Divine Self-Investment: An Open and Relational Constructive Christology (Tripp Fuller) -- A Review
DIVINE SELF-INVESTMENT: An Open and Relational Constructive Christology. By Tripp Fuller. Grasmere, ID: SacraSage Press, 2020. 172 pages.
For many liberal Christians, Christology gets reduced to a sentiment expressed by Mary Magdalene (played by Yvonne Elliman) in Jesus Christ Superstar, "I don't know why I love him, he's just a man." He might be a prophet or more likely a cynic sage, who is known for spinning witty yarns that have religious and political implications. As for any thought of his divinity, as traditionally understood, that doesn’t figure into the equation. After all, he's just a man. But is that all we can say? Must we be satisfied with such a reductionist Christology? Or, are there ways of moving beyond the bifurcation of a Jesus of history and a Christ of faith?
There are theologians who have provided liberals with Christologies that take seriously the historical Jesus while affirming God’s presence of God in Jesus. Among them is Tripp Fuller. I've known the author of this book for more than a dozen years, having met him while he was early in his Ph.D. work at Claremont School of Theology. Though he was quite young when I first met him, I found him to be a thoughtful and even brilliant theologian. I've not changed my assessment over the years. Even when and where I might differ with him theologically, I've always been impressed by his grasp of the subject and its underlying complexities. Although Fuller, who is perhaps best known for his Homebrewed Christianity podcasts, can come off as a "wild and crazy guy," that doesn't diminish his brilliance as a theologian. That brilliance is on display in Divine Self-Investment.
Fuller has edited a series of books under the Homebrewed Christianity brand, to which he contributed the book on Jesus---The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, Or Awesome? (Fortress Press, 2016). He also collaborated with his mentor Philip Clayton on Clayton's book Transforming Christian Theology: For Church and Society, (Fortress Press, 2009). Divine Self-Investment, however, is Fuller's first purely academic book of theology. Regarding the reductive Christologies mentioned above, he believes that they are unnecessary. In response, he offers a constructive theology that can lead to a robust Christology for liberal Christians. He does so by exploring three prongs of a Christology, comparing pairs of theologians. The three prongs are a Spirit-Christology, Logos Christology, and a focus on the transforming power of the Gospel.
He engages the conversation from an "Open and Relational" perspective (with a Process orientation). He writes that Christology is a "disciple's discipline," arguing that the inability to articulate how God is present in Jesus Christ destroys the integrity of the church (p. 2). While he recognizes that the Trinity is a contested doctrine within Christianity, it does point to Christology as being central to understanding God's identity. And as an "open and relational" theologian he approaches these concerns with two core convictions: First God affects the world, and second that the world affects God (p. 10).
The book is comprised of six chapters, with chapter one providing an introduction to his vision of a three-pronged constructive theology that is rooted in the space opened up for theologians by the historical-critical biblical study. I would suggest that this chapter is worth the price of the book because it lays out the concerns of our day regarding our ability as Christians to articulate a compelling message regarding Jesus. Fuller writes: "For Christians, the answer to the question “Who is God?” required telling the story of Jesus. What Jesus said, did, endured, and delivered definitively shape the Christian life and the community’s understanding of God" (p. 1).
This is followed in chapter two with an exploration of the role of the historical Jesus in the contemporary conversation. he notes that liberal traditions have a vested interest in historical criticism, but that this is not sufficient to a full-orbed Christology. Nevertheless, it does open up space for an articulation of a liberal Christology. With this foundation, laying out the various ways the Jesus of history has been understood, he moves in chapter 3 to the first of three chapters that offer pathways into a workable constructive liberal Christology.
There is a tendency for Spirit-Christologies, which can easily be found present in the New Testament to lead to adoptionist and Arian Christologies. Nevertheless, there is much promise in this form of Christology in that it allows us to envision how God might be present in Jesus. Fuller engages this conversation through a comparison of two Catholic theologians, Roger Haight and Joseph Bracken, with Bracken being more concerned about protecting a Trinitarian understanding of God. A Spirit-Christology allows us to view Jesus' divinity (yes divinity) as "an emergent identity from a definitionally natural relationship God has with all humans. Different Spirit Christologies will articulate several variables within this picture differently, such as the role of sin, the nature of Jesus’ faithfulness, or connections to Trinitarian relations. The key element, however, is that a Spirit Christology is a bibliocentric image that opens up a different trajectory of development from that of the more historically dominant Logos Christology" (p. 39). Thus, he desires to affirm both the full humanity of Jesus as well as the fullness of God's presence in Jesus (p. 69).
While a Spirit Christology offers a hopeful direction for Christology, it is not the only nor the most common approach to Christology. Traditionally, a Logos Christology, as seen in the prologue of John, has been the central conceptual starting point for Christological discussion. What it does is offer the possibility of envisioning the preexistence of Christ. Regarding this perspective, Fuller compares the theologies of Kathryn Tanner, who approaches the question of Christology from an Augustinian perspective, with John Cobb, a Process theologian. Tanner's Logos Christology offers a robust vision of salvation history rooted in the divine act in and through Jesus, while Cobb offers a more universal vision of history.
Recognizing the promise of a Logos Christology that avoids dualism and divine invasion, Fuller turns to his third prong, which is the nature of salvation in relation to the cross. He compares Douglas Ottati, a liberal Reformed theologian, with Andrew Sung Park, an Open and Relational Theologian. They both speak of transformation through Christ and the cross, but they do so in a way that rejects a clear demarcation between justification and sanctification. They also raise the question of who needs salvation, with Park suggesting that not only do humans need justifying, so does God. Whereas Ottati speaks to the transformation of the heart, Park makes use of the concept of Han, a Korean understanding of suffering, to engage in the conversation about salvation. In this regard, he notes "Park’s attentiveness to the experience of the Han-ridden people and its connection to the heart of God has demonstrated one way in which an open and relational Christology can not only make metaphysical claims about God, namely here the Triune suffering of God and God’s need of salvation, but also how the Christological conclusions may be reappropriated for metaphysics." (p. 132).
Having laid out these three prongs, in chapter six, Fuller attempts to bring together a robust Christology that connects insights from each of the prongs to construct a broad open and relational vision of God that is rooted in Christology. This leads, in his view, to a focus on God's divine self-investment in creation. I’ve chosen to share the following paragraph because it provides a good summation of his vision:
The work of God is revealed in the person of Jesus—precisely in what he said, did, endured, and continues to say, do, endure, and transform through the spirit. A disciple’s confession of Jesus as the Christ is not simply an act of identification, but one of recognition. If one comes to know themselves as known and loved by God in Christ, and one can see her life as also sustained and empowered by God, they might seek to discover and share the mind of Christ in which their will comes to cohere with God’s will. It is this life together in God for which the Spirit of God has always worked and the Word of God has always beckoned in desiring a full response. The promise and hope of salvation rests in this: that the God who chose to invest Godself in creating creaturely co-creators and who was ever faithful to the covenanted people of Israel, is the God of deep solidarity who stands in need of our shared salvation. (p. 155).
This is an intriguing work that lays out concerns for liberal/progressive Christians who struggle with answering Jesus' question to the disciples—Who do you say that I am? Fuller offers us fruitful resources that can help with this dilemma. While he doesn't go into deep detail regarding the Trinity, it is clear that he is using a Trinitarian perspective to hold together the various dimensions of his Christology. Having said that, it’s clear that he doesn't feel the need to affirm the preexistence of Christ. However, the way he brings together both Spirit and Logos in a constructive manner offers us a helpful path forward in developing Christologies that affirm the humanity of Jesus and the divine presence within him. With all due respect to Yvonne Elliman’s Mary Magdalene, it’s clear that Jesus was more than “just a man.”
As I noted above, Tripp Fuller has always exhibited brilliance as a theologian, and that brilliance is on full display here. I look forward to future contributions to our theological conversation from a Process/Open and Relational perspective.