Where does thinking about God, or people, or the world begin? For Christians, there is a very particular answer to this question: Jesus.
I was in a discussion with someone recently about the use of the traditional Trinitarian description of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This individual had a dislike for naming the First Person ‘Father,’ and saw little utility in using that language. When pressed, the argument was that this person had their own individual experience of God, and thus what they decided to call God should be as reflective of their encounter as was Jesus’ relationship with God, which led him to call God Father. The implication was quite clear: Jesus’ experience of God was but one of many, and his understanding and/or description of God is no more or no less determinative than any other.
This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable argument for someone to make who is not committed to the Christian movement. If one believes, as many faiths and individuals do, that Jesus was only a holy teacher, a wonder-worker, an apocalyptic prophet, or a misunderstood peasant, then of course Jesus’ own narration of the divine-human encounter is just one of many.
Everything changes, though, if we believe Jesus was and is God, and that in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we are given the fullest glimpse possible of who and what God is like.
Karl Barth is famous for placing Jesus, the Word of God, at the center of Christian life and thought. Among his greatest contributions to theology in his famous (and massive!) Church Dogmatics is his re-narration of the Calvinist doctrine of election. For Barth, election is first about the election of Jesus, not individual Christians or non-Christians, and the election of the rest humanity is only understood secondarily and derivatively from that election. Thus, on his reading of predestination the church is committed to
…the unsearchable majesty of the good-pleasure with which God has from all eternity and in all eternity both the right and the power to dispose of the world and us, in which as God He has in fact disposed of us and the world, so that His eternal will is the Alpha and Omega with which all our thinking about the world and ourselves must begin and end.
In this emphasis on Jesus, Barth shows himself to be, in some ways, simply a careful reader of Scripture and proclaimer of the Gospel. (He was, before he was known as a theologian, a Reformed parish preacher.) After all, the New Testament operates by a similar logic: everything is different because of Jesus. Everything, from the bottom up, including the Torah, economics, ethnicity, holiness – all of it! – must be rethought in and through Jesus.
Here’s one example. Notice how 1 John 4:8-11 (NRSV) narrates loving others and describes God’s nature as love. For John, we know what love is not because there is some abstract, ethereal concept (as in a Platonic form) called love that exists “out there,” but rather we know what love is because God sent the Son to be the atonement for our sins:
Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
For John, like Barth, we only know what love is because God sent the Son. The truth is known, the deepest reality is apprehensible, not by our individual experience or keen reasoning, but by God’s self-revelation in Jesus, in whom our thinking begins and ends. Likewise, we know how to live not because of our own ethical imperatives or innate morality, but because we live as a response to the love God has shown us. “Since God loved us so much,” John said, “we also ought to love one another.” (v. 11)
There is popular meme I have on my office door in which Barth says, “The answer is Jesus.” Like Jeopardy, the answer comes first. Then, he concludes, “What’s the question?”
I know of no other way to read Scripture or exegete the world around us as Christians except in, by, and through Christ. If Jesus is who the Church has always said he is – Alpha and Omega, Son of God, Immanuel, Messiah, Christ, Word of God, Second Person of the Trinity – there is no other way to think and live Christianly.
In a Christian grammar, Jesus is not one of many ways to God. He is not a mere teacher or prophet. The Word is not one experience of God to be placed side-by-side with others, including my own. He is not a guide among many other guides. Jesus is God, while also being fully human. He is the best window we have, short of the eschaton “when [our] faith shall be sight,” of God.
If our thinking and living bypasses Jesus, or makes him secondary to any other lens, concern, guru, or hermeneutic, we are doing something other than Christian living and thinking.
Source: Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics (Study Edition 10): Volume II, 32-33 (London: T&T Clark, 2010)