Michael Welker is professor and chair of systematic theology and executive director of the Research Centre for International and Interdisciplinary Theology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
The excerpt below is taken from Welker’s recently released book God the Revealed: Christology.
* * *
And difficult to grasp, the God.
— Friedrich Hölderlin, “Patmos”
Hölderlin’s grand statement impressively marks a tension that all reference to the nearness of God must take into account. Does God remain withdrawn from human beings even when he is near to them? Is God thus absent even in his presence? This tension confronts all who confess the revelation of God in the human being Jesus Christ and speak of the “crucified God.” This tension continues to produce a peculiar fascination arising particularly from the suggestive depictions of the beginning and end of Jesus’s earthly life: the baby in a manger in Bethlehem and the dying Jesus on the cross at Golgotha — so close does God come to humanity! The most important holidays of the Christian faith — Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter — are closely associated with these images: “At the beginning the stable, at the end the gallows.”
We encounter the striking iconic presence of Jesus Christ in pictures of the beginning of his life starting with early catacomb paintings. Artists combined elements of the birth narratives from Luke (the birth of Jesus was revealed first to the poor shepherds in the field, Luke 2:8–20) and Matthew (signs in the sky revealed the great event to three wise men, who rushed to the manger bringing precious gifts, Matt 2:1-12). Painters experimented with settings amid a stable and straw (or ruins or a cave) and with the birth at dusk or at night, shedding light thus on the unity of poverty, powerlessness, and magic at the beginning of Jesus’s life. Ever since European Romanticism, the manger has maintained a firm place in Christmas piety.
The cross has been regarded as a sign of victory within the church at least since Constantine’s vision before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in the year 312 C.E. From the eleventh century onward, large so-called “triumphal crosses” have been erected in churches. From the thirteenth century onward, however, a piety focused on the cross has gained acceptance on the iconic level and is still dominant today. This expression of piety focuses on the suffering Christ on the cross at Golgotha and on the “man of sorrows” marked by the crucifixion, in whom God encounters humankind in powerlessness and weakness.
Can this emotionally moving and fascinating iconic aura of the “manger and cross” not everywhere respond to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” In Jesus Christ, it is the proximate, poor, powerless, and suffering God who reveals himself. Though he may perhaps be “difficult to grasp” as God, he still touches human beings in a somehow consoling manner, strengthening them emotionally and even in their compassion. Thus does he come close to them in this fascinating way.
Many biblical witnesses, however, fundamentally call into question the touching aura of the near God cultivated in these pictures. The story of the cross is the story of the brutal execution of an innocent person. It is a story of lies and betrayal, of torture, mockery, and torment. The scandalous film The Passion of the Christ depicts it perhaps more accurately, confronting the audience as it does with more excessive brutality and violence than does a piety focusing on the “Man of Sorrows,” which celebrates in song and meditates on its “dear beloved Jesus.” The story of the cross is first of all a story of impotence over against the “powers of this world” (1 Cor 2:8). At Jesus’s execution on the cross, the political world power Rome worked together with the religion of Israel, a religion oppressed by this same world power. Those who invoked Jewish or Roman law were one with public morality and opinion: “Crucify him!” Even Jesus’s own disciples abandoned him.
Neither, however, should the birth of Jesus (following Luke) be seen as a camping adventure “with oxen and donkeys” in the stable. Rather, it is the Roman Empire that drives Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for a census without any consideration that the young woman is nearly ready to give birth. Mary can expect no help during her delivery. The shepherds, the poorest of the poor, are the first to witness the birth of the Messiah. According to Matthew, the birth of Jesus provoked a political persecution that led to a brutal child massacre “in and around Bethlehem” (cf. Matt 2:16–18). Matthew comments along with Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” The suggestion that Joseph even doubted whether he should marry the pregnant Mary (Matt 1:18–19) also reflects how much at risk she and her child were. Hence according to the biblical witnesses, Jesus was endangered not only at the end, but already at the beginning of his life as well. Why and in what way should God reveal himself in this particular man, of all people? And how should God bring help and salvation through this particular man and this revelation?
Old Testament traditions make it trenchantly clear that the joy and elation prompted by the nearness of God cannot be reduced to being aesthetically moved. They view enthusiasm about God’s nearness in conjunction with the acknowledged status of the Law and the dissemination of justice and mercy among all people: “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deut 4:7–8). The Law’s goal is justice and mercy among people, and worship in accordance with the will of God. For Israel, the Law and its efficacy among God’s people were and continue to be inseparably bound to the revelation of the near God.
In accordance with the Law, in piety, and following their fundamentally moral guiding beliefs, Israel lived and continues to live in community with God. According to the Old Testament, this is the community with God that is owed to revelation.
If ultimately, however, such practical life orientation should avouch the nearness of God, then how do the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel of God’s community with human beings in Jesus Christ shape interpersonal relationships and the reality of life? One is inclined to think first of the power of the church, its institutions, worship services, seminaries, hospitals, homes, and worship in liturgy, confession, and proclamation. In extolling the enormous legal, political, educational-historical, and charitable impact of Christian religiosity and churches, can we thus speak of a genuine triumphal procession of the revelation of God in human history?
A brief consideration of the oppressive fact that countless pogroms, campaigns of repression and persecution, crusades and witch-burnings, wars, colonialism, and general disrespect for human dignity have been committed in the name of the Christian religion and its churches is sufficient to warn against viewing the revelation of God in direct conjunction with religious and ecclesial displays of power. Human enterprise and machinations all too eagerly adorn themselves with the brilliance and aura of the sacred and the divine. The burning question then becomes how to differentiate a legitimate claim to a life with the immanent God in light of his revelation from self-righteous, even mendacious abuse of his alleged presence.
If talk of God’s presence in Jesus Christ did not facilitate making precisely this distinction, were it merely to lull people aesthetically and thereby impede discernment of the distinction between true revelation and religious misuse, then a disastrous suspicion would arise — namely, that not only all this talk about God’s presence and nearness, but also God’s presence itself, his nearness to humankind, are nothing more than a dangerous illusion. Is common sense correct when it states that we speak either of an obviously powerful God or of a powerless human, but that the claim that God is revealed and present in this man Jesus is simply completely unbelievable?
Are the other monotheistic religions justified in complaining that Christianity steps shockingly out of line with its assertion that God revealed himself in Jesus Christ? It abandons any sensible notion of and faith in God. Talk of the powerless and crucified God simply dissolves all talk of God.
Under the pressure of these questions and accusations attacking the fascination with the God who is near in powerlessness, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s second legacy offers a liberating perspective. Hitherto, however, this second legacy has hardly been discussed, not even among those whose intention has been to appropriate and pass on Bonhoeffer’s insights and his confession of faith. It helps to recognize that Bonhoeffer is intent on speaking of the God who is near to us in the fullness of our lives. And this God is near to us even when the entire world attempts or seems to successfully shut itself off from his presence. Bonhoeffer wants to speak about God in the polyphony of life and about how faith itself contributes to the acceptance of this polyphony and multidimensionality. Here Bonhoeffer in fact is referring to the presence of God in the Spirit of God.
Although this Spirit sometimes operates openly, it also often does so in hidden ways in different situations, in different people and groups of people. It comes over them, stirs them, and fuses them together into a living unity. God’s power in the agency of the Spirit and God’s powerlessness on the cross and in suffering — both dimensions must be considered in comprehending God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.
Click to order Michael Welker’s God the Revealed: Christology.