Extracts from 'A NEW CHRISTOLOGY'
by John Hostler

Wigmore-Beddoes, D. G. (ed.) (1975),
Concerning Jesus: A Symposium,
London: Lindsey Press.

An alternative title might be:
Can a Unitarian Be a Christian
via a workable, credible, available Christology?

[page 86] ...the " historical quest " has come up against the vast amount that we don't know about Jesus, while the " kerygmatic " or doctrinal approach to the subject is in danger of departing too far from what we do know about him.
What he means is that whilst the Jesus of History has paused, the Christ of faith in the mainstream has become a textual derivative.

[page 87] ...as a philosopher, it is my intention to examine the way in which we ought to develop a new Christology. If we, as Unitarians, are concerned to develop a new interpretation of Jesus, what are the standards of enquiry that we should bear in mind ? What is to be our aim, and how is it to be achieved?
The question is whether he achieves this as a philosopher, and in fact whether he is acting as a theologian. He certainly makes highly questionable interpretations of the biblical narrative (see below).

I begin the enquiry in good philosophical fashion, by defining the subject of our concern. What is Christology ? ...Christology should aim to provide us with a similar account of the nature of Jesus Christ, even though the terms and ideas that we employ in doing so may be different. Moreover we may expect that Christology will say something about how our lives ought to be influenced by that of Jesus, just as Theology normally involves a number of moral consequences. That there is a need for some form of Christology is apparent from the state of our historical records. Our main sources of information about the acts and teachings of Jesus are the Gospels, which are seriously incomplete: they tell us only of a number of comparatively isolated events in his life, which are sufficiently fascinating to whet our appetites for more knowledge about him. Therefore we may demand of Christology that it supplements or explains the Gospels in such a way as to reveal the "real significance" of Jesus - a phrase that I can best explain by a brief example. Imagine that we have two biographies of Napoleon, of which the first is no more than a factual record of the main events in his life, while the second seeks also to give us an insight into his character by mentioning such things as his ambitions and motives. When we read the first, we shall not know Napoleon as anything more than an empty figure who [page 87 becomes page 88] did this and that. It is only when we read the second that we shall recognise him as a "real" human being - a man with hopes and fears, one to whom we may react with such emotions as love or hate. Now it is obvious that religion is more than history: it involves a strongly emotional element, in which such notions as commitment and faith far outweigh the importance of purely intellectual belief. It is therefore essential that if Christology is to be relevant to our religion, it must present us with a "biography" of Jesus that is like the second of those described, one in which he "comes alive" with an immediacy - that demands some reaction from us. The Gospels themselves, of course, do this to a certain extent; but most of us feel the need for a suitable amplification of their account, that relates together the recorded events of Jesus' life in a way that further demonstrates his "reality " without degenerating into a largely fictional story.
The point, however, about the 'kerygmatic' approach is the recognition that the gospels are faith accounts, and this is what they are, connecting Early Christians with contemporary Christians. The kerygmatic is derived from the 'biography-like' that delivers teachings, heals, is demonstrated, has eschatological expectation.
...Why, as Unitarians, are we interested in Jesus at all ? The answer to this question will be seen to be of great importance, since it largely determines the way in which our Christology ought to develop.
Many are not, of course; my own interest is not to 'follow' Jesus at all but simply to analyse and extract what little is available fully aware of all the historiography and faith derived.
Although it is always notoriously difficult to generalise about Unitarian beliefs, I think it is nevertheless true to say that our interest in Jesus is not normally the same as that of the orthodox Christian. By "orthodox" in this context, I mean the Christian who subscribes fully to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Redemption: who believes, quite literally, that a man's sins cannot be forgiven by God unless he acknowledges Jesus to be the Divine Son, who became incarnate and was crucified as a necessary condition of his "taking away " the sins of the world. Such a belief clearly involves a conception of Jesus as the instrument of God's purpose, in the very strong sense in which it is true to say that that purpose (of forgiving sin) could not be accomplished without the mediation of Christ. The effect [page 88 becomes page 89] of this, however, is to make this "orthodox" interpretation of Jesus an essential premiss in a strictly theological argument, for it is only thus that the Christian can reconcile his belief in an omnipotent and benevolent Creator with the evident presence of sin and evil in the Creation itself. Consequently it is impossible for the Christian to develop his Theology without a Christology, since any attempt to describe the purposes of God without reference to the mediating power of Christ will involve him in apparently insoluble difficulties.
I am suggesting it is less about this and more the continuation with the early Church. Just how much does the Unitarian identify with the faith of the early Church, even one considerably more supernatural and eschatological than ours could ever be? Why would a Christian understand God except through Christ as the figure through which salvation runs, as set out by Paul? Think of John Hick, a high theist, who still has to have a Christology of sorts in order to have some connection through the communities of the faith. And some say his superior for him Jesus in the sense that 'Helen is my lover' is inadequate. But at least this involves charisma and an extraction from the kerygma. Some Unitarians say they are part of the Universal Church. Really? This is worth examining for the conditions of membership.
By contrast with this position, it seems quite possible for the Unitarian to pursue his Theology and Christology as wholly independent enquiries. Whatever may be his precise belief about the nature and forgiveness of sin, it normally involves a non-mediated relationship with God, and he is unlikely to have a "faith in Christ " comparable to that manifested by the Christian as I have described him. This negative conclusion clearly demonstrates that the Unitarian's interest in Jesus must be fundamentally different from that of the Christian. But if so, of what kind can it be? There seem to be only two possibilities. If we describe the Christian's interest as being in Jesus as essentially divine, it will be natural to say that the Unitarian is interested in him as essentially human, understanding this in a sense in which it does not exclude some general relationship to God that we may believe all men to enjoy.
If this conclusion is accepted, we must regard our interest in Jesus as being fundamentally like that which we might have in any other historical figure. At this point, I wish to introduce an arbitrary distinction by saying that this interest may be either in what such a person said, or in what he did. I recognise, of course, that in practice it is impossible thus to divorce these two elements in a person's life, and this point will be seen to be of importance later; but for the moment, it allows me to characterise two possible Christologies. The one that centres its attention on the sayings of Jesus I shall call our First Enquiry, while the other, primarily concerned with his acts, will be referred to as the Second Enquiry.
I don't agree. There has to be an element of kerygma from the charisma expressed within the text. Otherwise what is it, say, to read a portion of the New Testament, which is nothing if not kerygmatic? The text demands the reader.

[page 90] ...there are many Unitarians who think of Jesus as "The Master" whose main claim to our attention lies in the worth of his moral teachings. It cannot be denied that there is a distinctive "Christian Ethic" recorded for us in the Gospels, and it will be the main taks of our Christology to describe this in a meaningful way. It will consider such questions, for example, as the extent to which the elements of this Ethic can be found in earlier sources with an eye to determining the originality of Jesus himself. Arguably it must also say something about the work of this Ethic: whether we are right to take it as a standard of conduct, or whether there is some system that is morally better. There are immense philosophical difficulties involved in this kind of comparison among ethical systems, which I do not propose to discuss here; instead, I shall make two observations that are of more general relevance to our proposed Christology.
It should be obvious to any philosopher that you cannot have a 'league table' approach to Jesus or anyone else that makes them 'The Master'. We don't have the evidence of all his moral and ethical stances, and we don't have the evidence of everyone else. Much of his ethic is unoriginal, and he is shown to get things wrong and learn, as in his attitude to the Syrio-Phoenecian woman, his attitude to non-Jews, or his attitude to animals containing transferred demons that kill themselves. If he is a rabbi at that time then he will participate in the ritual slaughter of animals at the temple. His morality is framed by his religion and outlook, and it is also situational. So why make Jesus the 'Master' - either some charisma from Jesus in the text or, perhaps, laziness of outlook on the part of the Unitarian.
The first point is that we surely misconceive the whole nature of Jesus' teachings if we take them as expounding an ethical system that is to be compared with some other code of conduct. For it is the most distinctive feature of his message that the possession of "righteousness" understood to consiste in qualities such as charity and humility, can entirely replace a conscious obedience to a code of moral rules. Jesus was suggesting that an ethic of virtue could replace one of law, and in this respect was opposed to the tradition of the Old Testament. Even though his teaching of "do to others what you would have done to yourself" has the form of a moral rule, it is not so in fact: it is rather a maxim that distils the essence of charity, which it is each man's duty to apply in the particular situations in which he finds himself. The fact that Jesus' message is essentially one of the importance of virtue gives it an immense generality which makes its comparison with some other ethic extremely difficult. For example, some people have thought that since Jesus and his disciples appeare to have practised an elementary form of communism it is only within a [page 90 becomes page 91] a socialist society that he teachings can be fully obeyed; but reflection will show that it is perfectly possible to be charitable and honest, to avoid green and envy, and generally to fulfil the spirit of Christianity, no matter what society one happens to inhabit. Jesus thus teaches what is strictly a moral outlook rather than a moral code, and one that appears to be very difficult to challenge seriously.
'Do to others what you would have done to yourself' is exactly a good example as to why this approach lacks legs. This is the Golden Rule, found throughout religions, linked to many a prophetic figure and philosopher of moral behaviour. Actually it may be impossible to demonstrate the reverse ethics of Jesus in contemporary society: that the Kingdom of God he sees approaching is the only existence that makes the Sermon on the Mount ideal realisable. Indeed it is the reality that will allow the ideal. The early Communism is the taste the Kingdom it is so close...
...Jesus presented these views as a means to the attainment of the "kingdom of heaven". Like many other moralists, he seems to have thought that moral and spiritual rectitude would have desirable results; but in this case the end that is envisaged is some kind of psychological fulfilment of well-being, since we are also told it is "within us". I think this is an area in which our Christology might make some real advances, perhaps even presenting the "kingdom of heaven" in more modern terms. Obviously we must avoid the trap of preaching it is a psychological panacea...
This won't do, of course. It is nothing to do with psychology or individualism. It is to do with personal preparation (sometimes via healing and the removal of demons) to be prepared for the coming Kingdom. The morality issue becomes something of a red herring. The early Christian is forced into an adaptation of realisation, from the Kingdom to the Church before the Kingdom - the Body of Christ and all that. So is the Unitarian part of this, or not?
...one further feature of our First Enquiry that is of paramount importance... that if the moral teachings of Jesus are all we are interested in, then historical questions about his life become totally irrelevant. [He imagines the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate Jesus is a rogue and the teachings must therefore be someone elses: what is the consequence?] [page 92] ...the question of who preached the Sermon on the Mount, if indeed it was delivered at all, is irrelevant to deciding whether we should do what it says.
This is why some value the Gospel of Thomas, the sayings Gospel. But even that is a charisma and not just a superior ethic; in fact some of the sayings in Thomas are rather dubious ethically.
...One [consequence] is that the distinction between the Unitarian and the Christian is further emphasised. [The Christian] would be forced to conclude that the Son of God had never in fact become incarnate as he had previously believed. By contrast, it would at least be possible for the Unitarian to continue in his admiration of the Christian Ethic while admitting that Christ himself never existed. A more important conclusion, however, is that our First Enquiry is not Christology at all. If it is possible for us still to approve the teachings of "Jesus" when he himself is known to have been despicable - or even never to have existed - what we are doing is clearly not presenting the picture of the man, which I initially argued should be our aim. On the contrary, our First Enquiry is really moral philosophy, and our calling it "Christology" merely serves to obscure this important fact.
Plus the fact that ethics are decided by ethical enquiry whereas theology can be given a superiority out of which particular ethics derive - the position of many a Christian. There is no First Enquiry, no Jesus superiority by ethical standard, not Jesus uniqueness nor definitiveness, no 'Master' expect by the blinkers of the Christian Unitarian. Unless, of course, there is some charisma or kerygmatic demand.

...I turn to consider how we should proceed if, we adopt the Second Enquiry, which is primarily interested in the acts that Jesus is recorded to have done. For this, of course, we have to assume the historical authenticity of at least the majority of the Gospels... [page 93] There are, firsly, many of his actions which seem to exemplify his ethical teachings: for example, one might regard his treatment of the woman taken in adultery as an instance of the kind of behaviour recommended in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Secondly, there is a group of actions which do not seem to display any extraordinary morality, even though they are undoubtedly virtuous: I have in mind Jesus' frequent healing of the sick. If I were endowed with an apparently effortless power of restoring the halt and the blind to health, I would regard it as merely a matter of common duty not to withold its benefits entirely from those who need them: it is the power itself that is extraordinary, not the degree of moral virtue displayed in its exercise. Lastly, there are actions such as the miracle at the wedding in Cana or Jesus' walking on the Sea of Galilee, which do not seem to have any moral relevance at all.
He's got the wrong end of the stick again. Jesus does not 'discover' that he has a healing power and therefore it would be wrong of him to deny its use for others' benefit; he is in an end-time for which healing is a part of the preparation of individuals for their entry into the new reality. His ability to heal, and their ability to think they are healed, are based on placibo and other realities, but which derive from belief in the abilities of the prophetic figure as healers and miracle workers, about which Jesus was himself (we are told) a reluctant demonstrator.
...There are good reasons why it is pointless to concern ourselves mainly with the miracles that Jesus performed. For in the first place, there are many people who find it impossible to believe in miracles at all, and who would explain those of Jesus as the natural reaction of an essentially superstitious age to a man who was felt to be different from his fellows. And in the second place, if we are interested in Jesus only as a miracle-worker, we might as well worship the Wizard of Oz
But if we believe that Jesus carries personal and indeed divine authority, then it is perfectly reasonable to treat miracles seriously and as part of that story. It is precisely because there is a mismatch in culture and realism between then and now that the hermeneutic techniques leading to 'kerygma' take place. Of course I do not believe in miracles, but I believe in cultures that believe in miracles and can frame reality around such beliefs. The question then becomes one of the cultural distance of Jesus, and this concerns every issue and not just miracles.
Yet if we reject this alternative, and concentrate instead on the acts of Jesus that have a specifically ethical importance, we are again involved in difficulties. For it is surely impossible to decide the moral worth of an action without paying at least some attention to the motive with which it was done. For example, it makes a vast difference to our interpretation of what Jesus was doing in overthrowing the tables of the money-changers in the Temple if we suppose that, so far from sanctifying the place, [page 93 becomes page 94] he was trying to set up a financial monopoly of his own. Yet if the motive is clearly so important, how is it to be determined - if not by considering what Jesus said on this and other occasions ? A man's actions are always ambiguous in themselves, needing to be interpreted in the light of what we know of his views and character.
It doesn't matter if he WAS trying to set up such a financial monopoly, if he had the divine right to do it or the framework in which such a monopoly reflected the wishes of God. Indeed, overturning the money changers' tables it may not have any moral purpose at all but simply be carrying through a prophetic act in the service of bringing about the Kingdom. In John it is almost a declaration of his ministry.
...an attempt to pursue our Second Enquiry, into the acts of Jesus, must lead us to include with it the First also, into what he said and taught. ...It was Plato who remarked, in his Republic, that an ideal does not become invalid if it cannot be realised; and although this is strictly true, it should not obscure the fact that such a possibility may detract from the practical worth of an ideal that is itself concerned with conduct. In the present case, we do have such a moral ideal presented in the teachings of Jesus. Assuming that we agree that it ought to be attained, our immediate question is to ask whether it can be attained. Is it really possible for us to behave as Jesus says we ought to? A negative answer to this question should not diminish our intellectual approval of the ideal, but it will naturally destroy our a practical interest in it, given the weaknesses of human nature. We therefore need an affirmative reply to the question; and this can be provided simply by turning to our proposed Second Enquiry. For this tells us that there actually was a man who fulfilled the ideal during his life on earth, and who behaved time and again exactly in accord with the precepts that he himself taught. Moreover, my initial assumption that we should regard Jesus as essentially human carries with it the requisite assumption that we too are at least potentially capable of emulating his degree of virtue.
So why is Jesus then 'The Master'? How do we assume he has 'the blueprint' for ethical action. Again, one can argue that he does not, and there are blots on the ethical landscape he presents. Loyalty to Jesus is then like loyalty to a football team: no reason in itself.

It is to be noticed that this coincidence of our two Christologies invites the Unitarian to think of Jesus in a way that is analogous to the Christian's conception of him. The Christian, [page 94 becomes page 95] as earlier described, regards Jesus as an instrument employed by God for the fulfilment of his purpose of forgiving human sin. Likewise, the Unitarian may come to think of him as an instrument employed for God's purpose of showing us the path of righteousness. He may view Jesus as being a concrete ideal: a man who, by his special virtue and piety, demonstrates that it is possible for the rest of us also to synthesise our moral and religious lives into a happy and harmonious existence. This view differs from that of the Christian mainly in the single respect of believing any man to be capable of the same relationship with God that Jesus himself enjoyed.
How do we have this concept of God, an interventionist God (or sorts) who employs Jesus as an instrument to show ethical behaviour? Employs Jesus? Who else is on the payroll and how else? Yes, it is better if ideals are realised within life, but we are back to the problem of history. This approach somehow just does not stack up.
...neither of the two possible Christologies which I have discussed can stand alone. They have been considered separately, and each has been shown to be incomplete without the other. ...there is only one way in which we can interpret Jesus, and that is to conceive of him as we must do any other human being: as a man whose words and deeds are to be taken together in the process of building up a full picture of his nature, in order that we may respond to his being with a truly human involvement...
...It does not say that the picture that we eventually present of Jesus must be like this or that; it merely says that the picture must obey certain rules of composition if he is to be relevant to our faith. ...Jesus is in many ways a singularly enigmatic figure, and there [page 95 becomes page 96] are perhaps almost as many ways of understanding him as there are men who wish to do so. For some, he is the gentle Master, friend of children; for others, he is the impassioned prophet and political revolutionary. This diversity is no doubt a consequence of a personal reaction to Jesus, the fact that he must "come alive" on any successful Christology.
The 'coming alive' is the purpose of the New Testament text, and it does this as a whole, as primary documents (originally) of the early Churches as they formed rapidly. To pick biography-like selections is to miss the point, really, which is the whole thing. This is why there cannot be a 'faith of Jesus' as opposed to the 'faith about Jesus' - it is all faith about Jesus, and it is all given.
[Some] may argue that it shows there can be no true picture of Jesus, and that therefore we should not try to find one. To take this line is, I believe, seriously to misconceive the whole nature of truth in this situation. For what is "the truth" about any person that you know ? Apart from the things he says and does, there is, and there can only be, the way in which you and others react to him: what you conceive to be his motives, hopes, fears, and so on, which are necessarily a matter of personal assessment. Similarly, if the person of Jesus is presented to us with sufficient immediacy, each of us will have, and must have, his own reaction to him; and this, so far from being a source of doubt or worry, should be a source of pride for us. For Unitarianism has always recognised that the truth about many things is infinite. It is a faith founded on the assumption that the "truth" about God cannot be written down once for all, but consists in the awareness of God that each man discovers in his inmost heart. So also it must recognise that the "truth" about Jesus, as about any one of ourselves, is equally infinite: it involves an immediate and personal response, and in this consists so much of its significance. This indicates for us the final duty of the Christologist. He must give us a picture of Jesus that is soberly founded on available fact; and though he is challenged to present it in a way that will portray him as being really "alive", he must do so with recognition of the fact that he is not thereby discovering a truth with which others should agree, but rather presenting an interpretation in the hope that others may find it helpful in formulating their own reactions to the person of Jesus Christ.
Or the conclusion may be that this Jesus the Christ is a figure we cannot possibly understand today, and that his presentation is at a cultural distance. It is not about ethics or morality - it just so happens that much pleases us in his reverse ethics, although many don't go far enough (why favour the poor - why not instead abolish poverty?) and there are blind spots for us (animals, for example). There is, in a sense, no such thing as a Unitarian Christian, and a Christian Unitarian is just blinkered by preference. Rather, to be a Christian is to believe in the Incarnation, that which is the witness of the early Churches and its ongoing continuity. This Incarnation of God can be metaphysical and doctrinal, but it also can be the kerygma of the New Testament - Jesus as the salvation figure. Unitarians who do not believe that Jesus is Lord and Saviour cannot be Christians. They might refer to him a lot, they might act like other churchpeople do in their sources, but the New Testament on to which they piggy-back is quite purposeful and either they accept that purpose or they don't. If Jesus is the means to your salvation, because he is, then you are a Christian; if he is just a bloke with a lot of interesting ideas, then he doesn't save and you are not a Christian. And may be this is why Duncan McGuffie moved to the Church of England and John Hostler gave up Unitarianism.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful