Is it possible to overestimate Jesus Christ? Is it possible to give Jesus a place in our theological vision that is over the top, so to speak, too significant, too critical, too central? Can we make too much of Christ? Can we give him a role in the creation and in the purpose of the cosmos that is far more than he is actually worthy of? Are we violating the witness of the Spirit if we give Jesus Christ too much of a hearing when it comes to our thinking about God, about creation, about humanity and human history? Are we in error if we make Jesus Christ our fundamental hermeneutic–the key to our understanding of God, humanity and the cosmos, and everything within it?
It is striking to read the apostles in the light of these kinds of questions. For Paul and John and the writer of Hebrews, Jesus Christ is the one in and through and by whom, and for whom, the entire universe was called forth and is constantly sustained. He is the center of the created world, the one in whom it all holds together, and in whom the human race lives and moves and has its being (JN 1:1-3; COL 1:16-17; ACTS 17:28; 1COR 8:6-7; HEB 1:1-3).
Paul sums it all up in one beautiful and rather huge statement in Colossians. “For in him all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form,” i.e., as a human being (COL 1:19; 2:9). Now, if all the fullness of deity dwells in Jesus Christ, then he is necessarily the source, the center and the life of all created things, unless one wants to posit the eternality of the universe. In that case there would be no such thing, strictly speaking, as a creation at all. For if the universe is eternal, as the Greeks believed, existing forever side by side with God, then God’s creative work is reduced to craftsmanship. He does not call the universe into being out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). He takes existing material and fashions it into something else. The universe, in this scenario, does not owe its “existence” to God, merely the “present form” of its existence.
But this is a non-starter from the biblical perspective. In the bible the universe is not eternal. It has not always existed side by side with God. There was a time, so to speak, when the universe was not. The universe, the earth, and all things outside of God had a definite beginning. God called it all forth. “In the beginning, God created,” not manufactured, “the heavens and the earth” (GEN 1:1).
The transition from the Old Testament to the New, from Judaism to Christianity, lies in the fact that the apostles saw that Jesus Christ was right in the middle of the creative action of God. Christianity affirms Judaism’s fundamental belief in creation and in the Creator, but it parts company with Judaism when it insists that the Creator is Jesus Christ. All things were created not only for Jesus Christ (which is a rather loaded conception itself) but also in and through and by him. If only part of the fullness of God dwells in Jesus, then it would be possible for us to conceive of Jesus as something less than the Creator himself, and less than the one in and through whom all things were called into being. In this case, he might be of supreme importance in the master plan, but he would not necessarily be the center of the cosmos, or the one in and through whom all things were created and exist. It could be possible for the life of creation to come from that part of the fullness of deity that did not dwell in Jesus Christ. But Paul leaves no room whatever for any such notion. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Jesus Christ. There is no part or side or dimension of divine life that is outside of Christ. Thus there is no possibility for a creative act of God apart from Jesus Christ. For Paul and John and the writer of Hebrews, creation is the act of God in, with, through and by Jesus Christ, and therefore Jesus Christ is at the center of the entire creation.
But this is not to say, necessarily, that he is the one in whom all created things live and move and have their being today. There is another possible scenario. It could be that all things were created in and through and by Jesus Christ in such a way that the universe was given a life of its own, a life originating in God to be sure, but now thoroughly independent of God altogether. It could be that the universe is like a soap bubble blown into the wind by a child. It is detached from its source, indifferent to its origin, floating on its own in space–a veritable Eveready Energizer Bunny. In this case it would be possible, theoretically speaking, for God to die and the creation would continue on untouched, unmoved, unaffected by the death of its Creator–the Bunny keeps on going. For in this scenario although the life of creation has its source in God, the ties between them have been cut and the universe has its own life-source, or battery pack within it.
But again, such a radical deism, although not far at all from either liberal or popular evangelical thought, has no foothold in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, in the apostolic vision, is both the One in and through and by whom all things were created, and the one in whom all things exists, live and move and have their being. The place, the significance, the centrality of the Son of God is not over and done with after the original moment of creation, and only has meaning today insofar as we honor the memory of his creative gift, as we do a great sporting event of yesteryear. Jesus Christ is the center of creation, the continuous source of its existence and life. In him, all things, as Paul says, are held together, not were held together. And as Hebrews puts it, He upholds all things by the word of his power, not upheld them in the distant past.
Why is it therefore that we hear so often of “praying to receive Christ” or of “asking Jesus Christ into our lives” as if he were not the source of our existence, as if we have an existence and life apart from Him? How can you ask someone into your life, when in fact you live and move and have your being in him? Would your daughter turn to you on her thirteenth birthday and ask you to come into her life? I think I understand the intention of our Evangelical heritage, for personal response to Jesus Christ is essential, but the wording of its appeal is dangerously misleading. The wording implies, especially in our deistic culture, that Jesus Christ is not the Creator in and through and by whom the entire universe was called forth and is constantly sustained and upheld, including every human being ever created, and every human breath ever drawn.
This is a fundamental issue. At stake is whether or not we are to be authentically Christian in our vision of ourselves, our neighbors, our husbands and wives, indeed of the whole human race. Is Jesus Christ the one in and through and by whom the cosmos was created? Is he, or is he not, the one who created and sustains the universe? Is there a source of human existence outside of Jesus Christ? Is it possible to come into being, to appear within God’s creation, to have life and being apart from Jesus Christ? For the apostles such a question is anathema. Jesus is the source of all living things, and in him the universe and the human race, not just the Christian Church, live and move and have their being.
Underneath the apostles’ cosmic vision of Jesus Christ is the truth of his identity as the Father’s eternal and beloved Son. There was never a time, St. Athanasius argued against the Arians, when the Son of God was not, and the Father was alone and therefore just God and not Father. There was never a time when God was some naked, faceless, solitary, divine omni-being. From all eternity God is Father, Son and Spirit, sharing a life of unchained fellowship and intimacy, fired by passionate, self-giving love and mutual delight. This is where John begins his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). The preposition “with” is loaded. It reposes upon the ancient Hebraic idea of being turned towards another person, of being face to face. It is a profoundly intimate idea. Over against the Greeks, John believes in creation. And while standing squarely within the Jewish tradition he scandalizes it by setting creation in the context of this intimate, face to face relationship between the Father and Son which precedes it.
In fact, this intimacy between the Father and Son forms an inclusio for John’s prologue. He not only begins with intimate relationship; he ends with it. “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (1:18). It is difficult to imagine a more intimate image than dwelling in the bosom of another person. For John, the Creator is not alone and solitary; the Creator is the Father, Son and Spirit sharing all things in intimate, face to face fellowship.
God’s thoughts and ideas do not arise, therefore, out of a vacuum of loneliness or isolation or detachment, or even out of brute power. Every thought of God is Trinitarian thought. Every dream of God is Trinitarian dream, born in, and arising out of, and expressing the living and beautiful and unbounded fellowship of love and mutual delight of the Father, Son and Spirit.
God the Father, as T. F. Torrance contends, never acts behind the back of the Son. That would be to deny who he is as the Father. It would be to pretend that He is not the Father of the Son or that there is a side of the Father that is not actually fatherly and does not relate to and live in concert and intimacy with the Son. The Trinitarian fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit is not an occasional expression or form that the solitary, and otherwise hidden God puts forward from time to time. The fellowship of the Trinity is not a mere “side” of God that comes and goes like the tide, or appears and disappears like an optical illusion. There is no backdoor in this fellowship that opens into another and deeper dimension of divine being. This relationship, this fellowship of love and mutual delight is the way God is and always has been and always will be. It is the deepest truth of the divine being–beyond which there is no God and no divine being at all.
To confess the full divinity of Jesus Christ is not only to say something about Jesus. It is also to say something about the Father. It is to say that every thought of the Father, every decision, every act is precisely that, the thought, the decision and the act of the Father–the Father of the Son, the Father of the Son who shares all things with him in the abounding fellowship of the Spirit. There is no higher god beyond or above the Trinity, no second level of divine being. God is Father, Son and Spirit together in unbounded fellowship from all eternity. There is thus no divine thought or idea or action that is not birthed out of the passionate love of the Triune God.
Creation is the act therefore not merely of God, but of the Triune God. Creation is the act of the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. As the late Colin Gunton said, God is the Triune Creator. The apostles, even though they did not have a worked out doctrine of the Trinity per se, nevertheless clearly perceived that creation is the act of the Father through the Son, and thus that Jesus Christ is the one in and through and by and for whom all things were called into being. John is emphatic:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him; and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being (JN 1:1-3).
Now, what are we to make of the fact that this One became a human being? What are we to make of the fact that the eternal and beloved Son of the Father–in and through and by whom all things were created–entered into his creation and became a man? Are we to treat this Son incarnate, Jesus Christ, as a mere man, a single, solitary, individual human being, who lived and died like every other human being? Does his presence, the presence of this Son incarnate, not carry immediate and decisive implications for the whole universe? How can we not see that this Son is Lord, that his existence–his life and death and resurrection and ascension–has dramatic and stunning significance for the cosmos? How can we not see that the human race is necessarily and beautifully and wonderfully bound up in this Son incarnate, this Creator incarnate, and therefore how could we possibly be blind to the staggering and glorious fact that the human race has been gathered together in this one Man, the Son-Creator incarnate, and taken to the Father in his ascension? For good or ill, what becomes of this Son, this Son-Creator incarnate, becomes of us. If he dies, we die. If he rises again, we rise again. If he ascends to the Father and sits down at His right hand, we too are lifted up and embraced by the Father and accepted into the life of the Trinity.
The event of the incarnation of the Father’s eternal and divine Son, and of his incarnate, life, death, resurrection and ascension was no small moment on the periphery of historical process. It was the moment of all moments in the history of the cosmos. It was the event of all events in which every single thing in the cosmos, not least every human being, was sovereignly and decisively implicated. The incarnation of this Son is necessarily as huge as the event of creation itself. What happened in Jesus Christ, in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God incarnate was as vast and cosmic and global and international and universal as creation. It was so vast, so cosmic, so global, so international and so universal it will take us millennia upon millennia to begin to scratch the surface of its meaning. It is unsearchable, as Paul says.
When we speak the name of Jesus Christ therefore we are not speaking merely of a man who lived and died two thousand years ago. He was a man. He did live and die, and indeed rose again and ascended to the right hand of the Father. But that is hardly the whole story of Jesus. He is the Father’s eternal and beloved Son. He is the one in and through and by whom all things were created and are sustained. To speak his name therefore, to take the name of Jesus Christ upon our lips in the tradition of the apostles, is to speak volumes–theological, cosmic, historical, anthropological, scientific volumes.
In Jesus Christ we encounter a person whose very existence is so critical, so fundamental, so central to the universe and to humanity within it that his identity necessarily sheds light on every single thing in the cosmos, from the very being of God to the nature and destiny of humanity, from the invisible structure of the universe to the passion of the human heart. In Jesus Christ we stand before One who predates creation, One whose relationship with his Father and the Spirit shaped the very wiring, so to speak, of the universe, and determined the nature and place, the purpose and blessedness of what it means to be human. If it is true that a child at the age of six already knows more physics intuitively than she could ever articulate, even if she became the greatest physicists in history; how much more true is it to say that in Jesus Christ we encounter One who is so significant in the whole scheme of things that he will endlessly stretch our minds and explode our imaginations through all eternity.
To speak the name of Jesus Christ is to say “Trinity,” and it is to say “humanity” and it is to say “creation,” and it is to say “Trinity and humanity and creation are not separated, but bound together in union.” That is the stunning, mind-boggling truth of all truths in Jesus Christ. He is himself the point of union. How could we speak of the incarnation of the Son of God and fail to see that this necessarily means the union between the Trinity and humanity? Who is it that became human, but the Father’s Son, and if the Father’s Son became a man, then that Son, precisely in his life with his Father has united himself with our human existence, and our human existence has therefore been united with the Trinitarian life of God. Unless, of course, one is willing to posit that in the incarnation the relationship between the Father and Son was broken apart, so that the Son’s union with our human existence has no bearing upon the Father whatever or His relationship with us. Such a thought, of course, is as heretical as denying that the Son is the one in and through and by whom all things were created. But given that the Son is the one in whom all things were created, and given that he lives in unbroken fellowship with the Father in the Spirit, to speak of his incarnation is to say that the Trinity and humanity and creation are bound together in union in him. Anything less is a denial of his deity or his humanity.
The Christian Church is called to take this Jesus Christ seriously, to be faithful to him as the One in whom the Triune God and the human race and all creation are bound together. The Church is given the privileged position of being the community in which the light of life in Jesus Christ is allowed to shine, and the life-giving, liberating knowledge of Jesus Christ is allowed to convert human darkness, so that the world can know the truth and live in its freedom.
Let me put this more concretely. When you say the name of Jesus you are not speaking merely of another man, but of the Son in whom the human race was created and lives and moves and has its being. When you say the name of Jesus, therefore, you are saying something about who God is and the way God relates to your life, and to every human life. You are saying something about the heart and character and life of God, on the one hand, and about your passion for friendship, romance and family, on the other. To speak the name of Jesus Christ is to say something about God and your work, about your business, your desire to contribute and to be a part of something larger than yourselves. To speak the name of Jesus Christ is to say something about your love for soccer and fishing, about your delight in roses and music, and your concern for others and for the animals, from dogs and cats to kangaroos and whales. For our humanity has its origin in Jesus Christ and in his relationship with his Father and Spirit. Our passions and interests, our desires for love and relationship, our dreams and burdens and joys do no have their origin in us. They are all part of our creation and recreation in Jesus Christ. He is the author not only of our existence, but also of our humanity and the whole range of our human experience. Apart from him we have no passion; we have no love, no desire for relationship, no concern for others, no creativity, no music and no dance.
There is only once circle of passion, of love, of fellowship in the universe. There is only one circle of genuine, other-centered concern and burden, of philanthropy and hospitality and determination to bless, only one circle of authentic creativity and unbridled joy, and that is the circle of the Father, Son and Spirit. Our humanity, everything that it means to be human has its origin and being and existence in and out of the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit. It is because the Triune God loves and cares and is determined to bless, that we love and care and are determined to bless. It is because the Father, Son and Spirit enjoy their life together that we have joy in our lives. We are created in the image of this Triune God, created to be united with, to partake of, and to participate in the Trinitarian life, from its intimate fellowship to its unbounded creativity and joy.
There is no such thing as a truly secular human race which exists outside of Jesus Christ and his relationship with his Father, outside of the Trinity and the desire, the passion, the love, the creative genius and overflowing fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit. And thus when you take the name of Jesus Christ upon your lips you are saying something about what it means to be human, about the very essence of the human experience, about who we are, why we are here and what makes us tick, about what fires our rockets, moves and inspires and thrills us, and why. At the same time we are also saying something about why our culture is so lost and despairing, and about why the world is on the edge of destroying itself. For we are created and sustained in Jesus Christ. He is the living one. We live by participation in his life with his Father and Spirit. There is no other home for the human race, no other reason for its existence; and thus there is nothing out there, nothing over the next hill, nothing in the next galaxy, no other god that will ever satisfy the human heart beyond the Triune God. And there is therefore no greater pain or possible misery for humanity than violating the Trinitarian life in which we are made to live and move and thrive. Until we find our home in the Triune God our human existence is doomed to be a form of madness. It is here that we find the place for the summons to respond to Jesus Christ. In him, we belong to the Father, Son and Spirit. The Triune life is the only life we have. To violate this life, to impose our own agenda upon it and insists that we rule our own lives is to doom ourselves to live in profound pain. For that is to create a version of ourselves that is alien from who we actually are. God help us not to destroy ourselves and others in our darkness.
In the person of Jesus Christ we stand not simply before another man; we stand before One who predates the cosmos, and before One whose eternal relationship with his Father and the Spirit necessarily shaped the very fabric of all things. When you speak the name of Jesus Christ, therefore, you are saying something about the human race and about the nature and wiring of the universe, about physics and the nature of light, about science and technology, about music and harmony, about economics and education, about sociology and medicine. For is it possible for all things to be created by the Father, Son and Spirit, as the apostles insisted, and yet their way of being, their life together in union, not have any bearing upon the structure and purpose of the universe? Why would the Triune God create the universe in antithesis to the way the Father, Son and Spirit exists? The Triune God is thoroughly and eternally relational; is it possible that this Trinitarian God would even conceive of, let alone create a human race that would function best, find wholeness and meaning and joy and dignity in a non-relational way? Is it possible to create the cosmos in and through and by the Son and do so in a way that is incongruent with the relationship of the Father and Son and Spirit itself? In Jesus Christ therefore we come not to “a” light, but to “the” light of the cosmos. We come to One who is so fundamental to everything that is, that to see him and know him is to have access to both the rhyme and reason of all things and the inner logic of the cosmos.
What we call “history,” is not simply the evolution or the inevitable growth of the secular human race, which exists independently of the Triune life of God. “History” is the time and space given to us by the Trinity, the process by which the human race is thoroughly educated in the truth of all truths in Jesus Christ, and comes to know by living experience the stunning reality established in him. History is eschatological. It is the room made in the Triune life of God for us, the reality, the space and time given to us to process, to live, to learn, to understand, to come to know by experience, by trial and error, the One in whom we live and move and have our being, so that we can then believe, come to our right minds, and live in the freedom and joy and fellowship and love of the Father, Son and Spirit.
The Christian Church is called to be the sphere where this Jesus Christ is taken seriously, where the Christological revolution is allowed to do its thing, where all alien thoughts, structures and ways of being are converted and all the volumes that are crammed into the name of Jesus Christ are thought out and handed on to the world. The Church is called to the radical conversion of its own mind and then to stand as a witness to the human race and to the principalities and powers until the whole earth is alive with and expresses the life and fullness and freedom and joy of the Triune God, as the waters cover the seas.
It is the calling of the Christian Church to believe in Jesus Christ, the Father’s eternal Son incarnate, to bring every thought captive to Christ, to rethink every jot and tittle in the universe in the light of the truth of all truths in Jesus Christ.
See to it, that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made full, and He is the head over all rule and authority (COL 2:8-10).
The apostle is warning us not to allow our vision of God, our vision of the universe and of ourselves and of human existence and history, to be carted off into the Babylonian captivity of the fallen mind. We have to do an about face. We must repent. We must have our minds thoroughly renewed. So Paul is exhorting us to bring all our thoughts about God, about the universe, about humanity into line with reality in Jesus Christ. Why? For in Jesus Christ we have embodied before us the absolute truth about the being and character and life of God, and we have embodied before us the truth about humanity, and we have embodied before us the truth about God’s relationship with the human race and with all creation. There is no god behind the back of Jesus Christ, and therefore no relationship between God and humanity outside of Christ. Here in Jesus Christ we are face to face with the eternal and abiding truth about God, humanity and creation. The very identity of Jesus Christ therefore lays a command upon us, a command to faithfulness, confidence and joy. In the words of Kallistos Ware:
Let us keep in view what as Christians we are called distinctively to affirm. As heirs to the living tradition of the Fathers, we have our own agenda, and we are not to allow the secular environment to set the agenda for us. (Kallistos Ware, “The Human Person as an Icon of the Trinity,” Sobernost, vol. 8 (1986) pp. 6-23.)
Ware reminds us that we are part of a tradition, a living tradition, handed down by the great Fathers of the faith. This living tradition, of course, is rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ himself–not a bare, solitary, lone ranger, individualistic Jesus, but the Jesus who is the Father’s eternal Son in whom all things were created and recreated. Ware is reminding us that in Jesus Christ we already have therefore an agenda set before us–and it is huge.
The Church is called to bring its theological, its cosmological, its anthropological and its historiographical agenda to the feet of Jesus Christ and learn the truth. And the Church is called to proceed in serious faith and in sheer confidence that following the light of Jesus Christ with its mind and heart will yield unspeakable fruit, fruit that will address both the human race, answering the cries of the human heart, and shed serious light on every dimension of our human existence. “I am the light of the cosmos, the one who follows me shall never ever walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life (JN 8:12).
In this book, I want to set forward Jesus Christ as the truth of all truths, the alpha and the omega, the one in whom all things have been gathered into union with the holy Trinity. In doing so, I want to establish our basic Christian vision. I want to move from the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God incarnate, to the conclusion that in Jesus Christ the Trinity and the human race, and creation itself, are bound together in union. The discussion will move from the question “who is Jesus Christ?” to the doctrine of the Trinity, and from the Trinity to a Trinitarian vision of creation and redemption in Christ. Once we see the truth of all truths in Christ (that the Trinity, humanity and creation are together in union) we will have the inner logic, the rule of thought, the distinctively christian mind, or vision, through which we can begin to address every theological topic, from the eternal purpose of the Triune God to what it means to be human and the meaning of human history, from spirituality and participation to faith and repentance, heaven and hell, from election to eschatology and the problem of evil and human suffering.
My aim is to recover the apostolic and patristic mind, its Christological vision of the Triune God and of creation in Jesus Christ, and then to use this mind to rethink our theology and begin to address the world of human thought, from science and economics, to race relations and politics, from medicine to educational theory, from law and justice to psychology and music and the arts. We must proceed in the quiet and determined confidence that Jesus Christ is no mere theory, but the truth underneath everything in the universe, and therefore, we are to work in the deep joy of knowing that as we are faithful to the truth in Jesus Christ the light of life will shine out and the world will be changed.
But first we must ask ourselves how we lost this magnificent vision. What has happened to us such that the news of this Jesus Christ sounds so new, if not foreign, or even heretical? Why is it that the vision of Jesus Christ as the one in whom the Triune God and the human race and creation are bound together in union sounds so strange? Why do the statements, “Jesus Christ is the one in and through and by whom all things were created and are held together” and “He is the one in whom the whole human race lives and moves and has its being” sound so odd to us, so different, so unorthodox, when they are central to the apostolic vision of Jesus Christ handed down to us in the New Testament?
Why have we not been working out a Christological and Trinitarian vision of economics or of education or of psychology or of what it means to be a person, or even of the nature and mission of the Church? The simple truth is that we have been distracted. We have lost our way. We have settled for an anemic and non-apostolic vision of Jesus Christ. But why? How? What happened to us that led us into such darkness and poisoned our true calling? How have we gotten so far off base? And what happened to the Christian Church that stole its confidence and boldness, and drained its exciting, thrilling, passionate faith in Jesus Christ? So, first we must address what I call “the crisis of the Western Church,” or perhaps I should say “the crisis of Western religion,” and then chart the way forward. Then we will return to Jesus Christ as the truth of all truths, and begin to think in the light of Christ.