“Who Do You Say That I Am?”: The Hypothesis of Scripture as Encounter with Christ

The identity of Christ is the unifying point of Scripture but this identity is synonymous with the presence of Christ in the reader or believer. That is, Christ’s identity pertains directly to the one doing the identifying, as his identity entails his presence in the life of the one rightly answering his question.[1] Christ’s life and presence are rendered in his identity and this identifying realization. This entails circularity (reading Scripture through the Gospel, his identity, and the Gospel through Scripture), but revolving around Christ as it does and including the life of the believer as it does, it is on the order of the circulatory system of the human body. What is circulated is the life and presence of the one around whom it revolves. One reads through the lens of the identity of Christ, but this exegesis of and through Christ pertains directly to the “you” doing the exegesis as this constitutes the encounter with Christ. So, the hermeneutical lens of the apostolic preaching (the Gospel or the analogy of faith), not only produces a symbolic coherence, bringing together the types and tropes and context of the Hebrew Scriptures in Christ, but as applied to Scripture it concerns the exegesis of Christ (not the exegesis of Scripture), the encounter with Christ, or the presence of Christ in the life of the exegete.

This describes the authority of Scripture as it takes hold through the identity of Christ in the life of the believer. The author or authorization or authority is immediately present in the one answering, “Who do you say that I am?” This is not simply an historical judgment or a critical assessment of a set of texts or an acknowledgement of institutional authority. The authority of history, Scripture, and Church pertains indirectly to the fundamental and primary authority found in the identity of Christ as this directly pertains to the believer. The particular nature of the presence of Christ in the believer is mediated through the Christ of history, the Christ of Scripture, and the Christ of the Church, but these are not substitutes or alternative authorities, but the authority derived from the Gospel, which immediately takes hold in Christ’s presence in the believer (again, an admitted circularity).

To place the primary authority in history or the historical truth of the Gospel may imagine a Christ subject to history rather than history subject to and relativized by Christ. Certainly, there is no extracting his death and resurrection from history as this history is part of his identity but his identity is determinative of this history and not vice versa. Temporality, the past, the situation of his life does not take precedence over his life or determine his identity. There is a history of Christ, in which time and history and humanity are interwoven and inseparable from the person of Christ encountered in the Gospel but the history per se is not primary. The truth of his history is a necessity, but this historical truth is not the fulness of the truth as it takes hold in the life of the believer. History, and even the history of Christ, is not the presence of Christ found in his identity.

So too with Scripture: to place primary authority on the text or the book, may miss that its authority is derived from Christ. Christ is not subject to Scripture any more than he is subject to the Church or to history. Where Scripture is made primary, Christ may be made to fit the context and circumstance of its writing rather than the other way round. Christ is the unifying center, the very hypothesis of Scripture, and the reality of his life, death, and resurrection precedes Scripture in both the Old and New Testament. Christ and Scripture are no more separable than Christ and history, but it is Christ and his identity that constitute Scripture as an authority.

 So too the Church: to place primary authority in the institution or in the hierarchy, or in the body of believers, may be to miss that the Church derives its authority from Christ and the Gospel. Life in the body is constituted by Christ and the identity of Christ located in the apostolic preaching. This preaching cannot be separated from the Church any more than it can be separated from Scripture and history but so too with this authority; to make the Church the authority will be to miss the immediate import of Christ’s identity. The apostles and the Church do not determine Christ but are determined by him. Christ cannot be made to fit the authority of the Church as the Church derives its authority from who he is. Apostle corrects apostle not because one is more authoritative than another, but because the apostles and the Church are authoritative only through the Gospel and through maintaining the apostolic tradition.

Who do you say that I am is not a question to be answered apart from history, Scripture, and the Church, but none of these are themselves the answer. The question demands that “you” answer and the answer and its power and presence take hold within this same you. Historicism, biblicism, and institutionalism, misconstrue the nature of authority and truth and thus they misidentify Christ and misplace his presence. The believer does not have a primary relation with history, with Scripture, or with the Church, but with Christ. He is present in his identity but no one but a “you” concludes to the presence and relationship of this identity. This may all be dismissed as circularity, but at the heart of this circular reason is the singular truth, which I presume is the truth of the Gospel – the identity of Christ.

The modern errors, like the original heresies which challenged the early church (in the New Testament and among the church fathers), shares in kind the fact, as John Behr puts it, “that in none of these approaches is God really ‘with us’ (cf. Matt 1:23).”[2] Some began to teach that Christ was a mere man, adopted by God as a Son (adoptionism). He is representative, at best, of the divine. In Docetism God is not really with us in our humanity but only appeared as a man. Instead of denying the deity of Christ, the deity is fully acknowledged but his humanity is a mere likeness and not the reality. Again, there is a failure of presence in his humanity and ours. And the third tendency acknowledged both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, but separated the deity from the humanity. Thus, the human Jesus may have experienced death and human passions and emotions but the deity of Christ is thought to be removed from such things. In essence, each of these false teachings is a denial of the cross, or in terms of presence, God cannot be said to be present in pain, suffering and death. God is not really Immanuel, God with us, in the false conceptions of his identity.

The cure or counter to this false teaching (or this failed presence) will emphasize either the humanity or deity of Jesus, or the reality of the resurrection, affirming what the false teaching would deny, but then, in each instance, this affirmation speaks directly of a specific presence that bears fruit in place of the lost presence. That is, as the writers of the New Testament and the apostolic fathers are challenged by the various heretical misidentifications of Christ, the hypothesis of his identity is honed to speak directly of God’s saving presence in place of a particular form of absence. So the example from Corinthians (worked out below), deny the resurrection and one is left with vanity and nothingness, a useless faith that misses the living hope and victory of faith. The counter focus then, is on the hope of the resurrection as entailed in the reality of his resurrection and this translates into resurrection life enabled to defeat the futility of sin. In the example of I John (developed below), deny the humanity of Christ, and the story of Christ in the Gospels, and his ethical teaching and human sojourn are traded for an abstract spirituality without ethical responsibility. Emphasis on the humanity of Christ entails then a focus on his ethical teaching and walking as he walked to abide in his presence.

Paul sums up the gospel as Christ dying for our sins, being raised on the third day, and then appearing to the twelve apostles (I Cor. 15:3-4). The identity of Christ is linked to his ongoing presence to the apostles through his death, burial and resurrection, interpreted in light of the Scriptures. Death is the prime obstacle or the opposite of life and presence, and Christ defeats death and this is the basis of his presence – a resurrected presence. This is what Paul delivered to the Corinthians and by which they stand and are saved (I Cor. 15:1), but by denying the bodily resurrection the Corinthians are turning faith into an empty vanity. Paul describes Christ’s resurrection appearances, enumerating who experienced them and extending resurrection experience to the faith of the Corinthian believers, which they are nullifying. Apart from the resurrection, life and presence are exchanged for death and vanity. Paul says it amounts to being left in sin. With resurrection belief the sting of death, a life of sin, is overcome: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (I Cor. 15:57-58). The reality of resurrection defeats the reality of death and this translates into a specific experience of victory and hope through Christ.

Christ’s presence is specific to the particulars of his resurrection. He is not present as an abstract generalization – a spirit of the universe – but he is the resurrection and the life; an identity that pertains to one making the identification. Paul leaves out the teaching and life of Jesus in his Corinthian formula, probably because of the peculiar denial of the resurrection in Corinth. The Corinthians had a form of the faith, perhaps acknowledging Jesus earthly walk and teaching. The story of Jesus however, is not rendered secondary due to the resurrection but becomes part of the life that is conveyed. As Paul says to the Ephesians, they must “learn Christ” (Eph. 4:20) and the way to learn Christ is not simply learning facts and propositions (though this is not excluded), but by laying aside the old self and putting on the new self (Eph. 4:21-24) so that one enacts in their life course Jesus’ death and resurrection, inclusive of the content of his teaching. The story has a particular shape, and the teaching of Jesus (e.g., on neighbor love and nonviolence, etc.) is captured in the manner of his death and resurrection. We do not read the events of Jesus’ life and his teaching as in normal biography, as facts and history removed from us, but we recognize the ethical implication, the form of relationship with God and others, which his resurrection implies. His story and his life is one we share, and his presence continues in us in his form of life – summed up as resurrection life. Thus believers are “strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16).

John is faced with the docetic teaching that Christ did not come in the flesh, and so his concern is not a defense of the bodily resurrection but the bodily or corporeal nature of Jesus. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life” (I Jn. 1:1). This life was manifest in the flesh – the flesh of the Son – and in those who “saw it” (1:2).  The life was simultaneously “with the Father” and “made manifest to us” as we have seen with our eyes and we have heard with our ears and we have touched with our hands (1:1-3). Jesus was human and corporeal and not a mere human similitude or likeness. And it is on this basis that fellowship with God and his Son is established (1:3). John emphasizes abiding in Him more than accepting the fact that he abides in the Christian. Docetism may have taught moral license to do with the body as one might. But John binds the presence of Christ to “keeping His commandments” to walking “in the same manner as He walked” and to perfecting the love of God in one’s life by “keeping His word” (2:4-6). Like Paul, John speaks of a rule of faith which renders outside teachers and authorities unnecessary: “you have no need for anyone to teach you . . . as His anointing teaches you about all things” (2:27). Jesus was anointed with the Spirit and he has anointed his followers with the Spirit and the Spirit, as promised, guides into all truth. Christ abides in you and you abide in him if you walk as he taught. Christ is present and this presence takes on a particular ethical shape in those who abide in his life and presence.

Perhaps in the midst of persecution there was greater need to speak of the fulsomeness of the divine presence. Peter writes of becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). In Athanasius’ formula, “He became man, so that we might become god.”[3] Ignatius of Antioch, on a forced march to Rome and martyrdom, speaks of Christ “being now in the Father” even “more plainly visible.”[4] Now his is not a mere earthly presence but an immediate presence of the Spirit. For Ignatius Christ “is our true life” and this reality is realized in facing the reality of a torturous death with Christ: “But, [in fact,] he who is near to the sword is near to God; he that is among the wild beasts is in company with God; provided only he be so in the name of Jesus Christ. I undergo all these things that I may suffer together with Him, (Romans 8:17) He who became a perfect man inwardly strengthening me.”[5] Ignatius imagines in the details of his martyrdom complete identity with Christ: “Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”[6]

Answering the question, “Who do you say that I am?” entails naming an identity that becomes one’s own, such that the life and presence of Christ are realized as one’s life course takes on the shape of Christ.

[1] This is the conclusion of Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology (Fortress Press, 1975).

[2] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1 (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 78.

[3] Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54.

[4] Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, 3.2.

[5] Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 4.

[6] Ibid. Epistle to the Romans, 4.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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