christians deny the essential truth of Jesus's two natures (divine and human) in his one person. In other words there are some professing Christians who deny what is stated in the creed as essential to the faith of the earliest followers of Jesus. I am also aware that the majority of liberal and progressive Christians do not deny these core truths at all. They "see" a Jesus who looks and sounds more like a progressive (modern) liberal and this prompts them to adopt views of the faith that I find, at some points, unacceptable. Yet I also believe that far too many conservatives "see" a Jesus who looks much like a modern conservative rather than the Jesus that we actually encounter in reading the four Gospels of the New Testament. If for no other reason this makes me cautious about these labels. For some time I have accepted people on the basis of what they confess and not "read" my views into them in terms of my relationship with them as brothers and sisters. This has not been an easy road to follow. Honestly, it is extremely challenging. The further I go down this road the more I have learned to accept and love people who confess Jesus as Lord but this has not always been without significant challenges to my mind and spirit.
What I said in my chapter "Christ the Center" is rather simple. It is, in the best sense, basic. But it is not easy or simplistic. We too easily think that what is simple is simplistic. Not so.
This was one reason, among several, that I was drawn to the book, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christologyy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), by my friend Fr. Edward T. Oakes. Oakes is the associate professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, Mundelein, Illinois. I have visited this seminary campus a number of times and have many friends on the faculty, including the extremely popular teacher and preacher Fr. Robert Barron, whose Catholicism video series I have warmly recommended.
Oakes maintains that at the heart of all ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Evangelicals is their fundamental agreement on Christology. (Oakes was an original writer and member of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together Committee, an esteemed group which includes J. I. Packer, Timothy George, John Woodbridge, and other good friends, who are all respected evangelical academic leaders.)
Oakes has written a 459-page book to show how this common confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and unique Savior of the human race is the core of our common "evangelical" faith. In this magnum opus he surveys the Christian teaching on the person and nature of Christ and looks at the many doctrinal and historical issues essential to the study of Christology.
Oakes draws on recent scholarship in New Testament studies and patristic Christology as well as key medieval and major Protestant voices. He also includes major contemporary Catholic theologians and magisterial statements from Vatican II. By presenting two millenia of thinking about the Christian paradox of an infinite God who is a finite human person he concludes that poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was right to speak of "Infinity dwindled to infancy."
Timothy George, in his endorsement on the back cover of this important book, writes: "Oakes, one of best and most literate theologians, has given us in this volume a masterpiece of Christological reflection. Evangelicals and Catholics share together a common faith in Jesus Christ the Lord, the one and only Savior of the world."
But here is the is point of it all. George adds, "The closer we are drawn to Jesus Christ, the closer we come to one another." (He says this book will help us do both!)
I believe that statement. The closer we are drawn into Christ, the more we exalt him and worship him and write about him the closer we are drawn toward one another. This is the key to understanding my journey in missional-ecumenism. Seek Jesus Christ first and draw near to him. He is "the way, the truth and the life." We have significant differences about authority, the nature of the church and our understanding of how grace works sacramentally, to name only a few, but we share this: a common love for the Lord Jesus Christ. Before we discuss anything else I suggest we go back here and begin anew.
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Good post, John. I can testify on your behalf that you do practice a broad acceptance of those who genuinely declare “Jesus is Lord.” My testimony is base on my experience with you over the last few years. As you well know, such a practice is not without a cost and not without troubles.
Your comments on receiving believers according to Christology hit the mark.
Thanks John, not only for the post, but more for your friendship and fellowship.
Amen, Dr. Armstrong! As a Catholic brother in Christ, I agree that Christology is an area on which Catholics and Protestants have *fundamental* common ground. Unfortunately, I also know that for many Protestants, still, this common ground is not sufficient for them to acknowledge Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ.
I speak here from quite a “mixed” experience, one might say. For years, as a Catholic who had left the Church, confused and embittered about many things in the Church, I was actually a strongly “anti-Catholic” Protestant myself. During that period of my life, I did not believe that most Catholics (or, at least, informed Catholics, who believe all of what the Church teaches) were even Christians. The fact that I shared a common Christology with their Church, and with them, meant little to nothing to me at the time. I write these words with shame and regret now… but I believed what my chosen Protestant preachers/theologians were telling me at the time (based upon their interpretations of Scripture)– that the Catholic Church teaches a “false gospel of works-righteousness,” and thus, cannot be considered a truly Christian church.
God has brought me (and is still bringing me) a very long way in Biblical, theological, and historical understanding from those years. He has also done (and is still doing!) a deep work of sanctification in my heart and mind, so that I do not quickly jump to speculations regarding the salvation of professing Christians with whom I disagree on various Biblical and theological matters.
Catholics and historic Protestants share a common faith in Christ as Our Lord and Savior. If all of our dialogue carefully comes from, and returns to, that strong common basis, I can only think that good fruits will be the result!
Thank you John and Chris. Chris, you have articulated a very important point and I’m thankful you shared it here with my readers. I really do wish more of us could “hear” what you’re saying about our inherent oneness.