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The Problem with Christocentrism

As we’ve discussed in the previous posts, there has been a growing move toward a Christocentric orientation in theology since Barth, and especially over the last fifty years. I enthusiastically applaud this trend, for I’m persuaded it reflects the orientation of the NT itself, so far as it goes.

The trouble is, it seems to me that this criteria often doesn’t go nearly far enough, for the same reason the word “love” doesn’t go far enough. “Love” is not self-interpreting, which is why Augustine and theologians throughout history have been able to render it compatible with just about any conceivable behavior you can imagine. For example, with regard to loving enemies Augustine argued; “what is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition.”[1] Augustine thus argued that one could love one’s enemy while nevertheless treating them with “benevolent severity.” More specifically, for God as well as humans, loving enemies did not necessarily rule out torturing and killing them if one was justified in doing so.

The same is can be said for the word “Christ” and “Christocentric,” as they are not self-interpreting.

Depending on the assumptions an interpreter brings to their exploration of the life of Christ, and depending on what aspects of his life they chose to emphasize, one can pretty much justify any conception of God, and any reading of Scripture, in the name of being “Christocentric.” Hence, for example, more than a few authors have focused their attention on Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple (e.g. Jn. 2:13ff) and/or on his command for his disciples to buy swords (Luke 22:36) as proof that the revelation of God in Christ is not incompatible with the portrait of God commanding genocide and/or of engaging in horrific violence found in the OT.

This line of argument is weak on a number of accounts. As many have shown, for example, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was a premeditated prophetic act that fulfilled Scripture while provoking religious authorities to arrest him, not a matter of Jesus throwing a spontaneous temper tantrum. (See post on this issue.) And, in any case, there is no suggestion that Jesus harmed either humans or animals. The whip he fashioned was for the purpose of cracking it on the ground to chase the newly freed animals out of the Temple.

So too, Jesus explicitly tells us the reason he wanted his disciples to possess swords was “to fulfill Scripture” by being “counted among the transgressors,” not so they would try to use them (Lk. 22:37). Indeed, when one of his disciples tried to use his sword, Jesus rebuked him (Luke 22:51). Moreover, we have to wonder why Jesus would want his disciples to engage in self-defense as they proceeded out to the garden of Gethsemane when, not only had he consistently taught against this behavior, but the reason he was going there was to get arrested and crucified. And if self-defense was in view, can we imagine that two swords would have been sufficient (Luke 22:38)?

Clearly, neither of these two incidents provide very good grounds for envisioning Jesus ever commanding or engaging in violence, still less for arguing that he was capable of commanding genocide. But the more important problem with this strategy is that it reduces the Christocentric criterion down to meaninglessness. If a Christocentric conception of God doesn’t rule out portraits of God doing things like commanding genocide, ripping fetuses out of young mothers wombs, and smashing parents and children together, one has to wonder if this criterion rules out any portraits of God, at least in terms of the divine character that portraits of God reflect? And if a Christocentric criterion doesn’t rule out any non-Christocentric portraits, doesn’t this mean that the Christocentric criterion is completely devoid of meaning?

The NT is not silent regarding the definition of love. John wrote: “This is how we know what love is,” John says, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” When John proclaims that, “God is love,” this is the kind of love he is referring to. The same can be said about being Christocentric. The cross defines what the life of Christ is all about—and therefore what Christocentrism is about—as Jesus set aside his blessed state, to humble himself by becoming a human being, to offer himself up to be humiliated, tortured and crucified and to bear our sin and guilt, all while we were yet sinners and enemies of God!

[1] Against Faustus, 22.76.

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