Rescuing Jesus From the Church

by Douglas Lockhart

I gave up on the idea of Jesus being a pre-existent cosmic being in my late teens. Facing the world and myself minus that comforting notion was a painful experience. I woke up and realised that I was facing the challenge of my life, the challenge of living my life without the paraphernalia of Christianity. The Jesus thing was over and done with. Well, not quite. I would later engage in a search for the real Jesus, the Jesus of history, and that search would carry me into unexpected highways and byways.

Something similar happened to the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann. A pioneer of Form Criticism in Germany, Bultmann suggested between the wars that his fellow theologians had their heads stuck in the conceptual sand; they were ignoring the fact that Christianity was embedded in the language and thought-forms of first century mythology. Turning to philosophy, Bultmann reinterpreted New Testament events in the hope of relieving the tension between Jesus’ supposed divinity and his historical existence. There was an immediate uproar, but the challenge could not be ignored. Bultmann had opened Pandora’s box, and the contents of that box were going to change the character of twentieth century Christian scholarship forever.

There was of course nothing particularly new in trying to detect and interpret the mythological elements in the New Testament. What was new about Bultmann’s approach was that he linked the problem of interpreting myth to the Gospel’s proclamation of Jesus as divine saviour, and this seemed to suggest that the proclamation itself was mythological. The New Testament presented its case for human salvation through classical antiquity’s mythical world view, and as such espoused a belief in a three-tier universe long-since shown to be false. The idea of Heaven (the abode of God and his angels) being somewhere above our heads, and hell (the abode of the Devil and his angels) being beneath our feet, was no longer tenable. And the equally bizarre notion of the earth being the place where these opposing forces battled it out for supremacy was, by Bultmann’s time, a view already abandoned by many thinking men and women.

Obvious as all of this was, however, the problem of Jesus’ identity and the purpose of his life remained unsolved, and Bultmann, although highly critical of the mythological view held by the Church, stolidly refused to take up the kind of liberalism which used secular reasoning alone in the reconstruction of Jesus’ image. It was one thing to demythologise the New Testament, it was quite another to entirely dissolve it in an intellectual acid bath. Whatever it was the gospel message was struggling to say, its message was centred on Jesus Christ, and that was how it should remain. It was this “centring activity” that was important, not the manner of the centring. Our task was to determine how to recentre Jesus in a demythologised text.

The crux of the matter was how to rewrite the gospel story so that its transcendent quality remained intact. Bultmann realised that only an existential approach to the gospels could do this, for it was through life and living that we realised our inherent inadequacy and felt the need to seek a more substantial relationship with God. The symbols necessary for the forming of this relationships were in the New Testament, but they were embedded in first century events which no longer properly reflected their inner dynamic. Bultmann could see no point in foisting this catalogue of events on the modern world. The idea that Jesus’ death on the cross saved us from Satan’s power, his resurrection defeat death or his return at some unspecified date inaugurate God’s Kingdom on earth were, he argued, obsolete representations. The message was real enough, potent enough; it was the storyline that was getting in the way. When all was said and done, the meaning of the Gospels was not that the story was true, or real, or necessary, but that “crucifixion” and “resurrection” were true, real and unavoidable. Believing in Jesus was not about believing in the Jesus story as it had come down to us, it was about undergoing transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension in our own lives. In particular, the cross and resurrection were ever-present realities, not past events requiring continual imaginative renewal. We were, each and every one of us, walking, talking, living gospels in our own right.

As they participated in the events of Jesus’ life the disciples had glimpsed the awe-inspiring meaning of that life, but they were unlikely to have perceived him in anything like the fashion adopted by the later Roman Church. So the question was not could we accept the crucifixion and the resurrection as God’s pre-ordained plan for our salvation, but could we, like Jesus, surrender ourselves to transcendent reality to the same extent? It was not a matter of ‘belief’, it was a matter of ‘trust’. Belief in a propitiatory sacrifice was a prescription already understood by Judaism to be an inadequate pagan response to life’s mysteries.

The emerging orthodoxy in Rome had encountered, in Bultmann’s terms “. . . a mode of thought and speech which objectivises the unworldly so as to make it worldly.” As a result they had elevated Jesus by degree, and then by decree, to the level of a divine being. An implosion of symbols had taken place which seemed to consolidate the idea of his having been a divine being, and the rest was history. The myth was up and running, and when the torture and the killing started, the possibility of dismantling that myth became difficult to imagine.

Reading Between the Lines

The principal difference between the story of the crucifixion and that of the resurrection was, Bultmann argued, one of differentiating between the historical and the mystical. The resurrection was not an event in history; it was a mystical event lodged beyond time and space. In this sense the Gospel story was continually transcending itself. Bultmann was critical of liberal theologians for missing this point, but he was equally critical of those who returned to a naive acceptance of the Jesus story. An uncritical resuscitation of New Testament mythology made the Gospel message unintelligible to the modern world. Well ahead of fellow theologians, he was able to say:

“We cannot dismiss the critical labours of earlier generations without further ado. We must take them up and put them to constructive use. Failure to do so will mean that the old battles between orthodoxy and liberalism will have to be fought out all over again, that is assuming that there will be any Church or any theologians to fight them at all!”

The ecumenical Council of Nicaea debated Jesus’ relationship to the Father in the fourth century, and after much speculation (and arm-twisting) resolved that he was co-equal, or consubstantial, with God. Arius, a priest from Antioch, disagreed, and for many years a heated theological debate raged around this all-important question. The idea that Jesus had been divine was certainly consolidated in 325 AD, but this leaves unanswered the question of what Christians believed about Jesus prior to this date. Was the Nicaean decision merely the rubber stamping of something generally accepted throughout the scattered churches of west and east? The answer is No. The debate with Arius (and others) reveals that the question of Jesus’ relationship to God was uppermost in people’s minds. So it wasn’t a matter of the New Testament writers failing to understanding who Jesus was, and the Patristic Fathers completing God’s revelation (a truly spurious line of reasoning), it was a matter of the Apostles’ original vision being altered, step by step, into something other than what they had intended.

In crisis over this question, the ruling faction in Rome forced their particular view of Jesus on everyone. As we’re dealing with what is supposed to have been a great cosmic truth, the idea of a faction gaining the upperhand does not sit comfortably alongside the idea of a truth that is indisputable. The theologian Bernard Lonergan may argue that because Arius asked where the line should be drawn between Jesus and God the Council of Nicaea had no choice but to move the argument about Jesus’ identity beyond the horizon of scripture, but that begs rather than answers the question. Going beyond the warrants of Scripture cannot be legitimised on the grounds of necessity; truth is not forged out of necessity, it is forged out of a reality honestly encountered. Arius’ challenge was not met by such a move; it was merely postponed.

The Council of Nicaea stipulated that Jesus was a direct, consubstantial expression of God, and that, as far as they were concerned, was the end of the matter. But it was not the end of the matter; it was the beginning of the terror. Frances Young describes the situation as rife with “inadequate arguments and distorted exegesis of Scripture”. That is a telling summation. There would be no shortage of arguments for and against the idea of Jesus being literally God, but when all was said and done it would be the sword, and not words, that would carry the day.

The Historical Facts

Christians are mostly unaware that prior to the Council of Nicea the Churches of the east held views of Jesus quite different from those of the West. The tendency at Antioch was Adoptionist (Jesus had been possessed by the Spirit of God at his baptism), in Asia Minor it was Sabellian (Jesus was to be directly identified with the Father), and at Alexandria Platonic (Jesus was the divine logos or link between God and creation). At Alexandria the Son was subordinate to the Father, in Asia Minor he was consubstantial with the Father. At Antioch these diametrically opposed views were sandwiched together to create the notion of Jesus as a specially created being taken over by the Divine Logos, but unable to redeem humanity in his own right. Complicated. And soon to become even more complicated when the Council of Nicea set itself the task of hammering out the pros and cons of Jesus’ nature.

At least that was the intention. In 335 AD (ten years later) a second council convened by the Emperor Constantine, that of Tyre, reversed the decisions of the first and Arianism, the belief that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, yet still God’s agent in the creation of all things, became the flavour of the day. But only until 337. On Constantine’s death each of his three sons took up the theological position of their area, and this resulted in a Nicene West and an Arian East. Geographically the divisions were thus: Constantine II ruled in the area west of Italy, Constans in Italy and Greece, and Constantius in the East. As the West was divided between two emperors, the Nicene approach soon weakened, but with the elimination of Constantine II it triumphed, only to fail again with the assassination of Constans and the rise of Constantius as sole ruler in the East. R H Bainton sums up the situation succinctly: “the world woke up to find itself Arian.” And so another shuffling of bishops took place, and Athanasius, champion of the Nicene formula, found himself banished for a sixth time. In 381, however, as a result of dissension between opposing Arian splinter groups, the emperor Theodosius summoned the second ecumenical council at Constantinople, and this resulted in the ratification of the original Nicene formula with only slight alternation. From then until the Reformation this interpretation of Jesus’ nature and identity ruled the public mind.

From Iconoclast to Icon

The New Testament scholar Robert Funk says that he is more interested in what Jesus thought about God’s domain than in what Peter the fisherman and Paul the tent maker thought about Jesus. He then interprets original sin as “. . . the infinite capacity of human beings to deceive themselves”, and tells us that the whole problem of the New Testament stems from the fact that Jesus the iconoclast was turned into an icon. That, I think, pretty well sums up the situation: the Jesus of Nicaean conclusion is literally, figuratively and metaphorically a very different Jesus from the one who inhabits the pages of the New Testament.

It was Arius who asked the million dollar question: was there a time when Jesus as the divine Word did not exist? That, in a nutshell, was the whole problem. Either Jesus had always existed, or he had been created like everything and everyone else. If uncreated, he was co-equal with God; if created, he was not co-equal with God. Arius lost the argument. From the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD came the classical definition: as the Logos, Jesus had a divine nature and a human nature, two natures united in one person. The problem had been solved. Jesus and God were one and the same being.

As a result of Nicean sophistry millions of human beings were killed in the ensuing centuries. Excusing its acts of mass butchery as due to the tenor of times past, the Church obstinately ignored the fact that its claim to possess a superior spirituality through Jesus Christ annulled this kind of excuse. For how can one claim natural ignorance in one breath, and infallible insight in the next? It simply can’t be done. Either one is intolerably naive, or lying through one’s teeth. As a lying Church is a contradiction in terms, it can only be assumed that an intolerable naivety has suffused the Church’s consciousness for around fifteen hundred years.

In his theological investigations, Karl Rahner’s injunction to not throw away fifteen hundred years of classical Christology contradicts Bultmann’s and Funk’s attempt to update Christianity’s perception of Jesus. Try as he might to embrace a more realistic approach to the question of Jesus’ nature and identity, Rahner forever steps backwards as he seems to step forward. All is impasse and stalemate. The shadow of Nicaea looms large. Jesus is “unsupersedable”, and as such is as much a paragon of the theological imagination as ever.

The radical theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt is more courageous. He argues that the whole idea of incarnation does not belong to the essence of Christianity, but only to a period of Church history. Cupitt describes the worship of Jesus as a fourth century phenomenon, so making christocentric piety and theology no more than a reaction to Arius’ claim that Jesus was just a man, albeit a man visited upon by God. With the Nicaean formula in place, the “new orthodoxy” ceased praying to God through Jesus and took to praying to Jesus as if he were God. In that moment God was usurped by a human being and, as a consequence, anthropomorphised into the image of an elderly man lounging on a cloud. The darkness of God had been illuminated by the supernatural light of the Son, the unportrayable nature of God had been changed into a graspable image.

The Language of Myth

Christianity is christocentric, not theocentric; it has sold out to the graspable image. In this sense the present orthodoxy with its almost alarming conservatism is the same fourth century faction that gained the upper hand. Triumphing over Arius, this faction has systematically stamped out all opposition and helped set up a system that loops back into itself for verification. God/Jesus/Holy Spirit had planned the faction’s triumph since before the creation. Rejection of the faction’s view of Jesus was, therefore, to question the divine will. Even if you were outside of the circle, you were part of the circle, for the whole universe hinged on the faction’s point of view. Truth was what the faction nominated to be the truth, and this truth, by its very nature, confirmed the faction’s right to make such a claim. The only problem with this was that the faction’s claim to truth and authority lay in a naive interpretation of the New Testament myth, an interpretation now under careful scrutiny.

When dealing with Bultmann’s conception of myth, Friedrich Schumann says:

“Thus the New Testament – including it would seem Jesus himself – seizes upon a language which may be called that of ‘mythology’ as the best available means of expressing its subject-matter. It is true that in a certain sense this language presents ‘unworldly’ truths objectively, as if they were ‘worldly’ realities. But it must not be supposed that in adopting this imagery the New Testament does so naively, unconsciously or uncritically.”

Schumman’s realisation was that there is nothing primitive about the New Testament’s use of mythological language. Myth is not to be equated with fairytales – it is in fact a higher order language. The Gospels best convey their message of transcendence in this language, and the symbols of transcendence within the Gospels should not be forced to function as literal events.

This presents us with a problem, for if the symbols of transcendence used are dependent on the language of myth, then how do we demythologise the text without undermining its transcendent meaning? The answer is deceptively simple: by remembering at all times that the writers are objectivising an unworldly reality and making it worldly.

In their revised edition of Contemporary Catholic Theology John and Denise Carmody mention a troubled meeting in Rome between Vatican officials and bishops of the Dutch church in 1980. The question of Jesus’ divinity was on the table, and these bishops, on behalf of their questioning and divided congregations, argued that a distinction had to be made between biblical scholarship and the development of Christian dogma. This distinction had all too often been ignored, the difference between objective assertions and assertions of faith had not received proper attention. The times demanded a much more sophisticated approach to the question of Jesus’ divinity, and Rome was not taking the lead. Jesus had reflected the love of God in a very special way, and committing one’s life to Jesus meant being open to the kind of love he had expressed. In this sense, salvation was “healing”, it was becoming “whole”; it was not some kind of magical rite enacted by Jesus in the first century.

So how did Jesus come to be construed of as God? What were the mechanisms at work? How did this Jewish teacher end up being identified with the God of Israel? The answer to this question is that emotional identification with Jesus’ sufferings overpowered what was known about Jesus. The sacraments took on a mystic charge capable of carrying the worshipper into ecstatic states. So intense did such states become that contemplation on Jesus sometimes edged over into unconscious worship of Jesus. Slowly, but inexorably, the Jesus of history was transformed into a species of divine being. Through a refocussing of the contemplative lens Jesus, like a penny held up to the sun, blotted out the larger mystery. From that point onwards Jesus’ every move or statement was seen as indicative of his divine status.

Proof of this is to be found in the Gospel of John where a prologue in the form of a twelve stanza hymn with responses transforms Jesus into a mystic being. Such a hymn is known to have been used by Christians in Asia Minor around AD 112. As the fourth Gospel was most probably written between AD 110-115, the addition of this prologue illustrates how second century thinking was superimposed on first century events. Hindsight adjustment in the fourth century completed the transition of Jesus into God, and hindsight adjustment in the twenty-first century will, if we face the historical facts, change Jesus back into a human being. In terms of conservative belief this would be a disaster, but it is in fact a necessary transition. In the light of religious beliefs turned maniacal in our own time, it is our collective responsibility to rescue Jesus from the Church before our own literalists run out of control.

In the final analysis, myth alone can act as an adequate container for truth, for as Schumann admits, theological exegesis can only result in a technical understanding of myth’s role in the New Testament; it cannot result in an absolute, universal grasping of what such a myth means in its entirety (14) The day of the graspable image has gone forever. The Gospels are not asking us to believe against our better judgement that a man could be God, or that that man worked miracles, they are inviting us to go beyond fixed systems of belief. In New Testament terms our spiritual task is not to tailor ourselves to what we imagine Christianity’s demands to have been, but to adjust our religious vision so that it properly serve our deepest needs. In Jesus’ scheme of things the Sabbath was there to serve man, not man the Sabbath, and that, I think, tells us all we need to know about Jesus and his attitude.


Schumann, Friedrich, K., Kerygma and Myth, pp, 12, 188, 190

Carmody, John and Denise, Contemporary Catholic Theology, pp, 43, 44,

Young, Francis, A Cloud of Witnesses, an essay in The Myth of God Incarnate edited by John Hicks, p 23

Bainton, Roland, H., Early Christianity, p 69

Funk, Robert, Honest to Jesus, p 21

Cupitt, Don, The Christ of Christendom, and essay in The Myth of God Incarnate edited by John Hicks, p, 134