WHY JESUS MATTERS . By George W. Stroup. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. Viii +152 pages.
George W. Stroup, a Presbyterian theologian teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, believes that Jesus does matter, but he also believes that if we affirm this premise we need to understand what that means for us. It needs to be an informed statement, one that is informed by Scripture, tradition, and our own experience of life. And, if we can assume that Jesus matters for Christians, we must, as Stroup shows us, recognize that Christians are not of one mind on this issue. For some Jesus is the one who died to save them from their sins (and maybe born of a virgin and resurrected bodily on the third day, with the expectation that he will return in judgment – someday). For others, Jesus is a prophet, a preeminent teacher, whose teachings and death offer us insight into the things of God as well as offering us a way of living life. For some he is human and for others he is divine, and for still others he is in some way both fully human and fully divine. The early church spent several centuries trying to sort this question out. He may be liberator or he may be black, and for some his gender is problematic – especially if he is seen to be in some way divine.
Jesus may matter, but the way in which this is true is a rather complex issue, and it has been from the beginning. Indeed, Jesus himself posed the question: “Who do the people say that I am?” The answers were rather diverse. Then he turned the question to his disciples and Peter took up the question and offered an answer that seemed to suffice for Jesus, but does it suffice for those who seek to understand him today?
George Stroup believes that Christians should wrestle with this question, and therefore he writes this book for the lay person/general reader. He does so thoughtfully and judiciously. He points out pitfalls and suggests pathways. He hints at his own preferences but writes in such a way that he doesn’t shut down the conversation. He’s left of center, but seeks to offer a moderating voice, pointing out the risks involved in embracing extreme positions. Thus, this isn’t a radical book, but it does invite the reader to push the envelope and consider carefully the choices that are available.
Why Jesus Matters is a revision of an earlier book entitled Jesus Christ for Today (Westminster Press, 2012). In explaining why he revised this earlier book, Stroup notes that much has changed since the book was written in the early 1980s, necessitating a reexamination of the question, for what mattered in 1982 is very different from what matters in a post 9-11/Iraq War era. Much of the new material is found in chapters five and six, which deal with the way theologians have envisioned Jesus since the Friedrich Schleiermacher’s reformulations in the early 19th century, and continuing up to day with the advent of such approaches as Feminism and Liberation Theology. This new material also highlights the growth of Christianity outside the Euro-American West, suggesting ways in which this has transformed the discussion, especially as the discussion is being done in a much more pluralistic context.
Before Stroup gets to these more recent conversations about Jesus, he takes the reader through a series of chapters that begin with an exploration the basic questions of Christology, such as whether Jesus the center, is God, is savior, and the role of Jesus in the church. From there we move on to the biblical stories, especially gospels. From there we explore further the idea of Jesus as savior, prophet, and Lord – these key titles that define Jesus’ identity. In chapter four Stroup introduces the reader to the variety of voices present in the early church, those who took that biblical message and further defined it – especially as the message about Jesus became codified in the creeds. He ends this chapter by asking the question – why do some find these ancient understandings unhelpful and perhaps irrelevant today? Answers include the way we use language, the focus of the creeds on the birth, death, and resurrection, but not the life and teachings of Jesus. The creeds may affirm his humanity, but they don’t focus on the reality of that humanity. Indeed, there is the concern that the ancient church overemphasized the confession of deity over humanity. Pointing to Calvin’s response to the question of why the creed jumps from birth to death, Calvin’s catechism states that “nothing is said here about what belongs properly to the substance of our redemption.” If this is true, Stroup suggests, it’s no wonder that his life is ignored. There may be contextual reason for this emphasis, but is this sufficient for today?
The answer is – no, the ancient formulations do not address many of the questions raised today. It’s not that most theologians have thrown out all that came before, but they are seeking to answer different questions while seeking to avoid many of the pitfalls encountered earlier. The point is making the faith understandable today. Stroup suggests that at least five basic types of answers have developed over the past two centuries, beginning at least with Friedrich Schleiermacher. These include Jesus as one with “perfect God-consciousness” (Schleiermacher); as mediator of the salvation experience (Albrecht Ritschl); as liberator (Jon Sobrino); eschatological hope (Pannenberg and Moltmann), and embodiment of wisdom (Rosemary Radford Ruether). He also explores the possibilities offered by Narrative Theology, a position that appears to be close to his own.
The task of understanding who Jesus is and why he matters is not only the work of theologians, but it is part of the Christian experience in an increasingly globalized and pluralistic context. The church is no longer defined by the European/Western worldview. The language, context, questions, have all changed as the church has exploded in Africa, South America, and Asia. In the course of this expansion, Christianity has faced the prospect of not only being a religious minority, but also itself and Jesus in conversation with other religious traditions. These conversations are helping mold new answers to the question – who is Jesus Christ for us today? Helpful in this conversation, interestingly enough is historical criticism, which reminds us that there is a rather large chasm separating the modern Christian and the world of the Bible. We all bring presuppositions to the conversation, including our own existential realities.
Our approach to the question of Jesus’ identity, in all its complexity, is summarized well in the closing paragraph of the book:
Finally, there is good reason – in the witness of Scripture – to believe that neither Christians nor anyone else will ever understand the full glory of Christ until all things – all of creation – finally stand before him and sing doxology (p. 148).
The question asked by the book is an important one. We cannot simply parrot the answers of previous generations, assuming that what they said reflects who Jesus was or said. We can’t assume that there is a foundational culture (Greek?) that defines reality for us. But, we need to keep in contact with the touchstone of the original story – understanding that we cannot fully bridge the gap between then and now.
George Stroup has done a masterful job of laying out a thoughtful reflection on why Jesus matters. He writes with grace and understanding. He seeks to be fair to the various positions, while maintaining a moderately liberal perspective on the topic. He seeks to walk between the Scylla and Charybdis of the two ancient heresies of Docetism and Ebionism, noting that both are present in the current conversation. This is an especially helpful book for a lay audience, which makes it unfortunate that there isn’t a study guide or at least discussion questions, as this would make for an excellent study book. Nonetheless, even without a guide, this would be of great value to a church that is struggling to understand how Jesus fits into their faith.