You are the Christ, Son of the Living God
From Divine Self-Investment: An Open and Relational Constructive Christology by Tripp Fuller
The confession of Peter in the synoptic Gospels sets the stage for this book. In light of historical Jesus research, it is a common practice to begin Christology from below. For an Open and Relational theologian, the problem with starting from below is significant. Too often, the unacknowledged metaphysical commitments entailed in the practice of historical studies are internalized. This can leave one with the history of a world in which God is not present, or as more conservative theologians tend toward, a history that should be able to demonstrate objectively the identity of Jesus as the Christ. Both trajectories are problematic because one’s confession of faith is not a debate to be settled. The gap between what “they” say of Jesus and Peter’s response to Jesus himself is not a gap to be conquered, but a condition for the confession itself. Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession is instructive when he says, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
Several important observations can be gathered from this archetypal encounter. First, Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Christ was said to be a revelation of God and not a determination of history. This means that neither the historical experience of the disciples, the historian’s reconstruction, nor apologists who proof-text from the Hebrew scriptures can compel the existential confession of faith. Second, the confession in this narrative is itself three- pronged. Peter is here responding to God as mediated by Jesus. I must note it that the confession is Peter’s alone and not that of the other disciples. The confession is about Jesus of Nazareth, but only regarding the one Jesus calls Abba. It is hard to imagine a Christological answer to the question, “who do you say I am” in which not all three elements are present.
Third, the content of the confession itself is not yet known. Yes, Jesus may be the Christ, but what it means for him to be so is not yet clear. In fact, Jesus’ later rebuke of Peter and his suggestion to avoid the violent confrontation with the powers that ruled in Jerusalem only highlights that the correct identification, “you are the Christ, son of the living God,” does not entail that the disciple necessarily understands the content of the confession itself. Peter is not the only disciple to struggle here. For example, James and John both plead with Jesus to be at his right and left hands when he enters his kingdom, still under the assumption that Jesus would become king with a throne and not of the cross. In the Gospel narratives, we also see that the contested nature of Jesus’ identity is not only limited to the disciples. Even Jesus himself faced three temptations, each of which can be seen as a possible way of being the Christ, the Messiah. Important here is not simply the ambiguity of the confessional content, though it should not be ignored, but also the recognition that the confession itself finds its content as one lives life with and in the way of Jesus. Part of the existential shape of Christology is that it takes place as one is engaged in their faith. A three-pronged Christology begins neither from below nor above, but from within. This does not mean that the practice ensures understanding, but apart from the enactment itself, the situations that shaped and reshaped the disciples’ understanding will be missed.
For an Open and Relational theologian today, we can expand these three observations for the constructive task. Recognizing that the content of the confession was a work in progress for the disciples themselves can free us up to seize and celebrate our location as disciples of Christ today, while expecting and even anticipating an ongoing process of growing in understanding. The Christological confession is the beginning of Christology and not its conclusion. This means that every constructive Christological proposal can come both from genuine faith and anticipate that continued faithfulness will lead to its deconstruction. For a constructive postmodern Christology, deconstruction is the recognition that constructive Christology is just that, a construction; and it is always the call toward a more beautiful, true, and just Christological form.If Peter’s last encounter with Christ in the book of Acts can serve as a model for us, this process can lead to dreams in which the very demands of scripture and words of the historical Jesus are overturned by a familiar voice in a dream saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat… What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Before turning to the three interpretive centers examined in the future, it is important here to emphasize that the openness the synoptic narratives give to the content of “messiah” is not simply a literary construct, nor is it even an ambiguity yet to be clarified from the history of Israel. We can see it within the Hebrew scriptures that there is neither a clarity of who the Messiah was to be or even that there would be just one. The identity of Israel’s Messiah emerged in the process of God’s ongoing relationship with the people of Israel. It is shaped by their history of fidelity, idolatry, bondage, liberation, exile, and return. The Open and Relational theologian needs to take account of the genuine influence that creaturely cooperation and participation played in the history of Israel. Terence Fretheim, a Biblical scholar with Open and Relational intuitions, has emphasized that the identity of Israel’s God is revealed in the history of this God with God’s people and the dominant framework for this relationship as covenant.
Should it be genuine, the concept of covenant involves God risking and suffering with the people. The covenanting God is the God who shows up throughout history in the situations where God’s people are to be found. The covenanting God is the one who is called by the tears of the oppressed, the blood of the victims, and the joy of the faithful.7 When it comes to the concept of the Messiah, Fretheim points out that it emerges out of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants as a personified hope.8 The Messiah is the anticipation of the person or people who bless the world as they have been blessed, the true children of Abraham. The Messiah is the anticipation of a leader who leads the people to embody the way of God, the way of life that draws all people to their Creator. The Messiah is a hope that emerges from the story of God and Israel, evolves in its history, remains contested, and is a symbolic expression of the people’s expectation that the God of the promise is not a go-it-alone God. Rather, God is the one who has chosen to invest Godself in the world with this people, and the fruit of that covenantal relationship is the emergence of the Messianic—a faithful correspondence between both God and the world as a fusion of God’s will with the will of the chosen. The God of Israel is the living and life-giving God whose own pathos for the world and Israel must be the context for understanding the life of Jesus.
Praise for Divine Self-Investment
“This is an innovative study of Christology as it can be understood in an Open and Relational theology. It is filled with new insights and is an exciting positive contribution to understanding Jesus today.”
—Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus at the University of Oxford, Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Roehampton University, and a Fellow of the British Academy
“This ambitious Christology marks Tripp Fuller as one of the most significant young systematic theologians to emerge on the scene in recent years. One can profitably read this book as an introduction to Open and Relational Theology; as a refresher on Logos Christology, Spirit Christology, and the quest for the historical Jesus; or as a primer on his six theological discussion partners. But the brilliance of the volume is actually the blending of biblical, classical, and process insights into a single moving vision of God’s self-investment in creation, Israel, and Jesus. Rarely have I encountered a young theologian who writes with this level of systematic depth.”
—Philip Clayton, Ingraham Professor, Claremont School of Theology
“Tripp Fuller masterfully engages the crucial Christian question: Who do we say Jesus is? Engaging history, philosophy and theology, Fuller offers a vision of Jesus that weds evangelical convictions with progressive insights. His work stands aside that of John Cobb, David Griffin and Elizabeth Johnson for required reading in Christology.”
—Monica A. Coleman, Professor of Africana Studies, University of Delaware, author of Making a Way Out of No Way: a Womanist Theology
“Systematic theology comes alive in Protestant circles only occasionally. After a significant dry spell Open and Relational Theology shows signs of renewing it. Once again, systematic theology flourishes, dealing with the history of distinctively Christian thought in a fully scholarly and open-minded way, and taking very seriously the questions generated internally to the Christian tradition. If Tripp Fuller’s ‘Divine Self-Investment’ sets the norm, the quality will be excellent. Three cheers for the renewal of ‘systematic theology’!”
—John B. Cobb Jr., founding co-director of the Center for Process Studies and Professor Emeritus of Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University.
About the Author
Tripp Fuller is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Theology & Science at the University of Edinburgh. He received his Ph.D. in Philosopy, Religion, and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. Tripp is the founder and host of the Homebrewed Christianity podcast.